The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers a place for you to remember and honor those persecuted or lost in the Holocaust during World War II. This Washington, D.C., museum focuses on the stories of individuals to help you get past the numbers and statistics. It also presents the context of the Holocaust. While a visit here is somber, the tone of the museum is one of reverence and hope. The theme of “never forget” expands into “let’s work together so this never happens again.”
Here are a few practical tips about visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as a bit about what you will see. If you are undecided about whether to include this museum in your itinerary, you may be inspired to go if you know more about it. I have spent hours immersed in the respectful exhibits, and I would love to return to learn and experience more.
1. Reserve Timed Tickets Before Your Trip
Entry to the museum is free, but you must reserve a timed ticket. Check the website and get tickets up to 30 days ahead of your visit.
When choosing a time of day, aim for early in the day or just after lunchtime. That will allow you to spend a whole morning or a whole afternoon.
2. Learn About The Holocaust Before, During, And After Your Visit
You may have only a vague idea of what the Holocaust meant. You can enrich your time at the museum by learning more about the Holocaust before your visit. The museum’s website offers an excellent educational section. Maps and photos are included as well as an overview of the Holocaust.
You will learn a lot in a short time at the museum. And you may be inspired to read more first-person accounts and historical material after your visit. The Jewish Book Council has put together a list of non-fiction and fiction that is a good place to start.
3. Be Prepared Before Your Visit
When you get ready to visit, set yourself up to get the most from your time. Wear comfortable shoes so you can take your time walking through the museum. Bring a bottle of water. Pack a sweater or light jacket because the museum is kept cool to preserve artifacts.
Photos are allowed but don’t bring selfie sticks or tripods.
And, as you can imagine, the focus of the museum may be disturbing. For this reason, the museum recommends children ages 11 and older visit. For those ages 8 to 11, the ground floor exhibit of the Story of Daniel is appropriate.
The Museum Café, just outside the museum entrance, is a convenient place to eat lunch before or after your visit. The food was good and eating here saved walking a distance to another restaurant.
4. Start With The Main Exhibition, The Holocaust
The heart of the museum, the permanent exhibition called The Holocaust, presents in chronological order, a history of events. Through artifacts, photos, films, and video eyewitness testimonies, you are taken from 1933 Germany through the end of WWII. The self-guided exhibition looks at why the Holocaust happened as well as lessons learned for future generations.
To give you an idea of the vast scope of this exhibition, it covers 3 floors. Take an elevator to the top floor and then wind down to the 1st floor. Allow 1-3 hours to complete this exhibit
Examples of displays include a collection of valises belonging to deported Jews, reconstructed bunks from Auschwitz, and a full-size railcar used for deportations. You can walk through the train car, which sits in a darkened area, and imagine what it felt like to be locked in, not knowing where you were heading.
Look for the milk can exhibit. This is one of three milk cans that held secret archives of Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto. They knew they would likely not survive, and they wanted the world to know about them. Essays, diaries, and drawings were preserved in the milk cans. One message from a 19-year-old young man states, “May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened … May history attest for us.”
5. Allow Time To Look At The Photographs Of One Village
One project fills the walls with photos of those who lived in Eišiškės, now in Lithuania, from 1890 to 1941. This town had a large and active Jewish population for centuries.
Photographs were collected from more than 100 families. The photos reach from the tall ceiling down through the floors. The immensity of the number of lost lives is overwhelming. Take time to lean against the railing and gaze at these faces. While the statistics of those deported and killed during the Holocaust are numbing, each one was a person with a face, a family member at a party, or a child with his favorite toy.
6. You Will Be Drawn In By The Piles Of Shoes
The impact of seeing the piles of discarded shoes is hard to imagine until you stand before them. To think that people walked down the street in these shoes is hard to comprehend.
The 4,000 shoes in this museum are on loan from the State Museum of Majdanek in Lublin, Poland. Majdanek was formerly a Nazi concentration camp. Ponder the cascading mountain of shoes. Notice the children’s tiny laced shoes, the women’s fancy heels, and the men’s loafers. These belonged to people going about their daily lives when death came for them. They were not so different from you and me.
When you eventually walk outside the museum back into the sunshine of the present, it may be the shoes that you remember most vividly.
7. Linger In The Passages
In the passages between sections of the museum, glass walls are etched with names of communities affected by the Holocaust. The names are alphabetized and arranged by country. You can find a particular town if you have family from Europe.
Other glass walls in the passages have names of individuals. The passages are another place in the museum where individuals are honored.
8. Spend Time Focusing On The Survivors
An excellent section of the museum focuses on survivors. Videos of interviews play in a theater setting. Each person tells a story that shows how life and love can win over hate.
One photo of a survivor fascinated me because I had just read the bestseller, Lilac Girls. In this book, one of the main characters is in a concentration camp. She is a victim of medical experiments involving the implanting of metal and bacteria in a prisoner’s legs to “see what happened.” The museum displays a clandestine photo taken after the war of a survivor of these experiments, with the metal still in her leg. The book is fiction but is clearly based on fact.
Holocaust survivors have volunteered at this museum since it opened. They engage with visitors, sharing their personal histories. They serve as tour guides as well as translators of historic materials. Keep an eye out for these living history guides. They welcome opportunities to talk with people. These conversations will be a lifelong memory for you.
9. Go Through The Story Of Daniel
Remember the Children, Daniel’s Story is on the first floor of the museum. It is designed for children. But no matter your age, take time to make your way through the story.
Daniel is a young boy in Poland during the war. The first scenes depict normal family life at home. Fresh-baked cookies sit on a plate beside a rolling pin in the kitchen. The story moves through the persecution of Jews, and then Daniel and his family are forced into the ghetto. Daniel is eventually deported to a concentration camp. The exhibit is well done and presents the facts in a way that children can relate to.
10. Know That Your Heart Will Hurt
This is a tough museum to tour. Obviously, your visit will be emotional. It may help to know that the emphasis is on life and hope rising from the ashes. As you move through the chronology, you will come out of the darkest times to the liberation of the camps. You will hear stories from survivors. You will leave amazed at the resilience of the human heart.
11. Plan Some Relaxing Time To Decompress After Your Visit
A visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum leaves you with so much to think about. You will likely be in a somber mood. On my last visit, my husband and I left the museum and walked a few long blocks to the Tidal Basin. The beauty of the late afternoon sunlight on the water brought us back to hope and faith.
It’s not easy to face history that is so grim. But there’s value in being reminded of how low humanity can go and how people found courage to carry on despite these atrocities. Focus your thoughts on the helpers, the survivors, those who fought to end tyranny. The Holocaust Memorial Museum offers you the opportunity to value more than ever the treasure of life lived in freedom.