The Virginia Holocaust Museum tells the stories of those who did and did not survive the Holocaust with a focus on people who lived in and around Richmond. There are specific family stories, such as the Ipsons, who I learned about through writings and photographs on display.
I was first struck by the photographs of camp prisoners on walls that surround a room. They are displayed in a three dimensional way that makes you feel like you’re standing with them. There are also mannequins in uniforms in beds so you get an idea of how cramped everyone was. They are so pale and gaunt and it’s chilling to think about what happened to them. The main exhibit takes visitors through the timeline of the Holocaust and there is a train car you can walk in that gives you an idea of the dark and cramped environment prisoners were subjected to There is a courtroom set up just like it was during the Nuremburg Trials and it’s very realistic. You can hear portions of the trial over speakers.
The parts of the Museum that had the most impact were the personal artifacts and photographs of survivors and those who perished. There are pieces of clothing that were part of the uniforms camp prisoners had to wear. Some of the survivors come and speak to visitors and there is a photo of them when they were younger and in the camps.
There are lots of workshops and educational sessions also. Someone was leading a workshop on key historical points of the Holocaust, including teaching it was part of World War II and not a separate event and that what happened should never be trivialized. There was also a group of school children participating in planting and tending to the grounds outside, which is part of the state’s mandate to educate students about the Holocaust and the Museum’s mission of promoting peace.
With the recent events involving the shooting of unarmed black men in the United States, I’ve become more aware of how people are stereotyped because of race or religion. Hitler blamed Jews for causing Germany to lose World War I. It’s hard to imagine millions of people killed because of their ethnic background, but we are seeing a small piece of that happen in our own country. So going through the Museum and thinking about why innocent Jews were killed, which is just for being Jewish, is almost unthinkable now.
I was sad more than anything when I saw photos of children, knowing they had most likely been separated from their parents who were destined to die. It’s hard to look at the photos of prisoner who are skeletal because they are life size and so realistic. It gives visitors a more personal experience and I think a deeper connection to the events.
It’s dark inside the Museum, which contributes to the experience. Some of the artifacts, such as surviving Torah’s that weren’t destroyed by the Nazi’s need to kept in dark rooms to preserve them. I went in to the Museum not knowing what to expect and when I left, I felt differently about the events and had a better understanding that real people, with families, jobs and friends, suffered and perished because of one person, Hitler. They hadn’t done anything wrong, expect being part of an ethnic group that was persecuted. Like any museum that pays homage to history, this museum is meant for visitors to never forget the Holocaust.