Little Details (8/13/09)

Relighting the candles of memory

Aug. 13, 2009

Katherine Bielawa Stamper

We were selected for special inspection. We weren’t at the airport or a U.S. border crossing. We were standing in line at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I suggested to my daughter and her classmate that we were chosen because they were especially pretty girls.

“I agree that they’re pretty,” the security guard smiled as he explained how museum guests were randomly chosen for explosives inspections. He deftly ran a special test patch over my purse and said, “When people use explosives, there’s often a residue which remains on their clothing and hands.” He was quick in his task and bid us a pleasant visit to the museum.

Six days later, on a Wednesday morning, 88-year-old James W. von Brunn walked into the same museum with a rifle and shot dead one of the security guards. I looked at the newspaper photo of Stephen Johns, the deceased officer, and wondered could that have been “our” security guard, the one who treated us so kindly, even offering an instructional lesson to the girls? Von Brunn’s vile act of hatred reinforced why such museums need to exist.

The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre Museum has several columns positioned outside its entrance providing a strong visual and, seemingly, an added measure of security. My husband and I visited the museum on a recent rainy Friday afternoon. We entered and were greeted by a smiling, suited security guard.

We received free tickets to the museum when attending the play “Hana’s Suitcase” in Montreal about a year ago. The Geordie Theater presented the child-friendly performance based on the true story of Hana Brady, a young Jewish girl from Czechoslovakia who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt but ultimately perished at Auschwitz. The play focused on what happened when a replica of Hana’s suitcase was sent to a school in Japan as an educative tool and the Japanese children set out to uncover Hana’s story.

We entered the glass doors and were introduced — via video — to Holocaust survivors from Germany, Hungary, Poland, Morocco and Greece who’d settled in Montreal. Surrounding exhibits featured elements of Jewish life, including an invitation to a wedding in pre-war Poland that I readily translated. A wedding dress, tickets to the theater and religious articles were among the precious remnants of a lost era on display.

Subsequent galleries depicted Jewish involvement in the art, academic and political life of the countries in which they resided. Video clips of the survivors we met in the first gallery continued with their reflections on family and community life before the war. We would come to know these people well by the end of our visit — perhaps the most compelling aspect of the museum.

The exhibit continued with the rise of National Socialism in Germany. Film footage of Adolf Hitler delivering speeches, adoring civilians raising their arms in salute to the Fuhrer and images of book burnings unsettled me. This, I thought, this blind obedience, led to the dehumanization and extermination of millions of Jews and, in smaller numbers, Roma, Slavs, homosexuals and others considered inferior.

I first visited Auschwitz, the concentration camp Germany established in occupied Poland, when I was 16. I walked past the crematoria and peered into the gas chambers where Zyclon B, a cyanide-based pesticide once poured forth, extricating life from men, women and children deemed pestilent. I looked at the mountains of shoes, suitcases emblazoned with names and addresses, and images of scared, emaciated prisoners. I mourned the approximately 1.1 million people who died there, the vast majority of whom were Jews. I thought of my Uncle Tomek, whose father, a leader in his village, was among the earliest batches of Polish political prisoners who perished behind the barbed wire.

It was exceedingly hard to wrap my teenage head around the enormity of the crime committed on that patch of solemn soil. I remember feeling sick to my stomach. My parents were intentional in taking my sister and me there. Visiting Auschwitz was a pilgrimage, a necessary emotional journey to try to grasp the horror and magnitude of the war, a war they experienced as children.

Poland is a beautiful country of mountains, medieval towns, castles, lakes and the sea. It’s a burgeoning democracy, emerging from decades of communism. It’s a country with thriving literary and art scenes and a sidewalk café culture rivaling anything I’ve seen in Western Europe. It is also, sadly, the place the Nazis chose to build their largest death camp.

I will soon visit Auschwitz again, this time with my teenage daughter. Will she “get it?” I expect she will. Our pilgrimage will find us walking in the footsteps of those whose candles were extinguished far too early.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or