“All humans are human. There are no humans more human than others.”
This powerful statement is posted on the wall at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond. This quote is from Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda following the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. While this amazing museum does an incredible job of telling the story of the six million Jews and others who were murdered by the Nazis in World War II, it also tells the stories of modern examples of genocide, not only Rwanda but also Cambodia, Darfur, Bosnia, and makes its point quite clearly.
We are all human. No better and no worse than any other.
I visited this museum one bright sunny day in July in 2020. The museum, like many others had closed for several months due to the Pandemic. Once it re-opened, I quickly made the trek to Richmond to visit. I wanted to see how Dame Mary Barraco was portrayed in the exhibits.
Mary Barraco, recognized for her advocacy throughout Virginia and beyond was known as the ‘Torchbearer of Freedom’. A resistance fighter in Belgium during World War II, she was imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis. After the war she returned home to New Jersey, then moved to Virginia Beach with her husband. For the rest of her life, she spoke out at every opportunity about freedom and how precious personal freedom is.
I found her photos there, one of her as a baby in her mother’ arms and another, an engagement photo taken with her and her then fiancé Artur Libre. He died in Dachau concentration camp where he’d been taken after they both were captures by the Gestapo. There were many exhibits in this amazing museum that were sponsored by or relevant to Virginians, those who were from the area and about refugees who had settled in the Commonwealth following the War.
I arrived at the museum early and found there were no other visitors in line. For nearly two hours I had the entire museum to myself. In silence I was able to wander, to study, to learn, grieve, and to pay respect.
One of the most intriguing exhibits was a complete, life-sized reconstruction of the courtroom for the Nuremberg Trials. I spent long moments here, studying the faces of the mannequin prosecutors, the judge, and the unrepentant Nazi leaders on trial for their lives. But this is a recreation of just the first trial. Nearly a dozen more followed, trying doctors, judges, economists, manufacturers and others. One of the observers at that first trial was reporter Ruth Gruber, traveling with the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. Ever a witness to history, she was able to see for herself that evil had indeed been brought to justice.
I was also impressed with many of the other exhibits: photos from liberation of the camps, a display of battered suitcases and personal belongings from some of those who were forced to leave their things behind for Nazi guards to rifle through. It is a sobering experience, but at the same time an uplifting one.
Many of my friends said to me afterwards, “Was it awful? I could never go there.” “Did you find it overwhelming?” At first, I didn’t understand their concerns – it is so important to learn, to experience, to understand. Slowly I came to see that their fears were about confronting overwhelming and incomprehensible sadness, the horror of mass murder and the legacy of grief left behind.
I wish that those who have not taken the opportunity to visit this museum or others like it, take a chance and simply go. Don’t shy away. There are so many powerful life lessons here. The most important thing I learned was from that simple saying “All humans are human.” Surely, we all must know this in our hearts and beyond that, what more is there to be said?
Beyond the sadness of incomprehensible loss, I learned another powerful lesson, the infinite power of hope. Mary Barraco, Ruth Gruber and many others like them, stepped out of line to hold out a hand to help, bring hope, and shine the light of truth and freedom into the darkness of the time. They changed the course of history.
The U.S. Congress established Days of Remembrance as America’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust. This year events will take place nationwide between April 4 – April 10. The national Day of Remembrance will take place on Thursday April 8. The 2021 international Holocaust Memorial Day was held on January 27, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The theme for this year was: “Be the light in the darkness.”
During the month of April, reach out, take part. Never forget: this is how we continue to ‘be the light in the darkness.’
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