My friend Ricky is coming with me to Washington to visit the Holocaust Museum. I don’t think I could have gone alone. We arrive in pouring rain. The taxi can’t get us to the hotel, as there are demonstrations all over the city. Our hotel happens to be on Pennsylvania Avenue very close to the White House, which in this case is not an advantage. Barriers and police are everywhere, and we have to walk to the hotel, carrying our bags. Ricky the optimist didn’t think to bring an umbrella, although it had been raining a lot lately. So we huddle under my small umbrella and of course arrive at the hotel all wet.

The hotel is lovely. Very Old World, particularly the ancient creaking elevator, which is an interesting experience each time we go up to our room on the tenth floor. After settling in we try to get something to eat, but to no avail. It is three p.m. and the kitchen is closed, and therefore there is no room service. Reluctantly, we venture out into the rain again, only to discover that to find a restaurant open is wishful thinking. Wherever we turn we are stopped by very polite but firm policemen who send us back to where we came from. Finally one policeman has pity on us and lets us through the barrier, pointing to a cafeteria across the road which happens to be open. It is a big place, very plain and simple, but the food is surprisingly good. While we eat, I discover a framed newspaper article on the table, and read the following story: a journalist had heard that the cafeteria (I think it was one of a chain) was in trouble and had no option but to close down, as the rent had become too high. This had been a place that for many years had catered to people who couldn’t afford the more expensive restaurants but wanted a good meal at low prices. To prevent the closing of this popular place, this newspaper man decided to do something about it. He had just received from an unexpected source the sum of five thousand dollars and was thinking of the best way to use it. He went to the restaurant manager, gave him the money and asked him to feed all the homeless people that came to the cafeteria, with the condition attached that they must be treated with respect and courtesy. After a few months the journalist returned, thinking the money had been used up long ago, only to find the place thriving. The manager told him that there was still some money left over, and that other people had contributed as well when the story went around. Thanks to the publicity, the place could remain open and continue to feed the homeless and the poor.

Ricky and I read the story and are deeply touched. When we leave, after paying our very modest bill, we feel privileged to have eaten there and are glad that there are still good people in the world who care. After a good rest we are ready to go and see Washington at night. It is still raining, but undeterred we walk in the direction of the White House. Although d the demonstration seems to be over, the barriers are still up and we are turned back at every corner. After a few futile tries to sneak through, we give up and go back to the hotel for dinner and an early night.

When we arrive at the Holocaust Museum the next morning we are astonished to see the huge crowds. It is just before opening time and people are lining up around the block in the pouring rain. People of every creed and colour, many of them young teenagers. Ricky had arranged for special passes for us, so we walk right in. We go up in an elevator and start on the top floor where the rise of the Nazi movement and the persecution of the Jewish people are documented. From there we go down, one floor at a time, each one showing more and more the suffering of our people. The planning of this concept was brilliant, it is like a descent into hell as one goes lower, one floor after another. As we get to the railroad car, a genuine cattle car like the ones we were transported in from camp to camp, I am standing there and I feel I am choking, the car is packed full of people and I have trouble breathing. I can feel my mother and my sister Evy next to me and everything vanishes, I am back in 1944 in Germany on the way to Auschwitz. Finally Ricky leads me away and we walk on to the other exhibits.

We come to the piles of suitcases, each with the name of the owner clearly visible.

I feel a compulsion to read as many names as possible, maybe I will find a familiar name. Then come the mountains of hair and all the other items that were taken from the dead. I walk through the barracks with the wooden planks where we were supposed to sleep but were so crowded together that there was hardly room to sit, let alone to lie down. As I am walking through the museum, memories come flooding back and I feel a profound sadness when I think of my family members who were murdered, but when I walk away and look around me, I see some teenagers with tears in their eyes and I am glad that at least what was done to us will not be forgotten.

On the way out, while I am waiting for Ricky to check out our bags, I am watching a young pregnant woman with a cross around her neck, patiently explaining to her little daughter why she can’t go in with her father and older brother. When the little girl asks questions the woman tells her in simple words about the Jewish people and their persecution. I am fascinated and realize that I have been staring at them. I feel I have to apologize. I approach them and introduce myself, saying that I am a survivor and how impressed and touched I was by the way she explained things to her little daughter. I ask her to forgive me for eavesdropping, but that I couldn’t tear myself away. The young woman looks at me, starts crying and hugs me. We talk for a few minutes, then Ricky arrives with our belongings and we say good-bye. I am glad that Ricky is with me – this is not the first time she has stood by me in difficult times.

Half an hour later we are sitting in a comfortable train bound for New York. I can’t help comparing this to the railroad car in the museum I had just left, thinking how close I came to ending up like the rest of my family. The visit to the museum was a profound experience. It made me sad, but at the same time it reminded me how lucky I am to be alive.

Lucy Mandelstam July 2000