I spent an entire day at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. this weekend, coincidentally just before Holocaust Remembrance Day on Tuesday, April 18th, 2023. I was there seeking some hard-to-find details to flesh out the earliest chapters of my novel. Although the bulk of the story takes place in France, it opens in Poland during WWI. One publisher who expressed interest in my manuscript said he'd like to see a more immersive portrayal of daily life in those first few Poland chapters. I thought it was a great point.
Just to be clear: that lack of detail is not for lack of trying! I have spent countless hours researching Poland during WWI. But while there's plenty of information about battles and politics - there's much less about how people lived: what the insides of their houses and shops looked like; what they ate for breakfast! So to the Holocaust Museum I went.
I spent the morning in the research room where I was welcomed and helped generously. After lunch, I returned as a tourist to see the exhibits again (this was not my first visit; in fact, when the museum opened more than two decades ago, I covered the story.)
I know the narrative of the Holocaust well, so chose to focus my visit on small details such as this photograph of a deportation in France.
I was drawn in by the woman on the right: despite the frightening situation she's in, she looks elegant to me; standing straight, well-dressed, her chin up, her gaze focussed. I wanted so much to know what she was thinking. There was no date given with this photo, so we don't know if it was taken at a time when many people still believed the Vichy government's fiction that Jews were being sent to establish "agricultural colonies" in the east.
Then my attention was pulled to the soldier on the left - who appears to be loading people and their belongings on the train. What's going through his mind, as his country, once lauded worldwide for "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood," is now shipping off citizens to an unknown destination? Does he feel guilt...relief...fear? Is he considering the plight of the young woman on the other end of the photo?
We'll never know. But on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must all commit ourselves to this: Never Again.