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D.C. travelblog: The Newseum & the Holocaust Museum

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Washington, D.C.'s cherry blossoms frame the Washington Monument. (Photo by Berry Tramel)
Washington, D.C.'s cherry blossoms frame the Washington Monument. (Photo by Berry Tramel)


My brothers never had been to the Newseum. I never had been to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. We rectified both of those voids in one Sunday afternoon.

I’ve written about The Newseum before. The museum dedicated to American journalism is rather dear to my heart. It will close in December – Johns Hopkins University bought the building for $372 million -- a victim of too much overhead and not enough revenue. It moved to downtown D.C., not far from the Capitol, last decade from the Virginia suburbs, into a $450 million facility. No word on where it will move, or if.

So I needed to get back there.

My youngest brother, Kerry, took his twin brothers, Terry and I, to Washington for a long weekend trip. We saw the new Bible Museum and the National Cathedral on Saturday. Terry is a Bible professor. I got my vocational fix at the Newseum, and I think they enjoyed it, too.

The interactive Newseum has a $25 admission fee – most D.C. museums are free – so it’s starting from behind, but still, there were a ton of visitors Sunday. The journalism museum, founded by Freedom Forum, basically promotes the First Amendment and its place in American society. It covers the history and the importance of a free press.

Among the exhibits are a huge wall map that shows the world and which countries have a free press, a partially-free press or a restricted press. It’s quite sobering. Less than 13 percent of the world’s population lives in a nation with a free press. It also lists the journalists who were killed in the line of faction. Some people get worked about Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, but they don’t bother me. I think he’s helping shine a light on the value of a free press. Sort of like the faux feud between Russell Westbrook and I. Westbrook actually helps  throw support to the media.

Anyway, the Newseum is a great way for an American to spend an afternoon. It’s got exhibits on the Berlin Wall (including portions of the wall itself and the only Wall Tower outside of Germany) and 9/11, with the press’ role in both world-changing events.

Out front is a gallery of 50 newspaper front pages from that very day, representing each state. Inside is the same, only it’s 80 international newspapers.

Historic newscasts and televised news coverage of major events are available on individual video kiosks. A timeline library shows a huge collection of newspaper and magazine covers on famous dates in history.

My favorite gallery is the Pulitzer Prize photographs, which are incredibly moving.

In all, the Newseum includes seven levels and 643,000-square feet, with 15 theaters and 15 galleries. I left the Newseum the same way I felt it four years ago – proud to be a newspaperman and proud to be an American.

I hope the Newseum can return in some nearby venue, with the same kind of presentation.

Then we hopped over to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Holocaust museum, dedicated in 1993, is a sobering but fabulous museum. But it has a problem. It’s simply too crowded.

Visitors pack the place – there is no admission charge, but you need tickets to get I, because it’s so popular. And the design of the building is not like most D.C. museums, which routinely are spacious. Not the Holocaust Museum. The exhibits are in narrow spaces, creating a confined atmosphere. Officials say the museum is intended to evoke “deception, fear and solemnity, in contrast to the comfort and grandiosity usually associated with Washington, D.C., public buildings.”

I would say they were successful, but it makes for a difficult viewing experience. Some of the exhibits we simply skipped over, because the crowds were too bunched. But the effect was on purpose. The museum’s architect, James Ingo Freed, was born a Jewish family in Germany. He came to the U.S. at age nine in 1939 with his parents, who fled the Nazis.

The museum is heavily reliant on text and photos and videos, the latter of which are quite effective. I was a history major in college, studied a lot of European history, and I still learned a ton. So it’s quite educational.

The reverence begins when you first arrive. An elevator takes you to the fourth (top) floor to begin the tour, and each visitor is asked to take an identification card from a box. Each card includes four inside pages of a pamphlet introducing you to a real person who experienced the Holocaust. “For the dead and the living we must bear witness,” reads the inscription.

My card introduced me to Michal Scislowski, born September 30, 1922, in Siedice, Poland. Scislowski was born to Catholic parents; his father was an intelligence officer in the Polish army. Michal enjoyed photography and was active in the Boy Scouts. Both the Germans and Russians invaded Poland. Michael, his mother and sister moved to Warsaw and opened a deli, but he was arrested by the Germans in 1942, suspected of being in the Polish underground movement. He escaped but was recaptured in 1943, interrogated, beaten and shipped to Auschwitz, where he survived starvation, brutality and untreated pneumonia. In 1944, Michael was sent to the Flossenbuerg camp in Germany. Michal was liberated while on a death march to Dachau in April 1945. He worked with the U.S. Army for five years in Germany and France before emigrating to America in 1950.

Such personalization gives you a fresh perspective on the Holocaust.

The three floors of exhibits are dedicated to the 1) Nazi rise to power fueled by Aryan ideology, 2) the forced removals to ghettos and “Final Solution” of genocide; and 3) the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces.

Artifacts are not in abundance, but the museum has several memorable items:

* A replica of a train boxcar used to transport Jews and other victims;

* A Danish boat used to whisk Jews to freedom (Denmark is credited with fighting the Holocaust more vigorously than any other nation);

* A replica of the Auschwitz sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" which means "work will set you free" even though it wasn’t true;

* A huge pile of shoes from victims of the death camps in Poland, recovered from a Majdanek warehouse;

* Bunk beds from the prisoners’ barracks at Auschwitz.

A haunting three-story photo wall connects the various floors. It contains the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Eliach was a 9-year-old girl in Eishyshok, Lithuania, when the Nazis invaded her town and attempted to execute the entire Jewish population of 3,500. Eliach, hiding with a Polish housekeeper, was one of 29 to survive. She spent 17 years collecting photos of all the Jews who ever lived in Eishyshok. Her very own picture is among the 1,500 displayed on the Tower of Faces at the museum. Today, there are no Jews in Eishyshok.

Security is tight at the Holocaust Museum, much like the Bible Museum. The Holocaust has had a fatal shooting – a white supremacist shot a security guard in 2009 – and a planned attack. A federal jury in 2002 convicted two terrorists of a planned bombing of several buildings, including the museum.

It remains quite popular. More than 40 million visits have attended in its 26-year history, including 99 heads of state and from more than 211 nations.

After two hours in the Holocaust Museum, the outdoors seemed like a good idea. So my brothers and I walked the National Mall, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.

We actually stopped and tried to rent scooters. Kerry and I got scooters to work, but we kept striking out with a third scooter. By the time we got to the World War II Memorial, we gave up and just walked it.

The World War II Memorial consists of 56 pillars and a pair of triumphal arches, surrounding a square and a fountain. It opened in 2004, but I don’t remember seeing it back in 2015. Very cool looking.

We made it to the Lincoln Memorial, which is one of my favorite places in D.C. The magnificent tribute to the president who guided us through our most difficult days was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 speech.

The Memorial opened in 1922 and includes huge inscriptions on the interior walls of Lincoln’s two most famous speeches – the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural speech.

The Lincoln Memorial serves as the gateway into D.C. from the Memorial Bridge from Virginia, standing as a virtual beacon for the city.

Next to the Lincoln Memorial are both the Vietnam and Korean War memorials. The Korean memorial is cool, with 19 stainless steel statues depicting soldiers on patrol, leading up to walls forming a triangle intersecting a circle. We saw the Korean Memorial at night four years ago; it’s moving at any time of the day.

We were getting bushed, but Kerry had heard about Washington’s wharf district and wanted to see it. So we jumped in a cab – and sat in a cab. The Cherry Blossom Festival was in full gear Sunday, and the crowds were mighty on the south side of the mall.

The three-week festival honors the American and Japanese cultures that resulted in Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki’s gift of the trees back in 1912. Cherry blossoms beautify the city every early spring. The trees circle the Tidal Basin, forging a gorgeous setting for Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials.

It’s against the law to pick the blossoms from the trees. The first donation of 2,000 trees, received in 1910, were burned on orders from President William Howard Taft, because of insects and disease, but the Japanese mayor sent another 3,020 trees to D.C. two years later, and a tradition was born.

We finally made it through the traffic to the wharf and were pleasantly surprised. A thriving fish business, with six or seven markets selling fresh fish, and tourists and locals both clamoring for fresh seafood. Most of the places did not offer meals; just the fish, with free cleaning provided. Really cool environment. I will go back and eat at Washington’s wharf.

We jumped in a taxi and went to dinner at Carmine’s, an Italian place I have tried in New York. Huge portions served family style. They recommended just one entrée for the three of us, but we ordered two – ravioli and veal parmesan, plus a huge salad and a side of sausages. The waiter seemed skeptical that we could finish it all, but the only thing left was about 30 percent of the salad, which would have served 10 people.

Very good and fun. I haven’t spent so much alone time with my brothers in 40 years. These were treasured days.

We cabbed it back to the hotel – D.C. cabs are abundant and clean and easy. I would recommend taxis over Uber in Washington.

I pulled out the laptop and watched the Thunder-Timberwolves before conking out for my last night in D.C.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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