Monday, June 15, 2009

This is Personal

Regular readers will probably remember my that my father-in-law Frank Burstin, who passed away about a week before last fall's elections, was a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. For that reason, as you may imagine, the news this afternoon about a shooting at Washington's Holocaust Museum hits pretty close to home for me and for my family.

But you don't know the half of it.

I have a special memory of Pop (as we knew him) from last summer. It was a few weeks before he received his cancer diagnosis, during what turned out to be his last visit to the Holocaust Museum. Because he lost his parents and all of his siblings to the Nazis, and because no grave site exists for any of his family, Pop made it a habit to visit the Museum at least once a year. It fulfilled for him the custom that many Jews practice of visiting the cemetery of loved ones once a year. I only got to accompany him on one of these visits, that one last year, along with my wife's nephew Jake.

I described him last year as "kind and optimistic soul," and he certainly was. But when he entered that museum, something changed. He was not unkind, but in that place, as I soon learned, he suffered no fools (nor anyone else).

We wandered into the museum, through the same doors and into the same foyer where shots rang out this afternoon. My wife had given us visitor passes that she receives as a member of the Museum. The lines were long, and it was not obvious which line we needed to stand in.

Pop was having none of it. He walked away from me and wandered up to the museum staffer standing at the head of the long line leading to the elevators that takes all visitors to the museum exhibits. I thought for a moment that Pop was going to ask directions. I was wrong.

He thrust out his arm in the direction of the staffer, displaying the number the Nazis tattooed on his arm at Auschwitz just a few inches from her face. Without making eye-contact and barely breaking stride, Pop kept walking. Understandably, the staffer barely blinked. She didn't make a move to stop him.

Pop kept walking right into the elevator that had just filled with the visitors that had been waiting in that long line. And even though the elevator was already quite crowded, he walked right in. Jake and I had to run past the guard to catch up. "Pop, Pop," I said, feeling a little embarrassed, hoping to talk him into at least waiting for the next elevator.

The staffer inside the elevator must have heard me, because he smiled, held the door and said with smile, "We have room for Pop. You guys too. C'mon in."

And up we went. I have been to the Holocaust Museum many times, but none as memorable as that visit.

About a month ago, in a conscious effort to carry on her father's tradition and to commemorate his birthday, my wife Helen paid her own solo visit to the Museum. She arrived at the end of a busy work day, in a rush, just a few minutes before closing time. Unfortunately, given the late hour, they had run out of the candles usually provided in the Hall of Remembrance for visitors to light and leave in the niches of the outer walls.

Already feeling emotional -- her dad had passed away just six months before -- she broke down sobbing.

A staffer nearby immediately came to her assistance, asking if she needed help. She explained, and the gentleman asked her to wait. He soon returned with a candle, explaining with a conspiratorial wink that he kept his own special supply for such emergencies.

The guards and staff at the Holocaust Museum have a special duty. The do more than just protect and operate one of Washington's many heavily trafficked museums. On a daily basis, they help open the doors to the elderly survivors of the atrocities of World War II. As my stories attest, they do it with a remarkable degree of kindness and professionalism.

As far as I know, the Holocaust Museum personnel that we encountered were not armed guards, though it is possible they were. But when I heard about the shooting this afternoon, and more specifically that at least one of the victims is a security guard now apparently in critical condition, it struck very close to home.

This is personal.

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