Here are three museums that take the notion seriously that who we are—spiritually, morally, ethically—is not a fixed thing. These museums plunk visitors into radical, intense, real-life, total-immersion situations where we realize that humans are molded by our experiences. We crack under torture. We betray others under pressure. We can be doting parents one day and victimizers the next. These museums allow visitors to feel and reflect on how we might respond to a physical and moral nightmare. They create a space where personal feelings bubble to the surface: where there is rage toward those who abuse the privilege of being alive and perhaps compassion toward others whose behavior wasn’t of the highest noble order. These are not easy museums to get to—or to walk through—but each is well worth the trip.
Apartheid Museum Johannesburg, South Africa
Outside the Apartheid Museum entrance, I sat on a bench in the sun for a moment and asked Thuli Khumalo, a beautiful, brainy, black tour operator, to join me.
“I can’t, sisi (sister),” she said. “This bench is not for me.” I twisted around and saw a sign on the bench: “Europeans Only.” Repulsed, I jumped up.
The entry to the Apartheid Museum was equally painful. Each guest was given a ticket randomly stamped “white” or “non-white,” and this determined which door to use. My husband got a white ticket; I was non-white. Welcome to apartheid.
Inside the museum, I walked down a hallway lined with the humiliating and hated passbooks that blacks had to carry for identity checks; without them, they could be summarily arrested and jailed. There were also photos and documents about racial classification and bizarre laws governing who was deemed black or colored. As a non-white, I assumed I was black, but maybe I was colored. I felt confused.
In succeeding rooms, video screens played footage of Afrikaans nationalist propaganda, police beatings, black resistance, and interviews with Nelson and Winnie Mandela and murdered leader Steve Biko. I began to feel really uncomfortable. I lived during apartheid; I had railed against it, but what had I actually done to stop it? If I had lived in South Africa, would I have written articles, spoken out, joined with the non-whites whose identity I had temporarily assumed in the museum?
Rooms were filled with jail cells, towering armored tanks, and nooses used for lynching. The corridors grew narrower, darker; the noise of screeching sirens increased; the videos multiplied and the volume was cranked up until it became almost unbearable.
“Thuli,” I said, as we exited the museum, “I feel completely exhausted and overwhelmed.” And Thuli replied, “That’s what it was like for us, sisi.” (For info: [email protected])
Warsawaw Rising Museum Warsaw, Poland
In 1944, in Warsaw, Poland, during a massive resistance to the Nazi occupation, more than 200,000 people were killed in 63 days — and I had never heard about it. I went to the Warsaw Rising Museum and was completely unprepared for the intensity and disorientation of the experience there.
Even though I had a basic museum map, I couldn’t find anything — and that was an intentional part of the experience. In the basement, for example, I crawled through reconstructed sewer tunnels, as the resisters did. It was completely black. I started to feel claustrophobic. How long would it take me to get out? Which dark corridor should I take? I was close to panic when a young visitor with a cell phone crawled up behind me and used his phone to shed some light. Another man in the tunnel became very emotional. He said his grandmother had been in the sewers in 1944, crawling through sewage while the Germans lobbed in gas canisters. Panting, I finally crawled outside and was greeted by the sounds of Nazi troops marching, and glass cases filled with menacing Nazi guns and uniforms. I had a gut sense of the fear and the rage the resisters must have felt.
I took an elevator upstairs to the roof. Was this part of the exhibit? Or just a roof? I wasn’t sure, but I overheard someone say that we had to climb down the steps of a movie theater and that the steps were behind the screen. I was walking toward the screen and looked up to see footage the resisters had shot. They were so young. So many died. In their final moments, had they been proud of saying no to oppression? Had they thought death was a price worth paying? I walked through the Hall of Sorrows, with plaster heads and partial faces staring at me, and a war plane suspended from the ceiling. There was a room filled with the radio equipment of the resistance, another with a post office.
By the time I reached the area with all of the underground publications of the brave fighters, I was ready to sob.
Would I have been one of those writers? Would I have braved death for freedom? Was anything worth dying for? Would I have had the courage to crawl through sewage? What really mattered to me? I was surrounded by the words, sounds, memories, and artifacts of people so much more courageous than I am. I flipped through the Rolodex of my life, examining the stands I have taken, whom I’ve defended, when I have taken risks. (Online at 1944.pl)
The House of Terror Budapest, Hungary
The House of Terror has a neoclassical entrance, and the floors are polished marble. When I went to buy my ticket, however, I was confronted by a video of a man, crying. Through his sobs, he asked, “Do you have to forgive things that were done to you?” I walked into the first room, where the barrel of a tank pointed at my face. This elegant building is where some of the worst of Nazi and Communist atrocities took place.
I walked from room to room, surrounded by voices, faces, and the ominous beat of blaring music, learning how Hungary had been caught between Nazism and Communism. How the buildings of beautiful Budapest and the bridges over the mighty Danube were destroyed. How 437,000 Jews were deported to death camps in a matter of two months when the Germans took over. How 600,000 Hungarians had been sent to concentration and Gulag work camps by the Communist regime, and 300,000 never returned. I stood, trembling, watching horrific footage of backbreaking labor in freezing cold, narrated by those who survived. I read about a Soviet child who became a Communist hero for requesting the death penalty for his father, a saboteur. In the new order of the Soviets, family didn’t matter, religion was the enemy, and party officials were to be worshipped as gods.
I learned about the resistance movement — professors, doctors, lawyers, students, priests — who risked imprisonment and execution in their struggle for freedom.
Overwhelmed, I got into an elevator, hoping for a breather. But the ride down was accompanied by videotaped testimony of how executions were carried out in the building. When I got out in the basement, I was confronted by prison cells. One was about three feet high, so prisoners could never stand up. I bent over, folding myself in half, so I could feel, for a moment, what they endured for days, weeks, or months. Another cell was so narrow that a prisoner could never lie down. There were no toilets or buckets. Most of the incarcerated died of torture or suicide. On a video screen, a man talked about how a fellow prisoner’s eyeball fell out from breaking up stones with hammers. He held it in his hand and showed it to the guard, who said, “Only one?”
As I exited the museum, I saw that the walls of the final hall were covered with photos of the victimizers and Soviet agents, with their names and birth and death dates. But many of them had no death date; they were still alive, perhaps a hundred feet from me, or walking along the Danube, or somewhere else in Hungary, enjoying a pastry or savoring Hungarian wine.
I wanted the victimizers, the torturers, to be hunted down so they could pay for their atrocities. As for the Hungarians who turned into agents and spies, what should be done with them? Suddenly, I felt a gnawing sensation. Would I have become an agent? If I were tortured, or if I was called in and heard threats to the lives and well-being of my husband, family, and loved ones, would I have agreed to provide secret information to keep those threats from coming true? Would I have sacrificed my ethics, my principles, for the benefit of those I loved? (Online at terrorhaza.hu)