Last week, a group of students and Dr. Amy Merrill Willis, associate professor of religious studies at University of Lynchburg, visited the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond.
The day trip was part of a class that Dr. Willis teaches on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also was open to students in her Old Testament/Hebrew Bible class. “It was an optional, experiential-learning activity to go along with our study of Judaism,” Dr. Willis said, adding that there also will be experiential activities for the Christianity and Islam sections.
Dr. Willis described the Virginia Holocaust Museum, which is located in the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond, as a “well-curated museum that provides a powerful experience for visitors,” and said what interested her most was “how this relatively small museum approached such a huge topic.
“It presents the Holocaust by focusing on the specific connections between Holocaust survivors and the town of Richmond. Several families and individuals who survived the Holocaust made their way to Richmond after the [concentration] camps were liberated, but there were connections between Richmond families and German Jewish families even before the ‘final solution’ was put in place.
“The artifacts and stories provide the focus for the larger narrative.”
For Cassandra Matthews ’22, a sociology major from Forest, Virginia, the experience was eye opening. “Prior to the trip, I didn’t know much about the Holocaust, except for how horrible it was,” Matthews said. “The experience of going to the museum taught me more about the causes of the Holocaust, as well as gave me a deeper understanding of the extent of how awful it was.”
One exhibit that was particularly haunting for Dr. Willis was a replica train boxcar, which connects two rooms of the museum. During the Holocaust, boxcars were used to transport Jews and other minorities — Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others — to Nazi concentration camps. Dr. Willis described the exhibit as “simple, but visceral in its impact.”
“[It’s] a simple, dark, cramped space with slatted sides and very little ventilation,” she said. “The sound of the train on the tracks can be heard in the background. … When I walked into that rail car, I was, quite frankly, overwhelmed. We had just read a portion of Elie Wiesel’s Night. He describes his own experience of being forced into this tight space for days at a time, with no light or food and barely enough air.”
Through other exhibits, the students learned about German Jews who tried to hide their Jewish identity, sometimes with the help of non-Jews, and about stories of children in the Holocaust. “One of the righteous gentiles identified by the museum was a hairdresser who helped Jews look more Aryan by dying their hair,” Dr. Willis said.
“The students also noted the plight of the children in the concentration camps. The museum did a good job of making the children especially visible — not only their suffering but also the poetry and pictures they created in the camps.”
Jazmyne Johnson ’20, a health and physical education major from Newport News, Virginia, said she learned “more specifics” about the Holocaust. “For example,” she said, “the slow start of the Holocaust itself. There was a point that people were trying to escape because they knew something bad was coming and some families never made it out.
“Also, in classes, we learn about the gas chambers and the train cars. However, when you see and experience the life-size replications in person it is so different.”
Outside the museum, the group inspected an authentic Nazi rail car. Inside, they watched videos of Holocaust survivors telling their stories and saw photos of Richmond-area survivors. After all of these experiences, Dr. Willis said one of her students questioned how anyone could deny that the Holocaust happened.
“It was hard for her to fathom that Holocaust denial happens, given the testimonies we saw.”