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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Max and Jason: Day 8

Washington, D.C.

Friday morning we woke up at the Washington, D.C. Courtyard Marriott, rested and prepared to embark on our D.C. Museum Marathon, but there was one bit of business we had to take care of first. We definitely wanted to take pictures, but the batteries in my camera were dead. Also, we wanted to go swimming later in the day. Both the swimming trunks and the fresh batteries were located in our car, which had been seized and parked in an undisclosed location by a (possibly armed) Mossad Agent upon our arrival Thursday afternoon. The thought of making eye contact with the Mossad Agent filled me with anxiety and dread; the thought of asking him to retrieve our car so that I could get some AA batteries out of the trunk made me nauseous. Taking the elevator down to the valet desk, I hoped my nemesis would be on a smoke break or busy waterboarding a suspected terrorist and one of his lackeys would have to retrieve our car, but no luck: There he stood, ramrod-straight, his cruel eyes seeing everything, betraying nothing.

“Um, hi,” I began, shifting nervously from foot to foot, eyes focused intently on my shoes. “You, uh, parked? Our car? Yesterday? And I um, need to get some stuff? That’s still in the car? So- ”

“You follow me!” barked Mossad Agent, who then turned and strode briskly out the front door. I had to run to keep up. On the sidewalk, he turned right, then right again, around the corner, past the Gordon Biersch restaurant, past the Subway, to an unmarked door. He produced a key, unlocked the door, and disappeared inside. I tried to ask if I was supposed to follow, but he said nothing and continued walking, so I scampered after him. As he led me down twisting, uninhabited hallways with flickering lights, then on a lengthy ride down in a freight elevator, further into the unmapped bowels of the building, I began to wonder if he was leading me to an interrogation room or underground prison. At long last, we emerged into the vast underground parking area, where cars were packed into narrow lanes four and five vehicles deep. Mossad Man consulted a logbook, then scanned a plywood sheet holding rows of keys, snatched one from its numbered spot, and thrust it toward me.

“There!” he spat contemptuously, pointing at a spot far back in a dark corner. Turning sideways, I crept delicately between the rows of cars, and found our bug-splattered Prius in the spot indicated by Mossad Agent Guy. Afraid that he might leave me here to find my own way back to the surface, I quickly located the batteries and swimming trunks, locked the car, and returned the keys. When we had navigated back to the surface, I tipped Mossad Agent more than was strictly necessary, he grinned menacingly, and I returned to our room on the ninth floor.

* * * *

After installing the fresh batteries, Max and I reviewed our list of possible destinations. I was leaning toward the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, but Max was intrigued by a brochure for the International Spy Museum, and I had promised him first choice, so we headed for the Spy Museum. To be frank, I wasn’t thrilled; I imagined a rinky-dink place with generic wax figurines of James Bond and Austin Powers and a gift shop that sold invisible ink and fake vomit.

To get into the Spy Museum, you take an elevator ride underground, after which you are taken to a “briefing room” where you are required to choose a fake identity and memorize all of your vitals: “My name is Vasily Kolenkov. I am a 43-year-old dental prosthetics designer, and my wife’s name is Carol Alt. We live in Valencia, California and we have a dog named Sir Shits-A-Lot.” I think you’re supposed to remember these details for some sort of game, which we never got around to playing, but memorizing it was fun anyway.

The rest of the museum is divided up into sections named Cloak, Dagger, Shadow, and Ninja; each section highlighting a subset of the skills needed by a proficient International Spy.

Surprisingly, it was really cool. First of all, the design of the place was fantastic; all steel catwalks and steampunk cool one minute, lush Napoleonic sitting rooms the next, and all underground. Second, they had a mind-boggling array of Actual Spy Artifacts donated by various government agencies and private collectors. Among the excellent things we saw:

  • A “Drill Bug” – placed inside a cement block used in construction of the Soviet embassy, this bug could – via remote control – drill outward until it was just beneath the wallpaper, poised to capture all those secret conversations where Soviet diplomats discuss the bugs THEY hid inside the U.S. embassy.
  • The “Great Seal Bug” – given to Ambassador Averell Harriman by Soviet schoolchildren, this carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the U.S. contained a super-powerful listening device. The Ambassador hung it over his desk, where it remained for six years, recording everything.
  • Those micro reel-to-reel Nagra tape recorders used by the East German Stasi; you’ve seen them in spy movies from the 60’s.
  • Unbelievably nasty and frigging awesome spy weapons such as: Bobbins, Hook Jabbers, Smatchets, and the ever-popular Peskett Close Combat Weapon (which included a dagger, a cosh, and a garrote!).
  • A Glove Pistol – basically, instead of shooting your opposite number with a normal gun, you wear this special glove and sort of ram your open palm against your opponent’s rib cage, which would push the hidden plunger and fire the gun concealed in the glove, which is so much cooler than shooting the old-fashioned way.
  • An official U.S. Government-issue Rectal Toolkit.
  • An actual Poison Umbrella Gun.
  • A WWII propaganda poster warning U.S. men to keep their mouths shut around those pesky dames (who might be Nazi spies): “Keep Mum – She’s Not So Dumb!”
  • A table and chairs made of transparent plexiglass, used in debriefing safe rooms – “When you absolutely, positively need to know that there are no sophisticated listening devices planted in the arm of your chair!”
  • The actual door from the office of the New York City branch of the Communist Party.

We learned about OSS field agent Virginia Hall, who, despite an artificial leg, helped to organize and arm French resistance commandos, while posing as a dairy farmer.

We learned about the exploits of Sydney Reilly, legendary Ace of Spies, and Sarah Emma Edmonds, a White woman who disguised herself as an African-American man and spied for Union forces during the Civil War. We learned that Mata Hari was mostly full of baloney, and we got to crawl through an air duct over unsuspecting museum patrons.

We learned about wacky genius mathematician Alan Turing, who regularly wore a gas mask around the office to control his hay fever, and also kept his coffee mug chained to his desk for safekeeping. Though he was instrumental to Allied codebreaking during WWII, Turing was charged with “indecency” (e.g. he was gay) in 1952 and forced to undergo humiliating hormone treatments. He committed suicide at the age of 42.

Jason and Max give the International Spy Museum two thumbs up.

* * * *

From there, we headed back to The Mall, and our only stop at a Smithsonian museum this time around: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

They were featuring an exhibit of photography and collage by German artist Wolfgang Tillmans (which Max and I both liked very much), featuring one piece called “A Memorial to the Victims of Organized Religion,” which consisted of two walls covered in orderly rows of perfectly black photographs:

They also had some video pieces by Takeshi Murata (which re-purposed footage from First Blood and that Ringo Starr movie, Caveman), and a couple of light rooms designed by James Turrell (the guy who made that Skyspace thing at the Henry).

For me, the highlight of our visit was at the Turrell exhibit: Max and I queued at the indicated door, and were soon ushered into a darkened room, along with 5 or 6 other people. At the other end of the room, light entered through hidden slits, creating the illusion that the far wall was either a) slanted oddly and rounded at the corners or b) the Gaping Maw of Eternity. I’ve been to similar exhibits in the past, and usually there’s a museum docent standing nearby, waiting to answer your questions, or there’s a small explanatory plaque. Generally, though, the work of art is expected to stand alone, open to the viewer’s interpretation.

In this case, however, the Hirshhorn decided to take a different approach. Rather than relying on a stuffy “art expert” or difficult-to-read plexiglass signage to explicate the artist’s intentions, they hired an off-duty beat cop from Brooklyn.

“Right dis way, folks,” Brooklyn Cop said laconically. “If youse could just skootch right on in deh… dat’s it, real friendly-like. Ladies and gennemen, if I could direct ya attention to da fah end a da room… when you look at dis room heah, whaddaya see? A room, some lights, ya da ya da. But does ya notice anyting about dis room that don’t look right? Don’t be shy, folks, just speak right on up – what’s dat? Da lady in da back row is correct: Da uddah end of dis heah room looks to be slanted. But hold up one minute! What if I was ta tell youse dat da uddah end a dis room is pehfectly normal? Dat’s right! Take a look at dis heah-”

At this point, he turned on his government-issued, hippie-smashing flashlight, illuminating the entire room and temporarily blinding us.

“Heh? Heh?” he demanded, while brandishing the flashlight excitedly. “What’d I tell ya? Pehfectly normal. Just a trick a da light dat makes it look all strange ovah deh. Well, folks, I hope youse have enjoyed dis heah presentation, and da rest of ya visit to da museum.”

I now suspect that this was not an official presentation at all; I think this security guard, confounded by the spooky exhibit, just flashed his light around one day, figured out the “trick,” and decided to lead his own clandestine mini-tour. I imagined a back-history for this guy, like he used to work at DisneyWorld, until he started wandering randomly through the Haunted Mansion ride during the busy part of the day, shining his huge military-grade MagLight around, explaining to tourists that the ghosts they were seeing were just reflections in a mirror, etc.

They allow visitors to take pictures in the Hirshhorn, so I did. A word of caution: While setting up a perfect shot of Man Ray’s “Pain Bleu,” don’t lean too close to the exhibit, or you’ll set off a shrieking alarm that goes on and on with everybody staring until the Security Department Supervisor arrives to shut it off, muttering angrily under his breath.

Here are some of the keen things we saw:

After the Hirshhorn, we traipsed off down The Mall to the final stop on our marathon: The Holocaust Memorial Museum.

* * * *

On our way to the Holocaust Museum, Max and I had two questions. I’ll answer them here, since I suspect Max and I are not the only ones who wondered:

  • Yes, there is a Holocaust Museum Café.
  • Yes, there is a Holocaust Museum Gift Shop.

The lobby of the Holocaust Museum is a high-ceilinged area with walls of brick and exposed iron beams; it felt to me like an old European train station or warehouse, and it made me feel small. Admission is free, but they only allow a small group into the Main Exhibit every 15 minutes. There are several limited exhibits on the lower floors, which you can visit while you wait. The Memorial part of the building is also located below the lobby; a large, quiet space with an eternal flame burning in a stone monument. The names of each of the death camps are inscribed on the walls surrounding the room. Beneath each camp name are rows of candles lit in memory of those who died at that camp. The cumulative effect is stately, reverent, and powerful, and I found myself wishing that I had more time to absorb it all, but we had to hurry back upstairs for our scheduled admission to the Main Exhibit.

To begin viewing the Main Exhibit, an elevator takes you up to the top of the Museum, and you proceed along a downward spiral, which ends back in the lobby. We spent almost three hours viewing the Main Exhibit, and I felt like we were hurrying to see it all before the Museum closed for the day. If you plan to visit, I urge you to arrive in the morning, and plan on spending at least four hours.

As we entered the Exhibit, a museum guide reminded us that the Museum is also a Memorial, and asked us to demonstrate our respect by – among other things – turning off our cell phones. Of course, twenty minutes later, while watching a video on Nazi medical atrocities, the cell phone on the belt of the asshole lawyer (or whatever) next to me went off. Completely oblivious to his surroundings, he popped open his phone and fucking answered it! “Yeah, Jerry, what’s up? What? You’ve got to be kidding me! You tell Ted he needs to get his shit together! Those clients are coming up on Sunday, and they expect to be entertained! Yeah, no, it’s cool, I’m just at the Holocaust Museum… Okay, bro, I’ll see you in the office. And tell Ted to get his shit together!” Unbelievable, I thought. What kind of jerkoff takes a cell phone call in the Holocaust Museum? A pretty average kind of jerkoff, apparently: over the next half-hour, two other idiots within my earshot engaged in lengthy, animated phone conversations, one regarding a list of groceries to pick up on the way home, one involving wage negotiations with a prospective babysitter.

The Main Exhibit at the Holocaust Museum is the most thorough treatment of a single historic period I have ever seen in any museum. By the time you leave, you will have a much clearer picture of the key historic events leading up to WWII, the formation of the Jewish Ghettos, the development of the Final Solution, the mechanics of the death camps, the reactions (mostly inaction) of other nations, the personal experiences of death camp inmates, the results of the Nuremburg Trials, the continuing hunt for escaped Nazis, and the lasting impact of the Holocaust. The collection of artifacts, historical video and audio records, explanatory diagrams, text and photos… the sheer volume of information is nothing short of astounding, even a little overwhelming. I tried to take it all in, but a few of the exhibits, particularly footage of heinous medical experimentation, made me feel dizzy and panicked, and I found myself backing away. Not because it was new information to me – but actually watching video footage is an entirely different thing (for me). By the time we left the Museum, Max and I both felt physically and emotionally exhausted, crushed under the weight of history.

Some of the facts and exhibits I found most compelling:

Leon Jacobson was transferred to the Lodz ghetto in 1940. During his time there, he constructed an amazing scale model of the ghetto inside a briefcase; the briefcase itself was made in the shape of the ghetto wall. The scale model includes footbridges, churches, ruined synagogues, factories and cemeteries, all surrounded by barbed wire made from scrap wood. In 1944, Jacobson was deported to Auschwitz. Before his departure, he wrapped the model in tarpaper and hid it in the basement of his building, which was later destroyed. After the war, Jacobson was liberated from Buchenwald, and eventually made his way back to Soviet-occupied Lodz, where he retrieved the model from the rubble. Later, he brought the model to the U.S., and it is now displayed in the Holocaust Museum.

We learned about Chaim Rumkowski, “The Eldest of the Jews” and “King of the Ghetto,” who tried to save the majority of the Lodz ghetto inhabitants by complying with the demands of their Nazi captors, even turning over old people and children for deportation. In the end, of course, his efforts saved nobody.

We saw film shot by George Stevens (director of Giant) at the liberation of Dachau. In one chilling scene, the general in command marches local civilians into the camp and forces them to watch while Jewish bodies are piled into a mass grave. He then speaks to them over the PA system: “What you will see here is such a disgrace to the German people that their names must be erased from the list of civilized nations…”

Before 1933, 11 of the 37 German Nobel Prize winners were Jews.

The Museum does not shrink from indicting the U.S. for its inaction, and more: one plaque points out that Germany began by emulating race-segregation laws already in place in the United States.

There are sections highlighting the experiences of Roma (“Gypsies”), gay men, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was surprised to learn that the Nazis labeled JW’s as “Zionists,” an accusation which would cause some harrumphing among Witnesses I know.

The museum contains many personal belongings of camp victims; one of the items that struck me personally was a tiny Bible that belonged to a Witness imprisoned in Sachsenhausen. For some reason, staring at that item, I was able to connect to that single guy’s experience, and it literally took my breath away, left me blurry-eyed and gasping. My dad would be that kind of guy in a death camp, I thought, hiding a Bible in his mattress, leading study groups at night. And yes, I realize that it’s a bit problematic that the part of the Holocaust Museum that made me the most emotional was a Bible belonging to a Christian.

One more item belonging to a Witness: a carved wooden cigarette case. Slightly ironic, since – if that Witness was alive today – he would be disfellowshipped for smoking.

The floors in one part of the Museum are paved with cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto.

To me, one of the most evocative rooms in the Museum is a chamber several stories high, covered floor-to-ceiling with portraits taken by Jewish photographers in the Eishishok Shtetl, a Polish town populated by Jews for 900 years. There are thousands of posed photographs, recording births, deaths, marriages, community gatherings. In 1941, on September 25 and 26, all three thousand inhabitants of Eishishok were murdered by German Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian collaborators. Standing in the middle of that room, surrounded by the faces of an entire community… it all takes some time to digest.

We learned about the ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis, a ship loaded with over 900 Jews fleeing Germany in 1939. Rejected by Cuba, the U.S., and every other “safe” country, the ship was eventually forced to turn around and return to Europe. 288 passengers were fortunate enough to disembark in England; the rest got off in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, all countries later overrun by the Nazis. In fact, this is only one of many examples of apparent U.S. indifference to the Jewish refugee crisis.

I’ve got pages and pages of notes, but I know I’ve written too much already. If you haven’t visited the Holocaust Museum already, you need to – to educate yourself, to renew your determination to resist fascism and speak up against discrimination, and to simply bear witness. Yes, it will take several hours, and yes, it is heavy and difficult, and, when it’s over, you will likely feel sick and depressed and angry. Go anyway.

* * * *

Our Museum Marathon at an end, we retired to the cool refuge of the Courtyard Marriott (and the attached Gordon Biersch restaurant).

One closing word of warning: If you plan on staying at the Courtyard Marriott in Washington, D.C., make sure you request the “adult-size” sheets. Otherwise, they may give you the baby sheets.

Tomorrow: Our cross-country trip comes to an end in Agawam, MA.

One Comment

  1. heya! When I was in middle school, my family went to Europe and part of that trip was going to Dachau concentration camp. unfortunately, my folks neglected to learn that everything in Germany is CLOSED on monday… but even so, just standing outside the gates, and looking in, was a very powerful experience… knowing what happened inside the fence I was pushing my face against… So reading your description of the Holocaust museum brought back some pretty powerful memories for me… and I really appreciate you writing about these things in such an amazing way… I really feel like I can feel some of what you felt when you were there…
    Thank you!:)

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