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An Afternoon of Cherry Blossoms and Swastikas

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For a few fleeting weeks out of the year, Washington D.C. gets transformed into beautiful hues of pink and cream as long dormant cherry blossom trees suddenly burst with color. The event draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to The National Mall and makes locals like me annoyed with all the extra traffic on the roads and in the subways. (FYI if you're visiting D.C., the goal is to stand right and walk left on Metro's escalators.) This week I had some spare time in between meetings downtown and found myself meandering over to the Tidal Basin to get a dose of cherry blossom fever. I was not disappointed, the scene was breathtaking. Bob Ross himself couldn't have painted a prettier picture. But after gazing at my 73rd tree or so I got the point. I checked my watch and realized I still had time to pop into one of the museums on The Mall.

Since moving to D.C. five years ago I've probably been to the National Gallery of Art, Museum of National History, and Air and Space Museum 15 times each; as for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, just once. For me visiting was like watching Schindler's List; you go there to see it, and then you don't have to do it ever again. But there was something inside me this week that drew me over. Maybe it just happened to be the closest museum to the Tidal Basin or maybe it was the sign outside the museum that read "Think About What You Saw," but before I knew it, I was walking through the metal detectors and into the museum's cold stark atrium. The space is designed to make visitor's feel what it was like to be a prisoner in a concentration camp. And that day the place was packed. There were school groups, families, and church groups, but despite the volume of people inside, the loudest noise came from the shuffling of feet. Few of the patrons seemed comfortable speaking above a soft whisper.

I only had 40 minutes before my next appointment so I didn't have time go through the permanent exhibit, a gut-wrenching experience which features walking through an actual cattle car used to deport Jews and an entire wall filled with old shoes collected from victims of the Holocaust. Instead I checked out the current exhibit "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda," which I thought would be less difficult to bear. But as I turned a corner I found myself face to face with an enormous poster of Adolph Hitler. Other artifacts were equally hard to look at; a photo of a float equating Jews with cockroaches used during an Anti-Semitic parade, a large bright red Swastika flag, and a yellow cloth star labeled "Juden," which Jews were forced to wear to identify themselves. My eyes welled up. I looked around the room and saw many others with the same expression of grief and horror.

There's a well known Jewish tradition of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. While there are multiple interpretations for the act, one common explanation is that it's to never to forget moments of great sorrow even during moments of great joy. Walking back across the street and gazing out at the cherry blossoms, it struck me how my detour wasn't so random after all.