The Holocaust: History and Memory

Explore the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a living memorial that encourages visitors to remember, reflect, and act to confront hate and promote human dignity. In this virtual tour you will examine how the museum preserves and presents Holocaust history

Hall of Witness

Welcome to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—America’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history and the country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust.

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Hall of Witness

You are standing in the center of the museum in the Hall of Witness, a three-story, sky-lit gathering place—a place meant to separate visitors from the outside world and prepare them to experience the museum.

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Skylight and Glass BridgesUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Skylight and Glass Bridges

In this hall, there isn’t a clear view of the sky—metal beams create a cage-like barrier. The skylight isn’t atop the building—it presses down upon visitors. Above, ghostlike figures cross over glass bridges, lending an unsettling air of being watched.

“You Are My Witnesses”United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“You Are My Witnesses”

On the West wall of the Hall of Witness are words taken from the Bible’s book of Isaiah. This quote suggests a profound and meaningful role for the visitor—to bear witness is not only to pay attention but to truthfully testify to others about what one saw.

Arches, Red Brick and Distorted PerspectiveUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Arches, Red Brick and Distorted Perspective

Red brick archways are plentiful in the Hall of Witness, and skewed lines distort visual perspectives. Camp architecture, like the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau shown here, served as inspiration.

The Jews of Ejszyszki and the Holocaust

In 1933, Jews lived in every country of Europe. The largest Jewish populations were in eastern Europe where many lived in predominantly Jewish towns or villages, called shtetls. These photos, taken before the Holocaust, show people from the shtetl of Ejszyszki (Eh-Shish-Kee). 

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The Jews of Ejszyszki and the Holocaust

Approximately nine million Jews lived in countries occupied by or allied with Nazi Germany during World War II. By the war’s end, two out of every three European Jews were dead, including almost all of Ejszyszki’s Jews.

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Reconstructing the Past, Memorializing the VictimsUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Reconstructing the Past, Memorializing the Victims

Moshe Sonenson holds his daughter Yaffa. They were among only a handful of survivors from Ejszyszki. As an adult, Yaffa gathered the approximately 1,000 photographs you see here from more than 100 families torn apart by the Holocaust. 

Young Girls in EjszyszkiUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Young Girls in Ejszyszki

Jews had lived in Ejszyszki for almost 900 years before they were murdered by the Germans and collaborators in 1941. Photographs in this exhibit document the rich religious, cultural, economic, and familial life of a Jewish community that once existed.

Mickey Mouse ProposesUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Mickey Mouse Proposes

Esther Lapp (pictured here) and her family were among approximately 4,000 Jewish men, women, and children from Ejszyszki and nearby towns who were rounded up by Germans and their collaborators and shot in a mass grave.

“All Walks of Life”United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“All Walks of Life”

Jews could be found in all walks of life: from farmers and factory workers to teachers and doctors. Nazi Germany’s military conquests made almost all European Jews potential victims of the Holocaust.

Kristallnacht: The Night of Broken Glass

After years of antisemitic harassment and discrimination, on November 9–10, 1938, the Nazi-German state organized a nationwide outbreak of violence against the Jewish community in Germany. Nazis called it Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”). 

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Kristallnacht: The Night of Broken Glass

During Kristallnacht, Nazi gangs destroyed hundreds of synagogues and more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses. Almost 30,000 Jews were arrested without charge and held in concentration camps and prisons. They were released only if they agreed to leave Germany.

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Desecrated Torah ScrollsUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Desecrated Torah Scrolls

These Torah scrolls, from synagogues in Vienna and Marburg, were desecrated during Kristallnacht. The Torah (books of Moses) is the foundation of Jewish religious faith. The scrolls here were retrieved by German individuals and safeguarded until after the war. 

Neighbors Watch a Synagogue BurnUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Neighbors Watch a Synagogue Burn

Nazis and their collaborators destroyed hundreds of synagogues (Jewish temples) throughout Germany and Austria, often in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. 

Destruction of Jewish-Owned BusinessesUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Destruction of Jewish-Owned Businesses

Nazi stormtroopers smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops and destroyed or looted goods. The government forced Jews to repair damages at their own cost, pay massive fines (totaling almost $7 billion in 2018 ), and close or sell their businesses.

Newly Arrived Prisoners at BuchenwaldUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Newly Arrived Prisoners at Buchenwald

Following Kristallnacht, Nazi SS (elite guards) and German police arrested almost 30,000 Jews, transferring most of them to concentration camps where hundreds died from brutal treatment. Most were released on condition that they leave Germany.

Ghettos: Concentration and Isolation

After invading Poland and later the Soviet Union, Germany tried to isolate and control Jews by forcing them to live in marked-off, segregated sections of towns and cities they called ghettos.

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Ghettos: Concentration and Isolation

The Germans created at least 1,000 ghettos; extreme overcrowding was common, and contagious diseases spread rapidly. People were always hungry. Tens of thousands died in ghettos from illness, starvation, and cold. Between 1942 and 1944, the Germans emptied the ghettos, deporting the Jews to camps and killing centers. 

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In the Warsaw GhettoUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In the Warsaw Ghetto

The largest ghetto was in Warsaw, where—after confiscating their property—the Germans confined more than 400,000 Jews. They were required to wear white armbands with blue Stars of David and were conscripted as forced laborers by Germans and their collaborators.

Segregation and Confinement in the Lodz GhettoUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Segregation and Confinement in the Lodz Ghetto

Many ghettos were enclosed by fences or walls, with entrances guarded by SS (Nazi elite guards) and police. In Lodz, a trolley for non-Jews ran through the ghetto, fenced off under police guard. Jews were forced to walk over it on a footbridge.

An Act of ResistanceUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Documenting History: An Act of Resistance

As Germans and their collaborators deported Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to their deaths, Jews hid a secret archive about life in the ghetto: artwork, photographs, letters, diaries, and official edicts in containers like this milk can.

A Desperate PleaUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

A Desperate Plea

One document from the secret Warsaw ghetto archive was this plea for help. It reads, “Mr. Landau! Rabbi Blumenfeld together with his family are on Stawki Street. They are employed by you. Please save them before it is too late.”

The Railcar: Deportation to the Killing Centers

Beginning in 1942, the Germans systematically deported Jews in railcars like this from across Europe and North Africa to killing centers in German-occupied Poland where they were killed in gas chambers. 

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The Railcar: Deportation to the Killing Centers

There were five killing centers: Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest; the Nazis and their collaborators killed almost 1 million Jews there.

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Slovakian Officials Deport Local JewsUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Slovakian Officials Deport Local Jews

Up to 100 people were packed into a single freight car; the trip often took days. Tormented by hunger and thirst, extreme temperatures, and with little sanitation, many people, especially young children and the elderly, died on the journey.

Deportation from Würzburg, GermanyUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Deportation from Würzburg, Germany

Jewish deportees, carrying a few personal belongings in bundles and suitcases, march through town to the railroad station. Deportations were public events and were often facilitated with help from local police and government authorities.

The Selection ProcessUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Selection Process

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, guards separated men from women and children. An SS officer (foreground) decided who was capable of forced labor. Babies, children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, elderly sick people were usually sent directly to death in gas chambers.

“Work Makes One Free”United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“Work Makes One Free”

A sign over the entrance to Auschwitz states in German “Work makes one free,” but here the opposite was true. The Nazis used brutal labor as another form of killing. Most prisoners  survived only a few weeks or months.

The Barracks: Conditions in the Camps

Nazi Germany set up some 40,000 camps to imprison millions of people throughout Europe. These sites served a range of purposes, including forced labor, detention of people thought to be “enemies of the state,” and mass murder. Auschwitz was the largest of these camps.

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The Barracks: Conditions in the Camps

The camp system included concentration, extermination, and forced-labor camps. In 1941, the SS ordered more than 250 prefabricated wooden barracks to be shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau. You are standing inside a partially restored barrack building from that camp. 

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Liberated Prisoners at Auschwitz-BirkenauUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Liberated Prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners were housed in primitive wooden barracks not insulated against heat or cold. Roofs leaked, and straw bedding was soon filthy and wet. Over 500 prisoners could be crowded into each barrack, five or six prisoners per bunk level.

Barracks at Auschwitz-BirkenauUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was vast: 346 acres with 300 barracks and other buildings, 10 miles of barbed wire, and 4 gas chambers with crematoriums. In August 1944, there were 90,000 prisoners and 908 guards.

Dehumanization: Registration and ProcessingUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Dehumanization: Registration and Processing

Prisoners, like these Jewish women at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were stripped of individual identities, with heads shaved and their names replaced with a number (which, at Auschwitz, was tattooed on the left forearm). They received ill-fitting uniforms with no change of clothing.

Hunger in the CampsUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Hunger in the Camps

Prisoners at the Janowska camp used this bowl to collect their meager rations: watery soup with rotten vegetables and rancid meat, a slice of bread, and a bit of margarine. Diarrhea was common. People weakened by dehydration and hunger fell victim to contagious diseases.

“Final Solution”: Killing Centers and Gas Chambers

This model of crematorium II at Auschwitz-Birkenau was sculpted by Mieczyslaw Stobierski based on contemporary documents and the trial testimonies of Nazi SS (elite guards). Most Jews deported to killing centers were killed in gas chambers soon after their arrival. 

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“Final Solution”: Killing Centers and Gas Chambers

The SS constructed four modern crematorium buildings at Auschwitz-Birkenau, each with a disrobing area, a large gas chamber disguised as showers and a cremation area with ovens. As many as 6,000 Jews were gassed each day here.

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The Undressing RoomUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Undressing Room

To prevent panic and resistance, camp guards told victims that they were going to take showers to rid themselves of lice. Guards instructed them to turn over all valuables and to undress. Then they were driven naked into the “showers.”

The Gas ChamberUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Gas Chamber

Once locked inside, up to 2,000 people could be killed within minutes in this gas chamber. Some killing centers used carbon monoxide gas. Auschwitz-Birkenau used a cyanide-based insecticide (Zyklon-B) to kill people.

Plundering and Cremating the DeadUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Plundering and Cremating the Dead

Under guard, prisoners hauled corpses to a nearby room. They burned bodies in ovens or buried them in mass graves. Camp officials plundered gold, personal belongings, and even hair from their victims.

“Extermination Through Work”United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“Extermination Through Work”

Prisoners in camps were also worked to death. Those too ill or too weak to work were condemned to death in the gas chambers. Here, prisoners haul heavy stones up 186 steps on the “staircase of death” at Mauthausen camp.

Hall of Remembrance

This memorial to victims of the Holocaust is a simple, hexagonal, solemn space designed for public ceremonies and individual reflection. The walls are inscribed with names of concentration camps and killing centers and are lined with candles visitors can light. 

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Hall of Remembrance

Narrow openings between the walls let in additional light and provide a glimpse of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. An eternal flame burns before an inscription from the Book of Deuteronomy about the importance of bearing witness.

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The Skylight, From the collection of: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Yellow Star of David badge with Jude worn by a young German Jewish boy, From the collection of: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
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The Hall of Remembrance Skylight - This hexagonal space evokes the Star of David badge that the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust. In contrast to the Hall of Witness, this skylight is partially translucent, shedding a soft, filtered light across the Hall.

Acts of RemembranceUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Acts of Remembrance

Visitors may light memorial candles in the Hall. Lighting candles is a universal symbol of renewed life and an act of remembrance in many cultures.

Why We RememberUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Why We Remember

“Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw. . . . And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children's children.” 
                                        —Deuteronomy 4:9

Rescuing the Evidence, Preserving the Truth

This is one of the museum’s conservation labs where the many Holocaust-related documents and artifacts in the museum’s collections are treated to prevent their deterioration. The lab is equipped with specialized tools and climate-controlled environments to help preserve them. 

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Rescuing the Evidence, Preserving the Truth

Each collection tells a unique and often personal story that enables us to better understand the Holocaust. Without the museum’s ability to preserve these collections, some stories would be lost forever. Here, a conservator examines a young boy's stuffed bear. What is its story?

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A Very Special BearUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

A Very Special Bear

Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were not permitted to take valuables with them; so, Hans Butzke’s mother sewed items, including a ring and possibly pearls, inside his bear when they emigrated to Panama. The bear still wears Hans’ baby clothes. 

Rescuing the EvidenceUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Rescuing the Evidence

Housed in acid-free archival tissue and an archival box, Hans’ bear awaits treatment in the conservation lab. Holes have worn through the paws; he’s wearing temporary “mittens'' to prevent further loss. Conservators will treat the fabric and reconstruct the paws.

Seeking RefugeUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Seeking Refuge

In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria. That October, the Butzke family, who lived in Vienna, submitted this form requesting permission to enter Bolivia. Over a year later, they left Vienna, but to Panama (not Bolivia) and later to the United States.

Getting OutUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Getting Out

This document certifies that Netty Butzke paid an emigration tax required by Germany. Sometimes documents like this require treatment to stabilize them for long-term preservation. This treatment can include cleaning off surface dirt and mending tears.

Credits: Story

Birkenau Entrance ©USHMM, courtesy of bpk-Bildagentur
Ejszyszki ©USHMM, courtesy of The Shtetl Foundation
Neighbors Watch Synagogue Burn ©USHMM, courtesy of Trudy Isenberg; Vandalized Business ©National Archives and Records Administration; Buchenwald ©USHMM, courtesy of Robert A. Schmuhl
Warsaw Ghetto, ©Bundesarchiv (Bild 101I/134/734/16A); Lodz Ghetto, ©Bundesarchiv (Bild 101I/133/703/20); Milkcan/A Desperate Plea ©USHMM, courtesy of Zydowski Instytut Historyczny imienia Emanuela Ringelbluma
Slovakian Deportation ©USHMM, courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo and Film Archives; “Work Will Set You Free” ©USHMM, courtesy of Panstwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oswiecimiu
Women on Bunks @USHMM, courtesy of Unknown Russian archive; Birkenau Barracks ©USHMM, courtesy of Mark Chrzanowski; Hungarian Jewish Women @USHMM, courtesy of Yad Vashem (Public Domain); Bowl, ©USHMM
“Extermination Through Work” @USHMM, courtesy of Archiv der KZ-
Gedenkstaette Mauthausen

USHMM=US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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