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This is Personal


Regular readers will probably remember my that my father-in-law Frank Burstin, who passed away about a week before last fall's elections, was a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. For that reason, as you may imagine, the news this afternoon about a shooting at Washington's Holocaust Museum hits pretty close to home for me and for my family.

But you don't know the half of it.

I have a special memory of Pop (as we knew him) from last summer. It was a few weeks before he received his cancer diagnosis, during what turned out to be his last visit to the Holocaust Museum. Because he lost his parents and all of his siblings to the Nazis, and because no grave site exists for any of his family, Pop made it a habit to visit the Museum at least once a year. It fulfilled for him the custom that many Jews practice of visiting the cemetery of loved ones once a year. I only got to accompany him on one of these visits, that one last year, along with my wife's nephew Jake.

I described him last year as "kind and optimistic soul," and he certainly was. But when he entered that museum, something changed. He was not unkind, but in that place, as I soon learned, he suffered no fools (nor anyone else).

We wandered into the museum, through the same doors and into the same foyer where shots rang out this afternoon. My wife had given us visitor passes that she receives as a member of the Museum. The lines were long, and it was not obvious which line we needed to stand in.

Pop was having none of it. He walked away from me and wandered up to the museum staffer standing at the head of the long line leading to the elevators that takes all visitors to the museum exhibits. I thought for a moment that Pop was going to ask directions. I was wrong.

He thrust out his arm in the direction of the staffer, displaying the number the Nazis tattooed on his arm at Auschwitz just a few inches from her face. Without making eye-contact and barely breaking stride, Pop kept walking. Understandably, the staffer barely blinked. She didn't make a move to stop him.

Pop kept walking right into the elevator that had just filled with the visitors that had been waiting in that long line. And even though the elevator was already quite crowded, he walked right in. Jake and I had to run past the guard to catch up. "Pop, Pop," I said, feeling a little embarrassed, hoping to talk him into at least waiting for the next elevator.

The staffer inside the elevator must have heard me, because he smiled, held the door and said with smile, "We have room for Pop. You guys too. C'mon in."

And up we went. I have been to the Holocaust Museum many times, but none as memorable as that visit.

About a month ago, in a conscious effort to carry on her father's tradition and to commemorate his birthday, my wife Helen paid her own solo visit to the Museum. She arrived at the end of a busy work day, in a rush, just a few minutes before closing time. Unfortunately, given the late hour, they had run out of the candles usually provided in the Hall of Remembrance for visitors to light and leave in the niches of the outer walls.

Already feeling emotional -- her dad had passed away just six months before -- she broke down sobbing.

A staffer nearby immediately came to her assistance, asking if she needed help. She explained, and the gentleman asked her to wait. He soon returned with a candle, explaining with a conspiratorial wink that he kept his own special supply for such emergencies.

The guards and staff at the Holocaust Museum have a special duty. The do more than just protect and operate one of Washington's many heavily trafficked museums. On a daily basis, they help open the doors to the elderly survivors of the atrocities of World War II. As my stories attest, they do it with a remarkable degree of kindness and professionalism.

As far as I know, the Holocaust Museum personnel that we encountered were not armed guards, though it is possible they were. But when I heard about the shooting this afternoon, and more specifically that at least one of the victims is a security guard now apparently in critical condition, it struck very close to home.

This is personal.

As far as I am concerned, the staff members of the Holocaust Museum are part of our family and the Museum itself is hallowed ground. We pray for the recovery of the wounded guard. "Never take your guard force and security people for granted," William Parsons, the museum's chief of staff said on television a few minutes ago. Our family never will.

A very sad update: MSNBC just reported that the guard, Officer Steven Tyrone Johns, has passed away. We are all mourners tonight.

Update 2 - Spurred on by the commentary of my colleagues Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, I want to add one piece of relevant information. Officer Johns and all of the staff I described above were African-American or (in one case) African.

 

Comments
Winslow:

Mark, thank you so much for sharing these personal stories. You are doing your part to light a candle in the darkness.

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I wish I could have known Pop. Thank you for writing this.

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Cookie the Dog's Owner:

Well said, sir. You do your father proud.

My father's division liberated one of those camps. Dad went on to great success in law and politics--but I still think his greatest accomplishment was the morning in April of 1945 when he helped set people free.

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rvail136:

thank you sir

ani ger yehudi

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Labamigo:

My first trip to DC was in 1971; back in those days you could go everywhere except wander the White House. Now, with terrorism and nut cases like this one, its hardly worth visiting our nation's capitol any more. Its a shame, but half the city is behind closed doors and barriers.

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Sasha:

I can't say much more than thank you.

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DarthCorleone:

Thank you so much for sharing this. Your words brought tears to my eyes.

I spent one memorable afternoon at the museum several years ago, and it is truly a wonderful place. It did make me very sad to hear the news today.

I offer condolences to you and yours.

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Chuck Clarke:

What a beautiful piece; it brought tears to my eyes. While I am not Jewish, I feel an empathy. We are all part of the human race, and when a calamity of this magnitude happens, we all are dinimished.

My sympathy to you and your family for your loss and to the family of Steven Jones, who gave his life in the service of protecting that hallowed place.

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Tigger:

Thank you ...

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Rodney:

Thank you for sharing your memories with us. I can just picture the reactions of the museum staffers as well as those waiting for entry as your father-in-law claimed his rightful place at the head of the line. Sometimes, reverence and respect are earned by merely surviving.

I do have one comment however -
Officer Steven Tyrone Johns did not "pass away". He was murdered by the very type of person who carried out the executions of the family and friends your father-in-law honored and mourned when visiting the museum. That this person was somehow compelled to act in this manner speaks volumns about the current political climate in the US, enabled largely by the rhetoric of the hate mongers on cable TV and rant radio. Hopefully, thoughtful people will soon recognize the Limbaughs, Hannitys and O'Reillys for the fascist terrorists they are.

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Shulamit:

My boys, ages 11 and 13, last night when we heard the guard had died, pulled a yartzeit candle out of the china cabinet, lit it, and each said a personal prayer for the guard.

Even for those of us who don't have the connections you have to the museum...this is so very personal.

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LA2DC:

Thank you for this. As I'm wiping away the tears (again), I pray that this incident does not diminish the rare qualities of the museum's staff. And I hope that all of us who are Jewish find a few minutes in the coming days to say the Mourner's Kaddish for Officer Johns for his sacrifice to our community.

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Dave P:

I was shocked by the terrorism at the Holocaust Museum. And that is what it was. Terrorism. One can only take solace in the fact that the brave actions of Officer Johns and his fellow guards prevented a much larger massacre.

It seems too many Americans look to the rest of the world as the source of terrorism. They readily condemn the foreign extremist leaders whose rhetoric leads to violence.

But when it comes to domestic violence, America turns a blind eye. It's much easier to label the actions of our own terrorists as the work of lone psychopaths. They don't, we don't, realize how much the hate speech coming from extremists in the media and the pulpit contributes to such as the anti-semetic Von Brunn, the anti-abortion Roeder, the anti-government Poplawski, or the anti-unitarian Adkisson (just to name four shooters in the last year).

I can only hope that someday the country can reestablish its concept of unity even in disagreement. I worry that it is gone forever.

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The actions of the guards at the museum moved me. Howard Sheldon Slade my grandfather helped to liberate Dachau concentration camp as an officer in the U.S. Army's 42d Division in 1945. A Life magazine photographer was permitted by Army censors to share those images with the world, among the first of a concentration camp liberated by the allies. Colonel Slade died of undiagnosed early onset Alzheimer's before my first birthday, but his three daughters in all their lives said he never spoke about what he saw that day. His grave and the Holocaust museum are the two places where I can honor his memory. Thank you for your reminiscence Mark.

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I think things should not become personal stuff, nevertheless, some people is looking for the way to start a fight

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I think things should not become personal stuff, nevertheless, some people is looking for the way to start a fight

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