An exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St Petersburg is so exclusive, only one person at a time can view it. Slots are by appointment only. I toured “The Last Goodbye," knowing that the experience had the power to hurt.
The woman who saw the exhibit before me was crying as she left. Museum staffer Eric Pastman tells me that's not unusual.
"It's a very sad presentation because its a survivor," he said. "Both his parents and his twin sister were murdered in this camp and he actually witnessed his mother and sister being led off to the gas chambers."
Pastman tells me I'll be spending the next 17 minutes with Pinchas Gutter, getting a firsthand tour of the place where an estimated 78,000 Jewish people were murdered. Pastman leaves me standing in a room made of navy blue curtains. I put on my virtual reality headset and adjust to the darkness.
Suddenly, it becomes light, and Pinchas Gutter is right beside me. We’re almost rubbing shoulders in the back seat of a car in Poland on the road approaching the Majdenek concentration camp. “This place – this camp," Gutter said, "was a place of torture.”
Gutter is close by in a dingy grey room, underneath the same shower heads that he was sure would emit the gas that would kill him, too. I want to put my hand on his shoulder, but I don’t dare disturb him as his trembling voice repeats the prayers he said so many years ago when he was 10. “In the Warsaw ghetto," he said, "we knew the Germans, the Nazis, tried to fool us that we were going to have showers – but gas came out of these showers; not water. So I decided immediately to say my prayers because I knew I was going to die.”
Gutter is in his mid-80s now. He felt he needed to make one last trip to Majdanek to continue his healing process and to help the rest of the world understand that the Holocaust was real. He said, “I think that you have to confront pain to be able to heal it. Unless you have someone that can say, 'I was here. I saw this. This was done to me,' I don’t think people will accept it as the gospel truth”
Standing with him at the place where he lost so much, I had no doubt. It's hard to imagine a more gracious host. Here's a man who not only lost his whole family, he lived unimaginable trauma. And yet, here he is, balding and slightly stooped, calmly pointing out the vats where he was completely immersed in burning disinfectant, or the green blotchy stains on the walls of the gas chamber.
Florida Holocaust Museum director Elizabeth Gelman says that deeply personal experience is exactly what the museum is striving for. She says what the museum is trying to do is “connect one person to one person , and this virtual reality experience does this in a way that, before now, has been impossible."
It also fits with the museum's mission of emphasizing our common humanity. Gelman said, “at the end we want everyone to understand that people…are people – and the Holocaust, and other genocides – things like this happen when we forget that.”
"The Last Goodbye" is at the Florida Holocaust Museum through January.
Tickets are available to one person at a time with only two time slots every hour, and must be reserved ahead of time. You can reserve tickets here.