Arlington National Cemetery

In the United States, the last Monday of the month of May is Memorial Day, in which everyone takes off from work to remember those who died in various U.S. wars.  Originally called Decoration Day, this national holiday began in 1868 to commemorate those who died in the American Civil War (1861-1865).  However, eventually, the holiday evolved into remembering those who died in any U.S. war. 

The American Civil War also gave birth to Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, which is arguably the most famous cemetery in the United States.  Although it is currently closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic (except for those who have family members buried there), during normal situations, it provides daily bus tours to visitors.  Because of its vast size of 624 acres, with over 400,000 burials, the tour only covers several major highlights.

Perhaps one of the most important stops on the tour is Arlington House, since it is a mansion located on the cemetery grounds that predates the Civil War.  Once the Civil War began, the United States’ government took over this strategic location near the country’s capital.  However, they chose to make the land surrounding the mansion a cemetery, in order to prevent its owner from eventually returning to it.  Its owner was the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  He inherited the house from his wife, who was herself a descendant of George Washington’s wife, Martha (from Martha’s first husband). 

During the Civil War, the U.S. government buried soldiers from any rank at Arlington.  However, as time passed, the Cemetery gained prestige, and now has a more selective process of who can be buried there.  Among the famous men buried there (as mentioned on the tour) are General John J. Pershing who served in WWI, President John F. Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Ted (the former two served in WWII, and the latter enlisted after the War), and President William Howard Taft.  President Taft never served in the military, so I am not sure how he ended up at Arlington.  However, he is the only person to have served as both the U.S. president and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Finally, Audie Murphy is buried at Arlington.  He was the most decorated soldier in WWII.

John F. Kennedy was actually a war hero during WWII. The 1963 film PT 109 tells that story.  After the War, Audie Murphy landed a career in Hollywood.  The 1955 film To Hell and Back is an autobiographical movie that stars him.  I have watched both films a while ago.  I do not remember them well but do remember thinking that they were mediocre but interesting films.

Perhaps the most famous site at Arlington National Cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  This tomb began in 1921, with the remains of four unidentified dead soldiers from World War I.  Unidentified soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were subsequently added to the tomb.  Volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment guard it 24/7, in rain or shine.  Seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its guard is perhaps the highlight of the Arlington National Cemetery tour. 

Since the Cemetery is currently closed, you can download the app to have a free tour from home, or find the same information on a site called ANC Explorer:  https://ancexplorer.army.mil/publicwmv/#/arlington-national/ You might also be interested to know that during this pandemic, the Cemetery decided to open its 105-year-old time capsule.

Sources and Further Reading

Arlington: Field of Honor. Directed by John B. Bredar. New York: National Geographic, 2005.

“General Information.” Arlington National Cemetery Tours. https://www.arlingtontours.com/general-information (accessed May 24, 2020).

“History of Arlington National Cemetery.” Arlington National Cemetery. https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/History/History-of-Arlington-National-Cemetery (accessed May 24, 2020).

Machemer, Theresa. Arlington National Cemetery Opens Its 105-Year-Old Time Capsule.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 20, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/arlington-cemetery-opens-its-105-year-old-time-capsule-180974924/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=socialmedia&fbclid=IwAR3C6LRxI9DqfUV_Cxd2IP4a1nvDd1zBrzsj-cHAsuPiuGhrYrBHG_Fzyhc (accessed May 24, 2020).

PT 109. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Burbank, California: Warner Bros., 1963.

Sorto, Gabrielle. “What You Need to Know about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” CNN. May 27, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/27/us/tomb-of-the-unknown-soldier-trnd/index.html (accessed May 24, 2020).

To Hell and Back. Directed by Jesse Hibbs. Universal City, California: Universal Studios, 1955.

Van Vleck, Jennifer Leigh. “Arlington National Cemetery and the Origins of Memorial Day.” Arlington National Cemetery. May 21, 2020. https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Blog/Post/10817/Arlington-National-Cemetery-and-the-Origins-of-Memorial-Day (accessed May 24, 2020).

Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

April 21, 2020 is this year’s date for Yom HaShoah, or Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Israel commemorates the day by sounding a siren for 2 minutes throughout the country.  During that time, the entire nation is required to stop what they are doing (including driving), until the siren stops.  “Yom” means “day” in Hebrew, and “Shoah,” which is a word used several times in the Bible, means “calamity.”

Yom HaShoah always falls on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nissan, since that marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  When the Nazis invaded Poland and started WWII on September 1, 1939, they forced all of its Jewish inhabitants to live in certain enclosed areas (ghettos) within their cities.  Since Warsaw is the capital of Poland, that city held the largest of these ghettos.  The Nazis gradually transported people from the ghettos to concentration camps, so in 1943, the remaining survivors in the Warsaw Ghetto had had enough, and revolted against the Germans.  Although the revolt was unsuccessful, it was the largest Jewish uprising during the Holocaust.  The 2002 film The Pianist depicts this tragic event.

Dr. Janusz Korczak took care of orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto. This memorial to him is in Skokie, Illinois, a town that had the largest Holocaust survivor population outside of Israel.

The two largest Holocaust museums in the world are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., respectively.  Israel’s museum (Yad Vashem means “a memorial and a name” and comes from Isaiah 56:5) began in 1953, five years after Israel became an independent nation.  The United States’ museum was completed forty years later, in 1993.  Both museums are free, crowded, provide tours in several languages, and incorporate the video testimonies of survivors as part of their exhibits.  Both also have amazing websites filled with primary sources such as photos, video testimonies, documents, etc.  Additionally, Yad Vashem has a database of all of the documented victims of the Holocaust, as well as a database of all of the documented “Righteous Among the Nations,” or individuals who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.  Yad Vashem has also planted a tree for every known Righteous Among the Nations, with the name of a rescuer placed on a plaque beneath each tree.  Visitors can see the trees as they walk around the Museum’s grounds.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

Perhaps two of the most visceral memorials at Yad Vashem are the Children’s Memorial and the Hall of Names.  The Children’s Memorial is a separate building on the Museum’s grounds, memorializing the approximately 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust.  It contains photos of children, and a candle placed in the center of the room, with mirrors reflecting the candle’s light throughout the space.  The Hall of Names contains books of the names of victims, as well as a domed ceiling with the photos of many victims spread across it. (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also has a room full of victims’ photos.) However, Yad Vashem’s main exhibit ends in hope. It ends with a large window overlooking the city of Jerusalem, which is a way of showing visitors that Hitler’s goal of annihilating the Jews failed.

The most visceral display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the shoe collection.  It displays 4,000 shoes, on long-term loan from Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland.  When you hear that six million Jews died during the Holocaust, it just sounds like statistics.  However, when you see 4,000 different types of shoes piled on top of each other, the reality that each one belonged to a unique individual who died makes the numbers sink in more.

Quote located on one of the walls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I have also written about the third largest Holocaust museum in the world: The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

Sources and Further Reading

“The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.” Yad Vashem. https://yvng.yadvashem.org/index.html?language=en (accessed April 18, 2020).

Gilad, Elon. “Shoah: How a Biblical Term Became the Hebrew Word for Holocaust.” Haaretz. May 1, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/holocaust-remembrance-day/.premium-shoah-how-a-biblical-term-became-the-hebrew-word-for-holocaust-1.5236861 (accessed April 18, 2020).

“The Righteous Among the Nations Database.” Yad Vashem. https://righteous.yadvashem.org/ (accessed April 18, 2020).

“Yom Hashoah.” BBC. April 27, 2011. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/holydays/yomhashoa.shtml (accessed April 18, 2020).