Daniel's Story

Daniel's Story: Remember the Children is a short exhibit specifically designed for children who are too young to see the permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The door to the exhibit is located on the north side of the main floor, called the Hall of Witness, which is on your right as you enter the museum from the 14th Street entrance. I visited the Daniel's Story exhibit in April 2000.

The Museum store sells a 136-page children's novel, entitled Daniel's Story, written by Carol Matas and published in 1993, which tells the fictional story of Daniel in greater detail. The exhibit is based on the story as told in the book, but as so often happens when a book is made into a movie or an exhibit, some parts of the story are left out and other parts are added, which is bound to cause some confusion for those who know the story of the Holocaust. My suggestion is that you order the book online from the Museum and read it before seeing the exhibit.

Photos of the Daniel's Story exhibit can be seen on this web site.

Before entering the exhibit, I looked around first at the Hall of Witness. I noticed that the brick walls had metal braces embedded into the wall, which resembles the structure of the brick cremation ovens in the concentration camps. The light fixtures over the doors to the Daniel's Story exhibit are like those that hung above the doors to the concentration camp barracks. In front of the door to the exhibit is a metal gate painted gray, which looks like the wooden gates between the fenced sections of the Birkenau camp.

The four-story ceiling of the Hall of Witness reminded me of the huge train station in Frankfurt, where the fictional character, Daniel, lived with his family before being sent by train to the ghetto in the city of Lodz in October 1941, according to the book. Lodz was in the part of Poland that had been annexed into Greater Germany (Gross Deutschland) after the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

Daniel's Story seems to be based on the story of Anne Frank, whose family lived in Frankfurt before Anne's father, Otto Frank, escaped to the Netherlands in 1933, although some parts are based on the life of Elie Wiesel and his father who were sent to Auschwitz in 1944.

Adults as well as children visit this exhibit, and there is frequently a line waiting to get in, but the tour takes only about 20 minutes, so the wait is not long. The exhibit is designed to show the contrast between the way the Jews lived before the Nazis came to power in 1933, and how they were reduced to living in abject poverty in a ghetto, followed by the horror of the concentration camps.

As soon as I entered the anteroom of the exhibit, I noticed that I was standing on an oak hardwood floor, and there was a rich gold-colored velvet curtain which covered the opening into the first small room of the exhibit. On the wall to the left, in paint that looks like fingerprinting, are the words "remember the children." On the wall in front of me was a painted window which would look familiar to anyone who has ever visited Toontown in Disneyland. Under the window, was a book the size of a scrapbook, but it had the word "Diary" on the cover. On the wall to the right, there was a short explanation that this story was about Daniel and his family who were victims of the Holocaust and were sent to Lodz and then to Auschwitz. There is no mention that this is a fictional story.

The exhibit winds through the four small rooms on the north side of the museum, which look like watchtowers from the outside. In the first room is a large video screen which shows a short movie that plays continuously. Daniel narrates as the screen shows a picture of his family home, a two story half-timbered house that is typically German.

We see his family: a handsome father, a beautiful mother, and his attractive younger sister, Erika, who plays the violin in an orchestra. Daniel says that he has just celebrated his 11th birthday; he received a new bike, a soccer ball and a diary. Just like Anne Frank, I thought: she got a diary for her 13th birthday just before her family went into hiding in Amsterdam. Then Daniel says that his father fought for the Germans in World War I and received a medal for bravery, which he gave to Daniel for his birthday. I noted this bit of information as a possible clue to his survival. Anne Frank's father, who survived Auschwitz, was also a World War I veteran.

The movie then shows the Synagogue burning in Frankfurt, Daniel's home town in Germany, so we know that the year is 1938 when Jewish stores and Synagogues were destroyed during the pogrom called Kristallnacht on November 9th. Daniel is 11 years old so he was born in 1927. In fact, the book confirms that he was born March 30, 1927 and his sister was born in 1929, the same year that Anne Frank was born. For the children visiting this exhibit, Daniel is from the same generation as their great-grandparents.

Daniel asks the viewers: "Have you ever been punished for something you didn't do - we were." He tells us that the Nazis did not like anyone who was not exactly like they were.

Then we moved through a short hallway where there were wooden cutouts overhead which resembled the green leaves of a tree. There was a sign directing visitors straight ahead to Daniel's House, but nevertheless at least half the people on the tour turned to the right into a room which said "Germany 1938." By doing this, they missed half of the tour and did not get to see how Daniel and his family lived before the Nazis started persecuting the Jews.

Although the movie showed a picture of Daniel's typical German house, the outside of the house on the tour looked like an American bungalow, the Craftsman style that was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. The house was stucco, painted light brown. Before reaching the door, we passed the window of the kitchen which stuck out in the front of the house. Just inside the door, we were in a hallway which had blue and white striped wall-covering on the walls. The wall-covering was sparkling clean and looked as if it might have been made of silk. There were pictures of Daniel's handsome family on the wall. Daniel's wooden skis and his ice skating shoes were in the hallway.

Proceeding to the door of the kitchen, I looked inside and saw a typical American kitchen of the 30s and 40s. The wallpaper was sort of a green plaid design and at the top there was a border. The gas stove, the sink faucet, the canister set on the counter top and the white enameled double boiler on the stove all looked vintage American. There was a soundtrack with laughter and the happy sounds of Daniel's mother and his little sister making cookies. On the counter were some cookies decorated with Erika's name written in icing. We passed a dining room cabinet full of fine china. There were some ordinary candlesticks on display and a sign said that they were lit for the Sabbath meal, the only indication in the whole exhibit that the family was Jewish.

The floors in both the hallway and the kitchen were covered with vinyl that resembled black and white tile, but Daniel's private room had a polished oak floor with an area rug. There was a radiator on the wall, indicating that the house had central heating. The walls of Daniel's room were covered with gold-striped wallpaper. On the floor was a suitcase and a sign said that Daniel had his own suitcase to take on family vacations. In the closet were clothes that looked like what the typical American boy wore in the 30s and 40s, but no German style clothing. There were no Jewish prayer shawls or yarmulkes in Daniel's closet, and no Menorah displayed anywhere in the house. The medal which Daniel's father had given him was given a place of honor in the closet cabinet; it was not the Iron Cross, nor any other recognizable German medal.

On a shelf in 11-year-old Daniel's room was displayed his expensive 35 mm camera, a possession that most American boys that age could only dream of in 1938. I forgot to look closely at it to see if it was a German-made camera. Daniel also had a very large toy train set, roughly the size of our present G gauge trains (garden gauge). The sign said that Daniel and his father would play with his model train set on the floor; a train that size would have required a full basement room to set it up. On his desk was an automatic pencil, but no fountain pen.

In one corner of the room was a window with a shade to pull up to see a picture of children playing outside. On the wall was a map of the world which Daniel had made for a school project. There was a button for the children to push to make a red light come on in the location of Germany. Did my eyes deceive me? I recall that the map showed Germany without the Polish Corridor dividing the country into two sections, as a 1938 map should have been drawn.

In the next room, I immediately sensed that something ominous was about to happen because the wallpaper had gotten darker; it was now burgundy and gray stripes. A sign on the wall said "Scary Changes." There were windows where the shades could be pulled up to see pictures including one of Jewish stores being boycotted and another picture of Jewish children being humiliated in school. There was a picture of a Synagogue being burned behind another window shade, and then a picture of the family store, Neuberger & Co., being boycotted. There were more pictures of Daniel's family on the wall. The book tells us that these pictures were taken by Daniel's uncle.

The tour moved into another room where there was a niche that is typical of an American bungalow of the 30s and 40s. It was like a breakfast nook with an oak table and two benches. The wallpaper was cream-colored with tiny Burgundy dots. A small radio stood on the table. There were windows with slide-up covers which revealed pictures illustrating the new laws: Jews were not allowed to buy at the bakery or swim in the city pool.

The next room had a piece of oak furniture that was designed to hold coats; it was typical of the furniture in an American front hall. Apparently we had entered through the back door near the kitchen and had now come full circle to the front door. There was a front window that had been broken and there was a large rock glued to the floor along with some plastic glass stuck to the floor.

We went out the front door, and I noticed Daniel's new black-painted bike, which was leaning against the wall of the house. In 1938 Germany, it was apparently safe to leave valuable possessions outside. The book tells us that the Nazis put anyone, who broke the law twice, into a concentration camp, including Daniel's uncle who had gotten two traffic tickets.

When we were back outside the house, I noticed that there was a roof over the back door with exposed rafters in the typical style of an American bungalow. Throughout Daniel's house there was nothing that looked even remotely German, and there was almost no evidence that the family was Jewish. Everything in Daniel's house could have been purchased at any antique and collectibles store in America. Perhaps this was deliberate so that American children could see that Daniel was just like a typical American boy of today. What is probably lost on today's children is that Daniel was very rich, according to the standards of the day. Very few children in Germany, or in America for that matter, were living like Daniel was in 1938. Americans who were children during the depression were more likely to have been living in a manner similar to the way Daniel's family lived after they were sent to the ghetto.

The tour then went back down the short hallway to the "Germany 1938" section. We see the door to a doctor's office that has been boarded up because Jews were not allowed to practice their professions. Then there is a bakery window with luscious tortes and apple strudel, but the sign on the door says "No Jews." We see the window of Daniel's father's store, which has a pink dirndl dress in the window, although the book says that it was a hardware store. There is a hole in the store window, which was obviously damaged during Kristallnacht. However, there was no mention that Daniel's father was arrested along with the 30,000 businessmen who were rounded up that night and taken to the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen where they were held until their families could arrange for them to leave Germany. From the book, I learned later that Daniel's father had actually been arrested, but he bribed his way out and was not sent to a concentration camp.

On the wall was a picture of a park bench with a sign "For Jews Only." There was a slide-up window where we could see the yellow star that the Jews had to wear on their clothing. The title of this section is "Germany 1938" and the Jews in Germany were not forced to wear the yellow star until September 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

As we moved through this part of the exhibit, which is like a corridor, we came to some suitcases piled up. One of them was open and there was a doll inside. I also noticed an expensive leather hat box. At this point, the family is being sent to the Lodz ghetto, but the exhibit does not say that a war had started, or what year it was that the family was forced to leave. I learned from the book that they were sent to the Lodz ghetto on October 18, 1941. I knew that Lodz had become a city in Greater Germany on November 7, 1939 after the Germans defeated Poland and took back the German territory that had been given to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I ended.

There is no explanation given for why Daniel's family did not just leave, along with the 300,000 German Jews who escaped before the Holocaust started, but from the book, I learned that the family did not want to leave Germany because it had been their home country for a thousand years and they were not Zionists so they had no interest in trying to go to Palestine. Anne Frank's family had also been in Germany for a long time and they were not Zionists. Otto Frank was forced to leave Germany shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933 because he had been indicted for bank fraud.

As we entered the section of the exhibit which represents the Lodz ghetto, I noticed that the floor in the vestibule was covered with dingy white tile in the pattern known in America as "chicken wire." This pattern, which was very common in America in the 30s and 40s, consists of tiny hexagonal tiles with black grouting between them. In their former home in Frankfurt, Daniel's family had a floor with a pattern of large black and white tiles. To me, the smaller tiles on the floor were symbolic of their reduced circumstances in the ghetto.

Then we entered the family's one-room apartment, and I noticed that the floor was unpolished pine, quite a come-down from the oak hardwood floor of their former home. The flowered wallpaper was an ugly gray color, and it looked as though it had been darkened by years of soot from the tiny coal-burning stove, which was a typical European stove covered with dingy white porcelain tiles. Two bare low-wattage light bulbs hanging from the ceiling did not provide enough light so the room was depressingly dark. The only hint of the family's former luxurious lifestyle was their fine china, now displayed in open cupboards on the wall.

There was a soundtrack playing, but now the sound was not laughter, as in the kitchen of their former home when they were happily making cookies, but rather the sound of a baby crying from hunger. This sound must have been coming from the adjacent apartment because there was no baby in Daniel's family.

Daniel's camera was nowhere in sight, but from the book I learned that the camera had been given to him by his uncle, and that he brought it with him to the ghetto, along with his whole darkroom. By the time that the German Jews were sent to Lodz, the ghetto had already been in existence for two years and the residents were desperately poor. Although neither the book nor the exhibit mentions it, I knew that the Germans arrived with not only cameras and fine china, but with crates of precious food, which caused some animosity towards them by the Polish residents in the ghetto who were starving. In the ghetto room, there was a pot cooking on the stove with only one rotten turnip floating in the water, and a round loaf of bread was on a narrow table. The ghetto residents were each given only one loaf of bread which had to last for 5 days, but Daniel's mother worked in the bakery and was able to bring home additional bread for the family.

The medal given to Daniel by his father had also been forgotten in this part of the exhibit. Since there was such a big deal made about the medal in the first part of the exhibit, I thought we were being given a clue about why Daniel and his father were able to survive. I knew that War veterans, like Daniel's father, who were sent to the Lodz ghetto, were allowed to remain there until the ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, so they would only have been in the Auschwitz death camp for about five months at the most, before they were liberated by Soviet troops. However, the book says that Daniel's father was only 40 years old when he was sent to the death camp so he would have been too young to have served in World War I.

There was a calendar on the wall which indicated that the date was 1942, but the dates of their arrival and departure from the ghetto were not given anywhere in the exhibit. From the book, I learned that the family was allowed to stay in the ghetto until August 1944. Others were not so lucky. Although not mentioned in the exhibit, the first Jews to be killed by poison gas were residents of the Lodz ghetto who were taken to the nearby death camp at Chelmno and gassed in mobile vans on December 6, 1941.

Daniel was 14 and 1/2 and his sister was 12 when they entered the ghetto, so they were put to work in the factories like all the children over the age of 10. Although it was not mentioned in either the exhibit or the book, I knew that the Jews in the Lodz ghetto had volunteered to work for the Germans in exchange for food, thinking that if they made themselves indispensable as laborers, they would be not be sent to the gas chambers.

Through a window of the ghetto room, I could see a photograph of children working in the factories, and hear the sound of the machines humming. Erika worked in a sewing factory and was able to bring home scraps of cloth which she used to make a gift for her mother. Visitors are prompted to look under Erika's bed to see the sewing materials that she had stolen. It is mentioned that Erika had now reached the age where she was concerned with modesty, and there was a ragged curtain, almost black with soot, hung from the ceiling to divide her cot from Daniel's.

In a corner of the room, as you enter, there is a hidden closet space with a door only high enough for children. This is not explained in the exhibit, but from the book, I learned that this was where they hid their radio, and this space was also used by Erika and another girl to hide when residents of the ghetto were selected to be sent to Chelmno.

The next part of the exhibit depicts the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As I entered this room, I noticed a curved wall with a huge photograph of the gatehouse at Birkenau pasted onto it. Over the doorway into the room is a brick arch exactly like the one over the doorway through which trains rolled into the Birkenau camp. This same arch is repeated throughout the Hall of Witness in the museum building. A short section of a railroad boxcar is in one corner of the room. The Jews were crowded into these cattle cars for their journey to the death camp. A movie clip is playing on a large video monitor and Daniel is narrating. He says that the Nazis took away his scrapbook and his father's medal when he entered the camp. We see scenes from the Birkenau camp. On the wall is a huge photograph of the wooden barracks at Birkenau with fence posts painted on the wall in the foreground of the picture. Just in front of the painted fence posts are some real fence posts which have been brought from Birkenau for this exhibit.

We learned from Daniel's narration that he and his father survived Birkenau, but his mother and Erika both died. In the book, I learned that 17-year-old Daniel and his 40-year-old father were both selected to work in the factories at Monowitz, also known as the Auschwitz III camp. This is similar to the story of 15-year-old Elie Wiesel and his father who were also sent to Monowitz to work. I knew that those who worked received more food and had a better chance of survival.

From this room, visitors exit through another small room where there are phone sets on the wall. I picked up one of the phones and listened as a woman's voice recapped everything we had seen in the exhibit. She mentioned that the Nazis wanted to rule the world and that they had started the war. No war was mentioned in the exhibit, so this might have puzzled some of the young visitors who didn't know what war she was talking about.

Then I was startled to hear this woman say that Daniel and his father had been liberated by American soldiers. Since I knew that Auschwitz-Birkenau was in the German province of Silesia which is now in Poland and that no American soldiers were fighting in that area, I was amazed that the exhibit makers had made such a huge mistake; it was Ukrainian soldiers in the army of the Soviet Union who arrived at Birkenau on January 27, 1945 as every student of the Holocaust knows.

Later, when I read the book, I learned that Daniel and his father had been forced to leave Birkenau in November 1944 and were death marched to Buchenwald, a concentration camp near Weimar in Germany. It was there that they were liberated by American soldiers on April 11, 1945. Elie Wiesel and his father were death marched to the border of Germany on January 18, 1945 and then taken by train to Buchenwald.

The voice on the phone asked in a chilling tone? "Do you remember what happened to Erika and her mother? They were murdered." The implication was that, although Daniel's mother was the same age as his father and equally capable of working, she was selected for the gas chamber, along with Erika who was close to the same age as Daniel and could also have worked. In the first part of the story, we were told that Erika played the violin, so she could have survived by playing in the women's orchestra. I wondered what effect this would have on the little girls who listen to this voice on one of the phones at the end of the exhibit.

Daniel's Story follows closely the story of Anne Frank, but at the end Daniel survives, even though he got sick with typhus. In October 1944, Anne Frank and her sister Margo were transferred by train from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen where both died of typhus. According to the exhibit, little Erika and her mother both died at the end of Daniel's Story, just like Anne Frank and her mother. It occurred to me that little girls might deduce that there was further discrimination against females, and this might cause them to worry excessively about their chances in any future Holocaust.

Later, I learned from reading the book that Daniel's mother already had tuberculosis when she arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, and she died soon afterward. Anne Frank's mother also died of tuberculosis soon after she arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the book, Erika was selected to play the violin in the camp orchestra, so she was not sent to the gas chamber. According to the book, Erika was death marched from Auschwitz to the Gross-Rosen camp where she hid in the infirmary on the day that this camp was evacuated, as the Nazis tried to stay one step ahead of the advancing Soviet army. Erika survived and was in a displaced persons camp after the war, according to the book.

At the exit from Daniel's Story, there is a blue mail box where visitors can deposit letters written to Daniel. I recalled that there was another mail box about the same size in the exhibit, which was a separate mail box for the Jews to use after the Nazis started making laws which restricted their lives in Germany. On that final note, I went through the door and was back in the Hall of Witness, where right in front of me, I saw a gray bench strategically placed for people to rest and reflect upon what they had just seen.

Although I spent two days in the year 2000 visiting the permanent exhibits at the museum, and was there for several hours each day, I never saw any of the adults crying. On the tour of Daniel's Story, there were children sobbing and one boy cried uncontrollably at the end when Daniel tells how the Jews were killed at Birkenau.

This is a very mild version of the Holocaust story, but children should be prepared by their parents or teachers before seeing this exhibit. Even then, young children might worry excessively after seeing this exhibit because there is no explanation for why the Jews were hated so much. The message seems to be that a Jew can be rich, living the good life, minding his own business, not hurting anyone, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, everything is taken away from him, and for no reason at all, he is sent to a ghetto and then to a concentration camp and killed. How is a child of 11 supposed to make sense of this?


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