Holocaust Memorials Send a Harsh Message: Never Forget Washington Museum Confronts Viewers with Genocide Horror

Article excerpt

AMERICAN Gen. Dwight Eisenhower explained his grisly tour of Nazi death camps in April 1945, in terms that the founders of the new United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found fit to prominently inscribe on a wall.

"I made the visit," the general said, "deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of those things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda."

There is an overpowering amount of such evidence in this edifice, which opens today in Washington. It is housed in a cold brick-and-limestone building whose architectural detail recalls the harshness, isolation, and extermination of the millions Nazi leader Adolf Hitler deemed corrosive to the German nation.

Depicting persecution in the most graphic of terms, the museum illustrates the appalling opposite of contemporary American culture, the bastion of freedom and democratic values. Museum planners chide America and the rest of the free world for allowing the Holocaust to happen; their intention is to make the plight of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others an indelible mark on the American conscience.

With floor-to-ceiling photographs, film footage of mass murders and eyewitness accounts, documents, names, maps, books, clothing, and other personal remnants of lives past, the museum brings 1993 viewers about as close as possible to the human horror that began 60 years ago.

The permanent collection is not for the rushed or the weary; it requires at least three to four hours of concentration on a very troubling subject in a very uncomfortable arena. The bare floors are unforgiving on the feet, the bolted doors are heavy, and though the display is vast, space is tight and dimly lit.

Visitors begin their three-level tour on the fourth floor, where an exhibit unravels Germany's turbulent 1933-38 period and Hitler's rise to power. The Jews, the handicapped, dissidents, and other groups were stripped of their rights and terrorized. During these years, some 40,000 Jews found sanctuary in the US, only a fraction of those who tried to come. "The United States could have absorbed more but it did not," museum commentary bluntly asserts. "Bound by immigration quotas, influenced by popular anti-immigration sentiment, and hampered by the anti-Semitism at the State Department, the US government remained callous in its willingness to help. …