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. …