OTI Online
Fall 1993

The Holocaust Museum: Inside the Outside of History
By Merle Hoffman


holocaust museum

On the day I would be visiting the newly dedicated Holocaust Museum, I awoke at 4 a.m. and found myself waiting for the sun to rise. It was as if observing such a daily miracle could act as some sort of emotional or spiritual | inoculation against the assaults I anticipated.

I had been keeping up with the politics, challenges and questions that riddled this particular project since the announcement of its inception over 10 years ago. How, for instance, to enshrine pure evil without turning the monument into a Holocaust theme park or a multi-media event. How to avoid having it denigrate into pure kitsch - how to bridge the distance between memory and history, between those memories that remain personalized and mutable, and those which become collectively reified - how to portray the Holocaust as something "outside history" as Elie Wiesel describes it, a pathology apart from and outside of any known human parameter but at the same time showing its most quintessentially human (as in man's capacity for evil) and therefore potentially Every visitor is given the identity card of an individual who was caught up in the terror of the Holocaust. 1896 shelling and more than 5,000 of us are enduring face. And the question of whether a museum dedicated to chronicling the murder of six million Jews was the appropriate vehicle to express a permanent Jewish presence in Washington's memorial culture.

For, in this time of intense secularization coupled with varied styles of spiritual journeys seeking meaning, the Holocaust has become an experience of Jewishness that everyone can relate to. "Never again."

Nonetheless, as Elie Wiesel reminds us about the Holocaust, "Not every victim was a Jew, but all Jews were victims."

My journey begins as I step out of the taxi and face a concrete wall with words that admonish me to "stare this evil in the face" for only then "can we be sure that it will never rise again." I read quickly as I enter the building and have to retrace my steps to discover who wrote them, only to find it was Ronald Reagan. To me it signified a strange but ironic connection between Nazism and Reagan's policies on reproductive freedom. I recalled that one of the first official acts of the new Nazi regime was to ban abortion. It was a connection not easily erased by Reagan's tribute to the victims; Reagan the same man who stood at their killers' graves at Bittburg. To insure bipartisanship there is a quote from Jimmy Carter: "Never again will the world fail to act to prevent this terrible crime of genocide."

Never again?

As I write, Bosnia still convulses from genocidal and nationalistic violence while the world debates the merits and risks of intervention. Bosnia is not Auschwitz, but then, what is? As Peter Schneider wrote in the New York Times in May: "If Auschwitz is our standard of measurement, there's no point intervening anywhere in the world because none of the crimes currently being committed against human rights attains the scale of Auschwitz."

Once inside the museum I am surrounded by tourists dressed casually and wearing sneakers. I feel that they, and not I (I am dressed all in black), are out of place in this place. I am directed by a guard to stand on line to get my "identity card." Every visitor is matched by age and sex with a real individual who lived during the Holocaust. The card is meant to be updated twice during the visit and is supposed to attempt to change die number six million into one so that the Holocaust gains some understandability through reduction.

ChannaMy "victim" is Channa Morgensztern, born in 1896 in Kaluszyn, Poland where she lived with her five children until at 46, in 1942, she fled with her family to escape deportation. I never did discover Channa's fate as the machines on the other two floors were broken. She was most likely gassed at Treblinka; I'll never know now, but I do know I'll keep the card.

I enter an elevator with a television screen that shows footage of the liberation of the camps at the war's end. As the doors open I am facing an eight-foot mural of a mass burial pit at the Ohrdruf Camp. I turn and see a green neon sign that tells me there are three minutes to go until the next showing of the documentary, "The Rise of the Nazis to Power." Death and technology - the pillars of the Nazi genocidal vision-become the leitmotif of the exhibit.

As I exit the filming, a glass case full of the meager blue-and-white striped clothing the death camp prisoners wore faces me. I instinctively picture myself in one of them. I move along a now very crowded corridor with both walls full of things to read and see. Here some Nazi propaganda, there banned books, a violin, a gypsy cart, a steel vice-like device used to "scientifically measure Aryans" by the size of the skull - placards and placards of copy - so much to read that a guard keeps repeating that "If you read everything here it will take over five hours-you can always come back.'' He politely asks us to please "keep moving." I find that I want the place to myself. I have already incorporated the design, I feel the place, I feel oppressed, crowded in, inexorably moving along to the next horror.

In the end I didn't "see"' the architecture in the usual sense. Even though I had read so much about the brilliance of James Freed's design, of which Cathleen McGuigan wrote: "He has made a space of terrible beauty, created a place that tries to embrace the enormity of the nightmare - an echo of a world gone mad," and Freed himself said "I wanted to make a scream." I didn't see it until I realized why. There was in that museum only one interior space and that was my mind, my head, the sound of my heartbeat in my ears, the feel of the dryness of my mouth and the palpable mounting pressure of the journey through to the end of the exhibit.

Every corner a new pain, or a familiar sad image like the Roman Vishniak photos of the inhabitants of a destroyed Polish village. There are no ambiguities here and I find poignancy in the oddest places, like the exhibit of old toothbrushes taken from the victims before they were gassed.

The museum is relentless and unlike others there is little if any eye contact with fellow viewers. I feel a need to touch something, but almost everything is behind glass or wire. The only interaction allowed is with the machines and videos. I am moving through a dimension of technology and distance and death. People walk as if in a trance and the almost total silence is punctuated only by sharp intakes of breath. The structure forces you to interact with it and not with anything else. Your eyes, mind and consciousness are held hostage by the onslaught of the images. Real people distract.

A placard faces me: "A desire for knowledge for its own sake, a love of justice that borders on fanaticism, striving for personal independence. These are the aspects of the Jewish peoples' tradition that allow me to regard my belonging to it as a gift of great fortune." - Albert Einstein.

I think of this gift as I look at the body restraints used in the Bumbuerg psychiatric unit where 9,800 mentally and physically disabled inmates were gassed.

I now find myself in a corridor of TV, videos. Technology, I reflect, allowed this particular genocide to be committed in the most disciplined and detailed manner. Now a benign and ubiquitous technology brings me its imagery. The menu allows me to touch a screen and view one of five programs. I choose the 1936 Olympics and learn that despite widespread protest in this country, we did compete in Munich, but bowing to the Nazi madness we benched two Jewish athletes.

I have been here one hour only and find that I am already exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed. I learn a new phrase, "Bibliocaust," as one American newspaper described the German student book burnings. They even burned Helen Keller - how extraordinary. Another touch of my fingertips brings me "Kristallnacht" (the night of the broken glass), the history of the massive state-sponsored pogrom against the Jews of Germany on November 9, 1938. Scenes of Nazis devastating Jewish businesses and synagogues are juxtaposed with clips of American religious leaders condemning the violence. The results of a 1938 poll appear on the screen - 94 percent of Americans polled disapproved of Germany's treatment of the Jews but only 9 percent favored making a safe haven in America for Jewish refugees fleeing the violence. Other polls taken by Roper in the late 1930s showed 60 percent thought Jews had objectionable qualities while as many as 20 percent said they would sympathize with an anti-Semitic campaign.

Another turn brings me face-to-face with an extraordinarily high wall of memory. It holds hundreds of photographs of the residents of a 900-year-old Lithuanian shtetl. All the inhabitants of this vibrant village were murdered in two days by the German' 'Mobile Death Squads" in 1941. I am accosted by images of the inhabitants, captured by four shtetl photographers before the slaughter. A face - a young woman with long dark hair holds a mandolin and gazes intensely into the lens. Here is the Holocaust reduced to one, again.

And the children, the children - eternal images caught here with a toy horse, there with a ball, here sitting on papa's lap - tentatively, expectantly. Here, more than in any other exhibit, people tend to be the most interactive with each other, pointing to a face, sharing a reaction. A young woman with a camera poses her boyfriend against this moment in time - full face, he is smiling as if he were on the deck of a ship-his backdrop comprised of other smiling faces becomes a surreal prop for this strange souvenir. I've had enough and start to leave but stop again in front of an arrestingly beautiful photo of three young women. Are they friends, schoolmates, sisters? They are so alive in their dark poetic beauty, so gracefully unaware of the closeness of death. I find myself crying with longing-anticipation - dread - sorrow for life - for life?

I am now on the third floor and see the words FINAL SOLUTION. There are strange sounds around me. Air rushing through small spaces, echoes of muffled cries. I cross a wooden bridge made to resemble those in the ghettos. A mirrored wall has the names of all the ghettos destroyed. Lodz, Warsaw, etc.,etc. Next I find myself in front of an exhibit of stones from Mila Street in the Warsaw Ghetto and feel a tremendous desire to touch these pieces of silent witness. To hold them, caress their rough edges as if my gentleness could sooth them. I am torn out of my thoughts by a mother's voice speaking to her daughter, "...and these are the cars they used to take the Jews to the concentration camps." A hard sad lesson for such a little head.

Here, indeed, stands one, a representative cattle car with the backdrop of a sign reading Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) — a model of the welcoming logo over the entrance to Auschwitz. I decide to enter. There is a choice here, for the design has allowed for a path going around it but I walk into the car and stop. Closeness engulfs me, dank air, too small, too small. I then remember that close to 100 people were stuffed into these hells for days and nights at a time, no air, no water, only terror, fear and loss.

I think that it must have been spring when some of the Jews were taken — days very much like today. I thought of the birds and the colorful flowers adorning the city that I enjoyed on my way here. Was it like this as they were being herded into the ovens? A beauty made obscene by its natural indifference?

Now another multi-media exhibit. I want to scream to break into this cacophony of pain and terror and add my voice to the "Voices of Auschwitz" exhibit. Eye contact among those sitting to listen to this is furtive. It's as if we were caught in the act of listening to the forbidden with our faces pushed up against some closed door. I want to speak to someone — to cry, but how do you ever begin to cry for this? "Our heads were shaved" says one voice. I instinctively touch my hair, of which I am so proud and guarded, and I think of the special humiliation of the women in the camps — the particularly female indignities, the removal of the hair — that focus of so much vanity, care and individuality. It's a fitting way to begin the process of female dehumanization, so much so that I hear another voice tell of mothers and sisters standing side by side without recognizing each other. The voices ask "is that you mother" or call out, "I am sister Anna."

The videos of "Executions and Suicides" and "Medical Experiments" are behind high walls to shield them from children. I am looking at pictures of one prisoner after another. They are hanging by a noose, usually next to a latrine. A woman with breasts mutilated beyond definition stares in a self-conscious apologetic way. But I am saturated with death and violence, made numb by despair, and I find that these photos are not that much more horrible than anything else I have been looking at so far. Will they show me something I haven't seen—am unable to imagine? There is no escape here and I begin to understand the meaning of Freed's design. The first feelings of resistance give way to begrudging acceptance—to despair and resignation.

I leave Auschwitz and enter a room piled high with old leather shoes. They are all shapes and sizes with that smell so particular to leather, and even baby shoes that reminded me of mine that my mother had bronzed. Again I want to touch them.

"We are the shoes—the last witnesses and because we are only made of stuff and leather and not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire" read some lines from a poem by Moses Schulstein on the placard next to them.

I have now been here for three hours. I move on. The Wall of Rescuers gives some relief. Here I read about the "Good Germans," the "Good Poles," etc., the ones who risked their lives to save the victims and often lost their own in the process.

But there is one last lesson, and this exhibit is the most poignant. Here on a large screen are the survivors giving oral testimony. Here they are trying to put names and definitions to memories that defy understanding.

Here they show their branded arms, interrupt their testimonies with choked sobbing, and tell stories about the selections, and the mothers killing their just born babies so that their cries would not alert the guards. Now the sobbing of the video is augmented by the muffled sounds of sobbing from the audience. And only here do I connect to another living being when I turn around to the woman behind me and put my hand out for a tissue to wipe my eyes and our eyes meet in recognition as she hands me one without saying a word.

At the end of the exhibit there is the marble Hall of Remembrance. A six pointed structure with an eternal flame for "Meditation and Reflection"— there are candles burning all around. I move to light one but find that I cannot and move away. Fire for sacrifice, fire for remembrance—the reality turned metaphoric—I feel repelled. Perhaps there should be a "Screaming Room" or an "Action Room" or a room where the external reality would be strong enough to take me out of my head.

If there is indeed radical evil in the world—a phenomenon that exists outside and apart from us, but that can infect us if we let it—then part of its nature must include detachment.

That is a prerequisite to any form of oppression. The Me vs. You, the Us vs. the Not Us and then the Us vs. the Not Like Us.

According to their literature, the museum's primary mission is to "inform Americans about this unprecedented tragedy, to remember those who suffered and to inspire visitors to contemplate the moral implications of their choices and responsibilities as citizens in an interdependent world." The Holocaust Museum achieves this, because in attempting to portray the ultimate, eternal evil of the Third Reich, it produces an experience of its opposite—an experience of inclusion, inclusion into the events, inclusion into the nightmare of the prisoner in the cattle car, the heaped shoes, the toothbrushes, the pathetic remnants of humanity. The museum strives towards empathic connection with the victims, to break the barriers of denial so that we can ask ourselves, what would I have done if l were given choices? Would I have been one of the killers, one of the bystanders? But strangely, in the end I find myself still separated in my mind and heart—a survivor of a different sort.

I think of one of the survivors in the last video. Here is the story he told. He was a prisoner in Auschwitz when he observed another inmate praying in the middle of the day. He asked him "Why are you praying now? It is too late for the morning prayers and too early for the evening prayers." "I pray to thank God," came the answer. "What, are you crazy? How can you thank God in a place like this?" he asks. And the answer still echoes in me, "I am thanking God that he did not make me like the murderers around me."


Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.


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