Brooding symbol of Holocaust on D.C. Mall is disturbing to some Defenders say the new memorial is educational and not a mausoleum

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Timorously, as if afraid to look, Eva Rich picks her way among the pale gray girders and crematory arches, recalling the Nazi death camp and the ghetto purge that devoured her family and her youth such a long, long lifetime ago.

"So big, so huge, this building," she murmurs, her moist eyes taking in the giant skylight, its glass panes skewed and jagged as a chain-saw blade. "But right now it seems so small; it can never hold all of the misery."

Already a brooding symbolism pervades the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, still six months from completion. Its awkward watchtower visage is sunk deep among the office frontings on the end of 15th Street, renamed Raoul Wallenberg Place, which skirts the Washington Monument and the leafy groves of the Tidal Basin.

It is a symbolism made current by the chilling images from fractured Yugoslavia: the skeletal prisoners; the barbed-wire camps; the cattle-trains bristling with hollow-eyed refugees; the accounts of torture, execution and forced expulsions in the name of "ethnic cleansing."

It is a symbolism of discomfort, too, for some -- Jews among them -- who feel the Holocaust casts too long a shadow over modern life; that the proliferation of Holocaust memorials in the United States (19 are built or planned) brands forever Jews as victims, sets them apart from other minorities, elevates their political clout and invites an anti-Semitic backlash.

For some it is too morbid.

"We've reached the absurd point where the only feature of Judaism with which our young Jews identify is that of the Jew as victim -- murdered, cremated or turned into a lamp shade," wrote Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, in the Los Angeles Times last April. "Is there no joy in Jewish life?"

Such criticism has brought sharp rebuttal from the memorial organizers, who point out that the museum is not dedicated to Jews alone but portrays other targets of Nazi oppression, such as the physically and mentally handicapped, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, prisoners of war and Polish intellectuals.

It is not a mausoleum, they insist, but an educational institution, with archives, computerized data bases and an entire floor dedicated to the triumphs of resistance to the Nazis. As for charges that it is too sectarian for its setting, they point to the Asian and African history museums already on the Mall, and note that independent efforts are now under way to erect memorials for native and black Americans.

"It used to worry me, [the museum] being here alongside all the good and wonderful things about America; it should be in Germany," says 68-year-old Mrs. Rich, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. "But now that I see it, see what it will be like, I think it is OK here."

Now living in Rockville, she has come at a reporter's request to see she what ghosts, if any, she will find in this structure that is being fashioned to depict the very tyranny she survived.

It is not only the building, but the very incongruity of it, that stings the soul, she says, gazing out from this marbled depiction of insanity as T-shirted and sneakered tourists drift blithely over cool green lawns and meander among the symbols of American patriotism and culture.

It calls to mind the disconnection she felt at the death camp near Lublin in Poland one winter's morning when, standing famished and rake-like on the cold parade ground, she could hear the gentle peal of church bells and make out the distant figures of congregants in the city walking, bundled up, to Sunday prayer.

Discord, contrast, other-worldliness: These may well be the overarching features of the memorial museum. If so, it is partly intentional.

Architect James Ingo Freed, of New York's Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, says that in bringing "such a wholly un-American subject" to Washington, he deliberately set out to exploit the contrast between the memorial's theme and its setting, to evoke the fatalism and irrationality of the Holocaust.

The result is a three-story building with four different facades, of two very different exterior materials: the northern flank of red-brick to harmonize with a rather whimsical Victorian office complex overlooking the Mall; the opposite side of gray limestone to match the columned neo-classical edifice of the giant Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

The structural concept did not come easily for Mr. Freed, who fled Germany as a boy with his parents and a sister in 1939 but confesses that, like many Jews, he had tried to forget about the Holocaust, as if to blot it from his psyche.

When assigned the contract he could no longer ignore it. In search of ideas, he visited some of the most notorious camps in Poland and Germany, and spent three months reading up on the history, before it came to him.

"I had been working on too cerebral a level," he said. "I realized you cannot deal with the Holocaust as a reasonable thing; it needed an emotional dimension."

That, he says, is why his building is an amalgam of contradictions and contrasts: A right side that is ordered, a left disordered; a succession of choices, obstacles and corners designed to disorient and mislead, to make the visitor feel caught up in events beyond his or her control -- light and dark, up and down, glass and concrete, left and right, theater and exhibit, and so on.

The intention was "to let the symbolism be open-ended, open-minded, let the visitor bring to it whatever he wants," said Mr. Freed.

But it is the concept, not the structure, of the memorial that has caused some controversy.

Writing in the liberal Jewish publication, Tikkun, two years ago, Howard Husock, director of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, argued that the memorialists were elevating, and hence separating, Judaism from the broader American society.

"American Jews trifle with that at great risk," he said in an interview with The Sun recently. "One need only look at the sectarian conflicts in Bosnia, in Iraq, in Northern Ireland and other places to see how incredibly unusual, and how precious, American universalism is."

In planning their monuments, Mr. Husock noted, American Indians were not working to memorialize their extermination at the hands of white settlers, nor were black Americans aiming to enshrine on the Mall the enslavement of their African forebears.

Why single out the Holocaust, he asked? Why elevate one group's obsession?

It is not obsessive nor group-based, insist the museum organizers, but rather an expression of universal morality.

"We are presenting the moral issues of the Holocaust. Period," says Harvey M. Meyerhoff of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, who, with his family, has pledged $6 million to the $150-million project.

His contribution is one of the largest of hundreds for the construction, which is funded entirely from private donations under a condition set in the late 1970s by then-President Jimmy Carter and endorsed by Congress. The government did, however, provide federal land for the museum and approved federal sponsorship for when it becomes operational next April.

Mr. Carter launched the project in May 1978 in what might at the time have seemed like a political gesture; his standing then among Jewish Americans was at its lowest ebb after a proposal to sell F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. The president's former domestic policy chief, Stuart Eizenstat, however, dismisses such innuendo.

Whatever the motives, it wasn't long after the announcement that the president set up a commission to investigate the project.

Elie Wiesel, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against violence and sectarian hatred, chaired the commission, and later the memorial council, until he resigned in 1986 to make way for the developmental skills of Mr. Meyerhoff.

The building will contain the world's largest display of Holocaust memorabilia.

The items include an authentic casting of a cobblestone street in the Warsaw ghetto; a cattle car from Treblinka, with tracks; a bronze cast of the entrance gate to Auschwitz; trees from the Rudnicki forest where resistance fighters holed up in the Soviet Union; a milk can a young Pole buried and used as an underground repository for diaries and documents that detailed Nazi atrocities; and an entire concentration camp barracks from Birkenau.

"It is one of the many benefits of the changes in Eastern Europe that we have been able to acquire artifacts that previously would have been totally beyond our reach," said Michael Berenbaum, project director of the museum council.

Perhaps the most poignant exhibit will be a three-story tower, lined inside entirely with photographs that visitors will view from a narrow glass walkway suspended midway.

They will be surrounded by 1,500 snapshots -- people smiling, walking, bicycling, playing, mothers cooking -- all citizens of the Polish village of Ejszyszki (pronounced E-shish-key), population 4,000, which was wiped out in two days by the Nazis in 1941.

Of particular interest to Americans, perhaps, will be a display from the St. Louis, the ill-fated ship that set sail from Germany bound for Cuba in 1939 with 930 Jewish refugees on board, only to be turned back on reaching Havana and refused entry to other havens, including the United States. Forced to return to Europe, few on board survived the war.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Washington is an appropriate location for a museum like this," says Harvey Meyerhoff.

"There are lessons of democracy here -- this building wasn't designed for the victims, it was designed for Americans to remember the victims."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°