BEARING WITNESS In an antiseptic basement laboratory swathed in white light and humming with white noise, a somber woman in owlish glasses occaionally finds herself engaged in a bitter bit of 20th-century irony.


Her name is Lizou Fenyvesi, and by profession she is what is called a "textile conservator." In the museum world, that means she specializes in preserving all manner of historic textiles: articles of clothing, linen, rugs, flags. Because Fenyvesi's employer happens to be the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, she often directs her rescue skills toward some singularly disturbing items, including, from time to time, banners bearing modern history's most repugnant symbols.

Presumably, that emblem, the swastika, was plainly visible as Fenyvesi's grandmother, her aunts and uncles and cousins, were being herded into the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

"I never thought textile conservation would lead me to be caring about the Nazi banner, but that's what I have to be," says Fenyvesi in the accent of her native Hungary. "It is a bizarre idea."

On this particular day, Fenyvesi is attending to artifacts not of the Holocaust's perpetrators, but of their victims. Laid out on one of her worktables is a gray-and-blue striped jacket worn more than a half-century ago by an inmate at the Majdanek death camp in eastern Poland. Fenyvesi has retrieved it from a nearby cabinet, which contains sliding trays bearing half a dozen other prisoner uniforms, all of them stuffed with cushioning to hold their shape. They look like bodies in a morgue.

The clothing is in varying states of disrepair, which, in itself, conveys impressions to Fenyvesi. "I always thought the uniforms reflected the condition of the person who wore them," she says. "Some of them were in tatters."

The jacket on the table is quite worn and has a ragged hole on the lower left side. Fenyvesi is hand-stitching the border of the hole to make sure it doesn't further enlarge. Her job isn't to mend the uniform, but to keep it as nearly as possible in the condition it was in at the end of World War II. Only then can it help explain how things were.

"I was used to conserving artifacts because they had archaeological value or aesthetic value or, like Oriental rugs, monetary value," says Fenyvesi. "But these have a different value. Their value is that they bear witness."

That mission, to present the Holocaust in all its unrelieved horror and despair, is what drives people at the museum. To many employed here, the museum's work is nothing less than a sacred calling, which, says Fenyvesi, helps "make up for the emotional discomfort."

Still, working day in, day out with the remnants of tragedy, she can't help occasionally yearning for relief.

"It's not a big, dramatic thing," she says quietly, "but sometimes I wish there was some artifact that came through my hands that was associated with happiness."

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which passed its fifth anniversary this year, has a paid staff of about 400, with another 300 volunteers, including some 40 Holocaust survivors. As a group, they endure job pressures familiar to workers everywhere - unforgiving deadlines, budget limitations, angry patrons, even, from time to time, a blockheaded supervisor. They also face stresses unique to their workplace. As distinct from virtually anywhere else, the context of their work life, the very subject matter of it, is the unredeemable murder of millions of innocent men, women and children. Genocide is the inescapable foundation of their professional lives.

The staff is diverse. The museum employs Jews and non-Jews, American- and foreign-born, blacks and whites, those with personal connections to the Holocaust and others who arrive with only a rudimentary knowledge of it. Whatever their backgrounds, it is impossible to work here without periodically finding oneself overcome by the subject matter.

"Sometimes," says Emily Dyer, the museum's registrar, "it puts me on my knees."

Those episodes often catch individuals unaware. Emotions might touched off by a photograph of an atrocity, a conversation with a survivor, an encounter with a visitor visibly shaken by the exhibits. "I believe deeply in living in that moment when it happens," says 29-year-old Alexandra

Zapruder, one of the creators of the exhibit, "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story." Fenyvesi, who often inspects the exhibits before the public arrives, says that after six years at the museum, she still rediscovers some object or photograph that paralyzes her.

For Dyer, who supervises the reception and handling of museum artifacts, one of her searing early moments came during the museum's pre-opening years when she was responsible for receiving 2,000 pairs of inmate shoes from a Polish death camp. The shoes arrived - unaccountably - in plastic body bags, which, when she cut them open, emitted a pungent, recognizably human odor. More heart-rending was that each pair still bore the unmistakable imprint of the person who had worn them, including the children. "I was seeing dead people," Dyer says.

Some of the temporary staff Dyer then employed asked to be excused from working with the shoes, which, when displayed, would become one of the museum's most talked-about exhibits. Dyer understood. "When you lifted the shoes, you did so reverently," she says. "To pick one up and have it fall apart in your hand was to die a little yourself."

Dyer is African-American, 63 years old and of regal bearing. Once, she considered leaving the Holocaust Museum to work on a prospective Smithsonian

Institution exhibit on slavery, a subject of profound interest to her. But she realized that the Holocaust Museum spoke as eloquently as any museum could to the universal subjects of hatred and racism.

"I used to dream of being in the crematorium," she says. "Interestingly, I never dreamed of being lynched as you would think a black would."

Still, like everyone else in the museum, Dyer says, she learned early in her tenure the trick of focusing resolutely on the task before her in order to distance herself from the troubling material that was forever coming her way. "If you don't," she says, "you'll always be working in a pool of tears."

That's where Zapruder, 29, sometimes found herself in her early work at the museum. In creating the children's museum, Zapruder, whose grandfather shot the famous Kennedy assassination footage, was required to read the diaries of doomed children. It was profoundly sad work.

"The fact that you are reading a diary, and that's all that's left of a life, is a wretched statement," she says. She could not rescue those children, she knew. All she could do was help memorialize them. That and say Kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer, for them.

Although she is often moved by the material before her, Zapruder is firm about the distinction between her feelings and those of the Holocaust's victims, particularly the survivors. That is why she is circumspect about discussing how anguishing her work can be.

"Out of respect to the survivors, I believe it's wrong to appropriate someone else's pain," she says. "They have demons I can't even imagine. What I contend with is not what they contend with. It is in the realm of that which can be borne."

The founders of the Holocaust Museum appreciated the psychological burdens their employees would confront. Early on, they brought in a psychiatrist, an expert in post-traumatic stress syndrome, to speak to the staff. Some found the exchanges comforting, but only to a point.

"It was nice to talk, but it doesn't change anything," says Zapruder. "The history is still what it is. It doesn't make it not so, that this happened."

The museum doesn't have an em-ployee counseling program specifically tailored to its unique circumstances. Workers rely on colleagues or family members if they have a need to unburden themselves. And many do. Suzy Goldstein Snyder, a curator in collections, says she talks incessantly to her mother and sister. "You spend your day with all this material and you want to convey it to everyone," she says.

Snyder recalls going on a date before her recent marriage with a young man who said he would never visit the museum because of its depressing subject. "I'm like, 'This date should be over now.' " She dropped another boyfriend because he so evidently didn't want to hear about her day at the office.

In her work, Snyder spends a great deal of time with Holocaust survivors, those who help the museum with translations or those donating personal records or artifacts. She grows close to many of them; some, she says, become surrogate grandparents. Then, because of their age, she has to watch them sicken and die. That, to her, is the worst part of her job.

"For me, they've already lived through hell once. They shouldn't have to live through it again."

Despite the emotional tenderness, Snyder, 33, says she cannot imagine moving on to any other museum. "There will be nothing that is as interesting or as rewarding as working here," she says. "Nothing."

It is a sentiment echoed by her boss, Jacek M. Nowakowski, curator in the museum's international programs division. It is not a feeling he would have expected in 1988 as he prepared to leave Chicago to take up his new duties. His own mother was a survivor of Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria near the Czech border, and she rarely spoke of her experiences to her son. He didn't mind not hearing.

"It was my nightmare that I'd always be facing this subject," Nowakowski, 43, said in his office at the museum. "I all my life tried to avoid it."

Like many of his colleagues, though, the Polish-born Nowakowski, 42, was drawn by the professional opportunity of helping launch a large, new and unique institution. And the museum proved successful beyond all expectations, drawing not the 200,000 visitors a year anticipated but more than two million.

But working there also proved every bit as wrenching as Nowakowski had feared, never more so than when he found himself visiting six killing centers in Poland in three days. "Those were days that were totally devastating," he says.

Yet the rewards have been exhilarating. The museum's work in Poland has led to a forthcoming agreement on the preservation of the Auschwitz site and to plans for a new memorial at Belzec, a long-ignored killing site in southeastern Poland where as many 900,000 Jews were killed.

Along the way, Nowakowski says, he learned how to be protective of himself, to lose himself in an American novel when he travels to the killing sites (Armistead Maupin works well), to savor the time with his family. He knows now that he can bear the horror of his work, an accomplishment that once caused him other misgivings. "I was afraid I would lose my sensitivity and stop crying," he says. "That never happened. I don't think it's possible to become indifferent to this subject."

If anything, Nowakowski believes, he's a better man for his work at the museum. "It has made me," he says, "a much gentler person."

Zapruder believes the museum attracts a particular kind of person to work there. "They are people attuned to hearing the suffering of others," she says. "They have old souls."

Like Nowakowski, many believe the experience changes them, making them even more sensitive to injustices and cruelties around the world.

Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum's affable acting director, recalls a telling incident when she and a colleague were driving home from work late one night.

"We were in what I call an iffy neighborhood in Washington. We see this man limping along in front of us on crutches, and suddenly he falls down. I said,

'Jeffrey, we have to help that man.'

"Now, I might have thought, 'This could be a set-up,' or 'This is a bad neighborhood.' In fact, I did think that, I'm sure. But I also thought, 'I work for the Holocaust Museum. I am not going to be a bystander.' "

It would be inaccurate to portray Bloomfield and her colleagues as idealists. If anything, the history of the Holocaust, which reveals mankind at its most malevolent, destroys idealism. The facts of the history are stark: Thousands of people participated in the genocide while many times that number cast their eyes aside. For those who want to believe in the goodness of people, the Holocaust is the ultimate refutation. Those who work at the museum cannot escape the ugliness of the message conveyed in their exhibits.

"The Holocaust Museum is all about our darker side," says Bloomfield. "Having worked here for 12 years, one can't help but conclude that in the long run, this human propensity for evil will exert itself."

For some, the bleak vision of man represented by the Holocaust is psychically wearing. "It takes a toll; you're not an innocent anymore," says Howard White, who works in communications. "It makes you ask the really big questions about man, about whether he is, in fact, the ethical and moral animal that Plato said he was. The answer here is pretty inescapable."

But for many of the employees, there is a great leavening at the museum, and that is the presence of the survivors who volunteer. "Sometimes, I don't know how they can get out of bed and brush their teeth in the morning, let alone reclaim their lives," says Bloomfield.

For the survivors, each trip into the museum is a reliving of their own horrors.

"It is difficult, very difficult," says Nesse Godin, an ebullient, Lithuanian-born volunteer who lived through the camps and a German death march. "But if I said, I'll stay home and not punish myself and not have nightmares, who would I be? Who would I be? I'd be a selfish woman who survived the Holocaust who didn't give a damn about other people."

She was 13 and living in Lithuania when she and her family were crowded into a ghetto. Her father was taken to Auschwitz, where he died. Godin became separated from the rest of the family in the camps, but other Jewish women prisoners looked after her, sneaking her food, consoling her. "They would say, 'Stand here, stand there, pinch your cheeks, so you will look healthier, so they won't take you.' "

And they also urged her to always remember what had happened to them. "They told me, 'Little girl, don't let us be forgotten. Tell the world what happened in this hell.' "

Most of those women died, Godin says. Many who survived the camps and a final death march into Germany finally succumbed to typhoid, their skeletal bodies thrown into huge pits. Godin was liberated by the Russians, married another survivor and eventually had three children and three grandchildren.

She is 70 years old and still, several times each week, ventures to the Holocaust Museum, or, as she calls it, "this wonderful institution for humanity." She mans the donations desk, gives tours and speaks to groups, repeating her own history to anyone who will listen. And she is at peace.

"I sit here and see people from everywhere come, people from Europe and Africa, East and West, and I say, 'You beautiful ladies, I am fulfilling my promise. I am telling the world what hatred can do.' "

! Pub date: 6/28/98

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