Remembering the Holocaust idn Washington and Berlin

JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

January 23, 1992|By JOSEPH R. L. STERNE | JOSEPH R. L. STERNE,Joseph R. L. Sterne is editor of the editorial pages of The Sun

The German people will not forget the Holocaust. They cannotforget the Holocaust. They should not forget the Holocaust. They will not be allowed to forget the Holocaust.

On the 50th anniversary this week of the Wannsee Conference, the notorious gathering in which second-echelon Nazi enforcers and very ordinary German bureaucrats ordered the hunting down and slaughter of every Jew who fell into Hitler's clutches, controversy was still gnawing at the Germans.

The stately Wannsee mansion was opened as a museum to the Holocaust, the first such memorial after all these years. But is it enough? Is it fitting?

The mansion itself does not have the capacity to do justice to its subject. Its setting in a lovely park overlooking a lake is too idyllic for its subject. It is worth preserving as a historic site, where the likes of Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann could toast the results of their ''long hours of effort.'' But it is not enough.

There is a movement to build a suitable museum from scratch right in the middle of Berlin, perhaps even atop Hitler's bunker, where thousands of victors to the Reichstag and other landmarks might be reminded of terrible events from long ago. It would be costly, which causes Berlin authorities to balk. It would be unsettling to the German people, or at least the two-thirds who prefer to forget what their fathers and grandfathers did.

Yet can Germany turn its back when, at this very minute, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is under construction just 1,140 feet from the Washington Monument? The American structure is a shocking, stunning, deeply felt building that will open April 22, 1993. The Mall in the nation's capital will never be the same.

Most of the buildings along the Mall, whether monumental marble or whimsical Victorian red brick, are dedicated to the triumphant American experience or to the collection of objects of beauty from everywhere. The Holocaust Museum, in contrast, will seize its visitors, take them 50 years back in time to a distant place wholly alien to the American experience, there to confront human evil in its most calculated and heinous form.

For Baltimore's Harvey M. Meyerhoff, who is chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which is raising $147 million strictly from private sources to fund the building, this is entirely appropriate.

''When American children come to Washington to learn democracy,'' he commented the other day, ''they will learn what can happen when those in positions of responsibility in any society go morally berserk. This is so important when we see the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-minority attitudes in this country and all over Europe. What better place for such a museum than in the seat of government of the greatest democracy?''

Bud Meyerhoff, 65, was just a kid when Hitler's regime first

stripped Jews of their rights and their citizenship, then destroyed their businesses and their synagogues and ultimately exterminated 6 million in the Final Solution given official approval at Wannsee.

When he and his first wife, Lyn, visited the concentration camps years later, they vowed to devote family resources and lots of work toward making the museum a reality. Even Lyn's losing bout with cancer was no deterrence.

With 15 months to go until opening ceremonies, Mr. Meyerhoff is a frequent visitor (or overseer) at the Holocaust Museum on 15th Street, just south of Independence Avenue.

Already it is a powerful structure. Architect James Ingo Freed, who was born in Germany in the Hitler time, incorporated into the building many motifs he saw in concentration camps and ghettoes. Unforgettable are corridors with oven-shaped arches remindful of Auschwitz, or lofty walkways remindful of bridges connecting the two sides of the Warsaw ghetto, or twisted, warped architectural features remindful of a twisted, warped era.

Like Holocaust museums elsewhere, the Washington structure will contain artifacts collected from the remnants of European Jewry's catastrophic fate: concentration camp uniforms, a railroad car used to take people not to new lands in the East but to their deaths, the milk can where a chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto uprising hid his notes.

Important as these displays will be, the emphasis will be on learning and scholarship.

There will be classrooms where farm-fresh children from Kansas and war-zone kids from Brooklyn will be introduced carefully to an event they know of vaguely if at all; there will be a federal library that in time will be the foremost study center of its kind in America.

Videos, audio-tapes, computers will heighten the experience of visitors. Each one will be given a ''passport'' based on birthdate and gender which will describe an individual victim of the Holocaust; each one will be informed of the fate of that victim on leaving the museum.

As author and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel, the first chairman of the Holocaust Council, once remarked: ''Six million is a statistic; an individual is a tragedy.''

Or as Bud Meyerhoff wrote on this page about the 50th-year commemoration of the massacre at Babi Yar last October:

''Our visitors will understand that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were ordinary, once-respectable people, some sadists and lunatics notwithstanding. The government that ordered these acts evolved from a democratic election, and other governments of other respectable democratic people stood by and let it happen.''

The museum at Wannsee, the prospective museum in central Berlin, the museum on Washington's Mall all convey one central message:

Never Again.

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