The Holocaust still reverberates

JUDITH BOLTON

May 07, 1992|By Judith Bolton

THE SUDDEN public availability of Holocaust archives demonstrates how deeply that tragedy still reverberates. Information previously buried in those documents has helped thousands of people to learn the fate of relatives who disappeared during the genocide a half-century ago.

The Baltimore-based Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center of the American Red Cross brings some of the numbing statistics to life. Tracing people lost or displaced by conflict since the Civil War, the Red Cross acted once again on that mandate by establishing the information center in 1990.

The impetus came from an article published in June 1989 in the former Soviet Union's state newspaper, Izvestia. The article mentioned records that the Red Cross had been requesting from a state archive in Moscow since 1964. Access to the documents did not disappoint. They revealed the fate of over 400,000 people interned in Nazi concentrations camps. Forty-six ledgers contained almost 70,000 death certificates of those accounted for at the Auschwitz infirmary alone, 130,000 names of those imprisoned in forced labor camps and an additional 200,000 names of prisoners in four other camps.

That information was supplemented earlier this year with 500,000 more names discovered in the National Archives in Washington. Publicizing these resources has resulted in more than 8,000 inquiries for the Tracing and Information Center.

Those who were thought to have ceased to exist may be among the 14 million names on file at the Red Cross' International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany. The largest repository of its kind, the tracing service houses more than 46 million documents and is financed by the German government. The forms submitted for continuing a search are translated into German by volunteers in Baltimore and then forwarded to Arolsen. There an identity card is issued for each individual and matched against the list.

Custodian of the public memory of the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was created by an act of Congress in 1980 and is scheduled to open on the Mall in Washington next spring. The museum's mission includes the complex task of transforming visitors into witnesses of the Holocaust. Every visitor to the museum will be issued an identity card of a Holocaust victim of his or her gender and age. By the end of the tour the person on the identity card will have become a virtual docent for the museum, and visitors will learn whether their "companion" survived. The project's staff hopes to complete 1,000 cards, all based on real people, by the museum's opening.

The museum also will pivot between triumph and sadness by memorializing common objects. The items on display -- suitcases, thousands of pairs of shoes, an actual railroad car used to deport Jews to camps -- have been preserved without further restoration. The goal is to convey the magnitude of the atrocity by challenging the senses.

In addition to sponsoring the International Tracing Service, Germany also has grappled with memorializing the Holocaust. In January, the 50th anniversary of the infamous Wansee Conference (at which the "Final Solution" was crafted), Germany established its first permanent memorial to the Jewish victims.

Architecture has played a central role in memorializing the Holocaust. The Holocaust museum's prominent location on the Mall dictated that the building blend in with the surroundings while still evoking the tragedy of the genocide. The design of such a building could have trivialized the Holocaust by attempting to replicate the industrial facade of Nazi concentration camps or could simply have ignored the dilemma by remaining neutral. The chosen design prevails over both scenarios. Visitors enter the museum through the Hall of Witness, a three-story tower that serves as a photographic album on the grandest of scales. The 1,500 pictures, blown up and baked on enamel, reconstruct life in a small Polish town completely destroyed in the war.

Exhibit areas will be adjacent to a stark hexagonal space lighted by a skylight and decorated only with biblical quotations. Architectural features of Nazi concentration camps also will be subtly incorporated. One prominent example is the symbolic use of bridges. Bridges were erected in Nazi-occupied countries to sequester Jews in ghettos, away from those who might sympathize with them.

Holocaust-related names and details continue to pour out of the former communist countries. Yad Yashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust on the outskirts of Jerusalem, has acquired a wealth of information from Soviet Jewish immigrants. Their documents, memoirs and letters have yielded thousands of names and suggested that more Eastern European Jews were murdered than had been thought.

Ida Fink, a Polish Jewish writer who survived the Holocaust, meticulously describes its effects in her short story collection, "A Scrap of Time." In one of the stories, a Jewish couple visits the Polish family that had hidden them in a tiny bunker during the war. To show their gratitude, the Jews have financed the remodeling of their rescuers' dilapidated farmhouse. At one point during the tour of the new house, the Polish rescuers say they have refurbished the old hiding space, too, so that the couple will be more comfortable if they need to use it again. How deeply the Holocaust is engraved on humanity!

The Red Cross goes a step beyond the anesthetic of statistics. Each time it receives confirmation of a death, the news is delivered in person by a caseworker. So the conclusion to any case, no matter how old, is always fresh, always traumatic. Perhaps that is the most affecting display of all.

Judith Bolton writes from Baltimore.

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