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

October 21, 1992|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

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."

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