New Holocaust museum puts you in the process


April 14, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- It could have been a Disneyland of Death.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum could have gone wrong in a thousand ways.

Instead, it went right in one big way: It shatters you.

The towers of the building resemble the chimneys of the death camps. The entranceways resemble the openings to the Auschwitz ovens.

But even that which at first seems normal is not. The glass ceiling comes to a peak, but the peak is off-center. The stairs are not even-sided rectangles. Corners are missing where walls meet.

The architecture is disturbing, disquieting, ominous. It is meant to be so.

Anita Kassof, an assistant curator, motions to what looks like the maw of a giant oven, but is really just a hallway, and points out the gray steel girders that radiate from it.

"When the Nazis devised the ovens, they devised a way of using steel reinforcement so that the brick would not explode in the heat of burning all those bodies," she says matter of factly. "So that is what we are reproducing."

The museum will not be open to the public until April 26, and everywhere this day there are the shriek of circular saws, the whine of electric drills, and the thuds of hammers.

But I have a feeling that in two weeks this will be a very quiet place. I have a feeling most people will fall silent as they walk here.

And they will notice something even more disquieting than the architecture: They will feel as if they are being fed into a giant machine.

The forms in the museum are nearly all industrial: factory lights, riveted girders, exhaust pipes covered with grills.

And as you are directed through the museum -- there is only one route you can take -- you feel as if you are being processed down an assembly line.

Which is the point. You are being processed just like the millions who died were processed.

The museum is already controversial. African-Americans have not built a slavery museum, some Jews have said. Native Americans have not demanded a genocide museum. So why do Jews have to be "obsessed" with the Holocaust?

I will venture one answer: It is very difficult for an African-American to stop being black or for a Native American to stop being red. They cannot opt out of their minority status.

But a Jew can stop being a Jew with ease. Judaism is not a race; a Jew can change or drop his religion. And some fear that this process, called assimilation, will lead to the eventual disappearance of Jews in America.

So the Holocaust has become a rallying point and a point a definition. And it serves as a reminder to Jews that even if they had converted, even if they had changed their names, the Nazis would still have turned them into lamp shades if they could have.

I walk into the northeast tower of the museum. It is like entering a large oven with a three-story chimney. But on the walls are happy faces. On the walls are more than a thousand family photographs. Weddings. Picnics. School portraits.

In such a place of horror, it is such a joyous room.

Only at the end of the tour do you learn the truth: These are the pictures of the 1,032 people who lived in a single Polish village and who were all murdered in a single day.

The architect of the museum, James Ingo Freed, was born in Germany in 1930, escaped to France in 1938 and came to the United States in 1939.

"In no way did we want to soften the edges of what happened," he says. "The exhibit is absolutely harrowing."

He pauses. "If I had been in a camp, I would not have been a survivor," he says. "I was too tall for my age and too thin."

And that would have been enough to mark him for death. Instead, he escaped. Some lived. Some died. And some say that is all you can say.

I leave the museum and walk out into the bright sunlight. The cherry blossoms are in bloom and their sweet, clean scent is on the air.

Why did God let the Holocaust happen? I wonder. Why did man?

"The Holocaust," Freed says, "is a mystery."

You will not find the answers in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

You just will be reminded to ask the questions.

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