Memorial evokes horror of Holocaust Scenes of terror await visitors

April 18, 1993|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Here inside this building of remembrance just a short walk from the Washington Monument, a Nazi militiaman is chasing a naked woman down the street, beating her with a stick. Bystanders are laughing. Some try to join in.

Famished children stare, hollow-eyed, from walled-off ghettos. Men are being worked to death in stone quarries.

In barbed-wire camps, men, women and children in the thousands are dying of disease and starvation. The strong must carry the dead to pits already brimming with bodies. Some are shot dead nonchalantly at graves they have dug.

The video clip ends and begins anew, flickering in black & white.

The horror transfixes. Embarrassed, a visitor turns and walks numbly to a rail car that may once have ferried the doomed to their deaths. The metal station platform booms underfoot. The car's wooden beams are warn smooth. The timber smells as raw as it might have 50 years ago.

The sights, sounds and smells are no nightmare, but a small part of what awaits visitors to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which will be dedicated Thursday by President Clinton, international leaders and some 10,000 Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans.

Dogged by controversy throughout its 13 years of planning and five years of construction, the emotion of the Holocaust museum defies comparison with the other grand monuments and richly endowed museums and galleries that line the nearby Mall.

Perhaps the nearest edifice emotionally is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin's wall of mirrored black granite, which can be seen from the upper floors of the five-level Holocaust museum at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, the renamed southern end of 15th Street.

But while the Vietnam memorial evokes sadness, loss, guilt, regret and anger, the Holocaust museum assails every human sense -- by photograph, video, artifact and archive -- with outrage at the Nazis' coldly bureaucratic annihilation of 6 million Jews and millions of prisoners of war, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals and mentally handicapped.

Every facet, every floor of the structure warns that this must never be allowed to happen again: a message of heightened significance as the world watches atrocities in fractured Yugoslavia in the name of "ethnic cleansing."

"This is more than a museum, more than a monument; it is something alive," says architect James Ingo Freed, who as a boy fled Germany with his family in 1939 and confesses he had avoided details of the Holocaust until forced to confront it when taking on the project.

The museum, which opens to the public April 26, seethes with rage: Here are the photographs, the smiling faces from one Polish village -- boaters, cyclists, picnickers, families -- nearly all wiped out in three days by a mobile Nazi death squad; here are the calipers to measure noses and head shapes, and the hair tufts and eye-color kits of a spurious "science" that thought it could sniff out Jews; here are the books they burned, the synagogues they desecrated; these are the death camps and how they did the killing.

While gratitude is shown for the liberating nations and the individuals who helped Jewish refugees flee persecution and the gas chambers, there are constant reminders of the West's refusal to intervene on the Jews' behalf throughout the war and the years leading up to it.

For those who thought that nothing was known publicly then of the early persecutions, there is a video room where visitors can revisit news bulletins and politics of the time. Surrounding walls carry enlarged newspaper headlines, such as these from The Sun in November and September 1938: "Roosevelt Denounces Nazis: President Shocked by Attacks on Jews" and "Hitler Deprives Jews of Citizenship Rights, Bars Intermarriages."

"This should dispel the myth that we didn't know what was going on until 1945," says Raye Farr, director of the permanent exhibition.

Thursday's dedication will culminate years of work by the American Jewish community to build an institution that will not only memorialize the Holocaust but provide a base for research into the causes and effects of one of the most brutal chapters of human history.

Speaking with President Clinton will be Israeli President Chaim Herzog, Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel and Baltimore developer Harvey M. Meyerhoff, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust fTC Memorial Council and a major contributor to the museum.

It may be Mr. Meyerhoff's last public appearance as chairman, having been abruptly told by the White House to step aside at the end of this month to make way for a chairman appointed by Mr. Clinton.

A notable absentee will be former President Jimmy Carter, who initiated the project in 1978, and whose exhortation to Americans the following year to "harness the outrage of our own memories [of the Holocaust] to stamp out oppression wherever it exists" are inscribed near the entrance to the building.

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