A memorial for all

April 23, 1993

Some lessons are difficult to stomach but are necessary nonetheless. Among them is the lesson of the Holocaust: There are no limits on the horror some people are capable of. The mass murders of some 6 million Jews and a host of other "undesirables" are a half century in the past. But is the profound evil it demonstrated behind us for all time?

That is one of the questions raised by the opening Monday of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It is a national museum, not a Jewish museum, and it relates the virtual extermination of a culture from central and Eastern Europe before and during World War II. Most of the barbarism was committed by German Nazis on Jews, but the museum reminds visitors that Adolf Hitler's thugs were also from other nationalities, and the victims included Gypsies, Seventh Day Adventists, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals and dissidents among them Christian clergymen.

For some, the photographs and artifacts from the '30s and '40s may be hard to digest. The museum recreates, as much as it is possible to do with inanimate objects, the lives and horrible deaths of whole generations. The building is imaginatively designed by architect James Ingo Freed for maximum impact without desecrating the memories of those who died in the gas chambers and were immolated in the ovens, or who were simply worked to death. They are not abstractions, not a page in a quickly-read history book -- they are people who lived, who loved life and each other, who contributed to their communities, who were people like us. It is hard to stomach, but it must be digested.

It must be digested because this is not simply a memorial to those who died in the Nazi concentration camps, any more than the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor commemorates only those who died there. Both are reminders not just of what happened and of who died there but also of what could happen again. Mass butchery of ethnic or racial groups -- not on the mind-boggling scale of the Holocaust but bestial enough -- has happened elsewhere before and since and argueably is occurring again right now, not all that far from Auschwitz.

The museum itself and the message it delivers is in important measure the legacy of Baltimore philanthropist Harvey M. Meyerhoff. Not only was he a major contributor of funds to the project, but as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council that guided its development he played a major role in shaping it as a museum of all the people and for all people.

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