Thoughts in the Hall of Remembrance

DANIEL BERGER

April 24, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

Last year I went through an exhibition in an Ohio museum of the work of African-American or African-Caribbean artists linked to the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America.

One work was a box or shack. You were meant to walk inside. It was pitch darkness. Uncomfortably hot. You walked forward, unseeing. Straight into a thin wire stretched across. And recoiled back in terror. The experience was meant to convey life in the hold of a slave ship on the middle passage.

A similar imagination informs details of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which opens to the public Monday. As you enter the elevator to the fourth-floor start of the exhibition, its doors and adjoining walls are clad in thick steel plate. You are entering an oven, in momentary terror.

Many people will find unexpected truths in this exhibition. For some, it will be the martyrdom of Seventh Day Adventists. For others, the Nazi suppression of organizations for homosexuals, meaning that previously there had been such organizations. And for still others it will be a state-of-the-art 1930s calculating machine used for keeping racial track of everyone, made by a German subsidiary of IBM.

For my reverie the most telling truth is the tower of photographs from a Lithuanian Jewish town whose inhabitants were all murdered in 1941.

My father was born, about the time these photographs start, in a similar town, which I have never been able to imagine. Some of these people look exotically Hasidic, really different; others are totally modern people, typical Europeans of their day. I see it much better, now.

But the main lesson, if this is a lesson, involves comparing the end of the exhibition with the start. The Final Solution is too horrible for one to think it could be replicated. Even with all the awful things going on in the world, you don't think anyone intends that.

Hark back to the Nazis' takeover at the start of the exhibition: their verve, their militarism, their cult of leader, their identification of enemies, their exclusive nationalism. These things abound today.

What else strikes me about the Holocaust Memorial Museum is the irrelevance of most of the arguments about it I have hard or read recently. Such as:

* A museum about a European experience should not be on the Mall, which is reserved for things American.

The Holocaust Museum is not on the Mall. Almost doesn't count. A location is either on the Mall or not. This is not.

What are on the Mall are two museums to Asian art, one to African, two museums of primarily European art, a museum of American history that contains much European invention, a museum to natural history that includes the arts and lives of other peoples.

The Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Taft Carillon are monuments to American experience, but the Holocaust Museum is not, like those, meant to be seen from outside. It is, like museums, to be seen from inside.

* It should not be ''American'' but Jewish, telling Jews what only they share.

Maybe some other museum. This one was was established by Congress and run by a presidentially appointed board on federal land. In its exterior are engraved words from Presidents Carter and Reagan and General Eisenhower. None of those things would be acceptable for a museum speaking for and to Jews. This museum is clearly intended to be what everyone should know.

* It inculcates the Judaism of holocaust and redemption, self-defense and the state of Israel -- not the Judaism of the Torah.

That criticism is about some other memorial. This one is national, not Jewish; American, not Israeli. It doesn't inculcate Judaism; it informs an audience as likely to be gentile as Jewish. It includes the other victims, Freemasons, Seventh Day Adventists, Gypsies, political opponents, Slavs, Soviet POWs.

This museum should not offend anyone who doesn't want to see it. If you didn't know, you'd never notice it, so well does it fit into official Washington.

I don't think anyone should enter this museum un-knowing, unprepared, as a way to kill an hour between the Washington Monument and the Bureau of Engraving.

I don't think anyone has to see this museum at all. I just think that every European should.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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