Full of information and full of horror Permanent exhibit confronts viewers with terrible truth

April 25, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Washington -- You begin at the end. The elevator doors open on a huge picture of American soldiers confronted with corpses at Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany, in April 1945. Near by is another life-size photograph, of a starved inmate of Buchenwald eating from a metal bowl after liberation. He is alive, but his eyes betray no sense of relief or hope. They look as if they never will.

Then you turn to Jan. 30, 1933, and a scene of crowds wildly cheering newly named Chancellor Hitler; flickering light illuminates the scene as if in prophecy of the flames to come.

The beginning of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's three-story permanent exhibit, which opens to the public tomorrow, introduces the combination of documentary and drama that will be sustained throughout the exhausting descent of the hours-long tour.

In a city of museums dedicated to the positive aspects of art, science, history and civilization, this is a museum dedicated to preserving knowledge of -- what? Of one of the worst evils ever perpetrated on the world? As the mind cannot encompass the millions who died, no term can adequately express the reality of what happened. Neither can any exhibit. This one, if flawed, may come as close as any could to communicating a fullness of information with a fullness of horror.

The designers -- historical exhibits designer Ralph Appelbaum and his New York firm, with the assistance of filmmaker Martin Smith -- had to cope with a central problem: The idea that the story of the Holocaust should be "designed" would smack of artifice, so the hand would have to be concealed as much as possible.

The story should seem to tell itself, with an inevitability precluding staginess. Yet it should be done in such a way that not only the facts but also the horror would be communicated. But it couldn't drive people away before the end, or it would defeat its own purpose.

Inundation of the mind

They used a combination of words, pictures, documentary film and artifacts to achieve a two-fold effect: an inundation of the mind with historical evidence, together with emotional triggers at certain points, building to a crescendo calculated to be overwhelming and draining.

If anything, the exhibition is too big, too long and too detailed for maximum effect. It throws so many words and pictures at you that by the time you get to the climax, you may be too tired and overloaded to experience the tremendous wave of feeling that you desperately want to experience. The documents to an extent overcome the drama, so that you may emerge with the impression that you have learned more than you have felt.

And the identity cards are a mistake. At the outset, you are given a card with the face and name of an actual victim, and it is updated periodically during the tour until you finally find out what happened to the person. This is as close as the museum comes to gimmickry, and it would be better to eliminate it.

But these are minor objections. The principal job of the exhibit is summed up in the title of the accompanying book: "The World Must Know." The world that comes to this exhibit will go away knowing.

From the moment you enter, on the fourth floor, it is as if you are shut off from the rest of the world, in a nighttime realm of artificial light from which there is no escape. (There are exits here and there for those who want to leave, but they aren't obvious.) Where now and then there is a glimpse outside, it is only of the sky seen through a window high above or of the oppressive sight of the museum's central, prison-like Hall of Witness.

The fourth floor deals with the prewar period, 1933 to 1939. Here the story is told largely in words and pictures rather than artifacts. Black tablets printed in white (a reversal of the usual), television sets with films of marches and speeches, posters and photographs create a narrative of savage history stunning in the swiftness with which the Nazis operated: Jan. 30, 1933, Hitler appointed; March 22, 1933, Heinrich Himmler founds Dachau and begins rounding up political prisoners; April 1, 1933, boycott of Jewish business and professional offices; April 7, 1933, Jewish civil servants dismissed from jobs; spring, 1933, burning of books begins; Sept. 5, 1935, Nuremberg Laws declare Jews no longer citizens but subjects of the state, prohibit marriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews.

The escalation

In 1938, the escalation: July 2, physicians banned from practicing; Sept. 27, lawyers disbarred; Sept. 28, nurses dismissed; Nov. 12, all remaining businesses closed; Nov. 15, students expelled from public schools. In the midst of this, Nov. 8, Kristallnacht (night of glass) -- more than 1,000 synagogues set on fire, more than 7,000 businesses vandalized, more than 25,000 Jews arrested without cause.

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