The Holocaust Museum is a pedagogical masterpiece. It begins at the beginning, and it ends at the end. It illustrates the sufferings of all who suffered. It resists the rhetoric about Shoah v'Gvurah, Holocaust and Heroism, as if there was as much heroism as there was Holocaust. It does not prettify or protect the visitor from the worst. (Nazi footage of killings in the pits, and of medical experiments in the camps, is shown on monitors behind walls that are too high for children to see over. Adults may wish that the walls were higher still.) And it does not conclude its narrative in triumph. There was no triumph, at least for the Jews. There was a narrow escape, that is all. The Nazis did not win their war against the Jews. But they did not lose it, either.
The building itself teaches. It seems to have been distilled, but not abstracted, from its subject. Its principal materials are brick and steel and brick bolted with steel. The exhibits are located in eight towers, each topped by a kind of sentry box, which surround a huge atrium, into which you enter. The impression is elegant and oppressive. The industrial atmosphere is ominous. This is an atrium without air; it holds the opposite of air, the end of air. A staircase that looks like a railroad track rises into a wall of black marble, into which a doorway has been cut and set in brick in the shape of the entrance to Birkenau, which was the killing center at Auschwitz. The skylight, too, puts you in mind of a train station, until you begin to notice that this gigantic frame of steel is warped, twisted, a derangement of rational design. Above the skylight, from one of the glass bridges that connect the towers, the deformity is truly terrifying. The building seems to be held together by what is tearing it apart. Like survivors; like Jews.
A large part of the instruction that this museum imparts is tactile. Alongside the maps and the charts and the films and the photographs, there are the objects, the stuff, the things of the persecutions and the murders. The museum is a kind of reliquary. The relics are sacred and profane; and while there are things in the world more sacred, there surely are none more profane.
Here is the blackened metal chassis on which corpses were burned at Mauthausen when the ovens were too full to receive them, and here are the canisters and the crystals of Zyklon-B gas. Here is a pile of umbrellas and tea strainers and can openers and toothbrushes that Jews brought to Auschwitz. Here is the wooden frame of the ark that held the Torah scrolls in the synagogue at Essen, stabbed and scratched and scarred across the words that warned the worshiper to remember before Whom he stood, provoking now an almost Christian desire to touch the wound. Here is a madly detailed model of the Lodz Ghetto sculpted out of a suitcase by a Jew in hiding. Here is what remains of a Mauser rifle and a Steyn pistol used by Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto. Here is a Danish fishing boat that carried hundreds of Jews to safety. (Here you smile. It is the only spot in the building where you do.)
Perhaps the most startling passage in Claude Lanzmann's film "Shoah" was its reconstruction of the trajectory of a killing van in Chelmno, because it was filmed in real time: Nothing was abridged or abbreviated, the van was filmed along the local roads for exactly as long as it would have taken for the gas in the van to kill the people inside it. In the Holocaust Memorial Museum, there is real space. Here is a railway car, of the Karlsruhe kind, number 31599-G, and in this railway car Jews were carried to the death camps. The freight car weighs fifteen tons; its ceiling is mean and low, with four small slatted windows and iron bolts on its doors. It carried about a hundred Jews every time it traveled. Now, in the semidarkness of an exhibition hall in America, you stand inside it, and are defeated. Its wooden walls are thoroughly scratched and splintered, and to every scratch and splinter you ascribe a panicked hand. Though it is empty, it feels crowded and cramped. You wish that you could smell a human smell, but there is only the smell of old wood, and a general stench of technocratic efficiency. It occurs to you that you are standing in a coffin. It also occurs to you that there are survivors visiting this museum who may find themselves in this coffin for the second time.