Memory Is Served

April 25, 1993

The opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington tomorrow will provide the world -- and particularly Europe -- with an institution long needed. This solemn exhibition not only acknowledges the six million Jewish victims, and other victims, of Nazi Germany's war to exterminate them in the 1930s and '40s. It brings to vivid life an important chapter in the history of Europe when Adolf Hitler's Germany controlled it.

To young people well-tuned to contemporary evil but not strong on history, this may seem a lesson in what may happen when a hate-mongering madman gets hold of a continent. And it brings to scrutiny what most histories of World War II leave out, the systematic murder of peoples as seen through the eyes of the victims.

This is not a Jewish museum for Jews but a U.S. national museum for all people. It is about an episode in Europe, many survivors of which came to this country, many liberators of whom were Americans. It is about the systematic destruction of European Jewry and also of Gypsies, Seventh Day Adventists, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals and dissidents. It is a museum for all who can handle it, for all who want to know or who don't. It should be required viewing for every tyrant visiting official Washington.

The experience of a visit to this museum must be overwhelming for almost anyone. Using a vast array of artifacts -- the pile of shoes of victims, the death-camp railroad car, the pictures of a whole village's obliterated Jewry -- and documents and the latest communications technology -- an ever-young Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels spouting his garbage on tape that never ends -- the exhibit makes the Holocaust as real as today. And it makes victims as individually human as next door neighbors. Recent political change in Eastern Europe made possible much of the impact: Major artifacts are from Polish state collections.

This museum is not for serendipitous tourism. It requires purpose, thought and time afterward to unwind. Every parent must decide at what age it is suitable. The special exhibition for children over eight, "Daniel's Story" from happy childhood to the concentration camp, is overpowering at any age.

This is, from the outside, an unobtrusive building sitting comfortably between Washington temples of bureaucracy. It does not proclaim its presence, as do the nearby Washington Monument and Agriculture Department. But inside, the Holocaust Museum is huge, monumental, a symbolic sculpture, and a brilliant marriage of architecture and the exhibition arts. The work of architect James Ingo Freed and museum director Jeshajahu Weinberg and his staff blend into one. Prominence of location insures that it will not be ignored.

Presidents Carter and Reagan and the Congress that unanimously legislated this into existence can be proud. With this memorial museum, Washington becomes more a world capital. Memory is served. For all humanity.

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