Holocaust Museum becomes Meyerhoff's tutor Efforts for memorial, opening today, give chairman insights in pain, racism

April 26, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

Harvey M. Meyerhoff will be at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum when it opens today, mingling with the first visitors, listening, asking for their impressions.

But the guests won't know they're talking to a man who's worked six years just to see this day.

He won't introduce himself. He might say he's "with the museum." Otherwise, the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum -- who has raised money, reviewed plans, settled disputes, negotiated agreements, given directions -- will be doing what he's done since he began overseeing construction of Washington's newest museum.

He will be learning.

"I thought I knew something about the Holocaust," the Baltimore developer and philanthropist said yesterday as he sat in his condominium high over the Inner Harbor. "But it's only in the last six years that I've really come to know anything about the Holocaust."

Below his windows, on a sunny morning, tourists were strolling through Harborplace. Pleasure boats were cruising the harbor. Upstairs, Mr. Meyerhoff was describing what he'd learned from a nightmare that happened 50 years ago.

"Now I understand the depths of the searing of the soul of the survivor who made it through the Holocaust," he said. "I understand, by talking to people who are now my close friends, the guilt of the survivors. I now know about what kind of courage it takes to resist and promise shelter and safe passage to people you don't even know.

"And the Jews were not like sheep being led to slaughter. The killing camps were only whispered about in Europe. They didn't know. To say they went like sheep is a distortion of the facts. When they knew, they fought back."

But the biggest lesson is not about World War II Jews caught in a cataclysm that left 6 million of them dead. "The lesson," he said, "is that bigotry and hatred and singling people out for discrimination and worse is the first step in the degradation of a society."

Mr. Meyerhoff, who has also raised funds for the Republican Party, was named by President Reagan to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 1986. In 1987, the White House asked him to succeed Elie Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate who had been the council's first chairman.

He wasn't sure he wanted the job. His wife, Lyn Meyerhoff, only months before had been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her a year later. But she told him, "Bud, there will be nothing in your life more important than this."

He became chairman, and his family contributed $6 million to the $168 million project.

Earlier this month, the new Democratic White House announced that it would replace Mr. Meyerhoff as chairman, although he will remain on the council. He would not discuss his removal, except to say that he has not yet received any official notice and until then, he will continue as chairman.

Meanwhile, he focused on the museum's opening. Last Thursday, Mr. Meyerhoff stood with President Clinton and Mr. Wiesel at the dedication ceremony.

In 1987, he took his job as chairman acutely aware that his family "didn't lose a soul to the Holocaust." Now he was working with death-camp survivors who worked zealously to be sure the museum in no way trivialized their story.

And there were disputes over what the museum should be: A memorial to the dead? A historical exhibition? A museum for Jews? A museum for all Americans?

"There were survivors who believed it was not only too emotional an event but too cataclysmic an event in the the history of the Jewish people to be articulated in a museum in Washington or anywhere."

But Mr. Meyerhoff believed the museum could succeed. He also believed, despite some protests, that it must be a place for Americans of all walks of life.

"The average American who visits monumental Washington has to understand the story and how it relates to him," Mr. Meyerhoff said. "It had to tell the lessons of the Holocaust, rather than be a horror show. This is a chance that comes along once in a generation to do something for the education of America."

The building, the council decided, had to communicate to visitors. The group scrapped an early design. "Bland. Too Washington," he said.

Instead, they chose a design by James Ingo Freed.

"This building has a voice," Mr. Meyerhoff said. "It speaks. It uses brick and glass and steel, the ordinary elements of construction with which I've worked for years, and I've never seen them put together this way."

Early visitors to the museum have hailed it as a stunning, emotional addition to Washington. Mr. Meyerhoff said it's too soon to say if the Holocaust Memorial Museum will become a stop on the standard tourist circuit.

But beyond the exhibition, the museum has other important work. It will run conferences for teachers, bring students to Washington and oversee an archives of Holocaust documents.

"This museum will give the U.S. and probably the world the central repository of knowledge and archival materials of the Holocaust," he said. "There is room for a Holocaust museum here in the cradle of democracy."

At the dedication last week, Mr. Meyerhoff said he thought "of my late wife, and her admonition, literally on her death bed, that I finish the museum."

Their four children and eight of their 10 grandchildren watched him light an eternal flame with Mr. Wiesel and the president.

In his speech, he talked about bearing witness, about teaching. He quoted from the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, a quote carved into a black granite wall at the museum:

"Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children's children."

Mr. Meyerhoff smiled. "It's launched," he said. "It's the end of the beginning."

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