'Daniel's Story': A child's view of the Holocaust

PAINFUL LESSONS

July 05, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

During the past few months, sharp images from the U.S. Holocaust Museum -- the canisters of poisonous Zyklon B, the concentration camp uniforms, the hundreds of pairs of victims' shoes -- have pierced the conscience of the nation, reminding Americans of the potentials of humanity's dark side.

But fewer are aware of the lesson which the Washington museum has prepared in commemoration of the 1.5 million children who were killed.

The permanent exhibition, "Remembering the Children: Daniel's Story," located apart from the adult exhibitions area, is expected attract tens of thousands of schoolchildren each year. Built around the theme of a boy's nightmarish trip through the Holocaust, the exhibition develops through various re-created environments.

"Daniel's Story" begins in a cheerful, middle-class home in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 1930s, moves through the grimy living quarters of the Lodz (Poland) ghetto and ends in a stylized space which evokes the outside of the concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland.

The exhibition is arranged from the point of view of 11-year-old Daniel, a fictional character who chronicles the impact of the Holocaust on his family. Periodically throughout the exhibition, children are invited to read from copies of his diary, to open drawers and suitcases and touch other things of Daniel's daily life.

Intended for children age 8 to 12 -- those generally considered too young for the museum's regular displays -- "Daniel's Story" contains no graphic imagery. Instead, it teaches the horrors of his history through a series of shrinking freedoms: Visitors learn that Daniel is barred from swimming in his neighborhood pool or buying pastry from his favorite bakery. He is confined to the ghetto to which he has been sent. They also learn Daniel's parents are helpless to do anything about it.

"When I was eleven, things began to change in our town. A group of people called Nazis took over Germany. They were trying to rule the world. They hated anyone who wasn't just like them and that meant us because we were Jewish. . .Have you ever been punished for something you didn't do? We were," says the voice of Daniel on the videotape.

The videotape that begins this exhibition uses period photographs to summarize Daniel's grim tale, a story that concludes with the boy and his father surviving the concentration camp in which his mother and sister perish. The video briefs visitors on what they will see during the exhibition.

Early on, its designers decided there should be no surprises.

"We didn't want to terrify the kids," says Kathleen McLean of Independent Exhibitions, a member of the technical design team. "We wanted kids to be able to ask the questions, the really profound questions, without freaking them out.

"The challenging part was telling the story in a way that didn't demean the subject, that didn't turn it into a Disneyland of the Holocaust -- into a playing of 'You be the victim.' "

"Mr. Rogers always tells kids 'We're going to the Land of Pretend,' " says Susan Morgenstein, exhibitions director of the Holocaust Museum. "We let them know all the time [in this exhibition] that this is real. We let them know that they're going to a 'time ago.' "

Originally created as a show for the Capital Children's Museum in Washington, "Daniel's Story" was modified and developed in several stages by teams of museum professionals, teachers, evaluators and interpreters. It was further refined by the advice of elementary and middle school students from public and private schools in the suburbs and the inner city.

After deciding the initial show relied too heavily upon audio-visual presentations, the technical designers created his world: the kitchen with its plate of freshly baked cookies, the back hall with his sports equipment and bike and his bedroom.

"They need to see Daniel as a real boy living a normal life -- baking cookies, skating, doing school projects -- in order to have an emotional understanding of what happened to him," says Marilyn Rothenberg of People, Places and Design Research, who served as an evaluator.

"If children can actually see his room and the things that he treasured, we think they have more of a sense of identifying with a real kid."

The exhibition is also steeped in tactile experiences which reinforce the story. Visitors proceed from the smooth tiled and wooden floors of Daniel's home in Frankfurt to the cobblestones of Lodz and on to more dismal concrete surfaces. Suggestions of rich green trees are replaced by suggestions of barbed wire.

In the Lodz ghetto, there is the chance to explore the secrecrawl space which Daniel shared with his sister Erica. There is the opportunity to find out what Erica is hiding under her bed, the chance to touch the moldy turnips planned for dinner.

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