Caretakers of TRAGEDY Routine tasks Carry an emotianal charge at Holocaust museaum

July 21, 1993|By Mary Otto | Mary Otto,Knight-Ridder News Service

Washington -- Whatever their original color, the thousands of shoes have all turned the hoary brown of dead leaves. Their owners last stepped out of them at the prison camp at Majdanek, Poland. Now the shoes give up a smell that is unlike that of other leather. The smell communicates silently, not with the nose but directly with the throat or solar plexus. Or wherever a scream comes from.

Meaghan O'Keefe was hunting for a job when she heard that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was looking for someone to clean the shoes.

"I wasn't going to take it," says Ms. O'Keefe. "I thought, 'I can't do it. I don't want to spend all those months cleaning the shoes of the people who died in Majdanek.' "

She took the job with trepidation. She kept it in spite of nightmares about shoes.

Ms. O'Keefe, 22, is a small woman with short hair and work boots. She sits on the stark white steps of the new museum near the Washington Monument.

It is her lunch break. She is not eating. She is smoking a cigarette.

She is finding ways of coping with life as one of the keepers of a place like no other. The horrible films play over and over. The horrible stories are told over and over. The Nazi anthems are sung and sung. The faces of the dead mount to the ceilings. There is no end to the story of the Holocaust. That makes it hard to work here. That also makes it important to work here, for Ms. O'Keefe. She believes the museum helps show the realities of hatred.

To clean the shoes, Ms. O'Keefe wore a lab coat, rubber gloves and a face mask.The fact that the shoes were not all the same was no comfort. There was a pair of women's pumps, for instance, that had green pompons attached to the toes.

"I thought about her putting them on her shoes to make them more cheerful," said Ms. O'Keefe. They made Ms. O'Keefe feel terrible.

Some shoes contained secrets. "I found stuff in them. Pieces of barbed wire. Onion skins. A page from a novel about a union strike." A scrap of a Hebrew newspaper.

She takes a long drag on her cigarette. The worst part was cleaning the shoes of the children.

The voices of Auschwitz

She has since moved on to other tasks. "In the mornings, I clean and maintain the artifacts." This morning, she'd cleaned the Zyklon-B cans that contained the gas pellets used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. "I don't like to do the Zyklon-B cans."

L She finds working near the audio theater particularly tough.

"At 8:30 a.m., the voices of Auschwitz come on. The voices are disturbing."

There are crews who come in early to clean the glass of the showcases.

"Nobody wants to work by themselves in the museum. They work in teams. It's a pretty unpleasant place to be by yourself. When you are cleaning, that only occupies part of your mind."

These objects that help personalize the victims of the Holocaust strike chords deep in the workers who handle them and spend their days with them.

normal to have a reaction," says Ed McCarroll, an Army psychologist who has worked with people exposed to trauma -- military body handlers, disaster workers, morgue personnel. As a volunteer, he has helped workers here to cope with their days spent in a place designed to make the Holocaust real.

People do adapt," says Mr. McCarroll. "People are not often aware of how they adapt."

In the days since he became a guide, William Sarnecky says, he has indeed become accustomed to this place. He goes about his daily duties among relics and images that make visitors stop in their tracks. Sometimes Mr. Sarnecky, who was born in Germany and majored in history, wonders at this capacity in himself, this ability to tune out horrors.

"You tend to desensitize yourself," he says. "It's bad."

Time travelers

Among the more than 150 employees, about a quarter have come from more peaceful but part-time Park Service jobs at other sites run by the federal government -- monuments and forests and islands.

Attracted by the promise of permanent employment and benefits, they received special training to work here. Coping with the complexities of this place may be the greatest challenge, but some workers also count this intensity as one of the rewards.

They are sometimes surprised by the emotional charge carried by the most routine tasks -- the ushering of the multitudes through the museum's tomb-cold corridors, the loading of crowds onto the sinister, steely elevators.

"Anything you do can be misunderstood," says Ken Kulp, who came from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Mr. Kulp recalls that one visitor became distraught simply upon being asked to "step to the right."

He keeps the point clear in his own mind, but sometimes he has to remind others: "This is a museum. This is not a time period."

Mike Hoover, also a guide, recalls seeing one visitor simply turn and flee the building. She was an elderly woman. He asked her what he could do to help her, but she could not tell him. All she could say was one word, over and over: "Auschwitz. Auschwitz. Auschwitz." He helped her downstairs. She disappeared.

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