In an antiseptic basement laboratory swathed in white light and humming with white noise, a somber woman in owlish glasses occaionally finds herself engaged in a bitter bit of 20th-century irony.

BEARING WITNESS

June 28, 1998|By MICHAEL OLLOVE | MICHAEL OLLOVE,SUN STAFF

Her name is Lizou Fenyvesi, and by profession she is what is called a "textile conservator." In the museum world, that means she specializes in preserving all manner of historic textiles: articles of clothing, linen, rugs, flags. Because Fenyvesi's employer happens to be the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, she often directs her rescue skills toward some singularly disturbing items, including, from time to time, banners bearing modern history's most repugnant symbols.

Presumably, that emblem, the swastika, was plainly visible as Fenyvesi's grandmother, her aunts and uncles and cousins, were being herded into the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

"I never thought textile conservation would lead me to be caring about the Nazi banner, but that's what I have to be," says Fenyvesi in the accent of her native Hungary. "It is a bizarre idea."

On this particular day, Fenyvesi is attending to artifacts not of the Holocaust's perpetrators, but of their victims. Laid out on one of her worktables is a gray-and-blue striped jacket worn more than a half-century ago by an inmate at the Majdanek death camp in eastern Poland. Fenyvesi has retrieved it from a nearby cabinet, which contains sliding trays bearing half a dozen other prisoner uniforms, all of them stuffed with cushioning to hold their shape. They look like bodies in a morgue.

The clothing is in varying states of disrepair, which, in itself, conveys impressions to Fenyvesi. "I always thought the uniforms reflected the condition of the person who wore them," she says. "Some of them were in tatters."

The jacket on the table is quite worn and has a ragged hole on the lower left side. Fenyvesi is hand-stitching the border of the hole to make sure it doesn't further enlarge. Her job isn't to mend the uniform, but to keep it as nearly as possible in the condition it was in at the end of World War II. Only then can it help explain how things were.

"I was used to conserving artifacts because they had archaeological value or aesthetic value or, like Oriental rugs, monetary value," says Fenyvesi. "But these have a different value. Their value is that they bear witness."

That mission, to present the Holocaust in all its unrelieved horror and despair, is what drives people at the museum. To many employed here, the museum's work is nothing less than a sacred calling, which, says Fenyvesi, helps "make up for the emotional discomfort."

Still, working day in, day out with the remnants of tragedy, she can't help occasionally yearning for relief.

"It's not a big, dramatic thing," she says quietly, "but sometimes I wish there was some artifact that came through my hands that was associated with happiness."

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which passed its fifth anniversary this year, has a paid staff of about 400, with another 300 volunteers, including some 40 Holocaust survivors. As a group, they endure job pressures familiar to workers everywhere - unforgiving deadlines, budget limitations, angry patrons, even, from time to time, a blockheaded supervisor. They also face stresses unique to their workplace. As distinct from virtually anywhere else, the context of their work life, the very subject matter of it, is the unredeemable murder of millions of innocent men, women and children. Genocide is the inescapable foundation of their professional lives.

The staff is diverse. The museum employs Jews and non-Jews, American- and foreign-born, blacks and whites, those with personal connections to the Holocaust and others who arrive with only a rudimentary knowledge of it. Whatever their backgrounds, it is impossible to work here without periodically finding oneself overcome by the subject matter.

"Sometimes," says Emily Dyer, the museum's registrar, "it puts me on my knees."

Those episodes often catch individuals unaware. Emotions might touched off by a photograph of an atrocity, a conversation with a survivor, an encounter with a visitor visibly shaken by the exhibits. "I believe deeply in living in that moment when it happens," says 29-year-old Alexandra

Zapruder, one of the creators of the exhibit, "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story." Fenyvesi, who often inspects the exhibits before the public arrives, says that after six years at the museum, she still rediscovers some object or photograph that paralyzes her.

For Dyer, who supervises the reception and handling of museum artifacts, one of her searing early moments came during the museum's pre-opening years when she was responsible for receiving 2,000 pairs of inmate shoes from a Polish death camp. The shoes arrived - unaccountably - in plastic body bags, which, when she cut them open, emitted a pungent, recognizably human odor. More heart-rending was that each pair still bore the unmistakable imprint of the person who had worn them, including the children. "I was seeing dead people," Dyer says.

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