by a former Special Forces Officer
Editor’s Note: This article contains graphic images.
“What is to give light must endure burning.” -Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist, Author, and Holocaust survivor
The National Holocaust Museum (Image Credit: The Washington Post.)
Viktor Frankl’s quote above eloquently captures the essence of a profound and fascinating book. It is not the typical read one might causally pick up at the bookstore or library, it is in a sense the opus of a generation, of a people, charged to ensure the worst of human action is preserved for perpetuity.
Edward Linenthal’s Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum is an accounting of the creation of the National Holocaust Museum, a long, difficult, and complex endeavor that for so many was both cathartic and necessary. Linenthal captures the passion, intricacy, and multifaceted dimensions of an enterprise that seemed from the beginning to be a straightforward and righteous undertaking but proved to be challenging and fraught with complications.
The Holocaust was no ordinary historical event and the creation of a memorial and museum to capture appropriately the quintessence of such a horrific experience was tangled, convoluted, and an emotionally raw endeavor. After reading Preserving Memory, I was inspired to take a virtual tour of the museum, to witness it firsthand. “The burning” of which Frankl spoke seemed apropos, as those who struggled with its inception, showed brightly in the significance and sacredness of their creation.
German police guard a group of Roma who have been rounded up for deportation to Poland. Germany, 1940–45. (Image Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lydia Chagoll https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/mosaic-of-victims-an-overview.)
My purpose for undertaking the virtual tour of the museum was also motivated by a sense of personal connection and while beginning the tour, a particular photograph captured my attention. The photograph above is a group of uniformed German police officers detaining a group of Roma. Randi Korn, in “The Case for Holistic Intentionality” stated that museums that strive for intentionality operate from a set of carefully crafted intentions that are derived from and reinforce the museum’s mission; they define and describe what the museum wants to achieve.” This photograph and the museum’s many exhibits achieved that goal, as it evoked personal thoughts, and reflections, delving into the uncomfortable territory of family history. It is precisely the intentionality that those that created the Holocaust Museum sought to achieve.
My grandfather was a police officer in Munich in Nazi Germany. From the early 1920s until the late 1960s, he served as a police officer in what was the municipal police of the city. I know little of his service or history during that period, as many of the official records were destroyed when Munich was bombed by the Allies. Much of what I know has been passed down from family. However, as a civilian police official in Nazi Germany, my grandfather’s story is inexplicably linked to the Holocaust …it must be.
It would be unfathomable to think that a man in his position would not have been aware of the atrocities committed, particularly as the Dachau concentration camp loomed just outside of Munich. It is also hard to imagine that he was not somehow complicit, either actively or through inaction, in this tragedy. I can only hope that in the darkness of those times, a glimmer of his humanity showed through.
I was also told that my grandfather was not a diehard Nazi. When my father was 13 years old, my father heard my grandfather disparaging Hitler. As a member of the Hitler Youth, my father challenged him and threatened to report him to the Gestapo. In a fit of rage, my grandfather grabbed him, frog-marching him in the direction of the local Gestapo office. Before they left the apartment building, my father reconsidered, and the issue was resolved. I was also told that at the end of the war, my grandfather was cleared by the Allied Constabulary forces occupying Munich and was permitted to return to work as a police officer.
I have been able to corroborate the first part of this story through official Allied documents. The story told was that my grandfather was reinstated so quickly because he had protected some Jewish families in Munich by not revealing their identities to the Gestapo, the Nazi Secret State Police. Given his position as a member of the municipal police force, this is certainly plausible. But I also recognize that this may have been a partial truth or even a fabrication, to protect himself after the war. I will never know but I suspect the “truth” lies somewhere in between.
This brings me to my reflections on reading this book. Preserving Memory made me think about my own family’s role in the Holocaust. I was compelled to engage with what it means to bear witness, to issues of culpability, to memorialize the victims, and to confront the past, themes discussed throughout the book. It made me wonder why after living for 12 years in the Nation’s capital, I never took the time to visit the memorial.
The review of this book was in part, a personal journey, and true to form, the museum of intentionality that is the Holocaust Museum, asked tough questions of this visitor. The stories and images on the tour and the underlying struggles associated with creating the museum confront and call for reckoning. And yet, it also offers solace and consolation. The grace and dignity with which it achieved its intentionality are inspiring.
The first leg of this journey began with the reading of Preserving Memory. The second was to take the museum’s virtual tour. The museum has an impressive website, which I found easy to navigate and very intuitive. I explored the site to become more familiar with it and came across the online exhibits. I was drawn to the exhibit called “Holocaust Era in Croatia 1941-1945 Jasenovac.” This was particularly interesting for me as I was stationed in Croatia shortly after the former Yugoslavia disintegrated and was familiar with the atrocities committed by the Croatians under the Ustaše. I found the online exhibits very well done, with meaningful exhibits and written narrations. The inclusion of firsthand accounts from victims added a poignant, personal connection to those exhibits. After some preliminary review of the various other pages of the museum website, I located the Virtual Tour for Students.
The Virtual Tour for Students was well organized and easy to negotiate. Beginning with the “Hall of Witnesses” the tour captures the imposing walls, and industrial “feel” of what a concentration camp must have been like and provides a foreboding prelude of things to come as you progress through the museum. It very much leaves the impression of helplessness, with doom awaiting behind those walls, steel girders, and harsh exterior. The virtual tour of this section gives you a claustrophobic effect, which as the narration of the virtual tour suggests, disorients, and cuts the visitor off from the outside world and the reality they once knew.
Progressing through the tour, the “Jews of Ejszyszki and the Holocaust” was an emotional and distressing portrayal of all that was lost. Seeing the many pictures of ordinary people, children, all victims, whose only crime was to live their lives, has a profound impact on the visitor. It is one thing to see the statistics and the numbers, but to see the faces of the victims themselves shows the vastness of the human cost of the Holocaust and the capacity for cruelty by the Nazis.
The “Kristallnacht: The Night of Broken Glass,” section of the tour was a painful reminder of the brutality that occurred even before the “Final Solution” was enacted. Again, the virtual tour provides in stark images and narration, the fear, humiliation, and confusion experienced by citizens who were, by all other measures, loyal, law-abiding citizens. The section on “Ghettos: Concentration and Isolation” made me wonder how people could so completely dehumanize others and treat them in such a horrible fashion. It was diabolical that some of the victims were tricked into thinking they were simply being moved to a resort, explaining why some only carried a suitcase with their holiday wear.
German citizens look the other way on Nov. 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht. What they see or don’t want to see are destroyed Jewish shops and houses. Source.
“The Railcar: Deportation to the Killing Centers” evoked a visceral reaction, as you dared not think about how horrible it must have been to be treated worse than cattle. Having an actual railcar present in the museum and seeing it on the virtual tour amplifies the cruelty of it all. “The Barracks: Conditions in the Camp” section was also emotional, to see the photos of the inmates, to see the conditions, and their meager personal effects was powerful and haunting. The German phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” serves as both a taunt and offered a false sense of the futility of hope. The only freedom it offered was through death.
This brings us to the most disturbing of the sections of the tour. “Final Solution:” Killing Centers and Gas Chambers” was for me the most lingering of the museum’s haunting exhibits. The model showing the victims being herded into the gas chamber and the ensuing horror was almost too much to observe. To this day, the thought of what was going through the minds of those poor victims in the final seconds of their lives is too hideous to even contemplate.
After viewing the dread and finality of those final exhibits, the “Hall of Remembrance” offers a much-welcome reprieve. It is a place that offers some solace and a chance to reflect and recognize all that was lost. The Hall of Remembrance provided a sense of purpose and sanctity that the victim’s sacrifices were not forgotten, or even in vain. It reaffirmed the resolve of the visitor that something like this can never happen again.
Finally, the tour of the “Conservation Lab: Rescuing the Evidence” provided some unique insights into the efforts made by the museum to preserve and protect the many artifacts of the Holocaust. Items that must be kept available, to remind us in perpetuity of this terrible episode in human history.
Overall, the virtual tour captured many of the salient points examined in Preserving Memory. It was illuminating to see the exhibits after reading about the herculean efforts required in their creation. These included debates about which artifacts to exhibit, what the overall interpretation would look like, how the museum would be structured, and the ultimate purpose of the museum all manifested itself, to some degree, in the virtual tour.
The title of the book, “Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum” captures two of the most important themes of this endeavor to recognize and honor those who perished in the Holocaust. The effort was characterized by two driving forces that proved to be complex challenges; first, how to appropriately preserve the memory of the victims and show remembrance with the appropriate sanctity and honor. Second, how to define the museum’s purpose; to determine who “owns” the history of this experience, and how to appropriately recognize others who suffered during the Holocaust.
Preserving Memory discusses in detail the political, ethical, and spiritual predicaments surrounding the creation of the Holocaust Museum. The struggles that arose as the museum sought to determine how best to preserve the memory of the Holocaust are reflected in all aspects of its design. It was fascinating to read not only about the complex moral, historical, and even spiritual complexities involved, it highlighted the challenges of navigating the complex processes involved in obtaining political and governmental support. What would seem to be a forthright effort, with a singularity of purpose, quickly became bogged down in a morass of multilayered issues.
The second main theme that the author addressed is that of defining who “owns” the collective experience of the Holocaust. It was apparent that right from the beginning, those seeking to create this memorial struggled to define who was the “first” among victims and how those memories and histories should be captured. Those issues were not self-evident prior to reading the book. The author’s accounts of all the many personal agendas and strong opinions illustrated how these convoluted the effort, to the point of almost derailing it during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Perhaps the most captivating and intriguing aspect of this main theme came from the writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. His supposition that the Holocaust was a “mystical” event, specifically of Jewish nature, and part of an almost predestined episode in the history of the Jewish people, further complicated efforts to come to some consensus. Without question, the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people was clearly the primary focus of the “Final Solution.” Those involved in the development of the museum juggled a delicate balancing act, preserving the unique aspect of this tragedy committed against the Jewish people, while also recognizing the five million Romani people, Poles, Ukrainians, and other non-Jews who were also victims. The museum eventually came to terms with this issue of “primacy in victimhood” and worked to integrate other persecuted ethnic groups into the museum.
A Jewish boy surrenders in Warsaw. Source.
After taking the virtual tour, many of the design aspects of the museum mentioned by the author became more apparent, providing a greater understanding of the museum’s interpretative intent. Reading about how architect James Freed developed his vision for the museum and then to see them implemented during the virtual tour was revealing. Freed’s idea, as articulated in the book, manifested itself through the various exhibits and architecture. In the virtual tour, you capture the symbolism and see his efforts to balance historical insight with reflection and remembrance.
The entire enterprise was characterized by many divergent voices, with a common goal, but differing visions, seeking to achieve a balanced and appropriate response. Even the location of the museum was subject to controversy, as those charged with designing and building the museum struggled to balance having such an emotionally evocative memorial located on the National Mall. The museum had to meet the requirements of being an appropriately solemn and thought-provoking place, without depressing and discouraging visitors.
Finally, one of the most poignant aspects of the book, captured well by the virtual tour, was how to share with the visitors the personal side of this monumental tragedy. Should all the artifacts from the Holocaust be shared with the visitor? This is yet again one of the many challenges faced in the creation of this museum, perhaps one of the most problematic of all. Are the personal effects, hair, shoes, and even more macabre artifacts important to display? Is the Zyklon B canister that dispensed death important to the overall narrative of the museum’s interpretative plan? These too bedeviled many of the planners and curators. Ultimately, the museum struck the right balance by capturing the personal tragedy of the experience without it becoming a house of horrors.
The Liberation of Bergen-belsen Concentration Camp, April 1945 Dr. Fritz Klein, the camp doctor, standing in a mass grave at Belsen. Klein, who was born in Austro-Hungary, was an early member of the Nazi Party and joined the SS in 1943. He worked in Auschwitz-Birkenau for a year from December 1943 where he assisted in the selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. After a brief period at Neungamme, Klein moved to Belsen in January 1945. Klein was subsequently convicted of two counts of war crimes and executed in December 1945. Source.
Today, the museum has continued to evolve. For all the debate and discussion about inclusivity of other victims of the Holocaust, it was reassuring to see that the virtual tour and the museum achieved a balanced approach to telling a comprehensive narrative of the Holocaust. The core story remains focused on the Jewish experience, but there are multiple examples of the stories of others who suffered, including the Romani people, Poles, Soviet Prisoners of War, and other persecuted groups. Also noteworthy was the inclusion of the history of other genocides, including those committed against the Rohingya, Rwandans, Bosnians, and others. This sort of inclusivity was also hotly debated in the book, as the developers sought to define the museum’s task and purpose. The inclusivity of these other genocides is appropriate and does not detract from the central focus of Jewish victimization, rather it adds credence that this was a phenomenon all too real today, as evidenced by the continued persecution of others around the world.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum today remains one of the most important, and unique museums of its type. Unlike the many museums and memorials in Washington, D.C. that are tributes to the triumph of the human spirit, the Holocaust Museum is dedicated to the greatest of human failures. And unlike other museums that serve to instruct, educate, and inspire, the Holocaust Memorial has the additional mandate to honor, remember and implore us to action. It stands in stark contrast to all that is dedicated to American exceptionalism and reminds us that we can never forget this monumental tragedy.
Anderson, Gail, ed. Reinventing the Museum. Plymouth: AltaMira Press, 2012.
Linenthal, Edward, T. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
United States Holocaust Museum. Virtual Tour for Students. Accessed 30 November 2020. https://www.ushmm.org/.
Randi Korn, The Case for Holistic Intentionality, (Plymouth: Altmira Press, 2012), 212.
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