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Living Memory:
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington

Joanna Katz
March 11, 2003
UCSB GE 1EW (Freshman Seminar)
Winter 2003, Prof. Marcuse

"Of all Holocaust memorials in America, none can begin to match in scope or ambition the national memorial museum complex … in the heart of the nation’s capital" (Young 335). The purpose for this monumental project of building a memorial museum about the Holocaust centers on the formation of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust by President Carter in 1978. According to Edward Linenthal, "the Holocaust had moved not only from the periphery to the center of American Jewish consciousness, but to the center of national consciousness as well" (12). The importance of preserving memory and instilling the significant events of World War II relating to the tragedy of the Holocaust moved to the forefront in the minds of survivors as well as historians. It was vital for the future mindset of survivors, American Jews, as well as all Americans, that the Holocaust not be forgotten and its endeavors live on in the minds and hearts of the American community. As new generations of young adults begin to learn about history and its tragedies, the need to preserve the memories and historical information pertaining to an event such as the Holocaust becomes apparent for all people. Ensuring the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the nation’s capital becomes the main goal of survivors as well as the main objective of visitors. Directly connected to these ideals are the way visitors are able to reflect, remember and recall the historical significance of the Holocaust through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

To accomplish this objective, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council was created. It’s mission was to create a museum that would "advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy" (Weinberg 23). This becomes the next step on the creation of the largest Holocaust repository and study center in America (Young 335). This task, after many years of planning, negotiating, reworking, and finalizing, produced in 1993 what today "reinforces American identity by graphically revealing what America is not" (Linenthal 106). For Americans it is important to set themselves apart from evil measures and wrongdoings. This explains the significance of particular exhibitions relating to the United States during World War II, such as the emphasis of the American liberation of the camps. Also, this national museum needs to reflect everything America stands for, including ideals like freedom, justice, and equal opportunities. The National Holocaust Memorial portrays these characteristics in order for this museum to become a part of American culture, history and importance.

However, the museum also takes on the task of portraying some negative incidents relating to United States’ involvement in the Holocaust. It was crucial that "the American dimension…include not only the American soldiers’ part in defeating Nazi Germany and liberating the camps, but also less ‘memorable’ aspects of the country’s history: the restrictions on immigration, the rejection of refugees during the war, and the refusal to bomb the death camps" (Linenthal 338). These topics are included within the context of the museum among various exhibitions.

The museum’s location is the foundation for the message it displays and the purpose it was created to achieve. Originally, there was a debate about whether the memorial should be built in New York, seen as the "center of Jewish population in the United States," or in Washington D.C., to portray it as a truly " ‘national’ memorial" (Linenthal 57). Members on the United Sates Holocaust Memorial Council were worried that if the museum was not created in the nation’s capital, in the heart of the country, it would be perceived as a "Jewish museum" and its national purpose would be wrongly overlooked. They could not risk this. According to Irving Bernstein, executive vice-chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, the "…Holocaust is a concern of the entire American population" (Linenthal 58). The decision to locate the museum in Washington D.C., and allow it to encompass much more than most Holocaust memorials in Europe and other countries around the world, preserves its educational purpose. According to Jeshajahu Weinberg, founding director of the museum, "the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s purpose is to educate people of all ages, young and old, about the Holocaust" (176). To accomplish this educational mission, as well as its historical and emotional duties, the museum incorporates audiovisual programs, authentic three-dimensional artifacts, as well as a powerful narrative exhibition. The combination of these elements becomes a crucial link for the success of the museum’s effect on its viewers.

Three main sections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) include the Hall of Witness, whereby visitors first enter the building, the Hall of Remembrance, which is a six-sided complex representing the Star of David dedicated strictly to the memory of Jewish victims, and finally the Hall of Learning, whose purpose directly relates to educational mission of the museum itself. These subdivisions of the museum bring together all aspects of the Holocaust, its victims, victimizers, and witnesses. Exhibits, films, and walk-through portions of the museum emotionally capture viewers. These experiences are the core of the museum’s effectiveness in sustaining the importance and relevance of the events of the Holocaust for viewers.

According to Linenthal, what the Hall of Witness visitors see as they enter the museum is "a dense and cold place" (91). The first artifact visitors witness in this section is that of "America’s first direct Holocaust experience" (Young 345). This scene of American troops liberating the Nazi camps of Buchenwald and Dachau captures visitors. This sight presents "both the shock of the Americans and the gratitude and relief of survivors" (Young 345). The placement of this photograph as the first of all Holocaust photos, artifacts, and displays reinforces the significance of this museum’s American perspective. The deliberate choice of location for this photograph, according to Linenthal, "as a national landmark, the national Holocaust museum would necessarily represent the Holocaust according to the nation’s own ideals…" (336).

Crucial to maintaining the survival of the Holocaust in memory is the way visitors to museums and memorials such as the USHMM in Washington view and reflect upon the Holocaust’s historical significance, aftermath and relevance in society. According to John Roth, "…questions about the fate of Holocaust memory should concern us…because the quality of human life depends greatly on what we remember, how we remember, and why we remember" (402). For survivors, "a museum at the heart of American commemorative space," the nation’s capital, "was viewed as an eternal insurance policy" (Linenthal). An insurance that the memory and tragedy of the Holocaust would live on just as the museum’s neighbors, the Jefferson Memorial and Smithsonian Institute, would survive. Ensuring the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust becomes the main goal of survivors as well as the main objective of visitors.

According to Linenthal, Weinberg desired the museum to "trigger in the visitor’s heart feelings of emotional identification with the victims’ " (142). These feelings become the crucial target for the museum’s creators to inject reaction. In this sense, "audiovisual programs add a dynamic element to the visitor’s experience…they insert motion into the static display…and thus strengthen the grip of the narrative on the visitor" (Weinberg 62). In addition to these powerful audiovisual programming of the museum, which includes 70 video monitors and four theaters, the museum’s Permanent Exhibition contains nearly 1000 artifacts such as an original barrack from Birkenau, a pile of 2000 pairs of children’s shoes left behind from Auschwitz, a Danish fishing boat used in the rescue of Jews, and an authentic Treblinka box car (Young 335). These "authentic three-dimensional artifacts provide the strongest historical evidence…they constitute a direct link to the events, which are embedded in them, as it were. Having been there, they have become silent witnesses" (Weinberg 67).

The importance of this museum as a narrative exhibit, according the Weinberg, "affects visitors not only intellectually but also emotionally" (49). Hence, the museum’s missions are to evoke not only emotional concern, but an inner change about the horrors of mass brutality, especially relating to racism and hatred. These cognitive efforts play a crucial role in insuring the preservation of memory among visitors of the museum. Inducing these depressing and shocking reactions deepens the viewer’s need to separate himself from these acts and further directs the American way farther from these brutalities. In order to promote this personal reaction from visitors, upon entering the museum, each person receives an identification card revealing the story and photograph of an individual who was caught up somehow with the tragic events of the Holocaust. This project, according to Linenthal, "was another attempt to use photographs to convey the personal dimension of the Holocaust" (187).

Setting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum apart from all other Holocaust memorials is the museum’s exclusive three-fold design of witness, remembrance, and learning. These design tools reinforce the museum’s ability to evoke emotional responses in viewers and allow the memorial to instill the memory of the Holocaust. Also declaring a unique final exhibit for visitors to ponder as they leave their two to three hours journey through the brutality of the past. The last chapter of the museum’s narrative story of the Holocaust is entitled "A New World." This area is dedicated to the relocation of the surviving Jews from the concentration camps. It includes information about the creation of the state of Israel, the immigration of Jews into other neighboring countries, and the immigration of Jews into the United States. Lastly, the final thought of the exhibit is a film where "survivors recount their experiences of loss, suffering, and anguish, as well as rescue, resistance, compassion, and hope" (Weinberg 148). The museum hereby closes with a hopeful edge on a sour time in history. All of these features support the underlying and overall purpose of the USHMM to evoke emotion from viewers and preserve the memory of the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Also declaring a message intended for the American people to take away from their visit to the memorial is the last wall inscription from the walk-through section of the museum. This famous quote from the anti-Nazi German protestant pastor Martin Niemoeller molds the assertion that the USHMM is intended for all audiences, of all races, all genders, and all ages. It confirms the idealization from the Bill of Rights that all people are created equally and transfers this concept to relate to the everyday lives of Americans. His quote, as read on display in the museum, reads:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out- cause I was not a Jew. Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me (Weinberg 69).

This particular version of his quote raises a larger issue about the selection of excerpts, documentation and accounts carefully chosen to be on display in the memorial. When visiting the memorial, one must remember who the creators of the museum are and what the ultimate significance of the site is. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum portrays a universal truth of respect and tolerance from an American perspective about the tragedy of the Holocaust, with the purpose of ensuring the memory of the event in order to prevent catastrophes of this magnitude from occurring again, especially on American soil.

Works Cited

Linenthal, Edward T., Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. New York: Penguin Group, 1995.

Roth, John K. and Elisabeth Maxwell, eds. et al. Remembering For the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide. vol 3. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Weinberg, Jeshajahu and Rina Elieli. The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli International, 1995.

Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. United States: Yale University Press, 1993.

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