entered the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I received Identification Card
#2855. For the next four hours I became Malvin Katz Fried, a real Hungarian
Jewish woman about my own age during the Holocaust.The industrial steel
elevator I took to start my tour on the fourth floor immediately seemed
as confining as the railroad boxcars that carried so many Jews to their
deaths. Then as I threaded my way inexorably downward, through the history
the displays recount, I lived Malvin's times and her personal story.
Name: Malvin Katz Fried - Date
of Birth: 1893 - Place of Birth: Buj, Hungary
Malvin and her eight brothers
and sisters were born to religious Jewish parents in a small town in northeastern
Hungary. The family later moved to another village, where Malvin's father ran
a general store. The Katz family lived in a sprawling farmhouse with a large
garden and fruit orchards. Malvin married Sandor Fried, the brother of her sister
A unanimous act of Congress authorized a U.S. Holocaust memorial in
1980, following the lead of other countries. Members of the President's
Commission on the Holocaust and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council were
convinced of the truism that those who forget history are doomed to repeat
it. Now there are two generations who never lived through the Second World
War. A frightening trend is to deny that the Holocaust ever took place
or at least to downplay its effects, points out Edward T. Linenthal, professor
of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and author
of Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum.
And so it was decided that the best way to preserve
the memory would be with artifacts, documentation, recorded oral histories,
photographs and displays listing the historical facts. This memorial would
be a museum to inform as well as remind.
museum was born out of politics -- President Jimmy Carter's desire to establish
better relations with Jews in the wake of reactions to his comments about
the need for a Palestinian homeland. It was refined under intense political
wrangling and national soul-searching about whether the Holocaust was principally
a Jewish event or one with universal significance.
This museum would also concentrate on the good
and bad aspects of American involvement in the Holocaust: what America
might have done to avoid or lessen the tragedy but didn't do, the U.S.
Army's liberation of some of the camps, American resettlement efforts and
our relationship with the state of Israel.
A 1.9-acre site near the Washington Monument was
given by the federal government. The museum itself was built with private
donations and dedicated April 22, 1993. It has become the third most-visited
tourist destination in Washington, right after the White House and the
Vietnam Wall. According to a guard, more than half of those going through
the museum are non-Jews.
A Brilliant Design
The neoclassical structure for this state-of-the-art
museum was designed by James Ingo Freed, a principal with the firm of Pei
Cobb Freed & Partners and a Jew who had fled Germany in 1939 at the
age of nine. He admits, in an interview with Smithsonian magazine
(April 1993), that the design almost defeated him. How could he ask casual
tourists to "shift abruptly 50 years into the past, to confront an
ugly world they might know little about, nor care to have their children
see"? Then he visited Auschwitz, saw what is left of the ovens and
"found his shoes flecked with bits of human bones."
Freed says, "I wanted to convey the feeling
of constantly being watched, of things closing in. I was thinking of the
Warsaw ghetto. The bridges that the Jews had to cross over to get from
one part of the ghetto to another, so they wouldn't contaminate others.
I wanted the feeling of a procession. Of choices: either/or. Selections.
The long lulls and sudden bumps forward, the steps to death."
This is what Freed achieved by his design, considered
brilliant by museum makers and architects. The years march down to the
Hall of Remembrance, a six-sided memorial where visitors can meditate on
what they have just seen.
This Hall of Remembrance is a point of contention,
however. Many psychologists say the museum should have ended with a room
for discussion rather than silence because so many visitors are extremely
affected by the museum and should have an opportunity to talk that out.
The Ugliness of Anti-Semitism
In the rising steel elevator, the tour begins
with a video of a camp liberator from the U.S. Army describing what he
witnessed in 1945. Then the doors open on a large wall photo of a G.I.
entering a camp. I step out onto the fourth floor where the exhibits trace
Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and the increasing Nazi restrictions
on the Jews: no public worship, no businesses that sold outside the Jewish
community, no home ownership, registration for armbands and stars of David,
frozen bank accounts, barring Jews from trolleys...
The pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and eugenics
"proved" the Jews were not human and Aryans were the "superior"
race. It was this teaching--that Jews are different, nonhuman and undesirable--coupled
with pernicious, pervasive anti-Semitism, that allowed all the horror of
the slave-labor camps and the systemic extermination of six million Jews.
A movie on anti-Semitism relates how religious
prejudice funneled into the political mix of the Third Reich. Jesus was
a Jew and the Last Supper was a Passover meal, but Christians became fixated
on the notion that the Jews were the killers of Christ. (It was not until
Vatican II's Nostra Aetate [Declaration on the Relation of the
Church to Non-Christian Religions, 1965] that the Catholic Church made
it clear that Jews were not responsible for killing Jesus. Not until 1994
did the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially denounce Martin
Luther's vile writings about the Jews.) The movie reminds viewers that
Hitler was baptized a Catholic. The message is clear: Religious prejudice
leads straight to the Holocaust.
A critical exhibition gives information about
non-Jewish groups also targeted by the Nazis: gypsies (Roma), Poles, political
dissidents including Communists, Soviet prisoners of war, handicapped people,
homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Freemasons.
At the end of this 1933-39 part of the museum,
I read of Malvin during the years I have just passed through:
sister, Sadie, who emigrated to the United States years ago, has come home for
a visit. Her two children love helping my mother gather fruit in the orchards.
On their trip over, Sadie stopped in Hamburg and says she saw Nazis marching
in the streets. She's afraid, but we've told her not to worry: It all seems
so far away.
Photos From a Village Long Gone
A bridge spans the concourse far below. On glass
walls are etched the names of 5,000 European towns, villages and shtetls
(Jewish communities) that were totally destroyed by the Nazis.
leads to the moral heart of the museum: three stories of photographs taken
over 50 years in Ejszyszki, one such shtetl in Lithuania. The museum was
redesigned to accommodate this collection, but oh, how powerful! Here the
six million Jews have faces and histories and culture. They are pictured
at weddings and family reunions, graduations and bar mitzvahs. There are
portraits of young women and men full of hope, grandfathers linked with
grandsons--a profusion of Jewish life now cut short.
Of the 4,000 Jews in Ejszyszki, only 29 Jews survived.
Most were killed by the Einsatzgruppen (German killing squads) and
Lithuanian collaborators on September 25-26, 1941. Among the survivors
was four-year-old Yaffa Sonenson and some of her family, but in their hiding
place one of her baby brothers was accidentally smothered to death to prevent
his cries from giving them away. In 1944 Yaffa's mother and another brother
were killed. Yaffa remembers how her mother "protected us with her
body....I was covered in blood, and they left." Then her father was
arrested by the Russians and sent to Siberia; years later he emigrated
to Israel. Yaffa assumed the identity of an uncle's murdered daughter and
escaped with her uncle to Israel. She was reunited with her surviving brother
and in 1954 moved to the United States.
Yaffa, a teacher at Brooklyn College, was named
a member of the U.S. Holocaust Commission in 1979 and decided to document
her hometown: "I wanted to rescue this one town from oblivion."
She and her husband, David Eliach, spent a decade acquiring the 6,000 photographs
from archaeological excavations and "survivor photos" sent to
relatives overseas or carried by emigrants. In the end, these moving photos
have found a spectacular home at the museum.
The 'Showers' of Auschwitz
After descending the stairs to the third floor,
visitors encounter a German railroad car, loaned by the Polish government
and thought to have delivered Jews and others to the death camps. (The
car was hoisted into the building during its construction.) The wooden
railroad platform and the piles of luggage confiscated at this point are
reminders that when the boxcars came into the concentration camps this
was a point of selection: Here camp officers decided who would live for
the moment and who would die immediately. Most of those whose possessions
were confiscated here were marched directly to gas chambers disguised as
Then museum visitors pass under a re-creation of the famous, ironic
sign from Auschwitz, Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Brings Freedom")
and there is part of an actual barracks from Birkenau. Stone blocks from
the Mauthausen quarry testify to how inmates were forced to work and sometimes
pushed to their deaths by SS (Schutzstaffel) guards. Polish artist
Mieczyslaw Stobierski's sculpture with its hundreds of plaster figures
shows how bodies were sent to the "showers," gassed and cremated
in Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Behind barricades high enough that children cannot see are images and
artifacts documenting the horrific, and in some cases useless, medical
experiments carried out on Jewish prisoners. (Generally, no children below
ninth grade should visit without an adult.)
In a side room are heard actors reading the words of survivors about
what life was like in the camps. A mound of 4,000 shoes left behind at
Majdanek bears mute witness to those gassed there. The shoes were to be
recycled to German families.
Those Who Resisted
One story below, the visitor must pass again through
the Eliach collection of photos. Now the cumulative effect of the "Tower
of Photos" is even more impressive, and sadder.
I catch up with Malvin during the years 1940-44.
Her situation is becoming more desperate:
ago, on March 19, 1944, German forces occupied Hungary. Here in Myirbator, where
I moved after my marriage, all of us Jewish citizens have been forced to abandon
our homes and most of our belongings. We've spent the last few days crowded
into the local synagogue. The rough Hungarian police have searched us and stolen
our remaining money and jewelry. Now they've told us that we're to be moved
to a ghetto in the county seat. Then what will happen to us?
On this second floor is the story of the Jews
who fought back. A fishing boat recalls how Danes carried Jews to safety
A long wall down the center of the room lists
on both sides those who helped Jews, given by country, with certain key
individuals singled out. Among these are Father Ruffino Niccaci, the Franciscan
who ran the Assisi underground and protected 300 Jews; Raoul Wallenberg,
the Swedish diplomat who provided papers to many escaping Hungarian Jews
and disappeared into Siberia after the war (the alleyway beside the museum
is named for him); Father Marie Benoit, a Capuchin friar in Marseilles,
France, who helped 4,000 Jewish refugees escape into Switzerland and Spain,
and proposed a plan to Pope Pius XII of how more Jews could have been helped;
Marie-Rose Gineste from Montauban, France, a Catholic laywoman who found
hiding places for Jews by convincing local convents to take in whole families
and getting them forged baptismal papers and identity cards; the Polish
organization Zegota, which was organized to save Jews and whose
membership included many Catholics.
More oral histories chronicle both liberators and survivors. A small
exhibit recalls the resettlement of Jewish survivors in the United States
and Israel. And visitors can use earphones to hear actual proceedings from
the Nuremberg trials of key Nazis arrested for war crimes.
At the end of the second floor I read in the last page of my identity
card about Malvin's fate:
her husband, Sandor, were among 435,000 Hungarian Jews deported in the early
summer of 1944 to Auschwitz. Malvin and her husband perished there.
Remember the Children
In the museum one special exhibit called "Daniel's
Story: Remember the Children" is intended specifically for children.
It recreates the world of a fictional Jewish boy of 14 who might have lived
in Frankfurt before the war. He and his family are forced from their home
and sent to the Lodz Ghetto and then to Auschwitz. The exhibit emphasizes
the ordinariness of his life before the war and the way he and his father
lived at Auschwitz.
What is remarkable about the exhibit is that it
includes some letters from children who saw the exhibit early and wrote
to Daniel, saying things like, "Your story is so touching. It made
me realize that it was real and could happen to us." A Native American
child points out that the same things happened to his people.
What I Learned
Before I went, I dreaded the prospect of going
to the Holocaust Museum. I have read a lot about the Holocaust in history
books and novels; I have seen movies like Exodus and Schindler's
List, and television shows and miniseries like The Holocaust
and Shoah. In many ways my imagination is stronger than reality,
and I had imagined worse. This is not to say the museum trivializes the
harsh reality of what happened or that it isn't shocking to those unfamiliar
with the facts. But the process of making an orderly museum--selecting
what will be shown, what will be said, and presenting it tastefully--organizes
a reality that at its base defies logic.
The museum did not teach me anything I had not known beforehand. It's
not meant to; it's meant to elicit an emotional response, and that
it does. It immerses visitors in the experience of the Holocaust.
The museum presents clearly the events of Nazi Germany regarding its
plan to exterminate the Jews as one unbroken line that starts from anti-Semitism
One always wonders, "What would I have done in this situation?"
If I were a Jew, how would I have died or survived? As a Christian, would
I have helped in some way? Would I have been a victim, a perpetrator or
a not-so-innocent bystander? This museum provides no answers, but many
Religiously, the Holocaust museum provokes two dilemmas. For Jews, there
is the problem of a God who apparently did not keep his covenant with his
Chosen People, and allowed two thirds of European Jewry to be killed. For
Christians, the Holocaust alters fundamentally our relationship with Jews.
Father John Pawlikowski, O.S.M., a longtime Holocaust Council member
who teaches social ethics at The Catholic Theological Union in Chicago,
was among those insistent that the story of both Christian complicity and
resistance be told in the museum. He fears that the story is still not
told forcefully enough. Yet Pawlikowski was careful to advise that guilt
not be ladled out indiscriminately. And Martin Smith, an early director
of the museum's permanent exhibition, still objects to the prominent display
of a Christian rescue of Jews because he believes, "[I]t was much
more likely that you would be saved by a Communist or a socialist than
And there is still the problem of whether the Holocaust is a uniquely
Jewish event. Granted, six million Jews died, but so did five million others.
The museum started out to try to keep certain distinctions: Jews were Holocaust
victims, others were victims of Nazi terror; Jews were exterminated, others
were murdered. But the lines do blur. According to Linenthal, "The
struggle for ownership of the Holocaust memory took place on a fundamentally
religious level." Pawlikowski would grant the "unique dimensions"
of the Jewish experience, but argued rightly that other victims needed
to be included.
This battle for who will own the Holocaust memory also extends into
whether this was a one-time event or whether there are lessons to be learned
here regarding other genocides and ethnic wars and race and hate crimes.
Is not the story of Cambodia's "killing fields," of Rwanda's
battling tribes, of the Bosnian conflict, of the burning of black and interracial
churches in the American South--30-plus in the past year and a half--part
of the same legacy of hate and violence as the Holocaust? The Holocaust
was a particular series of crimes, but it has come to stand for Evil Incarnate.
To the extent that other ethnic and racial crimes are evil, they are related.
Hall of Remembrance
As I come to the end of the museum, I sit in the
cold hexagonal-shaped Hall of Remembrance on the first floor and ponder
the nature of evil. But is that why I am here?
Around me are words from the Hebrew Scriptures
that emphasize the value of remembering: "Only guard yourself and
guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and
lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you
shall make them known to your children and to your children's children"
In the end I light a candle in front of the Auschwitz
memorial for Malvin Katz Fried and all those who died in the Holocaust.
The words on the cover of Malvin's identity card sum it up for me: "For
the dead and the living we must bear witness."
(Photo Credits: U.S. Holocaust Memorial
Copyright © 1996 St. Anthony
Messenger Press All rights reserved
Barbara Beckwith served as Managing Editor
of St. Anthony Messenger and is a graduate
of Marquette University's College of Journalism. She grew up in Skokie, Illinois,
where many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and other Jews settled
after the World War II. She remembers women in the local five-and-dime
store reaching for items and exposing the ID numbers that had been tattooed on their
forearms in the Nazi camps.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is located
at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W. (15th Street and Independence Avenue), Washington,
D.C. 20024-2150. Admission is free but tickets are required
for the permanent exhibition.