The History Place - Points of View

The U.S. Holocaust Museum:
Why Christians Should Go

by Barbara Beckwith

I 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 Sadie's husband.

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.

The 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:

My oldest 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.

This 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 showers.

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:

Four weeks 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 in Sweden.

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:

Malvin and 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 and racism.

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 more questions.

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 a Christian."

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" (Deuteronomy 4:9).

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 Museum)

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.

The 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.

See also: "Auschwitz: It's Amazing That a Bird Can Sing Here" by Barbara Beckwith
See also: The History Place - Holocaust Timeline
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