AMERICAN Gen. Dwight Eisenhower explained his grisly tour of Nazi death camps in April 1945, in terms that the founders of the new United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found fit to prominently inscribe on a wall.
"I made the visit," the general said, "deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of those things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda."
There is an overpowering amount of such evidence in this edifice, which opens today in Washington. It is housed in a cold brick-and-limestone building whose architectural detail recalls the harshness, isolation, and extermination of the millions Nazi leader Adolf Hitler deemed corrosive to the German nation.
Depicting persecution in the most graphic of terms, the museum illustrates the appalling opposite of contemporary American culture, the bastion of freedom and democratic values. Museum planners chide America and the rest of the free world for allowing the Holocaust to happen; their intention is to make the plight of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others an indelible mark on the American conscience.
With floor-to-ceiling photographs, film footage of mass murders and eyewitness accounts, documents, names, maps, books, clothing, and other personal remnants of lives past, the museum brings 1993 viewers about as close as possible to the human horror that began 60 years ago.
The permanent collection is not for the rushed or the weary; it requires at least three to four hours of concentration on a very troubling subject in a very uncomfortable arena. The bare floors are unforgiving on the feet, the bolted doors are heavy, and though the display is vast, space is tight and dimly lit.
Visitors begin their three-level tour on the fourth floor, where an exhibit unravels Germany's turbulent 1933-38 period and Hitler's rise to power. The Jews, the handicapped, dissidents, and other groups were stripped of their rights and terrorized. During these years, some 40,000 Jews found sanctuary in the US, only a fraction of those who tried to come. "The United States could have absorbed more but it did not," museum commentary bluntly asserts. "Bound by immigration quotas, influenced by popular ant i-immigration sentiment, and hampered by the anti-Semitism at the State Department, the US government remained callous in its willingness to help."
Material displays show how the Nazis plotted to destroy whatever stood in the way of their "ethnic purity." A crude hospital bed, restraints, and a doctor's coat are eerie reminders of October 1939 to August 1941, when more than 70,000 patients in German hospitals and asylums were killed. Wartime, Hitler said, was "the best time for the elimination of the incurably ill." Hitler's systematic murder of other "threats to the German nation," including Poles, Gypsies and political dissidents, began.
The exhibit moves to the slave-labor camps, with images of shaved skulls atop emaciated bodies and elaborate recreations of crematoria where 1,000 bodies were burned daily.
A wall-to-wall photograph in brown and red tones shows one of the many vast accumulations of hair cut from the heads of camp residents. The Germans used it for stuffing mattresses and for making felt slippers and bumpers for boats. Some 15,000 pounds of hair, bound in 40-pound bales, were found at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
An enormous pile of old shoes that belonged to men, women, and children who were gassed to death, give off a faint odor of old leather and grime. The sensation brings alive the cost of Nazism - a human toll measured in the millions.
A seeming reprieve turns out to be equally disturbing. It is the museum's room where the "American response" is recorded. Lining the walls are front pages of the major US papers of the day, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the Los Angeles Examiner. "Reich Decrees Iron Rule, Abolishes Civil Rights..." reads one headline from 1933. "Nazis Warn World Jews Will Be Wiped Out Unless Evacuated by Democracies," reads another from 1938.
On one of the room's many video monitors, an announcer describes the inward focus of US policymakers who faced staggering economic problems of the time. By the 1930s, one quarter of US workers were out of work, and politicians were wary of exacerbating unemployment. Against this backdrop, the announcer says US officials erected "insurmountable walls against desperate visa applicants."
Before Hitler's ascendance to power in 1933, more than 9 million Jews lived on the European continent. By 1945, when American troops entered the Nazi camps to liberate the survivors, 2 out of 3 European Jews were dead.