Brutal thing — A ‘living memorial’ to the Holocaust

Published 10:16 pm Tuesday, May 8, 2018

May 14 is the 70th anniversary of the date Israel became an independent country. It had sufficient international support to do that, over violent opposition from surrounding Muslims, because of the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II. This year is also the 25th anniversary of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. I visited it recently. This story is reprinted by permission from WORLD magazine.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is swathed in blacks and grays. The palette saturates its concrete floors, its reels of subtitled news footage, and the haunting mound of shoes from Majdanek concentration camp. It also colors the identification cards that visitors receive when they step inside the museum’s main entrance.

Perhaps more than any of the museum’s exhibits, the cards — paper profiles of individuals who lived during the Holocaust — succeed in humanizing the horrific. Each trifold “passport” contains a photo and a biographical sketch. As visitors make their way through the museum, they unfold pages to learn of someone’s early life, war experience, and, finally, fate.

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Ruth Huppert Elias smiles from the front of one of these ID cards. Her dark hair is carefully smoothed back, and she is pictured leaning toward the camera, chin resting against her right hand. It is the hand of a classically trained pianist bound for the musical academy in Prague, but the young Czech never made it there. She went to Nazi camps Theresienstadt and Auschwitz instead.

The ideology that ultimately crushed Elias’ plans and those of millions of other Jews is masterfully depicted within the museum’s walls. The original commemorative idea, though, wasn’t a building. President Jimmy Carter in 1978 suggested a national Holocaust memorial — as in stone monument. The commission he appointed came back with a bigger proposal: It asked for “a living memorial,” one that would use artifacts and video monitors to inform, as well as honor.

The museum’s three-story permanent exhibit, The Holocaust, still stands as the response to that request. In it, designer Ralph Appelbaum aimed for an educational emotional encounter: Large-scale objects convey magnitude. Claustrophobic spots emphasize inhumanity. Tangible proof, like the railcar used to transport victims, forces realization.

The Holocaust project became Appelbaum’s proving ground for a new type of museum display, one that attached intense narratives to ordinary objects. Well-received, the sensory-assault approach catapulted Applebaum’s firm to international prominence.

Architect James Ingo Freed also made a name for himself through the museum. As a child, German-born Freed, a Jew, escaped the Holocaust by evacuating to the United States. He returned to its European remains to prepare for the museum project, and at the ovens “found his shoes flecked with bits of human bones.”

Freed told Smithsonian magazine that he 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.”

The result was what he described as “a brutal thing,” blueprints calling for a space that was deliberately disorienting, with downward spirals, an eccentrically placed skylight, gaping rifts and boarded windows. In form and function, the building evokes a sense of the Holocaust in a way history books never could.

But the museum isn’t just about show and tell. Behind the scenes, its collections arm aggressively secures and preserves evidence of the Holocaust, things like diaries, prison uniforms and films. Here, among the holdings, Ruth Elias’ story intersects with a prized cache: The museum has a handful of the few known photos of Josef Mengele, the notorious physician of Auschwitz.

When Elias gave birth to her first child, Mengele was there in the women’s block, waiting to conduct an experiment. He wanted to see how long a newborn infant could live without being fed. Her breasts bandaged, Elias wasn’t allowed to nurse her child. After eight days, a fellow prisoner helped her inject the suffering baby, ashen and covered with bedsores, with morphine.

Elias wrote of that experience in her memoir, Triumph of Hope. She also described postwar life in Czechoslovakia as difficult, with a “hatred of Jews too deeply ingrained to change in a few months.” And while Josef Mengele did a disappearing act in South America, Ruth Elias went in an opposite direction. She joined large numbers of displaced Jews who wanted to leave their past — and the Holocaust — behind. They went to the new homeland, where any Jew could become a citizen under any circumstance.

Today, visitors can keep as souvenirs Elias’ ID card and the hundreds of others carried through the museum. Lingering at a concluding display, Justine Morris, 31, of Ohio, fingered her card and said she felt “heavy” after her tour: “It makes me realize I shouldn’t be silent in the face of injustice. Here, you see minor sins committed that build upon each other.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at