I traveled to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., looking for permission to stare at history. And, like a mountain stripped of timber, the mass of evidence faced me, exposed and severe.
Should you choose this difficult pilgrimage, prepare to wander for perhaps hours through a deeply troubling spiritual labyrinth. Continuously playing audio tapes relay the sometimes steady, sometimes broken voices of liberators and survivors in otherwise quiet chambers of film footage, photos, and physical articles. The sound curiously measures the Holocaust word after word, one voice at a time.
Outside, across the street, a U.S. Department of Agriculture building sprawls. It exists, at base, to feed people. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum exists to nourish a different kind of hunger in a forgetful populace.
IN 1980, A UNANIMOUS act of Congress granted the museum 1.9 acres between 14th and 15th Streets Northwest, just paces off the Independence Avenue side of the Mall. Before opening, the museum renamed 15th Street as Raoul Wallenberg Place. The address now honors the Swedish diplomat in Hungary who rescued thousands of Jews until his arrest and disappearance in 1945.
Striving to educate a diverse public, the presidentially appointed Holocaust Council already has spent $168 million in private donations. Chair Harvey M. Meyerhoff and vice chair William J. Lowenberg hope the museum raises difficult issues of moral responsibility and individual choice. They believe it testifies "not only to the tragedies of our past, but to the hopeful possibilities of our future."
The architecture alone agitates desire for "hopeful possibilities," for balance and order and harmony. Strange corridors, irregularly shaped rooms, ramps, towers - a formidable onslaught of asymmetry encourages disorientation. Like the Holocaust victims, visitors often don't know quite where to turn or when they'll be free to live life normally again.