National Holocaust Memorials

A transnational comparison.

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The architect of the museum, James Ingo Freed, introduced the concept of architecture as a "resonator of memory." Some rooms remind visitors of barbed-wired camps or fenced ghettos; visitors feel a sense of oppression as the steel doors of the elevator contain them tight in almost no light; they take hallways that lead to dead-ends; they are crowded in narrow rooms. The architecture serves the content of the exhibition by leading visitors to experience a kind of malaise in their bodies, and not just learn about the Holocaust with their intellect.

The museum includes replicas of objects--a cattle wagon used for deportation, clothes of inmates, documents--that contribute to unsettling visitors and making their experience moving and disturbing. Some critics have argued that the use of replica, as well as television screens and other display devices, is too gimmicky, and contributes to the "Disneyfication" of the Holocaust.

At the end of the day, however, the USHMM is one of the most visited museums in Washington, especially by thousands of students who learn about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust there for the first time.

The USHMM also includes temporary exhibits that relate to other genocides, from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur, an avenue that very few Holocaust-related institutions have taken.

Germany

It took 17 years of campaigning, two design competitions, a vote in the Parliament and $30 million of federal budget before Germany unveiled its first national Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the heart of Berlin in 2005.

American architect Peter Eisenman designed the memorial, arranging 2,711 rectangular stelae looking like tombstones in a grid. The architect aimed for minimalism and abstraction, and wanted visitors to wander through the memorial and experience an uncanny and threatening feeling, meant to evoke the Nazi camps.

Because of its extreme simplicity and the absence of markers specific to the Holocaust, the memorial can easily be mistaken for an outdoors artwork for public enjoyment. Children regularly play and shout as they run between the high concrete slabs.

Despite the architect's original intent, a small exhibition hall was added underground, where visitors can learn about the history of the Holocaust and consult databases provided by Yad Vashem.

As much as the architectural monument is a work of anonymity and abstraction, the underground museum focuses on individuality and humanity. One room tells the fate of 15 Jewish families from all over Europe; in another, the names and short biographies of Holocaust victims are projected on a dark wall, and recited in German and English.

Surprisingly, visitors to the German memorial are usually more moved and disturbed by the visual exhibit below--with its traditional display panels--rather than the cutting-edge design of the monument above. They remain quiet and respectful downstairs, but often eat and laugh upstairs. It seems that the architectural monument fails to meet the standards of a Holocaust memorial, while the modest exhibition overachieves its educational goal by becoming a memorial itself.

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Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion is an expert on post-Holocaust memory, most notably memorials and monuments, commemorative practices, restitution and compensation. Her expertise also includes the history of Anti-Semitism. She is the former director of the Committee against Anti-Semitism (CICAD) in Geneva, Switzerland.