What the Death Machine Could Not Kill: Review the Holocaust Museum, an Album of Agony

Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST - Visitors to the United States Holocaust Museum pass beneath a cast taken from the original entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, inscribed with the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free),

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It is easy to raise questions about the Holocaust Museum.

You can wonder how it can purport to describe so much of World War II without describing that war's origins in that other holocaust called World War I.

You can recoil more than a little at its distortions — few, but outrageous, like the film that virtually declares antisemitism started with the birth of Jesus. (The Old Testament alone would seem to document several thousand years of previous history.) 

You can point out that the museum, despite its best efforts, suggests that Jews had a monopoly in World War II on persecution, suffering and ghastly death. If you had a sister among the thousands gang-raped and beheaded by Japanese soldiers in Nanking, or a brother starved and tortured on the Bataan Death March or a parent incinerated in the gratuitous obliterative bombings of Rotterdam (theirs) or Dresden (ours), or a relative among the millions who rotted as slaves in the Stalinist gulags, it is possible to become just a little impatient with evocations of the Holocaust.

Yet about a third of the way through the permanent exhibit, just after the murders of the handicapped and before the ovens of Birkenau; before the films of women being stripped and shot by the hundreds and the piles of skeletal corpses shoved around with bulldozers, you come to a place where every question about the Holocaust, every reservation about the museum, becomes not only irrelevant but almost obscene.

It's a room walled with photographs, ordinary age-tinted portraits of extraordinary and heart-rending beauty.

There are old people with the nobility of suffering in every wrinkle, and young girls radiant with serenity and joy. There are jovial fat men at the beach in those undershirt bathing suits of ages past, and a brother and sister happy in the snow with skis. A young girl in white dress and Mary Janes pedals a large bicycle with formal solemnity. Six children in winter coats and hats try unsuccessfully to stifle grins. One family boats on a still, sun-dappled river; another gags it up in the snow, one of its members comically atilt.

The 1,032 faces reach down past your feet and up out of sight above your head. You long for a ladder so you can follow them — images of children in swings and grown-ups in hammocks, young lovers on paths and babies in arms. Five burly woodsmen, arrogant in their strength, pose proudly with axes and saw. A young woman with Gypsy eyes, lovely beyond telling, cradles a lute in her lap. Two self-consciously artistic teenagers strike a pose of Bohemian daring, she in boots and visored cap, bending as he lights her cigarette. A tiny boy in a sailor suit perches atop a chair, his small face prescient with fear.

The portraits are a half-century of photographic images from the single small town of Ejszyszki, near Vilnius in what is now Lithuania, where Jews had a rich culture for 900 years. Nazi killing squads found 3,500 there in September 1941. In two days they shot almost all of them.

The faces from the tower of pictures will haunt your dreams. They will come back to you more than the pits filled with bodies or the sunken-eyed living skeletons or the dismembered corpses from the medical experiments or the Karlsruhe boxcar on the railroad tracks from Treblinka that you walk right through on your way to the exhibit on the Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution.”

Because while most of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum deals with emptiness and death, the Tower of Faces sings with the fullness of life.

Only later do you realize it's shaped like a chimney.

The most telling image of evil in the museum is not the dwarf who was knifed to death so his skeleton could be studied, or the man you watch dying in the pressure chamber experiments or the Nazi accomplice who climbs atop the pile of mob-murdered Jews with an accordion and plays the Lithuanian national anthem.

It is Hugo Jaeger's photo of the 1938 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. In the right foreground, complexions aglow with excitement, stand two sweet-faced adolescent girls in blond braids and dirndls. One has an engaging overbite. Both look so fresh and happy and innocent of menace they might belong to the Von Trapp Family Singers. Except that they're sieg heiling with several thousand like-minded Hitler Youth above a phalanx of trench-helmeted storm troopers. It may be the most prophetic image ever captured on film.

It is also the most political of images, a stunning evocation of Aryan mythology and Nazi power. It anchors the Nazi propaganda section of the museum's fourth floor, after the book burnings and before the photos of doctors measuring heads and noses to obtain data on the “science” of race.

If the Tower of Faces is the heart of the Holocaust Museum, the photo of those girls may be its brain. Somewhere in that picture, you keep telling yourself, is the answer to why this all happened. Somewhere in those happy faces must lie the mystery of evil that explains it all. The Germans weren't all monsters. How could they let it happen? 

Such answers as the museum provides are more than unsettling. For the fourth floor, where you enter the permanent exhibit, is largely devoted to the rise of Nazism. And amid the film strips of marching masses waving swastika flags and thundering the “Horst Wessel Song,” we are reminded that the Weimar Republic, however flawed, was a constitutional democracy. Hitler wasn't forced on the German people: He was elected. Swept into office in a failed economy, he called on Germans to recapture their greatness, asking them for something that sounds disturbingly like “the courage to change.”

But as the museum traces his rise to power it makes two great and regrettable omissions. The first is its failure to mention Hitler's unquestioned managerial genius — his incredibly rapid transformation of a nation in social, economic and political chaos into one with a productive economy, full employment, booming agriculture and trains that ran on time. Never mind the cost in human rights — Germans suddenly sensed their nation was alive with new purpose, accelerating toward a magical destiny. They could see the changes in their own lives. And so they closed their eyes and minds to the plight of the Jews and to everything else. His victories, both economically and militarily, wrapped him for Germans in a messianic aura of infallibility. However insane he looks to us now, he and his party raised Germany from the dead and made it appear invincible. It is impossible to grasp his hold over the German people without recognizing and appreciating that fact.

Had the gangsterism of the Nazis not been coupled with such initial triumphs, the “new order” might well have proved short-lived and the Holocaust might never happened. Hatred alone, after all, makes thin soup.

The Holocaust Museum, perhaps inevitably, deals little with Hitler's genuine achievements. Nor does it remind us of the lofty height from which German civilization plummeted under the swastika: from the nation of Bach and Beethoven, of Goethe and Hegel, of Einstein and Durer and all the hundreds of other Germanic geniuses of science, literature and the arts, to a nation of squalid, goose-stepping baby-butchers.

All this took remarkably little time. From Hitler's appointment as chancellor in 1933 to his suicide in the ruins of Berlin took just 12 years — no more time than Ronald Reagan and George Bush together spent in the White House.

And Hitler, exhibits remind us, was no less a media creation than they. He was one of the world's first politicians to campaign by airplane, and virtually gave away radios so his charismatic speeches could reach every German home. The Nazis so pioneered the art of motion pictures that “The Triumph of the Will,” Leni Riefenstahl's landmark film glorifying the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, is still studied as a masterpiece of propaganda.

So technologically advanced were the Nazis that they used early punch-card computers — we see one on display — to sort census data for Jews. In fact, their whole campaign against the Jews was billed as a march of progress — nthe very latest in scientific thinking. Darwinian eugenics were being taken as far as they could go. Racial purity! Aryan ascendance! And everyone else in the fire.

You don't have to see the prisoners strangled in the toilet if you don't want to. Or the bulldozed bodies from the typhus epidemic at Bergen-Belsen. There's a privacy wall so you can avoid the exhibit on human hair, which was shorn from the oven-bound and packed in 40-pound bales. At the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Soviets found 15,000 pounds of it. The Germans had been using it to stuff mattresses and make socks for submarine crews.

But each visitor to the Holocaust Museum will find his own limit somewhere. There's a bridge walled with the names of communities erased in the Holocaust. There's another bridge walled with names of vanished people. There's a lounge after the Tower of Faces where visitors can take time out.

At some point, however (probably on the third floor), you will have to look into the face of someone caught in the Nazi death machine — before, after or during his moment of death.

Pray it's not someone you know.

The faces are easier to deal with if they're anonymous, and there's a brutalizing process involved in viewing them after a while. Part of that comes from the point of view. While some of the films and photos were clandestinely taken, most were snapped by Germans, and thus show the killing from the perspective of the killers. What the perspective of the victims would be — looking up at the firing squads from those pits of naked bodies, or back at the mobs closing in, or out from the crowded gas chamber as the door is closing — it may be best not to consider.

Once the Nazis found they couldn't chase all the Jews away — the world wouldn't take them — they started shooting them. You might think this would be effective, and in a way it was. But when you consider the sort of numbers involved — 10,500 massacred just at Bydgoszcz in Poland, maybe 100,000 at Babi Yar near Kiev in the Ukraine — shooting clearly had its limitations. There were 2 million Jews in Poland alone, after all. In some of the pictures the pits of bodies stretch endlessly into the distance, and the long days of nonstop murdering appeared to unsettle even hardened SS troops. Moreover the logistics of reclaiming valuables from the victims — everything from clothing to gold teeth — were obviously difficult. More efficiency was clearly required.

At a conference in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on Jan. 20, 1942, the bureaucracy of mass slaughter was coordinated and refined.

Gassing of Jews had already begun in mobile vans at Chelmno, a Polish town 40 miles west of Lodz, and quickly expanded to the Chelmno death camp. A farmhouse at Auschwitz-Birkenau was being converted to a gas chamber. Gas chambers using carbon monoxide from engine exhaust were under construction at the Belzec death camp and experimentation with an insecticide called Zyklon B had begun at Auschwitz.

But the Wannsee Conference moved the mass exterminations from a sideline of Nazi conquest into a central goal. Germany became a genocidal state.

With extraordinary industrial efficiency, ingenuity and cost control, a self-supporting system was established whereby a relatively small staff could murder tens of thousands daily, while having little direct contact with the victims.

According to “The World Must Know,” Michael Berenbaum's catalogue of the museum's permanent exhibit, there is no evidence Jews were ever made into soap or lampshades, as legends of the Holocaust have long declared. The bureaucrats of the final solution concentrated with Teutonic thoroughness, instead, on the efficiency of death and disposal. For example new arrivals were mixed with veteran prisoners for gassing and incineration so the higher fat content of their bodies would help the ovens burn better.

By the time you get to the ovens themselves, beyond the reproduction of the Auschwitz gate and the table where gold teeth were pulled, beyond the diorama of Crematorium II, with its small plaster people dying in agony, you will have some concept of the extermination centers. There were, after all, only six where prisoners were gassed — Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek — though more than 3 million died there.

What is infinitely harder to grasp is that more than 9,000 other concentration camps existed in Nazi-occupied Europe — camps where slaves were worked and starved to death by the millions, or collected for “transportation to the east,” or held as prisoners of war, or shot or marched to oblivion or buried alive. And nearly as many died there.

The museum acknowledges that not all camp inmates were Jews, that thousands of Gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs, Poles and even Freemasons and Jehovah's Witnesses were also imprisoned and put to death. But the truth is that anyone could end up in a concentration camp. You didn't have to be a targeted minority.

We are not told who once wore the striped camp uniforms on display, or held the chipped food bowls or the hundreds of forks and knives, or owned the rusted umbrella frames or the thousands of shoes. Their nationality and religion and ethnicity seem far less important now than whatever joy they may have known before the Holocaust descended on them. How much really separated their prewar life from those sieg heiling girls in braids at the Nuremberg rally? Can we ever really fathom what they and all the others at that time endured? 

There are partial answers among the voices of survivors on the audio and video monitors, and among the second-floor exhibits on liberation, resistance and heroism.

But the only real answers seem to lie somewhere back in the Tower of Faces: among the laughing bathers on the beach, and the couples holding hands, and the children smiling so hopefully into the bright skies of memory.

 
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