February 24, 2012

Philip Kennicott’s revelation [“Holocaust Museum at risk of losing Auschwitz piece,” front page, Feb. 17] that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is already shipping back to Poland shoes, suitcases and prayer shawls for “equivalent pieces” raises serious questions for the museum’s guardians. It has also, I’ve noticed on The Post’s Web site, produced a spurt of anti-Semitic poison from those who fail to see the Holocaust as a warning to all mankind.

As the person who conceived the narrative structure and methods that the museum’s exhibition uses to depict an event, as Mr. Kennicott put it, “industrial in its magnitude and horrifying in its detail,” I can offer some background information that might be useful.

In the late 1980s, after years of failed attempts, the founders of the museum set up a content committee, made up of Holocaust survivors, scholars and philanthropists, to hammer out a way of telling the story of the Holocaust. Led by then-museum director Jeshajahu Weinberg, exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum and I would regularly attend meetings and give presentations to skeptical and concerned members of the group. They were fearful that important facts might be omitted, that visitors might be repelled and that only a small number of Jews would visit the museum. Our discussions were often agonizing and sometimes brought us close to tears. It did seem an impossible task: Tell a true story — more complex than any Shakespearean drama, more appalling than any Greek tragedy — with just a handful of small objects and no script.

Yet, thanks to the efforts of Holocaust survivors around the world, and the generosity of the Polish authorities of the time, the eventual outcome was a permanent exhibition fitting for a memorial museum in the heart of Washington. Let there be no doubt, the hundreds of artifacts from Auschwitz are essential to the way the museum relates the unimaginable depravity and horror of the Holocaust.

The items were acquired on a long-term loan, but there was — certainly on the part of those making the permanent exhibition in the United States — no expectation that the artifacts would ever have to be returned. Yet that is what is happening now, as museum staff prepare for the shipment of a wooden barracks back to Poland.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a governing body, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. It includes five members from both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and has ex officio members from the State, Education and Interior departments.

These officials are presumably aware that in recent months Poland has been granted $65 million by the United States to ensure the long-term preservation of historic artifacts at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Have these officials been involved in attempts to preserve the integrity of Washington’s permanent exhibition? Can they not impress on the Polish authorities that it is in the best interest of everyone that the artifacts remain where they are?

The writer was exhibition director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1988 to 1990.

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