The Post's architecture critic, Benjamin Forgey, while praising the Holocaust Memorial Museum's design, wrote that "the symbolic implication" of its placement on the Mall "remains unsettling."
By tradition, the Mall is the centerpiece of American democracy, bordered by the national museums, the Capitol and the White House, linked directly to memorials to Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and the fallen of Vietnam. Why then should a museum devoted to the Holocaust -- an event that took place on European soil and primarily on the body of the Jewish people -- find its home on the Mall?
The Holocaust provides the best answer. The Holocaust represents a loss of innocence for civilization. It is a manifestation of the dark side of human civilization, the civilization whose accomplishments are celebrated in the nearby Smithsonian Institution. "Dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge among men," the various divisions of the Smithsonian celebrate human history and creativity: the evolution of the human species, the aesthetic genius of the imagination and the extension of the boundaries of civilization to the skies and outer space.
The Holocaust also represents the expansion of the boundaries of human civilization, but into a dimension of evil hitherto unknown, one that, in the words of Viktor Frankl, "exceeds the capacity of the human imagination."
If the Smithsonian represents the accomplishments of civilization, the Holocaust raises fundamental questions about the capacity of individuals and of society, of technology and human genius for evil. The Holocaust reminds us that we can choose to empower or imprison, to include or exclude, to dignify or dehumanize others. By stark examples, it dramatizes human vulnerability.
The victims came from the ancestral homelands of many Americans. They were Jews and Gentiles, Gypsies and Jehovah's Witnesses, political and religious opponents of Nazism, old, gay or handicapped -- heroic and ordinary. Many survivors rebuilt their lives in freedom as citizens of the United States.
Among the perpetrators were philosophers and poets, historians and scientists -- men and women of extraordinary achievement who used their impressive talents in service of the process of destruction. Acting from an ideology of anti-Semitism and racism, they staffed the Einsatzgruppen that slaughtered millions in the East, conducted scientific experiments in the concentration camps and published their results in "learned" journals. The Holocaust Museum, mandated by a unanimous act of Congress and enthusiastically endorsed by two presidents, will address this moral dimension of history, the need to fuse human talent with ethical responsibility.
Because the Holocaust Memorial is located in the heart of our nation's capital and because it is a national memorial, the uniquely American dimension of the Holocaust will be consistently represented in the museum. American soldiers brought an end to the Third Reich, defeating Nazism. Americans of all races and creeds liberated the camps. And when survivors and liberators embraced, American soldiers led by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower became eyewitnesses committed to telling the story of the inferno.
And, yes, America did not do enough. A record of failure and indifference marked national policy until 1944, when three young Treasury Department officials, Josiah Dubois, John Pehle and Randolph Paul, convinced Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. of the errors of our policy in a devastating memo on the U.S. acquiescence in the murder of the Jews. Morgenthau, in turn, presented a personal memorandum to the president detailing a dismal record of cover-up and complicity. The museum will tell that story as well.
What a powerful symbol for all to see each day as they travel to work and make choices between playing it safe and doing what is right! What a critical reminder to all visitors to Washington of the capacity of government to admit its errors and to change failed policies, to respond to human needs, to defend human rights.
-- Harvey M. Meyerhoff The writer is chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.