On a spring afternoon two years ago, members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council visited two surplus federal buildings near the Washington Monument. The council was considering sites for America's official Museum of the Holocaust.

The long, two-story red brick buildings were ideally located, between 14th and 15th streets NW near the Mall, but were crumbling and filthy, with broken windows and junk-filled rooms. They had a barracks-like appearance: "I'll never forget if I live to be a thousand," said Council member Hyman Bookbinder. "When I approached the buildings I looked at them and I said, 'Oh my God, this looks like Auschwitz.' "

The members gathered in a big room in one building. Silence fell. "It was very eerie and wonderful and everybody was feeling the same," said Vice Chairman Mark Talisman. "I was in tears . . . Others cried . . ."

Chairman Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, said quietly in his Hungarian accent, "This is it. This is it."

The Holocaust museum project was born in partisan politics in the Carter White House, and its history includes bitter squabbling over political appointments. But, in many ways, it is a classic political success story. Two presidents and a unanimous Congress endorsed it, and officials as diverse as Stuart Eizenstat and James G. Watt labored so that an edifice bearing testament to the darkest in human nature will overlook the Mall, America's spacious, upbeat hymn to the Enlightenment.

Keys to the $6.1 million building will be handed to Wiesel by Vice President Bush today as part of the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust. Planning is going forward with $2.4 million in federal money, and the council is seeking $75 million in private funds to create the museum and a related educational, archival and research foundation. Officials hope to open the doors by late 1988.

The idea was always to keep the project above politics. "Partisanship could kill it instantly," said Talisman. Wiesel objected when a public relations person was hired because, he said, "It's too holy for that."

The subject--the effort to exterminate an entire people--is at once so horrifying, personal and universal that its entry into the homogenizing maw of American politics was, for many, unthinkable.

Yet others believe the museum is a necessity. The survivors of the death camps are dying, the documentation moldering. An institute in California has claimed the Holocaust never happened. Making it part of the larger American consciousness risks dilution and distortion, wrote former project official Michael Berenbaum, but "if we choose not to run these risks, we cannot bemoan the fact that the world is ignorant or indifferent."

The history of the project includes unusual measures to hide developments from the public, infighting over which groups to include and angry debate on the definition of the Holocaust itself. Turkey has warned that including the 1915-1923 Armenian genocide as a precursor to the Holocaust will strain relations, and the German ambassador has privately expressed concern.

But the museum is unstoppable now.

"I saw the Mall surrounded by monuments and museums testifying to the greatness of our civilization," said Council member and Auschwitz survivor Sigmund Strochlitz. ". . . And here will be a memorial to a failure. Auschwitz perverted the values of Western civilization, and all of a sudden in the heart of Washington we are going to have a monument to that perversion. It's amazing."

The museum had its origin at a time of bitter U.S.-Israeli relations when American Jews feared a Carter administration tilt to the Arabs. The initial spark was moral as well as political.

On March 27, 1978, Ellen Goldstein of the Carter domestic policy staff read a column by William Safire on American neo-Nazi plans to march in Skokie, Ill. "America has no vivid reminder of the horror of the Final Solution," wrote Safire.

In 1977, Goldstein had been asked by Mark A. Siegel, Carter's liaison with American Jewish voters, to research Holocaust memorials in other countries. Now, as she read of the neo-Nazis, she remembered the memorial project, and on March 28 sent a memo to domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat suggesting the administration promote a memorial even though this "might appear . . . to be glib public relations."

A week earlier, Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had finished two days of talks in sharp disagreement. Earlier in the month the Israelis had invaded Lebanon over U.S. protests. Carter's plan to sell warplanes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia had outraged American Jews, and Mark Siegel had resigned from the White House March 8 in protest.

"I was really intrigued with the Goldstein memo ," said Eizenstat, "in part because I myself lost a number of relatives in the Holocaust. I thought it was terribly important that documentation be made so clear that no one could ever seriously question" the reality and scope of the Holocaust.

While the Goldstein memo was on Eizenstat's desk, NBC's mini-series "Holocaust" mesmerized Americans in mid-April. On April 25 Eizenstat sent a memo to Carter noting "stronger support than ever among many Americans--not just Jewish-Americans--for an official U.S. memorial . . . to the Holocaust victims."

He suggested Carter announce plans for a memorial at a May 1, 1978 White House ceremony honoring Israel's 30th anniversary. Begin, hundreds of rabbis and other guests would be there. Carter agreed. In his speech, Carter asserted "our absolute commitment to Israel's security." The memorial would be "to the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust."

Begin called the speech "one of the greatest moral statements ever."

The skies seemed to be clearing; the Camp David accords lay just five months ahead.

Carter and Eizenstat agreed there was only one person of sufficient stature to chair the commission, and Eizenstat phoned Elie Wiesel. An author and scholar, Wiesel is best known for his writings on the death camps, where he lost his parents and younger sister. After meeting alone with Carter in the Oval Office, he accepted the job.

Wiesel "wanted to be sure it would be depoliticized," said Eizenstat. "I assured him it would be bipartisan."

Eizenstat and Carter chose Irving Greenberg of the National Jewish Resource Center as commission director, and Berenbaum, a religion professor at Wesleyan, as deputy. Eizenstat also phoned Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), deans of the Jewish delegations in Congress. Yates later became central to the project by spearheading the drive to get congressional approval.

The commission was launched Nov. 1, 1978, with 24 members and 27 advisers. They included a range of Jewish and Christian scholars and leaders. One member, Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), is an Episcopal minister who was so moved by the "Holocaust" mini-series that in 1979 he persuaded Congress to make April 28 and 29 the first nationwide Days of Remembrance.

From the first, said Berenbaum, "There was a debate . . . as to the nature of who are the victims, what is the unique Jewish dimension. There was also the question of whether it should be in New York or Washington. Were we talking about a national memorial or a Jewish memorial built under national auspices?"

Wiesel knew what he wanted--a memorial museum on the scale of Israel's Holocaust center, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a center of learning, a shrine. "I managed to turn it around." he said. "They meant to have a monument costing $100,000. I began saying, 'No.' It's possible to influence people, to change things.

"It began as a political thing, but it became much more."

That April 24 a Holocaust commemoration ceremony was held in the Rotunda by Carter and congressional leaders. Eizenstat called it "one of the two or three most moving events of the Carter years."

That summer, the commission visited European memorials and the sites of the death camps, and in September reported to Carter with a proposal that the museum be "a federal institution" in Washington with an educational foundation, that Days of Remembrance be held each year and that a Committee on Conscience be created to "receive reports of genocide" and "alert the national conscience."

Carter approved the proposals, but in 1980 the commission quickly became embroiled in political problems over the appointment of members for its successor, the Memorial Council, that Congress would unanimously approve Oct. 8.

It was an election year, and Carter wanted political appointments. Wiesel fought them.

"It was seven months of constant political pressure to accept people who had nothing to do with the subject except they were Democrats," Wiesel said. "I threatened to resign many times."

When it was over, council membership was an unwieldy 60, growing to 65 with Reagan appointees.

Eizenstat called the appointments "a very contentious issue. We felt it should be broad-based, Jews and non-Jews, other groups killed during the Holocaust. This was necessary to get a broad base of American support and get it through Congress . . . The survivors felt they were in the best position to make the judgments on the memorial."

"The debate was between Wiesel's friends and the president's friends," said one source.

Wiesel wanted former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg, who had been a commission member, but the White House vetoed him, reportedly because he had come out for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the 1980 presidential campaign. The White House insisted on New York Lt. Gov. (now governor) Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, and Carter fund-raiser A. Arthur Davis of Iowa.

The White House wanted ethnic groups and Nazi-occupied countries to be represented, which "opened up a whole new constituency and a feeling that nobody relevant should be left out," said Hofstra University law professor Monroe H. Freedman, who replaced Greenberg as commission director in late 1979.

Among those added were Aloysius A. Mazewski, president of the Polish National Alliance; John T. Pawlikowski, a Catholic priest; Constantine N. Dombalis, a Greek Orthodox priest; Jaroslav Drabek, formerly of the Czech underground; attorney Julian E. Kulas, of Ukrainian descent; history professor Willard Fletcher, of Dutch descent; Tibor Baranski, a non-Jew honored by Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust in his native Hungary; Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame; and Set Momjian, an Armenian-American.

From Congress, in addition to Jewish members and those representing heavily Jewish districts, the White House also chose Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), one of those to ask Germany to rescind the statute of limitations on war crimes; Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), who helped liberate Buchenwald; and Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), whose father, a New York congressman, was U.S. representative to the United Nations War Crimes Commission.

No sooner was the museum's prominent location disclosed than gay leaders called. Ten-thousand homosexuals were killed in the death camps, and the gays wanted to be included in the memorial. At first, memorial officials didn't return the calls but were forced to when a member of Congress intervened. The gays were told to send their brief and wait. It was never in doubt that other groups would be included, but Wiesel worried lest reality be distorted in the process:

"If you dejudaicize it, you denude it of its most specific, horrible meaning. The uniqueness of the Holocaust rests precisely on what happened to the Jews . . . These others were killed not for what they were but for what they did . . . We want to remember them and honor them . . . But it would be a distortion of history to say it was all the same thing. It was not. The Jewish people, and they alone, were singled out to be totally exterminated."

Congress, in authorizing a "permanent living memorial museum to the victims of the Holocaust," clearly meant the crime against the Jews, according to Rep. Yates. The House report accompanying the bill defined the Holocaust as "the systematic act of extermination of nearly 6 million Jews in Europe before and during World War II."

The report added: "During this same period millions of people suffered death and destruction at the hands of those who embraced the Nazi philosophy." Though not named in the report, these included Gypsies, Slavs, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and Nazi political opponents of various nationalities.

The Carter White House used a different definition: "the systematic, state-sponsored extermination of 6 million Jews and the murder of millions of other victims of the Nazi Holocaust." Berenbaum said this made many survivors on the commission uncomfortable "for it included non-Jews among the victims of the Holocaust."

Nevertheless, the museum will include many groups. Wiesel's formula is: "No omission, absolutely not, but no equation." Said Freedman: "It is practically inconceivable that there could be a U.S. Holocaust memorial that didn't include . . . national and ethnic groups who suffered under the Nazis."

What about those who suffered--although not under the Nazis?

"The museum could have famous genocides of the past: pogroms in Russia, Biafra, Cambodia, the American Indians, black slavery," said a Memorial Council official. "Everybody likes to get in on the act. From our point of view, it's a question of balance . . . I'd like to see something about what we did to the Japanese in the internment camps."

Bookbinder said other "incidents in our own inglorious history" could include American Indians "being . . . slaughtered because they were Indians. That comes closest to genocide."

Yet, Wiesel said, " we don't want to go too far back." He doesn't think the Cambodians should be included: "It was a massacre, which I denounced, but it was not a genocide. Our mandate is the Holocaust."

On the other hand, he thinks the Armenian slaughter by the Turks "should be included." The matter is sensitive. Turkey, a NATO power, issued a statement in response to a reporter's inquiry: "That the Turkish people be placed in the same category with the Nazis is an outrage . . . Such a display in the museum would be apt to trigger a strong reaction among the Turkish public in view of U.S. funding of the museum project. The impact on Turkish-U.S. relations would be distinctly adverse." A White House source recalled how, earlier, "The Turkish ambassador . . . implied the inclusion . . . might have an impact on Jews in Turkey."

Said Bookbinder: "The Armenian tragedy is indeed one of the greatest instances of massive violations of human rights. Somehow we want to acknowledge that, but we do not mean to suggest that Turkey is anywhere in the same league with Hitler in the Holocaust."

The Committee on Conscience was never created.

Bookbinder called the concept "simple but very profound"--a blue-ribbon group that would "in the name of remembering the Holocaust . . . scream out to the whole world and say, 'Hey, we see something terrible happening here which may be another Holocaust' . . . I'm a little disappointed that we haven't implemented that."

In fact, Congress never approved it. The legislation mandates the museum and Days of Remembrance but not the committee: the Memorial Council is authorized only to "develop a plan for carrying out the other recommendations" of the 1979 commission report, which include the committee. "Congress did not want it to be . . . active right away," said Wiesel. " . . . They were afraid of that. My idea is to come and speak up each time there is a threat of genocide . . . but the legislation is restraining."

Said Bookbinder: "Whether or not there is an official committee . . . I predict the Holocaust council will itself serve as a Committee on Conscience by the statements it will make."

When the new administration came in, Reagan impressed Wiesel as "a genuinely warm person, very sensitive to the suffering of the Jewish people." The president wept when he spoke at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony April 30, 1981, and later called Wiesel to say he was committed to the museum project.

But there were problems. Reagan's speech upset many because, as Berenbaum wrote, the president "asserted, contrary to all historical evidence, that the German people were unaware of what was happening in the concentration camps." And Reagan's quoting Pope Pius XII on the Holocaust was "offending all who knew of the Pope's inaction and acquiescence, if not collaboration, with respect to Nazi persecution."

Reagan's GSA chief Gerald P. Carmen acted quickly, transferring the buildings near the Mall to the Memorial Council Aug. 12, 1981. The public did not learn of the transfer for a year and a half because the council requested that the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission and a congressional subcommittee--watchdog agencies designated by Congress to oversee the approval process--suspend normal procedures and consider the matter in closed sessions in order not to preempt a possible presidential announcement of the transfer.

These agencies agreed, but the presidential announcement never took place, nor did the council's federally paid public relations person ever announce the transfer, which was made public in a newspaper account this March.

Museum planning is in a preliminary stage. Tentatively approved themes include the collapse of democracy in Germany, anti-Semitism, the indifference of the world to the Holocaust, the struggle for survival inside and outside the death camps, the lost culture of European Jews, the way groups other than Jews were swept up in the slaughter, the liberation of the camps and the fate of the survivors.

" We want to create a mood and climate to contribute to the prevention of a Holocaust in the future," said Bookbinder. "Young and old, Jew and non-Jew, people will say, 'We want to be part of remembering.' The goal is to have contributions from at least 6 million Americans, with school children contributing pennies and millionaires contributing millions."

In the death camps, said Wiesel, "We saw life and death naked." He will not allow the horrors to be watered down for bland American consumption. "I'd leave before that."

Executive Director Seymour Siegel said only one detail is certain at this point: The museum will have a kosher dining room.