United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, d.c., is America's national memorial to the Holocaust, whose mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about that unprecedented tragedy, preserve the memory of those who suffered, and encourage reflection upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by those events. Most of the museums and monuments on the National Mall in Washington, d.c., celebrate the fruits of democratic freedoms. Standing as a sobering counterpoint, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reflects the opposite – the disintegration of civilized values and the perversion of technological achievements. The museum is housed in an award-winning building designed by architect James Ingo *Freed of Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners. Freed's family fled Nazi Germany when he was a child. The Memorial Museum won the American Institute of Architects' Honor Award in 1994. The museum is a unique public-private partnership, built on public land with funds donated by the American people. The museum remains a joint effort of the United States government and private contributors from across the nation.


The initiative for the creation of the museum began when President Jimmy Carter appointed the President's Commission on the Holocaust on November 1, 1978, to study the idea of an American national memorial to the Holocaust. Chaired by Elie *Wiesel, the commission issued its Report to the President, on September 27, 1979, calling for a permanent "living memorial" in Washington, d.c. The commission felt that such a memorial would fulfill the obligation to learn from the past and to teach future generations, in its words, "A memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past." The president accepted the Commission's recommendations and appointed a United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

By a unanimous vote on October 7, 1980, Congress established the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and charged it with raising funds for and building the memorial museum, conducting an annual national Days of Remembrance observance for the victims of the Holocaust, and establishing a Committee on Conscience to serve as an influential voice on issues of contemporary genocide and related crimes against humanity. Elie Wiesel and Mark Talisman were named the first chairman and vice chairman of the Council, respectively.

The Building of the Museum

An official groundbreaking ceremony on the site of the future museum took place on October 16, 1985, just south of Independence Avenue, bordering 14th and 15th Streets, Southwest. On October 8, 1986, the section of 15th Street, Southwest, in front of the site was officially renamed Raoul Wallenberg Place, in honor of the Swedish diplomat responsible for rescuing thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

In February 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Harvey M. Meyerhoff as chairman of the Council, succeeding Elie Wiesel, who had resigned the Council chairmanship in December 1986 after being given the Nobel Peace Prize.

President Reagan appointed William J. Lowenberg to serve as Meyerhoff's vice chairman. Albert Abramson chaired the Museum Development committee that oversaw the creation of the museum. Miles Lerman chaired the International Relations Committee and the Campaign to Remember, the fundraising arm of the Museum, and Benjamin Meed chaired the Content and Days of Remembrance Committees.

To spearhead the creation of the museum, in 1989, the council appointed Jeshajahu (Shaike) Weinberg to serve as museum director. Weinberg, whose background was in theater and museums, had pioneered the idea of a storytelling museum when he led the development of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The Museum Opening

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened to the public on April 26, 1993, with a dedication ceremony attended by President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and many national and international dignitaries.

The museum opened at a time of dramatically increased attention to the Holocaust in the United States. The Museum of Tolerance had opened some two months before; Schindler's List premiered that fall; and in Bosnia ethnic cleansing was taking place in Europe for the first time since 1945. The museum drew large crowds, predominantly non-Jewish, from the day it opened. Almost 20 million visitors saw the museum during its first decade, including about six million school-children. Visitation is 90 percent non-Jewish. The museum has been an important destination for international visitors. Eighty heads of state have visited, as have almost 3,000 foreign officials from more than 130 countries.

Though the Holocaust did not take place on American soil, the museum's core messages are very much intended for American audiences as it reflects on American history and American values.

The museum, of course, has special meaning to Holocaust survivors and to the American Jewish community. Its creators felt free to create this memorial in the heart of America's civic landscape. The choice of Washington and not New York was a decision to take what could have been kept as the parochial memoirs of a bereaved community to the American people as a lesson for humanity, while preserving the Judeocentricity of the event.

Remembrance is at the heart of the museum and it resonates throughout the building. The hexagonal Hall of Remembrance and the Wall of Remembrance, which memorializes the murdered children, are the two specific memorial spaces.

Another memorial component is the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, which contains information on more than 190,000 survivors and their family members, including names, cities of birth, places of transit and incarceration, wartime locations, and communities of resettlement. Remembrance is also central to the museum's programming, both onsite and around the country, ranging from the oral testimony in exhibitions to talks by survivors at the Museum and around the country. Perhaps most important, the enduring commitment to remembrance is affirmed annually when the Museum leads the nation in observing the Days of Remembrance with ceremonies in the United States Capitol Rotunda and at the Museum, and in commemorations in cities and states throughout the country. Every president since 1979 has spoken at the Days of Remembrance commemoration as well as many cabinet officials and Supreme Court justices.

Directed by Jeshajahu Weinberg, designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who worked in collaboration first with Martin Smith 1989–91 and later with Raye Farr as director of the Permanent Exhibition, to implement the storyline developed by a team of scholars, curators and museum conceptual developers headed by Holocaust scholar and Museum Project Director Michael *Berenbaum, the Permanent Exhibition presents a chronological account in a self-guided format that is designed for visitors 11 years of age and above. Traversing three floors, it is divided into three sections, "Nazi Assault – 1933 to 1939," "The 'Final Solution' – 1940 to 1945," and "Last Chapter."

The story is told through photographs, film, documents and artifacts – such as a barracks from Birkenau, a railcar of the type used to transport Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka, a milk can hidden by Jews under the Warsaw ghetto, and a Danish boat that transported Jews to freedom. Four themes underlie the permanent exhibition: personalizing the story of the Holocaust, making it accessible to American visitors intellectually and conceptually, including all victims of Nazi tyranny without diluting from the Judeocentricity of the event, and understanding the unique perspective of those who were there. The exhibition personalizes the history, encourages visitors to understand the Holocaust as an event that people did to other people, and encourages identification with the victims and the understanding that the victims were very much like us. Another permanent installation is Remember the Children: Daniel's Story, which recounts the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. This interactive exhibition with recreated environments was designed for younger audiences, eight years and above, accompanied by their families and teachers. Although intended for younger audiences, it is also very moving for adult visitors.

The museum also offers special exhibitions in the Sidney Kimmel and Rena Rowan Exhibition Gallery and the Gonda Education Center, as well as topical displays in the Museum's Wexner Learning Center. Designed as a destination for visitors to explore and discuss Holocaust history and its meaning today, the Wexner Learning Center examines various themes and features an array of digital media, group-discussion areas, artifact displays, and videos of eyewitness testimonies. It has explored such topics as liberation, war crimes trials, and contemporary genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

The National Institute for Holocaust Education

The museum has become a worldwide leader in Holocaust education in the broadest sense. Its stature has enabled it to work nationally, internationally, and with an array of U.S. and regional governmental entities.

The Teacher Fellowship Program provides advanced professional development training to highly experienced secondary level teachers in all 50 states. The Law Enforcement and Society Program serves police and federal law enforcement officers, as well as fbi agents and judges, encouraging participants to explore the implications of Holocaust history for their own professions. The Holocaust, the Military, and the Defense of Freedom Program reaches cadets from the U.S. Naval Academy, officers in training at West Point, foreign liaison officers at the Pentagon, and soldiers, sailors, pilots and marines from military bases, aircraft carriers, and active duty locations nationwide. Finally, the museum's Leadership and Diplomacy Programs reach out to senior civil servants within the Federal Executive Institute and foreign service officers in training with the State Department so they might approach their public service with a sophisticated level of moral discourse rooted in awareness of Holocaust history and a commitment to vigorous response when faced with contemporary threats of genocide.

Rescue the Evidence

The Museum's educational work depends on its collections and ensuring the vitality of Holocaust scholarship. Already housing the most comprehensive collection of Holocaust-related resources in a single location, the museum was fortunate to have negotiated with East European governments at transitional moments, before, during and after the revolutionary regime changes that swept across Eastern Europe in the years just prior to the museum's opening. It is also fortunate to receive donations of artifacts and material from Americans of all walks of life, survivors, rescuers, and liberators as well as their descendants. The museum is continuing its efforts to acquire materials through its Rescue the Evidence Initiative, seeking donations of objects and documents from Holocaust survivors, liberators, eyewitnesses, and their family members, as well as institutions and governments. The museum makes a concerted effort to offer access to highly relevant archival materials, otherwise widely dispersed internationally, via a centralized collection of microfilm copies. Many of these microfilms are also available in Jerusalem at *Yad Vashem and the museum has a policy of sharing microfilmed material to maximize its accessibility to scholars.

The Photographic Reference Collection is one of the museum's most widely used resources, containing copies of images from collections worldwide. It is an indispensable source of information for educators, filmmakers, curators, researchers, journalists, and publishers throughout the world.

In addition, the museum's Library comprehensively collects books, dissertations, music scores, sound recordings, periodicals, audiovisual materials, and other electronic media on the historiography and documentation of the Holocaust and the Third Reich, personal accounts of Holocaust survivors and victims, and materials relating to war crimes and war crimes trials. In order to support background research on the Holocaust and related topics, the Library also collects materials on World War ii, genocide studies, antisemitism, and Jewish genealogical and cultural history as affected by the Holocaust.

Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies

From its inception the Museum was conceived of as an educational and scholarly institution, a center for both research and teacher training. Within months of its opening the Research Institute was opened with a scholarly conference. In 1998 the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies was established to foster the continued growth and vitality of the academic study of the Holocaust. The center has taken the lead in training and supporting new scholars in the field through rigorous academic programs and is working to ensure that students at colleges and universities are taught at the highest levels of excellence by conducting programs for faculty members who specialize in this field. The center offers conferences, fellowships, awards, and stipends. It also publishes in the field of Holocaust studies, including the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, published in association with Oxford University Press.

As part of its effort to encourage a balanced and comprehensive approach to the field of Holocaust scholarship, the center launched its Jewish Source Study Initiative to encourage research on how Jews – as individuals and communities – responded during the Holocaust. This research program is an effort to balance the established research focus on the perpetrators with a commensurate level of attention to documenting the perspectives of those targeted.

Committee on Conscience

As the museum is a living memorial to the victims, its Committee on Conscience works to raise public awareness and alert the national conscience to contemporary acts or threats of genocide and related crimes against humanity. The committee has addressed areas such as Rwanda, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Sudan (both southern and Darfur regions). Working with the U.S. State Department and other federal entities, the committee recently launched an Academy for Genocide Prevention.

Museum Governance

The museum is overseen by the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which includes 55 private citizens appointed by the U.S. president, five members of the Senate and five members of the House of Representatives, and three ex-officio members from the Departments of State, Education, and Interior.

Since the museum opened, the council has been led by Chairman Miles Lerman and Vice Chairman Ruth B. Mandel, appointed by President Clinton in 1993; Chairman Rabbi Irving Greenberg, appointed by President Clinton in 2000; Chairman Fred S. Zeidman, appointed by President Bush in 2002; and Vice Chairman Joel M. Geiderman, appointed by President Bush in 2005.

The council has appointed these individuals to serve as directors of the museum: Jeshajahu Weinberg, 1987–94; Walter Reich, 1995–98; Sara J. Bloomfield, from 1999.


M. Berenbaum, After Tragedy and Triumph: Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience (1990); idem, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (20052); T. Cole, Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler; How History Is Bought, Packaged, and Sold (1999); E.T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum (1995); T.W. Luke, "Memorializing Mass Murder: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum," in: Museum Politics: Power Plays at the Exhibition (2002), 37–64; P. Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (1999); President's Commission on the Holocaust, Report to the President (1979); J. Weinberg and R. Elieli, The Holocaust Museum in Washington (1995). website: www.ushmm.org.

[Dara Goldberg (2nd ed.)]

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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum