Holocaust Memory: A Book Review

George Cassutto

Preserving Memory: The Struggle To Create America's Holocaust Museum, Edward T. Linenthal. New York: Penguin Books, Inc. 1995, 336 pp.

Edward Linenthal's book Preserving Memory is a captivating description of the political, spiritual, and ethical dilemmas that surfaced during the establishment of a national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The book is more meaningful to the reader if one is familiar with the United Holocaust Memorial Museum and its permanent exhibition, but even if the reader has not yet had the chance to view the artifacts of the museum, this discussion of the conflicts that arose as the museum was being planned, built, and developed should interest any scholar of the Holocaust. Moreover, the book comprises an excellent case history in the area of governmental decision-making regarding the federal bureaucracy, issues related to ethnic inclusion in the nation's history, and how the Holocaust is defined in historical, religious, and moral terms.

The author's primary focus is that of defining what he calls "Holocaust Memory." The issue at hand is that of who "owns" the memory of the Holocaust, and within that discussion, how should the Holocaust be defined when the resulting definition is to be incorporated into a national and federal memorial. Interestingly, these issues may not seem so readily obvious before reading the book, but Linenthal brings these issues to the surface by outlining the personal struggles that took place within the Holocaust Memorial Council and the President's Commission on the Holocaust during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Central to these discussions was that of the Jewish nature of the Holocaust. As writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel argued, the Holocaust was an event of a specifically Jewish nature, unique in history because of the genocidal attempt by the Nazis to remove the Jews as a people from the face of the earth, which was unprecedented up to that time. Many scholars involved in the development of the museum objected by reminding us that five million non-Jews were also "victims" of Nazi terror. The national museum had to integrate these other nationalities and persecuted groups into the permanent exhibition without losing the central Jewish identity of the Holocaust.

Linenthal tells the story of how architect James Ingo Freed researched and implemented his plans for the museum itself. We are enlightened as to much of the symbolism and impact of the building's internal message, and how the sacred and the secular had to brought to co-exist within the same memorial space. The book also discusses the challenges of setting up a Holocaust memorial on land adjacent to the national mall in Washington, DC. The design of the building and its contents had to be "a good neighbor" to the other monuments on the mall, without becoming a "house of horrors" that might prevent tourists from visiting and learning about the Holocaust.

As readers, Linenthal brings us in to the process of personalizing the story of the Holocaust. His narrative reveals how so many artifacts and items from the time period had to be gathered, considered, and protected as they made their way from Europe to the museum itself. Questions about what should be considered sacred, such as the hair shorn from the victims of the camps, had to be answered without losing the impact of the artifact. Should horror be shown in all its nightmarish reality, or should museum visitors be protected from the gruesome nature of the historical events that took place under Nazi rule? Linenthal outlines how such artifacts were found and included in the museum's exhibits, and why some were not included. As a frequent visitor to the Museum, reading Linenthal's account was an enlightening journey through the Museum's hallways. I could picture in my mind's eye the pieces of Holocaust memory that he discussed while gaining a greater understanding of the issues surrounding any one artifact.

Many issues that might have lurked below the surface came to the foreground as the author revealed the challenges of the Museum's existence. Is the Holocaust truly part of American history, or is the Holocaust primarily an element of Jewish and European history that must be transplanted to earn a place in the heart of the nation's capital? How should the indifference of the United States toward the Jewish refugees of Europe and the failure to use military action to destroy the death camps be treated within the museum's walls? And how much should the museum tackle modern examples of genocide such as that of Cambodia and Rwanda without losing its primary mission as memorial to the victims of the Jewish Holocaust of the mid-twentieth century? (This question was born out of one earlier criticism of the definition of the Holocaust that omitted the persecution of blacks by European slave traders and of the Native American peoples by the federal government during the nineteenth century. It was suggested that these peoples deserve a "Holocaust Museum" before the Jews because these events took place first and on a wider scale).

Many of these issues have been successfully worked into the body of knowledge on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, but it is this book that reveals how such issues were or were not resolved. A familiarity with the museum helps make the book more compelling, but Holocaust scholars must be ready to deal with these issues whether they know the Museum's contents or not (Michael Berenbaum's book The World Must Know: The Holocaust As Told By The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is an excellent way for the uninitiated to become familiar with the museum, as well as visiting the museum's Internet web site at http://www.ushmm.org). Linenthal's considerations may help the Holocaust educator answer more effectively the questions of students on these issues, but his account also raises as many questions as it answers. Moreover, Preserving Memory helps the reader become increasingly conscious of the broader issues associated with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as an institution and its contribution to our historical and national identity.

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