Out of America: Another eerie walk through horrors of the Holocaust

WASHINGTON - Let it be said at the outset. When it comes to museums, the Americans are second to none. For proof, look no further than the one President Clinton is opening here tomorrow, devoted to the Holocaust. It contains 24,000 artefacts, as well as a registry and archives which make it larger even than the Yad Vashem centre in Jerusalem. You may doubt whether this is quite the right museum in the right place. But as an exercise in exposition, it is peerless, a stunning marriage of form, content and high technology to commemorate an enduring horror of this century.

True, there was the odd inauspicious moment during the press visit last week, not least the spectacle of a smartly dressed woman who called herself a 'communications consultant', suffering from dress rehearsal nerves. 'Have we really done enough to make clear where the death chambers are?' Nor do I much go for the technique whereby visitors receive the ID card of someone their own age and sex who experienced the Holocaust.

As you progress through the exhibition, you are supposed to insert the card into computerised monitors for a step-by-step updating of the fate which befell that particular individual. Given the awfulness already unfolding around you, is such 'Live your own Holocaust' gimmickry really needed?

By and large, though, for all the databanks and instant-access touch computer terminals, the museum is mercifully free of kitsch and cheap electronic effects. The architecture, deliberately jagged and unpredictable, helps. From the very moment you enter a prison-like lift to the fourth floor to begin the tour, you are kept constantly off balance. For anyone who has visited Auschwitz, or even Buchenwald and Dachau, much of the material is familiar; the gruesome films and photos, the sealed-off room containing nothing but thousands of pairs of shoes left by gas-chamber victims. But some is rivetingly new.

Almost at the beginning you see the Hollerith machine, ancestor of today's desk-top computers, which the Nazis used to sift punchcard data on those qualifying for the Final Solution. Then there is an eerie glass walkway, on whose windows are listed the names of 5,000 lost Jewish communities.

Nothing, however, brings home the totality of genocide as much as a narrow chamber lined to the ceiling with snapshots depicting family life between the wars in the Jewish community of Ejszyszki, then in Poland, now Lithuania. Unremarkable, until you realise all but 29 of Ejszys zki's 3,500 people were wiped out by the SS in 48 hours in 1941. Nor does America spare itself. You learn how from the first hint of Hitler's intentions in 1933 the US turned a blind eye to persecution of the Jews, right up to its refusal 11 years later to bomb rail lines to Auschwitz.

But the question persists. Is even this enough to justify a dollars 100m ( pounds 65m) museum, on land donated by the federal government in the capital of a country an ocean away from the Holocaust? Ask the dozens of assembled specialists last week, and answers trip off the tongue. The Holocaust was unique and universal, said one. Another, irritated, said: 'The US is the leader of democracy; where better than here to have a museum showing what can happen when democracy goes wrong?' Which is all very well, until you remember that the US and its allies are standing by as a smaller, but scarcely less repulsive, 'ethnic cleansing' continues in Bosnia.

It is argued that this is 'an American museum, for Americans', which - if you believe a poll this week showing that 53 per cent of US schoolchildren don't know what the Holocaust is - is probably required.

There are other jarring notes. Washington now has its official memorial to the suffering of Jews half a world away; but nothing, so far, to remind its inhabitants of the indignities visited upon its long-enslaved black population, or of the extermination of American Indians. And if a Holocaust museum, why not museums to this century's other multi-million atrocities: the famine Stalin launched against Ukraine; the barbarities of Pol Pot?

A partial reason is the sheer thoroughness of the Nazis, who documented their crimes as blandly and copiously as the IRS collects tax returns. But the greater explanation is no less obvious: the influence of the American Jewish lobby.

The project was conceived in 1977 by Jewish officials in the Carter administration, but initially made no headway. Within a year, Mr Carter had enraged the pro-Democratic Jewish community by supporting a Palestinian homeland and selling military jets to Saudi Arabia. In 1978 he gave the go-ahead for the museum. In 1988 Ronald Reagan laid the first stone. Tomorrow another Democratic President will pronounce the official dedication. There will be talk of commitment to universal human rights. The opera singer Jessye Norman will round off proceedings with a rendition of 'God Bless America'. Maybe its echo will reach all the way to Bosnia.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas