- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is known for commemorating the murders of 6 million Jews during World War II, but its broader objective is to educate leaders and average citizens about racial prejudices and the hate crimes they can create.

One of the tragic ironies of Wednesday’s shooting spree is that the museum and organization that supports it exists to prevent the kinds of hatred, against Jews and non-Jews alike, that motivated the man police identified as the shooter, James W. von Brunn. His Web site details his anti-semitic beliefs.

Opened in 1993, the museum has welcomed nearly 30 million visitors, mostly Gentiles, including more than 8 million school children and 85 dignitaries from around the world.

The idea for the museum came from recommendations by a presidential commission established in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter to report on Holocaust remembrance and education. In 1980, Congress approved the 1.9-acre site south of the Mall for the museum and construction began six years later.

“It’s a powerful reminder that culture and human beings fall prey to violence, hatred and silence,” said Steve Huber, the vicar of the Washington National Cathedral, one of the largest non-denominational houses of worship in the United States.

“That’s the other great lesson of the Holocaust, the complicity of silence,” Mr. Huber said, referring to the people who knew about the suffering of Jews in Nazi Germany, but did nothing.

Mr. Huber says that he visited the museum shortly after its opening, but still remembers the displays as “very powerful, and the fact that [the Holocaust] did not happen that long ago, very powerful.”

He says that the museum’s best utilization among people is to be a place of education about the ignorance exists within those like Mr. Von Brunn, who he characterized as “twisted and full of hate.” The hexagonal Hall of Remembrance, one of the museum’s main attractions, is the national memorial to victims of the Holocaust. The austere, simple room was designed for public ceremonies and private grieving, where epitaphs of the dead are engraved into the limestone walls encircling an eternal flame. Its six walls represent the 6 million who were killed.

While the limestone and brick exterior of the Holocaust museum is monumental to fit into its surroundings, that formality dissolves inside the building. At the center of the museum, the Hall of Witness, near where the assailant shot his victim, is framed by angular steel trusses, brick walls and a fissure in the floor to recall the disquieting, industrial architecture of concentration camps.

Upon entrance to the museum, visitors are given a passport of a Holocaust victim. As the visitor walks through the museum, details about the victim’s life and experience emerge. At the end of the tour, the visitor learns the victim’s fate.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, tells The Washington Times that the Holocaust museum occupies a near-sacred place in the hearts of Jews and Gentiles.

“This is basically a horrific attack on the custodian of the nation’s memory of the Holocaust,” he said. “Jews and non-Jews regard the museum as a special place because the Jews who were killed in Europe have no resting place. Millions were turned into ashes and there were no grave markers for their families. This bigot, this notorious anti-Semite wanted to take those memories away.”

However, Rev. Ralph Kuehner, a retired priest with the Archdiocese of Washington, and a board member of the Equal Rights Center, says the public should view the shooting and the museum as constant reminders of the fight for freedom and justice. “It shows how far people will go if there is no act of opposition. We have to keep fighting.”

Deborah K. Dietsch contributed to this story.