In a few swift seconds of gunfire, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that has poignantly sensitized the masses to the genocide of Jews during World War II fell victim to the same anti-Semitic hatred that it had sought to stamp out through education.
Across Washington and around the world, a tragic irony sunk in Wednesday that a memorial dedicated to preventing hate crimes had become the scene of bloodshed at the hands of a man whose anti-Semitic beliefs openly expressed on a Web site.
(Corrected paragraph:) “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 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.
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Since its opening in 1993, the museum has welcomed nearly 30 million visitors, mostly gentiles, including more than 8 million schoolchildren and 85 dignitaries from around the world. Its passport, which empowers each visitor to tour the museum in the shoes of a real Holocaust victim, has become one of Washington’s most sought after tourism experiences.
Unlike the capital’s pristine marble memorials and dramatic Smithsonian museums that honor the ingenuity and potential of mankind, this memorial was always intended to remind its visitors of the murders of 6 million Jews and the macabre hatred that scarred humanity.
The idea for the museum came from recommendations by a presidential commission established in 1978 by President 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 nine years later.
Mr. Huber said he visited the museum shortly after its opening. He still remembers the displays as “very powerful, and the fact that [the Holocaust] did not happen that long ago, very powerful.”
He said the museum’s best purpose is to be a place of education about the ignorance that exists within those such as shooting suspect James W. 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 are engraved into the limestone walls encircling an eternal flame. Its six walls represent the 6 million Jews 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, told 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.”
The Rev. Ralph Kuehner, a retired priest with the Archdiocese of Washington and a current board member of the Equal Rights Center, said 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 and Julia Duin contributed to this report.