Museum’s Commonplace Objects Put Focus on Unusual Horror : Holocaust: Curators are collecting artifacts of Jews and other victims of the Nazi death camps. The center will be the largest of its kind in the world.

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Pots and pans, a young girl’s cloth belt, fading snapshots, a box of shoes. The ordinary stuff of ordinary people’s lives, they assume a horrifying significance in the archives of the new Holocaust museum being built near the National Mall.

These simple objects are made extraordinary by the awful events that gave them meaning. This is no ordinary museum, either.

Chartered by Congress in 1980, its purpose is not to celebrate the triumphs of Western civilization but to shine a glaring, uncomfortable light on one of its darkest moments, the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews and untold millions of Gypsies, homosexuals, physically handicapped people and other “undesirables” during World War II.


Although there are Holocaust museums in Los Angeles and Detroit, and one under construction in New York, Washington’s will be the only national Holocaust museum in the United States. When completed, it also will be the largest in the world, surpassing the Yad Vashem national Holocaust center in Jerusalem.

“Most museums, like the National Gallery of Art, begin with a valuable collection that requires a building to house it,” said Holocaust museum spokesman Sam Eskenazi. “Our museum is being built because it has a story to tell, and we’re collecting artifacts to tell that story.”

In the last 18 months, as cement was poured for the museum’s foundations, archivists have been deluged with more than 10,000 artifacts donated by Holocaust survivors and their children, or obtained through negotiations with authorities in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries.

The smaller objects include diaries, sketches, real or forged identity papers, Star of David clothing patches, striped inmate uniforms, coins and stamps used in Jewish ghettos, clandestine sketches of life in concentration camps and secret coded messages exchanged by prisoners.

These items might be considered commonplace “ephemera” by other museums, but Holocaust museum curator Susan Morgenstein invented the term “survivor objects” to signify their value as “hard and fast documentation of a fragmentary period in history.”

Each has been catalogued and stored in gray, acid-free boxes in the climate-controlled rooms of a warehouse whose location is kept secret for security reasons. Some will be chosen for display in the permanent exhibition when the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opens in April, 1993.


“They have a special power to tell the human stories of the Holocaust,” Morgenstein said. “Each of them, like the survivors themselves, has a story to tell.”

Ruth Meyerowitz was 13 when her family was deported from Frankfurt, Germany, to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April, 1943. Separated from her father and brother, she and her mother lived in a barracks near the crematoriums where more than 2 million people--mostly Jews--were killed.

One day, as she sorted through a mound of loot confiscated from new prisoners, Meyerowitz retrieved a blue belt appliqued with colorful, floral-shaped felt cutouts, “obviously the work of a young girl, probably from somewhere in Eastern Europe.”

Risking a beating for violating camp regulations, Meyerowitz wore the forbidden piece of finery cinched at the waist of her long uniform skirt, to keep it from dragging in the mud.

As Meyerowitz lost weight and the belt got looser, she tried to convince her worried mother that the belt was magical. “I explained that I’m not getting thinner, but the belt is getting longer,” said Meyerowitz, who now lives in West Orange, N.J.

William Luksenburg of Silver Spring, Md., donated the tattered, striped woolen jacket that he wore in the Flossenberg concentration camp. It had been hanging in the back of his closet for 40 years.


“Ten to 20 years from now, there won’t be any survivors left to tell the stories,” Luksenburg said. “My jacket is evidence that will speak to future generations.”

Among other items, the museum has acquired:

--A box of brushes--hairbrushes, toothbrushes--seized from Auschwitz inmates, and 2,000 pairs of children’s shoes and empty canisters of Zyklon-B poison gas from the Majdanek killing center.

--A 27-foot freight car that once shuttled 100 Jews at a time from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, along with a section of the tracks it rode into the death camp. The former cattle car is housed in a warehouse somewhere in North Carolina, where conservators are stripping paint to find the original wartime layer of reddish-brown, complete with markings and graffiti.

--A tourist-class ticket on the luxury liner St. Louis, which carried 936 passengers--most of them Jews with American visas--on an ill-fated cruise from Germany to Cuba, where they planned to wait their turn for entry into the United States. They were turned back at Havana and eventually were forced to return to Europe. The ticket-holder, Moritz Schoenberger, was one of the few on board to survive the war.

--A crushed doll carriage, some bricks, glass fragments and rubble from the Warsaw ghetto, the largest in Nazi Europe until it was demolished in 1943. Also excavated and shipped to the museum were 2,000 square feet of cobblestones once trodden upon by the ghetto’s doomed Jewish inhabitants.

--The “02,” the only surviving motorboat used in a secret Danish rescue operation to ferry 1,400 Jews and Resistance fighters from Nazi-occupied Denmark to safety in neighboring Sweden.


--A partially burned Nazi flag and some 8-millimeter color movie footage shot from the stone ramparts of Mauthausen, a notoriously harsh SS concentration camp in Austria, by an American liberator in 1945, Army Sgt. Ray Buch.

Associate curators Charlotte Hebebrand and Jacek Nowakowski have spent the past year scouring Eastern Europe with a shopping list of prized artifacts. They will make their first trip to the Soviet Union soon to search for relics of the Nazi massacre of 17,000 to 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar, a ditch outside Minsk, in 1941.

Despite their best efforts, some objects--like their Jewish owners--may have perished without a trace in the Holocaust. Nowakowski said he despairs of ever finding a pedicar, the pedal-operated taxi that once was commonplace in the Warsaw ghetto.

Similarly, Nowakowski has searched in vain for menorahs, or ritual candlesticks, and other religious objects used in ancient Jewish communities that were obliterated by invading Nazis. But he was surprised during a visit to the museum that is the only thing left of Chelmno, an infamous killing center in western Poland.

“I didn’t expect to find anything there,” Nowakowski said, because fleeing Nazis had blown up the crematoriums and reduced Chelmno to rubble before Allied troops arrived. Yet he found a few keys, knives, forks, a cloth cap and spectacle lenses left by Jewish victims, as well as concrete blocks unearthed from the foundations of a crematorium.

Martin Smith, the prize-winning British documentary film producer who is director of the museum’s permanent collection, recently received the unexpected gift of an accordion, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, from the son of a Romanian Gypsy who perished in the Holocaust.


“I’m trying desperately to find a Gypsy caravan,” Smith said.

The five-story museum, designed by architect James I. Freed, a partner of I.M. Pei and himself a child refugee from Nazi Germany, is being built on 1.9 acres donated by the government and is administered by a federal agency with a $2-million annual budget.