Imagine: It is 1958, 13 years after the end of the Holocaust that devastated much of a continent and buried six million Jews along with million of others. Imagine now trying to build a museum to memorialize what happened, educate visitors about the atrocities, and confront the legacy of European genocide in a global context.
Now imagine doing this at, say, that most recognizable of concentration camps: Auschwitz. No, not in the way that the Polish government decreed in 1947 when it established what has become known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which is not a museum so much as a collection of artifacts — one whose mission is not to tell the whole story of Auschwitz, never mind the whole story of the Holocaust.
Imagine something grander, more ambitious. What did we know of the consequences of the Holocaust a little more than a decade afterwards? What was its legacy? We knew then of the Nuremberg trials, Germany’s return to democracy, the way survivors began to rebuild their lives and, of course, the establishment of the State of Israel.
But the heart-wrenching personal stories of terror, death and survival were only just surfacing in 1958. “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s iconic account of his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz, would not be published in English for another two years. Adolf Eichmann, one of the most infamous Nazi organizers of the Holocaust, would not be hanged for another four years.
We did not yet know that the Soviet Union, which aggressively re-divided Europe after World War II, would itself collapse a few decades later. And we did not know that Israel would become a vibrant and extraordinarily successful nation that would also be afflicted by continued wars with its neighbors and the moral stain of occupation.
Even today, nearly seven decades after the liberation of Auschwitz, it is impossible to tally up all the consequences of the Holocaust, to codify the profound human losses and understand its deep geopolitical ramifications, to overcome the scent of death from the scene. So imagine now the challenge facing the National September 11 Memorial Museum, a scant 13 years after airplanes crashed into buildings and turned ordinary American ground into a graveyard.
It is no exaggeration to say that the new museum built beneath the World Trade Center plaza in lower Manhattan, opening to the public May 21, is deeply connected to efforts and institutions that memorialize the Holocaust.
Many of its leaders are steeped in that experience. Alice Greenwald, director of the 9/11 museum, came to the position in 2006 directly from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, where she served as associate museum director for museum programs. David Layman, who designed the exhibits for the 9/11 museum, did the same work for the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Ill. Clifford Chanin curated the Legacy of Absence collection for the Holocaust museum in Skokie and founded the Legacy Project. He worked for years as a consultant to the 9/11 Museum and is now its vice president for education and public programs.
The Holocaust, Chanin said in an interview, showed us “the importance of memory, the civic function of memory, how to memorialize mass murder. It codified the moment.”