Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum Summary

Edward Linenthal


Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum (1995) by Edward Linenthal tells the story of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from the "Decision to Remember" to the museum's dedication.

Readers will be amazed by the deliberateness with which each and every photograph, object, and narrative were chosen for inclusion. Particularly riveting is the debate over whether to display heaps of victims' shorn hair. While a great deal of the hair was actually used to make socks, stockings, and felt for the German military, a tremendous amount remained after liberation. In fact, 7,000 kilos were found at Auschwitz by the Soviet troops who liberated the camp. Advocates in favor of the display believed that seeing the masses of hair would personalize this virtually incomprehensible event in human history. The survivors who served as advisers to the museum's creators were vehemently opposed to this portion of the exhibition. "These fragments of human life have an innate sanctity, if you will," the advisers argued. "They are relics of once vital individuals, which do not belong in a museum setting but rather in a memorial setting." Equally fascinating is the discussion of how museum officials decided on the first photograph that would confront visitors upon entrance to the exhibition. The main debate was over whether to show a black-and-white or full-color image. The planning committee ultimately selected a black-and-white image of American troops looking in utter disbelief at charred remains on a pyre.

Some of the topics explored in the book include "The Boundaries of Horror," "The Boundaries of Representation," and "The Boundaries of Interpretation." Issues inherent in these chapters include the debate over how to depict the perpetrators and, most important, how to depict the victims and the horrors they experienced. There was also concern for the visitor: how much explicit imagery would be too much?

From the creation of the President's Commission in 1978 until the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 22, 1993, in Washington, D.C., the intent has always been to honor the eleven million innocent victims of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Memorial Museum has become a critical piece of Americans' collective memory.