Experiencing and Remembering the Holocaust: USHMM and Dutch Monuments

By Jen Chiappone

The rise and control of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust was a very sad and shocking point in Europe’s history. While it is not something that most people like to think about, it is important to understand what happened as not to allow such atrocities to happen in the future. Museums help to preserve history and educate the public on subjects such as the Holocaust. But what is the best way to do this? Jennifer Hansen-Gluckich elaborates on the use of exhibition space and how a museum can connect with a visitor. Focusing on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USHMM, allows us to see how such museums are done right and fully immerse the visitor into the education and understanding of the Holocaust. While there are many museums, historical societies, and Dutch monuments that focus on Jewish history and the Holocaust, some are often overlooked. Why is this and what are the Dutch people responsible for when it comes to preserving Holocaust memory?

In “The Artful Eye: Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise inside Museum Exhibits,” Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich discusses how museums use portraits and photographs to further emotionally connect to their visitors. Hansen-Glucklich focuses closely on how the visitor sees something in a museum and discusses the “grammar” of a museum, a concept created by Mieke Bal. This concept explains that the walls of a museum’s exhibition create structure and rules like the rules of grammar. Like grammar, the structured exhibit space is aware to the visitor but does not reveal its true purpose. Also like with grammar, the exhibit walls create both harmony and disharmony to the feeling of the sentence/paragraph, or in this case the topic being exhibited. The permanent exhibition spaces of Yad Vashem and USHMM educate the visitor and create emotions. (Hansen-Glucklich 88-89).

I think the USHMM is a perfect example for the exhibit and museum theories Hansen-Glucklich is implying. For those who have not been to the USHMM, located in the heart of downtown Washington D.C., takes the visitor through the history of the Holocaust and the basic foundations of genocide. The main permanent exhibition leads the visitor through the rise of the Nazi party, through the Holocaust, and ends with the aftermath and remembrance. This museum is set up with the education and progression of history while enveloping the visitors in emotional and relatable content. Hansen-Glucklich focuses on the USHMM’s Tower of Faces. This is a two floored tower filled with photographs of the Jews from Eishyshok, Lithuania taken from 1890 to 1941. Before this point in the museum, there are minimal portraits, more objects and text that focus on the general victims and progression of the Holocaust. This space gives the visitor a chance to collect their thoughts and process what they have learned. Once the visitors read the plaque that tells about the Jews from Eishyshok’s fate, they are thrown back into the horrific suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime. This gives a face, a personal connection, to the Holocaust. The visitor is left wondering about the town’s fate.

Visitors make their way through “The Tower of Faces” at the United States Holocaust Memorial, in Washington, Monday, April 22, 2013. The photos on the walls were taken between 1890 and 1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania. (Drew Angerer for The New York Times)

I believe that the Tower of Faces and Hall of Names from Yad Vashem work in an opposite way to illicit an emotion from the visitor. The Tower of Faces adds a personal connection, literal face, to the horrors of the Holocaust. The Hall of Names does work in the same way but it is more reading for the visitor. With the Tower of Faces, the visitor immediately emotionally connects to a figure rather than a name. At the USHMM, there is an exhibit of the concentration camp tattoos. While there is still a connection, it is less of a personal interaction because the photographee’s face is not seen. This allows the visitor to put their own emotions and experiences into what they are seeing. They are left thinking the people with the camp tattoos could be anyone, even them. Both exhibits, the visitor is left wondering what happened to the people in the photographs.

This museum is wonderfully set up to surround the visitor with the history, emotions, and tensions that was happening during World War II. Initially the museum starts off with a lot of reading and text in this museum but the entire museum is the full experience. This museum is meant to be fully immersable and connect with the visitor with more than just historical facts. Through visitor connection, the story of the Holocaust is brought into an emotional and personal context. The museum tells the visitor when to look in and reflect on what they see after the entire museum. There is a space of remembrance that allows the visitor to light a candle for the Jews from difference concentration camps, regardless of whether they knew someone there or not. The museum connects and controls the visitors emotions and thoughts while in the museum space. This is done with exhibits, films, portraits, and even with the architecture.

Going back to Hansen-Glucklich’s claim, the USHMM’s building was architecturally designed to add to the effect of the museum. The lobby of the museum is open with a large glass roof and walls of metal, concrete, and brick. This gives the feeling of a harsh outdoor atmosphere, such as a concentration camp. On the back wall there is a large staircase that gets wider at the base that is the exit from the permanent Holocaust exhibition. This represents liberation for the Jews in the concentration camps and for the visitors of the museum. While this looks like the entrance, the entrance is to the left through the elevators.


The crowdedness of the elevators at the USHMM sets the feeling of the rest of the museum for the visitor, putting them in the situation of the Jews as they were transported to concentration camps. Later on in the museum, the visitors pass through an original train car that the Jews would be transported in. This helps the visitor to remember when they first came into the museum space in the elevator. This helps the visitors connect personally and emotionally to the topic of the museum. Some of this museum is too emotional and too shocking for some individuals. Unlike the Jews, the visitors are not forced to experience the train car and there is a separate ramp outside of the train car for those who wish to skip it.

The USHMM’s purpose is in their name, “Memorial.” This museum is preserving and expressing memory and truth. The USHMM’s slogans include “never again” and “never forget.” It is about educating the public so that something like the Holocaust can be prevented or stopped. THE USHMM strives to connect and educate the present day visitors with the stories of the past. While some Jewish museums and historical societies solely focus on the Jews, the USHMM broadens their scope of informing the public to more than just the Jews and the Holocaust. They also do a lot of advocacy when it comes to other genocides, spreading light on the lesser-known and still on going injustices in our world.


In “Jews, Museums, and National Identities” Reesa Greenberg takes Hansen-Glucklich’s ideas and focuses it closely to the Jewish museums in Europe that existed before World War II. Greenberg breaks down the variables of tolerance in a museum setting such include integration, inclusion, representation of women, and the response to Jewish genocide. While many of the museums discussed date before World War II, all have added large sections on the Holocaust to include either the affected general or local Jewish history. National identity is important to these museums that tend to focus on the history or Holocaust relation within that city or country. It is important for a city or country to remain strong and together through a horrific event such as the Holocaust.

In “Ajax, the Dutch, the War,” Simon Kuper discusses the forgotten history of the Dutch Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Kuper focuses on the Ajax soccer club and Holocaust hidden monuments to show his argument. As in the Ajax club, the feelings about Holocaust and the lost Jews of World War II are more subdued and are often forgotten by the public. Monuments and museums can act as urban markers for the Holocaust. Passing by one everyday would allow the viewer to think about the loss of life and the injustice that occurred. Bringing these thoughts into the present day helps someone be reminded of the injustices and to be aware of any similar actions in the future. Besides the Anne Frank House and the Dutch Resistance Museum, not a lot is publicly acknowledged in Amsterdam. Most monuments have been lost to time and hidden with urbanization. With this type of attitude, a lot of history can be lost. A “secret” monument I found is the Monument at the Hollandsche Schouwburg in Amsterdam:


This monument is located at Hollandsche Schouwburg, is a theater, now Jewish museum, that was deemed by the Nazis a Jewish theater and was later used as a deportation center during the Holocaust. It pays homage to the Dutch Jews that were deported during the Holocaust. Although this monument is part of a Jewish museum, it is tucked away in the courtyard of the large museum space and would be often overlooked. Online, there is no information about what is written on the monument or what it represents. One can only assume it is about what happened at Hollandsche Schouwburg during World War II. However, what if it is not? What if it is commemorating a certain group of Jewish people or a certain event? The common visitor or research would not know unless they were up close with the monument.

After reading “Family Stories or a Group Portrait? South Africa on Display at the KIT Tropenmuseum, 2002-2003: The Making of an Exhibition” by Witz and Rassool, I was left with many questions. The Tropenmuseum, today an ethnographic museum, started out known as the Koloniaal Museum (The Colonial Museum). This raises a few flags for me. The second most important question I have is: How can another race and culture be entirely accurate, with out prejudices or an outsider “lens?” I feel that it is a fine line between authentic, showing the subjects in a true light and what I’m going to call “the lion in the zoo.” Is the museum and its visitors outsiders looking in on a controlled, inauthentic subject?

This makes me think back on the USHMM and other Jewish historical museums. Are they entirely accurate? The visitor can never truly understand what the victims and survivors went through during the Holocaust. This would be probably impossible to understand because everyone has a different struggle and experience with the Holocaust. While the USHMM tries to exhibit many first hand accounts, not every story can or will be told. It is a museum’s duty to tell the truth and to be as authentic as possible.

The Dutch citizens of Amsterdam have a responsibility to remember and own their past, including the Holocaust. They have a responsibility to remember those who were lost and to move forward from it, past the prejudices that allowed the Holocaust to occur. With museums such as the USHMM, The Dutch Resistance Museum, and monuments the memory of the Holocaust will not be forgotten and the public will be educated and aware of injustice. In addition, Dutch monuments should be less hidden, and therefore less forgotten.

Greenberg, Reesa. “Jews, Museums, and National Identities” Ethnologies vol. 202. Association Canadienne d’Ethnologie et de Folklore, 2002.
Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer. “The Artful Eye: Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise inside Museum Exhibits.” Museums and the Challenges of Representation. Rutgers University Press. 2014.
Kuper, Simon. Ajax, The Dutch, The War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour. New York: Nation Books, 2012. Print.
Witz, Leslie and Ciraj Rassool. “Family Stories or a Group Portrait? South Africa on Display at the KIT Tropenmuseum, 2002-2003: The Making of an Exhibition.” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 32. No.4. December 2006.
All Images are from Google and USHMM.org

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