The Woman Who Shaped the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

At a time when the nation's attention is focused on how to remember-and memorialize-a cataclysm such as 9/11

Widely regarded by Holocaust survivors as one of their matriarchs, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft (1912-1997) was imprisoned by the Nazis in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen- Belsen. She kept 149 Jewish children alive in Bergen-Belsen from December 1944 until their liberation on April 15, 1945. Immediately after the war, she was one of the leaders of the Jewish Displaced Persons in the British Zone in Germany and later became a founding member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In her fascinating new memoir, just released by the Holocaust Museum, we get a glimpse into how Rosensaft proposed to honor the dead, respect the memories of survivors, and teach those who were never there.

The United States government donated the land for the Holocaust Museum, which is located on one of the most prominent sites of the American capital, just off the Mall. The building itself, however, had to be constructed with privately raised funds. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council discussed at great length whether it was to be a Jewish or an American Museum. As Elie Wiesel had written in 1979 in his letter submitting the report of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust to President Carter, while millions of innocent civilians were tragically killed by the Nazis and must be remembered, “there exists a moral imperative for special emphasis on the six million Jews. While not all victims were Jews, all Jews were victims, destined for annihilation solely because they were born Jewish.” Some survivors would have preferred to have the Museum concentrate exclusively on the Jewish genocide. I disagreed strongly. The Museum was, after all, supposed to be an American national monument. As such it had to include the suffering of others. In the end, we agreed that all the victims of Nazi brutality would be remembered in the Museum, but its essence would be the Jewish tragedy.

On October 18, 1985, the groundbreaking ceremony took place. I was honored to break the ground together with the Secretary of the Interior, Donald P. Hodel. We buried six urns containing soil and ashes from Auschwitz, Treblinka, Theresienstadt, the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, and Bergen-Belsen on the site of the future Museum.

One of our most important goals was to establish a memorial at the Museum dedicated to the 1.5 million Jewish children killed by the Germans during the Holocaust. This project was undertaken by the “Committee to Remember the Children.” I was delegated by the Council to serve on that committee. One of the committee’s most interesting programs was to develop ways of teaching the stories of the annihilated Jewish children to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders in an age appropriate way so as to avoid dwelling on the horrors and encourage them to develop sympathy for these young victims. We also wanted the Museum to have a wall dedicated to the murdered children. Schoolchildren throughout the United States were asked to paint an expression of their feelings on ceramic tiles for this wall. We received 25,000 tiles from 400 schools in 30 states, from which 3,000 tiles were chosen. I cried when I saw a tile on which an eight-year-old boy had painted two Sabbath candlesticks with two lit candles in them, underneath which he had written, “And they did not have a Sabbath.”

As the building of the Museum progressed, the Content Committee, to which I belonged, came to the conclusion that although the exhibition would for the most part be chronological, certain important messages would require occasional deviations from strict chronology. We also discussed the artifacts. Over the years, we had collected many historical items from abroad. The Polish government gave us a boxcar similar to those that had transported hundreds of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the other death camps. At first, it was suggested that all visitors to the museum would have to walk through this boxcar. I objected strongly to this idea; I had already been in such a railroad car once in my life and I did not want to be in one ever again, even for a few seconds. I was certain that other survivors would feel the same way. An alternate path was created around the boxcar so that visitors could choose not to go through it.

Another subject we debated was whether we should exhibit actual human hair. The Museum had received women’s hair that had been shorn upon their arrival at Auschwitz. It was suggested that the hair be exhibited next to the mountains of shoes, eyeglasses, and suitcases taken from the victims. I sat through those meetings in pain, remembering how my own head had been shaved. Again, I objected vehemently. I said that hair cannot be equated with shoes or eyeglasses; it is not an object but a part of the body. It was interesting to notice that this objection came only from two female Jewish survivors—Dr Helen Fagin and myself—perhaps because men do not feel about hair the same way women do. Men are used to shaving daily, while for a woman the shaving of her head is a violation of her womanhood.

We heard arguments that the Jewish religious law does not prohibit the public display of hair. We heard that scientists say hair is not a living tissue. But this was not the issue. It was a matter of human sensitivity. Maybe the hair that would be displayed was even mine. It should remain in Auschwitz at the place of the crime. Finally, after many discussions, the Content Committee agreed to abandon the idea of displaying the hair I often heard it said, even by members of the Council, that this Museum was not being built for survivors. I agree, but unfortunately it was being built because of the Holocaust. Therefore, our sensitivity had to be taken into consideration.

The Museum has a very important department of oral history, videotapes of interviews with survivors of the Holocaust. I contributed to the oral history library in a small way. I always felt that the stories of the Jewish children saved and liberated in Bergen-Belsen should be told by the children themselves. Accordingly, I went to Israel in 1991 and interviewed 15 of my former children. Videotapes of those interviews are now part of the Museum’s archives and library.

Finally, in April 1993, after years of hard work and planning by many who gave their time, efforts, ideas, and money with great compassion and dedication, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was inaugurated. Various official events took place before the actual opening. On April 20, at the Capital Rotunda, we observed the Days of Remembrance honoring the survivors and commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. That evening, we assembled at the Hall of Remembrance and mixed together the soil of six of the concentration and death camps and placed it under the eternal flame.

The Museum was officially opened to the public on April 22, 1993…. I was especially gratified that one of the speakers that day, together with President Clinton and Elie Wiesel, was President Chaim Herzog of Israel, who had been a British army officer in 1945. Some members of the Council had objected to President Herzog’s participation, arguing that only Americans should speak at the Museum’s opening. However, a few of us felt strongly that the president of the Jewish state, who happened also to have served in one of the liberating Allied armies, was in a different category from the other heads of state. We insisted that President Herzog had to participate in the program and we prevailed.

The ceremony was followed by a special program in memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Germans during the Holocaust. Some 400 guests heard a group of children telling the stories of their grandparents: survivors, liberators, and rescuers. One of them was my granddaughter, Jodi, who began by saying, “My grandmother, Hadassah Rosensaft, has two birthdays: August 26, 1912, the day she was born, and April 15, 1945, when she was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.”

From Yesterday: My Story by Hadassah Rosensaft, published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004. The book may be obtained from the museum, 1-800-259-9998