NFSA film curator Kathrin di Rocco is taking part in an international exchange program.
There is a heartstopping moment – no kidding, your heart stops beating – at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that is an electric blend of circumstances, excellent curatorship, powerful materials, genius design, and general alchemy.
It happens on the fourth floor of the Permanent Exhibition, which you reach via a deliberately oppressive elevator – all corroded metal and dim lighting. You take an Identification Card as you enter: you are Maria Justyna, and you were born in Poland in 1925. There is your photograph; here is your story. You are a real person and you lived during the Holocaust. As the elevator rises you feel very strongly that the doors, when they open, can’t reveal anything that will make you feel comfortable. The fourth floor is labelled ‘The Nazi Assault 1933-1939’, and the displays are strong enough to move you to tears. In fact, at various points throughout the Museum you will have to surreptitiously wipe your eyes and pull out a tissue for your drippy nose. You hear other people sniffling as well.
The exhibition on the fourth floor gradually unfolds the stages by which Jewish citizens in Nazi Germany were systematically stripped of their civil liberties, rights, status, livelihoods and freedom; and the escalating humiliations, indignities, and brutalities that were visited upon them. It is a riveting mixture of still images, moving image, documentation and artefacts. The design of the Museum is impeccable – visitors are moved cleverly from one display to the next, and it is only in turning to look back that you realise how artful is something that appears so effortless. It is something that very few museums manage to do well.