March 11, 2004
Shoah Book Brings Museum Experience
"A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors," by Michael Berenbaum. (Bulfinch Press. $29.95.)
You don't find an index or bibliography in a museum. You go there for images, for impressions, to be moved, as well as educated -- so, too, with "A Promise to Remember."
Michael Berenbaum, a first-rate scholar and writer, who was founding director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has produced, in effect, a traveling museum, or in barely more than two score pages, a traveling museum exhibit.
More than a catalogue of a museum exhibition, Berenbaum, now director of the University of Judaism's Sigi Ziering Institute, presents a total museum experience. Instead of walking down aisles and reading information panels, you hold the artifacts in your hands.
Through words (his own and interviews with a small number of Holocaust survivors), photos (mostly sepia, with some in color), reproduced documents (copies of a wartime rabbi's sermon from Berlin and a politician's letter from Bulgaria, etc.) and an accompanying CD (audio to complement the visual), Berenbaum emphasizes, subjectively but accurately, some of the most important elements of the Shoah experience.
These Shoah elements include: the background of the Final Solution, ghetto life, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the participants and bystanders, rescue by sympathetic non-Jews and, finally, liberation.
This book is clearly for the novice, for someone uninitiated in the terror that gripped the world in the mid-20th century -- for the individual who isn't likely to enter an actual Holocaust museum. The book is a tactile, sensual experience. Only the sense of smell is missing.
In the introduction, Berenbaum writes, "Nothing this brief could possibly do justice to an event as vast as the Holocaust, which evolved over 12 years and enveloped the entire continent of Europe; which consumed some 6 million dead; and whose implications are seen in headlines and images that have entered the conscious and unconscious of all humanity."
He offers nothing new in these pages, no new facts or novel interpretations, but the totality of the familiar, presented in an unfamiliar way, is striking and unsettling. The product, part coffee table book, part reference guide, is a beautifully designed masterpiece. You read the chapter on "The Decision to Kill the Jews," and you look on the same page into the austere eyes of Richard Heydrich and his fellow henchmen in genocide and you feel a chill.
He offers no footnotes or bibliography -- no scholarly sources beyond the identifications that describe the interviewees. They aren't needed; anyone affected by the book, whose interest is whetted, can contact the institutions cited in the acknowledgments.
The book isn't meant to be read in one reading. Each chapter, to be absorbed and understood adequately, should be read separately. It will take the careful reader a few hours to go through "A Promise to Remember."
Just the length of time it takes to walk through a museum.