holocaust exhibit 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
An exhibit on the Nazi policies of racial purity that led to the Holocaust seems eerily at home in the long, high-ceilinged rooms of the 1930s-era German Hygiene Museum.
After all, many of the swastika-stamped posters trumpeting Nazi theories - collected by curator Susan Bachrach and displayed in the exhibit "Deadly Medicine" - were produced at the Dresden museum after it fell under Nazi control in 1933.
This direct link to the museum's role in promoting mass sterilizations and bans on what were considered interracial marriages helped museum director Klaus Vogel convince the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to let the show - which attracted 700,000 visitors during its run in the Washington-based US museum - open here Thursday and run until June 2007.
"This close relationship to the topic made it almost a requirement to bring the exhibit here," Vogel told reporters last week. "It is a very unique opportunity."
It is the first time in the 13-year history of the US Holocaust Museum that an exhibit has traveled abroad.
"This is the perfect place," curator Bachrach said last week.
Vogel sees more than history as pertinent in bringing the exhibit here. The present political situation gives it relevance in the eastern German state of Saxony, where a far-right party holds seats in the regional legislature. The National Democratic Party - known by its German initials NPD - also won seats last month in another east German region, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
"Such an opportunity to explain to young people the meaning of racial hatred - then and today - must not be missed," Vogel said.
A raft of educational programs have been organized and funding found for school classes across Germany and in neighboring Czech Republic and Poland to visit the exhibit.
Upon entering, visitors are greeted by "The Glass Man," a figure whose bones, veins and organs are visible through the clear plastic of his outstretched limbs, arms and face raised to the sky. Developed by the Hygienics Museum in the 1920s, the Nazis later used him as a symbol for their racial policies.
In the first of three sections, the exhibit shows how eugenics, which purported to improve the human species by controlling heredity, became a global movement in the scientific world starting in 1919. The second part picks up in 1933, when the Nazis began using eugenic theories to justify forced sterilization to establish a "master race." In it, a poster made by the Hygiene Museum for a 1934 traveling exhibit shows a man with distinctly African features and reads, "If this man had been sterilized there would not have been born... 12 hereditarily diseased," in the poster's clumsy English.
"The Hygiene Museum was not a criminal institute in the sense that people were killed here," Vogel said. "But through the traveling exhibits and educational material that it mass produced in the Nazi era, it helped to shape the idea of which lives were worthy and which were worthless."
After World War II, the museum documented health issues under the now-defunct East German regime. Since German reunification, it has redefined itself as an institute that documents different aspects of social existence.
While the "Deadly Medicine" exhibit generally mirrors the one in the US, there are a few subtle differences.
One is the display of artwork by people killed under the Nazi programs aimed at eliminating the mentally handicapped. The Germans created a separate, small gallery for the pictures.
"We wanted to present them like artists and give them the dignity they deserve," said Antje Uhlig, who headed the project for the Dresden Museum.
The third section explores how the Nazis ultimately used science as a weapon not only to murder some six million Jews in the Holocaust, but hundreds of thousands of others who died under euthanasia programs and other pseudoscientific efforts aimed at eliminating the supposedly unfit.
Bachrach said the idea behind the show was not only to understand how the Holocaust happened, but to emphasize the importance of discussions today, particularly regarding bioethics and genetics.
"Science doesn't function in a moral vacuum," Bachrach said. "It requires critical participation of freethinking peoples. You can't just leave it to the experts."
On the Net: German Hygiene Museum: www.dhmd.de
US Holocaust Museum: www.ushmm.org