On April 22, 1993, the opening ceremony of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum took place in Washington, D.C., in the presence of numerous dignitaries, including U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israel’s president, Chaim Herzog.
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The opening of the museum, a national shrine on government land on the Washington Mall – site of the Smithsonian art and history museums, as well as the Washington Monument – was the culmination of a process that had begun 15 years earlier, on November 1, 1978, when then President Jimmy Carter announced the appointment of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. That body was entrusted not only with making recommendations about the establishment of a memorial to the victims of the Shoah, but also with proposing a way to fund its activities with donations and an appropriate manner to commemorate the Holocaust each year.
It was also understood that there were plans afoot in a number of other locations in the United States for institutions to commemorate the Holocaust, some of which presumed to become the “national” memorial. Now was the time to act, if a museum was to rise in the nation’s capital.
The commission appointed by Carter was headed by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who had survived Buchenwald and written extensively about the Holocaust. On the basis of its recommendations, a council was established two years later that began planning the museum. The U.S. government provided 1.9 acres (0.77 hectares) of land on the Mall, near the intersection of Independence Avenue and 14th Street. The $200 million budgeted for the museum’s creation was raised from private sources.
Politics came into play almost immediately, as the planners debated the intended scope of the museum, a process described by Edward T. Linenthal in his 1995 book “Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum.” Was the Holocaust uniquely Jewish, and would the mission of the museum be compromised by including in its coverage not only the six million Jewish victims of the Germans, but also the estimated five million other noncombatants murdered by the Nazi regime? These were issues that people felt strongly about, and they held important political implications for the White House, too. Not surprisingly, the museum that eventually opened turned out to be a compromise between the two positions.
Groundbreaking took place only in 1985. The museum building was designed by American architect James Ingo Freed, himself a German-born Jew who was evacuated from Germany at age 8, in 1938. Its permanent exhibition covers the history of the Holocaust chronologically, and it has regular temporary shows as well. The museum also includes a scholarly research center and an educational center that creates materials for schoolchildren, and its website hosts a Holocaust encyclopedia and offers information in a number of languages, including Arabic, Persian, Mandarin Chinese and Urdu. The USHMM receives some two million visitors annually, fewer than 10 percent of whom are thought to be Jewish.