The Bergen-Belsen Memorial museum, located on the site of the German concentration camp





Habbo Knoch, who runs the new Bergen-Belsen Memorial at the former concentration camp, invited various scholars and museum directors to a four-day conference here last week called "Witnessing: Sites of Destruction and the Representation of the Holocaust." He asked a question one evening during a break: "Will people in 20 years look back and say we built a museum that focuses on Nazi genocide while Darfur was happening? Will they ask whether anyone raised this issue?"

Consider it raised.

The new memorial is an immense concrete and glass museum emerging from a copse of trees beside the cemetery of mass graves (there are more than 70,000 bodies buried there), which had been the camp site. The permanent exhibition is a model of its kind, focused on the meticulous and sober reconstruction of the past. From time to time the present literally intrudes with a bang, though, when practice rounds of tank fire from the British military base next door boom over the treetops.

Otherwise you might be struck by how ordinary the whole area seems. During the war, prisoners — at first Soviet soldiers, later Jews — used to be marched several miles from a railway terminal beyond the base, which was then for the Wehrmacht, and past fields, farms and houses. Some survivors have said they were struck by the pretty scenery.

At the camp, corpses lay in piles and thousands were dying of starvation and disease, from genocide by neglect. The farmers and villagers who had watched the prisoners go by afterward mostly claimed they knew nothing about it.

Times change. Some of the children of those farmers and villagers recall on videotaped interviews the endless lines of walking dead. It was impossible not to see what was plainly in front of them. Along these lines, the constant television broadcasts during the conference of grieving parents and wounded children in Gaza reminded a few conferees of the emotions stirred up by video testimonies of Holocaust survivors (there are dozens of these in the museum), and the comparison made several scholars uneasy...




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