Whenever I have some down time to read, I tend to go to the World War II era. Right now I am reading a biography on Ike. Not sure what attracts (or repels) me to this particular period of time, but it is probably a combination of my grandfather serving in the North African theater, the incredible resolve and bravery of the Allies, and how this must have seemed like Revelation coming to pass – literally the whole world at the brink of the abyss. And in all the darkness, streaming slivers of light, like the below piece written by George Will.
Among the radiating effects of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the story of how Harry re-met Hanne. The friendship of Harry Ettlinger, now 77, and Hanne Hirsch, now 78, was interrupted for 64 years by war and genocide.
It began when he lived on the second floor and she on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Karlsruhe, Germany, where they attended the same school. The friendship was renewed last spring, thanks to two New Jersey teenagers, Jennifer Bernardes, of an immigrant family from Brazil, and Leonie Barrett, of an immigrant family from Jamaica. Leonie’s sister is currently serving in the Persian Gulf.
Harry, a Holocaust survivor, participates in New Jersey’s “Adopt a Survivor” program that brings middle and high school students to the museum. Each student studies a survivor’s personal history and commits to tell his or her story in 2045, the 100th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps.
Museum visitors are issued identity cards recounting the history of someone who was swept up in the Holocaust whirlwind. Jennifer and Leonie noticed that one card detailed the life of a girl from Karlsruhe. Harry recognized Hanne Hirsch as the girl from the fourth floor. He had not known her fate. But when he looked her up in the museum’s registry of survivors, he found that her good fortune was to be sheltered by the good people of the French Huguenot village of Le Chambon, in the south of France near Lyon. Hanne Hirsch Liebmann lives in New York with her husband Max, 81.
Hanne’s father and then her widowed mother ran a photography shop in Karlsruhe until Nazi anti-Jewish laws put them out of business in 1938. Hanne was 16 in 1940 when she was deported to a camp in Vichy France. In the camp she met Max Liebmann, then 19.
He got out of the camp and was sheltered illegally in Le Chambon until he could get into Switzerland. She received live-saving help from the villagers, whose long memories of the persecution of Huguenots fueled their resistance to German and Vichy crimes.
Jews still in the camp on Aug. 1, 1942, were destined for Auschwitz. Hanne was legally removed to the village shortly before that, and in February 1943 she followed Max to Switzerland. They married and in 1948 came to America.
Harry, who says he was “the last bar mitzvah boy in my synagogue,” fled Germany with his family after the Munich Agreement of September 1938. In January 1945 he was in a U.S. Army truck en route to join the infantry unit that soon would seize the Remagen bridge over the Rhine. He was plucked from the truck to become an interpreter. Among the Germans he interviewed after the war was Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s photographer, who had been an apprentice in Munich under Hanne’s uncle. Harry, Hanne and Max had lunch together here this week while participating in the Holocaust Museum’s 10th anniversary observances.
In an editorial saluting the museum as “among the finest historical exhibits of any kind, on any subject, anywhere,” The Washington Post nevertheless recalled the “skeptical questions” asked when the museum was proposed. The questions concerned whether the Mall, which is the epicenter of America’s civic life, is a suitable site for a museum dedicated to an event of European and Jewish history. The Post said that the questions have been given “no adequate philosophical or theoretical answers.” Here are six answers.
The first answer has many facets: America is congenitally cheerful and hence relentlessly focused on the future, so it is susceptible to historical amnesia. And Americans, having uniquely broad and grave responsibilities in the world, must be trained to look life unblinkingly in the face. The Holocaust, the eruption of barbarism in modern Western civilization, is the black sun into which Americans, especially, must be taught to stare. The Holocaust Museum, a grim sermon in stone, is an experience of darkness amidst the Mall’s glistening monuments to the success of American society. It is a mind-opening reminder of the furies beyond our shores. The Mall’s welcoming geometry of openness suggests the symmetry and temperateness of America’s social arrangements. The museum, a counterpoint in one of the world’s most magnificent urban spaces, inflicts on visitors–almost 19 million of them so far–excruciating knowledge that is intensely relevant to this era of terrorism, knowledge of the hideous possibilities of human action.
Five other answers to the question of why the museum is pertinent to American experience and governance, and hence is properly on the Mall, are: Harry, Hanne, Max, Jennifer and Leonie, Americans all.