A Soviet soldier walks through a mound of victims' shoes piled outside a warehouse in Majdanek soon after the liberation (U.S. Holocaust Museum collection)
"It wasn't the facts and videos and words and knowledge that made this so immediate and heartfelt. It was the artifacts of lives," writes Jeff Jarvis of his United States Holocaust Museum experience, in an inspired and inspiring homage to the "Shining City upon a Hill" that is the American Idea:
The Holocaust Museum is phenomenal: beautifully expressed, eloquently informative, devastatingly human. I have read about the museum from its opening and have seen pictures of the exhibits. But there is nothing like the experience of walking through and coming to the room that extends up and down beyond focus with pictures of the people of the shtetl Eishishok: It makes every life real, it makes every loss painful. And when I came to the room with shoes, nothing but empty shoes, I broke down.
And I went to the Vietnam Memorial: the wall. I no doubt see it through a different prism today than I would have a few years ago. I protested against the Vietnam War and would again today. I fear those lives were lost without need or meaning. I fear one of those lives could have been mine. But today I'm also aware that some are saying the same thing about the deaths in Iraq. And so I better understand the sacrifice then and now.
The differences between these two memorials are clear: One expresses its enormity by listing every life lost; the other expresses enormity with details of the lives of a few. One is about victims; the other is about soldiers; and we're free to call them heroes . . .
That's what makes a sculptural or architectural monument a great work: It helps us come to terms with -- and even for a moment to transcend -- the tragedy of the human condition.
This night, after seeing those memorials, after watching tourists in their American-flag T-shirts ogling the sight for its own sake, I decided I was wrong [to think we should have built our capital in a city with life instead of government]. We were smart to build Washington as a monument to democracy and freedom.
And so I thought about the World Trade Center through this lens . . . I want the enormity expressed in the names as the solemn though sterile memorial will. I want the enormity expressed in the lives, as I hope the museum will. And I want the hope and determination expressed in the buildings, which should rise as monuments and tributes to choice and freedom and democracy and opportunity and America.