The ideology that ultimately crushed Elias’ plans and those of millions of other Jews is masterfully depicted within the museum’s walls. The original commemorative idea, though, wasn’t a building. President Jimmy Carter in 1978 suggested a national Holocaust memorial—as in stone monument. The commission he appointed came back with a bigger proposal: It asked for “a living memorial,” one that would use artifacts and video monitors to inform, as well as honor.
The museum’s three-story permanent exhibit, The Holocaust, still stands as the response to that request. In it, designer Ralph Appelbaum aimed for an educational emotional encounter: Large-scale objects convey magnitude. Claustrophobic spots emphasize inhumanity. Tangible proof, like the railcar used to transport victims, forces realization.
The Holocaust project became Appelbaum’s proving ground for a new type of museum display, one that attached intense narratives to ordinary objects. Well-received, the sensory-assault approach catapulted Applebaum’s firm to international prominence.