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Revised Design for Holocaust Museum Approved, but Some Survivors Miffed

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A revised design for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was approved Friday by the federal Commission of Fine Arts clearing the way for construction to begin later this year.

The approval came about a month after the museum’s original design was rejected for being too imposing. The Commission had decided that the museum’s hexagonal-shaped memorial, the Hall of Remembrance, protruded too far into the street.

Architect James Freed of the firm of I.M. Pei admitted that he initially thought that changing the memorial’s design would destroy its symbolism. But by shrinking the size of the Hall of Remembrance, and pulling it further into line with the adjacent government buildings, he created a design he liked even more.

“We now had an opportunity we didn’t have before; namely, wonderful landscape. This could be a wonderful urban garden on the (Washington) Mall,” Freed said. “It has its own identity as a part of the Mall and it’s also abstract.”

New York State Sen. Roy Goodman (R.) a member of the Commission, noted that Freed’s revisions “embodied our major objections and in its present form, the museum designs are acceptable and will be a great asset to the community.”

QUESTION ITS PROPRIETY

But controversy over the Holocaust museum, which was approved by Congress in 1979, remain. Some Holocaust survivors are still questioning whether the museum, which will be five stories high and feature a learning center, library and archives, is appropriate for a tragedy such as the Holocaust. “The Holocaust experience is not translatable into concrete structures of brick and stone,” Gerda Bikales, a resident of McLean, Va., told the Commission. “No amount of theaters and audio-visual centers can capture it. If we are to have a memorial let it be at a symbolic level — a small meditation center, surrounded by a grove of trees.”

Many of the museum’s critics say the placing of the names of donors on the walls of the museum belittles the experience of those who perished anonymously in the Holocaust.

But David Weinstein, executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, told reporters later that his group was “raising money in an accepted manner.” Without funds, he said, the museum, which will cost an estimated $45 million to $50 million, cannot be built.

Commission member Neil Porterfield admitted he was moved emotionally by the Holocaust survivors who are opposed to the museum, but said that it was not the Commission’s role to decide on the museum’s appropriateness.

The Holocaust museum, which was expected to be completed this year, has been enmeshed in a series of controversies which came to a head last December with the resignation of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Council officials say Wiesel’s departure did not signal his disapproval of the museum and he remains involved in its construction. But Weinstein admitted that not many Holocaust survivors are contributing to the museum.

“The conflict over the exterior of the building is but a prelude to a far greater controversy over the eventual contents of this museum,” said Gerda Bikales’ husband, Norbert, who also testified before the Commission. “I am afraid that the contemporary America, with its great multiplicity of vocal interest groups, would find great difficulty in coping with that problem, and the museum has the potential of creating antagonisms instead of healing them.”

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