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Soviet archives help update Nazi exhibit

Villa Minoux, shown in this 1922 picture,  was the site of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis decided on the genocide of European Jewry. (Memorial and Educational Site of the Wannsee Conference)

Villa Minoux, shown in this 1922 picture, was the site of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis decided on the genocide of European Jewry. (Memorial and Educational Site of the Wannsee Conference)

BERLIN, Jan. 23 (JTA) — The fall of the former Soviet Union has helped launch a new exhibit at the site where the Nazis decided on the genocide of European Jewry. Among the items on display at the Memorial and Educational Site of the Wannsee Conference is a memo from Secret Security Police Chief Reinhard Heydrich — written days after he chaired the 1942 Wannsee Conference — referring to the “total solution to the Jewish question” that he was charged to carry out. The memo was found in a Latvian archive, consulting historian Peter Klein said. The KGB archive in Moscow also yielded information about the role in the genocide of police battalions and the Gestapo, memorial director Norbert Kampe said. The overhaul is one of several major renovations in recent years that have changed the landscape of remembrance in Germany. The reopening marked the 64th anniversary of the notorious conference, and was one of several events around Germany’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27. The updated Wannsee exhibit — it originally opened in 1992 — includes newly unearthed documents and consists of flexible elements that will be easy to update. The project cost some $730,000, covered by the federal government and an educational lottery. Funds are still needed for an exhibit catalog, Kampe said. For the inauguration of the revamped exhibit last week, several hundred guests — including Holocaust survivors, local political and Jewish leaders, Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer and French Nazi-hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld — gathered here, traipsing through fresh snow for a tour of the villa and a kosher reception. Educational memorials like the one at Wannsee are an essential bulwark against Holocaust denial, said Beate Klarsfeld, noting that several noted revisionists currently are in jail. “We have to fight and keep them from enlarging their circle,” she told JTA. But memorials are not enough, said Polish Ambassador Andrzej Byrt. He told JTA he was profoundly worried by recent statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he doubted the truth of the Holocaust and said Israel should be destroyed. “It always starts with dehumanizing, and then come the physical means of annihilation. It could be disastrous,” Byrt told JTA. “Therefore all humanity has to stop him. I don’t know how, but if we don’t we could find ourselves in a cul de sac.” Last week’s gathering would have shocked the men around Reinhard Heydrich. On Jan. 20, 1942, they were working out ways to streamline the genocide that, as Turski noted, was already under way. Some Jews surely would die from the effects of forced labor, the report says at one point. Because only the fittest would survive, these survivors would “have to be treated accordingly” lest they become the “seed of a new Jewish revival.” Preparations for this treatment should be made without alarming the local population, the report said. The language was sanitized, as Adolf Eichmann, the Reich’s former security main office chief, testified in his trial in Israel 20 years later. Since the memorial first opened, the site has earned a reputation for excellent pedagogic programs, drawing some 800,000 visitors, 40 percent from outside Germany. The facsimile of the protocol still is the centerpiece of the exhibit. But change was needed for several reasons, Kampe said at a news conference. For one, educational programs must adjust to Germany’s changing demographics, and not all German pupils are grandchildren of Wehrmacht soldiers. For example, history hits home for pupils of Turkish background when they see documents about Turkish Jews being deported, as Wolf Kaiser, Wannsee’s pedagogical director, noted. In addition, new technology would allow for a more flexible display; and a new guided tour was needed as well. Designed by architect Rainer Lendler, the exhibit consists mostly of panels hanging from ceiling-mounted metal tracks. Video installations and other media are included. The exhibit covers racism and anti-Jewish ideology before and during the Third Reich; it traces the path to the industrialized mass murder of European Jewry; and it provides an in-depth examination of the Wannsee Conference, its participants and protocol. While the new exhibit adds information on the fate of Jews in Nazi Europe, “this is the house of the perpetrators,” Kampe said. “The emphasis is on the organization of the genocide.” Bauer reminded guests that the Wannsee Conference was not where the Holocaust was planned. “Only the details had to be decided,” Bauer said. The Holocaust would have happened without the Wannsee Conference, he said. But it was “a turning point in the development of the genocide.”