After visitors pass through the Holocaust Memorial's unsettling Hall of Witness, they make their way through the museum's permanent exhibit. This is an experience that is vivid, active, and emotional. A multimedia mixture of sound, film, photographs, and artifacts tells the story of the Holocaust in a way that engages the visitor's mind and heart. The exhibit advocates and educates at the same time, telling a story and teaching lessons.
The permanent exhibit is divided into four main sections, arranged chronologically: The Assault--1933-1939; The Holocaust- -1939-1945; The Aftermath--1945-the Present; and Conclusion-- Bearing Witness. The design team collected thousands upon thousands of photographs and artifacts, determined to personalize a story that has too many faces to fathom. The pictures are unbelievably powerful. Yaffa Eliach's tower exhibition presents the faces and lives of an entire shtetl which was wiped out by the Nazis. This portion forces the visitor to remember that the Jews had a vibrant and active culture before the Holocaust, and does not allow the images of naked bodies plowed under by bulldozers to depersonalize the tragedy of the Holocaust.
The exhibit includes many aspects of the Holocaust, from pictures of the lovely manor in Germany where the Nazi's "final solution" was conceived to the terrified faces of two brothers on the ramp at Auschwitz. Effort is made to explicate the stories of the victims, through text, film and photograph. Unlike several other plans which were considered and rejected, the exhibit does not fit the Holocaust into a redemption scheme. The ending is contemplative but not overly hopeful.
Architectural elements complement the exhibit and evoke aspects of the Holocaust. For example, the stairway down to the third floor was conceived of as a "death march" by James Ingo Freed, with a feeling of constriction of terror. The structures which house the permanent exhibit (designed by Ralph Applebaum) are also evocative of meaning. An actual boxcar from one of the trains that carried prisoners is used as a conduit, and replicas of the wall surrounding the Warsaw ghetto and the gate to Auschwitz are presented. Paving stones from the ghetto are inserted in the floor.
The permanent exhibit traverses a fine line between vivid representation and the intimation of a Holocaust theme park. The planners wanted the visitor to experience some measure of the terror and sadness of the Holocaust without implying that the experience of those murdered by the Nazis can ever be replicated. By mixing photographs, computer demonstrations, artifacts, artwork and text, the planners of the permanent exhibit have created an experience of lasting impact.