The creation of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—America's memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust and our national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history—began as an idea in 1978 which, transformed into reality, has become an internationally recognized institution visited by 2 million people annually.
On November 1, 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the President's Commission on the Holocaust, and charged it with the responsibility to submit a report on three significant issues: the creation of an appropriate memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust; the feasibility of creating and maintaining a memorial through contributions by the American people; and recommendations for appropriate ways the nation could commemorate Days of Remembrance each year for victims of the Holocaust.
Chaired by author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, the Commission submitted its report to President Carter on September 27, 1979. The Commission's recommendation was to establish a memorial with three main components: a national Holocaust memorial/museum; an educational foundation; and a Committee on Conscience. In 1980, the United States Congress, by unanimous vote, established the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, with its mandate being the creation of a living memorial to the 6 million Jews and millions of other victims who perished during the Holocaust.
1.9 acres of land adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, DC, were made available by the federal government for the Museum site, and the entire cost of its construction—nearly $200 million—was paid for by private donations. Symbolizing both the Museum's mission and the history it would convey, two milk cans containing soil and ashes from a number of concentration camps and killing centers where millions had died during the Holocaust were buried on the site during groundbreaking ceremonies on October 16, 1985.
One year later, 15th Street, which bordered one of the planned Museum's main entrances, was officially renamed Raoul Wallenberg Place—honoring the Swedish diplomat who led one of the most extensive and successful rescue efforts during the Holocaust.
In October 1988, President Ronald Reagan spoke at a special ceremony held when the cornerstone of the Museum was laid, with construction beginning in July 1989 and ending in April 1993. James Ingo Freed was the Museum's architect, and the building's extraordinary design—which drew inspiration, in part, from Freed's visits to a number of Holocaust sites, concentration camps, and ghettos—began to gain world attention and acclaim even before the opening.
During the years of construction, a vast amount of work had to be accomplished regarding the Museum's content. This work entailed extensive exhibition planning; artifact acquisition; designing every aspect of the Museum's Permanent Exhibition in a manner that both fulfilled the Museum's mission and presented Holocaust history in a truly educational, unfiltered manner; creating community programs; planning special exhibitions, and much more. The Museum's founding director, Jeshajahu (Shaike) Weinberg led this crucial exhibition planning phase and served as its director during the first stages of the Museum's daily operation.
Dedication ceremonies for the Museum took place on April 22, 1993, and included speeches by President Bill Clinton; Chaim Herzog, president of Israel; Harvey Meyerhoff, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council; and Elie Wiesel, who had been awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Several days later, on April 26, the Museum officially opened to the public—with its first visitor being His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Soon after the opening, the Museum's Council—which remains as the Museum's governing body—adopted a mission statement that defined the work and the goals the Museum was committed to achieving and maintaining. In 1994, the Museum dedicated the plaza on Raoul Wallenberg Place to General Dwight David Eisenhower and the soldiers who fought under his command.
The Museum building contains permanent and temporary exhibition spaces; Remember the Children: Daniel's Story—an exhibition for children and families that recounts the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of a child in Nazi Germany; an extensive research library and archives; two theaters; the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies; a Children's Tile Wall; an interactive computer learning center; classrooms; the Hall of Witness; a memorial space, the Hall of Remembrance; and an education center. The Permanent Exhibition The Holocaust spans three floors of the Museum building, and through historical documents, artifacts, photographs, film footage, historical and personal photographs, oral and video histories, and more, presents the full history of the Holocaust in three distinct sections: "Nazi Assault," "Final Solution," and "Last Chapter."
Special exhibitions presented by the Museum—in the Kimmel-Rowan Exhibition Gallery and in gallery space adjacent to the Gonda Education Center—provide compelling, detailed looks at special aspects of Holocaust history, and have included The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936, Flight and Rescue, Liberation, The Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto, The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk, Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933–1945, Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings, Anne Frank, the Writer: An Unfinished Story, Life in Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust, and Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.
Since the opening, traveling exhibitions and the Museum's public programs have extended the reach of the institution's resources to dozens of communities across the United States, and Days of Remembrance commemorations are now held across the country every April. In addition, the Museum's website provides a vast amount of content, including the Holocaust Encyclopedia, special focus pages about topics of current interest, access to the Museum's document and photo collections, Committee on Conscience presentations, and online versions of past and present Museum exhibitions.