Inside the hidden facility safeguarding America’s largest collection of Holocaust artifacts
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's state-of-the-art Shapell Center houses millions of items documenting Nazi atrocities
Thirty-five miles away from the crowds and bustle of the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C. — or what would ordinarily be the late August crowds during a normal summer — at the end of a quiet road in Bowie, Maryland, sits a giant conservation facility that is maintaining and safeguarding America’s historical memory of the Holocaust. The secure facility belongs to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The final couple miles of the drive to the facility, officially called the David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation and Research Center, take you past nondescript office plazas and hotels, all of which looked mostly abandoned — a result of COVID-19’s impact on the economy — on a recent Friday afternoon. The final turn toward the Shapell Center, as museum staff call it, leads visitors to a narrow road surrounded by bright green trees. (The Shapell Center sits across from a nature preserve; in March, before the center’s 40 employees were sent home indefinitely, they would see turtles and deer outside their windows as spring emerged.)
If, amid the idyllic surroundings, you briefly forget where you’re going — a 103,000-square-foot facility home to millions of written pages, objects, films, artworks and other artifacts from the Holocaust — you’ll be reminded when two security guards emerge from a booth on the edge of the property, whose perimeter is entirely surrounded by a tall fence and security cameras. One guard will check your ID, while the other will lead a bomb-sniffing dog around your car. The building’s address is not posted publicly; individuals cannot visit without express permission.
“This is the foundation, the heart and soul of everything we do,” Sara J. Bloomfield, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s director, explained before leading Jewish Insider on an exclusive tour of the facility. She said the extensive security measures had not been prompted by any specific threat, though the memory of a 2009 white supremacist attack that killed a security guard at the museum in Washington, D.C., still sits heavy with her. “If we lost this,” she explains, gesturing around, “we’ve lost everything.” She added, “If we lost the [museum] building, we could rebuild a building. This you can’t rebuild.”
So what actually happens in the remote building that Bloomfield calls the “crown jewels” of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum? “It in itself is a memorial. It’s the evidence of the crime,” she said.
When Congress passed a bill in 1980 creating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the original plan did not involve a massive collection of historical artifacts. The only goal was to create an exhibition space — a large museum, free to the public, in downtown Washington. It took 13 years to finally open the museum, and in those early years, “they were just trying to get the museum opened,” Bloomfield recalled. (Bloomfield joined the museum staff in 1986 and became director in 1999.) But it soon became clear that Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans, and many others would continue approaching the museum with artifact donations. “We decided, we are America’s national memorial. We should have America’s national collection. And then we began aggressively building it.”
The Washington museum and its security costs are funded by federal dollars, which account for just over half of the museum’s budget. The rest comes from private donations to fund educational outreach, scholarships and the collections. The Shapell Center opened in 2017 following a $50 million fundraising campaign, part of the museum’s current $1 billion capital campaign.
To demonstrate why the work of specialists at the Shapell Center is so critical to the museum’s mission, Bloomfield and Rebecca Boehling — director of the museum’s National Institute for Holocaust Documentation — showcased the meticulous processes that guarantee every item that arrives at the museum, down to even a single-page of a faded handwritten letter, is carefully preserved, documented and digitized.
Because the Shapell Center staff are still working remotely, the museum has largely stopped shipments during the pandemic. But one object that arrived recently is a large tabletop radio that was discovered in an attic in Hungary. The radio had belonged to Emil Wiesmeyer, the wartime owner of the printing press that printed the passports that Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg then gave to tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews, ultimately saving many lives. Wiesmeyer used the radio to illicitly listen to news reports from the BBC.
“When we get something like this, we assume a legal and moral obligation to house it, to care for it and ensure its longevity as much as we can,” Bloomfield said. “Everything is in some state of deterioration.”
The museum’s renowned conservation department works to reinforce and strengthen artifacts, a different process than the restoration art museums do after acquiring a painting or a sculpture. “If you had a Picasso, you would restore it to try to get it back to where Picasso had it. We want the history of the object to show,” Bloomfield explained.
The employees tasked with preserving these artifacts have unparalleled expertise, the result of years of specialized training in advanced degree programs. “Conservators specialize in areas like paper [or] textiles,” said Boehling, a historian who taught for decades at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before joining the museum last year.
Inside the conservation lab, Boehling pointed out a case filled with the shoes of Jewish prisoners who had been murdered at the death camp Majdanek — among the museum’s best-known, and most haunting, artifacts. “Just imagine the stories when you look at these heels, or that little ballet slipper,” she observed.
Up close, away from the huge pile of shoes that sits behind a display case at the museum in D.C., it was easy to see how each shoe had decayed. Every few months, the shoes that are on display must be rotated out to undergo routine conservation work. The museum’s collection includes 5,000 shoes, on loan from the Polish government.
A huge, industrial white room serves as secure storage for thousands of objects, sorted by material: textile, ceramic, metal and more. Every detail was planned and approved by conservation experts. In the event of a fire, a special sprinkler system would provide just enough water to extinguish the blaze without causing too much damage to the artifacts. The cases are made out of material that does not cause any chemical interaction with the object, and they are raised off the ground so that, in the case of a flood, water would not seep into them and damage the contents. Each individual case is set to a different temperature, with custom humidity levels and lighting. The cases are padlocked, along with the drawers and compartments inside. One drawer featured exquisitely preserved stars that Jews had sewn onto their coats, with the familiar German ‘jude’ as well as the French ’juif’ and the Dutch ‘jood.’ Another housed a delicate wedding dress, made from a parachute, that was worn by dozens of women in a wave of weddings at a displaced persons camp after the war.
Unlike Israel’s Yad Vashem, which limits its collection to items related to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a broader approach to collecting. “We like to say they have the biggest, [but] we have the most comprehensive in terms of its diversity,” Bloomfield said.
The U.S. museum’s scope includes “anything that can tell the whole story of the Holocaust from all the different perspectives,” Bloomfield said. The museum is currently focused on collecting in Europe, looking for things “that can explain why Germans either found Nazism appealing or were able to rationalize why they were going to go along with it, even if they didn’t vote for the Nazi Party or didn’t even believe in its antisemitic ideology.”
Although the Shapell Center opened in 2017, many staff members only permanently started working there there in January, with a new shuttle ferrying people between Bowie and the museum in Washington twice a day. A reading room at the Shapell Center was supposed to open to researchers this year. But even as the coronavirus pandemic has forced the museum to alter its plans, the Shapell Center has continued to accept artifact donations — more than 100 of them — since March, as people stuck at home started to sort through old photographs or letters in their attics and basements. Still, the donations can’t be shipped to the Shapell Center until it reopens.
In many cases, the story of how the museum acquired an artifact is almost as fascinating as the object itself. In February, the museum received a donation that it called the Sobibor Perpetrator Collection, after the Sobibor death camp. A photo album created by the camp’s deputy commander, Johann Niemann, showed photos of his life at the time. But they weren’t photos of killings. “These are pictures of the guards’ and the SS men’s lives in the camp, and when they would go on outings,” Boehling said. “This was an outing they took with their wives and girlfriends to Berlin from Sobibor,” she explained. “Look at them partying!”
Niemann was killed in the Sobibor Uprising of 1943, and recently historians wondered if he had living relatives who kept any documentation of his time at the camp. Researchers learned that Niemann’s grandson was raised by his mother and grandmother in the same house where Niemann had lived. The grandson has an intellectual disability, Boehling said, “which I mention for this reason: If he had been alive at a different time with his grandfather, his grandfather would have probably either sent him to his death or force-sterilized him,” she said, referring to Nazi policies that persecuted people with disabilities. When Niemann’s grandson learned what his grandfather had done in the war, he was “appalled,” according to Boehling.
After speaking with the historians, the grandson gave them the photo album, which had been stored for decades under Niemann’s kitchen sink. In February, a curator with the museum carried it aboard a plane from Europe to the U.S.
A similar photo album, documenting Nazis at Auschwitz, came to the museum via a man living in Virginia, who wrote to the museum saying that he had photos from Auschwitz. Collectors initially dismissed his letter, assuming he was actually referring to a different concentration camp — because Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets, very few Americans have any documentation of the camp, whereas many soldiers have photos from concentration camps like Dachau that were liberated by U.S. troops.
But the man was insistent, and he eventually sent in the photo album. He was right — it was Auschwitz, and several of the photographs showed the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the only known photos of him at Auschwitz. The donor never revealed how he got the album, so the museum assumed “he was probably the OSS, which was the forerunner to the CIA,” Bloomfield said. The museum eventually published a book about the photo album.
With the museum still closed, and the Shapell Center’s reading room not yet open, the museum has — like everyone and everything else — amped up its digital programming. In 2019, the museum’s Facebook Live programming had 700,000 total views. This year, that number has already surpassed three million. The museum has focused on digitization in recent years, so researchers can still access much of the museum’s collection online, allowing scholarship about the Holocaust to continue. “Imagine if COVID had happened 10 years ago,” before the museum’s large push to get documents online, Bloomfield said. “So much more of the world is available digitally now.”
Digital education is no replacement for the powerful experience of visiting the museum. But even as the museum remains closed, the millions of artifacts collected by its staff and housed in the Shapell Center serve as a perpetual refutation to people who deny that the Holocaust happened, or question facts about it.
For several years, the museum has been working on a project to document all the sites of incarceration in Nazi Europe, from a single jail cell at a Gestapo prison all the way to Auschwitz. They’ve documented more than 42,000 sites so far. “All these Europeans who said, ‘Well I never saw anything, I never heard anything,’ it’s a little hard to claim that now. That’s kind of the same feeling I get when I’m in a place like this,” Bloomfield said of the facility. “There’s so much evidence.”
(Disclosure: The writer’s father, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), serves on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, the museum’s board. He had no involvement with this article.)