As collections manager for the new Holocaust Exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum, James Taylor spent years poring over photographs and other material documenting this harrowing chapter in history. He contemplated the expressions of people facing firing squads; touched the tattered possessions of murdered innocents; sifted through the speeches of villains seeking words that best elucidated the nature of this grand atrocity. Taylor had occasional nightmares but also grew to feel he had heard it all, seen it all.

But one day, five years into his task, he looked at a 1941 photograph of a field of women and children murdered in Miscocz, Ukraine, and noticed a woman, still alive, propped up on one arm. "I looked at that picture hundreds of times, and I never noticed that before," Taylor said.

So it is with the Holocaust. We look and look and still we find nuances we hadn't noticed. Movies, documentaries, books, museums, and exhibits continue to hold our attention as we peer intently into the abyss, trying to see to the bottom.

Even more than the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the essential purpose of The Imperial War Museum's new $25 million permanent Holocaust Exhibition, which opens June 7, is education. "This is the first time this museum has put on our own exhibition on something that many Britons know almost nothing about," said Taylor.

After an influx of pre-war refugees, few Jews settled in Britain as a result of the European wars. "We're not expecting a grandparent to be able to relate the story to their grandchildren, because they have no experience of this," said Taylor.

During the war, the British public received little information about what was happening in neighboring nations. (In the United States, too, news stories on the camps were buried in newspapers.) The complicated question of why governments failed to inform the public of the atrocities is a question the museum brushes but doesn't attempt to answer in depth. "It's a very difficult subject to deal with," said Taylor. "Holocaust news reports were filtered to the British public. Officialdom knew. It was--indifference, disbelief."

The Holocaust Exhibition is a step in England's assimilation of the incomprehensible event. "A Holocaust exhibition is not something we were able to do until the last five years," said Taylor. "People take a long time to digest what's happened to them."

In schools, says Taylor, where the Holocaust was added to school curriculums only in 1991, "a lot of teachers feel the need for a lot of help." The exhibit can accomodate about 1,200 teenagers a week--younger children are discouraged from viewing the graphic displays.

As one of many Holocaust exhibitions opening around the globe, the Imperial War Museum had to search hard for its displays. Curators appealed first to the British survivor community, then trolled United Kingdom and foreign institutions for donations and loans, and lastly it purchased items. Says Taylor, "In this country, virtually every garage had a gas mask. But of two million armbands which Jews were forced to wear, we know of only 10 left in the world." Several yellow stars are among the museum's prized possessions, as is a rare collection of ghetto artifacts.

The Holocaust Survivors Association, the nation's largest survivor organization, has no exact count of the survivors in the country, but museum historians have been interviewing refugees and survivors since the early 1970s, amassing 600 interviews. Videotaped interviews with 18 survivors factor largely in the impact of the exhibit, both telling the eyewitness story and adding a deeply emotional charge. "Every key element [of the Holocaust], these people experienced," said Taylor.

The exhibit starts slowly, like the darkening of the sky before a storm, with pre-war photographs of Jewish families and individuals and happy reminiscences of survivors. Displays are arranged thematically. A timeline tracks the history of anti-Semitism, and other topics include "race science," Jewish exclusion, the rise of the Nazis, and refugees.

Just before visitors walk downstairs--"A literal descent into war," said Taylor--they are confronted with one of the exhibit's most dramatic artifacts: a dissection table from the euthanasia program. A photo of the smiling staff of the center is chilling counterpoint to photos of children on whom experiments were performed.

Displays become more violently graphic downstairs, with photos from Lvov, Ukraine, as the Nazis are welcomed and Jews are attacked in the streets. This, said Taylor, is the display that touches him most intensely. "It's the look of terror," he said. "It's randomly brutal. People, when they think of the Holocaust, usually think of the gas chambers. But a lot of times it was very grisly, grubby, hands-on, and bloody. This is not like the gas chamber, where they can turn it on and walk away. They're seeing their victims. We felt that anyone coming to this exhibit should see the whole lot."

Less grisly, but also frightening, is a room painted with a complex spiderweb of a chart tracing the chain of Nazi command, indirectly asking the delicate, dangerous question of who made the most dire decisions. "A lot of it depends on the commander's own initiative," said Taylor.

Ghetto artifacts include a funeral cart from the Warsaw ghetto and a pair of German snow boots made in workshops of the Lodz Ghetto. There is also a large model of Auschwitz, including terrible, riveting film footage of mass burials; the sad and familiar possessions -- shoes, household items, and prayer shawls -- found at the death camps; photos of the disturbingly guileless faces of Josef Mengele, Irma Grese, and others as civilians. Entry to the Holocaust Exhibition will be staggered, to avoid crowding. Explains Taylor, "You need a lot of space for grieving."

The videotaped reflections of survivors on what they have experienced leave visitors with nearly as many questions as they had when they stepped through the big metal doors into the exhibit. "Why me?" wonders Tauba Biber. "Why not my sister?" But of course, no museum can answer all questions.

The Imperial War Museum traces not only the military but also the social history of Britain's conflicts from World War I. It is housed in the former Bethlehem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam. Among the exhibits is the second largest modern art collection in the country, after the Tate Gallery.

The Imperial War Museum is located at Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ; tel. 020 7416 5320. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: £5.50 (about $8) for adults; students £4.50 (about $6.50); disabled visitors and caretakers £2.75 (about $4); children and senior citizens, free. Free admission from 4:30 p.m. daily.

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