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New Museum Brings Lessons of Genocide to New Generations of Mexicans
pictures of the former Yugoslavia are displayed in the Memory and Tolerance Museum in Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010. The new museum is bringing the lessons of the Holocaust and its grim cousins to new generations of Mexicans, and reminding them that the intolerance that feeds genocide can even grow close to home. AP Photo/Miguel Tovar.

By: Molly O'Toole, Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY (AP).- A new museum is bringing the lessons of the Holocaust and its grim cousins to new generations of Mexicans — and reminding them that the intolerance that feeds genocide can even grow close to home.

The five-story glass and concrete building inaugurated Monday beside Mexico's Foreign Relations Department takes visitors through chilling displays on the Nazi Holocaust and how it was seen from Mexico, then continues through other horrors, including the slaughters of Armenians, Tutsis and Sudanese.

It moves toward the very borders of Mexico as well: the 36-year civil war in neighboring Guatemala, where government forces exterminated scores of Mayan Indian villages during a bloodbath that cost some 200,000 lives and drove thousands of refugees into Mexico.

"It's important as a nation to be very vigilant about any act of exclusion," said President Felipe Calderon during the inauguration. "We have not overcome discrimination, which affects many groups of society — indigenous people, women, children, people with disabilities and migrants."

The 75,300-square-foot (7,000-square-meter) museum, a decade in the making, is the dream of Sharon Zaga, whose grandmother moved to Mexico from Czechoslovakia as World War II broke out and whose great-aunt survived Auschwitz.

At 15, she declared during a career day at school that she would build a museum dedicated to the Holocaust and began pursuing that goal in her early 20s, taking university courses on genocide and making connections among some 250 Holocaust survivors in Mexico and their descendants.

In 1999, a group founded a nonprofit organization — Memoria y Tolerancia — which began collecting donations and material for the museum, whose funding almost entirely comes from private individuals, many of them Jewish.

Mexican artists donated their time, including architect Ricardo Legorreta who designed the white building overlooking the tree-shaded Alameda park.

A quarter of the museum's original objects come from individuals, including spoons and forks used in concentration camps. Poland sent a railroad boxcar once used to transport Jewish prisoners to death camps.

Zaga, 34, visited other Holocaust museums around the world and decided the Mexico museum would have a special focus on bringing the effects of prejudice and intolerance home to Latin Americans, who sometimes see the U.S.-backed war in Guatemala as a thing apart from widely recognized crimes against humanity like the Holocaust, the Rwanda massacres and the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

A dark wall with hundreds of protruding nails provides the background for the exhibit on Guatemala — the nails symbolizing the coffins built during the war.

A screen shows footage of Mayan men lowering child-sized coffins into graves, of an excavated grave with a skeleton intertwined with brightly colored Mayan attire, of an elderly Mayan woman on her knees, praying, surrounded by soldiers.

"This is significant for Guatemala because it has cost us a lot for the world to recognize this genocide," said Eduardo de Leon, the director of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, which has fought to prosecute Guatemala's former dictators. "It opens the possibility for the world to realize that there was a genocide in Guatemala, that there are victims and the justice is pending."

Visitors are confronted as well with the sorts of scenes they might see leaving the museum itself: the discrimination and poverty faced by indigenous people in Mexico, of Indian children juggling on street corners, of the elderly begging on the streets.

Zaga said many historians warned that including such themes could minimize the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.

The goal though, Zaga said, is to gently invite visitors to examine the roots of unspeakable crimes.

"It's a universal museum," Zaga said. "But in the end, we include Mexican issues, to try and get them to relate."


Associated Press Writers Alexandra Olson in Mexico City and Juan Carlos Llorca in Guatemala City contributed to this story.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Sharon Zaga | President Felipe Calderon | Eduardo de Leon | Mexico |

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