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Does Germany need a Holocaust Museum?

A group of historians, writers and politicians who believe the answer is yes have been working for years on the concept. But their announcement this week setting Berlin as the desired site has touched off renewed debate about the best way to address Nazi crimes in the land of their origin.With memorials at former concentration camps deteriorating for lack of funds and other high-profile Holocaust projects still on the drawing board, critics say now is not the time for another expensive undertaking, no matter how worthwhile.

Supporters point to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem and call it an embarrassment that nothing similar exists in Germany.

"It would be one of the most important museums in the country with a great impact that also will be noted abroad," said Hans-Juergen Haessler, a historian at the Lower Saxony state museum in Hannover.

His initiative for a German Holocaust Museum began in 1993, around the time the Washington museum opened. Others who have signed on to the project include author Guenter Grass, former Yad Vashem director Shmuel Krakowski and Oskar Lafontaine, national chairman of the main opposition Social Democratic Party.

A board of trustees formed to develop the project announced Sunday their selection of Berlin as the site of the museum. Haessler said they hope to begin construction by the turn of the century, financed through donations and $53 million in public money.

But the announcement was met with quick criticism from those who believe the subject is already being addressed at existing institutions - like the former concentration camps - and others in various stages of development.

Those include:

- A museum of Nazi crimes to be built over the remains of the Gestapo dungeons in central Berlin, which currently houses an exhibit called "Topography of Terror." After years of discussion, construction is expected to begin next year.

- A national Holocaust Memorial for the heart of Berlin, next to the Brandenburg Gate. Officials have said the cornerstone for that memorial will be laid in early 1999.

- A new building for the Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind and expected to open in 1998.

That museum will devote considerable space to the Holocaust, as well as Jewish life before and after World War II. But its director, Amnon Barzel, says he is still fighting to ensure he will have adequate funding and space within the new building, a wing of the Berlin Museum.

"I am not against any memorial or any museum relating to the Holocaust," Barzel said. "But first of all we have to do this . . . and then we can see about the other things."

Meanwhile, officials in charge of preserving the remnants of the concentration camps and the learning centers there say they desperately need money, too.

At the Sachsenhausen camp outside Berlin, for example, the concrete floor of "Station Z," where the crematorium, gas chamber and execution field were, is in danger of collapse, officials say. "Caution" signs around the camp warn visitors to stay back from decaying walls.

Some $53 million is needed over the next 10 years for restoration work at Sachsenhausen and another camp in Brandenburg state, Ravensbrueck, state officials say. Only $20 million has been budgeted for the projects.

Maintaining the sites of the Nazi horror as a reminder to future generations is "much more important" than opening a museum, Brandenburg's culture minister, Steffen Reiche, told reporters this week.

Haessler, however, says the planned museum is not meant to detract from the other memorials but to complement them and provide a more complete picture about Nazi crimes.

"What we want is to give clear information and to educate," he said.

He also dismissed concern about the lack of money, saying it was more a question of priorities.

"When billions are being spent to redevelop Berlin, then we don't see why there couldn't be a provision for such a museum that would present a very important part of the German history and also be a sign to the world," he said.

But others say Berlin can only handle so much at one time.

Michel Friedman, board member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Germany needs more, not fewer, places for remembering the Holocaust.

"Nonetheless we have to watch out that, by having so many initiatives, we don't end up with nothing at the end," he said in a radio interview.