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Holocaust museums proliferate, raising questions about their place in Jewish life

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

In Denver, granite slabs like tombstones eulogize the victims of Babi Yar, where Nazis executed more than 100,000 Jews and others in Ukraine.

In Terre Haute, Ind., exhibits detail Joseph Mengele's experiments on twins at Auschwitz. In Dallas, a boxcar believed to have transported Jews to concentration camps is on display.

Holocaust museums and memorials dot the American landscape like pins on a map, marking communities where survivors fled and, with other Jews, created places to mourn an injustice a continent away.

Recalling the oppression of Jews and their hard-won freedom is central to Passover, which begins at sundown next Wednesday. Yet, there is little agreement about how best to remember that suffering, during the holiday and throughout the year.

The tension can be seen in the ongoing protests against modern Holocaust art in New York's Jewish Museum, and also in questions about the number of Holocaust museums. Some worry their proliferation makes the tragedy too central a feature of American Jewish life.

''If the message is that the best way to honor the memories of the victims is to not be a victim, and to see how those of us who are left can civilize the world, then there couldn't be enough memorials,'' said Rabbi Uri Herscher, founder and head of the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum in Los Angeles, which has one exhibit area on the Holocaust.

 

Sam Rosen stands March 17, 2002, reflected in the display case for the Torah scroll that he helped bring back from Czechoslovakia in 1994 to the Jewish Community Center in Scranton, Pa. Rosen, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia after his parents and 11 brothers and sisters died in the war, helped found the Holocaust Museum and Resource Center of Scranton, which consists of a couple of showcases in the lobby of the Jewish center.

AP Photo/Christian Abraham

''If the memorial is purely the story of the Holocaust and a mournful experience, and that's how the visitor leaves, I would be terribly concerned about the future of Jewish life,'' said Herscher, whose grandparents died in a concentration camp.

Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig, founder of The Holocaust Memorial Center in West Bloomfield, Mich., feels the museums are needed to help prevent another genocide -- against any group.

''I happen to think that every state should have a Holocaust museum,'' Rosenzveig said.

Many states already have more than one.

New York State has at least 10 museums or learning centers and several additional memorials. Florida has at least four and a 30-foot-tall memorial in Miami Beach. Massachusetts has at least three memorials and learning centers, as does Texas, while Los Angeles has at least two museums, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Memorials can also be found where Jewish communities are smaller, in Tucson, Ariz., and Providence, R.I.

Their goals vary -- from providing places to grieve, to serving as teaching centers about the Holocaust, to drawing broader lessons about the dangers of prejudice. Many incorporate all these elements.

Their size varies as well. The West Bloomfield museum covers about 14,000 square feet and soon will expand to 51,000. The Holocaust Museum and Resource Center of Scranton, Pa., consists of a couple of showcases in the lobby of the city's Jewish community center, but reaches thousands of schoolchildren with educational programs.

The first memorial was proposed around 1946 in New York, to commemorate the Jewish uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and the 6 million Jews killed in the war, according to James Young, author of ''The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning.''

As Jewish organizers focused on Riverside Park, on the city's Upper West Side, some critics questioned whether memorials about events in other countries belonged on public land.

''The survivors were puzzled and stupefied,'' Young said. ''They said, 'We're Americans, and you're telling us that to be American, we have to leave our memory at the door. American memory involves the memory of immigrants, especially those memories that drove us to this country.'''

Funding and design problems kept that monument from being built. However, over the next few decades, Jewish communities began building memorials on public land across the country.

A boom occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when Holocaust survivors were better organized and more funding was available, Young said. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, perhaps the best-known, opened in 1993 in Washington, D.C.

There is no exact count of the memorials and museums in this country. Estimates fall between 150 and 250. Young said nearly every major U.S. city has at least one.

Sam Rosen, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia after his parents and 11 brothers and sisters died in the war, helped found the museum in Scranton, where he joined his uncle's pretzel-making business.

''My children, when they were young, were always asking me, 'Why is everyone going to the cemetery?' They couldn't understand that I had nobody,'' said Rosen, now 79. ''Now, I tell my children, you want to know where to go? Go to the Holocaust Museum in Scranton.''

The mission of the museums often changes to reflect current events.

''After 9-11, we talked about racial profiling of Muslims. We talked about how Hitler had a chart on how to recognize a Jew,'' said Selma Standzler, president of the Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial Museum, located in a couple of rooms in the Providence Jewish Community Center.

''We just did a fund-raiser by going to see a play about gays in the military. Our invitation was a pink triangle and yellow star,'' Standzler said. The museum also coordinates educational events for schoolchildren.

As Holocaust survivors age, the work of preserving their legacy has taken on new urgency. New memorials or museums have been planned for Scranton and Oswego, N.Y., among other places.

Eva Kor, who with her twin sister survived Mengele's experiments, said she is less concerned about the number of memorials than about what they teach. Kor, 68, founded the museum called CANDLES in her hometown of Terre Haute to counter what she felt was the depiction of Jews in many museums only as victims.

''Yes, all of us have scars, but how we handle that is a lesson to learn -- that we can overcome unbelievable evil, that human beings are a lot stronger than anybody believes we are,'' Kor said.

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On the Net:

United States Holocaust Museum, has a list of U.S. Holocaust organizations: http://www.ushmm.org/



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