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A Light in the Darkness
New York's Holocaust Museum, Hopefully Different

By Eve Zibart
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 1998; Page E01

There is no question that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened a little more than four years ago at the edge of the Tidal Basin, is a powerhouse of a monument. Fierce, brooding, physically foreboding and intentionally claustrophobic, it is history as immersion, a combination of confrontation therapy and cathartic theater. The visitor is reduced first to surrogate victim -- given an ID card of an actual Holocaust casualty of the same age and sex -- then to helpless witness and very nearly, because of the suffocating noose of video and memorabilia, to collaborator.

The building itself, crisscrossed with walkways and exposed pipes, siding and stone, is a theatrical set, a shifting labyrinth of cattle car, guardhouse, concentration camp and, unmistakably, gas chamber. There is scarcely an inch of wall space, of the apparent world, bare of photo or fragment. It has served brilliantly to illuminate that blackest corner of history, to transport both the skeptical and the ignorant back to the moment when even the most observant Jews found it impossible to believe in the existence of God. It could scarcely be more horrific, more devastating, more emotionally draining.

So why go to New York to see its four-month-old Museum of Jewish Heritage, subtitled "A Living Memorial to the Holocaust"? Because for some people, Washington's museum is too powerful, too bleak; it is all remembrance, all documented evil. It is not merely a memorial, it is a mass grave, from which the living find it hard to emerge with any sense of hope, much less their composure.

New York's museum, which places subtle but careful emphasis on the word "living," has a more restrained atmosphere -- as much sorrow and pity, but less fury -- and a far more affirmative outlook. It is somewhat smaller -- the core exhibit includes some 2,000 photos, 800 artifacts and two dozen films and videos -- and takes perhaps three hours to Washington's four or five. Though it cannot equal the impact that the Mall site carries, nor convey that weight of irrefutable testimony, it may be better suited to more emotionally susceptible visitors, and to younger ones. And in place of that inescapable, bitter aftertaste of guilt, which seeps out from the psychological intertwining of persecutor and victim at the Washington museum, it leaves visitors with a sense that there may be some ways of making partial restitution.

Consider the names of the two museums: Holocaust Memorial, Jewish Heritage. While the Washington museum is almost entirely focused on the Holocaust itself, New York's memorial reaches back a generation before the rise of the Nazis and a generation (or two) beyond, speaking to the recovery of international Judaism and the establishment and stubborn endurance of the state of Israel.

The key to the Jewish Heritage museum's mission is in the dual message carved in the wall of the foyer: "Remember . . . Never Forget." In that, it echoes the Holocaust Memorial. But right next to it is inscribed the second refrain, a promise that recalls every covenant the Jews have made with their God going back to the rainbow: "There is hope for the future." And the two are given equal weight.

The carefully orchestrated collection, which is laid out on three ascending levels, begins in a robust and celebratory key, then crashes into the Holocaust and spirals upward and (literally) outward into the present and implicitly reassuring future, climaxing in a visual paean to the United States. The third-floor exhibit, in fact, is titled "Jewish Renewal," presenting the Jews' cultural and religious revitalization as a historical fact. They tried to exterminate us, says the Washington memorial, designed to resemble a ghastly furnace; We have survived, says New York's granite pyramid, which evokes some ancient temple or priest's miter as much as a mausoleum.

Other differences are similarly subtle, but you can't help wondering whether they are in fact reactions to, or at least tunings suggested by, Washington's gripping museum. The psychology of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, for example, is a little more objective, a little less threatening: Instead of placing visitors in the character of victims, You are one of them, the New York museum tries to create a sense of universal humanity, These people are like us. It embraces rather than encircles, making all visitors, Jewish and not, feel included in the story by emphasizing the importance of tradition as well as faith.

Much of the symbolism is underplayed: The building is six-sided, as are many of the interior display galleries, and it has six exterior tiers, an element borrowed from the Star of David -- itself both symbol of Abraham and mark of Cain -- but not one likely to be noticed by the casual visitor. (The security office, through which all visitors pass and where they leave their bags, is a more visible reminder of continued tensions and one that tends to momentarily undermine the museum's message.)

It also moves more slowly, at least in an emotional sense, than the grim, in-your-face Washington museum; you have to read the captions, consider the implications, many of which are left to the imagination.

For example, a jersey with a Star of David hangs beside a photo of young students exercising. (Wherever possible, photographs of the exhibits' owners, whether victims or survivors, are attached to help visitors identify with them.) When Jewish students were forced off German athletic teams, they formed their own national teams and "games," and one girl, who might have passed for Aryan, risked discovery and death to bring that same yellow Star of David badge away with her when she fled. That is the uniform in the museum, a symbol of these children's painful evolution from innocent adaptability to resistence and communal strength, through fear and isolation to precocious understanding of the enormity of their position, and finally to desperate flight.

The entire ground floor of the Museum of Jewish Heritage emphasizes the universality of the word "heritage," and the importance of mindfulness. "In every generation," the first video montage instructs, quoting a Passover saw, "you must see yourself as if you yourself went out of Egypt."

The first series of rooms spotlights the richness of Jewish family life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with clothing and artifacts from holidays and special occasions, such as a gorgeous silver and silk bride's headdress and belt, heavy with dangles and clearly related to the Middle Eastern jewelry one sees today. Some items are simple, such as toys and tablecloths; others are sophisticated and expensive, such as the Palestinian seder (Passover) plate covered with scenes of the Exodus.

One of the most spectacular items is a hand-painted sukkah mural, designed to hang in the open-air structure built every fall for the Sukkot harvest festival, almost Byzantine in its elaborate panels and portraits; created by a self-taught kosher butcher, it combines scenes of real life in Budapest in the 1920s and '30s with references to biblical episodes, religious rituals and even fantastic animals. Huge as it is, it was tightly rolled up and concealed in the basement of a Budapest synagogue throughout the Holocaust.

The second-floor exhibits re-create the creeping advance of first social and then institutional antisemitism. There are Hitler Youth posters and paperback books outlining the threats of Jewish "racial biology." Again, you have to read the captions: At first glance, the board game seems a simple, if garish, variation on a common theme, with a pathway marked off like a sidewalk and little wooden pieces the size and shape of Hershey's Kisses; but the name of the game translates "Jews Out!," and the tokens, upon inspection, turn out to be troll-like "Juden."

Gradually the exhibits grow grimmer and the rooms darker and uncarpeted. There are lists of Nazi euphemisms for treatment of Jews ("special treatment" equaled "DOA"); a vintage German propaganda film portraying the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp as a sort of prototype rural cooperative; a baby shoe that was the only memento a German father, separated from his wife and daughter, was able to carry to South America with him. There are children's drawings of ghetto life, a clumsy little potholder made on one of those metal "grids" children still use today, musical instruments played by concentration camp orchestras.

Now comes the Holocaust itself, with thousands of photos of the executed (posted on the stall-like wooden slabs that symbolize the boxcars that carried Jews to the concentration camps); toys and mementos of both escapees and victims; a salute to those who, like Raoul Wallenberg and the now famous Oskar Schindler, helped Jews escape the Nazis. A life-size photograph of Hitler in his prime tends to bring visitors to a halt, many peering as if looking for evidence of his famous charisma, and others weeping, cursing or even, like one elderly, long-bearded Hasid who was there when I was, spitting theatrically and ranting bitterly in Yiddish.

There is a constant and rather ghostly underlayer of voices from the films and audio montages that visitors move through as they pass from gallery to gallery. The most gripping, of course, are the survivors and witnesses, interviewed as part of Steven Spielberg's ongoing Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project. (Intriguingly, the bulk of the museum's thousands of photographs and personal items are stored in a place so secret that most staff members don't know its location.)

From this darkness one escapes to the third floor, which spotlights the post-Holocaust era. Perhaps unavoidably, it's a bit of a letdown. It combines photographs of Israel and Jewish families around the globe with reiterations of Jewish intellectual and artistic accomplishments (a somewhat defensive theme sounded more than once in the museum), and follows some intriguing modern religious art with a display of what are called PHSColograms, an acronym for photography, holography, sculpture and computer graphics -- 3-D-enhanced images of items already seen in the museum.

It's a letdown, that is, until one reaches the very last gallery, a glass-walled expanse, its sunlight almost blinding after all that granite darkness, that looks directly out upon three icons of Jewish freedom in America: the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the lesser-known but equally important railroad terminal on the Jersey shore from which many immigrants began their new lives. It's a dramatic moment, orchestrated, yes, but surprisingly moving -- the one time, perhaps, that the Museum of Jewish Heritage trumps the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, with its meditation room and eternal flame.

Like the Washington memorial, the Museum of Jewish Heritage leaves visitors looking around for a place to sit down and reflect. Just on the other side of the parking lot is the new and beautifully understated Robert F. Wagner Park, a small formal garden with a two-story brick structure that is really just an architectural frame for viewing the harbor and Lady Liberty a little longer. The ground level has clean public restrooms as well as a nice little cafe that operates from about April to mid-December. (There is no cafeteria in the museum.)

And, like the Washington museum, which is near the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument, the Museum of Jewish Heritage seems part of a memorial community. As you walk back across Battery Park you pass a sculpture near Castle Clinton, a mass of eager arms and hopeful postures that is a tribute to the spirit of the millions of immigrants who landed here. Mother Elizabeth Seton's memorial, at one time a sanctuary for immigrant women, is nearby; and the flagpole near the Staten Island Ferry terminal salutes the courage of New York's very first Jewish immigrants, who had been caught up in the Portuguese-Dutch wars, harried back and forth between Europe and Brazil and attacked by pirates before reaching Nieuw Amsterdam, where they were allowed to settle in 1626.

Where the Memories Live

The Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (18 First Pl., Battery Park City, New York, 212-968-1800 for information, 1-800-307- 4007 for tickets; http:// is open Sunday through Wednesday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Admission is $7 for adults; $5 for seniors and students. Subway station: Bowling Green or South Ferry.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl., 202-488-0400 for information; timed-entry tickets available at museum or through Protix, 703-218-6500 or 1-800-400-9373). Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; closed Yom Kippur and Christmas Day. Admission free, though Protix charges a processing fee. Subway station: Smithsonian.

New York has another museum of Jewish heritage, the Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue at East 92nd Street, 212-423-3200, http:// www. The collection centers on a permanent exhibit, religious and secular, that ranges back 4,000 years. Admission is $7 adults, $5 students and seniors.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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