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Reflections on Life at the Museum of Jewish Heritage
The Museum of Jewish Heritage describes itself as “a living memorial to the Holocaust.” While the museum certainly emphasizes the atrocities and terrors of the Holocaust, the most important focus of the museum is on living. Through its permanent collection, as well as many rotating exhibits, the Museum of Jewish Heritage powerfully displays the vibrant and personal history of the Jewish people, emphasizing not their deaths but their lives and their legacies that continue to this day.
Visitors are encouraged to make their way through the museum’s Core Exhibition first, occupying all three floors of a separate six-sided building, symbolizing both the six points on the Jewish Star and the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. The first item in the exhibition is a Torah, one that had nearly been destroyed in the Holocaust. It serves as an entry into the history of the Jews, which begins with a multimedia presentation in a small rotunda. Three projector screens, surround sound speakers, and illuminated quotes and artwork make this an impressive introduction to the museum. Yet despite all of the technology on display, the real story is about the people. Countless people begin to tell their stories in this presentation, as their voices layer over each other, describing their family, their countries, and what makes them Jewish. Their stories are told in more detail on the first floor of the exhibition, which explores many of the holidays and rituals of the Jewish people, as well as their professional struggles and successes throughout Europe and America. Almost every section contains documentary footage of interviews with people recounting their experiences, giving them a very personal feeling. The pieces on display do not have the austere imposing grandeur of what you might expect to find in a museum. Rather, they are small, imperfect, and personal – little pieces of Ephemera preserved by this museum along with their role in life. Each object comes with a story and a connection to a person – a children’s story given to Meyer Levitt before he left for America, a bottle containing a Star of David and family portraits given to Elizaveta Sodetskava by her father on her wedding day, and on and on. The focus is not on the objects themselves, but on their role in the lives of real people.
An escalator sends you up to the second floor, which is entirely focused on the Holocaust. There is a great deal of documentary footage and personal items here as well – however, they take on a deeper meaning here because of the floor that preceded it. A sketchbook on this floor from Johann Eisler was given by him to a friend to keep it safe before he was deported from the Terezin ghetto to a concentration camp. A spicebox was hidden and smuggled by members of the Rosenberg family throughout their multiple deportations. I have been to several Holocaust museums before, and all of them are quite powerful and emotional experiences, even for someone who knows much of the story well. But this museum is unique in the way that it focuses so much on individuals, on very personal struggles and on the innumerable small stories of people who lived through these horrors. The Nazi propaganda on display seems even more horrific and malicious after spending an entire floor reveling in Jewish culture. And there are more documentaries, this time describing childhoods lost, families separated, hopes crushed, lives cut short. One powerful section depicts thousands of photos of people, representing just a tiny fraction of the Jews sent to Auschwitz. The photos show these people not as they died, but as they lived. The museum honors the dead by celebrating their lives, and by demonstrating that the Nazis ultimately failed in their mission - they were unable to obliterate their memory. Of course, the Holocaust was not the end of the Jews, and there is still one more floor left of the Core Exhibition. The final floor showcases the ways that Jews live today, in various ways throughout the world. Though the Holocaust was a time of great destruction and death, the museum is ultimately focused on life, and life must keep going on. A powerful documentary clip shows some personal struggles, reaffirmation or cynicism of religion and God after the Holocaust, while another clip showcases some of the achievements Jews have made in the arts. The Core Exhibition ends with another Torah, tattered and incomplete after the Holocaust, but still able to teach us. While we can and must never forget the past, we must all continue moving towards a better future.
I spent almost three hours in this portion of the museum alone, but there is considerably more to the museum than the Core Exhibition. Several varied rotating exhibits extend on the museum’s central themes of remembering the Holocaust, preserving Jewish history, and on ways that Jewish culture manifests itself in the world. A small but fascinating exhibit on the world-famous song “Hava Nagila”, in a rotunda filled with colorful carpet patches, explores the history of the song and the multitude of ways it has been reinterpreted by Jews and non-Jews alike. Another exhibit details the U.S. Government’s current efforts to restore and preserve historic materials of Iraqi Jews that were found in a flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. The exhibit puts several of these works on display, but emphasizes that there are thousands more being put online as a resource for the world, and encouraging attendees to continue exploring the collection on their own as well. But perhaps the most powerful was another permanent feature of the museum: “Voices of Liberty.” After picking up a special headset and iPod, you walk down a short hallway to a large room with big windows overlooking the Hudson River, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. There are tubes suspended from the ceiling with words like “leaving,” “dreams,” “first impressions,” and “adapting,” each over a separate circular carpet. As you step onto one of these carpets, you instantly start to hear voices of people who had emigrated to America, describing their experiences. There was something incredibly powerful about that exhibit, unlike any I had been to before: I was the only one in the room, looking out at the same Statue of Liberty that these people saw when they first arrived to America, hearing their sorrows, fears, and hopes for a new life. Many museums expose us to things. But few museums expose us to people and to society the way that the Museum of Jewish Heritage does. Each object is deeply connected with a person, a story, a life. No matter your religion or culture, this museum is an important and powerful place for reflection about our own histories, our own communities, and our own journeys through life.