NEW YORK – More than 70 years ago, a young girl with neatly parted hair stared into a camera. Her solemn expression was captured on film and affixed to an identification card.
That girl was Yehudith Cohn Goldbart. Shortly after Kristallnacht she and her family escaped from Berlin and ended up in Shanghai. Eventually Goldbart met and married an Auschwitz survivor and settled in the United States. After she died in 2008, her family donated her papers to the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center in Brooklyn.
Recently, students from Ateris Bais Yaakov, an all-girls’ school from Monsey New York, learned about Goldbart’s story as part of a trip to the museum. They handled a reproduction of her identification card and her report card, as well as other documents.
School trips aren’t usually newsworthy, however not only is the Kleinman center Brooklyn’s first Holocaust museum, it is the first in the US to portray the Shoah from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. The museum aims to change the ultra-Orthodox community’s approach to the subject as well.
Orthodox Jews accounted for between 50-70 percent of Holocaust victims. Yet, their story has been largely overlooked, museum director Rabbi Sholom Friedmann told The Times of Israel.
“Religious communities for the most part don’t visit existing museums and so their experience has been ignored in standard museums. The way the religious community experienced the Holocaust is different from the way non-religious experienced it,” Friedmann said. “We hope our museum will give people an opportunity to focus on the moral and ideological issues the Orthodox faced at the time, and the strength and courage it took to rebuild post-Holocaust.”
The center recently began construction on a new site in the heavily Orthodox section of Boro Park. Of the nearly 30,000 Holocaust survivors living in the New York City region, upwards of 9,000 Holocaust survivors live in Kings County, home to Boro Park.
Elly Kleinman, a New York businessman and son of Holocaust survivors, founded the center in 2008. A controversial figure, Kleinman’s home health care company Americare has been accused of Medicare fraud, according to The New York Times and The New York Post. So far Kleimman has invested about $4.5 million into the center, which is scheduled to open between late 2016 and early 2017.
Occupying the upper floors of an existing building, the new center will have galleries to display artifacts, a research library and an interview room where survivors can record their histories.
David Layman, who helped plan the National September 11 Memorial Museum, is designing the new space. Advising KFHEC on the exhibition narrative is Michael Berenbaum, who served as project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USHMM, in Washington, D.C.
Like other Holocaust museums, visitors will learn about the rise of the Third Reich and what the Nazis did to all Jews regardless of how observant they were. It will include an in-depth section on displaced person’s camps, and the story of the revival of Orthodox Judaism in America, Israel and other countries.
Yet, unlike other museums, it will address how the Holocaust impacted the Orthodox community’s commitment to Torah and mitzvoth (commandments), and how their commitment affected their faith — even exploring those whose faith was lost.
“There are many Holocaust stories, including questions of faith and the questioning of faith,” Friedmann said.
‘There are many Holocaust stories, including questions of faith and the questioning of faith’
For example, the center will display items such as the rabbinical ruling that allowed Jews trapped in Nazi ghettos to eat non-kosher food – not only to prevent death, but to preserve one’s strength.
Until now, there has been a gap in the historical record — not only because many in the ultra-Orthodox communities don’t go to museums, but also because many never discussed the Holocaust amongst themselves. There are some ultra-Orthodox communities, such as the Satmar and Chabad-Lubavitch, who didn’t educate their followers about the Holocaust.
“I think part of that is because people were so focused on rebuilding after the war,” said Julie Golding, the museum’s director of education.
Golding said she’s encouraged by a change in recent years that has more people in the ultra-Orthodox community reaching out, eager to learn the history.
‘We are now teaching the fourth generation’
“There is a lot more awareness now, and a lot more awareness that at some point there won’t be survivors around to tell their stories. We are now teaching the fourth generation,” Golding said.
The center is in the process of getting accredited with the American Alliance of Museums. This is essential for it to be seen as a center for serious scholarship, Friedmann said.
Friedmann said he looks forward to cooperating with other museums and foundations including the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Shoah Foundation, the USHMM and Yad Vashem.
To be historically accurate, the museum must, and will, tell the whole story of the Holocaust, Friedmann said. And yet, as per its mission, the center must also be mindful of ultra-Orthodox sensibilities.
There is concern that exhibiting photographs of women with shaved or bare heads, on their way to gas chambers or being forced into cattle cars, will offend some ultra-Orthodox visitors.
To that end, the museum is working on design concepts that would display certain artifacts and images in separate areas. This would be similar to how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum displays graphic photos behind walls, or the way the September 11 Memorial Museum displays graphic material in alcoves apart from the main gallery, said Cynthia Darrison, the museum’s vice president for institutional advancement.
“If we want to educate certain segments of the population we need to do it in a culturally sensitive manner. We want to be inclusive without being exclusive,” Darrison said.
‘If we want to educate certain segments of the population we need to do it in a culturally sensitive manner. We want to be inclusive without being exclusive’
Using objects such as Goldbart’s identification card helps connect visitors to one individual. Through that one individual, the story of the 6 million can be told, Golding said.
Neither the public nor historians have ever seen many of these objects and papers, said Megan McCall, KFHEC’s collections manager.
“The Orthodox community is a close-knit community and trust needed to be built up. There was, and is, a concern that because these are very precious documents they are handled properly,” McCall said.
While the museum is careful about how it handles collections once received, donors have not always been so meticulous.
Most documents and artifacts have spent many decades stored in people’s attics or basements. Sometimes, as was the case with one collection, they come with extensive water damage.
“Sometimes the stuff literally comes in a garbage bag,” said Rabbi Dovid Reidel, the KFHEC’s director of research and archives division.
No matter the condition of the material, Reidel said when it comes to examining documents and artifacts he’s “like a kid in a candy store. I live more in the past than in the present.”