After going dark for two weeks during the government shutdown, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reopened on Thursday, resuming commemorative programs for its 20th anniversary.
The museum was one of many prominent sites in Washington and elsewhere to have been closed by the early October budget impasse. On Wednesday night, Congress voted to fully reopen the government.
More than 60,000 visitors would have toured the Holocaust Museum during the shutdown, according to its administrators.
“Every day the museum is closed is a lost opportunity to educate our public,” long-time museum director Sara Bloomfield told The Times of Israel, mid-way through the shutdown.
More than 60,000 visitors would have toured the Holocaust Museum during the shutdown
Bloomfield joined the museum in 1986, during its planning stages, and saw a similar government shutdown close the building in 1995. Relentlessly optimistic, she pivots to the positive aspect of operating through a government appropriation.
“One of the most important things about our institution is that we are part of the US government,” Bloomfield said. “We are here forever, permanent, and we want to be able to permanently deal with and educate a global audience.”
During two decades of operation, the museum has been visited by 36 million people. Its administrators have also tried to bring the museum to the world, including with a website in 15 languages and touring exhibits. Through a flagship educational program, the museum helps law enforcement and military officers explore the role of these professions in Nazi Germany.
Since Congress voted to create the museum in 1980, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has been closely associated with the project. Though Wiesel downsized his role before the museum’s opening, the Nobel laureate continues to speak on behalf of the mission.
“I wasn’t sure the museum was a proper avenue,” Wiesel told The Times during a recent phone interview.
“We Jews don’t have museums, we have books. I believe in books more than buildings,” he said.
President Jimmy Carter asked Wiesel to chair a commission on the Holocaust in 1978, long before an actionable vision for the museum and funding were in place. Though it was not always obvious to Wiesel that a museum could effectively represent the Holocaust, he said the institution has exceeded his expectations.
“Millions of people have already visited that place,” Wiesel said. “It is important. Anyone who goes to the museum knows they have seen something in a few hours that goes beyond anything.”
Of relevance during the recently ended shutdown, the museum’s out-of-building educational work is not connected to government appropriations. Those outreach programs are funded by about $40 million in annual private donations, supplementing $50 million in federal appropriations for the museum itself.
In part to expand its donor base, the museum launched a 20th anniversary campaign at the start of 2013. A key goal has been to develop plans for the years ahead, as the survivor population dwindles and the Holocaust recedes into history.
“The museum is set to double its collection during the next ten years,” Bloomfield said. “We’re building a new collection and conservation center, and strengthening our role as a global institution. The private support we get shows survivors that we are here to tell their story.”
Commemorative activities included a four-city tour attended by 1,800 survivors and several hundred World War II veterans, Bloomfield said. Survivors and their relatives were encouraged to donate items to the museum collection, with many participating in workshops and family research sessions.
“The tour was a real passing of the torch moment,” Bloomfield said. “The 20th anniversary comes at a turning point. We know at 25, we won’t have as many of our most powerful teachers – the survivors and eye witnesses. It was one of the most moving experiences of my 27 years here.”
‘The goal is not just to remember the past, but make sure no one will be treated like this again’
“The goal is not just to remember the past, but make sure no one will be treated like this again,” Bloomfield said. “If we don’t care as individuals, nothing will happen.”
To shine a light on the role of individual responsibility, the museum opened a new exhibition this year called, “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.” Probing the Nazis’ dependence on “ordinary” people to enact their racial policies, the exhibition examines the reasons people did – and not did – assist in the genocide.
“We’re very focused on not only documenting how the Holocaust happened, but also stimulating people to try to think about why it happened, and that it was allowed to happen,” Bloomfield said.
As a moral bully pulpit, the museum has long been associated with America’s role in preventing genocide around the world. During the opening dedication ceremony in 1993, Elie Wiesel famously implored President Bill Clinton to take action in war-torn Bosnia.
“As a Jew, I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country,” Wiesel told President Clinton in front of a global audience. “People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.”
Even before the museum opened, controversies swirled around the commission’s planning work, including the issue of how to memorialize Hitler’s non-Jewish victims. Leaders of the American Roma (or “Gypsy”) community were particularly vocal about inclusion for more than 250,000 Roma and Sinti victims murdered by the Nazis.
In the end, the permanent exhibit kept its focus on the Jewish genocide. However, through the museum’s archives and educational programs, remembering non-Jewish victims became part of the evolving mission.
At the start of its third decade, the museum will continue to promote awareness, serving — according to President Clinton — as the conscience of the nation.
“Once you remember, you remember everybody,” Wiesel said at an initial museum planning meeting. “Memory is not something that shrinks but something that enriches. You go deeper, and deeper, and you find new layers.”