As the atrocities committed during the Holocaust recede from living memory, a new crop of museums around the world is attempting to link the Shoah with current events and the self-identity of visitors.
From Ohio to Macedonia, these institutions are telling the story of the Nazi genocide in World War II, but also encouraging people to “participate in repair” by examining the history of human rights in their own countries, and what it means to stand up for victims.
Holocaust museums — of which there are 21 in the United States alone — have traditionally been conceived around the testimony of survivors, with a scope confined to the Nazi period. No longer, according to Edward Jacobs, a leader in the conceptualization and design of these installations.
Based in Jerusalem, Jacobs advised on pedagogy at Yad Vashem for 15 years. According to the one-time stage performer, visitors to Holocaust museums should leave with a sense of purpose, or, as Jacobs told The Times of Israel, “feeling that there is a call for action I can realize within myself.”
In 2005, Jacobs started a consultancy with Michael Berenbaum, the founding project director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. In recent years, the educators have worked on memorial projects ranging from the former Nazi death camp Belzec, in Poland, to the evocative “writhing hand” on Miami Beach, Florida.
According to Jacobs, there is a need for Holocaust museums to “expand the narrative” to meet increased public demand and encourage people to become upstanders — those who stand up for victims.
Contrary to a frequently heard claim, there is not widespread “Holocaust fatigue” among the public, said Jacobs. Museums are receiving a record number of visitors, and requests for Shoah education from schools is exceeding the available supply of specialized teachers and other resources, he said.
To perpetuate Holocaust memory, the next generation of museums is symbolically connecting the genocide to events that took place in — for instance — southeast Texas, or on the streets of Skokie, Illinois. For museums built far from Europe, this shift helps localize, and personalize, the narrative of the Holocaust, said Jacobs.
‘Still scarcely understood’
In Texas, the emerging Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance will include content on the genocide of the native Karankawa people, as well as Texas being home to more hate groups than any state in the nation. In the $61-million structure close to Dealey Plaza, where president John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Holocaust will be detailed alongside a section devoted to local history and threats to civil society.
Upon entering the Dallas museum, set to open next year, groups will see a short film titled, “Why should I care about people in faraway places?” After the main exhibition on the Holocaust, there will be a wing called, “American Ideals, Reality and Repair,” in which the more sensitive episodes of Texas’s past will be presented. These include chattel slavery and what historians have called “genocidal warfare” against Native Americans.
From Jacobs’s point of view, the museum’s two halves can help expand the Shoah’s narrative and encourage people to become upstanders.
Not everyone agrees, however, that Holocaust museums should be evolving in this direction. According to journalist Edward Rothstein, a critic for The Wall Street Journal, there is an “immediate and almost reflexive urge to universalize the Holocaust, so that genocide is not ‘just’ a matter of and for Jews.”
This “universalizing” of the murder of six million Jews, wrote Rothstein, has the effect of “reducing everything to the lowest and least significant common denominator. First come Auschwitz and Darfur, then come Auschwitz and bullying,” he wrote in a 2016 essay, “The Problem with Jewish Museums.”
Conflating genocide with every instance of injustice and intolerance, believes Rothstein, dilutes the Holocaust and makes it harder to prevent future atrocities.
“The deeper one looks at the Holocaust itself, the more unusual its historical circumstances become,” wrote Rothstein. “[The] cause of the Nazi mass killings [was not] ‘intolerance’ but something else, something still virulently prevalent in parts of the world and still scarcely understood: the murderous hatred of Jews.”
‘The moral imperative’
North of Texas, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a museum is emerging inside part of the restored Union Terminal building. The Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education will, in part, ask visitors to examine their own potential to take action in the face of hate. Holocaust history will be localized by making use of testimony from Cincinnati-area survivors, of whom at least 1,000 passed through Union Terminal after the war.
The museum’s humanistic approach, said Jacobs, draws on findings from positive psychology, or the study of strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The six strengths, or virtues, include wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The accounts of Holocaust survivors, said Jacobs, can be used to help people enact these virtues within themselves.
According to Jacobs, a major “gap” in most Holocaust museums is addressing the question of why tyrants — including Adolf Hitler — have found Jews so threatening to their aspirations. For the permanent exhibition about to open in the Shoah museum of Skopje, Macedonia, Jacobs helped implement a “history of a people” framework that seeks, in part, to answer that question.
Set to open next month, the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia will present the local history of Jews going back to Alexander the Great, who was written about in the Talmud. During WWII, Bulgarian forces aligned with the Nazis worked to deport more than 7,000 of Macedonia’s Jews to the death camp Treblinka, where they were murdered in gas chambers.
In contrast to most Holocaust museums, the Skopje exhibition will include content on the origins of Judaism, including what Jacobs calls its “radical system of morality and equality.” If Shoah museums seek to encourage “humanistic” behaviors among visitors, believes Jacobs, an understanding of Judaism’s core values is essential background.
“When the Jews appeared in history in the middle of pagan world, it’s no wonder everyone wanted to kill them,” said Jacobs, referencing the Mosaic teaching that all humans are created in God’s image.
By helping new museums place the Holocaust in this context, Jacobs seeks to enact what he called “the moral imperative” of the words, “Never again.” With the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and rampant Holocaust denial, the legacy of the Nazi period is far from over. The goal of the next generation of Holocaust museums, said Jacobs, is for people to “participate in repair,” words that appear in the new Dallas museum’s call to action for visitors.
There are several challenges when it comes to perpetuating Holocaust memory, said Jacobs. In addition to denial and distortion of the genocide, he cited “a disenfranchised and uninterested young Jewish population” that is “not moved by the same kinds of things.”
Even with the proliferation of modern Holocaust museums in North America and elsewhere, “creating a sense of responsibility” among young adults remains daunting, he said.