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NY high school houses hands-on Holocaust museum

Famous for its Nobel Prize-winning laureates, the Bronx High School of Science is making headlines for its Holocaust Museum and Studies Center, a 35-year labor of love

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Bronx Science sophomores Theresa Wang and Justin Wu examine artifacts at the school's Holocaust Museum and Studies Center. (photo credit: Courtesy of Bronx Science High School)
Bronx Science sophomores Theresa Wang and Justin Wu examine artifacts at the school's Holocaust Museum and Studies Center. (photo credit: Courtesy of Bronx Science High School)

Down in the Bronx High School of Science basement, in a heavily trafficked area between the boys’ locker room and the nurse’s office, is the school’s most recent attraction — a professionally designed and curated Holocaust Museum and Studies Center.

Even before this new addition, Bronx Science has always stood out: The foremost science magnet school in the United States, it is consistently ranked among the nation’s top high schools. It has had more Intel Science Talent Search finalists than any other school, and many of its graduates go on to Ivy League universities. Eight Bronx Science graduates have won Nobel Prizes (the most for any American high school), and six have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes.

And now, Bronx Science is distinguishing itself as the only high school housing a full-fledged Holocaust museum.

With its collection of 1,000 artifacts, the state-of-the art facility may have only opened on April 19, but its existence is a labor of love begun three and half decades ago.

Before there was the field of Holocaust education, and before there were Holocaust museums and memorials in cities across the US, there was Stuart Elenko. Elenko (who died in 2009) was a Bronx Science social studies teacher who combined a passion for collecting historical memorabilia with a belief in the educational power of objects to establish a small Holocaust museum in a corner of the school’s library in 1978. He also instituted a Holocaust leadership class for students interested in learning Nazi-era history through primary sources, and who were willing to share their insights about the dangers of racism, hatred and intolerance with the rest of the student body.

Plans are underway to open the Bronx Science Holocaust museum to the public. (photo credit: courtesy)
Plans are underway to open the Bronx Science Holocaust museum to the public. (photo credit: courtesy)

Over the years, Elenko’s collection grew, as did student interest in the related elective course. The space allotted for display of the objects, however, did not keep apace. Most of the artifacts were packed away and kept “in less than optimal conditions,” according to Esther Brumberg, senior curator of collections at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, who arranged for them to be catalogued and properly stored after Elenko retired. In 2000 the decision was made to move most of the collection off-site.

As she speaks with The Times of Israel by phone from her office, Brumberg flips through old records detailing the transfer of the items to the museum. “The stuff technically belonged to the Board of Education,” she says. The museum agreed to take temporary custody of the material and make sure it remained in good condition, was displayed when possible, and was used in programming with visiting students.

They found items such as Yellow Star patches, ghetto money, Hitler Youth material, and copies of the Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Stürmer

As she and her staff unpacked the boxes from Bronx Science, they found items like Yellow Star patches, ghetto money, Hitler Youth material, and copies of the Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Stürmer. There were also artifacts such as Zyklon B canisters, military uniforms, original notes from the Nuremberg Trials, and what Brumberg referred to as a “ludicrously long” US visa application form from the period.

Brumberg recalls that some of the artifacts were “fabulous,” while the authenticity of others was questionable.

“He didn’t know how to evaluate,” she says of Elenko’s collecting know-how. It was impossible to determine the provenance of the items because the teacher’s record keeping had been less than meticulous. Although it is believed that Elenko paid for the vast majority of the objects out of his own pocket, “We also never found any financial records,” Brumberg says.

From 2001 until 2006, students from the school worked at the museum as interns, helping to catalogue the items, and learning preservation and curatorial skills.

Several years later, when renovation began on Bronx Science’s library, the few remaining Holocaust items that had remained there on display were moved to the basement.

“That got the ball rolling for the building of an actual museum,” says Peter Klein, a 1983 graduate and a trustee of the school’s alumni association.

‘A hands-on tolerance education is really important to Bronx Science’

According to Klein, fundraising continues to support the 1,000 square-foot museum’s operation expenses and to pay back the endowment. The Claire Friedlander Family Foundation, of which Klein is president, contributed $300,000 toward the project.

Alumni association trustee Bruce Jakubovitz’s father Jerome was in the first graduating class from Bronx Science in 1942. Upon Jerome’s 2001 death, the Joan and Jerome Jakubovitz Foundation made a large gift which was earmarked for the Holocaust center. The rest of the project’s $1.2 million budget came from the school’s endowment and private donors.

Klein says it was never an option to leave the artifacts at MJH or donate them to another major museum.

“Bronx Science tradition came into play,” he says. “Also, the school’s ethnic makeup has changed from Jewish to a real melting pot, with some students having possibly suffered intolerance in their home countries. A hands-on tolerance education is really important to Bronx Science.”

This ethnic diversity is reflected among the students currently enrolled in the Holocaust leadership class, which has been led by Sophia Sapozhnikov for the past five years. According to the teacher, every year 20-35 of the school’s more than 3,000 students are accepted to the course after a competitive application process.

Many of those students have helped Jill Vexler, who has served as the museum’s curator for the past two years, following the return of Elenko’s collection to the school.

“It is a high-quality collection, but not a systematic one,” Vexler notes. “The challenge was how to tell a Holocaust narrative with the artifacts we had, and not tell stories that weren’t there by faking what was missing.”

The museum utilizes a "study storage" design in the galleries, whereby visitors can pull out drawers to view artifacts grouped by subject. (Courtesy. Photo credit: Amy Beckerman Photography)
The museum utilizes a ‘study storage’ design in the galleries, whereby visitors can pull out drawers to view artifacts grouped by subject. (Photo credit: Amy Beckerman Photography)

She settled on telling the history chronologically, but not rigidly, using a “study storage” method whereby artifacts are grouped by topics in cabinets with a display case on top and Lucite-top drawers underneath that can be pulled out and examined. The Lucite tops can be opened if someone has special permission to directly handle an artifact.

With the museum’s opening, Sapozhnikov’s students are learning to be docents. Seniors and juniors, some who have been in the class for two or three years, feel incredibly fortunate that the museum opened before they graduated.

“It’s a dream come true,” says Nelo Keith Lang, a senior from Brooklyn. “I never thought we would have a museum besides half a room in the library. It’s incredible.”

For Alicja Rak, who is 16 and the daughter of Polish immigrants living in Queens, working on the museum has introduced her to the professional option of becoming a museum curator. “It’s given me the possibility to work in a field that I love.”

Seventeen-year-old Shoshana Shapiro from Manhattan, whose favorite artifact is a Torah cover made by survivors in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, says she feels especially at home in the class and in the museum, but that she wasn’t sure what the museum would mean to the rest of the school. She is heartened to see that recently, “people just kept peering in through the glass doors [which are locked when a teacher is not there to supervise], asking when they could visit, when beforehand they had expressed no interest in the class or material.”

The museum is meant to serve mainly as a resource for Bronx Science students, but plans are also underway to make it accessible to the broader community, something senior Mariah Maldonado thinks is important.

“Having the museum shows outsiders that Bronx Science isn’t just a school focused on academics, but a school devoted to building awareness and acceptance… toward a better future,” says Maldonado.

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