Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (MJH: ALMTTH)
MUSEUM OF JEWISH HERITAGE: A LIVING MEMORIAL TO THE HOLOCAUST (mjh: almtth)
The opening of mjh: almtth, in September 1997, marked the culmination of a long and difficult process to create a Holocaust Memorial in New York City. Beginning with the dedication of the site for a Holocaust Memorial, in Manhattan's Riverside Park, on October 19, 1947, and until the Museum opened its doors to the public 50 years later, the aspirations and plans to establish an appropriate commemoration of the Holocaust were loaded with frustrations and repeated dismissal.
Over the years, numerous plans for a n.y. Holocaust Memorial were submitted but were either rejected by the City's planning authorities or failed to raise the necessary funding. The artists chosen by the various planners to submit designs for the planned monument included some of the most renowned architects and sculptors. These included Eric Mendelsohn (1951), two designs by Nathan Rapoport (1962 and 1964), and Louis Kahn (1968). Rapport's 1964 rejected submission was ultimately installed in the Jerusalem Hills and titled Scrolls of Fire.
A heightened awareness of the significance of the Holocaust for contemporary society from the late 1970s onwards, resulted in increased endeavors to commemorate the Holocaust and address both Jews and non-Jews alike. This included major tv productions, educational curriculums, and ultimately the establishment of Holocaust memorial centers and museums. Especially significant was the 1979 decision to create the *United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, d.c.
In July 1981, New York's Mayor, Edward *Koch established a Holocaust Memorial Task Force, which evolved in September 1982 to the New York City Holocaust Commission, co-chaired by philanthropist and real estate developer George Klein and Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau. The stated goal was the creation of "a living memorial," meaning a museum rather than only a monument. Koch's declared rationale was clear: " New York City is regarded by all as the cultural and spiritual nucleus of American Jewry and is home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors… It is tragic that the city… still does not have a fitting memorial to the six million martyrs lost in the Second World War."
In February 1986, Governor Mario Cuomo was added to Mayor Koch as founding chairman of the now State Commission. This new development allowed for greater leverage in obtaining State-controlled properties on the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park. Other than allocation of land by the State, the project was to be funded by private financing. Yet, despite support by the local authorities, the project was unable to raise the required funds, resulting in repeated delays and causing it to be nearly forsaken.
Finally in October 1994, ground-breaking ceremonies unveiled Kevin Roche's design for a substantially reduced 30,000 sq. ft. building in Battery Park, symbolically situated opposite two major icons of American Jewish life, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Having weathered the ups and downs of creating the new memorial since 1986, Museum director David Altshuler enthusiastically moved ahead in 1995 to create the team that would develop the Core Exhibit. Patrick Gallagher was hired as exhibit designer, Yitzchak Mais, the former director of Yad Vashem's Historical Museum, was appointed chief curator and together with filmmaker Max Lewkowicz combined to create a novel approach to Holocaust commemoration.
The three floors of the Museum portray Jewish life in the 20th century, before, during and after the Holocaust, thus providing an essential but all too often overlooked context for this tragic period in Jewish history. The exhibit's integration of artifacts, photos, text and videos, depict the human drama and highlight the personal narrative of individuals who actually experienced the historical events. This allows the visitors to develop an intimacy with the historical "participants," and results in a powerful emotional experience that will be remembered long after many of the facts, figures, and maps have faded.
The exhibit's narrative, while emphasizing the particular Jewish tragedy, permits its diverse audiences the opportunity to also focus on themselves – their own backgrounds, traditions and history – as they encounter the values, customs, and heritage of the Jewish people. The more universal a story is in its appeal, the more it can bridge cultural differences. Any group's life experiences are unique, but there are characteristics that are common to all people – hope, desire, frustration, fear, courage, and the instinct for survival. The museum's innovative approach of highlighting Human history, with a capital "H," tells the particular Jewish story with universal relevance for all audiences.
This approach is especially evident in the museum's second floor, "The War Against the Jews." In contrast to most other Holocaust exhibitions in North America which depict the Jews under Nazi domination as mere objects in a reign of ongoing terror, mjh:almtth highlights how the Jews perceived and responded to the evolving persecution. Hence, based on the changing Nazi policies and the Jews' understanding of its implications, the Jews are not perceived by the visitors as passive victims, but rather as active agents who exhibited resourcefulness and vitality within the limitations imposed by the tragedy and calamity the Jews experienced during the Holocaust.
The review of the Core Exhibition in The Wall Street Journal, highlighted this innovative approach:
Although the Museum of Jewish Heritage documents with unflinching detail Hitler's war against the Jews, it never permits its visitors to view Jews as faceless extras in the drama of Nazi butchery.
Appointed Museum director in 2000, David Marwell guided mjh: almtth, to its role as a major educational and cultural institution. The realization of the original plans, which were scaled down for lack of budget, were finally accomplished with the dedication of the Robert M. Morgenthau wing in 2003 which provided auditoria, classrooms, a conference center as well as temporary exhibition space.
R.G. Saidel, Never Too Late To Remember: The Politics Behind New York City's Holocaust Museum (1996); T.L. Freudenheim, "Exhibition Reviews: Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust," in: Curator, 40:4 (Dec. 1997), 296–300.
[Yitzchak Mais (2nd ed.)]
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