A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
An Interview with Dr. David Altshuler, Director, Museum of Jewish Heritage
By: Marilyn Silverman
Senior Staff Writer
The Jewish Post of New York
Jewish Life a Century Ago... The War Against the Jews... Jewish Renewal. Three poignant themes that reverberate throughout the museum's hallowed halls. Visitors walking through the heartbreaking exhibits first walk into the world of yesterday -- of our Jewish ancestors -- first a world that bespeaks the richness and vitality and vibrant life of the pre-Holocaust epoch, with no hint, no clue, no foreshadowing of the evils that lurked in the shadows -- then a world of darkness and unspeakable horrors as the Nazis invaded, conquered, oppressed, tortured, and exterminated millions of our ancestors -- then a bright world of hope in the post-Holocaust epoch.
The museum, designed by the architect Kevin Roche, is a 30,000 square foot hexagonal granite building whose facade symbolizes the Star of David. Sitting directly opposite the Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island on the waterfront in Battery Park City, it cost $21.5 million to construct, following years of controversy. Among the museum's impressive archives are 2,000 photographs, 800 historical and cultural artifacts, and 24 documentary films, including touching testimony from Steven Spielberg's Survivor of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
After Lauren Perlmutter, Public Relations Manager, escorted me on a guided tour of the museum, I interviewed Dr. Altshuler, an articulate Judaic scholar, in the museum's Executive Offices. Dr. Altshuler serves as Visiting Distinguished Lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State where he has lectured about Judaism and the State of Israel for 20 years.
Interview with Dr. David Altshuler
Why do you personally feel that New York needs a Holocaust museum?
I'm at pains to explain that we're not a Holocaust museum. We're a Holocaust memorial. This is a museum of Jewish heritage which memorializes the victims of the Holocaust by teaching not only how they were murdered, but also, and especially, how they lived, how their legacy lives on, and so in contrast to any museum in the world with which I'm familiar, our curriculum is the full breadth of 20th century Jewish life from the late 19th century to today and clearly one argument for us to exist, if anyone needs such an argument, is that our curriculum is very special, very different. There are museums all over the world that just focus on 1933-1945. There are museums all over the world that focus on the long history of the Jews since biblical times. And we have an extraordinary audience to serve, which is not served by any other institution. In New York City, until today, there hasn't been a permanent memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. A city that has the largest Jewish community -- the largest population of Holocaust survivors and their families. Because of the nature of our city, it would be unthinkable not to have a public institution that addresses this period of time in Jewish history.
Why did this museum generate so much controversy?
I think any public project in the City of New York, any institution closely connected with a particular community, as this one is closely connected with the Jewish community, any institution that has to raise and expend millions of dollars, will create some controversy. This is one of the very few institutions in New York and the world that affects and is affected by Jews. All have found in this institution a vehicle for public education. So with respect to your journalistic judgment, I don't think we have aroused nor are we arousing a lot of controversy.
Did Jewish organizations know what was going on during the Holocaust, and if they knew, why didn't they do anything?
This is not only a complex historical question but it's also a very poignant, problematic, emotional, political question. There are a number of places in our exhibition where we have addressed questions about what people knew and what people did. By people I include those who were swept up in the events of the Holocaust and those on the other hand who were more or less physically outside these events. And I think that you do have in our museum, both in sections about the world response and lack thereof, very honest treatments of some of the issues. Our job in a museum is hardly to resolve complicated and controversial issues of historical interpretation and analysis. Our job is to raise issues and to reflect the concerns and to bespeak some of the tensions and controversy. There are an awful lot of people, especially in academia, who spend whole careers looking back to history and try to parcel out blame, parcel out guilt, parcel out responsibility, parcel out the nitty-gritty details of what happened when and who knew what and what was said and what was done. That's beyond our ken. But I think we've given people a set of provocative and at the same time a set of empathetic exhibitions.
How difficult was it to assemble the material?
It was very difficult to assemble this collection because you're asking people to part with their most precious, priceless, irreplaceable, invaluable family memorabilia. On the other hand, in a way it was very straightforward because everyone associated with this project firmly believes that the cause of public education is a great one and that these artifacts and documents and photographs could be put to no better use than to teach generations to come about this period of history.
What was President Clinton's reaction to the museum during his recent visit?
I can tell you from my conversations with him since I took him on a private tour and from the reactions we heard from Mrs. Clinton and from some of his friends. The president was very interested in the museum, very taken by the quality of the exhibition from a professional design standpoint, very impressed with the architecture and very moved by what he saw. He was scheduled to spend 15-20 minutes on the tour and 250 dignitaries were waiting for him to give a major foreign policy address on the third floor and yet only with great difficulty were we able to extradite him after 40 minutes of touring. We couldn't be happier with his response.
What kind of portrait are you trying to depict of the Jewish people?
We're trying to show the diversity, the vitality, the creativity of the Jewish people. We're trying to represent to this and future generations, the importance of the Jewish contribution to modern life and civilization and we're trying to address an age-old dilemma, namely, that human beings have in their power to elevate life and sanctify it on the one hand, and to debase and destroy it on the other hand.
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