The Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.
“Look—there’s the museum!” That’s what one of us said every time the familiar building came into view. The emotional rush, for me at least, is comparable to seeing a close friend for whom you have been searching across a crowded room. In our family it’s always a special event to see the Museum of Jewish Heritage on the skyline of lower Manhattan—whether in a photograph, on television or in a movie (like quick glimpses in Keeping the Faith and Men in Black) or from an airplane.
Airplanes provide us a special drama. The approach to La Guardia Airport almost always gives you a few minutes when you know you’re close and perhaps 20 seconds to look down for the right spot. Then the museum disappears as your tiny window moves north to face out over Midtown. The moment happens so fast that the unpracticed traveler would miss it. But we had a routine—you just find the ever-prominent Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, then quickly look southeast and right, nearby to the Statue of Liberty in the harbor, and the museum on the shore.
Finding the museum on the skyline is a challenge because it is only 70 feet tall and on a footprint of only 10,000 square feet. Its hexagonal image, while distinctive, is tiny within the context of a grand scene of colossal structures. When zoning regulations capped the height and financial considerations limited the overall size, we wondered whether such a modest building (only one-tenth the size of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington) could make a strong impression on its visitors. I owe to my wife, Linda, the observation that Renaissance architecture made human scale a virtue.
And Kevin Roche, the museum’s architect, gave the institution a home of quiet dignity and palpable eloquence.
Inside, on three floors of exhibitions, we recount a story of a people who lived ordinary lives but filled their families and communities with meaning. We show how they struggled to perpetuate their civilization even as it suffered near-annihilation during the Holocaust. And we describe how they rebuilt themselves and their world during the last half-century. The story unfolds in these three chapters as visitors climb the three floors, and it culminates in a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty from the top floor.
We call the museum “A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.” It remembers European Jews not only for the way they died during the Shoah, but also and especially for the way they lived before and even during the war. Moreover, the story demonstrates the continuity of Jewish life and how it continues creatively and dynamically throughout the world until our own time. And the museum itself is alive with the voices of Holocaust survivors, who, thanks to modern video technology, are the eloquent, compelling narrators one sees and hears in every corner of the exhibitions.
Today, as I write, the shiva period since the destruction of the World Trade Center is not over. Our museum sits closed and surrounded by a once-vibrant neighborhood now engulfed by ash, destruction, fear and mourning.
If you walk around New York this week, or open a newspaper, or turn on a television anywhere in the world, stories of the victims and survivors of the terrorist acts on September 11 are being told in much the way our museum speaks of the past century. The documents and photographs and film footage, artifacts and video testimony—here as before—speak of good and evil, and life and death, in ways that seem both fresh and yet painfully familiar.
We often used to tell children at the museum that we built it especially for them. Not because we worried that they might ever be persecutors, God forbid. And surely not because we feared that they might be victims themselves—after all, they lived in the strongest nation on earth. Rather, we wanted to awaken their sensitivity lest they become uncaring bystanders while others somewhere else might be persecuted. How naïve we were!
Our museum will reopen, but it is hard now to imagine that we ever again will be able to locate it from the air by looking for the Twin Towers. Once the North Star of our neighborhood and the logo of our great city, those structures—and the lives that pulsated within them—will be sorely missed. Just down the street, as tourism and school field trips and family outings resume, visitors again will enter the museum and they will see emblazoned on its entryway two verses from the Bible, recorded by our ancestors as they contemplated tragedies of their own times:
“Remember…. Never Forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17,19).
“There is hope for your future” (Jeremiah 31:19).
Tragically, the Living Memorial lives now in ways its builders never anticipated or contemplated. The human struggle to reconcile memory and hope is urgent.
David Altshuler was the founding director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust from 1986 to 1999.
This article originally appeard in Hadassah Magazine’s November 2001 issue as part of our coverage of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
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