U.S. Holocaust museums update content and context

With an urgency to preserve memory and modernize as remaining Holocaust survivors enter their 80s and 90s, at least half a dozen Holocaust museums are under construction, plan to innovate or have recently expanded, with more broadening of their approach to look beyond the past and reflect today’s social changes.

Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation, founded in 1994 to record the stories of survivors, is at the forefront of evolution. In a 2018 New York Times article, Spielberg described the need to broaden the scope, stating: “The presence of hate has become evident. We are not doing enough to counter it.

The foundation now archives and studies victims of the genocide in Rwanda or the Rohingyas in Myanmar, develops educational programs in medical ethics, podcasts and offers archives to genealogical societies.

(My maternal grandparents recorded a video testimony with the Shoah Foundation in the 1990s.)

Today, she is partnering with the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Florida to design and build a museum in Orlando that will feature the foundation’s library of 55,000 survivor video testimonials (totaling over 115,000 hours) and will also have high-tech virtual installations to appeal to the youngest. people.

“We are no longer purely commemorative,” said Holocaust Foundation executive director Stephen D. Smith, who calls the Orlando facility the Holocaust Museum for Hope and Humanity, “a whole new kind of museum of ‘Holocaust”.

Augmented reality, virtual “docents” of survivors and video extracts will explain an era which is becoming more distant each year for young people. A 2020 survey of 1,000 people aged 18 to 39 in the United States by the nonprofit Claims Conference found that nearly two-thirds of them don’t know what Auschwitz is, for example. The Claims Conference was founded in 1951 and has worked to secure reparations and restitution for survivors.

Seventy-six years after the liberation of Auschwitz, there are an estimated 350,000 Holocaust survivors, and the Shoah Foundation is scrambling to record their stories. For decades, living survivors in museums have also shared their memories with students and connected them to what is happening today. As survivors die, this educational tool is in danger of being lost. Having the Testimonials Showcase in Orlando is one way to keep the memory alive.

The Holocaust Museum for Hope and Humanity will open next year and will open in 2024. Ralph Appelbaum, known for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, will be its designer.

Orlando welcomes 75 million tourists each year, officials say, and the City of Orlando Tourism Board, Orange County and organizations behind the museum are hoping it will become a place of destination. The museum received a $ 10 million development tax grant from Orange County – part of a total of $ 30 million for its cost of $ 75 million.

Credit…via the USC Shoah Foundation

Of the 16 Holocaust museums in the United States, some are teaming up with the Shoah Foundation, and many turn to it and decide to delve into injustice and bigotry as well. Survivor-founded organizations for Jewish communities are now trying to reach a larger, non-Jewish audience by addressing topics beyond the Holocaust.

Last year, the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum launched a $ 21 million project to quadruple its size and “deepen social justice, human rights and racism,” said Helen Turner, director education and interpretation at the museum, in a press release. maintenance.

The Holocaust Museum LA, which is planning a major renovation, has partnered with the Shoah Foundation and the Wende Museum, which focuses on the Cold War.

The city of Miami Beach and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation are aiming to complete a Holocaust memorial, incorporating videos from the Holocaust Foundation and planning an educational space. (The move is awaiting approval from Miami Beach residents.)

The Holocaust Museum Houston spent $ 34 million on a renovation in 2019 and features community issues such as Hispanic struggles and heritage.

Mary Pat Higgins, president of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, one of those founded by survivors, said he reframed his mission in 2019 to “examine historical and contemporary genocides and the evolution of human rights and civilians “.

Some question this expansion of the mission. “It’s important to be aware of other genocides, but the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis is a specific thing that these museums were created to commemorate,” said David Baddiel, author of “Jews Don’t Matter”. not “. “There is a complex difference between the Holocaust and other genocides. If you lower it, you are doing something offensive to the Jews.

David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple, a prominent conservative Jewish congregation in the greater Los Angeles area, said the expansion implies that the lessons these museums seek to teach have been learned – and “it’s not really not the case “.

Vanessa Lapa, the granddaughter of the survivors who is an Israeli filmmaker who obtained archive footage for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in an interview that she understood why the increased attention bothered some people, but added: “It is time to end the competition between the victims. “

“Jew, gay, disabled, Armenian, Rwandan – genocide is genocide,” she said.

Helen Epstein, whose parents were in Nazi concentration camps and who spent 40 years writing about the Holocaust, said she also sees it as “more than just a Jewish-centric event.”

Last month, the Podripske Muzeum, a small Czech museum located in his family’s former home, opened an exhibition on Kurt Epstein, Helen’s father.

“The great thing is that the museum has no Jewish connection; the city supported him, ”she said, adding:“ Understanding helps us all. “

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