Whose Holocaust Museum?

Whose Holocaust Museum?

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City.

The controversy that often surrounds a Holocaust museum’s decision to include the mass murder of other groups — like the Armenian Genocide in Turkey a century ago, or the 1994 killings in Rwanda — is expanding beyond a small group of scholars to the wider public.

In a series of recent articles, Edward Rothstein, critic-at-large at The New York Times, asks if the Shoah is a uniquely Jewish tragedy, if a Holocaust museum should broaden beyond its immediate subject, if there are universal lessons to be learned from the Jewish experience at the hands of the Third Reich.

His answers: the Holocaust should be treated as uniquely Jewish, and institutions dilute their message when they present other genocides as comparable. “It is as if familiarity is breeding analogy … [some Holocaust museums] began to see the Holocaust as an extreme manifestation of a refusal to care about injustice or the fate of one’s neighbor,” he wrote.

(The expansion of the Holocaust’s message is worldwide: the Holocaust Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, introduces a parallel track about apartheid, and a Holocaust museum that is to open this year in Johannesburg will feature references to the genocide in Rwanda.)

“This is always one of the major tensions” among Holocaust scholars, Edward Linenthal, author of “Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum” (Viking, 1995), says in an e-mail interview. “The relationship between historic specificity and wider contexts was always on the minds of those tasked with the creation of the [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum].”

Many leaders of the Holocaust remembrance movement take issue with Rothstein’s conclusions, but credit him with sparking a national dialogue on the subject.

Newspapers and online forums carried excerpts from his articles the last few weeks, and David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in Battery Park City, issued a statement that his institution’s balanced approach to Holocaust memory “presents this difficult history in a way that both respects its unique character and distills important lessons for our visitors.”

While Rothstein’s critique is “worthy of consideration,” he fails to understand that the Holocaust’s legacy led to a universal condemnation of genocide, says Michael Berenbaum, former director of the Holocaust Research Institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The transition was organic.”

“People are discussing this,” debating the universalistic and particularistic aspects of the Holocaust, says Arthur Flug, executive director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Queensborough Community College in Bayside. “He’s opened up the topic for discussion.”

In “Making the Holocaust the Lessons on All Evils,” an April 29 essay that focuses on Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance, Rothstein implies that Queensborough’s “modest” center is guilty of universalizing the Shoah, alluding to the center’s exhibitions and hate crimes curriculum that teach students “options” when confronted with bias.

But Flug says that an effective museum exhibit “is more than a history lesson.”

Otherwise, he adds, “it becomes static. We are required as educators to teach some course of action.”

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