I told museum designer Edward Jacobs, who specializes in creating modern Holocaust museums, that I am the son of a Holocaust survivor, and so, needless to say, the subject of remembering and memorializing the Holocaust has been a major part of my entire life.
I also told him my personal opinion, which is that, as Jews and as Israelis, we paid a major price for turning our suffering in the Holocaust into a universal value, including the fact that we are now being accused of acting like Nazis by the children of our murderers.
He responded: “As you allude, the suffering and guilt narratives are pervasive, and trotted out when expedient, particularly politically. That said, so are the alternative narratives, of survival, resilience and humanity. Those capture the imagination of generations not as apologia or wishful thinking, but as a sign of hope. Further, ‘the children of our murderers’ as you call them, as well as the rest of the enemies of Israel, have no problem identifying convenient and useful levers to use against us.”
“Overall, much work and demonstrable success have been achieved in the realm of Holocaust education in sensitizing the public to both the specific event, as well as its universal implications,” he said, suggesting that “this is no small accomplishment.”
I also shared with Jacobs my belief that statements such as “never again” are a surefire way to bring on a repeat performance, human nature being what it is.
“’Never Again’ in its most truthful definition concerns first and foremost the Jewish people,” Jacobs responded. “The State of Israel is the guarantor of that maxim. That said, one of the most important directives bequeathed upon us by your parents and the survivor generation, concern the universal implications of ‘never again’ is ‘Thou shalt not be a bystander,’ reflecting not only one of the survivors’ most important legacies to the world, but also a profoundly important Jewish foundational tenant, ‘Al Ta’amod al dam re’echa’ (Do not stand over your fellow man’s blood). As you know, ‘re’ah’ is usually translated as brother, which people mistakenly perceive as being interfamilial. However the Jewish utopian/universal view includes all of humanity. Israeli civil law codified this specific statement in law. While reality does not necessarily reflect this ideal, it does show where we wish to be as a people and a society.”
So Edward Jacobs is a liberal Jewish artist, with a liberal Jewish, universalistic understanding of Hebrew scripture (the term re’echa is used in the Torah in strictly national terms, as in the most renowned reference, “Do not take vengeance on or bear a grudge against any of the sons of your nation (b’nei ame’cha); rather, love your friend as you would yourself; I am God. (Lev. 19:18)” No “fellow-man” here, nor anywhere else in the Torah. As to the Israeli law he referenced, the Knesset Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, 1992, it was supposed to be one foundation in a constitutional system that defined the Jewish State, with the elements of the Jewish part to come later – but they never arrived. Instead, it has been used to empower a leftist judiciary over a majority rightwing populace. But I digress.
Designer Edward Jacobs and his partner Dr. Michael Berenbaum, founders of Berenbaum Jacobs Associates (BJA), specialize in erecting “narrative historical, sociological and Identity Museums.” In that context, Jacobs and Berenbaum create Holocaust museums with a modern perspective, as their PR notes put it: “to ensure that people ‘Never Forget.'”
Dr. Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar, used to be the project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Jacobs used to be lead advisor to the Director of Pedagogy at Yad Vashem. Together, the two men say they are transforming the “traditional” Holocaust museum, using new narratives, art and media to communicate continued relevancy across generations, encompassing “the complex human experience of coexistence, tolerance, and acceptance in times of turmoil and the tragic consequences when they break down.”
Their projects include the New Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia, set to open in Skopje in early March 2018; the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum – Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights, with a section devoted to “American Ideals – Reality and Repair,” covering the plights of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino/Tejano, and LGBTQ; and the Cincinnati Holocaust and Humanity Museum, exploring what the term “Humanity” really means, set to open in January 2019 at the historic Union Terminal.
I asked Jacobs: What brings you to work in establishing museums that focus on the Holocaust?
“I grew up in an extremely assimilated American environment,” he said. “I had functionally no Jewish education or background. Sometimes there was Passover and Chanukah. I had no Christmas tree, but all of my friends did.
“From a young age, I was directed toward creative pursuits. During my mid-teen years I realized that my lack of knowledge concerning my Jewish heritage hampered my creative originality, and so I sought to learn more. This led to a deep journey into Judaic studies, ultimately leading to yeshiva learning in Israel.
“Holocaust awareness was one element of that awakening. After having spent five years in Yeshiva and two in the IDF, I ended up working as a special assistant to the head of Pedagogy at Yad Vashem, Shulamit Imber, for 15 years. Her inspired mentoring led to my association and partnership with Michael Berenbaum, one of the foremost scholars working in the field today, who is still my mentor, but also my partner.”
Which do you think is the best Holocaust museum today?
Jacobs began with a few disclaimers, including that his partner Michael Berenbaum was consultant on some of the museums he favors, and the fact that, as museum designer, he takes into account the complex challenges and tremendous efforts involved in producing a Holocaust museum.
“I am afraid that I am unable to label the ‘best’ or even favorite Holocaust museum – just as I am unable to do with any book, movie or artwork. Each institution has more and less successful exhibits, narratives and organizing principles,” Jacobs then answered. “It must be understood that museums of this genre are created with complex agendas—political, historical, civic. Each comes into being around a particular world view that is informed and defined by a broad base of participants: survivors, their children, board members, benefactors, educators, administrators, politicians.
“All of the above considered, it is truly a miracle that a single museum is ever realized.”
That’s just more disclaimers, obviously.
“We believe that the more successful institutions and exhibits portray the story more as a human chronicle allowing the historical narrative to be the background foundation,” he mused. “It is the individual story of those who participated: survivor, perpetrator, bystander and upstander, that touch us most deeply and leaves an impact. Further, if presented in more artful and creative exhibits, the visitor may be drawn into the story in a more relational and introspective manner.”
In other words, for the visitor to understand an era, especially such a tragic one, don’t bombard them with facts and figures, instead tell them a story.
In that context, Jacobs said: “Media should be used judiciously, not gratuitously. Virtual reality cannot replace genuine reality. A museum is an opportunity for a multi-faceted sensory experience. Stories, artifacts, testimonies, history, artifice (trick devices), media, must all be woven together into a coherent narrative.”
Of course those are all examples of a virtual reality, they’re all representational, but he obviously meant the computerized-glasses kind of VR.
“We also believe that to understand any Holocaust narrative, it is essential that a prologue of Jewish history must be presented,” he noted, because “context is essential. For us, this [context] is more than the requisite history of anti-Semitism. It is about the emergence of a people in a pagan world introducing a radical system of equality and morality. This is where the story of the Jews begins. And it is generally overlooked.”
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Are there not “too many” museums dealing with the Holocaust? Do you need more and more? Is the surplus ending up generating negative results, trivializing the trauma?
“Holocaust museums are dispersed throughout broad geographic areas. In the United States and Europe, it is rare to have redundant institutions in the same state or capital,” Jacobs argued, then, embracing my supply and demand argument, he pointed out that “if you look at the statistics of most of these institutions, you will see that they have trouble meeting visitors’ demand – particularly of surrounding educational institutions. Further, in their success, these museums have been tasked with ‘expanding the narrative.’ Specifically, speaking about other atrocities, human-rights, civic responsibility. We are staunch supporters of this viewpoint and it is reflected in all of our current works.”
He concedes, though, that there is a danger of the abundance of information leading to the trivializing of the horrific subject matter, admitting that it is “unfortunately a constant reality. The first expressions from survivors were not words. They were drawings and paintings. There were no words. A new lexicon had to be developed to express the events that transpired. A fiery debate erupted: wouldn’t any expression of what happened – apart from documented history and testimony – be a tragic minimization of the events? How could anyone appreciate the magnitude of what happened? That is why for so many years silence was pervasive.”
With that in mind, what might be the negative effect of these museums? Do they somehow dull the sensitivity to the subject? Do they somehow reduce our personal moral responsibility? Are they “normalizing” the Holocaust?
“We live in a media-driven age in which everything can be reconstructed and seen. In our hubris, we believe that if we can ‘see it’ we can understand it. As Elie Wiesel pointed out, there is no more sense of taboo – things that we cannot look upon because it is unperceivable to us.
“In our own work we try to educate toward this understanding. That we can learn about events, observe the historical record, listen to testimony – but we are ultimately far removed from true perception. That said, the moral imperative, the civic and social responsibility, should weigh even greater on us and our students. The lessons to be learned are critical. Their relevance today is paramount.”
With that in mind, I asked how he felt about using photographs of Jews in the Holocaust, including extremely shaming ones (nudity, etc.) which were shot by the Nazi beast. Do these images needlessly expose us to the decrepit souls of our tormentors?
“This is a very important question that we grapple with constantly,” Jacobs stressed, adding: “First and foremost from a pedagogical standpoint, these images tell us nothing that we do not already know. Further, they posthumously rob the victims of any last vestige of humanity. They pander to the crudest voyeuristic tendencies we harbor.
“However – this is what happened. This was the result. This is what the murderer did – and more.
“Our own approach is to use very few of those particular images, and only in the exhibit dealing with issues concerning annihilation. Importantly, these images are never fully exposed to the public, but are rather hidden behind obstructions so that they can never be entirely seen. This is not a device that we employ for age-appropriateness. It is a pedagogical and psychological methodology meant to force the visitor to confront the reality that he cannot ‘see’ some reality. It is only partial – as is his/her perception.
HOLOCAUST MEMORIALS AND CONTROVERSY
What are your considerations regarding controversial issues, which of them to include and how much to include?
I offered a few examples: the reluctance of Ukraine to introduce the crimes of the Ukrainians; the reluctance of the French to make a proper representation of the small opposition to the Nazi occupation; and the enthusiastic cooperation of the Dutch and the Austrians with the German Nazis.
“Most inclusions and exclusions are arrived at with all museum stakeholders. We encourage honest and straightforward presentations of issues that are relevant to the specific institution, particularly owing to its geographic location. These narratives are also driven in large part by the local survivor community and their stories. In the new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum (opening 2019) our Holocaust narrative is presented geographically. This allows us to deal with all of the issues you list in a very direct manner.”
“As to the African American claims that the Holocaust is being presented at the expense of a worthy occupation in their tragedy, which lasted many, many years longer – one is never at the expense of the other. The new African American Museum in DC is a testament to that. In our Dallas museum, the legacy of chattel slavery in America and particularly in Texas has a powerful focus. As does the genocide of the Karankawa Indians of Texas.
What about the Arabs’ claim that Holocaust commemoration is a way to silence their Nakba?
“There is history and there is politics. Exhibitions on the Holocaust do not seek to promote or dissuade political agendas. They do not relate on that level. They relate to a moral realm which should influence civic action and discourse. Manipulations abound, particularly to those who present the State of Israel as ‘the price the world paid for the guilt of the Holocaust (at the expense of another people).’ This anti-Semitic canard, like all of those which precede it must be dealt with through the proper channels in an appropriate manner.”
Do you exhibit the suffering of Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and the handicapped, the Communists and other regime opponents who have been persecuted, too?
“All of our museums devote considerable space to the category of other victims of the Nazi onslaught. These include those categories you have mentioned as well as others. This inclusion is critical educationally. The Nazis had a long list of those peoples who ‘needed to be annihilated.’ The Jews were certainly at the top of that list, and unlike the others were considered a satanic, alien presence sent to subvert and ultimately enslave all of humanity. The rest of the victims were just in the way.”
Does the presentation of the memory of the Holocaust also address the arguments of the Holocaust deniers, and in what proportion?
“Denial is one of the most pervasive and common tactics that revolve around any atrocity. Where there is institutional denial, you can bet that you don’t know the least of it. Look at the Armenian genocide [by the Turks] – the longest and most sustained example of denial we have. Look today how Myanmar is speaking about the Rohingya tragedy of rape and murder. And this by the leader of the country and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient Daw Aung Suu Kyi! And what about the Yazidis’ and other victims in Syria?
“For our own part, we deal directly with Holocaust denial as a specific phenomenon. Owing to the extent of our historical record and research, this denial is relatively easy to parse and show it for what it is. With that, it allows us to educate about the general mechanism of denial, sensitizing our public to these current and more insidious examples.”
Finally, how do you feel about forgiveness for the offspring of the Nazi beast?
“We have had many interactions with children of perpetrators. It never ceases to astound, the burden that many of them carry. As educators—and as Jews—we feel it crucial to impress upon our students that children do not inherit the guilt of the fathers. For the Nazis and their supporters, their collaborators, their enablers, and even their bystanders, there is no forgiveness. People must live with the consequences of the decisions they make.
“For their children, and their children’s children, they will always bear the weight of their history, but not the culpability.”