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MAR 9, 2020

From Swastika Selfies to Lessons on Nazism

By Geraldine Fabrikant

Deeply worried by the surge in episodes of anti-Semitism, Holocaust and Jewish museums are working to use history to combat bigotry.

An exhibit on Nazism at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
An exhibit on Nazism at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Credit...Tamara Leigh
 

This article is part of our latest Museums special section, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

"Symbols of Hate” at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust had an unexpected beginning. A group of high school students partying in Newport Beach, Calif., used red paper cups to create a swastika. They then saluted it, took selfies and circulated them on social media. The episode last March enraged some members of the community and inspired a torrent of news stories.

Concerned that the students knew little about the history of Nazism, a Holocaust scholar subsequently arranged for them to visit the museum, where they met Beth Kean, its chief executive. The show was prompted by her impression that their knowledge of Nazism was limited.

Ms. Kean is not alone in her efforts.

Deeply worried by the surge in episodes of anti-Semitism — the number more than doubled in the United States in 2018 over 2015, according to the Anti-Defamation League — Holocaust and Jewish museums are working to develop programs and exhibitions that underscore the insidious nature of prejudice, whether toward Jews, blacks, Muslims or other minority groups.

“Many of our nation’s Holocaust and Jewish museums are taking on the renewed responsibility of strengthening contemporary understanding of what American Jews are facing today,” said Melissa Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums.
Among the symbols of hate at the Los Angeles museum: an SS Totenkopf (“Death’s Head”) pin worn by SS battalions that administered concentration camps and an empire of slave labor. <a href=
Among the symbols of hate at the Los Angeles museum: an SS Totenkopf (“Death’s Head”) pin worn by SS battalions that administered concentration camps and an empire of slave labor. Credit...Tamara Leigh

Some museums are getting either direct or indirect support from state governments. Last July, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California earmarked $6 million for an expansion of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Eleven states, including Oregon, now require Holocaust education, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Even in states where those laws do not exist, schools are turning to museums for help.

“We know that there is a need and increased curiosity about the Holocaust,” Ms. Yaverbaum said. “Audiences are responding, and we hope it will make a difference.”

Ms. Kean says her museum collects feedback from teachers to learn how students responded, and she believes the visits do.

In Tucson, Ariz., the Jewish History Museum has taken on what its executive director, Bryan Davis, called a multifaceted approach. “We are looking outward to build coalitions,” he said.

In January the museum organized a rally — called “No Hate, No Fear” — with the neighboring Prince Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The speakers included Mr. Davis, the Prince Chapel’s pastor, the outreach director for the city’s Islamic Center and the deputy consul of Mexico in Tucson.

“We have had these relationships for decades, but the current events have given our mandate a new urgency,” Mr. Davis said.

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