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MAR 23, 2011

Bearing Witness Beyond the Witnesses (NY Times)

Bearing Witness Beyond the Witnesses

Published: March 23, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Is the Holocaust too much with us? Or if not the Holocaust, then Holocaust museums?

It can sometimes seem so. The Association of Holocaust Organizations has 293 institutional members around the world, each at least partly devoted to commemoration. The association counts 16 major Holocaust museums in the United States, in Richmond, Houston, New York, Washington and other cities to which Jewish survivors immigrated after World War II. And they are still being built. Two years ago the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center opened near Chicago. And last fall the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust opened here in a new $15.5 million building. It is actually the city’s second such museum; the other, the Museum of Tolerance, examines the Holocaust’s connection to its main theme and welcomes 350,000 visitors a year.

But the answer to these questions is not easy for it seems that while almost all of these institutions have developed out of the desires of survivors to offer testimony, command remembrance, educate the young and ensure that nothing similar occurs, at the same time exaggerated and wrong-headed Holocaust and Nazi analogies have proliferated at an even greater rate than the museums themselves. It is as if familiarity is breeding analogy, and analogy is unaffected by how many institutions meticulously survey the horrors of calculated, systematic murder on a mass scale. The new museum here, in Pan Pacific Park, not far from the traditionally Jewish district of Fairfax Avenue, should not, of course, bear the brunt of these broodings. It does, however, in its successes and failures, indicate some of the challenges that will face Holocaust museums when there are no longer any remaining survivors and they commemorate a receding historical trauma.

The Holocaust museum here is a strange hybrid, for not only is it the country’s newest, it is also, its literature asserts, the oldest, tracing its origins to 1961, when a group of survivors studying English as a Second Language at Hollywood High School decided it would be important to display some of the objects that had survived with them and that might, in a museum setting, bear witness.

The museum was supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles until 2005. But it lost its Wilshire Boulevard home after a 1994 earthquake and found itself wandering from one place to another, its primacy eclipsed by the Museum of Tolerance and its future in doubt. It was able to lease the current site from the city, but it is unlikely the museum could have been built without the assistance of the Los Angeles lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg (who is the grandson of two Viennese Jewish composers: Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl).

Mr. Schoenberg was the lawyer for Maria V. Altmann, who challenged the Austrian government by asserting her claim to Gustav Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis. After Mr. Schoenberg triumphed in that case in 2006, he and his wife, Pamela, donated more than $7 million to the museum. He became its president, helped shaped its displays and even wrote some of the exhibition text. Under the museum’s executive director, Mark A. Rothman, the board has raised almost all of the $20 million the institution sought as its endowment.

The 32,000-square-foot building, designed by Belzberg Architects, is radically self-effacing and, in a city designed for cars, weirdly easy to miss while driving past. It bears no evident symbols of its subject and is largely subterranean. Its entrance on one end elides into the park’s play areas and a 1991 Holocaust memorial; on the other side, the entrance is a corridor slicing through its low grass-topped roof. As required by the city, the building hardly intrudes on the park. The problem is that this also puts out of sight the very thing the museum is supposed to bring to notice.

Like many Holocaust museums this one tries to approach its subject with a local perspective. Many of its artifacts and the people it discusses have some connection to the Los Angeles area. That is often fascinating, because many important scholars and artists from Germany and Austria came to Southern California, which is why Herbert Marcuse gets a mention here, along with Carl Laemmle, a founder of Universal Pictures.

Along the museum’s main corridor are chronicles of the Holocaust told using the front pages of local newspapers. One of the earliest, from The Los Angeles Times in 1933, reports that Secretary of State Cordell Hull had reassured Jewish leaders that while there was “considerable physical mistreatment of Jews” in Nazi Germany, “government leaders had taken action resulting in termination of the outrages.”

There is also a tabletop touch screen called a Memory Pool, on which photographs of Jews in prewar Europe seem to float. Touch them and you learn more, say, about Gabor Weisz’s restaurant in Fot, Hungary, or about other once-anonymous individuals, the images contributed by families or drawn from a centralized European database.

An iPod Touch is provided for each visitor (with admission, which is free). Each artifact is numbered; key in the number, and audio commentary, ranging from the cursory to the encyclopedic, can be heard. So can Nazi songs, recordings of prayers made in postwar displaced-persons camps, diary entries by ghetto inhabitants and poems from the period.

In the museum’s most intense gallery there are 18 touch screens, each giving information about a death camp, along with video interviews with survivors. On a monitor a survivor of Sobibor, in Poland, Thomas Blatt, points to a wooden model of the camp he constructed from memory, showing how an escape was planned. Before us, on display, is that very model.

Artifacts on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland require no commentary: a battered shoe, a worn suitcase, an enameled child’s cup. And a special exhibition also shows remarkable comic and sardonic drawings acquired by the museum, secretly sketched by Erich Lichtblau-Leskly while he was imprisoned at Theresienstadt.

The material here is so extensive and the subject so important that it might seem perverse to complain. Nevertheless, too much of the exhibition is still unfocused, and its overall purpose is not clearly defined. Some problems are organizational. The story is chronologically told, and each gallery is lined with backlighted black-and-white photos. But within galleries, the order can be haphazard. Examples of books burned by the Nazis are interrupted by displays of Nazi uniforms and Nazi political cartoons.

Many displays are almost miscellaneous gatherings of objects. Some audio entries need to be drastically cut. Others do not correspond to anything on view. And artifacts lack identifying labels; they only have audio-tour numbers, so without listening you don’t know what you are seeing. (A decision has recently been made to provide labels, which will be a great help.)

In a gallery describing European ghettos, why is a panel devoted to Unites States wartime internment camps for Japanese-Americans? Is an argument being made about similarities? If so, important differences also need to be analyzed. And near the Sobibor model we read about genocide in general, and about Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia. But if the museum’s purpose was to explore genocide, it would have to be done in far greater detail; these cursory accounts seem to challenge the uniqueness of what we are seeing, even as the museum has gone out of its way to emphasize it. The approach asserts equivalence without really showing it.

These moments illuminate why the impact of Holocaust museums has been so qualified; many seem to feel obligated, given their claims on wider public interest, educational grants and class attention, to generalize beyond the particulars, as if simply recounting history would seem overly parochial. And thus they set the stage for poor analogies being made every day.

But as survivors die and the history grows distant, how can such institutions evolve? They have to present a different context for this awful history. What about getting more particular rather than more general?

As a Los Angeles museum, for example, this institution might strengthen its local focus and tell the history of the Holocaust as a story with regional implications for Southern California. It might follow local reactions to the Holocaust, trace the lives and families of survivors and émigrés, and expand the intriguing examples it already provides.

For example there is a haunting panel here about Dina Gottlieb Babbitt, who, as an 18-year-old art student in Prague, was deported to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz. She comforted the children at Auschwitz by drawing pictures from the film “Snow White” on the barracks walls. They were seen by Dr. Josef Mengele, who was so impressed he ordered her to draw pictures of Gypsies before he experimented on them.

She used her talents to barter for the lives of inmates, including her mother. She survived, we learn, moved to Los Angeles and married Art Babbitt, an animator who had, by coincidence, worked on the same movie whose images she drew at Auschwitz. Years later she tried to get back the drawings she made for Mengele from the Auschwitz museum. The request was denied.

Read this and you get a vivid sense of the Holocaust not as a genocidal abstraction but as a fearsome conglomeration of particular evils, whose shadow can still be felt, even here.

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