Behind the Headlines a Unique Holocaust Museum

Twenty-two years ago, when Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig first proposed the establishment of a Holocaust Memorial Center to his group of survivors in Detroit, the Holocaust was not being talked about, not even by survivors, and the community leadership was opposed to the idea. But Rosenzveig and his group, the Shaarit Haplaytah (Saved Remnant), persevered.

Today, the Holocaust Memorial Center, located in West Bloomfield, Mich., is the nation’s first — and only — such exclusively designed museum, research and educational institution. It had 100,000 visitors — 80 percent of them non-Jews — in the first year after it opened its doors in October, 1984, and a recent sociological study has revealed its effectiveness.

Rosenzveig, interviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on a recent visit to New York, is a Talmudic scholar in his 60′s, a native of Ostrowiec in Poland. Having survived the war by “running from place to place” and hiding, he came to the U.S. in 1947. Two years later, he was ordained at Yeshiva University in New York, and served for 30 years as the rabbi of Congregation Mount Sinai in Port Huron, Mich.

INTENDED AS A THOUGHT-PROVOKING EXPERIENCE

He conceived the Center as a “comprehensive, dignified institution that would portray the life and murder of the European Jewish community,” he said. It was designed to be “contemplative, educational and thought-provoking, an educational experience, not a shock treatment.”

A visit to the museum, which takes about one-and-a-half hours, is intended to have the history of the Holocaust “gradually sink in, not to overwhelm” the visitor, he continued. The $3 million museum, light years away from the classic type with glass display cases, utilizes state-of-the-art high technology to portray the Holocaust. It employs films, videos, recordings and a video game for this purpose. Visitors can plug into 13 VCRs dealing with different aspects of the Holocaust, said Center director Rosenzveig.

Visitors enter through a tunnel showing a continuing film of Jews being deported, then to an exhibit on Jewish achievements. One side of a hall is devoted to Jewish community life before the war, the opposite one to the Nazis’ plans to destroy it. Films show the deportation of Jews and their incarceration in concentration camps, and videos screen filmed testimonies by survivors in a small theater.

The exhibit ends with a video game called “Life Chance.” The player imagines he or she is a young Jew in Berlin in 1935, and has to make various choices to try to survive, in order to win the game. Most lose, Rosenzveig said.

PROJECTED PLANS

The Center is developing software on 600 Jewish communities, and plans nation-by-nation exhibits on them. Also projected is a section on the lack of U.S. action to rescue Jews, more material on resistance — hard to come by given the absence of film footage — and a new wing, an “Institute of the Righteous.”

The wing will document the work of people throughout history who “risked their lives to fight tyranny” and those who helped Jews during the Holocaust. It will, Rosenzveig said, pose the question of “How does a human behave when all restraints have been removed and crime is legitimized?”

“Civilization did not pass the test,” Rosenzveig said. “But there are a few righteous. They showed how high humans can reach. It is their behavior which should become the standard of the future,” and this is the hope and aim in creating the new wing.

The Center has a specialized library of 6,500 books, some — like the 600 contributed by Detroit Jewish News Editor Emeritus Phil Slomovitz — donated, as are many artifacts. It has microfilm of every Holocaust document, all the films on the Holocaust, and 16,000 pictures.

The Center, which holds conferences on various aspects of the Holocaust, also plans to publish an encyclopedic dictionary on the subject with contributions from over 100 scholars, edited by Prof. David Wyman, author of “The Abandonment of the Jews.”

RESPONSE OF VISITORS

A recent sociological study of the responses of visitors to the Center in a three-month period in 1984 revealed that 80 percent reported a moderate or greater increase in their understanding of the Holocaust (90 percent among non-Jews); and two-thirds a similar rise in their knowledge of Jewish history (80 percent among Catholics and 75 percent among Protestants). The study was conducted by Dr. Jacob Hurwitz, Professor Emeritus in social work at Wayne State University.

Rosenzveig told JTA that at the time he planned to propose the idea of the Center at a Shaarit Haplaytah meeting, the Holocaust was “too painful” for survivors to talk about. But when he suggested it, he said, they immediately raised $15,000 to buy land to launch the project.

The organized Jewish community in Detroit opposed the idea, arguing that such a Center should be established in New York, Washington or Los Angeles, Rosenzveig said. “My answer was, ‘They are not doing it there. If there is no one who cares and we do, we should do it’.”

This was a time, he said, when American Jews “did not want to be reminded of the Holocaut,” and most specifically, of their lack of action to rescue European Jews. “If I’d lived in the U.S. during that period, I wouldn’t be able to sleep nights,” Rosenzveig told JTA.

As the campaign gathered momentum, the Federation offered assistance, but the group took “not one cent,” not wanting to become a Federation agency or project. It did accept a free loan for building the Center. “Now it’s considered the jewel of the community,” Rosenzveig said.

A TOTALLY INDEPENDENT INSTITUTION

He stressed that the nature of the Holocaust as “unique Jewish tragedy” and the sensitivity of the issue compelled the Center’s planners to insist it be a totally independent institution, not under the legal or any other control of a government body.

He took a dim view of American Jewish support for the projected U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington which, being under Congressional and Executive auspices and control, is bound to be subjected sooner or later to pressures from various interest groups concerning the definition and history of the Holocaust, he said. Asked why such a Holocaust memorial could not be established even now under Jewish auspices and why no other community has yet built such a center, Rosenzveig expressed the view that the American Jewish community has always been characterized by the “pathetic” concern of how Jews will appear to non-Jews, and of wanting non-Jewish approval for their efforts.

For this reason, he said, American Jewry has been “paralyzed from doing anything independently” along these lines. “It still is.” The Detroit Jewish community, which has one of the highest per capita percentages of contributions to Israel, “is an exception,” he said. “They did what they thought was right.”

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