BEHIND THE HEADLINES New York’s Holocaust memorial took five decades to see the light

NEW YORK, Sept. 16 (JTA) – Now that the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust has opened its doors to the public, New York City finally has a major Holocaust memorial museum. It is ironic that Manhattan – the most culturally Jewish city outside of Israel, and a city filled with monuments and museums – is virtually the last major city in the United States to create a memorial. It is also ironic that New York was the first American city to initiate a memorial project, more than 50 years ago. This 1946-47 attempt is still marked by an engraved stone at the site at Riverside Park and 83rd Street. While there are a number of small monuments in New York City, it took half a century to complete a major one. Over the years, there were aborted attempts not only in Riverside Park but also in such diverse locales as Times Square, across from Lincoln Center, near the United Nations, the former Huntington Hartford Museum, Battery Park, a fire house on White Street and the Federal Customs House. This museum is very different from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as all other Holocaust museums in the United States, Israel, and Europe. Its location in New York City and the political considerations that led to its creation contributed to its own special framing of the Holocaust. Indeed, the project to create a museum has been affected by electoral politics from its inception. Former Mayor Edward Koch should be recognized as the catalyst of the museum that opened Monday because he brought up the idea in 1981 and formed the original coalition to create it. By the time he did so, Holocaust memorialization had become a “hot” item for many Jewish American organizations. Until the early 1970s, it was not even on most of their agendas. Nor was it a priority when it was finally placed there. But after former President Jimmy Carter placed the issue on the federal agenda by establishing a national Holocaust commission, it took on more importance for Jewish groups – and Koch. By that time, a number of unrelated factors had converged to make memorialization of the Holocaust an appropriate agenda item for elected officials and candidates: The 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War had brought images of another Holocaust to the fore. Menachem Begin, who masterfully used the Holocaust for his own political purposes, became prime minister of Israel in June 1977. At around the same time, leaders of survivor organizations began to realize their biological clocks were ticking fast, and they started encouraging other survivors to share their stories. Meanwhile, the much-publicized 1978 television miniseries “Holocaust” was the first major, fictionalized network program on the subject. In addition, children of survivors reached adulthood and began asking questions about their families’ pasts, secular American Jews who were disillusioned with Israel were seeking a substitute secular tie to Judaism, and the U.S. Justice Department in 1977 set up the Office of Special Investigation to bring to trial and deport Nazi war criminals. On the surface, the construction of Manhattan’s new museum, now located in Battery Park City, should have been relatively easy. Unlike earlier attempts in New York, this project was placed on the agenda by the mayor and then eagerly embraced by a well-established and organized Jewish leadership, including developers and other supporters of Koch. The project also had President Carter’s initiative – to create a national Holocaust museum – as a precedent. But a series of setbacks delayed completion of the memorial during Koch’s tenure as mayor. The economic crisis precipitated by “Black Monday” on Wall Street, on Oct. 19, 1987, both dropped property values in Battery Park City and wiped out many potential donors. The most significant setbacks occurred after the project became a city-state joint venture in 1986: Koch’s defeat in the 1989 mayoral election and Gov. Mario Cuomo’s administration’s lack of attention to the issue when the governor was considering running for president in 1992. (Rochelle G. Saidel, a JTA correspondent in Brazil, is the author of “Never Too Late To Remember: The Politics Behind New York City’s Holocaust Museum” (Holmes & Meier, 1996).

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