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Holocaust museums shift their focus

Yad Vashem, at left, was built in 1957 and educates about the Holocaust in a very different way than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993. (Yad Vashem/USHMM)

Yad Vashem, at left, was built in 1957 and educates about the Holocaust in a very different way than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993. (Yad Vashem/USHMM)

NEW YORK, April 21 (JTA) — The Holocaust is still being remembered — just not the way it used to be. Sixty years after its end, an increasing number of cities have built architectural testimony to the Holocaust. Twenty-six cities in the United States and Canada now have Holocaust museums, and others have built monuments or established research foundations or educational centers. Holocaust museums and memorials have shifted the nature of remembrance, moving away from the emphasis on testimony and defiance toward the teaching of tolerance and understanding, according to several Holocaust experts. “Holocaust memorials always reflect their time. Every generation has to find its own reason for memorializing,” says James Young, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and the author of “The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning.” Older museums marking the Holocaust, such as the original Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, built in 1957, focused on telling the survivors’ stories and conveying a “sense of hope and gratitude,” Young says. Newer memorials, such as the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, which opened in 1993, often make a self-conscious attempt to universalize messages in an attempt to make them accessible to more people, he adds. According to Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and a consultant on the development of the Washington museum, visitors to the new museums, built roughly during the last decade, learn universal moral imperatives, such as “the importance of military ethics and of recognizing the humanity of the enemy even while undertaking action against them.” Broadening the message of the Holocaust in memorials to include the persecution of gays and lesbians during World War II or including other genocides raises some controversy. Berenbaum worries that moving the focus away from the specific Jewish nature of the tragedy borders on “soft-core denial, by trying to call other” mass murders “Holocaust-like.” “Twenty years ago, Judaism was defined” as a “sacred survival,” Berenbaum says; Judaism’s function was to ensure the continued survival of Jews. “The Holocaust therefore played a major role in Judaism, endowing moral defiance to the sense of Jewish survival.” The Holocaust memorials of this period, from the 1980s to the mid-90s, therefore, had a specific message, according to Berenbaum: “The whole world is against us, powerlessness invites victimization and thus the Jewish people must rely upon themselves and only themselves and assume adequate power to preserve themselves in the contemporary world.” Today, he says, this message “isn’t quite credible. Many people have non-Jewish friends,” and it is hard to accept that we can exist as a people if we must be unconnected to other nations. In the 1980s and 1990s, the number of museums proliferated — motivated, scholars say, by a few different ideas. All museums want to say the Holocaust “is a terrible thing,” says Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University and author of the recently published book “History On Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving.” If we know about it, “we have a better chance of preventing this from happening again. We are ensuring the future,” she says. As more museum were built, a growing discomfort over their proliferation began to be felt in some parts of the community. Berenbaum says that “the Jewish community was quite unhappy that resources it felt entitled to were going to be given to Holocaust education — they wanted money for Jewish education and donations to Israel.” For this and other reasons, the rush to build Holocaust museums has been “dwindling. Once one museum has been built, you don’t need another one in that city,” he says. Young has noticed that new memorials, including the one in Washington, move beyond historical education, speaking to “the ultimate effects of bigotry and racism. There has been a self-conscious effort to open themselves up to more groups.” North American memorials now experiment with attempts to educate people about the Holocaust and genocide without minimizing the Jewish nature of the tragedy. As Young explains, “In an era of installation art, it makes sense for” Holocaust “memorials to be more abstract, and allow” for people to take away different messages from the same exhibit. The architecture of museums and memorials has changed to accompany contemporary attitudes. Berenbaum says that the original Yad Vashem provided the first “model of an integrated institution; a museum that tells the story of the Holocaust, a research institution and archive, and an educational institution that teaches teachers and students the history of the Holocaust, its meaning and application to the new generation.” When it came to the Washington museum, planners tried take a slightly different tack. “There are corners that don’t quite meet — the building is not supposed to reassure you,” Young says. “It is constructed from brick and iron, a material reference to the Holocaust.” Lipstadt is pleased by the diversity of the visitors to the Washington museum, which she helped plan. “I sit in the lobby and watch America pass by me,” she says. “Every part of the country comes — the vast majority of visitors are non-Jewish.” She hopes this means that more people are getting an important message. “While it’s important to know what happened, building an identity as victims is not who Jews are. A whole world of Jewish identity is lost: We should teach people to be Jews in spite of the Holocaust, not because of it. We have to teach them the good stuff, too.”

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