Constructing Holocaust memories: Where mind meets museum


LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Are you a Holocaust avoider? Not a denier, just someone like me who struggles with thinking about destruction, death and genocide.

Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking, “Can’t I just think about this another time?”

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is observed on April 11; what should you do?

There are lectures, symposia and memorial concerts. You could attend a service, read a book or talk to a relative about someone who perished. You could visit a museum.

The new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is nearing the final stages of construction. I drive by the site every couple of weeks and wonder, how will a new museum help me and others to face the tragedy?

Seeking an answer, with Holocaust Remembrance Day approaching, I set out to the site for a walk-through with the museum’s executive director, Mark Rothman.

Putting on a hard-hat, it wasn’t the unlikely potential of falling masonry that concerned me, it was falling spirits; Holocaust museums really depressed me.

The trip would take me down ramps, past underground girders and large trapezoidal windows, through gray concrete-lined and shadowy spaces, and back into the light of day. I was hoping that a walk through a yet-to-be finished museum could somehow help me reconstruct my own perceptions of this imponderable period.

Located on a rise at the far end of Pan Pacific Park, across the street from the Grove and Farmer’s Market, two of L.A.’s biggest shopping and tourism draws, the museum promises to be a very public place. To magnify this sense of accessibility further, admission will be free.

The museum is located in the midst of a Jewish neighborhood that also has perhaps L.A.’s largest number of Holocaust survivors.

Its subtly curvilinear structure, built into a hillside, has a low profile and “green” roof. Rothman and I entered via a downward ramp into a large exhibit space that is mostly below ground level. Rothman says the exhibit space, arranged in a horseshoe, will dim gradually to represent the darkening series of events represented in the museum.

For a museum exhibit designer, presenting the Holocaust is a complicated task. The story urgently needs to be told, but how?

With fading memory but still with a desire to reconnect, the public wants documentation, the all-too-gruesome facts: How many, how, what was the timeline? Too much detail or too graphic and you are faced with the issue that has always thwarted me in these spaces: What draws you in is what pushes you away.

“You can’t get out of the context of the tragedy,” Rothman said later. “We need to be aware of our history, even if it’s dark and tragic.”

Walking though the yet completed exhibit areas, and listening to Rothman’s explanation of what was soon to fill them, new connections unexpectedly began to form: personal extensions of the exhibits that would soon fill the hall.

At what will be the “Rise of Nazism” exhibit, I recalled as a child that we never discussed the Holocaust much in my home. We did have show-and-tell though.

My father, a World War II Navy veteran, once showed me a war “souvenir” — a belt with a swastika on the buckle. He explained that he joined the Navy to kill Nazis. It wasn’t until much later, as a teenager, that I understood why.

The next gallery, now a blank concrete floor and wall, will hold an exhibit dedicated to the onset of mass extermination. Recently I had begun to read the book “The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando,” a lesser-known Holocaust story of destruction and survival of the Greek community of mainly Sephardic Jews, sent to me by my relative and the author, Rebecca Fromer.

Daniel and his family were sent to Auschwitz by train. Their trip won’t be forgotten; the museum will include a representation of a cattle car.

As we entered the gallery area slated for the labor, concentration camps and death camps, I remembered my friend of blessed memory, Rose Baumgold, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Forced into slave labor sewing German uniforms, she fought back when she could by sewing the seams so they would quickly pull apart.

Along the wall and area that will be dedicated to the world response to the Holocaust, resistance and rescue, I thought, “This is where Uncle Don will fit in.”

Donald Segel, my wife’s uncle, during WWII was a member of the Rainbow Division (42nd Division of the U.S. 7th Army). Imprisoned  much of the war as a POW, he later became a division historian. Over the years he has taken pride in explaining to many groups his division’s and the U.S. Army’s role in liberating Dachau.

Looking up, I saw the glass double doors that will lead outside to the green of the park and the granite triangular columns of the museum’s already existing Holocaust memorial. Light filtered through, lifting the bare concrete gloom, sharpening the shadows.

Even in an empty museum, images I had avoided for so long became clear.

(Edmon J. Rodman  is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)

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