Since its opening six months ago, entire families have visited the “Auschwitz” exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memory to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan, particularly the children and grandchildren of survivors. In fact, record attendance has prompted the museum to extend the exhibit an additional eight months until Aug. 30.
“My mother and I spent two hours there,” said Arielle Klein, 26, of Brooklyn, a grandchild of a survivor. “My mother kept saying, ‘Please, ask me questions you have about your grandma.’ It’s so important. Even though it’s hard to talk about, I am grateful my mom said she welcomed the difficult conversations.”
Such a conversation is key to the exhibit’s success — its ability to “permit second and third generations to begin to understand what happened in cases where their grandparents are unable or unwilling to share it with them,” according to Abraham Foxman, head of the museum’s Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “It provides a vehicle that makes it easier for intergenerational conversation about the tragedy because the exhibit is a neutral educational vehicle, and they don’t have to confront their own pain with their kids and grandchildren.”
Since it opened May 8, “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” — a landmark show of more than 700 objects and 400 photographs — has attracted more than 110,000 visitors, including more than 36,000 students. By next May it is expected to have drawn more than 200,000 visitors, more than double the museum’s attendance of the last several years, according to Jack Kliger, the museum’s president and CEO.
The exhibition comes at a time when both anti-Semitic violence and fear of anti-Semitism have rapidly been increasing worldwide. Next week marks the annual observance of Kristallnact or Night of Broken Glass, which occurred on Nov. 9-10, 1938, during which the Nazis carried out a wave of violence against Jews, torching synagogues, vandalizing Jewish property and imprisoning 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps.
After visiting the exhibit, Klein’s mother, Betty Jampel, said it “felt very familiar to me because I have been to Auschwitz. But going through it together with Arielle and my other daughter [Alayna, 23] — sharing it together — enhanced the experience. And because they are more mature, it generated a different kind of dialogue. It was really very, very moving; a very special day. I’m grateful the girls wanted to share this with me, and this history that is so precious in their own lives.”
The two were interviewed at the museum in September, where they had come for a meeting of 2GNYC- Children of Holocaust Survivors in the New York Area and to visit the exhibit. About 200 survivors, children of survivors and their children attended the event, which also featured lectures and discussions about the Holocaust that were designed to encourage children of survivors to share their thoughts and emotions.
Ellen B. Greenberg, a member of the group’s steering committee, said “many members of the second generation community are hesitant to view the exhibition by themselves and were concerned with facing their parents’ traumas.”
Although several survivors attended the meeting, none saw the exhibit. Ayelet Aldouby of Bergen County, N.J., who attended the meeting with her mother, Sara, a survivor, said her mother lit a candle during the special memorial program but “did not want to see the exhibit; she had no reason to see it.
“We all sat on the stage with her — there was an intergenerational connection,” Aldouby said. “After visiting Dachau and being immersed in it, I see the value [of the exhibit] for people who have not been exposed to it. … It has tremendous value for the information it offers. It was interesting to see a lot of tourists there, and for me that is a big win, because those are the ones we want to see it.”
Joseph Hecht, 92, of Brooklyn, an Auschwitz survivor, also lit a candle during the ceremony officiated by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, founding executive director of the New York Holocaust Commission, who was instrumental in the creation of the museum. But Hecht too did not visit the exhibit.
“It brings back memories,” he said. “I lost my father and all four siblings. I’m the only one left. … They [his children] don’t want me to break down. I think they don’t want to bring up the memories.”
Hecht said he plans “to talk to my grandsons and granddaughters [about Auschwitz] one of these days.”
Eliot Hecht, 27, of Manhattan, one of Hecht’s grandchildren, said he did see the exhibit with his parents and sister.
“It was very moving and emotional,” he said. “I needed to go through it. I want to visit the camps. I went to Yad Vashem [Israel’s Holocaust memorial] and, when I was much younger, to the Holocaust museum in Washington.”
“My grandfather never spoke about it while I was growing up,” Hecht said. “When I was younger, he didn’t want to me think about the atrocities he went through when he was my age. But he has been speaking about it lately. I definitely want to ask him more about it. I would love to hear the stories – but I don’t want to make him relive it. It’s a double-edged sword. But I know that to keep the story alive, that is what has to happen.”
Greenberg, the daughter of a survivor, said the Holocaust “is not scary for the third generation. By the time they were born, many years had gone by and it is easier for survivors to talk to them.”
But she said she doesn’t know how her father survived the Holocaust because “I couldn’t process” his stories.
“They were too painful to hear and I shut down,” Greenberg confided. “My father went back to Germany and to Auschwitz in 1977, and in 1988 my parents went back to see the convent where my mother grew up. I couldn’t go. I regret it now ….”
Foxman said the museum is not designed for survivors.
“They don’t need to see it, they lived through it,” he explained. “But they also protected their children from the agony and pain, and the third generation is saying we have a right to know. The exhibit makes it easier for them to engage their uncles and grandparents.”
But some survivors have seen the exhibit. One of them, Edwin Foley, 92, of Old Westbury, L.I., said he even volunteers to speak to visitors about his experiences in Auschwitz.
“I’m going to be speaking with 16-year-olds from a Catholic high school in New Jersey,” he said. “Of course it is sad to see [the exhibit]. You remember things. But I want others to see it and understand it.”
Eva Fogelman, a psychologist and pioneer in the treatment of the psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their descendants, said she has found that the children of survivors often heard only “bits and pieces of what happened” during the war because their parents didn’t speak about it.
“Parents did not want their children to see them as being weak and unable to protect their siblings from being murdered,” she said. “Survivors said they did not talk about it to their kids because they did not want them to feel bad or cause them pain. Each was protective of the other.”
But the message to the third generation is they should know their family’s Jewish history and develop a “love of being Jewish and their connection to the State of Israel,” Fogelman said, adding that survivors are more comfortable speaking about the war years with their grandchildren.