Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
New York Dedicates Memorial to Holocaust Victims
New York Dedicated First Memorial to Holocaust Victims: A Museum of Jewish Heritage at Battery Park
Enter this place, passerby, and meet those who survived the nightmare and learned, and taught how to build on ruins.
- Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel at the dedication of New York's Holocaust Museum
New York's governor and mayor, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, joined several thousand Holocaust survivors and their relatives to dedicate New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Speaking at the dedication, Elie Wiesel said: "I always believed that the killer sought to kill them twice - once while they were still alive and a second time when they were already dead - by erasing their death from human memory. To forget them is to become an accomplice of the enemy." Other speakers included New York's Catholic Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor, who said: "I ask for forgiveness for all Christians who by their action or inaction, by their words or their silence helped to make the horrors of the Holocaust possible in any way or even worse to have actively contributed to those horrors."
The 85-foot high, hexagonal granite building was designed by Architect Kevion Roche and cost $ 21.5 million to construct. The three story museum contains over 13,000 artifacts, 800 of which are on display.
Since planning for the new museum began in 1984, Holocaust memorial museums and centers have opened in Washington, Los Angeles and other American cities, and New York's Jewish Museum underwent a massive expansion project more than doubling its size. In fact, the idea for the this museum goes back much further - to 1947 - when a stone slab was dedicated in Riverside Park for a planned but never realized Holocaust memorial. Five separate plans were submitted and rejected by New York City agencies over a twenty- year period. A plan by the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors to erect a monument in Battery Park was also rejected in the 1970s. Only in the 1980s, after the television mini-series Holocaust mesmerized the American public and brought discussion and commemoration of the Holocaust into mainstream public discourse, did Mayor Edward Koch vow to have a museum/memorial built in New York City. Real estate developer George Klein (then committed to major projects in New York's Times Square) and U.S. district attorney General Robert Morgenthau, son of Franklin Roosevelt's treasury Secretary, were made co-chairs of the project. From the beginning, it was understood that the major cost of the project would be borne by private donors - led by Klein - but the collapse of the stock market and New York real estate market stymied fund-raising efforts as did the Federally-backed planning and construction of a national Holocaust Museum in Washington. Many Jewish leaders felt that a lavish New York memorial cum museum might be redundant and an unnecessary drain on community resources. During these difficult years, the museum staff, led by director David Altshuler, was forced to constantly reassess the museum's mission, redefine its goals, and redesign its exhibitions. Finally, around 1993, with Wall Street booming again and public interest in the Holocaust soaring due to Steven Spielberg's award-winning film Schindler's List and the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Morgantheau was able to successfully raise funds. This effort was aided by deals with city and state government agencies which ceded the museum an ideal site at the end of Battery Park City, over looking New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis
While the genesis of the project was a Holocaust Memorial, and the public perception reinforced this, Altshuler has always taken great pains to emphasis a positive aspect of the museum - that it would not just commemorate destruction, but celebrate the richness and diversity of the Jewish culture which was destroyed in Eastern Europe, the Jewish culture which was rebuilt out of the ashes by survivors, and surviving Jewish communities. Again, there were critics, this time from the museum world - citing New York's many Jewish cultural institutions such as the Jewish Museum, Yeshiva University Museum, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Leo Beack Institute, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Many of these institutions struggle to make ends meet and once again the charge was leveled that the new museum was diluting available public and private support.
For the moment, with the grand opening of the new facility, the mostly critical approval of its exhibition, and a booming economy in New York City, these concerns have been quieted. Indeed, many of the concerned institutions are busy with their own building plans - creating the new Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street in New York City. When complete, the Center will be the new home of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Leo Baeck Foundation, the American Jewish Historical Society and the Yeshiva University Museum. Nobody is talking about what will happen when the next recession hits - for now, its better to enjoy the good times. Still, the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Memorial to the Holocaust is reported to have a annual operating budget of $7 million. In the future, where will the money come from, and what other efforts will be deprived because of it?
A review of the museum's installation and holdings will appear in the next issue of Jewish Heritage Report.
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