A New Holocaust Museum Emerges in Brooklyn

Print PDF

The Amud Aish Memorial Museum is planning a $10 million permanent home in the Borough Park neighborhood

A group of high-school students visit the museum’s current space in Brooklyn earlier this month.

A group of high-school students visit the museum’s current space in Brooklyn earlier this month. Photo: Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

As a young boy, Rabbi Dovid Reidel took an unusual storybook to bed: He would read notes from his grandfather, detailing his efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, including lobbying officials from Eleanor Roosevelt to state department secretaries.

Like many Orthodox families, his grandmother stored the documents in her basement rather than donate them to a traditional Holocaust museum.

Families like his “never felt comfortable,” said Rabbi Reidel. “They did not feel those institutions understood the significance.”

Now those papers are part of the collection at the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, a new institution seeking to shed light on the Holocaust from the perspective of religious Jews. That reflects a stark break from the traditional approach Holocaust museums have taken, officials said.

A $10 million permanent home for the Amud Aish Memorial Museum is being built in Brooklyn. Here, students visit a temporary space.
A $10 million permanent home for the Amud Aish Memorial Museum is being built in Brooklyn. Here, students visit a temporary space. Photo: Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

“We don’t single out the Orthodox experience,” said Steven Luckert, senior program curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “We focus on the Nazi persecution of the Jews because for the Nazis they identified all Jews as a race.”

At Amud Aish, which is operating in temporary spaces while building a $10 million permanent home in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, “you learn how the victim managed in spite of [the persecution] to fight for their beliefs, to fight for their dignity,” said Amud Aish director Rabbi Sholom Friedmann. “It’s a whole fresh view on these events.”

The project is the brainchild of Martin “Elly” Kleinman, an Orthodox New Yorker who is the son of Holocaust survivors.

“I felt it’s an obligation for us who are second generation to try to carry that story,” he said.

Mr. Kleinman aspires for the museum to be of equivalent quality to top Holocaust museums around the world. But designing a museum that highlights the Orthodox experience has posed thorny cultural and logistical challenges.

On a basic level, the museum is planning to accommodate the practice of gender segregation for groups that request it with two separate staircases up to the exhibits.

Content-wise, it must balance religious and cultural sensitivities with the need for a rigorous historical perspective.

“I’m the person involved who says that you must tell the total story and within that context the Orthodox story,” said Dr. Michael Berenbaum, who was project director at the Washington Holocaust museum and is the conceptual developer for the permanent exhibit in Brooklyn.

If the museum fails to capture the broader fate that befell the Jews, “then it’s going to be regarded as a sectarian effort and that’s not sufficient. It’s not comprehensible.”

Dr. Berenbaum said the museum is grappling with how to depict faith during the Holocaust, given that some people lost theirs. That is a message that might not be welcome in the Orthodox community, he said.

Items on display at the museum’s current space.
Items on display at the museum’s current space. Photo: Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

“I can’t be party to presenting faith in God only,” he said. “I would rather omit it.”

Another challenge involves how to depict women. The most religious audiences may be uncomfortable with images of people altogether and women particularly. Others may accept a still image or audio, but not video. There is an open question about showing shaved heads. Nudity is out.

These are questions “we may have to face,” Dr. Berenbaum said, though he and other museum officials said images of women in some form would be part of every tour.

“You can’t describe the Holocaust without the victimization of women,” he said.

Every museum addressing sensitive subject matter faces similar questions, Amud Aish officials said.

The Washington museum, for example, recommends that visitors be at least 11 years old to enter the permanent exhibition. Privacy walls shield monitors with graphic imagery. Visitors can go through—or around—a German railcar of the kind that transported Jews to killing centers.

“People can make a choice,” Mr. Luckert said.

Sometimes artifacts can be perceived differently.

A general audience might be interested in a letter documenting a meeting between Eleanor Roosevelt and Mike Tress, Rabbi Reidel’s grandfather, as evidence of his high-level government outreach. Orthodox visitors, however, note immediately that the meeting took place on a Saturday, the Sabbath.

It is an important lesson, said Rabbi Reidel, who is the museum’s director of research and archives. “To save lives supersedes the prohibitions.”

Technology will enable the Brooklyn museum to create customized exhibits for different audiences, said exhibition designer David Layman, who has also worked on the Washington museum and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in lower Manhattan. While there will be physical objects, many of the images and video displays will be digitized, allowing easy changes.

Rabbi Dovid Reidel shows a suitcase that was donated to the museum by a Holocaust survivor named Magda.
Rabbi Dovid Reidel shows a suitcase that was donated to the museum by a Holocaust survivor named Magda. Photo: Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

The real reward, said Rabbi Reidel, has been in convincing families to share personal archives that have been stashed away in some cases for decades.

A few years ago during a home visit with an elderly Holocaust survivor named Magda, he said, she asked them to wait for a moment.

She ducked into her bedroom and emerged carrying a small, worn leather suitcase.

It had belonged to her sister, Kaila Horovitz, who left it behind in their Hungarian ghetto when she was transported to Auschwitz. She was later killed in the concentration camp.

Magda had written a note and taped it to the front of the suitcase, asking that it be buried with her when she died. Instead, she offered it to the museum.

Magda told them “it’s important that future generations should remember,” Rabbi Reidel said. She died several months later.

Write to Sophia Hollander at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Originally published here.