Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

Edification value  
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 187 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned  The Museum has a lovely, quiet, outdoor space called “Garden of Stones,” created by nature artist Andy Goldsworthy. 18 dwarf oak trees growing out of holes in hollowed out boulders, with New York Harbor as the backdrop. It was a deeply welcome spot to spend a few minutes reflecting.

Andy Goldsworthy, Garden of Stones, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York
Goldsworthy’s Stones and New York Harbor


“It can’t happen here.”

It’s the refrain of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

You see it in quotes on the walls and on screens, time and again, from both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. As the Nazis were coming to power, as rights were being stripped away, as things got worse and worse. 

Of course, in retrospect no one really even knew what “it” was, until it was too late.  They just clung to the certainty, then the belief, then the hope, that it wouldn’t happen.  Because it couldn’t.

Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York

The Museum of Jewish Heritage, aka New York’s Holocaust Museum, occupies a lovely plot of land in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, right on the Hudson.  Shaped like a ziggurat with a low, rectangular addition, the museum opened in 1997, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates.

Surprisingly shiny escalator

Its architecture is incredibly carefully thought out.  The Core Exhibit spans three hexagonal floors.  You move around the perimeter of each floor, then step on a surprisingly shiny escalator to go up to the next one, moving forward in time as you ascend.

The ground floor serves as the prologue, covering Jewish life in Europe in the early 20th century.  It touches on topics like holidays, weddings, synagogues, education, and trades, with carefully chosen artifacts showing illustrating those themes.  It wraps with four key political strands weaving through Judaism then:  socialism, Zionism, liberalism, and orthodoxy.

Then its on to the escalator to Hitler.  Worst. Escalator. Ever.  The second floor proceeds chronologically, event by event, down a counter-clockwise path toward unspeakable suffering and horror.  Small galleries look at (among other things):

  • The rise of Hitler and Nazi populism.
  • The story of the St. Louis, an ocean liner full of 900 Jewish refugees that got all the way to Cuba in 1939 only to be turned back to Europe.
  • Non-Jewish people, like Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler, and Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who helped rescue Jews.
  • How the Nazis covered up the Holocaust as they were perpetrating it.

There’s actually less here than I was expecting.  Maybe because there’s too much.  You can get overwhelmed by scale, lose the trees for the forest.  This place is exquisitely careful to make sure you are always aware of the individuals.  Every thing, item, photograph is documented to a specific person if they can, with a picture of the individual if they possibly can.  Even when it introduces the six main death camps the Nazis used, each comes with a photograph of one person, one actual human being, who was murdered there, who stands for all the rest.

The one part that pushes on scale is a small area with rough wooden walls and flat columns holding photographs of about 2,000 people.  Each column has a small booklet, so you can read the names and stories of each of those 2,000 people.  It’s not a very big space.  The columns go up pretty high.  All of them were from France, and all died at Auschwitz.

Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York
They had names…

The museum doesn’t bother to observe that to commemorate everyone, all the Jews who were murdered, you’d need 3,000 such spaces. But I thought about that.  It does remind you, piercingly, that “They had homes and lives.  They had families and friends. They had names.”

The chronology continues, inexorably, through the Nazis’ last-ditch efforts, the liberation of the death camps, and efforts to rescue people and send them home.  And somehow live with what happened.  And remember.

You ascend once more, another shiny escalator to the post-Holocaust world. Here the story is very much focused on the rise of Israel and the United States as the centers of postwar Jewish culture, and what that culture consists of today, in terms of religious life, the arts, society.

And then, the architects of this place accomplish one of the great feats of New York museum design.  I’m not going to give it away. But I got through the core exhibit, walked through the exit doors, and literally had my breath taken away.

Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York
Rescued kids

In addition to the Core Exhibit, the Museum of Jewish Heritage currently has a small show called “My Name Is…” of photos of rescued kids who got sent to a variety of centers, with capsule summaries of their stories. This I think was a slight misstep — where the core exhibit works very carefully to go deep and focused, this was a little too broad, with whole lives boiled down to a couple of paragraphs.  I think fewer photos with longer stories, and even current pictures of any of the kids who are still alive today, would be better.

Eichmann Exhibit, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York
The Eichmann Capture Team…

And then I saw “Operation Finale,”  a newly opened special exhibition on how the Mossad tracked down and kidnapped Adolph Eichmann, spiriting him from Argentina back to Israel for trial and eventual execution in the 1960s. 

This was shockingly entertaining in a place I don’t think of as endeavoring to entertain.  A real-life spy story.  I’m not 100% sanguine about a country abducting someone in another country, even if that someone was a horrible someone.  But better that than simply assassinating him.  The recreation of his trial, using several different video projections running in sync, combined with the bulletproof booth Eichmann sat in, worked particularly well.

Eichmann Exhibit, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York
Eichmann Trial in Projection

In terms of amenities, the Museum of Jewish Heritage has a cafe, although, honestly, what it should have is a shot bar or something.  I know I really wanted a drink coming out of the exhibit.  It also has the requisite gift shop–if you find yourself needing a mezuzah, their selection is top notch. The museum also boasts a nice, modern auditorium.  I’d attended conferences in that space long before I actually went to see the museum itself.

A Little Museum-ology

From a museological perspective, I have a few observations.

Old Screen

The Museum of Jewish Heritage just turned 20 years old, and parts of it need a refit.  Some of their video screens have burn-in problems, and others are probably nearing the end of their life expectancy.  Some of the photos on display, too, looked like they may not be aging well.  I know they’re meant to be old, but still, I think they may require swapping out for fresher prints.

The section on non-Jews who helped — whom Yad Vashem in Isreal recognizes as the “Righteous Among The Nations” needs an update to reflect inductees since this museum opened. That’s a sign that probably other things could use an update, too, since the world has 20 years more Holocaust scholarship on which to draw.

There’s nothing interactive in the Core Exhibit at all.  That is certainly for the best.  Just brainstorming possibilities in my own mind borderline offends me.  So I hope it stays that way.

Video, on the other hand, is critical.  There are video screens throughout, and you are never far from someone talking, telling what they saw, what they experienced, relevant to the section or the theme.  It’s vital to the museum’s mission of never letting visitors lose sight of real, individual, people.

Never Say Never

I rechecked my time-spent calculations for this visit several times. I still can’t understand how I spent three hours at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It didn’t feel like it.  However, at the same time it was exhausting.

I was talking with a friend about this place just a few days ago and she said “I really, really don’t ever want to go there.  Does that make me a bad Jew?”  When New York is blessed with museums of so many other, happier things, like maritime industry and Louis Armstrong and lighthouses, mathematics and art and more art, I can’t blame anyone for preferring any other topic to the Holocaust.

But it’s important. It is museum as vaccination.  Because it’s all too easy for all of us, everywhere, at all times, to fall into the trap of “It can’t happen here.”  It’s good, no, vital, to be reminded that absent vigilance and speaking and acting our consciences, yes, it can.

If you haven’t been to a Holocaust memorial or museum in the past 3 years, you are due for a booster.  Go.

Garden of Stones, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York
Garden of Stones

For Reference:

Address 36 Battery Place, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $12, or pay-what-you-will on Wednesday and Thursday evenings

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