U.S. Holocaust Museums Are Updating Content and Context

Many organizations are now trying to reach wider and younger audiences, and to tackle topics beyond the Holocaust.

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With an urgency to preserve memory and modernize as Holocaust survivors enter their 80s and 90s, at least half a dozen Holocaust museums are being built, plan to break ground or have recently expanded, with more broadening their approach to look beyond the past and reflect today’s social changes.

Steven Spielberg’s U.S.C. Shoah Foundation, founded in 1994 to record survivors’ stories, is at the forefront of the evolution. In a 2018 New York Times article, Spielberg described the need to broaden the focus, saying: “The presence of hate has become taken for granted. We are not doing enough to counter it.”

The foundation is now archiving and studying victims of genocide in Rwanda or the Rohingya in Myanmar, developing medical ethics educational programming, podcasts, and offering records to genealogy companies.

(My maternal grandparents recorded video testimony with the Shoah Foundation in the 1990s.)

Now it’s teaming with the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida to design and build a museum in Orlando that will showcase the foundation’s library of 55,000 survivor video testimonies (totaling over 115,000 hours) and also have high-tech virtual installations to appeal to younger people.

“We’ve pivoted from being purely memorial,” said the Shoah Foundation’s executive director, Stephen D. Smith, who calls the Orlando facility, the Museum of Hope and Humanity, “a completely new type of Holocaust museum.”

Augmented reality, virtual survivor “docents” and video snippets will explain a time that becomes more remote for young people every year. A 2020 survey of 1,000 people ages 18 to 39 in the United States by the nonprofit organization Claims Conference found that nearly two-thirds of them do not know what Auschwitz is, for example. The Claims Conference was founded in 1951 and has worked to secure reparations and restitution for survivors.

Seventy-six years after Auschwitz was liberated, there are an estimated 350,000 living Holocaust survivors, and the Shoah Foundation is scrambling to record their stories. For decades, living survivors, at museums, also shared their memories with students and connected them to what’s happening today. As survivors die, this educational tool risks being lost. Having the showcase of testimonies in Orlando is one way of keeping the memory alive.

The Museum of Hope and Humanity is to break ground next year and open in 2024. Ralph Appelbaum, known for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, will be the designer.

Orlando sees 75 million tourists annually, officials say, and the City of Orlando Tourism Board, Orange County and the organizations behind the museum hope it becomes a destination venue. The museum received a $10 million development tax grant from Orange County — part of a total of $30 million toward its $75 million cost.

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Jeanette Spiegel, a Holocaust survivor recording her story this year, for the U.S.C. Shoah Foundation.Credit…via U.S.C. Shoah Foundation

Of the 16 Holocaust museums in the United States, some are teaming with the Shoah Foundation, with many looking to it for direction — and deciding to also delve into injustice and bigotry. Organizations founded by survivors for Jewish communities are now trying to reach wider, non-Jewish audiences by tackling topics beyond the Holocaust.

Last year, the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum began a $21 million project to quadruple in size and “dive deeper into social justice, human rights and racism,” Helen Turner, the director of education and interpretation at the museum, said in an interview.

The Holocaust Museum LA, which is planning a large remodel, has partnered with the Shoah Foundation and the Wende Museum, which focuses on the Cold War.

The City of Miami Beach and Greater Miami Jewish Federation aim to add to a Holocaust memorial, incorporating Shoah Foundation videos and planning an educational space. (The move awaits approval by residents of Miami Beach.)

The Holocaust Museum Houston spent $34 million on a 2019 renovation, and showcases community issues like Hispanic people’s struggles and heritage.

Mary Pat Higgins, the president of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, one of those founded by survivors, said that it reframed its mission in 2019 to “examine historical and contemporary genocides and the evolution of human and civil rights.”

Some people question this expansion of mission. “It’s important to be aware of other genocides, but the extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis is a specific thing these museums were set up to memorialize,” David Baddiel, the author of “Jews Don’t Count,” said. “There’s a complex difference between the Holocaust and other genocides. If you diminish it, you’re doing something offensive to Jews.”

David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple, a leading Conservative Jewish congregation in the greater Los Angeles area, said broadening implies that the lessons these museums sought to teach have been learned — and “that’s very much not the case.”

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Kurt Epstein, the father of the writer Helen Epstein, in Berlin, in a photo that is on view at Podripske Muzeum. Credit…via Helen Epstein

Vanessa Lapa, the granddaughter of survivors who is an Israeli filmmaker who sourced archival footage for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in an interview that she understood why an expanded focus upset some people, but added, “It’s time to end competition between victims.”

“Jewish, homosexual, disabled, Armenian, Rwandan — genocide is genocide,” she said.

Helen Epstein, whose parents were in Nazi concentration camps and who has spent 40 years writing about the Holocaust, said that for her, it is also “more than just a Jewish-centered event.”

Last month, the Podripske Muzeum, a small Czech museum that is located in her family’s former home, opened an exhibition on Kurt Epstein, Helen’s father.

“What’s great is the museum has no Jewish connection; the town supported it,” she said, adding, “Understanding helps us all.”

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