The architecture is not meant to be in competition with the massive National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. No, there’s no intention of that. Indeed, the much smaller, but equally impressive new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust will easily stand on its own merit, as a powerful antidote to hate and “make a living statement of hope that humanity can put behind itself, once and for all, the depravity it exhibited during the Holocaust,” said Mark Rothman, executive director of the museum in a message to me.
The architect, Santa Monica’s Hagy Belzberg, is giving the Jewish community a thoughtful and most creative new home (now its third, and final, site) for the Holocaust museum, though small in size — only about 26,000 square feet — yet large in concept and care. The ideas, history, information, and educational opportunities that will be packed into this space should prove to be astonishing, once everything is in place. And that is scheduled for Thursday, October 14, when the opening is announced with ribbon cutting, reception, and other appropriate fanfare.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to preview the museum, allowing us a glimpse of what to expect, once the museum is open to the public. A small group of Holocaust survivors and a few dignitaries had been invited to a reception and viewing. But finding the museum, which is located at the southeast corner of Beverly Boulevard and Stanley Avenue in Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles, took some exploration, since much of it is below grade, and while constructed to a large extent of concrete, a portion of the roof is covered with soil and plants, and at that time the entrance we were to take was obscured by wooden planks. Needless to say, it took a bit of maneuvering.
The subterranean effect designed by Hagy proved to be a subtle reminder of what was to follow. Here, the architect has created an interesting and meaningful – certainly to Holocaust survivors – effect, as we discovered as our tour guide led us through the currently empty halls of the building. Pointing out the future titles of each room and what would be exhibited in each one prompted much excitement among all of the guests. Here are a few glimpses of what visitors will see as they progress from room to room, down a long hall, which dips deeper and deeper into darkness, as more and more information about the horrors of the Holocaust emerge.
Using the latest technology, visitors will be encouraged to touch digital artifacts and learn about the lives of European Jews prior to 1933, just as the Holocaust began to rear its frightening head. There will be touch screens for hearing music and poetry and seeing images and artifacts.
As hope and peace return, the hall ascends into lightness “and a world of normalcy.” Audio and printed guides will assist the visitor as he or she traverses the museum. As the visitor steps into sunlight on an outside plaza, one is greeted with a simple monument, “Memorial to the Martyrs,” consisting of six large granite columns and a children’s memorial room with 1.5 million holes representing all the children who perished.
The present Holocaust Museum in L.A., opened 15 years ago, is closed in preparation for the move to its new quarters.
Rothman stated: “Our new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust offers itself as a gift to all of Southern California, empowering our cultural kaleidoscope to come together in harmony,” and centers, he said, on a two-fold mission: to commemorate and to educate.
It will present the history of the Holocaust as objectively as possible. E. Randol Schoenberg, president of the Board of the Museum and chief curator of the new permanent exhibit, said, “We also made sure to provide emotional, aesthetic experiences. We have an entire room dedicated to stories of Rescue and Resistance.” He also pointed out that the “temporary exhibition space will initially feature the incredible artwork made in Theresienstadt by Erich Lichtblau-Leskly.”
Although the founders of the museum in 1961 knew that it was really not possible to convey the true horror of the Holocaust in a museum, Schoenberg said he hoped “to continue our institution’s long history of providing insight and evidence to educate our local community. At the same time, we hope we have created a fitting memorial to those who witnessed the destruction first hand.”
So, after my initial visit, my curiosity unabated, I now eagerly look forward to seeing the completed project. The museum will surely make its mark as a shining jewel for the West Coast Jewish Community.