When Elly Kleinman set out to create a Holocaust education center in the Agudas Yisroel Zichron Moshe shul in Boro Park, he understood that the Orthodox community deserved a world-class, first-rate institution, but more importantly, that this chapter of our history required it. On Sunday, March 22, the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center will celebrate its groundbreaking, which will be a milestone in our progress, focusimg our energies on the intensely creative work ahead necessary to convert the vision to reality.
Elly Kleinman, a true visionary deeply committed to remembering the Holocaust, is imaginative and hard-driving in pursuit of excellence. He had engaged Professor Moshe Zvi (Harry) Reicher z”l to work on this project from its inception. Professor Reicher suggested that Elly contact me because of my experience creating Holocaust museums, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
I crafted a conceptual exhibition program setting out the basic themes of the exhibition on two levels. On one level, it will tell the story of what the Germans did to all Jews, the circumstances that faced all Jews, and the rebuilding of life after the war. Within that context, the exhibition will also recount the unique narrative of Orthodox Jews, featuring the prewar Torah world that was destroyed. It will emphasize the experience and perspective of religious Jews who faced their fate with faith, observing of Torah and mitzvos to the very end. It will detail the rebirth of Yiddishkeit in the post-Holocaust era, truly one of the great miracles of our age.
I traveled with Elly Kleinman and Agudah shul president Shlome Chaimovits to see the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Educational Center (ILHMEC) in Skokie, and to introduce them to its designer, David Layman. David needed no introduction to the Holocaust—he had worked on exhibitions at USHMM, and had designed the ILHMEC. At the time, he was involved in designing the 9/11 Museum at the World Trade Center. Elly and Shlome were impressed with David’s work.
David, in turn, gravitated to our efforts. Having designed several Holocaust exhibitions, he still had never truly known of the religious experience. As a man of faith himself, he was drawn to the challenge of portraying religious faith, both to those within the community and those, like himself, who had never encountered the Orthodox world firsthand.
David recognized that the existing building needed to be reconfigured, additional space created, the entrance and traffic flow of visitors rethought, even security and storage reimagined. But the crown jewel of David’s work is the exhibition itself. In it, he brings brilliant skill from years as a scenic designer to create atmosphere. As the exhibition unfolds from beginning to end, the visitor will feel himself within a different space and time, encountering a painful but all-important history.
Together with the Layman team, the Marcal Group is engaged in building the Center. Best known to Boro Park residents for its construction of the nine-story, 140,000 square foot Calko Medical Center on Bay Parkway and 60th Street, as well as the Torah U’Mesorah headquarters on Foster Avenue and Ocean Parkway, the Marcal Group helps bring Layman’s vision to fruition.
With David on board, we had the makings of a first-rate team, but we still needed guidance from within the community. Elly Kleinman recruited Rabbi Sholom Friedmann, who had developed Holocaust education programs for Torah U’Mesorah. Rabbi Friedman, in turn, recruited educators, archivists, and curators, from both within the community and the larger professional world.
We have received extraordinary cooperation from the Agudah shul and its revered Rav, Rabbi Eliezer Horowitz, shlita. The shul members have doubtlessly been inconvenienced by all the construction, yet have enthusiastically embraced the concept. Shlome Chaimovits has been indispensable as our liaison with the shul as well as in all aspects involving our center.
The results, baruch Hashem, speak for themselves.
As the work progressed, our narrative and research archives grew to incorporate the rescue work of leading hatzalah activists: Mike Tress, Isaac and Recha Sternbuch, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenheim, Meier Schenkolewski, Dr. Julius Kuhl, Julius Steinfeld, and others. Our planned exhibitions multiplied, from the experiences of American Jewish GIs and chaplains to attempts to redeem Jewish children from Christian homes after the war.
We initiated a search for artifacts of all kinds, especially those that relate to the unique experience of religious Jews—a tefillin shel rosh used in Mauthausen by Rabbi Isaac Avigdor, a child’s tzitzis from a Hungarian ghetto, and a Displaced Persons camp Mishnayos aptly labeled the property of “Kollel Kiddush Hashem.”
The Orthodox perspective tends to be ignored, or, at best, given token representation in most presentations. To counteract this deficit, we commissioned Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein, a leading scholar of religious Jewry and the Holocaust, to create exhibitions on the sh’eilos and teshuvos asked by Jews and answered by their rabbanim. These insights into the halachic experience spanned Nazi Germany and the ghettos, concentration camps, and the aftermath of the war as Jews rebuilt their lives and communities.
Thanks to Elly’s generous lead gift, we are about to break ground on what is now known as the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center (KFHEC). Other parts of the building and programs of the organization are open to dedication by other individuals and/or families. It is the least the community can do to honor the kedoshim, the survivors we are zoche to have amongst us, and perhaps the most important thing we can do to inspire future generations.
Holocaust scholar Dr. Michael Berenbaum was Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and later President of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. He is the Conceptual Developer of the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center.