A ceremony marking the groundbreaking for the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center, a museum and research institute in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, took place Sunday. The facility, which is being housed in the upper floors of an existing building and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016, is billed as the first major Holocaust museum in this country under charedi auspices. The Jewish Week interviewed its CEO, Rabbi Sholom Friedmann, by email. This is an edited version of the transcript.
Q: There is no lack of Holocaust museums and research centers. Why do we need another one, especially geared to one small part of the Jewish community?
A: I am taken aback by the question. When Nassau County built its Holocaust museum, they weren’t asked why another Holocaust museum; the same holds true for Rockland County. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the world’s greatest museums, but no one asks why the Brooklyn Museum of Art was built.
The uniqueness of the KFHEC is that it will present the story of the Holocaust on three levels: 1) The German policy against the Jews — all Jews; 2) The conditions faced by the Jews under German or Axis domination — conditions faced by all Jews; and then — and only then — 3) the particular experience of Orthodox Jews who went through their ordeals committed to Torah and mitzvot and seeing what they endured through the prism of faith.
A significant percentage of those who went through the Holocaust were Orthodox Jews, in origin, practice and outlook. Their story is underrepresented in almost all Holocaust museums. And many museums are not particularly responsive to some of the religious needs of the charedi community.
How will your museum differ from other Holocaust museums in terms of artifacts on display or your message?
We will tell much of the same story. But within that story, we will also convey the experience of religious Jews. While more secular museums might tell the story of refugees establishing the “Fourth Reich” and “Frankfurt on the Hudson,” we will emphasize Kahal Adas Yeshurun [the German-Jewish community] in Washington Heights or the escape of yeshivas to Shanghai. We will tell the story of the JDC [The Joint Distribution Committee] but also the story of the Vaad Hahatzalah [Orthodox rescue organization] that is often overlooked.
Does the wider Jewish community understand what happened to Orthodox Jews during the Shoah, and how they reacted?
I think it is fair and accurate to say, no! The Israelis dramatized the story of resistance and the efforts of Zionists — mostly secular Zionists. Secular museums geared primarily to non-Jewish visitors included the Orthodox experience but did not highlight it or deal with it in a substantial manner.
What are some of your most memorable artifacts?
We initiated a search for artifacts of all kinds, especially those that relate to the unique experience of religious Jews — a tefillin shel rosh [head tefillin] used in Mauthausen by Rabbi Isaac Avigdor, a child’s tzitzit from a Hungarian ghetto, and a Displaced Persons camp Mishnayos [Torah commentary] aptly labeled the property of “Kollel Kiddush Hashem.”
Do you see yourself in competition with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Yad Vashem or the other Holocaust museums?
We don’t see ourselves in competition with these important Museums but in cooperation with them, with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, even with the museum at Auschwitz. We will share material, share and borrow artifacts, make archives available and learn from each other. We are working with survivors’ testimony from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and also the USHMM.
We are engaged in a joint project to record testimonies of religious Jews and to work with the testimonies that have been gathered elsewhere. We would hope that a visitor to the MJH might come to visit us and vice versa, a visitor to the KFHEC would say, now let me see the Museum of Jewish Heritage and/or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A visitor to the Met would also visit the Brooklyn Museum, or MoMA or, in Paris, the Louvre.