The doors of the Museum of Jewish Heritage opened on September 15, 1997 in Manhattan's Battery Park in New York. In 1981 the museum was only a recommendation by the Task Force on the Holocaust; sixteen years and $21.5 million later, the museum opened "to educate people of all ages and backgrounds about the entire, broad tapestry of Jewish life over the past century - before, during and since the Holocaust."
The Main Building
The main building of the museum is an impressive, 85 foot tall, granite, six-sided structure designed by Kevin Roche. The hexagonal shape of the building is to represent the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust as well as the six points of the Star of David.
To enter the museum, you first approach a smaller structure at the base of the main museum building. It is here that you stand in line to buy tickets (though you can also buy tickets through Ticketmaster - highly recommended).
Once you buy your tickets you enter the building through the door on the right. Once inside you will go through a metal detector and be required to check any bags that you may be carrying. Also, strollers are not allowed inside the museum so they must also be left here. A quick reminder that no photographs are allowed in the museum, then you are outside again, guided by barricade ropes that lead you the entrance of the museum a few feet away.
Starting Your Tour
Once you make it through the revolving door, you are in a dimly lit entrance way. On your left is an information booth, on your right the museum shop and restrooms, and in front of you the theater.
To start the tour you must enter the theater. Here you watch an eight minute presentation on three panels which touches on the history of the Jews, rituals such as Shabbat, as well as asks important questions such as where can we be at home? and why am I a Jew? Since the presentation is continually repeating, you leave the theater once it has returned to the point in which you entered. Since everyone is leaving at different times, you inch your way across the theater and leave through the door opposite the one you entered. This is now the beginning of the self-guided tour.
The museum consists of three floors which house three themes: the first floor houses "Jewish Life a Century Ago," the second floor houses the "War Against the Jews," and the third floor houses "Jewish Renewal" since the Holocaust.
The first floor exhibits begin with information about Jewish names followed by information on the Jewish life cycle. I found the layout of the museum was masterfully created, enabling a wonderful way to present the artifacts and accompanying information. Each sub-section was labeled with an easy to read and understandable topic; artifacts were well chosen and displayed; and accompanying text not only described the artifact and donor but placed it within context of the past for further understanding.
I felt the progression from one topic to the next flowed easily. The layout and presentation was so well done that I saw most visitors carefully reading most, if not all, of the information rather than quickly glancing and then walking away.
Another aspect of this museum that I found exceptionally well done was its use of video screens. Most of the artifacts and displays were supplemented by video screens which showed historic pictures with voice-over and/or survivors sharing part of their past. Though most of these videos were only three to five minutes, I was amazed at the impact these testimonies made on the display - the past became more real and it brought life to the artifacts.
The first floor exhibits covered such topics as life cycles, holidays, community, occupations, and synagogues. After visiting these exhibits at your leisure, you come to an escalator that takes you to the next floor - the War Against the Jews.
The second floor begins with the emergence of National Socialism. I was especially impressed with a particular artifact they had displayed - Heinrich Himmler's personal copy of Hitler's book Mein Kampf. I was also touched by the accompanying information - "Anonymous donation in special honor of 'the girl in the red coat.'"
Even though I have previously been to many Holocaust museums as well as toured Eastern Europe, I was impressed with the artifacts on the second floor. They had artifacts that represented persecution such as a family board game titled "Jews Out," an ancestry booklet ("Ahnenpass"), copies of Der Stürmer, rubber stamps with "Mischlinge" and "Jude," as well as a number of identity cards.
On this floor there was also a large and well-done presentation on the S.S. St. Louis which included newspaper articles from the time, family photos of the passengers, a ticket onto the ship, a menu, and a large, well done video presentation.
The section on children was equally touching and disturbing. Drawings by children and a toy bunny symbolized the loss of innocence and youth.
A little farther along the exhibits were pillars of photographs which personalized the hard to grasp number of six million. The empty canister of Zyklon-B reminded you of their fate.
After reaching the section about liberation, you again come to an escalator which takes you to the third floor which presents Jewish Renewal.
This floor represents Jewry after 1945. Included is information on displaced persons, the emergence of the Jewish State (Israel), continued anti-Semitism, and a reminder never to forget.
At the end of the tour you step into a hexagonal room which has a Torah scroll in the center. On the walls are 3-D representations of artifacts from the past. As you leave this room you face a wall with windows which strikingly open up to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
What Did I Think?
In summary, I found the Museum of Jewish Heritage extremely well done and well worth visiting. For information on how to visit the museum, please see their web site.