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A Holocaust Center From the Ground Up

April 27, 2011 By:
Melissa Jacobs, Jewish Exponent Feature
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An artist's rendering of the proposed Holocaust educational center

Michael Berenbaum, the renowned Holocaust scholar and consultant, has been hired to guide the development of a Holocaust education center in Philadelphia.

The center's exact content -- or even what it will be called -- has yet to be determined.

"The bricks we must first lay," Berenbaum said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, "are decisions about the 'what, why and how' of the center."

At a standing-room-only news conference in January 2010, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and leaders of the city's Holocaust Remembrance Foundation announced plans to build a center in the 10,000 square feet adjacent to the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

That's the same spot where each year, hundreds of people gather to mark the citywide commemoration of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year's ceremonies, sponsored by the Memorial Committee for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Philadelphia, will be held on Sunday, May 1, at 1 p.m., at 16th Street and the Parkway.

The city agreed to lease the space to the Remembrance Foundation, known as PHRF, for $1 for five years, allowing time for the organization to raise the necessary funds. Nutter also announced that Moshe Safdie, designer of the current Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, would be the architect of the Philadelphia center.

PHRF has been tight-lipped about the center's current status. Executive director Dawn Prall George declined to comment on the project's progress.

But the Exponent learned that Berenbaum was hired to help develop its conceptual framework. An award-winning producer and author of 20 books on the Holocaust, Berenbaum oversaw the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and has consulted on Holocaust centers from Mexico to Macedonia.

Berenbaum said his first task was to help educate the board so it could decide on the direction of the facility.

He and members of the board set out on what he described as "an educational pilgrimage," traveling last year to Germany and Poland, where they visited the sites of four former concentration camps: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Belzec and Treblinka. They also went to Holocaust memorials and centers in Chicago; Boston; New York; and Washington, D.C.

"We went to learn about existing Holocaust centers and memorials to have a frame of reference in which to decide what the Philadelphia center will and won't be," said Marcia Sachs Littell, a PHRF board member who went on each trip. The group has determined that one thing that the new center will not be is a traditional museum.

"Philadelphia's Holocaust museum needs can be serviced by Washington and New York," said Berenbaum. "We don't conceive of the center as performing the full functions of a museum, which can include curation of artifacts and representing the entirety of a historical era."

Instead, he said, "we see ourselves as an educational center, similar to how the National Constitution Center is a center, not a museum. What we aim to do is tell the story of the Holocaust with emphasis on specific themes. What we create will grapple with the Holocaust and deal with issues that it raises, and do so in a way that is specific to Philadelphia."

Littell explained that PHRF's center will continue the American narrative told by other Philadelphia museums.

"Civil rights, a government's Constitution and changing it, a system of checks and balance, pluralism and religious tolerance," said Littell, a professor of Holocaust studies at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and executive director of the Philadelphia Center on the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights, an interfaith forum for professional educators based at St. Joseph's University.

"They are all elements of Philadelphia's story, America's story and the story of the Holocaust," she said.

"Where better than Philadelphia to discuss how the constitution of Germany was changed to outlaw freedom of religion?" posed Berenbaum. "Where better to discuss Hitler's absolute power, and governmental checks and balances, which America's founding fathers protected against?"

PHRF's center will have exhibits specially geared toward educating school children and people of all religious faiths. While the center will focus on the Holocaust, it will expand to cover other genocides, those linked with the project said.

What PHRF hopes to create in Philadelphia, Littell said, will be the next step in the evolution of Holocaust education centers. "We are at a time when the survivor generation is passing, and their children are aging," she said. "So the question -- and our challenge as educators and Jews -- is how do we teach the story and lessons of the Holocaust to future generations?"

Littell declined to give details on the progress of fundraising or a timeframe for a groundbreaking, but she did hint that it might be awhile before the center was up and running.

President Jimmy Carter "began the process of creating the Washington Holocaust museum in 1978, and it didn't open until 1993," she said. "We want this center to stand for generations and generations, and we will take our time and get it right."

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