January 27, 2022

By Erica Jaros

Visitors viewing model at museum exhibit. 
Woman standing in front of a museum exhibit.
Top: Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. (Photo by Kathleen Hinkel. Photo courtesy of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center).
Bottom: Hologram of a recorded Holocaust survivor. (Photo by Ron Gould. Photo courtesy of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center).

Between 1941 and 1945, Nazis killed more than six million Jews and five million ethnic Poles, Roma, political opponents, members of the LGBTQ community and other groups. To honor the victims of the Holocaust, the United Nations recognizes January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year’s theme of "Memory, Dignity, and Justice" focuses on preserving the historical record and challenging distortion as elements of claiming justice.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services has awarded grants to museums endeavoring to document the experiences of Holocaust Survivors and share information about World War II, and ongoing human rights crises around the world with people of all generations.

In 2017, IMLS awarded the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center a National Medal for Museum and Library Service. But this museum was not born out of an effort to preserve history, it was created to not repeat it. According to Eve Samson, Associate Director of Development – Private & Public Grants, in the late 1970s, Skokie, IL was home to one of the largest populations of Holocaust Survivors outside of New York and Israel. When a neo-Nazi organization attempted to plan a march in town, the community pushed back, creating a place of remembrance and education. All 20,000 artifacts housed in the museum belonged to Survivors living in the Midwest and focus on their personal experiences.

“The Medal not only recognized the Museum’s past impact on the community, but also our innovation in developing the groundbreaking four-gallery Take a Stand Center,” said Samson. “The Center utilizes interactive holographic technology to enable visitors to have life-like conversations with recorded survivors for generations to come and equips our visitors with tools to act on social justice and civic issues important to them.”

The National Medal award funding helped the Illinois Holocaust Museum market and promote their special exhibition, Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution. Bill Graham is considered one of the most influential concert promoters through three decades of Rock & Roll who produced humanitarian concerts like Live Aid and Human Rights Now! The exhibit looked at how a child survivor of the Holocaust became a leading cultural figure in his adopted country and demonstrated the power of music as a major force of social awareness.

Other exhibits available online include the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Zev and Shifra Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition which explores pre-war European life, the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the post-war experiences of survivors as they resettled in Skokie. Additionally, the museum remains committed to sharing the personal experiences of survivors and their families as broadly as possible.

“Our Speakers’ Bureau is the world’s largest, with 80+ Holocaust survivors, eyewitnesses, and children or grandchildren of survivors who share their family’s powerful firsthand accounts of the consequences of prejudice and bigotry to visitors onsite and out in the community,” Samson said.

Holocaust Museum exhibit opening 
Holocaust Museum postcard exhibit
Top: Attendees gather at the opening reception for the To Bear Witness - Extraordinary Lives exhibition on Dec. 12, 2021. (Photograph by Karen Weliky. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education).
Bottom: Postcards contributed by Leslie Aigner (Hungary) to the exhibit To Bear Witness - Extraordinary Lives. (Photograph by Jim Lommasson. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education).

Other institutions like the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE) see the competing interests of their cultural mission and immediate social responsibility shaping their desire to help people navigate present issues by understanding history.

“In an interconnected world where injustice persists on a grand scale, [we] hope that teaching about the history of the Holocaust and shedding light on contemporary genocide makes a contribution to our understanding of our responsibility to one another,” said Judy Margles, OJMCHE Director.

In 2019, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education received an Inspire! Grants for Small Museums award to partially fund their new exhibit To Bear Witness - Extraordinary Lives, which opened in December 2021. Margles explained that the exhibit takes the first part of its name from the words of the late Nobel Prize-winning writer, activist, and Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel, who emphatically proclaimed, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” The museum worked with The Immigrant Story, a multimedia storytelling organization, and a local documentary photographer to share the experiences of 14 individuals, including four survivors of the Holocaust, who all found a way to start over in Oregon.

“These profiles of survivors of the Holocaust, genocides in Europe, Africa and Asia and unimaginable atrocities of war share the troubling truth that tyranny exists to the present day. Each account portrays courage and resilience,” said Margles.

The exhibit includes photographs, videos, and narrative elements. Each of the people featured also shared an object that they had carried with them on their journey to the United States. The item was photographed and then personal reflections hand-written directly on the photograph.

“As we know, human beings have the capacity for great suffering. But there is also capacity for healing and hope. And that is what the people featured in the exhibition offer,” Margles said. “We see some visitors become very emotional—and in some cases angry and frustrated—when they read the stories and see real life examples of the ongoing genocide throughout the world and the breakdown of our immigration system. For others, they see their own stories represented.”

As OJMCHE planned the exhibit, they wanted to engage the community by helping to shape conversations around identity, culture, and assimilation. The museum is also committed to creating opportunities for understanding the Jewish experience as a model for cultural survival and intercultural understanding.

“At a time when we are bombarded by the negative, the story of resistance is an important counter story. In our work at the museum, we also emphasize hope,” said Margles. “Discrimination and evil did not, and have not, won.”

Sharing these stories with the public is a critical part of a museum’s mission. But equally important is preserving the artifacts and items used in exhibitions, and training museum educators to bring the items to life for visitors.

The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum is using their 2021 Museums for America award to hire additional cataloging staff with a goal of creating robust, searchable, digitized catalog records that will be fully available online. According to spokeswoman Jessica Whitt Garner, in just the first year of the project the cataloging department has created 972 searchable catalog records, revealing many formerly hidden collection items.

Museum docent exaplains exhibit to visitors.
A docent explains to students the practice of mass shooting operations by Einsatzgruppen (Photo by Kim Leeson, courtesy of Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum).

As the museum developed a more thorough database, they wanted to use this to support their education staff in their research and preparation for creating classroom resources, including primary-source-based curriculum aids.

“The educators were wowed by the archival resources housed inside our museum, and the Library and Archives team was thrilled to connect with our educators in this way,” said Garner. “We aim to continue working more closely together, and the searchable database of newly cataloged archival material makes it all possible.”

To include and welcome a broader audience, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum joined the Museums for All initiative, a partnership between IMLS and the Association of Children’s Museums, in September 2021. Participating museums provide free or reduced admission for SNAP beneficiaries to encourage low-income families to visit museums and build lifelong learning habits.

These museums are not just collecting artifacts. They are connecting communities with survivors who share their experiences to preserve the memories of our collective history and ensure dignity in the retelling of it. It is the responsibility of museum visitors and local communities to take these lessons to heart and promote justice, for all, in the world around them.