One rainy day not long ago I decided to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage, located near Battery Park in Manhattan. I’m not Jewish, but many of my friends and neighbors are. Historically, Jewish immigrants and their descendants have been a very important part of New York City’s history. It is impossible to fully know the city without knowing more about its diverse inhabitants, and a visit to the Museum of Jewish Heritage can be one part of that learning process.
I expected that touring the museum would be a moving experience because of its focus on the Holocaust during World War II, and it was. (The Museum calls itself “a living memorial to the Holocaust.”) But I also gained a greater understanding of Jewish life in the United States and Europe before, during, and after the Holocaust, and I left the museum with a real sense of hope for the future–hope because of the resilience of Jews who experienced the Holocaust firsthand and the successes of their descendants, and hope also because the museum also seeks to educate its visitors about how to recognize and battle against injustice today, whether again Jews or other targeted populations.
I really liked the way that the Museum is set up. The core exhibit is in a part of the building that has six sides, like the Star of David. It is three stories tall, and each level has its own role. The first floor focuses on Jewish life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, looking at Jewish family and community life in both Europe and here in New York City. Most of the museum’s exhibits do not lend themselves easily to photography, so I don’t have many photographs. The core exhibits contain a lot of little “gems,” special artifacts that only have meaning when you pay closer attention. If you listen to their messages, you gain an understanding of the hopes, dreams, and fears of many individuals, as well as the collective spirit of an entire group of people.
I loved this exhibit discussing New York marriage ceremonies and attire. The long shirt on the left is known as a “groom’s gown,” called a kittel. The exhibit explained that, in some communities, the groom would wear the kittel during the wedding ceremony as a symbol of purity. This particular kittel came from Romania and was dated early 20th century. The dress on the right was worn by Sadye Lazarus Bernard during her wedding in Brooklyn on June 19, 1924. It is a beautiful dress that reflects the design influences of that era.
The second floor of the core exhibit focuses primarily on the experiences of European Jews in the 1930s and during World War II, including the Holocaust. These exhibits personalize the Jewish experience during this terrible era, putting names and faces on the many people who were murdered or survived terrible conditions. One exhibit that I found interesting explained how Jews who wanted to emigrate from Germany to other countries during the 1930s would train in particular skills that they hoped would earn them a living in their new country. For example, Else Sachs learned how to make felt flowers, used as trim for hats and other fashion items, while waiting for visas so that she and her daughter could emigrate to the United States. The flowers in the photograph below, made by Else in the late 1930s, accompanied the exhibit.
Other artifacts on the second floor were more poignant, especially some of the children’s possessions. This small, stuffed rabbit grabbed my attention immediately. It belonged to 12-year-old Ludwig Biermann, who carried the rabbit with him when he was deported with his parents from Berlin to the Terezin Ghetto in Czechoslovakia in 1943. The exhibit explained that Ludwig and his mother survived the war, but his father died in the Ghetto.
The third floor core exhibit focuses on Jewish history and culture since World War II, although there is also an exhibit that traces the history of the town of Oświęcim, which the Germans called Auschwitz, in Poland. Among some of the important exhibits on this floor was one that described the experiences of many Jews who lived for years in refugee camps after the war ended, something that I’ve never heard much about before. There were also some interesting artifacts associated with Jewish-American culture in New York. Among my favorites was this brass “Liberty” Menorah, which was made by Manfred Anson for the Statute of Liberty centennial in 1986.
In addition to the core exhibits, there are several other interesting exhibits at the Museum, including a fine exhibit chronicling the Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals in Germany between 1933 and 1945, as well as an exhibit detailing the contributions of Jewish designers to midcentury modernism. There is also a striking outdoor garden, the Garden of Stones designed by Andy Goldworthy. Both interior and exterior architecture contribute to the Museum’s overall atmosphere. This photograph show one perspective of part of the museum, with a small part of the Garden of Stones shown in the lower portion of the image. (Alas, the rainy day prevented me from fully exploring the Garden–another reason to go back again soon!)
On the third floor, I found the Keeping History Center, with its glorious views of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. Part of the Keeping History Center is the Voices of Liberty project, which collects the stories of Holocaust survivors, refugees, and others who choose to make the United States their home. The view from the Center on a rainy day may not be as scenic as it is when the weather is nice (as you can see from the foggy, drizzly photograph below), but on the day I visited it was a quiet, meditative space–exactly what I needed at the time.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage is not to be missed–I learned much during my visit, and it is one of those places where you can return again and again, gaining something new from each trip. If the weather is good, it would be a good day trip to combine with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as the Museum is close to Battery Park, where you can catch the Statue of Liberty Ferry. Many of the Jews who settled in New York City came through Ellis Island, so it would be a meaningful way to round out your understanding of that immigration story as well.
How do you get to the Museum of Jewish Heritage? As you can tell from this blog, I prefer public transit. The Museum is located next to Battery Park, near the southern tip of Manhattan. A number of subway lines will get you close to the Museum. You can take the 4 or the 5 to the Bowling Green Station, the 1 or the R train to Rector Street, the R to Whitehall Street, or the J or Z train to Broad Street. The Museum also provides additional directions here, on its website.