Interview with Jack Kliger, President of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

Avi:
Can you please give us a brief introduction about yourself and how you got involved with the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust?

Kliger:
Yes, I am a child of Holocaust survivors. I emigrated to the United States with my parents in 1950, when I was 3 years old. My father was a survivor from Poland and my mother was a survivor from Budapest, Hungary. We came to the States — so I’m both the child of survivors and an immigrant.

I grew up as many children of survivors do, being told that I was hope for the future and that having a successful, happy and safe life was a reward that my family wanted.

So I pursued that dream and wound up going into a business profession, I had a career in media publishing. I eventually got married and had a daughter.

When she was about 13 or 14, she had her bat mitzvah and then I realized that she was the same age my mother was when the Germans rolled into Budapest.

It made me realize what a change of life it was compared to that of my parents, my mother particularly.

The thought made me feel that I had a responsibility to do more to not just commemorate the memory of the 6 million, but also teach the lessons of the Holocaust, so that future generations will know what happened.

We have a responsibility to not let similar things ever happen again.

So, that’s how I became involved — this is in the mid nineties, “The Museum of Jewish Heritage” in New York was being developed — it opened in 1997.

I was involved in the working of various segments of the museum. Around 2003 or 2004, I joined the board of trustees. In 2004, I was on the board on an ongoing basis.

Then in 2018, it was decided that there needed to be change made at the executive level and the board asked if I would step-in in an interim capacity as CEO president which I did. That was since the end of February of 2019.

More recently, about a month ago the board asked me to stay on a permanent basis.
So that’s in short how that whole history went.

Avi:
Could you please tell us about the exhibits and could you give us a floor by floor introduction if you may.

Kliger:
Sure, the the main exhibit that we have had since May of this year is the Auschwitz exhibit – ‘Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.’

It is a traveling exhibit and we saw it in its first execution in Madrid in 2018, actually the end of 2017 beginning of 2018.

The exhibit was mounted in Madrid by a company named ‘Musealia’ that had worked in partnership with the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum in Auschwitz with the purpose of putting forth beyond just displaying within Poland but showing the rest of the world the history of what had happened, the impact of what hate can do and to make it an exhibit that would be seen in other parts of the world.

A number of our trustees had seen it in Madrid. They liked it, so they came back and said that it would be an important exhibition for us to bring to the United States and we proceeded to do that with Musealia.

At the end of 2018, we arranged to have it brought to the United States and it debuted here in May of 2019.

When the exhibit was in Europe, it had over 600 artifacts mostly from the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum. Also, there were 400 photographs but some of them were from other institutions as well.

A total of 19 lending institutions gave artifacts, materials and photographs to the exhibit.

The exhibit was curated by a team of Holocaust historians and professionals including Robert Jan van Pelt, who is notable authority. Others involved were Michael Berenbaum and Paul Salmons.

The exhibit was brought over eventually. While it was in Europe it was on one full floor of about 16000 or 17000 square feet (I don’t know that in meters).

We replicated the exhibit, but not in one floor, but rather in 3 floors because our historic building, the Kevin Roche 6 sided building (which was the original museum building) was broken up into 3 floors and so we broke the exhibit up and divided it into 3 sort of chronological sections out of necessity.

The first floor is Europe before the war and the rise of the Nazi party – the rise of planning and preparing for the Holocaust.

This floor sets the ground for the stage of what goes on and what happens afterwards.

The second floor is the actual Holocaust itself, the beginning of the final solution the development of various forms of murder both by bullets as well as other techniques and it basically takes you through the first part of the war culminating at the end of the floor with the opening of the Auschwitz Birkenau camp.

And then the third floor is the description of the final solution itself, including replications of the crematoria, the quotes and descriptions from both perpetrators as well as survivors. The sense of the camp itself from the barracks to barbed wire.

Then there’s an area for what I will call spiritual resistance that includes the tallit, which was worn underneath clothing; that was worn in defiance and we have a shofar that was blown in Auschwitz.

Anyway, the bottom line is the third floor is the actual description of what happened with itself and then the end of the war.

It concludes with an image of the same Jewish communities in Europe that we had before the war to show all we lost.

So, the total area of the exhibit broken into 3 floors is about 16 500 square feet which is roughly the same size ; maybe a little smaller than the one in Madrid.

It is a different exhibit though in that we have added over a hundred of our original artifacts that we, the Museum of Jewish Heritage already had in our our archives and that makes it slightly different to the one that was in Madrid, even though they’re both very much on the same theme in the same destination.

Avi :
And how do you procure most of the items in the Museum? Do they come from private donors, do you purchase them, or is it a mix of sources?

Kliger:
We do not buy them. Almost all of the items the Museum has you see are from donors or gifts. They’re either loans or gifts.

We have significant archives yes, we have thousands of pieces material in the archive and we chose a hundred for this exhibit, we could have chosen more but it’s got to the point where there was no significant incremental benefit in terms of historical value and there really wasn’t enough space to handle much more than the hundred items we’ve added to the collection of artifacts.

Avi:
Do you think that the breadth museum collection impacts our ability to contextualize art and history within such a small space. In other words can we learn a lot from the Holocaust within the small space?


Kliger:
Well we didn’t want this to be an exhibit specifically about the entire Holocaust but we focused on Auschwitz because that was the nexus of the mechanization of murder and hate.

It is also difficult in that kind of space – nothing is big enough to give it its full scale but we think that we focused enough on that one aspect as the part that this exhibit covers while giving the contextual framework of the times that it happened in and what happened before and what would happen since.

But…..we also added a lot of very good textual references within the exhibit that explained it very well and we think that enhanced it, that made it understandable. In addition we’ve we’ve created a very high quality audio tour that has been translated into 8 languages altogether.

So we think we’ve give a significant amount of information given the context, but most importantly you are giving explanation through images and artifacts – that’s why scholars were very helpful.

Avi:
You yourself were affected by the Holocaust directly because of your parent’s background.
One thing I noticed during my research when I was a masters student was that so many groups were also affected by the Holocaust.

Many Jews like yourself have done a lot to exhibit and you know preserve the memory of the catastrophe so it doesn’t happen again.

But many groups like Roma, gays handicaps, Serbs – there’s a huge list and many of those communities haven’t done….

I would say as significant an amount to capture their own history of the tragedy. Has your museum done anything to highlight the plight of non-Jewish survivors? Can more be shown?

Kliger:
The exhibit does give coverage to the number of people who are not Jewish or were considered ‘the other’ : including the Roma, disabled, homosexuals and other people who were not considered part of the ‘master race’ so we cover that well within the exhibit.

We also take very seriously our mission to educate and we’ve been working since the opening of the Museum with the New York City School systems and we work with them on curricula in which we talk about various forms of genocide and we also encourage school groups to come from all aspects of life in terms of race and religion.

We’ve had half a million school children come through the museum doors since it opened and over half of them are non-Jewish so we have taken that sense of the Holocaust being a lesson on what hate can do to be not just what it can do the Jews but what it can do to any people.

We’ve had the exhibit ‘Auschwitz and beyond’ and our educational framework that focused on civil liberties or injustice.

I know we’ve done an exhibit before and a seminar every year for Rwanda massacre victims.

This fall in November, December and January we’ll have a production by the ‘Theater of War’ which is an audience participation theater talking about mass killing, with the performance of a play called ‘The investigation’ that was produced in Germany which was an almost verbatim account of the mass killing of civilians taken from the testimony at Nuremberg trials but the leading all reference to Jews specifically so it’s a more universal theme about the horrors of killing of people en masse.

Avi:
Right now we see anti-Semitism from the far-right, the far-left, Islamic antisemitism in Europe in the U. S. and the entire West in general, I don’t want to tread on controversy by going into depth today but do you think having Holocaust centers like this one, the one in DC and the ones in every major city is helpful in teaching the future generation, same way your museum has reached out to children?

Kliger:
Absolutely!

I think museums are important places for people to find out about historic facts and stories that inform and help their understanding of where we have been and what we need to do going forward.

Our museum is dedicated not only to remembrance education and the renewal of people but the responsibility to stand up for justice and I think that this theme can be carried to every place as well as a museum dedicated to the history of the Holocaust and the effects that it had on society.

I would like to also point out that a very important theme for us at the museum is that we are located facing the Statue of Liberty. It highlights the subject of immigration and the opportunity for people to build a new life – which was and still is so important for Jewish people before the Holocaust and since the Holocaust, and the fact is that immigration also has had many issues of xenophobia, nativism and racial animosity. And so for us this is a subject that strikes very close to home on a number of levels

Avi:
Since we spoke about anti-Semitism from different angles how important is security to your museum given recent events?

Kliger:
It is a necessary thing!
We do a very strong job on it so yes in terms of security, we have very good security: both our own security services plus New York City Police Department cooperating very strongly with us but it is the reality that you have to be in very strong vigil to have security for an institution like ours.

Fortunately it’s not had up until this point any major incidents, but it wouldn’t be a mistake for me to say that security is one of the most important concerns that we take care of.
Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where that is very necessary.

Avi:
True. Especially seeing unfortunate incidents in Europe and parts of the U.S. I have to agree with you on that.

Kliger:
An important point to note is that we are located in the city that has one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in the world and there is a significant number of not only survivors but also children and grandchildren survivors and having a place of not only memory but learning and inspiration Towards activism in support of justice and tolerance is very important. So, it is important that there be such a place here in New York and that’s what I think we represent.

Avi: Do you plan on expanding the museum or adding anything?

Kliger:
We have expanded – we tripled the size of the museum when we added a new wing in 2003.

But in addition we have one of the finest performing centers of any institution of our kind, the Edmond J. Safra hall. 2-3 years ago the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene took up residence at the museum and since then has produced several wonderful live programming events including having launched ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish which was a major success and a very powerful statement version of the program and they do a lot of original as well as revival programs.

So our commitment to the cultural history of Jewish people in and around the New. York is a very important aspect of it I think.

That is a key way in which we’ve expanded the footprint of the museum.

Avi:
You also you mentioned to me earlier that it’s significant because New York has one of the largest Jewish populations in the world.

Kliger:
New York has the second largest Jewish population in the world after Tel Aviv.

Avi:
There are many Jewish people in America who like the say…. secular or you know non-committed/cultural Jews seem detached from the culture. Do you think that having a place like this and having a museum and theatre will help bring them back to their historic roots?

Kliger:
I think the the every that’s one of the the questions that you face in a country that is not predominantly Jewish and that’s what they ask for diaspora Jews but an institution like ours does not the operate in the same way as a synagogue. But we promote Jewish values and the idea is to promote the values of helping to heal the world and I think people who witnessed the history we’re talking about should be telling those stories by teaching learning and sharing those stories to other people who are their peers.

I think what we do is help activate commitment to justice and civil liberties by
members through their voice and our stories and that’s what I think is important.
For institutions like ours to be centers of inspiration as well as information.

Avi:
I’m sure many people ask you if it’s depressing to be working in a Holocaust museum? if they do, how do you respond?

Kliger:
Well I don’t say it’s depressing – I say it’s disturbing. This is not a lighthearted experience.
But I find it also extremely rewarding to give a message not only about what happened but also including in the message that there is hope for the future and that people did survive. There was a commitment to rescue, there were righteous people.

So there is a future that enables growing so it is not depressing – it is unsettling, but at the end of the day very motivating and yet engaging.

I’m a history lover and I find the history here is not only about what happened during the period of the 20th century but what is also going into the 21st century. How much of what has happened since, relates to what happened then.

I don’t think you can understand how to approach the future and understand how to have the values that are important without understanding what happened, and seeing what happened when values were abandoned

Avi:
We see a lot of youngsters comparing everyone and everything to the Nazis and the Holocaust today and some analogies are obviously absurd I won’t give specific examples or mention specific people. But do you think this can be overdone?

Kliger:
I think we oftentimes make too easy an analogy to Nazis and the Holocaust I mean there are analogies to be made there. There are many genocides, there’s many mass killings but not everything is a reminder of Hitler and the Nazis.

Sometimes we use that analysis or analogy to easily and too frequently.

Avi:
Where do you see the museum going in the next 5 to 10 years?

Kliger:
Well I think the museum has a a great opportunity to address questions of how justice needs to be at the forefront of our efforts and that hate and anti-Semitism and and xenophobia are not receding but they are much more around us and about us than we had thought.

And that’s the time to stand up and not be a bystander but to stand up and fight for the future and the rights of of all people to be treated with dignity respect and honesty.

I think this is an important time for the museum to really reemerge and to not underscore the power of renewal

Avi:
New York City has several museums. What would you tell to a potential visitor who is visiting the city and deciding whether to see the Holocaust museum or go to another one of the other choices.

Kliger:
I would say that if you want to learn the history of how this city has so many people who were affected by the mass movements of the 20th century that shaped the United States, whether it’s immigration or the Holocaust or another tragedy like September 11th.

Then this museum, like the many others is a place of history, fact and information and it is less than a mile away from the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 memorial and Ellis Island. So, that makes it a very interesting and unique place to visit.

About the Author
Avi Kumar grew up in Sri Lanka. As a member of the Tamil minority, he has a unique perspective when it comes to growing up in a war zone. From an early age in order to survive, he learned to remain silent about controversial issues when it wasn't safe to speak about them. Avi has lived in five different countries and speaks ten different languages. Fortunately, one of his ten languages is English, you wouldn't have had the slightest idea what you are reading. Avi loves wildlife photography and writing about religious and political issues with his unique perspective.
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