9/11 Museum Head Uses Shoah Lessons
Alice Greenwald vividly recalls touring the Auschwitz concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor and watching how the woman shared her story with her children and grandchildren.
It was as if she was trying to instruct her heirs as to the kind of people she wanted them to become, Greenwald remembers.
“What struck me about that experience was that in a world that exists after something like Auschwitz happens, every one of us is her grandchildren,” she said. “We all are obligated to understand what it means to be a human being and the kind of people our parents and grandparents want us to be.”
For more than two decades, Greenwald has been helping to give people a palpable understanding of the Holocaust through her work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Beginning this month, she will turn her attention to another terrible atrocity: Greenwald was named in February as the first director of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York, which will commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their nearly 3,000 victims.
“Where the two [events] intersect for me in my professional life is in the area of memorialization,” she said recently in her Holocaust Museum office in Washington. “We deal with great loss here at this museum, incomprehensible loss. And we deal with trying to integrate that loss into our collective understanding of history, our personal history of what it means to be a human being.”
Greenwald was a member of the Holocaust Museum’s original design team, working from home as a consultant after stints with Jewish museums in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. She joined the museum full-time in 2001 as its associate director for museum programs.
Gretchen Dykstra, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said Greenwald immediately understood the memorial’s goals.
“What struck us so quickly was how immediately she understood the sensitivity of what we were doing,” she said. “She’s not somebody who comes knowing a lot about 9/11, but she knows a lot about memorializing and education.”
The hardest part in designing the New York museum, Greenwald said, is that “there isn’t a human being on the face of the planet who doesn’t have a 9/11 story.”
Greenwald herself was unpacking boxes in her new Washington home on that day, having just moved from Philadelphia. Her husband, on an Amtrak train bound for New York, had called to ask if she knew why he and his business associates weren’t moving.
The carpenter working in her home heard her gasp when she turned on the television. They watched the second tower fall together, and immediately embraced.
“This was a man I knew for 10 minutes,” she said. “And we hugged each other in an embrace, watching the television in complete disbelief, because we needed to be with another human being in that moment.”
Emotions are still very raw for those who survived the Sept. 11 attack, and for the families of those who died. But Greenwald has experience dealing directly with survivors and families who may visit the museum.
“Other museums have other constituency issues, but I don’t think they have to deal with the sensitivities we have [at the Holocaust Museum],” she said. “We are immensely fortunate to have the voice of authentic witnesses.”
The proximity in time to the event will be one of her biggest challenges in New York, she said.
“The institution will have to be flexible, because the world will keep moving forward and we don’t know what events will re-characterize our understanding of 9/11,” she said.
She has watched the Holocaust Museum evolve, noting that it was built before “Schindler’s List” and other mass-media portrayals of the Shoah.
The Sept. 11 museum will be part of several structures planned for the area where the World Trade Center stood. The foundation is constructing the museum and a separate memorial, Reflecting Absence, that will honor those killed on Sept. 11 and in a previous attack at the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.
A visitor’s center and performing arts building also are being planned. Half the site has been zoned for new office buildings, which are being erected separately.
The museum will highlight the magnitude of the attacks, as well as the global response and civic rebuilding.
“You are dealing with a site that is a burial site. People died there. That gives it a sacred quality one has to respect,” Greenwald said.
She compared it to the Holocaust Museum, which she said garners its power from its proximity to other memorials and buildings of power in Washington.
Dykstra said she has been struck by the Holocaust Museum’s impact on visitors, and hopes to replicate that.
“I think what the Holocaust Museum does so beautifully is it takes a historic series of events and personalizes them in a way that universalizes them,” she said. “It’s overwhelming but not didactic.”
The Sept. 11 museum is slated to open on the eighth anniversary of the attacks, in 2009. Greenwald said there is much to be done before then, and she is excited to be a part of this “thrilling” stage of a museum’s birth.
“Each stage will have its own challenges and its own rewards,” she said. She calls it a “Dayenu situation,” saying that if she can at least advance the plans, it would be enough — although she hopes to see the museum built and operating.
“We have to remember that it’s about people,” she said. “There’s a tendency to want to memorialize the building, and there is some significance to that. But this is not a memorial to a building; it’s a memorial to people.”