The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMH), dubbed the “Wandering Jew of the Community” by one survivor, has lost one more rented home, found interim shelter in another, but is dreaming of a permanent place of its own.
Led by a self-described “quixotic” physician as chairman and a feisty executive director, the museum is fighting tenaciously for its survival and insists that it fulfills a needed mission in Los Angeles and in Holocaust education.
The odds facing the hard-pressed LAMH include its proximity to the high-profile Simon Wiesenthal Center-Museum of Tolerance, diminishing financial backing from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and declining involvement by the Holocaust survivors who founded the museum.
Yet, there are hopeful signs. Executive Director Rachel Jagoda has sent out a flurry of grant proposals and has been rewarded with a $100,000 check from the Annenberg Foundation and lesser sums from three other foundations and a German bank. Best of all has been a $3 million pledge from highly respected Holocaust survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, earmarked as the building block for a permanent museum.
It is the dream of Jagoda and chairman Dr. Gary Schiller that the structure might rise on city-owned land in the midtown Pan Pacific Park, next to the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument.
The museum had its beginning in 1961, when a group of survivors donated artifacts from their concentration camp experiences and founded what was then known as the Los Angeles Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust.
The first home was a single room in The Jewish Federation building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. In 1978, the museum took over an entire floor of the building, and the space expansion allowed it to add extensive exhibits and photo displays, archives and a resource center, in addition to initiating tours and programs for the public and students.
As space in the building became tighter, the museum moved to various other floors, each time to smaller quarters, Jagoda said. In the late 1990s, when The Federation had to temporarily evacuate 6505 to repair earthquake damage, the museum and the community library rented a small separate building on Wilshire’s museum row.
There the museum staged a number of well-received displays, most recently an exhibit on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, which attracted 5,000 visitors.
The staff and volunteers also expanded the mentor and educational programs at about 60 public and private schools, mostly in the inner city, involving about 2,500 middle and senior high school students.
Early this year, the landlord announced that he was converting the museum building to condos and evicted the tenants. Left homeless, the museum was forced to close its doors March 1 and put the exhibits in storage.
After much frantic scrambling, LAHM signed a lease to take over the street floor of the ORT Building at 6435 Wilshire Blvd., next to The Federation headquarters. There, the redesigned museum is expected to open in June or July.
In the past few years, as annual Federation support for the museum dropped from $189,000 to $120,000 to the current $60,000, relations have soured.
Now facing annual expenses of $400,000 for operations, rent and a three-person staff, the museum leadership has its work cut out. Schiller pins some of his hopes on the Hollywood community, with whom he is planning a major fund raiser.
However, the museum’s support from survivors, its original base, keeps going down. Except for the $3 million pledge, “they haven’t stepped up to the plate,” Jagoda said.
Dr. Samuel Goetz, a survivor and chairman of the museum board from 1995-1999, countered that many of the most active survivors have died, and that others have become frustrated by the museum’s lack of continuity.
A more fundamental question is whether at a time when giving to Jewish communal institutions is flat and demands in Israel and at home are rising, if support for the Holocaust museum is money well spent.
Schiller vigorously answers in the affirmative. The 40-year-old hematologist and oncologist at the UCLA Medical Center, and a noted researcher in leukemia and bone marrow transplants, draws on his own practice for an analogy.
“I am frequently asked why we should spend money to save the life of a 60-year-old cancer patient, when there are millions of kids who haven’t been vaccinated,” he said. “I answer that it’s not one or the other. We have the financial resources to do both.”
As cities with much smaller Jewish populations have shown, there is enough money for a first-rate Holocaust museum, community centers and other needs, if the whole community is involved, rather than relying mainly on a handful of big-time philanthropists, who are hit up for every cause, Jagoda argued.
Nor does Schiller believe that the Wiesenthal Center, whose work he admires, obviates the need for a community Holocaust museum.
“The Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance are nonsectarian and deal with universal discrimination and genocides,” he said. “We are focused purely on the Holocaust. We have strong relationships with schools and colleges, and we reach out to parts of Los Angeles nobody else reaches.”
For information, contact Rachel Jagoda at (323) 651-3704or visit www.lamuseumoftheholocaust.org .