Holocaust Museum to Reopen Doors

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 .

Central Coast Home to Holocaust Exhibit

In a watershed event for the California central coast’s small Jewish community, the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation marked the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht by opening the city’s first permanent Holocaust exhibit.

The opening shows just how far this small Jewish community has come.

"This is a first for Santa Barbara; the [Jewish] community has grown slowly," said local attorney Steve Amerikaner, whose parents survived Dachau and saw their son born in a Displaced Persons Camp.

With an estimated 5,000-8000 Jews, sun-kissed Santa Barbara has four synagogues and a Hillel at UCSB.

"We don’t naturally want to think or speak about this stuff," said filmmaker and Montecito resident Ivan Reitman, who was born into a Slovakian Jewish family in 1946.

"We bask in the freedom and fortune of this country, especially here in beautiful Santa Barbara. [But] we have certain enemies that say that the Holocaust was greatly exaggerated or that it wasn’t so bad. So speak we must."

Several hundred Santa Barbara Jews crowded into the Bronfman Family Jewish Community Center for the Nov. 9th opening of the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation’s new "Portraits of Survival: Life Journeys During the Holocaust and Beyond" exhibit. It tells concise stories of 38 local adult and child survivors, including Reitman’s parents Leslie and Clara, an Auschwitz survivor.

Located in a small building near the city’s popular State Street, the exhibit is classic Santa Barbara, as its walls are a calming white. Rather than being huge and overpowering like some national exhibits, "Portraits" is small and neighborly, its almost cozy display space comprised of 38, three-panel sets showing faded photos, letters, transit documents and other mementos.

The two front panels tell the survivors’ story in their own words, some in their own handwriting. But each panel’s right side also opens up to show, on its other side, a full portrait of the survivor today. Child survivor Lili Schiff was photographed sitting near a pond. Stella Better posed with her poodle. Anti-Nazi journalist Kurt Singer later wrote books about espionage; now 92 and with both legs amputated, he posed in his wheelchair, holding one of his spy books and a magnifying glass. Klara Zimmer died three years ago, so her exhibit photo found her portrait centered in sunlight, flanked by her toddler twin grandchildren, Max and Sophia.

Schiff’s story clearly moved the crowd. One of two daughters of assimilated Belgian Jews, Schiff was hidden for two years by an illiterate Belgian coal miner and his wife.

A Gestapo raid saw Schiff and her sister, Frida, driven to a rural convent by the Rev. Bruno Reynders, the Catholic priest whose hiding of 316 Belgian Jews including 200 children saw him called, "Righteous Among the Nations" at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial.

At the convent, the two girls lived with the nuns for the war’s last two years.

"They even taught me to play the piano," Schiff said.

That Catholic convent remains the mother house of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. At the "Portraits" event, the Federation thanked and honored the religious order’s Santa Barbara-based nuns on behalf of their Belgian sisters.

"Portraits" is sponsored by UCSB and Santa Barbara Bank & Trust and was conceived by Mara Kohn, the wife of UCSB physicist and Nobel Prize winner Walter Kohn, an Austrian Jewish refugee.

Local Federation honorees also included Annie Schipper, who, with her late husband, hid a Jewish family in their home in occupied Holland, and American veterans Morton Barrish and Norman Blau, whose military units liberated Dachau.

Though Reitman has created comedy mega-hits including "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes," he held back tears while describing how his late parents escaped Nazis and Communists and found freedom in Canada.

"Before my bar mitzvah I asked my father, ‘Do you believe in God?’" said Reitman. "And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ At least six times during these years, things happened where he had no business staying alive."

With "Portraits" opening exactly 65 years after Nazi Germany’s Nov. 9, 1938, "Night of the Broken Glass," survivor Ericka Kahn spoke about being 13 years old, hiding with other scared children in her Berlin school.

"I can’t believe that I’m here, looking at all of you," said Kahn, who then asked all the children to come forward and light six candles in memory of the Holocaust’s 6 million murdered Jews.

Schiff’s son, Eric, attended the opening with his young son and daughter, driving down from Lompoc in remote, northern Santa Barbara County. There are so few Jews up there, Eric Schiff said, that among his neighbors and co-workers, "when they find out that I’m Jewish, they say, ‘I thought you were American.’ So we’re trying to open their eyes."

The "Portraits" stories have re-educated Eric Schiff, whose mother did not discuss the war with her children.

"Even today," he said, "just reading about my mom in the exhibit, I learn more."

The exhibit is at the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation, 524 Chapala St., Santa Barbara. For more information, call (805) 957-1115.