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Holocaust Commemoration in Museums: Teaching Unique or Universal Lessons?

By Stephanie Rotem

In his 1971 seminal article, “Museum: Temple or Forum?”, Duncan Cameron argues that it is time to put aside our traditional perception of the museum as a temple and begin to think of it as a forum – the central civic space of ancient Roman cities, where the city’s inhabitants met to discuss the social and political issues of the time. The museum as a forum is not only a reflector of its surrounding society, but also a platform on which to discuss acute social issues. In that role, museums would not be neutral bodies, but rather active participants in social and political discourse.

Museums can employ many means to advance their agendas, including the architecture of their buildings. My paper discusses the contribution of museum architecture to one of the most fervent issues debated in Holocaust museums: the uniqueness and/or universality of the Holocaust and the “lessons” that can or should be taught within them.

According to Israeli political scientist Shevah Weiss, the basis for the universal approach toward the lessons of the Holocaust is found in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she asserted as early as 1963 that the Nazis committed crimes against humanity on the body of the Jewish people, rather than crimes against the Jewish people (Weiss 47). This claim sparked considerable controversy and anger at the time. Four decades later, Weiss argues that the development of the universal approach toward the Holocaust is unavoidable, and that the Holocaust has since become one of the major components of western civilization, Christian theology, and political thought. Other scholars, however, counter this and claim that a universal approach towards Holocaust commemoration diminishes the suffering of its particular victims and eliminates the discussion of anti-Semitism in favor of a discourse on an abstract “other”.[1]

The debate on universal vs. particular commemoration is ongoing, active, and heated. While it began as an academic discussion, it has pervaded into the public sphere and Holocaust museums have become participants in the dialectic. This question was explored in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC (USHMM), which was conceived in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter as a gesture of reconciliation toward the Jewish community, following a deep rift between his administration and the Israeli government. Carter proposed to assist the Jewish community in the construction of a Holocaust memorial, a project that the Jewish community had failed to execute. He announced the establishment of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, headed by author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. The commission insisted that rather than a monument, the project would consist of a “living memorial” including a museum, an educational foundation, and a “Committee on Conscience” (Linenthal 37).

The president donated a plot in the heart of the nation’s capitol and passed a law to ensure federal funding. Thus, the “Jewish project” became a national mission and was now challenged to make the museum relevant to the American public at large. Rather than a site of remembrance for the Jewish community, USHMM became an institution, which facilitates the use of distant and foreign events to teach American values: namely, American democracy and international engagement.

Once the museum’s focus was transformed from a Jewish to a National stance, other, non-Jewish communities, themselves victims of WWII, demanded to be included in the museum’s founding committee, and ultimately be written into the museum’s narrative. Bitter arguments and the complicated process of forming a committee agreed upon by all communities held back the completion of the museum, which was finally opened to the public in 1993, fifteen years after its initial enunciation.

One cause of disagreement was the number of victims to be commemorated in the museum. As head of the founding committee, Wiesel explained:

Survivors spoke of 6 million Jewish victims. Then some friend began reminding us ‘true, but after all there were others as well’. So they said 11 million, six of whom are Jewish. If this goes on, the next step will be 11 including 6, and in a couple of years, they won’t even speak of the 6. They will speak only of 11 million. See the progression? 6 million plus 5, then 11 including 6, and then only 11. (Linenthal 53)

Ultimately, the museum included the stories of non-Jewish victims in its exhibition. However, the architecture, in a forceful and subversive act, accentuated the Jewish aspect. An example of this is the six-sided hexagonal “Hall of Remembrance” – representing the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The use of this symbolic number was the one demand made by the Jewish members of the founding committee to James Ingo Freed, the museum’s architect. Freed designed a serene six-sided Hall which also features triangular tiles and a hexagonal skylight. The number 6, that of the Jewish victims, is now imprinted in stone and the process which Wiesel feared thus prevented.

Illus 1. Illinois Holocaust Museum-facade

Illinois Holocaust Museum

Since the advent of the Holocaust museum in Washington, dozens of Holocaust museums have been erected in the United States – all of them challenged by the dichotomy of being at once a “tribal fire” for the local Jewish community, while at the same time, appealing to diverse visitors. The museums, faced with the same dilemmas, chose different approaches to answer them, and their architecture too, suggests various attitudes.

The two latest museums represent the two ends of the spectrum between Jewish commemoration and universal lessons: The Illinois Holocaust Museum was inaugurated in 2009 in Skokie, Illinois. Designed by Stanley Tigerman, the symbolic architecture represents a Jewish-particular approach. In contrast, the architecture of the 2010 Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, designed by Hagy Belzberg, is abstract and universal.

The museum in Skokie is divided into two wings. The visitors initially enter the “Dark wing,” which features hard, sharp angles, and exposed pipes reminiscent of early 20th century German factories, and  includes the parts of the permanent exhibit that address the lives of European Jews prior to World War II, the transfer to the ghettos, exile, expulsion, and genocide. The second wing, which exhibits the liberation of the camps, and includes an education center, and temporary art exhibitions – is illuminated. The “Light wing” is rotated 11° to face east, the rising sun, and the coming of the Messiah. The “Book of Remembrance”, a memorial room in which innumerable names of victims are etched, connects the two wings.

The museum’s architecture is embedded with Jewish symbols. One example are two large columns that adorn the museum’s façade. These columns symbolically reconstruct the monumental pillars in front of Salomon’s Temple. Throughout history, Solomon’s Temple was an inspiration for the design of Jewish synagogues in the diaspora. The columns that embellish the façade of the Holocaust museum in Skokie, therefore, carry dual meaning: they allude to the monumental Jewish temple, while reminding us of the innumerous Jewish synagogues, which were looted, desecrated, and destroyed during WWII.

Another example of Jewish symbolism is found in the museum’s memorial rooms. The first is the “Book of Remembrance” that I mentioned before. Its walls are covered with names, in English and Hebrew, of more than 1300 victims related to members of the local Jewish community. This is an openly Jewish memorial space. However, alongside it is a seemingly “universal” hall for contemplation. It is devoid of obvious Jewish symbols: three of its walls are empty while the fourth holds eighteen alcoves, each containing a lit candle; twelve benches are situated in the centre of the room. On face value, the design is neutral; further analysis, however, reveals that even within this space, the architect embedded Jewish meaning. According to gimatria – a Jewish numerology system – the number eighteen means “chai”-life and the twelve benches, according to the architect, represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

Illus 4. Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

The Museum of the Holocaust Los Angeles opened to the public only one year after the Skokie museum, but its architecture could not be more different. While the Skokie museum is infused with Jewish images and symbolic meaning, the museum in Los Angeles has an abstract design.

The Los Angeles museum is a new structure for an already established museum that was founded by a group of Holocaust survivors in the early 1960s. Together they created a small exhibition, which was displayed in the Jewish Federation offices. As the years passed, and the Holocaust gained awareness in American society, Hagy Belzberg was commissioned to design a new museum in a bustling public park.

Resituating the museum into the heart of the city was perceived by the founders as an act of acceptance and has become the basis for their vision to build a museum that would be funded and maintained by the Jewish community, but relevant to the multicultural population of Los Angeles. This was achieved in many ways, including an abstract architectural style.

The abstract design of the museum is outstanding amongst the many Holocaust museums that were founded after, and modelled according to USHMM – with powerful architecture that depicts features reminiscent of concentration camps, such as fences, chimneys and watchtowers.

The design of the museum in Los Angeles is completely different. It is devoid of Jewish symbols. As argued by architect Belzberg: “abstraction allows a person to see what he needs to see… Abstraction with subtle symbolism is far greater an architectural strategy than simple symbolism.”(Belzberg) The “subtle symbolism” he refers to is not related to unique Jewish images or beliefs, but conveys general humanitarian values. He utilizes it, for example, in the organization of the museum’s inner space:

In the first exhibition hall, visitors gather round a digital table. The touch-screen tabletop, allows the visitors to move and manipulate photographs of pre-war Jewish life in various European communities. In the second room, the group divides into smaller groups that hover over display cases scattered in the room. The cases contain documents and artifacts that portray the process of de-humanizing European Jewry. The small and intimate groups that form in the room encourage informal interactions and spontaneous discussions amongst the visitors. In the next two rooms, the groups dissolve completely, as each visitor faces an individual digital monitor. The dissolution of the initial group – first into small gatherings, and then into individuals – is explained as a metaphor of the disintegration of communities and societies in a time of crisis.

Illus 5. Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust-digital table-1

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust Digital Table

Belzberg’s design is not only contemporary and abstract but also environment-friendly. The subterranean building’s roof is planted with climate-appropriate native grasses, which insulate the museum’s interior. The rooftop garden is organic, low maintenance, and well integrated into the landscaping of the surrounding park. The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust has received numerous awards for its ecologically-sound architecture.[2]

My dispute with this museum is not its abstract design or “green” architecture, but rather the interpretation it has been given: The “green success” of the museum is considered by its founders as an intrinsic value of the museum. According to their viewpoint, the museum’s mission is to “strengthen visitors personal commitment to making the world a better place”,[3] and as such, environmental responsibility can be understood as inherent to the museum’s goals. The abstract design encourages personal reflection, which may, or not, be related to the actual event and its victims. However, we must weigh the balance between teaching universal values and commemorating the particular events and victims. Are Holocaust museums the means to debate any humanitarian issue? At what point do the museums teachings become so far from the actual events that the historical presentation becomes redundant? Does the future hold Holocaust museums without the Holocaust?

Cover-Photo: Illinois Holocaust Museum

[1] For a debate on this issue, see for example: Todorov, Tvetan. “The Uses and Abuses of Memory.” What Happens to History: The Renewal of Ethics in Contemporary Thought. Ed. Howard Marchitello. London & New York: Routledge, 2001. 1-22. Print.; Salamon, Janusz. “The Universal and Particular Dimensions of the Holocaust Story and the Emergence of Global Ethics.” Forum Philosophicum 15 (2010): 367-379. Print.

[2] For example: 2008 Los Angeles Business Council Architectural Award of Excellence in the category of Green Building Award for Design Concept; 2011 Green Good Design Award from The Chicago Athenaeum; 2011 Design Excellence Merit Award from the American Institute of Architects California Council.

[3] Museum website:

Works Cited

Cameron, D. F. (1971). “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum.” Curator 14(1), 11-24.

Linenthal, E. (2001). Preserving the Memory. The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum, New York: Columbia University Press.

Weiss, S. (2002). “The Impact of the Holocaust on Politics: The Particularity and Universal Approaches.” Dialogue and Universalism 4, 39-50.

Dr. Stephanie Shosh Rotem is currently the visiting professor for Israel Studies at the Jewish Studies program at the University of Virginia. She is an architect, who after ten years of fieldwork, returned to graduate school at Tel Aviv University. She received her PhD in 2010 in the Program for Interdisciplinary Arts, and her doctorate was published in 2013, as “Constructing Memory: Architectural Narratives of Holocaust Museums”. Between 2011 and 2017, Stephanie was Head of the Museum Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. She also taught graduate courses in Tel Aviv’s Faculty of the Arts and in the International Program for Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa. Stephanie lectures and publishes on architectural history, museum history and architecture, and Holocaust museums.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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