L.A.’s First Holocaust Museum To Expand

By Rebecca Spence

Published November 28, 2007, issue of November 30, 2007.
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Los Angeles — The City of Los Angeles may be known for its sprawl, but is it so vast that it needs not one but two major Holocaust museums?

That is the question being raised as the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, a 46-year-old institution that has yet to find a permanent home, is poised this week to begin a long-term lease with the city, bringing it one step closer to constructing its own building in Pan Pacific Park on Los Angeles’s Westside.

While the museum, the brainchild of a group of Holocaust survivors who wanted to commemorate the dead and educate the public on the horrors of the Nazi regime, preceded the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance — L.A.’s other Holocaust museum — by 32 years, it has lower visibility and a lot less flash. The Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization founded in 1977 by Orthodox rabbi Marvin Hier, boasts a gamut of Hollywood connections as well as a fundraising apparatus that last year took in a cool $28 million. The center’s 80,000-square-foot museum — which it is battling its neighbors to expand — last year attracted nearly 350,000 visitors. For decades, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, once housed in the headquarters of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has remained significantly smaller, attracting some 12,000 visitors — the majority of them students from the Los Angeles Unified School District — to its more modest facility in the ORT building on Wilshire Boulevard.

Now, with the Museum of the Holocaust set to break ground on its new, 15,000-square-foot building in June 2008, the issue of its mandate, given the high profile and success of the Museum of Tolerance, is being raised in Jewish communal circles.

“Any number of people have been asking the question, ‘Why does L.A. need two Holocaust museums?’” said Michael Berenbaum, a professor at American Jewish University and a former director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “If you use communal resources, the question becomes, ‘What’s the wisest use of those resources so that you don’t replicate what other organizations that raise funds do?’”

Leaders of the Museum of the Holocaust contend that their mission is different from that of the Museum of Tolerance. They say that their institution, which will be built into a hill adjacent to Pan Pacific Park’s Holocaust memorial — erected in 1991 by survivors — will deal solely with the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis, while the Museum of Tolerance has a broader mandate to combat prejudice. “We are the only museum in L.A. focused exclusively on the Holocaust,” said Mark Rothman, the museum’s executive director. “The Wiesenthal Center is a world-class institution; however, it’s important to understand it’s not exclusively focused on the Holocaust. It’s a museum of tolerance, and that provides a different emphasis.”

Memorial Expansion: The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance (Pictured) is getting a run for its money from a planned new Holocaust museum.

Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said that the center’s museum feels no competition with its counterpart, noting that the Museum of Tolerance is at its maximum daily capacity.

The Museum of the Holocaust, which offers free admission, is now undertaking a $20 million capital campaign to raise funds for the construction of its facility and establish an operating endowment. Observers point to the involvement of E. Randol Schoenberg — Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s grandson and the Los Angeles attorney who restored to their rightful heir, Maria Altmann, six Gustav Klimt paintings in the hands of the Austrian government — for breathing new life into the museum. Schoenberg, the museum’s board chairman for the last two years, jumpstarted the process of gaining the city’s permission to build the structure, and he and his wife, photographer Pamela Schoenberg, recently gave the museum $3 million, which was earned from the much-publicized Altmann case.

Leaders of the Museum of the Holocaust also say that there can never be too many institutions teaching the history of what happened in Europe during World War II. Jona Goldrich, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor and longtime museum board member who raised most of the funds for the memorial — he also contributed $1 million to the new building project — said that one Holocaust museum in a city the size of Los Angeles isn’t sufficient. “Even if you had 20 museums, it still wouldn’t tell the story,” he said. “Even if they built a Holocaust museum on every street corner in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t be enough.”

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