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Telling Story of Holocaust’s Horrors Through Ultra-Orthodox Eyes

Is it permissible to show images of Jewish women with their heads shaved but without a head covering as they walk towards Nazi gas chambers?

This is the type of question faced by organizers of the first Holocaust museum to be aimed specifically at Orthodox Jews.

Elly Kleinman, the Orthodox businessman behind the project, sought the advice of a Hasidic rabbi on this question not long ago. Kleinman said that the rabbi told him: “Are you allowed to show it? You are obligated to show it.”

But Kleinman, who declined to name the rabbi, said he wanted to accommodate the cultural sensitivities of the community’s more conservative wing.

So, for groups that shun images of women, the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center will have a separate track in which the material on display will not include pictures of women.

“Our objective is to cooperate with all constituencies,” Kleinman said, adding, “We expect to resolve these issues within the community.”

It is the need to wrestle with such issues that makes the museum, which is slated to open next year in Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox Boro Park neighborhood, still a work in progress.

Organizers of the project say theirs will be the first museum in the world dedicated to the “Torah-observant experience.” This, they said, is an approach not seen in any of the Holocaust museums around the world.”

Kleinman, wearing a sharp blue shirt and a pair of dark, horn-rimmed glasses, is seated behind his desk at the Brooklyn headquarters of his home health care company, Americare Certified Special Services.

He has a trim white beard and wears a black yarmulke. On the office wall behind him are photographs of two prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis: Yaakov Perlow, who is known as the Novominsker rebbe, and David Twersky, the Skverer rebbe. Next to them are photographs of Kleinman meeting with presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Dozens more pictures line the wooden furniture around the office. There are photographs of local and national politicians, such as Republican New York Rep. Peter King, Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sprinkled among the American dignitaries are Israelis, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

Americare has attracted negative publicity lately. In January, an article in The New York Times drew attention to several recent lawsuits against Kleinman’s company that “detailed patterns of patient mistreatment, forgery of medical documents and sexual misconduct by a top executive.”

Americare was fined $7 million in 2005 for fraudulent billing at its care homes. In 2008, the company was fined $8 million for employing home health aides who were not properly trained to care for Medicaid patients.

“I am not going to talk about Americare today,” Kleinman said when asked about this. “That’s not what we are here to discuss.”

Instead, Kleinman talked passionately and at length about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and his plans for the KFHEC. Both of Kleinman’s parents are Holocaust survivors. His 90-year-old mother, Ethel Kleinman, was in Auschwitz. His father, Avrohom Kleinman, endured slave labor and a death march.

Kleinman, who has sunk about $4.5 million into the project so far, says the center is intended to teach much more than just history. He hopes that his target audience, Orthodox schoolchildren in grades seven through 12, will learn about Jewish tradition and laws through stories of courage and resilience: mesiras nefesh, sacrificing one’s life; bitachon, trust in God, and emunah, belief in God.

But according to Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who advises KFHEC on its exhibition, a historically honest exhibition will, inevitably, also challenge some Orthodox museum visitors’ preconceptions with its stories of piety under stress during the Holocaust. There is, for example, the case of Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, who, while living in a labor camp, in Kolin, Czechoslovakia, was asked if it was permitted to eat nonkosher food not just to prevent death due to starvation, but also, preventively, to preserve one’s strength. Aronson not only permitted this, Berenbaum said, but also led by example, eating the prohibited food himself in public.

In another case, Rabbi Michoel Dov Weissmandl, a revered religious leader of World Agudath Israel, in Czechoslovakia, strongly criticized a Jewish partisan who showed him that he was continuing to wear his tzitzit, or prayer fringes, under his shirt even as he fought the Nazis. Rather than praise his religious commitment, Weissmandl remonstrated with the fighter.

“What is it about the law of pikuach nefesh [preserving human life above other religious laws] that you don’t understand?” he asked, according to Berenbaum. Weissmandl feared that the partisan could be murdered by the Nazis or even by his fellow partisans if people knew he was Jewish. As Berenbaum related it, the rabbi instructed the partisan, “Your most important task is to survive.”

“They are in a process of wrestling with these kinds of stories,” Berenbaum said.

Kleinman has aims for the museum that go beyond just telling the story of the Holocaust itself. He wants visitors to learn about the vibrancy of Orthodox life in prewar Europe and about the flourishing of Orthodox life after the Holocaust. He also wants them to think more about anti-Semitism and about how easily a civilized country such as Germany could descend into barbarity. Jews often refer to America as a medina shel chessed — a country of kindness — Kleinman said. But toleration can disappear in an instant.

“We want these children to understand that [it] can be taken away from you like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. The Holocaust is a complex issue in the Orthodox world.

Many liberal or secular Jews refer to the Holocaust using the term Shoah, Hebrew for “catastrophe.” Ultra-Orthodox Jews are just as comfortable using the phrase Khurban Europa, which uses the same Yiddish word, khurban, with which they describe the destruction of the Temple.

A small but significant minority in the ultra-Orthodox community believe that the Holocaust was divine punishment for Jewish assimilation, intermarriage and the emergence of liberal streams of Judaism, such as the Reform movement, that do not accept traditional Judaic religious strictures.

“The minority of the righteous undergo the tribulations sent because of the sinful majority,” wrote Avigdor Miller, a popular ultra-Orthodox rabbi who died more than 10 years ago, in “A Divine Madness,” a collection of his reflections on the Holocaust.

In an interview last year, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, editor of the Orthodox publication Ami Magazine, pushed Kleinman on whether the KFHEC would include different interpretations of the Holocaust.

“We’re not going to say that that generation was chosen to be punished for a specific reason,” Kleinman responded. “We’re not going to get involved in that.”

But at the end of the interview, a brief article advertising an upcoming KFHEC event commemorating the liberation of Buchenwald on Tisha B’Av noted that since the day the Second Temple was destroyed, “we have been exiled from our land, and we recognize that any subsequent persecution is a result of our distance from Hashem.”

Although the article was written from the perspective of the KFHEC inviting people to attend its own event, Kleinman said that Ami Magazine must have written the article,

An employee at Ami Magazine who identified herself as “Malkie” told the Forward this was incorrect. She said the article was submitted by the KFHEC.

Kleinman said that the museum will not negate the experience of the non-Orthodox or judge survivors who lost their faith. One of Kleinman’s own uncles, a survivor who lives in Haifa, Israel, is not observant.

But Kleinman and top administrators at the KFHEC stressed that the center would approach the Holocaust in a way that is not seen elsewhere.

Sholom Friedmann, director of the KFHEC, said that most Holocaust museums focus primarily on the Nazi persecution of Jews and on the message that the genocide must never be repeated.

Friedmann said that the KFHEC would focus on how Orthodox Jews maintained their faith and tradition during and after the Holocaust.

In several interviews with the Forward, Friedmann and his colleagues said that the Holocaust has been a neglected topic in the ultra-Orthodox education system for decades.

Most people in the community were raised in families with survivor parents or grandparents. But until recently, the Holocaust was not taught in ultra-Orthodox schools. Even today, only a minority of schools, mainly girls schools, teach the subject.

“This is a community that has more anecdotal information than anybody else,” said Berenbaum. “But what they don’t have is historical context in which to have the experience.”

Julie Golding, the KFHEC’s director of education, said that one of the principle reasons the Holocaust was avoided for so long was that many communal leaders were Holocaust survivors. The subject of the Holocaust was too raw for them, so they focused instead on rebuilding the Jewish community.

The KFHEC was supposed to open last year. But according to Kleinman, the project was delayed because it kept growing and the design had to be modified.

The museum will be housed in a Boro Park synagogue, Agudas Yisroel Zichron Moshe. The KFHEC is adding one and a half floors to the synagogue to create a 25,000-square-foot space.

In addition to exhibition space, the KFHEC will also hold an archive, a research library, an education department, an interactive media center and a video testimony room that will focus on Orthodox Holocaust survivors.

Construction is yet to begin, but Kleinman said that bidders packages would be sent out before Passover, and work is expected to start in the coming months. He expects that the museum will open by the summer of 2015.

The KFHEC has hired some big names for its project. David Layman, who helped design the National September 11 Memorial Museum and the Illinois Holocaust Museum, in Skokie, is in charge of exhibition design. Berenbaum, who is in charge of the exhibition narrative, was previously project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Berenbaum said the permanent exhibition would consist of three sections: What the Nazis did to all Jews; how Jews of all persuasions responded to the Holocaust; and, finally, the unique perspective of Orthodox Jewry.

The last element will include an overview of Orthodox life in Europe before, during and after the war, the rebirth of Orthodox life in the displaced persons camps of Europe, and the rebuilding of Orthodox life in America and Israel.

It will also include rabbinic responsa, or decisions, made by rabbis about when and how to follow religious law during and after the Holocaust.

Despite the focus on subjects of special interest to an Orthodox audience, the Kleinman Center’s leadership stressed that the museum would welcome all visitors.

Cindy Darrison, a former Democratic fundraiser and now the KFHEC’s vice president of institutional advancement, said, “This is inclusive of the Orthodox community, not exclusive to the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Creating a welcoming environment for visitors on the more conservative end of the Orthodox spectrum means making some sacrifices. A handout from the museum stresses that digital content and online resources will be “subject to appropriate filtering and packaging.”

Friedmann said there are “not going to be any displays people might find offensive.”

Rabbi Dovid Reidel, the KFHEC’s director of research and archives division, said museum staff are still grappling with how to portray women in the Holocaust without upsetting religious sensitivities.

“The last thing we want to do is suggest there weren’t women in the Holocaust,” Reidel said.

One recent day at KFHEC’s temporary office space in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, Reidel showed off several examples of artifacts the museum will display. One was a dark-brown suitcase, once owned by Edith Horovitz, a teenage girl from Hungary who was sent to the Budapest ghetto in 1944.

Reidel pulled out a photograph of Horovitz, who looked strikingly secular. She wore long, braided hair and a dark dress decorated close to the neckline with flowers. Reidel said Horovitz “was a religious Hungarian Jew, with the emphasis on Hungarian.”

Horovitz used precious space inside the small suitcase she took into the ghetto to store a challah cover. “This is a story of someone who is not Hasidish,” Reidel said, “but it was important for her to bring the challah cover.” Reidel turned to an album put together by Kathe Judith Goldbart, an Orthodox girl who escaped from Berlin to Shanghai in 1939, when she was 10 years old. Among the scenes in the album are photographs of Goldbart, dressed in the fashion of the day, relaxing with her family.

Asked how the museum could depict both women’s stories without offending ultra-Orthodox men, Reidel said that on days when ultra-Orthodox school groups visit the museum, they might have to make sure no images of the women are on display.

The KFHEC has organized a special event showcasing Goldbart’s Holocaust story, which will be held at Kol Yaakov Hall, in Brooklyn, on May 14.

The event will be for women only.

Contact Paul Berger at [email protected] or on Twitter, @pdberger


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