By Eleanor Foa Dienstag
It’s not easy being a small museum in a big museum town. If you have not yet visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, which opened in 1997, you owe it to yourself to tour this remarkable cultural institution, two of whose special exhibitions highlight, in different ways, the role of women in Jewish life. (Tour the Museum with your children and grandchildren to deepen the experience.)
The mission of the Museum — whose six-sided, six-tiered shape evokes the Star of David and the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust — is to honor those who perished by celebrating Jewish life before, during and after the horrors of World War II. Level One focuses on “Jewish Life a Century Ago,” (mainly in eastern Europe), Level Two on “The War Against the Jews,” and Level Three on “Jewish Renewal.”
The accent is on individual people and their stories, vividly brought to life through historic films, video interviews, photographs and a collection of more than 15,000 artifacts which range from a letter, written in 1492, that served to launch the Inquisition in Spain, to a typewriter from the Jewish underground in Belgium.
The museum helps visitors of every background — many of whom are New York area schoolchildren —understand the destructive power of ethnic and racial intolerance as well as the ability of individuals to maintain their humanity and make a difference.
In the powerful, groundbreaking exhibition, “Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust,” which refutes the popular misperception that Jews were passive victims, the heroic role of women is particularly emphasized. Among them were women who, in addition to being caregivers, served as couriers, resistance fighters, educators and preservers of archives and documents. They operated in forests, concentration camps and wartime ghettoes. There is courier Lodzia Hammerstein who did not “look Jewish,” and with false identity cards, moved money, medicine, weapons and information through the underground. There is Rivka Gotz who, with her mother, secretly gave birth in a Lithuanian ghetto, smuggled her baby out and, ultimately, reunited with her child after the war. There is Rebecca Teitelbaum who stole pencil and paper to compile a Jewish recipe book from starving women in a concentration camp, and there are many others who took or hid photographs and retrieved them after the war to document the atrocities they had witnessed.
The Special Exhibit is: Irene Nemirovsky, a Woman of Letters. She is the author of the posthumously published, Suite Francaise. Her novels were recently discovered by her daughters in a trunk; her life story is tragic and controversial. Nemirovsky, a successful French novelist before World War II, born a Jew, converted to Catholicism in an effort to save herself and her family, but under the Vichy regime she was deported to Germany and murdered in a concentration camp by the Nazis. The exhibition will run until the middle of March.
The museum is located in Battery Park at the very tip of Manhattan. You can have lunch in the Heritage Café, which offers one of the best views in Manhattan, overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Hours: Sunday through Tuesday and Thursday: 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Wednesday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Daylight Saving Time) or 3 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time.) Closed Saturdays, Jewish holidays and Thanksgiving day. Call 646-437-4200 for public transportation and driving directions.