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New museum offers personal stories of Holocaust

September 13, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ The worn baby shoe looking small and lost in the museum display case was a father’s memento of the child he sent from Nazi German to safety to England. A photo of a bright-eyed woman with beautifully coiffed hair appears in an exhibit on people who died in Nazi death camps.

With its use of personal mementos, family pictures and documentary films, the new Museum of Jewish Heritage _ A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, seeks to put a human face on the story of Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust.

The museum, which opens Monday, documents as other Holocaust museums have the big historical picture: the rise of National Socialism, the persecution of the Jews, their efforts to flee, the deportations and the death camps.

But the real contribution of this museum in lower Manhattan lies in its effort to bring into focus the individual lives caught by that horrifying wave of history.

``This is a museum less about `History’ with a capital H,″ director David Altshuler said, ``and more about human experience, human values, humanity and inhumanity _ and we have tried to tell the stories as personally as we could.″

The project has been dogged by ambivalence over the need for another Holocaust museum. It joins the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem and the soon-to-open Jewish Museum in Berlin, which will devote considerable space to the Holocaust.

Altshuler refuses _ ``by conviction, not discourtesy″ _ to compare his museum to others. But he notes, in part, ``This is the only history museum in the world, to my knowledge, that uses intimate personal experiences to illustrate broad passages of time and space.″

Through her baby shoe, the museum tells the story of Irene Katzenstein _ today 68-year-old Irene Schmied of Manhattan _ to show how the Nazi regime tore apart families.

Her parents sent 10-year-old Irene to England to escape the Nazi regime, and her mother soon joined her there. But her father was unable to get travel documents for England and fled to Chile _ taking the shoe with him. After the war, they were briefly reunited, but relations were strained.

``One of the destructive things of National Socialism ... it’s not only these terrible things, the camps and the gas chambers,″ Mrs. Schmied said in an interview. ``It’s also the way it very often undermined family life, pulled people apart so that they couldn’t find their way together again.″

She found her baby shoe in a purple silk bag among her mother’s belongings.

``It makes me understand that there was a tenderness in my father that perhaps I never realized,″ she said.

The first floor of the museum focuses on early 20th century Jewish life.

Weddings, for example, are brought to life through artifacts like an engraved invitation to the marriage of Irma Monash and Viktor Wasservogel in Vienna on July 2, 1922.

The second floor is devoted to the Holocaust.

One of the museum’s collection of documentary films introduces Ernst Michel, 15, of Mannheim, Germany, who wrote a letter to heads of state around the world, asking: ``Sir, please help me to leave here before things get worse.″

A worn toy rabbit represents then-12-year-old Ludwig Bierman of Berlin, who survived the Terezin Ghetto in Czechoslovakia with his mother. His father did not survive.

``Most of the narrative of the history of the Holocaust for all these years has been the narrative created by the Nazis, by their documentary photographs, by their films, by their records, which reduce Jews to something far less than human beings,″ Altshuler said. ``We’ve ... encouraged the Jewish world to restore to the victims and to their families the humanity that was robbed by the Nazis.″

Altshuler hopes the museum’s last offering _ its third-floor view across New York Harbor to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island _ will stir people to think about what they have just experienced.

``We want you to look at the statue and Ellis and see them in a new way, because they’re about the land of the free and the home of the brave,″ he said, ``but they are also about ... some promises that were not kept.″

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