Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Museum of Jewish Heritage / Tribute WTC Visitors Center

Becks on Vacation, 1933 Crikvenica, Croatia
5/9/2010, Sunday 
Museum of Jewish Heritage …….......…. 2.25 hrs
Tribute WTC Visitors Center ….........…... 2 hr (with tour)

Museum of Jewish Heritage …….....…... $12 per adult, plus $5 for audio tour
Tribute WTC Visitors Center ……............ $10 per adult, plus $5 for tour

Most of the time, we select the museums we see in a day based on geographical proximity.  Generally museums are only open from 12 to 5, so, if you want to see more than one or two in a day, it's important to keep transportation times between museums to a minimum.  This necessity has lead to some amusing museum combinations, like last weekends High-Brow/Low Brow combo (United Nations Headquarters followed by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not), Old/New pairings (the Tenement Museum followed by the New Museum of Contemporary Art), and just plain weird contrasts (the Ukrainian Museum followed by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts). 

Gardens of Stone, by Andy Goldsworthy
Occasionally we are able to work in a few theme days, intentionally or not, such as Tibet Day (Rubin Museum of Tibetan Art followed by Tibet House) and Performing Arts Day (NY Library of Performing Arts followed by the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall) or the Day of Money (American Numismatic Society Coin Collection followed by the American Museum of Finance).  Today was one of those theme days, in this case completely unintentional.  In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to see the two bleakest, most depressing museums in New York City on the same day, but as Paul said, if we had seen the mythical “Museum of Sunshine and Rainbows” today, we’d still be depressed.  And it would ruin the sunshine and rainbows.

Destruction of the WTC on 9/11
Badge used to label Jews during WWII
Today’s museums were the Museum of Jewish Heritage (the Holocaust museum in NYC), and the Tribute WTC Visitors Center (about the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001), so the theme for the day was, essentially, death, mass murder and the horrible consequences of religious intolerance.  Regrettably this was also the day that we had persuaded Priti, a friend new to the area, to come along on a museum trip for the first time.  Not surprisingly, we haven’t been able to talk Priti into a second trip.

Museum of Jewish Heritage
However I don’t mean to give the impression that either of these were bad museums.  They were both interesting and thought provoking, effective at evoking the loss and horror of their respective subjects.  The Museum of Jewish Heritage, befitting the scope of Holocaust, was by far the larger of the two museums and had a wide spectrum of detailed multi-media exhibits in a modern hexagonal shaped building with tiered floors and a memorial garden (called the Garden of Stone, see picture above).  The museum is built right on the water at the southern tip of Manhattan, and has a great view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York harbor.  Paul and I have been to a number of Holocaust museums, both in the U.S. and in Europe, and we both felt this was one of the best.  We liked the fact that, while it certainly covered events of the Holocaust, it didn’t focus on just the tragedy.

Alder Family Having Tea, 1924 Vienna
The Museum of Jewish Heritage is divided into three distinct floors.  The first floor, titled “Jewish Life A Century Ago,” covered Jewish life in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before World War II.  No other Holocaust museum that I’ve been to spent so much time on how Jews lived before the Holocaust, and it was eye opening.   To me the most surprising thing was how much it revealed that Jewish people in Europe were a disparate group, living in many different countries and influenced by different cultures, and they didn’t always agree.  One exhibit had 5 different video screens, each featuring people arguing different schools of Jewish thought: Zionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Reformed and Socialist.  It was also interesting to note points where Jewish culture had influenced the people around them.  For example, Priti is from Poland, and realized that, although she is not Jewish, her mother believed it was unhealthy to eat meat and dairy together.  That belief is part of kosher dietary law and probably came from Polish Jews.

Joseph Fuchs, 1945 Germany
The second floor was titled “The War Against the Jews” and focused on the events of the Holocaust, told through the people who lived through it using artifacts, photographs, testimonials and historical footage.  It was a detailed series of exhibits, and, as we were looking at and hearing actual survivors, it felt very raw.  It brought home the horror of the people imprisoned in ghettos and concentrations camps, the loss of families torn apart, and the isolation of realizing that everyone you know is dead.  The museum also covered non-Jews who came to the aid of Jews during the Holocaust (called the Yad Vashem), and had a whole room covered with their names.  Paul was grateful for this oasis of good on a floor that detailed the evil humans are capable of.

Louis Bannet, 1938 Holland
Fortunately, the museum ends in a better place.  The third floor was titled “Jewish Renewal,” and tells the story of how Jewish individuals rebuilt their lives after World War II.  Most of the exhibits featured American Jews and focused on familiar subjects, like Jewish entertainers in Hollywood.  There was even a Mah Jongg game room, telling the story of this game in Jewish-American life.  Despite the more uplifting, occasionally playful nature of this floor, we had to rush through it, as we had spent over 2 hours in the museum and wanted to make the last tour at the next museum.

Tribute WTC Visitors Center
The Tribute WTC Visitors Center is a very different style of museum.  Instead of a spacious modern building on the water, the WTC Visitors Center is in a small storefront next to a pizza parlor, across the street from the construction site that used to be the World Trade Center.  Many of its exhibits are hand made and not always well explained.  However, the rough edges of this museum served to make it more personal and heartfelt.  For example, there was an entire wall of handmade posters that families put up around the city in the weeks after the World Trade Center towers fell, each with a picture of a lost loved one and a plea for their return.  We looked at picture after picture of people playing with their children and hanging out on vacation, realizing that these people are never coming home. 

Photographs of the dead at the WTC Visitors Center
Other exhibits included things pulled out of the rubble of the World Trade Center, like a shredded fireman’s helmet and a twisted iron girder, demonstrating the destructive power of the towers’ collapse.  However the best part of the museum was the walking tour around the World Trade Center site, with a guide going over the events of 9/11.  There isn’t a lot to see on the tour, as the site is under heavy construction, but you get to look at the construction from several angles and the guide gives a lot of description of what it was like before, during and after 9/11. 

Girder from the World Trade Center
The guides are all people who were present or whose lives where profoundly affected when the towers fell, adding a deeply personal element to the tour.  Our guide was biking along the waterfront when the first plane hit, and afterward stayed in the area to help.  He painted a grizzly, hopeless picture of the rescue effort, as there were few survivors.  As he described it, the biggest task of the rescue workers was to attempt to piece together bodies, so that people could be identified and all of the correct pieces buried together.

Eleven Tears, by Ken Smith
The tour ends at the only memorial to the World Trade Center that has been completed in the area.  Called Eleven Tears, it's a small fountain in the neighboring American Express building honoring the eleven American Express employees that died on 9/11.  However, the official World Trade Center Memorial is set to open this year, in September 2011.  The controversial design will feature two huge waterfall-lined reflecting pools set in the original footprints of the Twin Towers, engraved with the names of the 2,982 victims of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the site (see picture of the future memorial at the end of this post).  I don’t know if it counts as a museum, but Paul and I are looking forward to seeing it.

Guided tour of the WTC site
In summary, both the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Tribute WTC Visitors Center were heartfelt, effective museums that used personal items and intimate stories to evoke the tragedies they covered.  For the sake of your emotional well being, we would not suggest that you see them both on the same day, but we learned a lot from each and would certainly recommend them individually.

Model of the future World Trade Center memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker
Images in this post, from the top: Becks on Vacation, gift of Elsa Beck, photograph in 1933 Crikvenica, Croatia; Gardens of Stone, by Andy Goldsworthy.  The garden consists of trees growing out of stone, and was planted by the artist, Holocaust survivors and their families; Yellow star, Jood, Gift of Mimi Weiner, Dutch; the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; exterior of the Museum of Jewish Heritage; Alder Family Having Tea, gift of Peter Warren in memory of his mother Heda Lieberman, photograph in 1924 Austria, Vienna; Joseph Fuchs, gift of Robert Marx, photograph in 1945 Germany, Indersdorf;  Louis Bannet, photograph in Holland 1938.  Louis Bannet was a Jewish musician known as the “Dutch Louis Armstrong.”  After the German invasion, Bannet was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but survived as a member of the orchestra, entertaining his captors and accompaning the death march of many of the 1.3 million who perished in the gas chambers during this period. Most of Bannet’s own family members were killed at Auschwitz. After the war, Bannet married a fellow survivor and eventually settled in Canada, where he continued to play music. He passed away in 2002, after recording 17 albums; exterior of the Tribute WTC Visitors Center; wall of photographs of people who lost their lives on 9/11; girder from the WTC site; Eleven Tears, the American Express memorial by Ken Smith; guided tour of the WTC site; future World Trade Center Memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker.


  1. That does sound like an especially depressing pairing, with massive death in history (the holocaust) being paired up with senseless death in modern times (9/11), sort of reinforcing the message that senseless killing will be with us always while personalizing it with the photos and stories.
    I visited Auschwitz in '07 and remember that the exhibit that impacted me the most was the huge pile of baby clothes. For the most part, my dominant feeling was profound anger... Anger that people still have not learned. We still have mass torture and murder, mass prison camps, and justifications of these outrages from countries that should know better. For me, one of the biggest lessons from Auschwitz is not "Nazis are evil"; it is "They thought they were justified.". We must examine very carefully any action that requires justification. We must examine with great suspicion any action that is justified by "extrordinary circumstances" or by claims that "they are not like us".

  2. I've always been reluctant to go to a Jewish (Holocaust) museum for fear of being too depressed. The NY museum seems to have combined the depressing events with some of the positive outcomes for survivors and with cultural antidotes. That's a nice touch, but it's still very depressing over-all. I will look forward to seeing the tribute to 9/11 when it is finished. HATE in all forms is sooo destructive! Lynn