One of the great things about our jobs at the Buzz is that we are often invited to tour new and/or interesting places that we haven’t yet experienced. And despite decades of living in the area, we’re embarrassed to admit that the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) was one of those places. So when Jill Brown, Director of Communications and Outreach at the Museum, invited us for a tour and an overview of the museum, we eagerly accepted.
According to Brown, the museum got its start back in the eary 1960s, when a group of Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles got to know each other while taking an English as a Second Language (ESL) class at a local high school. It turned out that all of them had photos and artificts from the dark days of the 1930s and ’40s, which they wanted to preserve and share, to help others understand what had happened.
In 1961, the group opened the first iteration of LAMOTH in rented office space. It was (and still is) funded entirely with grants and donations, so it would always be free to visitors.
Thirty years later, in the 1990s, a Martyrs’ Memorial, featuring six black granite pillars symbolizing the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, was built in Pan Pacific Park. Every year, on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), there would be a memorial ceremony at the monument.
So when the museum decided it was finally time to build its own facility, the edge of the park, next to the Memorial, seemed like the perfect location. Unfortunately, however, said Brown, many neighbors at the time feared the Museum would be intrusive to the surrounding area, and a possible target for protest or violence. So architect Hagy Belzberg came up with an innovative underground design, which intentionally feels like a protective bunker, as a compromise.
When you enter the building from its main doors near the Memorial, you move from Pan Pacific’s bucolic embodiment of normal life with sunshine, kids playing, and people walking dogs, into an initially bright indoor space, which gets darker and more closed in as you proceed through the exhibit areas.
Visitors move through the exhibits along a prescribed path, set up as a timeline beginning with pre-war Jewish life in Europe, and proceeding, room by room, from the rise of Nazism and the beginnings of World War II to the relocation of Jews to concentration camps, life (and death) in the camps, liberation, and then life afterward.
You end up in a space where survivors share their experiences with museum visitors every Wednesday at 1 p.m. (During our Wednesday afternoon visit, we were treated to stories from Albert Rosa, who was born in Greece and survived the camps as a teenager, but lost all of his immediate family members. He’s nearly 100 years old now, but still full of vim and vigor – especially when he recounts his pre-war years as a young athlete and boxer.)
The final stop inside the museum is a tree-like display of video monitors, featuring interviews with Holocaust survivors from around the world, compiled by the Shoah Foundation. (Headsets to listen to these and other audio and video presentations are available for free.)
Highlights of the exhibits include hand-made model of the Sobibor death camp (built entirely by memory by a camp survivor), Auschwitz artifacts (which can be shown for only three years at a time, to help preserve them), and a gallery where Chapman University exhibits student art from the school’s annual Holocaust Art and Writing Contest.
Also, posted throughout the timeline are front-page reproductions of the LA Times, from the early 1930s through the WWII years, featuring headlines and stories about what was happening to the Jews in Europe – completely busting the myth that people in the U.S. “just didn’t know” what was really happening at the time.
Finally, an outdoor courtyard holds a special children’s memorial area, with about a million small holes in the walls, representing the million children killed in the Holocaust. Visitors are encouraged to write messages, thoughts and prayers on small papers, roll them up, and insert them into the holes in remembrance, similar to the traditional practice at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
According to Brown, the LAMOTH building was designed to host about 20,000 visitors per year, but last year hosted more than 63,000…about 20,000 of them students in grades 5-12, from Title I public schools (LAMOTH not only provides free admission, but covers the cost of bus transportation for the field trips). And many of the visitors, both young and old, said Brown, have no previous knowledge of Judaism.
Because of this success, however, the museum will soon begin a capital campaign to fund an expansion of the building, adding a much-needed event/auditorium space, and a new classroom. (In addition to school field trips and other educational workshops during the school year, the museum also conducts a Voices of History series of summer workshops for middle and high school students, in which the participants interview Holocaust survivors and then create movies, plays and other works based on the stories.)
Finally, for those who wonder about the difference between LAMOTH and the larger and more well-known Museum of Tolerance, Brown says the latter is designed to provide a broader overview of man’s inhumanity to man, while LAMOTH focuses exclusively on the Holocaust. Also, LAMOTH is more of a “primary source” museum, where the collection is made up almost entirely of first-person stories and artifacts donated by Holocaust survivors. That said, however, LAMOTH is also currently hosting its first not-exlcusive-to-the-Holocaust exhibit, a display of photos called Women at the Frontline of Mass Violence Worldwide, which includes images of Jewish Holocaust survivors, survivors of the Romany genocide during World War II, indiginous women who lived through the violence in 1980s Guatemala, and survivors of ISIS in today’s Iraq.
If you’d like to visit LAMOTH, see http://www.lamoth.org for events and hours. Parking is available at the Grove garage (the museum validates) or at the Pan Pacific Park lot on Beverly Blvd. Also, if you’re interested in volunteering at the museum, a new round of docent training starts on September 19.