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Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman at the site of the planned Holocaust museum on Boston’s Freedom Trail. Photo: Ilene Pelrman

Boston museum will tell the story of the Holocaust

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Boston museum will tell the story of the Holocaust

Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman at the site of the planned Holocaust museum on Boston’s Freedom Trail. Photo: Ilene Pelrman

BOSTON – How many different ways are there to tell the story of the Holocaust?

Countless, it would seem.

If you’re a filmmaker like Ken Burns, you make a six-hour documentary about America’s response to Nazi atrocities. If you’re an archaeologist like the late Richard Freund, you use technology to unearth evidence of Jewish resistance. If you’re an 87-year-old social media-savvy survivor like Gidon Lev – one of 92 children rescued when Theresienstadt was liberated – you take to TikTok to fight back against antisemitism.

And then there are the museums – 16 of them across the United States, according to the Association of Holocaust Organizations. Their mission is to teach about and memorialize the history and connect it to past and present genocides.

Now, with the announcement of plans for a 17th institution – a Holocaust museum on Boston’s Freedom Trail – there will be one more perspective on the Shoah. It “will follow the principle of localization,” according to Jody Kipnis, cofounder with Todd Ruderman, of the Holocaust Legacy Foundation, which is funding and developing the museum.

At a recent talk she gave at Congre­gation Sons of Israel in Peabody, Kipnis outlined preliminary plans for the museum, which will be located in a new building at 125 Tremont St., at the corner of Park and Tremont. The old building, soon to be torn down, housed an English language center, a FedEx outlet, and a convenience store.

It may well be the most iconic street corner in Boston, situated across from Boston Common and the State House, and a stone’s throw from Park Street Church. Any time of day, it seems, there are 18th century costumed guides leading tours about America’s struggle for freedom and dignity.

Kipnis said the museum will draw on the wealth of Holocaust-related resources in Greater Boston, such as the New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston; the Brookline nonprofit Facing History & Ourselves – which works with educators to combat bigotry and hate – and the work of Lawrence Langer, the Boston-based scholar of Holocaust literature.

There are plans to feature the work of celebrated Weston artist Sam Bak, who has spent his life creating thousands of allegorical paintings inspired by the wartime horrors he experienced as a child in the Vilna Ghetto. It will present testimonies of New England-based survivors and liberators, and showcase historical artifacts collected from this area. Already, they’ve begun to collect pieces donated by children of survivors and liberators, Kipnis said, including a Nazi flag, a prisoner’s food bowl from Buchenwald concentration camp, and a doll that had belonged to a woman who fled Germany with her parents around 1935. The family emigrated to the U.S. after the girl was made to sit alone in her school classroom because she was Jewish. The doll was donated by her daughter.

Visitors will learn about the pioneering work of Boston College professor Father Charles Gallagher, Kipnis said. His 2021 book “Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front,” highlighted the malevolent anti-Jewish activities perpetuated by a group of Catholic leaders and followers on the streets of Boston in the 1930s.

“We are clearly at a point in time when we are moving from lived memory to historical memory,” said Kipnis. “This will be the first museum that will be created during that transition point between lived memory and historical memory.”

As a result, the museum is faced with two unique responsibilities, she said. “The first is to remain faithful to the story of the Holocaust without the same dimension of active guidance from the survivors that other museums [may have] had because they are getting older and passing on. The second responsibility is to speak to visitors who don’t know survivors or, in the future, or will never have the opportunity to meet them.”

“This will be the first museum that will be created during that transition point between lived memory and historical memory,” said Jody Kipnis, who recently spoke at a Peabody temple. Photo: Linda Matchan/Journal Staff

They’ve assembled a strong and innovative design team. Michael Berenbaum, a scholar, rabbi, and filmmaker specializing in the study of the Holocaust, is the senior designer and conceptual developer. He was project director overseeing the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; served as deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust; and was managing editor of Encyclopaedia Judaica.

The architectural firm is Schwartz/Silver Architects in Boston, which among other projects has renovated the Boston Athenaeum, designed additions to the New England Aquarium, and done work at the Harvard Art Museums. The exhibit designer is Illinois-based Luci Creative, which has worked on the Illinois Holocaust Museum, among other projects, and is currently doing design work for a planned new Jewish baseball museum in Chicago, according to the firm’s website.

“This team is sure to produce a museum that will keep the lessons of the Holocaust at the forefront in an effort to deter future acts of hate and human destruction,” Kipnis said. Discussions are underway to incorporate the museum into the Freedom Trail.

But there are special challenges at this moment in time, the scholar Berenbaum said. “The tragedy of our world is the Holocaust is becoming more relevant, not less. And we are not going to have the eyes and ears and critical dimensions that we can get from survivors.”

Another challenge is the location on the Freedom Trail, where the notion of “freedom” relates to the story of the American Revolution. But at this time in world history, the definition of “freedom” is fluid.

The museum “has to be contextualized,” he said. “It has to take into account where we are in time, where we are in the American journey. We are less confident than we were 10, 20, 30 years ago, when democracy was triumphant, when the world was moving from authoritarian to democratic regimes.” The concept of “resistance,” he said, is now being seen through the lens of the war in Ukraine.

“The question now for all of us is: Where are we going to be in 2025 when we open?”

Michael Berenbaum is the senior designer of the museum.

“If you write a bad book, nobody sees it. If you make a bad movie, it closes. A bad show on Broadway doesn’t draw people. But a museum is not something you close, it continues to exist, and you have to do it right the first time.”

Of key importance is that Holocaust museums have to speak to a new generation, he said, which is why over the last five years, “You’ve seen lots of institutions reimagining themselves.”

At the U.S. Holocaust Mem­orial Museum in Washington, for example, there is an exhibition for young people called “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story” based on one boy’s experience growing up in Nazi Germany. It relies, in part, on the boy’s diary entries. “But the writing on the wall is in cursive,” Berenbaum said. “And I am bemoaning the fact that a whole generation came in that can’t read cursive.”

Kipnis outlined the narrative arc of the museum that will utilize photos, documents, letters, films, and original survivor testimonies, including some rendered via hologram technology.

The narrative will begin in the pre-war period, when Jews were living in diverse communities throughout Europe. It will chart, among other historical events, the rise of Nazism and antisemitism; the enactment of the Nuremberg laws in Germany; efforts by Jews to flee; the eruption of pogroms; targeting of non-Jewish minority groups; American and world responses; ghettoization; the creation of slave labor, concentration camps, and death camps; and resistance and partisans. It will feature people such as Jan Karski, the Polish courier who met with British leaders to warn them about the fate of the Jews.

“The museum will portray the Holocaust as a paradigm of genocide that speaks to other genocidal events and events of mass murder and atrocity,” Kipnis said. “And it won’t end merely with a call to remember the past. It will issue an invitation and a challenge to visitors young and old to take part in the transformation of the future.”

Still, there is much to be worked out, including the name of the museum. It’s expected to be about 30,000 square feet and 70 feet high. Berenbaum said it will house “anchor artifacts” – such as the railway car used for deportation that is on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the pile of 5,000 shoes of prisoners who entered Majdanek but didn’t leave.

He has his own “wish list” of artifacts, he said, but “We have to see what the building can handle in terms of size and scope. “I would like a building five time wider. But the location is jaw-dropping. Some days there are 100,000 people in downtown Boston walking by it. You can’t do better than that.”

Kipnis, 52, acknowledged she and fellow philanthropist Ruderman, 54, were an unlikely team to start a museum. She’d been a dental hygienist for 30 years. Ruderman is a real estate developer, manager, and investor. Neither knows of any relatives who experienced the Holocaust.

But a profound passion for Holocaust education was kindled after they visited a Nazi death camp in Poland in 2018. The experience was transformative, they said, and they felt it was important for young people to have the same opportunity. They soon founded a youth program that included visits to death camps and other sites, but ultimately felt it didn’t impact enough young people. The idea of a Boston Holocaust museum bubbled up.

When they heard about Berenbaum’s work, they called him and told him their idea.

He asked them if they had a fund-raising plan. They said no. He asked if they had a building yet. No again.

Two weeks later, they heard about the building on Tremont Street. It had already been sold, but they repurchased it from the new owner at a higher price, for $11.5 million.

Then they called Berenbaum back.

He said they showed “an incredible amount of seriousness” which was one of the reasons he signed on.

“Very seldom, and never in my experience, do you have a situation in which the funds are available at the beginning,” he said. “Most people decide to create something and then look very heavily for funds. And here you have somebody who stepped up to the plate.

“They had had a transformative experience in their lives, and that has a certain, wonderful innocence. They saw this idea in their purity, and that was very moving, and very meaningful.”

Matchan can be reached at matchan@jewishjournal.org

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