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Go Inside the New Dallas Holocaust Museum, Which Has Expanded Its Scope

The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum opened its doors this week. It starts with the Holocaust, but it doesn't forget about the atrocities since.
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Go Inside the New Dallas Holocaust Museum, Which Has Expanded Its Scope

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The Dallas Holocaust Museum has awaited Tuesday morning for four decades. Back then, in 1977, it opened in the tiny basement of the Dallas Jewish Community Center in North Dallas. It outgrew its space almost immediately. And while it moved to Record Street downtown in 2005, it still didn’t have the room to match the ambitions of its founders.

That changed with yesterday’s opening of the renamed Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. There are now 55,000 square feet of historic exhibits and interactive opportunities, housed in a three-story, copper-clad building that is bound to become an architectural and experiential highlight of the city’s West End. It also uses the Holocaust as a starting point: genocide has not ceased, and the museum wants its attendees—which it hopes will number around 200,000 annually—to take that fact with them.

This city’s first Holocaust Museum was a project of local survivors who outlived Hitler’s attempt to wipe out world Jewry. In the basement of the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center on Northaven Road was a memorial to the many friends and relatives those survivors had lost. It was a center for their own gathering and for the education of the greater community.

It took seven years before the physical impossibilities of that early location could no longer be ignored. One small elevator and a daunting staircase made entry difficult, especially for the elderly. Limited parking became a problem as word of the museum spread and buses started bringing students to learn in those impossibly cramped quarters.

The museum moved in 2005 to rented quarters on Record Street, one short block from the impressive new facility. That former headquarters was not at all impressive: although it was a first-floor location, there was a long, dark hallway to walk before reaching the small museum, which had space limitations from the beginning. It offered a single permanent exhibit, “One Day in the Holocaust,” a look at April 19, 1943—the date of the famed, but ultimately failed, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A small gallery featured traveling exhibits, and one large room was set up as needed for films, lectures, and the increasing number of school classes whose students came to hear firsthand from survivors about their personal experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust.

But in this truly inadequate space, an important movement was born. Here is where our local institution, then named the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance, began its work of creating “Upstanders”—those who have learned that bystanders are people who can stop bad things from happening but choose not to interfere. The goal was to empower these Upstanders, to help them see that they can take active roles with positive outcomes. Colorful “Upstander” bracelets have now become recognizable symbols of the museum’s work and its influence on the community; visitors can buy them in the gift shop.

Everyone involved, however, knew that this old Record Street venue also was inadequate for the task before it. A huge fundraising campaign was initiated that has far surpassed the original goal, making $84 million available for the opening of this remarkable structure. And yesterday, it roared to life.

Survivors and politicians cut the ribbon at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum in the West End on September 17, 2019. (Photo by Jason Janik)

More than a thousand invited guests filled the new facility’s auditorium, lobby, and courtyard for the formal dedication of the museum. Mary Pat Higgins, its president and CEO, welcomed the crowd with a brief history of how, “in 1977, a small group of Holocaust survivors came together with an extraordinary vision: to teach the North Texas Community the lessons learned from the Holocaust and to memorialize the six million Jews and millions of others persecuted by the Nazis. They saw as their legacy the creation of a museum for future generations.  Their mission – and ours – is to advance human rights to combat prejudice, hatred and indifference.”

Frank Risch, chair of the museum’s board and co-chair of the fundraising campaigned regaled how $84 million was given to make this new facility a reality.

Gov. Greg Abbott spoke briefly about Senate Bill 1828, which he has signed into law to establish an educational Holocaust Remembrance Week in all Texas public schools. He promised to enact legislation to get Texas removed from the list of 10 states with active hate groups, which is assembled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Florence Shapiro, a former state Senator who is a child of survivors, authored the bill that established the Texas Genocide and Holocaust Commission to guide state educators and provide teaching resources.  She thanked the governor for his support, then recognized the survivors who were present. She called for a moment of silence in memory of the many who were lost. Then she noted that the El Paso murderer of 22 had graduated from the same high school as her own children, and then emphasized the effect she hopes this museum will have.

“By teaching the history of the Holocaust and other genocides, we educate visitors about diversity, tolerance, and empathy,” she said. “We show students what happens when hatred and bigotry permeate our society and lead to violence.”

A symbolic ribbon-cutting ended the program.  All survivors were called to the stage – many with assistants and using wheelchairs – to sit in a long front row.  Mayor Eric Johnson presented the survivors with a key to the city. When the bright red ribbon was unrolled in front of them, a burst of applause signaled that it was time to exit the auditorium and see the museum itself.

The first attendees at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum get a look at the exhibits. (Photo by Jason Janik)

The old institution is newly renamed as Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. It lives up to its promise. There are major exhibits not only on the Holocaust, but on other genocides. These truths illustrate events dating back to our own country’s slaughter and mistreatment of Native Americans. It travels to 10 in all, including atrocities committed in China, Cambodia, and Rwanda. Visiting the single gallery of these installations can be a visually astounding, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching experience. The gallery of the Nazi era is as well, and so a full museum tour is not recommended for young children.

The story of the Holocaust is told from its earliest days, with photos and films of property destruction, ghettoization, and deportation of Jews to the camps that were made to eradicate them. The museum’s prize is an actual boxcar used for Nazi freight transport, not unlike those that shuttled the Jews to the slave labor and killing camps. It has been restored for exhibit here. Its acquisition was made possible by the work of the late Mike Jacobs, one of the museum’s early founders. It is the first such boxcar to be exhibited in any Holocaust museum and has been refinished for its new home to be as close as possible as it was during its actual and terrible use. Real objects of that time—including uniforms worn by prisoners, and the bowls and spoons used to eat their inadequate daily food rations—are also on display.

What some might consider the light at the end of this terrible tunnel is the work of the International Tribunal at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials, where many perpetrators were found guilty of their crimes against humanity. (And of course, everyone is reminded here that Hitler committed cowardly suicide to avoid punishment when his grandiose promises sent the German people into national poverty and worldwide shame.)

The first attendees at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum explore a boxcar that was used for the transportation of Nazi freight. (Photo by Jason Janik)

There is a brief introductory film on the ground level, setting the stage for what comes on the floors above. Nearby is a wall exhibit, on loan from the Illinois Holocaust Museum, which aptly introduces our new museum’s emphasis on post-Holocaust human sufferings. “Stories of Survival” is a photographic display, subtitled “Object – Image – Memory,” showing the range of items that individuals saved during their banishments and escapes and have kept as family treasures: a small teddy bear, a house key, a doll’s dress, an identity card, a single photo from better days. Each are accompanied by handwritten memories.

Museum viewers are not just supposed to look at the distant past; they are asked to face more recent human rights violations in our own country. Of course, the Civil Rights struggle is paramount, and includes a representation of Dallas’ own, long-gone downtown Piccadilly Cafeteria, where local sit-ins by blacks and whites together demanded equal access and treatment. There are photos and stories of Upstanders of that time and afterward: honored men and women in civic leadership, education, the military, and many other facets of national and local life.

The museum then makes its “pivot” movement, asking— virtually demanding!—that visitors take account of their own possibilities: to become Upstanders and make differences of their own choosing. An interactive installation allows individuals to select by sex, age, and personal interests from an array of organizations and institutions in the community and beyond that would benefit from involvement. These actions range from monetary contributions to personal volunteering. (And not only is this information offered, but individuals can make their first contacts with the causes of their choice right on that same screen.) In a nearby gallery, individual stations ask visitors to privately rank their own responses to certain questions of thought, involvement, and action and allows them to see how they stack up with those of others.

At the end of the third floor is the Memorial Room, a fitting end to a long journey through past history and present realities. This is the space designed by those first survivors, most long gone, to memorialize their own lost loved ones in addition to the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust.

The room, in glowing white, was conceived and built into that first basement Holocaust Museum. When the initial move to larger quarters was deemed necessary, there was concern about what would happen to this beloved place. There would be no room in the cramped Record Street quarters. But everything was meticulously taken apart and carefully stored for this final, lasting home: it is now exactly as it was before.

The Memorial Room at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum honors the friends and family of Dallas survivors lost in the Holocaust. (Photo by Jason Janik)

Although many of the museum founders are no longer with us, their names are the only addition to that room. They are listed on one of those white walls next to a survivor Torah, a holy scroll among those saved by the Nazis in hopes of fulfilling Hitler’s dream of someday opening a “museum of a vanished people,” but later saved again. This time, it was distributed to synagogues, schools, and institutions like the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum to attest to survival. And yet, it recalls a past that will never be forgotten in this better future.

Holocaust survivor Max Glauben, who is also a 3-dimensional hologram at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. He was photographed here on Sept. 17, 2019, at the museum’s opening. (Photo by Jason Janik)

All the above has so far skipped the second floor of the new museum, where its actual “centerpiece” is located: an intimate theater with a stage. Survivor Max Glauben, who has been for years a regular speaker to groups of museum visitors, now has an expanded role. His lifelike, moving image is brought to life by the newest miracle of holographic technology. This version of Glauben sits in an armchair and answers questions asked by individual viewers about his own Holocaust experiences and life afterward. (You can read all about how this was made possible right here.)

Filming and recording sessions of many hours have enabled this personal contact experience. It is an interaction between those who are very much alive and the breathing, moving, speaking “reconstruction” of a very real person who will live on in perpetuity, long after the real person has been called away from this world. An increasing number of these marvels of modern science will soon be able to be seen, and interacted with, at a growing number of appropriate venues. But our Dallas museum has much-beloved Max, here, permanently, as its very own.

On the left, personal objects from victims and survivors of the Holocaust. On the right, a close-up of a boxcar used to ship Nazi freight.

Some useful information: The museum’s address is 300 N. Houston St., and its hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends (but check for holiday closings). Reasonably priced parking is available nearby. Tours may be arranged in advance for groups of 15 or more; general admission is $14 for adults, lower for seniors, students and the handicapped. Visit dhhrm.org for more on what awaits you.

The doors are now open wide. What are you waiting for?

Correction: The Dallas Holocaust Museum moved to Record Street in 2005, not 1984. regrets the error. 

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