Editor’s note: The Museum of Jewish Heritage offers tours six days a week to groups of students, adults, and families. These tours are led by dedicated volunteers who enthusiastically share their knowledge of Jewish history and heritage. Volunteer Gallery Educators engage diverse adults and students in interactive dialogue and provide meaningful educational experiences. Please follow this link if you’re interested in volunteer opportunities at the Museum.
By Beth Gerson
My interest in becoming a volunteer at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust began with my first encounter with the Museum in 1998. My husband’s parents were visiting from Florida, and we were delighted to share our first trip to MJH with them. Neither my husband nor I realized the extent to which that visit would influence our lives moving forward. (At the time, my husband David and I had been married for only a short while. While I had met extended family members living abroad during the course of our short courtship, I knew little about their family history, making this experience at the Museum particularly impactful.)
We walked and talked our way through the first floor of the Core Exhibition, the section titled Jewish Life a Century Ago. My new mother- and father-in-law shared stories related to their own family artifacts, which include several pieces of family silver from prewar Leipzig.
When we arrived at the second floor, The War Against the Jews, David and his father took the lead and they were soon out of sight. My mother-in-law had slowed her pace considerably – and then stopped completely, directly in front of the Kristallnacht display. She stood quietly and then said, “I remember that night.” With no further explanation, she then turned and continued walking. The remainder of the visit was unremarkable, to the extent that no further reminiscences were shared.
David’s parents napped in the backseat of the car during the ride home, and I began to plan. There was clearly a family story that needed to be written and shared with grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and their offspring. During our next trip to Florida, we would take the supplies necessary to begin the task of writing.
That opportunity came in July, on the occasion of a birthday. We presented David’s parents with writing journals, a tape recorder, a supply of blank audiotapes, and a template to follow for what would become Our Story: Martha & Pinkas Isaak.
In 2011, David and I edited and published his parents’ story as a “family edition,” which we then distributed to over 200 family members living in England, Europe, Israel, and America – countries where they had taken refuge and now call home, so many years after the Holocaust. (On a personal note: I had partially retired and had begun to think about “next steps,” knowing that my future plan would hopefully include volunteer work at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.)
I was invited to join the Gallery Educator class of 2013-14, an opportunity I gladly accepted. As a public school educator of 30 years with a keen interest in history, culture, and Jewish heritage, the position sounded “just right.” And so it has been.
The Museum’s emphasis on telling the stories of those who perished, those who survived, and those who risked their own lives to help save Jews (and others) during the Holocaust brings particular meaning to a narrative that simply cannot be adequately expressed by a recitation of history and “numbers” alone.
There is so much to share and I value the opportunity to do just that, in a way that helps visitors of all ages from all walks of life find meaning and make connections – whether on a spiritual, cultural, or personal level. Whether a tour focuses of the rise of the Third Reich and the terrible years of the Holocaust, renewal, or the story of immigration, it is my task to ensure that our visitors are provided with the best possible opportunity to interact with the artifacts and the stories they tell.
While every tour is unique, one experience stands out with particular regard to understanding the power of the artifacts and stories they tell.
The Museum offers tours of the Core Exhibition for visitors who cannot hear as well as for those who are not fully sighted. I am a member of the cohort who has worked to develop and guide tours for visitors who have little or no vision. Last year, I had the opportunity to guide a tour of adults with low vision. We focused on five artifacts on the second floor, along with the historical context needed to experience the artifacts fully.
When we reached the Klarsfeld Pillars, I explained the origin of the 2,000 individuals pictured “in their lives” – individually or with their families during the years before they were deported through southern France to a killing center. At the base of each of the 11 pillars is a book that contains details related to the photographs displayed on that pillar: the names, ages and addresses of the children and adults in each photo as well as the dates and means of deportation.
After listening to my explanation, the participants in my group approached the pillars. They were unable to see the photos or the book at the base of each pillar. Gently, they experienced the enormity of the Third Reich’s Final Solution by gently touching the photographs, their fingers feeling each picture, finding its edge, and going on to the next. They explored horizontally and vertically, barely making contact with each photo before going on to the next. It was quiet until, one after another, all six of the visitors in my group began to comment on the vastness of the display. I was struck by the power of the display and its potential to speak powerfully by engaging visitors through all of their senses.
The multi-media presentation in the Rotunda encapsulates the Museum and its themes. A female voice behind one of the images asks, “Where can we be at home?” I am “at home” in the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. It is in this special place that I am privileged to share the past with visitors from far and near, with the goals of remembering and working toward a better future.