Written by Anna Rahmanan.
Friday, October 13 2023.
This article originally appeared in Time Out.
When Jack Kliger, President & CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Battery Park City, and his team started working on a new kid-friendly exhibit about the Holocaust almost four years ago, they could not have imagined the chaotic world order that the show was eventually going to premiere in.
“Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark” tells the story of the Danish Rescue, when citizens of the European country came together to usher nearly 7,000 Jews to safety and away from concentration camps during World War II.
The show opens this Sunday, October 15, a week and a day after over 1,000 Israeli Jews were slaughtered, murdered and raped by Hamas militants in a surprise terrorist attack that has been referred to as “the 9/11 of Israel” by many outlets.
Pleas to “never forget” what happened during World War II have defined conversations about how to prevent another Holocaust for decades but the latest images out of the Middle East, and the social media discourse surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, paint a scary picture and make a few things clear: humans are capable of acts of inhumanity and antisemitism is still palpable around the world.
The timeliness of the show is therefore not lost on Kliger.
“Because of what happened in Israel on October 7, we feel that our mission is important more than ever to execute,” he says.
When asked about the inspiration behind the exhibit and the decision to cater it to a younger set, Kliger mentions a three-part process.
“One of our board members had just seen an exhibit about the Holocaust in England specifically targeted to young people,” he explains.
At the time, Kliger himself became the head of the institution and found out about the existence of “an amazing artifact:” one of the actual rescue boats that the Danes used in the mission.
“It was donated by the Danish but it wasn’t our property,” he remembers. “It was somewhere where it could be properly maintained and I thought that it would make a great subject for us to talk about. Specifically looking at what people could do and not at what they didn’t do. “
Author Lois Lowry’s historical fiction book for children about the escape of a family of Jews from Copenhagen during World War II, Number the Stars, also spurred the museum to select this specific topic as the subject of an exhibit for elementary-age students.
Although, traditionally, American schools have been teaching about the Holocaust beginning high school, Kliger believes that the world has changed, kids have “evolved and gotten smarter” and are therefore able to grasp key lessons before heading to ninth grade.
“We hope to help that particular age group make moral choices and teach them that this was a collective action by the entire nation that showed the difference between being upstanding and being bystanding,” he says before delving into the specific ways they’ve shaped the show on offer given its target audience.
In addition to consulting with witnesses, historians and researchers, the museum also invited young kids in while the exhibition was still in development, asking them how they felt about seeing it.
On a technical level, the design was created by a company called Local Projects that also used Discovery Walls to allow visitors to immerse themselves into 1943 through audio, photo and video props. Holographic narrators and animation systems are also employed.
As a result of that research, “Courage to Act” focuses on themes of separation, bravery and resilience, specifically commenting on the dangers of prejudice and the importance of collective action.
Although telling the story of a town in Europe, Kliger believes that setting up the exhibit in New York will be part of its draw, given the museum’s proximity to the Statue of Liberty and what that landmark represents when it comes to immigration, representation and remembrance.
As the number of Holocaust survivors still with us today diminishes and acts of antisemitism increase, the presence of an institution entirely dedicated to stories like that of the Danes becomes even more essential.
“We need to be here when, in the future, the survivors are not able to speak for themselves,” says Kliger. “That is a moral imperative for us that wasn’t the same 25 years ago.”
That mission, of course, has not come without backlash: throughout the years, the institution has had to deal with acts of aggression big and small, including an incident during which people wrapped the Confederate flag on the front door of the museum.
But that has never deterred Kliger and his team, who seem entirely dedicated to the task at hand.
“I pledge to each and every survivor that I meet that there will always be a place where their grandchildren’s grandchildren can come to learn about their story,” he says. “I intend to fulfill that pledge forever.”