In July of 1981, Mayor Edward I. Koch stated that New York City must have a fitting Holocaust memorial. Even though the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum would debut in Washington, D.C., New York City remained “the cultural and spiritual nucleus of American Jewry” and “home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors” in the United States.
Mayor Koch declared that the City “tragic[ally]” did not have a place that adequately commemorated the Shoah, and New York’s role as a center of Jewish American life demanded one. He established a Task Force on the Holocaust, chaired by real estate developer George Klein, to begin investigating the possibilities. The following year, the New York City Holocaust Memorial Commission was established with Mayor Koch as founding chairman, George Klein and Robert M. Morgenthau as co-chairmen, and Elie Wiesel and Senator Jacob K. Javits as honorary chairmen.
These early groups gathered support for a memorial and museum, a site of remembrance and a place where Holocaust history could be studied and contextualized. The idea emerged to build a “living memorial”—an institution of learning rather than simply a monument—that would serve not only as a testament to the victims, but also as a place to explore the history of Jewish survival and life after World War II. This living memorial would be a Jewish institution in the largest and most robust Jewish community in the world, serving a complementary but different purpose than the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Mere decades after the Nazi regime’s false, manipulated narratives and insidious propaganda facilitated the murder of six million Jews, the Jewish people would reclaim their right to share accurate accounts of their culture and experience before, during, and after the Holocaust. The very existence of the Museum would show that in this country, in this city, Jewish communities were empowered to preserve their history and share its lessons.
The Museum’s guiding principles would stand against the fascist and authoritarian obsessions of controlling speech and limiting the humanities. The Nazis were proponents of violent book-burning rallies; by 1938 they had outlawed 5,500 writers, books, and journals. But ideas persisted. In post-war New York City, in the years leading up to the creation of the Museum, they flourished.