Front page

Click Here!

Guest: Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center -
[additional information]

Host: Veran Matic,
ANEM chairman


Veran Matic: The Holocaust Museum in D.C. and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles were formed only in the last decade? How do you explain the fact that it took fifty years after the Holocaust to set these up these museums?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper: Thatís a very good question. I think that we can take a further question, go a half a step back, and to say that between 1945 and probably for certainly three decades Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter worked virtually alone. He had almost no support from the Jewish community, let alone from governments. Governments had the excuse of the Cold War, a poor one, but nonetheless.... But as far as the Jewish leadership, many people told Mr. Wiesenthal, and a few others that were trying to keep memory alive that it was time to forgive and forget. I believe that you had issues of guilt, of lack of understanding, even withinin our own community, in terms of understanding and coming to grips with the scope of the Ďfinal solutioní. And thereís also the overwhelming majority of the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, when they came to places, especially like the United States, Canada, Australia, the message they received was: "You went through a terrible phase of you life, now itís time to start a new life, you have to learn the language, you have to get a job, and there was no real encouragement to share their pain in a public way. And besides, most of the victims didnít want to speak about it, couldnít speak about it. It was bad enough that they couldnít sleep at night with their horrible dreams that they didnít see a real purpose to talk publicly, and for many even to share the specifics with their own children, was too painful an ordeal.

So, by and large it took a long time. Maybe a generation, a generation and a half, when the younger people demanded to know the truth, it began to draw out a reaction. Also Mr. Wiesenthal work of exposing Nazi war criminals not only in the jungles of South America, but living also in the United States, in Canada, in Great Britain, and Australia, that created a sense of outrage for the second generation that something had taken place. So, it was a long process of coming to understand the great work of Simon Wiesenthal, or the words of Elie Wiesel. First within the Jewish family to begin to come to grips with those terrible events. And it took further time for to sink into society as a whole, like these were the important lessons that needed to be learnt.

In the United States, back in time of the president Jimmy Carter, he started something called "Week of Remembrance", or days of remembrance around the Jewish Yom Hashoa [Holocaust Day Ė marking the systematic destruction of European Jewry between 1933 and 1945 and recalling the short-lived Ghetto uprisings--is commemorated officially on Nisan 27; many religious Israelis prefer to commemorate it on Tebet 10 (a fast day) now called yom ha-qaddish (day upon which the mourner's prayer is recited)], Holocaust memorial, and when the presidential order came, for example in the United States military, every year, there are special programs to study the Holocaust. The signal went out across society that was important to learn about these issues. And you had also the church, grappling with its role during the World War II, and the films, and the books, and the debates, and eventually, organizations like ours were relatively new, organization started only in 1977, and it was begun through the leadership of Rabbi Marvin Hier, and the reason he wanted to call it the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is that he believed that at that time that Mr. Wiesenthal was the unsung hero of the Jewish history, and of humanity, fighting basically on his own. This is 1977!

So, now we look and we see the Museum of Tolerance, a fifty-three-million-dollar facility, weíre going to build a similar facility in Jerusalem, and a Tolerance Training Center in New York, we have four-hundred-thousand members who support the Wiesenthal Center. But really it just started with and idea of trying to make a commitment to Memory in an educational and activist way. And today, many cities around the world have some sort of a memorial to the Holocaust, thereís the Stockholm Conference, in which dozens of countries come together to talk about Holocaust education. These are all very important and positive developments. They did not happen overnight.

Veran Matic: The theme of this museum is remebrance. However, the museum is called the Museum of Tolerance. From the standpoint of a victim, one gets the message of forgiveness and a call for tolerance. Is this the main message of the Museum?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper: Right. We opened our first museum on our campus in 1979. It was about three thousand square feet, the current museum is about a hundred and eighty thousand square feet - presentation space. The original museum was very traditional. It had the time line, photographs, artifacts from the second World War and the Nazi Holocaust. And about forty thousand visitors per year, mostly students would come and visit. What we noticed by the mid-eighties was that young people werenít reading the museum, they werenít reading the captions. They only responded when a survivor or a docent would take them over to a document saying: "Here, this is why the Wansee Conference [(Jan. 20, 1942), meeting of Nazi officials in the Berlin suburb of Grossen-Wannsee for the purpose of planning the "final solution" (Endlösung) of the "Jewish question" (Judenfrage)] was important."

And so we began to have internal discussions, and said: "Okay, weíre in 1985, but in the year 2000, should anyone care about the Holocaust? Will anyone care about the Holocaust? Why should they?" And we made one decision to create a museum that would be using interactive multimedia technology. Simply because young people were not reading. Even before the whole digital revolution. The other part of our discussion was that we absolutely firmly believed that the lessons of the Holocaust would be maybe more important to remember in the twenty-first century, then in 1985. Because eventually we would lose that generationís voice and memory. So institutions and educational strategies would be needed to make relevant statement to young people. But in addition to that we said: "We also have to make a commitment to the person coming to the museum. And thatís how the whole idea of the tolerance centre began, in which we talk in more general terms about group intolerance, personal responsibility, critical thinking, the kinds of fundamental questions that everyone has to address, including as you saw at the entrance to our museum with the two doors marked with prejudice or without prejuidce, only one of which [the prejudice] is open, that it is our belief that there are no perfect human specimens, that everybody has prejudices, and the question about how the history will continue is: "what do we do about our individual prejudices?"

And that was the beginning, the core of where we wanted to go with this museum, which is to eventually take people back in history, and talk about the ultimate crime against humanity, in the history of humanity, but to also empower every visitor who came through... in a way which would be relevant to each person. And to do it in a way that we didnít mix it everything into one pot. Not every human rights outrage is Auschwitz, and you have to be very clear not to try to universalize every outrage under one kind of historic headline. And I believe that we succeeded in that area, in appropriately memorializing the shoah and dealing with contemporary human rights issues.

Visitors also understand that the museum is the educational arm of an activist organization, the Wiesenthal Center, and as such we housed for example the Time magazines, photo, etc on the events in the former Yugoslavia right after the United Nations in New York. I believe weíre the only organization outside the one in New York that showed any interest in that exhibit, but we also strived for balance in the presentation. So, in addition to showing those photos, we wanted to make sure the people were aware of what was going on for example in Bosnia, and in Croatia especially. That there would be a fair and broader understanding. And in that sense I think the museum has been successful, as a kind of magnet for the entire community. And here in southern California we have somewhere around a hundred and twenty subcultures represented. We have the whole planet here, including the people who lived in all parts of former Yugoslavia. So, we have to be truthful to ourselves, but also to be honest in presenting the broadest possible picture.

Veran Matic: Germany was silent about he Holcaust basically until the airing of the American soap opera "Holocaust" in the 1970ís, and, of course, 1968 when the student movement introduced critical thought. Is it possible for the Museum and itís high technology to promote the ideas of tolerance and remembrance without the use of the entertainment industry and Hollywood glamour?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper: These are two good questions. Youíre absolutely right, the NBC mini series "The Holocaust", which is based on a fictionalized familiesí composite stories on Nazi Holocaust, was aired in 1979, in Germany. It helped us to see that the law that would have stopped the prosecutions of Nazis in Germany in that year, in 1979, was defeated. We went, I remember, we went to Germany, and a single, biggest wake-up call for young Germans was this fictionalized film. It was quite something. Because it penetrated the living room and the bedroom, and so, everyone was saying: "Well, father, or grandfather, or brother, what were you doing during that time?", it forced the issue in a very, very personal way.

To fast forward to the twenty-first century, now that we have web sites, and we have a very active web site that also has thousands of articles and tens of thousands of photographs of the Holocaust. Yes, we think itís useful to use the technologies, including film, and the arts, including works and novels, etc to try to reach people, but at the end of the day, weíre not selling technology, weíre actually trying to use the technology to encourage young people to think. It kind of reminds me of a Jewish tradition that we have. At a very young age, at least before that the Internet came along, a father, or mother, would take their toddler, and open up the Hebrew book, the Hebrew alphabet, and take a little bit of honey, and put the honey on the A, the ALEPH, which is the A in Hebrew alphabet, and then to put the finger of the child on the ALEPH, they come up with honey, and then they taste the finger, so that their first experience with study should be a positive one. Our whole view about the technology here, itís just the honey to get younger people, and also the people that we train to police the teachers, to open the door to confront the issues that are very difficult, painful, unpopular, itís easy to be dishonest with yourself because you also are confronted, and so we just approach whatís the best technology, the best way to open the door. And in the twenty-first century it means Internet, it means films, but the truth is that for as long as we have access to them, really what we want to do is encourage young people eventually to shut off the computer, read a real book, meet a real person who went through it, try to have the first-person experience. But, you just have to deal with the reality. You know, once upon a time, there was no printing press, and suddenly in Europe one day Ė there was. And that changed the way in which people communicate. And thatís the approach that we take in the Museum of Tolerance. We know what we want to teach, we view the technologies as a method thatís to be used, and occasionally method has to be overcome, or adjusted, or adapted in order to be able to communicate appropriately to people.

Veran Matic: One of your goald is to educate visitors. I have the impression that you were successful in avoiding political correctness, which can often be counterproductive and can become fashionable. What are some of the reactions of people you educate [at the Museum]?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper: Well, I think that in part the reason why the museum is successful is that the museum is not political. Somebody, a young lady from the UCLA, once said about the museum that thatís the place where the people come to feel equally uncomfortable. Thereís no hidden agenda for the museum. Insofar, as a specialized programming for teachers and law enforcement, we always insist that it needs a context. Unless the program is a part of their formal training for their agency, we will not accept the group. There has to be a context to the experience, otherwise it maybe just doing sensationalism. So, weíre not interested in that, there has to be a framework. But, if we win over the law enforcement, or a gang member, for that matter, to give us a chance to communicate with them, we have to: a) be accurate, to tell the truth and know hidden agenda, because if you have something you try to hide, the young people especially will smoke you out in two seconds.

So, I think that itís a kind of understanding we are committed to the community as a whole, we donít endorse political candidates from the left or from the right. We try to use the museum also as a sounding board on issues. And weíve had films and debates, for example, on former Yugoslavia that have been very noisy, very emotional, but never physical confrontation. And weíve had programs on Africa, slavery in Africa, women of Afghanistan, domestic abuse in the United States, so itís a place, I believe, the community has come to trust that weíre just exactly who we say that we are, and this is also not so simple, because weíre the educational arm of a very active Jewish human rights organization. And Jewish with a capital J.

Veran Matic: What would you suggest in the case of the former Yugoslavia where the institualization of remembering is still at its infant stages? What do we need to keep in mind? Is it still early to begin that process? What advice do you have?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper: Well, first of all, I think you have to be extraordinarily arrogant of someone sitting in Los Angeles to tell people in the former Yugoslavia what steps they should take. But nonetheless, I think that there are certain lessons and guidelines. First, for the younger generation, Iím just giving you my attitude about the victims of the Holocaust: I never judge a Holocaust victim or survivor, never, I will not apply the same kind of judgments to that generation that I would apply very easily to my own contemporaries or to my childrenís generation. So I think first, it is that the younger people need a very heavy dose of compassion for their elders, all of their elders. Secondly, and this is based on my experience in the early years of the former Soviet Union, where for example, in 1989, quite remarkably, we were given permission to bring our Academy award winning documentary on a Holocaust, or a genocide, which we showed at the Dom Aktura Theatre in Moscow, to the elite of the then still Soviet Union, about to go out of business Soviet Union. Now, in the former Soviet Union, and in former communist block, since the Nazi invasion and horrible crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the people of the central and eastern Europe, were a staple of everyoneís growing up. If you stopped anyone in Moscow and said: "Well, you think you know everything about the World War II", they would say much more so than would anyone from the United States, we suffered, we lost twenty million dead, of course. So, when we showed this film, and the film talked about the Jewish resistance in Poland and then it talked about Raoul Allenberg, the great hero in Hungary who was then kidnapped by the NKVD, for one and a half hours you heard people catching their breath, crying, moaning, because even the Soviet-German Pact of 1939 was not talked about. Maybe our film was the first time officially where the Soviet people were learning the truth, and that process was, shall we say, at the minimum, shock therapy, and that kind of shock therapy which is not so much pointing a finger at anyone, but just trying to balance the books, to introduce to people the full story of what happened, after being in a situation that was so heavily controlled, first in the communist era, and then in the post-communist era, that also needs a very profound commitment of the younger generations, and also great compassion, but I think that itís the information of what actually took place, and as objective a framework as possible thatís desperately needed Ė without that, I would say thereís no hope.

It is to such information presented in a non-propaganda way, just putting it on the table, would be good basis for the generations to start talking with each other, because in a sense they are both kept in the dark. And I think thatís an absolute necessity, and to try to be able to present to them this information, maybe through NGOs that have no political agenda. I donít know if thatís possible, but if someone were to say: "What would you create, where would you start?" those would be, I think, the two areas: number one, that younger generations who are now more concerned about MTV, or maybe with moving to western Europe or the United States to get a good job, they just donít want to connect with that, they have an obligation to the older generation to show serious compassion. Without that, thereís no reconciliation.

But without truth, there can be no reconciliation, either. And for that, thatís a very, very tough, painful, and potentially explosive process, to put the cards on the table and to... because, tell me how people are living in the eye of a hurricane, they donít know necessarily what was going on in the perimeters. Now is the time, not later, but now, to try to put those issues on the table, and then issues of context and reconciliation between different ethnic groups, etc., I think thatís going to take a lot longer, because as a student of history Iím certainly aware that we can just... , only have to go back to the World War II, and the behaviour of the Ustasas in Croatia, thereís so much history that goes back that itís inappropriate for the people in the West to lecture the people of the former Yugoslavia about how they should, you know, be nice to each other and come out and, you know, dance in the circle. Thatís going to take time.

Thank you very much.


© B92, 2002