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A human rights museum opens in Millburn
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A human rights museum opens in Millburn

For eight years, a band of four friends, all Jewish immigrants from St. Petersburg, Russia, has labored on two fronts: to promote respect among people and to establish a venue where the members could showcase that value. 

On Friday, June 22, they celebrated the opening of their Museum of Human Rights, Freedom and Tolerance on Essex Street in Millburn. The space is modest — two rooms in the basement of a small, red-brick building — but as they said, it is a big step they hope will lead to bigger things.

June 22 was an auspicious date for the opening of the new museum’s exhibit, “The Holocaust: Annihilation, Liberation, Rescue,” as it was the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. 

“This date became the beginning of the tremendous tragedy of the Soviet Jews who went under the Nazi occupation, beginning of the Holocaust of three million Soviet Jews, and the liberation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,” said the museum’s president and executive director Igor Kotler at the exhibit’s opening.

An international synchronicity added further weight to the June date: The exhibit, created by Moscow’s Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center, also opened in Smolensk, Russia, at the Ghetto Museum in Terezín in the Czech Republic, and at the parliament building in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The exhibit has already had an international showing at places such as the United Nations and the Center for Jewish History in New York, the Knesset in Israel, the State Duma in Russia, and the German Bundestag in Berlin. 

In Millburn Kotler was accompanied by two of the four founders, Alexander Mushkin, the museum’s director of communication, and Dr. Luba Sindler, its director of cultural outreach. The fourth founding member, Boris Shapiro, was unable to attend the opening. All four live within a few miles of each other in towns near Millburn.

They and their team of volunteers took guests around an array of posters featuring poignant photographs, official documents, and personal statements about Auschwitz and the story of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. The display focuses on the victims, those who tried to mitigate their suffering, and the liberators, including the Red Army and its medical personnel.  

While the museum’s primary focus is on the Jewish experience, its mission is far broader. Kotler, who for many years was chief historian of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, emphasized that the center will examine events around the world, focusing on the suffering of ordinary people often overlooked by historians. He said their purpose is to deepen understanding, and to help ensure — playing off Hannah Arendt’s famous words — that evil never becomes “banal,” and that history never repeats itself.  

In 2008 Kotler and his colleagues started to brainstorm how they could promote awareness of these issues. Refuseniks themselves with harsh memories of persecution and discrimination in their home city, then Leningrad, they had come to the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, eager to become part of an open society. Much as they appreciated the welcome they received in the U.S., they were still troubled by the lack of awareness of horrors inflicted on groups in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

While working toward establishing a museum, they explored alternative ways to expand that awareness from their headquarters in Livingston, which was the music studio of Marina Goldin, a friend and colleague from Kotler’s days working underground with the Jewish Historical Society of Leningrad. From that base of operations, they organized exhibitions, built partnerships, and took part in programs in New York and New Jersey with organizations such as the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University and the Bloomfield public school district. They also participated in the publication of a book about the Holocaust published in Russian and English, and are currently cooperating on the translation of “The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust on the Soviet Soil” being published by the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center.

The founders plan to continue with such outreach and also to stage cultural events, featuring music and art, but they first wanted an exhibition venue of their own. Millburn dentist Dr. Arthur Greyf, a longtime supporter and, as Kotler said, “a landsman from Leningrad,” offered the floor below his Millburn practice.

In addition to the Holocaust exhibit, they have a display on the evolution of the term genocide and another describing the horror that befell the Assyrian population in Simele, Iraq, in 1933. The opening was dedicated to the memory of historian Dr. Christopher Kenway of San Diego State University, an early supporter of the museum who recently passed away.  

In his remarks, Kotler said, “We were refuseniks who dreamed of freedom. Thus our experience helps us to understand the pain of other people and the joy of freedom, which we found here in the United States. 

“From the very beginning, at the museum, we had a goal to tell the story of suffering, rescue, liberation, and rebuilding. We hope that this new place will help us to fulfill this task.”

For individual or group tours contact Kotler at 310-993-5283.

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