A museum of their own

A museum of their own

Bruriah students connect to Shoah through handmade exhibits

Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, left, looks at a box built to simulate the amount of space Jews may have been confined to in cattle cars. Photo courtesy Adina Abramov/Bruriah
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, left, looks at a box built to simulate the amount of space Jews may have been confined to in cattle cars. Photo courtesy Adina Abramov/Bruriah

Yaeli Rothschild considers herself handy, but until recently, she had never dabbled in construction. That changed junior year when her grade at Bruriah High School for Girls was tasked with developing its own Holocaust museum.

Yaeli had the idea of creating an exhibit to demonstrate the harsh and cramped conditions of Jews who were transported to concentration camps in cattle cars. She and a team of classmates researched the dimensions of the cars and the average number of people crammed inside them and calculated the space allotted to each person. Using these figures, they built a wooden box whose interior space was the amount an individual would have had in a crowded cattle car.

The experience of building the very narrow box — which was actually more generous than the one square foot of space they figured was available per person — gave Yaeli and other students a visceral connection to events that began more than 70 years ago. 

“I had to be in the box in order to build it,” she said. “It made me realize how bad it was because they had to be in there for days — I was only in there for hours.” 

The class museum is the brainchild of history teacher Joel M. Glazer, a faculty member of the general studies department at Bruriah’s umbrella institution, the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, since 1967. What started years ago as a Holocaust bulletin board evolved into the transformation of an entire hallway on the second floor into a multi-media museum directed by seven members of a student staff, including a curator, a special projects coordinator, and guides. 

Glazer said, “There’s a certain magic that takes place with this museum,” which has been created every year since 2009. “You see a bare hallway, and I tell the girls that within two weeks this is going to be a museum that you’re going to create.” 

The hands-on process of developing the museum was designed to give Bruriah students the opportunity to relate to a difficult chapter in Jewish history on their own terms, and to devise for themselves a way to “never forget.” Bruriah students, like those at other day schools, are well-versed in the themes and history of the Holocaust; the creation of a student-run museum has made that history feel more relevant. 

“What these kids got here cannot be drilled into your heads sitting in a classroom with a book,” said Larry Glaser, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. “They did their homework, they got things they were either interested in or frightened of or flabbergasted by, and then they made something happen out of it.” 

Junior Michal Winkler said that before the creation of the  museum, the Holocaust “seemed very distant” to students; with the new displays, she said, it “got much closer to them.” 

The project began in November, and although the students spent months planning and working on it, the museum is open only for a few weeks (some visitors from outside the school arrange tours of the museum, which will be taken down this Friday). It tells a narrative that begins with the conclusion of World War I and ends in 2005. Visitors feel the somber mood at the entrance, where black fabric lines the hallway and the theme from “Schindler’s List” plays in the background. The solemn atmosphere is interrupted only by a buzzer signifying the end of a period sand students must duck under the fabric to access their covered lockers. 

“We were trying to mimic the oppressive darkness of the years of the war and the horror that occurred during that time,” said student docent Chana Rosenbluth, who led a museum tour. 

At the section of the museum depicting the war’s end and the establishment of the State of Israel, “Hatikvah” is audible in a space decorated with blue fabric and bright with natural sunlight. 

“We know that after every night there comes a sunrise, and that’s really the theme of our museum’s design,” Chana told the group. 

The 90 members of the junior class, in consultation with the appointed students who became museum staff, chose how to illustrate their assigned topics. Some learned a new skill — like the carpentry Yaeli used to construct the box, or the group who folded the pages of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” into the shape of a star of David. 

Others applied engineering or art. One group designed a model of a watchtower with a light and an “electrified” fence; they built a circuit so that when one touches the barbed wire (actually string, painted gray), it vibrates and causes a light on the watchtower to turn on. There were students who researched their family histories and made photo collages, digital slideshows, and a movie. Two designed bar graphs on posterboard illustrating the number of family members alive per generation. The increase in numbers for their generation, compared with their parents’ and grandparents’, is dramatic. 

“I got to see a different side of these 90 girls, working with them and talking to every single person about their projects,” said Rachelli Benoff, the museum’s special projects coordinator. The exhibits are “a reflection of them and their unique backgrounds.”

A pair of black, Converse high-tops and other dark shoes were displayed for an exhibit about Yom Ha-Shoah, Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance day. The exhibit represented the footwear from the 1940s and how “souls were taken from this earth, unwillingly leaving their life behind,” according to the signage. 

The Holocaust is recognized as a Jewish experience, but the students also included in their museum a memorial to Japanese victims of the Battle of Saipan and mock newspaper articles about the Tuskegee airmen — black American servicemen who learned to fly aircraft in combat — and Native American codebreakers. 

Glaser was one of several guests on a recent tour that included Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, and Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Later that day, students from the Catholic Benedictine Academy, located down the street from Bruriah, and Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage were scheduled for a visit. 

Conspicuously absent from the museum tour was Glazer, who will oversee the dismantling of the current museum and the building of a new one next year. 

“My job is to stay out of their way,” he said.

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