The building will be integrated with the six stark black granite columns of the existing Holocaust Martyrs Monument, and descend from their base into two stories of exhibit areas. Architect Hagy Belzberg of Santa Monica described the 15,000-square-foot museum design as "submerged below the ground but peaking its head out" up to 10 feet at the highest point. A green roof will blend with the adjoining grassy park area.
Initial cost estimates call for a $6 million structure, and most of this amount has already been pledged by attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, chair of the LAMH board; real estate developer and Holocaust survivor Jona Goldrich; and a second survivor who requested anonymity. However, plans call for raising between $15 million and $20 million to allow for anticipated increases in construction costs, operating expenses and an endowment fund, LAMH Executive Director Mark A. Rothman said.
The initial impetus for the then first-of-its-kind museum in the United States came in 1961 from a handful of survivors who found themselves in the same English class at Hollywood High School. They had salvaged items from their concentration camp and ghetto experiences, from prison uniforms to a safe conduct pass issued by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The classmates decided to collect the items and display them in a central place, both to commemorate the suffering of the 6 million Jews and to educate future generations.
At a time when Holocaust remembrance was not yet a given, and few survivors had influence or wealth, it took a long time to push the project forward. There was some movement in the early 1970s, when the survivors sought to enlist the support of Simon Wiesenthal, but the famed Nazi hunter opted to lend his name instead to the newly founded Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.
Finally, in 1978, LAMH found its first quarters and exhibit space on the 12th floor of The Jewish Federation building on Wilshire Boulevard. The Federation continued its support, but over the next decades LAHM remained a communal stepchild, as Schoenberg put it, handicapped by frequent changes in leadership and location (the museum is currently housed in the ORT Building next to Federation headquarters).
Despite these difficulties, from the beginning the museum insisted on a "purist approach," longtime former curator Marcia Reines Josephy recalled.
"We tried to create an intimate and personal atmosphere, with tours guided by survivors," she said. "As a memorial to all Holocaust victims and survivors, we did not list individual names, including those of donors."
The museum's exhibits mark momentous phases in Jewish life between 1932-1948, starting with the pre-Hitler era, the destruction of that world and the aftermath up to the rebirth of Israel. From the beginning, the bulk of visitors have been students from public, private and parochial schools, ranging from the upper elementary school grades through high school. Most are from the Los Angeles area, but some classes come from as far away as San Diego and Orange counties. These students make up 80 percent to 90 percent of the current 10,000 annual visitors, Rothman said. He expects the visitors' flow to double during the first year of the new museum's operation, and to double again in the future.
While the number of survivors in Southern California is shrinking, standing now at an estimated 20,000, LAMH prides itself that all student groups can speak with a survivor during their visits.
"Most of the students are from Latino or other minority communities, who had to fight prejudice and make new lives as immigrants, so they relate on a personal level with the survivors," said Rothman.
Inevitably, LAMH is frequently compared to, and confused with, the better financed, publicized and more elaborate Museum of Tolerance, established by the Wiesenthal Center. While paying their respects to the Museum of Tolerance, LAHM leaders believe there is room, and a need, for both institutions.
"The Museum of Tolerance is effective in drawing attention to genocides and persecutions, past and present, throughout the world," Rothman said. "Our mission focuses entirely on the Holocaust, with emphasis on the Jewish tragedy, but also recalling Gypsies, homosexuals and other victims."
Another distinction is that admission to LAMH is free and that it is still run largely by survivors and their descendants, who make up half the governing board.
As LAMH embarks on an ambitious fundraising drive, its leaders anticipate the frequently asked question as to whether money spent on Holocaust memorials and education would not be put to better use fighting poverty, disease and myriad other causes.
How to allocate philanthropic dollars is always "a Solomonic decision," acknowledged Rothman, "But we still need to learn much about the Holocaust, and we need to provide moral direction for future generations," he said.
Schoenberg agreed: "You can ask the same question about money given for art and music. Life is more than just physical survival."
To close, Schoenberg cited an oft-quoted remark by survivor and philanthropist Goldrich: "If you built a monument on every street corner in Los Angeles, you couldn't tell the whole story."