‘Keepers of the past’

‘Keepers of the past’

Rockland Holocaust museum showcases 15 artifacts from among its thousands

What is the value of a menorah?

Is it only worth its weight in gold, or brass, or tin — simply the sum of its materials? What is the value of its cultural symbolism, its link to Jewish history and religion, to Chanukah and the ancient Temple?

And what is its personal value? Does it embody memories of your grandmother lighting it or of lighting it with your children?

How much of the value of the menorah is in the menorah, and how much is in the memories and stories that accompany it? And when the physical object can be passed from hand to hand, from person to person, how many of the memories and stories can transfer with it?

How much of the value of an object dies along with its owner, the keeper of the memories?

These questions are relevant to people nearing the end of their lives, contemplating possessions that will outlive them even if the associated memories may not. And they are relevant to museums, which often serve as repositories for objects.

The premise of a museum’s collection is that its objects have value. But where does that value reside?

These questions are at the heart of the new exhibit at Rockland’s Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education. “Keepers of the Past” highlights 15 artifacts from the museum’s collection, using them to tell the story of the Holocaust.

The modest exhibit reflects the museum’s status — it’s now under construction. The exhibit is made of seven panels describing the artifacts and two display cases showcasing some of them.

The first item in the exhibit is a menorah. Abigail Miller, the museum’s director of education, described it “a really exceptional piece from before the war.”

It was a family menorah; it was donated to the museum anonymously, so that’s a whole set of memories and value that is lost to observers. But the exhibit captures its cultural value.

“We use this menorah that was saved from the Holocaust and brought to the U.S. to tell the story of just how much of Jewish culture, community, and practice was destroyed,” Ms. Miller said.

From the death camps, the exhibit includes a sonderkommando medallion, from one of the special units of death camp prisoners whom the Nazis used to dispose of the corpses of the Jews they murdered.

Other artifacts in the exhibit highlight the plight of refugees who fled the Holocaust. “There’s a suitcase a family used as they were fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe,” Ms. Miller said. “And a couple of passport and identity cards. We think about the power of a piece of paper to determine whether someone lives or dies. These things that seem like absurd realities to us now made a tremendous amount of difference during the Holocaust.”

By highlighting the artifacts, the exhibit “asks people to consider why we preserve history,” Ms. Miller said. “What can objects teach us? What can’t they reveal to us? What’s our obligation toward preserving material culture?”

This is very much a local exhibit.

“All of these artifacts, save perhaps one or two, are from donors here in Rockland County,” Ms. Miller said. “They’re from Rockland survivors, Rockland liberators, and the families of those who experienced the war and made their new lives here in Rockland County.

“For the past 30-plus years, folks from around the county have donated to our collection. When we were located in Spring Valley, people would drop off boxes with no clues as to who brought them.

“This exhibit came about from a desire to do something about showcasing the collections and important histories our archives have to tell. Though we’re not fully open yet, we want the community to know that thanks to their donations, we have a rich archival collection.”

Ms. Miller said the museum has thousands of artifacts in its collection, “including all of the documents and photographs and pieces of memorabilia.”

Having recently conducted an initial survey of its collection, the museum “now is going back to ensure the inventory includes every single piece in the collection. This is a project that takes years.”

As part of the project, the museum has upgraded the software it uses to manage its collection. With the new software, the museum ultimately will “make each and every piece of the archive available online through our website,” Ms. Miller said. “People will have access to each of the important pieces of our collection.”

And what about your own objects that may have been touched by Holocaust history — family heirlooms that once belonged to refugees or victims or survivors?

“We encourage community members who believe they might have something to donate to contact the museum,” Ms. Miller said. “We will be glad to meet with them and assess what they have to donate.”

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