Philadelphia group plans Holocaust education center on the Parkway

Posted: November 07, 2011

On her 15th Yom Kippur, Anneliese Nossbaum watched in deepening dread as the sun crossed the September sky.

When dusk fell on the Nazi camp-ghetto of Terezin, Czechoslovakia, 67 years ago, "it was the end of my family," she said. The next day, her father was forced on a train to Auschwitz.

"I never saw him again," she told a dozen teenagers last week at the Klein Jewish Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia.

Someday soon, the last Holocaust survivors will fall silent, joining in death the millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped, and religious minorities who perished in Germany's concentration camps during World War II.

When that time comes, Holocaust educators say, future generations will never again sit at the feet of people like Nossbaum.

For that reason, a consortium of local educators, survivors, and philanthropists is gearing up to create a Holocaust education center on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"Not a huge building," said Rachel Lithgow, executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. "And definitely not a museum."

The foundation's plan calls for a low, glass-enclosed building of 23,000 square feet at 16th Street and the Parkway.

As designed by architect Moshe Safdie, who conceived the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, most of the center would be underground. Instead of housing a research faculty or large collection, the center would be built around interactive exhibits, according to Lithgow.

"We're hoping to put a gem on the Parkway," said Marc Felgoise, chairman of the foundation's board of trustees. "We will use the lessons of the Holocaust to teach the Philadelphia community about genocide, hatred discrimination, and bigotry of all kinds."

Founded in 2001 as the Center for Human Rights Education Philadelphia, the group changed its name about three years ago. Its stated goal is to "honor the survivors of the Holocaust and pay tribute to those who perished under Nazi tyranny."

No price tag is yet attached to the project, according to Felgoise, a real estate financier. The foundation is still calculating construction and long-term operating costs, but it expects to launch a capital campaign soon.

"We will not open something we can't run successfully," said Lithgow, former executive director of the Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles, which she helped establish 10 years ago.

The city, which owns the 16th Street site, has leased it to the foundation for 80 years at $1 a year, with the understanding that construction will begin by 2014.

The lease stipulates that "we partner with as many educational and cultural institutions as we can," Lithgow said.

Although the Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall has struggled financially in its first year, Felgoise said the goals of the Holocaust center would make it attractive to a broad range of donors.

The foundation "really has brought together the best people," said Jonathan Friedman, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at West Chester University and author of numerous books on the subject.

A member of the Consortium of Holocaust Educators of Greater Philadelphia, which is advising the foundation, Friedman said the proposed center had won broad support among the region's museums and teaching institutions on the Holocaust.

The triangular space on the Parkway has been home since 1964 to the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial. A severely modernistic bronze statue by sculptor Nathan Rapoport, it depicts Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination crushed under one another and encircled by fire. It would remain.

For all its anguish and outrage, however, Rapoport's semiabstract monument stands mute - no match for survivors such as Nossbaum, who speaks regularly about a traumatic childhood almost unimaginable to most young Americans.

Standing last week in the little one-room Philadelphia Holocaust Museum at Klein Jewish Community Center, she told students from Mount Holly's Hampton Academy about watching, at 9, as flames consumed the synagogue in Bonn, Germany, where her father was cantor.

"It was the beginning of the Holocaust for me," she said.

The synagogue was one of hundreds across Germany that were destroyed 73 years ago Wednesday in the Nazi-instigated rampage against Jews known to history as Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass."

Later, she showed them the yellow six-pointed Star of David she and other Jews were forced to wear starting in 1941. She also brought along "my witnesses to the Holocaust": the metal comb and soap dish, fashioned by a fellow slave laborer, that she acquired while working at an airplane factory near Auschwitz, where her father was killed.

"It is the truth," Nossbaum told the students, "but every survivor's story is different. . . . I hope what I have told you will spur you to learn more."

Founded 50 years ago, the little Holocaust museum - whose shelves include a canister that once held poison gas pellets from Auschwitz - conducts about 200 school programs a year, mostly through talks by survivors such as Nossbaum.

The Goodwin Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Cherry Hill also focuses on school groups. High schools in New Jersey are required by law to teach about genocide, and most Pennsylvania high schools do so.

"But how do you teach the Holocaust," Lithgow asked last week, "in a world without survivors?"

After a number of false starts - including plans for a memorial garden at the 16th Street site - the foundation's board and consultants decided three years ago the solution was "a living, breathing institution that is constantly dynamic," she said.

The supply of traveling exhibit materials on the Holocaust and other mass acts of hatred and genocide is "endless," Lithgow said, and the foundation intends to one day generate its own materials for use locally and at other institutions.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or

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