When visitors first enter the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s Gallery at Chatham University, they are confronted by a large Torah scroll under glass. That is purposeful, according to Lauren Bairnsfather, the Holocaust Center’s executive director.
“Rabbi Jeffrey Myers [rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation] said that Judaism has survived for thousands of years because it is portable,” Bairnsfather said. “That book tells us what we need to know. You can roll it up and take it with you. This survived antisemitic attacks. It survived migration. It gives me hope.”
It is also an apt physical metaphor for the Holocaust Center’s newest exhibit — the first in its new gallery space at Chatham.
“Revolving Doors” includes a selection of artwork and artifacts from the Holocaust Center’s collection, juxtaposing Jewish cultural life with persistent antisemitism across time and the devastating impact of the Holocaust on global Jewry. It also examines antisemitism today, including artists’ responses to the Oct. 27, 2018, attack at the Tree of Life building.
History is a pattern of assimilation and antisemitism for the Jewish people, hence the title “Revolving Doors,” Bairnsfather said.
“Revolving Doors” is also the title of a series of collages by surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Ray, the eldest child of Russian Jewish immigrants who changed their name from Radnitzky to Ray due to antisemitism, was born in Philadelphia but spent much of his life in Paris, a city he was forced to flee in 1940 because of World War II.
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh maintains all 10 prints in Ray’s “Revolving Doors” series and features one as part of the new exhibit.
The exhibit attempts to do a lot of things in a very small space, Holocaust Center manager Jackie Shimshoni Reese explained.
“We’re not just talking about the Holocaust,” she said, “but what were the factors that led up to it and what came after it because there’s a really big misconception that antisemitism started in 1933 and that it ended in 1945, and that Hitler came out of nowhere and that the Nazi policies were these original things. None of that is true.”
Illustrating the point, “Revolving Doors” opens with antisemitic broadsheets published in 18th-century France that tell the legend of the Wandering Jew and the myth of Jews crucifying Jesus.
Other artifacts in the exhibit include a work uniform and a large bronze eagle removed from a Nazi train by a Pittsburgh soldier.
Never far from the vulgarities of the Holocaust is the reality that antisemitism and genocide didn’t begin or end with Nazi atrocities.
An illustrated sign, starting in white and ending in black, lists the “Ten Stages of Genocide”; each of these stages occurred during genocides of the latter half of the 20th century and first quarter of the 21st century. Ceiling tiles overhead help to symbolize these stages, moving from solely white, to white with tiles of black, to pure black, then back to white and black tiles intermixed.
An exhibit highlighting the cyclical nature of antisemitism wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the massacre at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018. The shooting has disrupted and changed Jewish life in Pittsburgh in unexpected ways, including the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh leaving its former partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to become part of the new Tree of Life organization, whose goals include the elimination of hate and antisemitism.
A large replica of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette front page from Nov. 2, 2018, featuring the beginning of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew as its headline, is displayed on a back corner wall. It speaks to both the tragedy of the attack as well as the sense of community experienced by all of Pittsburgh in the days following the attack.
A large wooden tree surrounded by 11 yahrzeit candles is exhibited next to the paper’s reproduction, as well as a photo of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers.
Bairnsfather said exhibits like “Revolving Doors” are important because the physical items on display prove the story of the Holocaust.
“That’s why it’s so important to have artifacts and be sure that we counter denial by showing this indeed happened — because we don’t want to believe humans are capable of that,” she said. “The Nazi universe was a perverse ethical universe. We cannot understand it on the basis of how we see the world now. It’s something completely different. So, when we have questions about how humans could do this to other human beings, we have to understand it’s not how we live now — and this is true anywhere genocide has happened.”
“Revolving Doors” will open to the public on Jan. 23 at the Holocaust Center Gallery at Chatham’s Jennie King Mellon Library. The exhibit can be viewed Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m., and the Holocaust Center will eventually add weekend hours. School field trips to the exhibit will begin in February.
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh is seeking volunteers to serve as docents for organized tours of the exhibit. Those interested can visit mailchi.mp/hcpgh/call-for-volunteers. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.