LOS ANGELES — AT first the name Lillyan Cohn has little meaning beyond a certain portent. Attribute this to the fact that a grainy photo of her as a child and her name appear on a plastic card - the shape of a credit card - given to a visitor in the extraordinary new Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance here.
As you walk through part of the museum, it is "your card" (and therefore your child) to carry through dark passageways, down a re-created 1932 Berlin street with a bookstore selling "Mein Kampf" in the window, into the Warsaw ghetto, and through the iron gates of Auschwitz.
Lillyan Cohn was a 10-year-old Jewish child in Germany when Hitler's horrifying attempt to annihilate all Jews was well underway in war-torn Europe. Hitler sought to depersonalize, stigmatize, and destroy all Jews in the Holocaust, but the Museum of Tolerance never loses sight of the fact that millions of individuals like Lillyan Cohn were affected.
In addition, the museum reaches beyond the Holocaust to remind us that the fight against bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism in the United States is not over.
But can the elusive concept of tolerance, with many definitions like so many personal anthems in the real world, be made universal and vital within the structure of a museum?
Built by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a research organization, the $50 million museum courageously alters the traditional, serious museum experience of passing by fixed exhibits in big rooms. To explore the concept of tolerance, and its inverse, the scale here is small and close. Many of the intimate exhibits talk back. You are forced to make decisions, push levers, listen to whispers, and think about the level of bigotry and prejudice that could linger in your own attitudes. Through interactive exhibits , multimedia presentations, dioramas, and architectural re-creations, a two-hour tour is no casual encounter.
In early February, the museum opened a 28,000-square-foot exhibition area with five floors, including a computer learning center, a 324-seat theater, a plaza, and a gift shop. The substance and presentation of exhibits have already been criticized. The New York Times wrote that the emphasis on multimedia to explore such a serious subject is a "vulgarization." The LA Weekly concluded that the museum's "infotainment" approach is geared to the "short attention spans of the MTV generation" and is designed to
"jolt and stun."
At the start of the tour, a bank of TV monitors introduces a wise-cracking, white middle-class bigot in a coat and tie. He tells visitors "you look like the right kind of people, if you know what I mean."
After a number of slights and innuendos, he directs people toward two doors, one marked "Prejudiced," and the other marked "Unprejudiced." The door marked unprejudiced is locked, much to his delight. Through the other door is a large, amoeba-shaped room of interactive exhibits, including videos of the Los Angeles riots with accompanying questions to determine your attitudes and record them.
To the left, in a tight, weakly lit hallway, whispered insults come out of the walls. "Hey nigger," says a voice from the left. "Jungle bunny," says another from the right. "Loudmouthed kike!" rasps a voice overhead. "Hey baby!" is followed by a wolf whistle. "Sexist pig!"
As uncomfortable as the short walk is in this whispering gallery, the point is brilliantly made: The insults are no longer cliches even if they are artificially delivered.
On one wall, three parallel time lines trace the history of racism and tolerance in the US. Another exhibit explores the racial meanings of such epithets as "spade, stag, slope, honky," and "kike." Historical exhibits touch on the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, atrocities in Cambodia, and other ethnic conflicts.
There is a slight feeling here of being in a video arcade. Images and noises blend and mix. What may be lost in depth is gained back by the imaginative exhibits, possibly suggesting a shift in racial perspective for a viewer or perhaps presenting a new image or fact that may linger in retrospect.
The next-to-the-last stop in this part of the museum is a video presentation of the highlights of the civil rights movement on a wall of 16 monitors. But the images sometimes occur in such swiftly changing geometric patterns that the eye spins from monitor to monitor. Created by Orlando Bagwell, the producer of the TV program "Eyes on the Prize," the video offers Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, and all the well-known faces of heros and villains of the movement along with redneck sheriffs and sit- in demonstrators.
A few steps away, the friendly bigot returns on yet another display of monitors. Before he sends the tour on to the major part of the museum, his unctuous comments conclude: "I hate it when you think for yourself."
From here on, the historical focus stays with the anti-Semitic attitudes that preceded and drove the Holocaust. A series of dioramas (including historical film clips) set the scene for the rise of Hitler in a Germany devastated by World War I. Most effective is the re-creation of a 1932 Berlin cafe with life-sized mannequins seated at the tables in muted gray clothing, discussing the rise of Hitler. Visitors overhear their conversations of doubts, false assurances, prejudices, and fears.
A street in the Warsaw ghetto is re-created with scattered bricks and broken walls. Film clips and old photos show the brutalization of Jews, including mass shootings, burials, and the rising horror of the German high command moving toward a "final solution."
The barbed-wire entrance gates of Auschwitz precede two passageways, one marked "Able-bodied," the other marked "Children and Others." Through the passageways is a gruesomely bare, long narrow cement room suggesting a gas chamber. In this Hall of Testimony, video monitors on either side quietly reveal eyewitness accounts of gas-chamber horrors.
Holding the plastic card with Lillyan Cohn's name and photo becomes an emotional experience. At the end of the tour, using the card to trigger a computer printout, you learn that Lillyan's parents put her on one of the special trains taking children out of Germany to London in late 1938. Her parents expected the worst from Hitler. Lillyan grew up in foster homes in London. She was 17 when the war ended and she learned that her parents had perished in a concentration camp.