A visit to the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles

Peter Krasnow. The Wanderers. 1927.

Peter Krasnow. The Wanderers. 1927.

Today my husband and I took a tour of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles with our Intro to Judaism group.

It was surreal. For one thing, Mr. Christian was there when we walked in. I knew he was going to be, and yet I’d hoped that something might keep him away. But my husband and my best friend were both there with me and he didn’t approach me except the once, and then he left when he saw he wasn’t welcome. Which was fortunate.

Most of the Skirball tour was artifacts showing Jewish history from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the beginning of the Diaspora through the modern day. I was intrigued by the 19th-century artifacts they had from people who had come here with nothing and then begun new trades to support themselves (a woman lawyer’s diploma and a woman doctor’s diploma were both prominently displayed – and dated 1934 and 1925, respectively). I was also fascinated by the different Torah dressings from different Diasporic nations (Italian Torah crowns are impossibly detailed, with tons of filigree; German ones almost impossibly plain by comparison). But then we got into the room that was a duplicate of a big synagogue in Berlin… and it included a display of some pieces of the synagogue from its destruction during the Second World War. Seeing pieces of marble with burn marks still on them made my stomach do a backflip.

That hit me pretty hard. It was hard to follow the docent’s lecture because a) I was in some pain as my arthritis was acting up in my knees – never fun and b) there was music or narrations playing on various displays in each room which made it hard to hear her. But I was able to look at things nonetheless.

I mentioned to my rabbi there that I don’t know if I have any Jewish ancestry. If I do, it’ll be from my mother’s father’s people from Hungary, but the only records I have of them are from the mid-1830s with the last name Horvath. Horvath was a name EVERYONE Jewish took in Hungary. It basically means “not Croatian.” Think “Smith” for how common a last name it is. But the only records are from the Catholic Church (baptisms) and I don’t know if there were conversos in Hungary too, or only in the Iberian Peninsula. The names are all suspiciously Jewish though, apart from the surname. But there’s no way to know for sure.

Anyway.

This museum has actual copies of the Nuremberg Law declarations with Hitler’s signature on them (spit). It was chilling to look at them. Right after that we had to go through a fairly narrow (and darkened almost to black) passage that was called “Six of Six Million,” which showed the photographs (eerily made 3D in the wall) and histories of six Holocaust victims ranging in age from five years old to elderly (age unknown). I was weeping when we left that room. It was like going through a haunted house. Then we came out into an area which had video screens showing Holocaust survivors talking about their experiences. Here’s the one I remember (I saw the captions, but I couldn’t catch the man’s name):

“It was 1944 when the Allied tanks rolled into France. I remember one of the tanks coming up to the camp, and the captain who put his head out of the tank was wearing a star – a Mogen David. And I just stared at him. And he looked at me, saw me, and said in Yiddish, “Du bist Yid?” (Are you Jewish?) and I said “Yes!” and he took me up onto the top of the tank and I was saved.”

I wept, then. I was already crying when I got out of the tunnel but now I was full-on weeping. My friend got me over to one side to sit down, and my husband was also crying – for him, it’s because he has German heritage and he felt deep shame even though none of his family were in Germany at the time. That’s when Mr. Christian tried to approach. My friend glared at him and he apparently thought better of it and backed away, which was a good thing because I was not ready to talk to him then.

My husband said on the way home that there were several places where he felt like he’d been there, or been through it – a display of a 1930s-1940s kitchen set for Shabbat, and when he was walking through the Holocaust tunnel. He felt like he connected to each of the people who were shown in that tunnel. He was also crying a little bit.

It was powerful. It was moving. It was… something I still can’t quite wrap my head around.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you should make a point of visiting the Skirball.

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