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I Took My Friends to the Holocaust Museum — and I Cried

It’s Saturday morning in Los Angeles. Let’s see, we could a. take a hike to the Bat Cave in Griffith Park and bring the dogs, b. see the chainsaw juggler or some other crazed acrobat on the Venice Boardwalk, or c. maybe go to one of two museums in L.A. filled with mementos of man’s cruelty to fellow man.


It’s not a destination you’d usually think to bring your friends to on a Saturday morning.
And surprisingly, the Holocaust Museum is not the only place you can see symbols of Nazi terrorism and representations of man’s inhumanity towards others in Los Angeles. But the impressive Museum of Tolerance (also known as the Simon Wiesenthal Center) is not open on Saturdays. The Holocaust Museum is.
I’ve never been to the Holocaust Museum, even though I love Pan Pacific Park. It’s the site of the Streamline Moderne 1930s Pan Pacific Auditorium where the terrible 1980s movie “Xanadu” was filmed starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. Yeah, you read that right. It was his last movie, and it involved roller skates.
I remember how sad I was when it burned down in 1989, and I kept a piece of its sickly-green facade as a memento. (A recreation of it exists at the Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim.)
So, I knew that Holocaust Museum LA was there, but I never went. It’s sort-of like having the movie “Schindler’s List” still in the original VHS cellophane wrapping on my video shelf unopened. I know it’s there, but it’s not a movie I want to sit down and watch when I come home after a stressful day. Right?
I invited a select group of friends. One from bowling, one from the dog park, a few from my senior center acting class. Some I’ve known for more than half my life, others I met only weeks ago. A comedian, a restauranteur, a designer, an activist, a singer, a playwright. Some Jewish, some not. Some Jewish-ish.
Our docent taking the group is a new friend, Alicia Bleier, who was teaching in Israel when the October 7 massacre happened last year. She had to flee to another country before returning here, and she never finished her mission.
An impeccable, precise, no-nonsense person, Alicia doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and she knew this was a sensitive time, with a group of friends who told me personally they were triggered by events in the world, and somewhat threatened, too.
It’s incredible that right here in supposedly superficial LA, this Holocaust Museum is the first survivor-founded and oldest Holocaust museum in the United States. A group of survivors met and found they each had a document, photo or some other item from before the war and decided to give these artifacts a permanent home. It also helped memorialize their lost family members and educate people to never forget.
This is the only cultural institution in LA that is free for all students with its only focus on the horrific impact and enormity of the Holocaust. The museum offers custom tours, talks with survivors, online discussions and more.
The Pan Pacific site is an architectural masterpiece almost hidden inside a part of a hill, and it is undergoing a massive expansion that will keep it closed until this coming November.
You are first struck by the six tall black 18-foot columns at the entrance called the Martyr’s Memorial. Each one honors the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust and symbolizes the cremation smokestacks.
Around the side is the heart-wrenching Children’s Memorial, and outdoor reflective space where there are 1.2 million holes drilled in the wall representing the children murdered in the Holocaust. You can pick up a slip with a photo and name of a child victim and write a message and place it into one of the holes in the wall.
It’s hard to believe that they have collected a whole warehouse of 80,000 more objects that have yet to be displayed. That’s why they need to expand.
The building campaign already raised $43 million of its $50 million construction goal, which has depended on many family grants, as well as $8.5 million from the California state government.
The museum is acutely aware of disinformation and misinformation that pervades social media, saying “In this moment, this concern is not abstract for Muslims, Jews and marginalized communities not only in America, but throughout the world. Indeed, hateful words can have real world consequences.”
For me, the tour was overwhelmingly emotional. Alicia bravely spoke about the atrocities committed, in room after room. When we all sat down together in a replica of a train car, I felt a bit claustrophobic as the doors closed on us. Then, she told us that 100 others would have been crammed in the same area as they were transported to the camps.
Room after room, the stories got worse. Jews were stripped of their citizenship, they were dubbed a “race” rather than religion, and they weren’t allowed to have pets. Our group of all pet-lovers had a collective gasp as Alicia explained how the Nazis shot the pets in front of the families.
And then, we entered a room with baby clothes in a display case. I suddenly couldn’t breathe, had to sit down, and began sobbing. I was completely embarrassed, but I couldn’t stop.
“I can’t believe I have subjected my friends to this,” I said between my sobs.
Not surprising, the half-dozen Jewish mamas in the group came up to comfort me, and the oldest and funniest, a Brooklynite said, “Oh darling, we knew what we were in for coming to this. We didn’t think it was just going to be a picnic.”
But it was a picnic. I planned to have a robust discussion outside in the grassy arena down the hill from the museum. Jackie Canter brought her favorite turkey sandwiches and pickles from her famous Canter’s Deli.
And I ordered kosher pizza.
And I declared, “Let there be pizza on Earth.”

You can take a virtual tour of the Holocaust Museum LA, and also donate to the building fun by going to www.holocaustmuseumla.org.

You can reach Mike at mikeszy@aol.com.

       
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