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
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
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
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
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. …