Holocaust museum planned for downtown Boston
Philanthropists buy $11.5 million building on Freedom Trail
TWO BOSTON AREA philanthropists have purchased an $11.5 million building on the Freedom Trail with the ambitious goal of creating a Holocaust museum in downtown Boston.
“We’ve been all around the world, we’ve seen amazing Holocaust museums and education centers, and it dawned on us. These are so valuable to the communities they are in, why don’t we have one in Boston?” said co-founder Todd Ruderman.
Co-founder Jody Kipnis said the museum will focus on the concept of human dignity. “We’re going to design the museum to be an immersive educational center, meant to raise awareness of visitors about their responsibility as participants in a democratic society,” Kipnis said.
As the last survivors of the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II, are dying, it is falling on their children and others to perpetuate the history of genocide and its lessons. The most renowned Holocaust museums are the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and Yad Vashem in Israel. But there are other smaller memorials and museums worldwide, including the New England Holocaust Memorial, a glass statue in downtown Boston.
“Especially with everything going on the world both today and in the past, it seems like history is always slowly repeating itself, and the Holocaust really tells the story of how human dignity is debased,” Kipnis said. “When we looked at being on the Freedom Trail, there’s a unique opportunity to use the location to enrich the lessons of the Holocaust. What better place to show how human dignity can be enhanced?”
Kipnis said the museum will touch on other genocides. It will include universal messages about the consequences of anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination based on personal characteristics, and about the need for the civilized world to not just stand by and watch as genocide occurs.
Ruderman said the lessons from an era when a leader tried to eradicate an entire religion remain relevant. “Everyone thinks the Holocaust will not happen again. It will. It is happening now. It’s happening in Ukraine right now. It’s happening in China, in parts of Africa,” he said.
The Tremont Street building will provide 18,000 square feet of space. Kipnis said the museum will be interactive and geared toward teenagers and adults. They chose the location because it is on the Freedom Trail, an area that attracts 4 million visitors a year. Kipnis could not put a price on the total project, since it is still in the preliminary stages.
Local architect Peter Quinn is designing the museum, working with Dr. Michael Berenbaum and Edward Jacobs of Berenbaum Jacobs Associates, the agency that worked on Holocaust museums and education centers in Dallas, Cincinnati, and Macedonia. Berenbaum was a project director for United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
In December, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill requiring that schools teach middle and high schoolers about the history of genocide. The museum’s founders say they hope the museum could become a teaching tool about genocide, and their goal is to eventually have all New England schoolchildren tour the museum before they graduate high school.
“We just feel like there’s an urgency at this point because hate incidents are on the rise, anti-Semitism is exploding,” Kipnis said. “We feel it’s urgent we educate future generations on the lessons of the Holocaust.”
Ruderman and Kipnis, who are Jewish, both come from careers unrelated to Holocaust education. Ruderman is a successful real estate developer, investor, and manager who has been a trustee of his family’s Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for people with disabilities. Kipnis worked as a dental hygienist and has been involved in several nonprofits.
Kipnis said she first learned about the Holocaust when she was shown black and white footage as a fourth grader in Hebrew school. That scared her to the point that she avoided learning about the Holocaust for decades.
Ruderman and Kipnis, who are engaged to be married, met on a blind date in 2016. In 2018, they traveled together to Eastern Europe with a student program. They walked through Auschwitz death camp alongside a friend who survived the Holocaust and heard his story.
“Immediately, I knew that we had to instill the responsibility on the next generation, because if our generation is starting to lack knowledge about what happened and the lessons we should be learning from what happened, then what are our kids going to know and their kids, an future generations?” Kipnis said. “And eventually the Holocaust is just going to be so far behind us.”
The pair founded the Holocaust Legacy Foundation, and in 2018, created a fellowship to teach teenagers about the Holocaust then take them on a trip to Poland to visit the historical sites. The Holocaust Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit, funded by Ruderman and Kipnis, which has now purchased the Tremont Street building.
Building a project of this scale will face enormous challenges. Boston attorney and former city councilor Mike Ross, who served on the council of the United States Holocaust Museum, recalled watching his father Steve Ross found the New England Holocaust Memorial. He said a lot of it was about communication and coalition building.
“The individuals and the community that’s working toward this important goal need to cast a very broad net, not just to the Jewish community though that’s important, and to the Holocaust community…but also to the broader community, the Armenian community, the Somali community, other genocide communities that have also suffered,” Ross said.
Ross, who is not involved in the museum project, said with a rise in worldwide and US anti-Semitism, as well as racism, homophobia, and a general authoritarian tilt in many countries, there is a growing need to educate the public, especially young people, about the Holocaust. “We see a growing percentage of young people being unaware of our history, of the history of man’s greatest inhumanity to man,” Ross said.
As the generation of survivors dies out, and some people continue to deny the truth of the Holocaust, Ross said, “We will need new tools and we will need museums.”
Chris Mauriello, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State University, agreed that as the survivor generation passes away, there is a need for more Holocaust education both to commemorate the tragedy and to teach “the universal lessons of the dangers of racism and prejudices and ethnic hatred.” Mauriello said more and more, scholars are using the Holocaust to talk about issues related to human rights, social justice, prejudice, and racism.Mauriello said one challenge is that museums have changed radically over the last 25 years, moving away from placing artifacts on shelves toward more interactive, immersive exhibits. The question then becomes how to strike a balance between being interactive without “Disney-fying” such a serious topic as the Holocaust. “How to take a serious topic and make it engaging to a new generation, that’s an essential question the programming will have to confront,” Mauriello said.