Werner Coppel was born in Moers, Germany in 1925. After suffering the deportation of his parents at the age of fifteen, Werner himself was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he served as a factory worker for two years. Forced on a death march at the conclusion of the war, he miraculously managed to escape and hide until he was freed by Russian soldiers. Three years later, Werner, his wife, and their young son would begin a new life in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Werner’s stories, and those and over a dozen other local survivors, have now found a permanent place of remembrance at the new Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center (HHC), housed within Cincinnati’s historic Union Terminal. JRA provided master planning, exhibit design, art direction and project management for the museum in collaboration with HHC staff and world-renowned design firm Berenbaum Jacobs Associates.
Honoring the Legacy
The HHC is the only Holocaust museum in the country with an authentic connection to its physical site. Union Terminal served as the welcoming point for over 1,000 Jewish refugees fleeing to freedom, as well as a point of departure for dozens of WWII soldiers. The Art Deco grandeur of the still-functioning train station arrests the visitor as soon as they walk in. Descending the staircase to the museum’s basement location, they notice large-scale reproductions of the actual documents survivors used to secure their escape, including the passport of Werner Coppel. Two art deco mosaics of vintage trains greet them at the bottom of the stairs, reinforcing the Union Terminal connection.
The story of the HHC’s Holocaust Gallery then unfolds like the chapters of the book, an intentional choice to ensure that even if visitors only read the exhibit titles, they would still leave with a holistic picture of the Holocaust.
The preamble of the museum’s narrative is the mural that dominates the lobby. The masterwork, created by local artist Keith Neltner, introduces the stories of local survivors in graphic novel format, making them instantly relatable to the HHC’s student audience. Stories of loss and of courage are told here, as well of tales of courage and heroism. Visitors see a cartoon sketch of Werner, a skeletal 90 pounds at the end of the war, being nursed back to health by the woman who would eventually become his wife.
Beyond the mural lies the second part of this preamble – the Wings of Hope Theater. Via an introductory film, the young comic book figures of the mural transform into the actual survivors, who inform the audience that they are about to “see what [the survivors] saw and suffered a long time ago.” The film provides an overview of the rise of Nazism and the seeds of hatred that germinated into the atrocities of war. It also introduces the recurring theme of the museum: the juxtaposition of bystanders, those who watched atrocities unfold but chose to do nothing, and “upstanders”, those who risked their lives to shepherd Jews to safety. Instead of asking them to reflect on the past, the survivors challenge visitors to consider how they would act against oppression now.
Using survivor testimonials in this theater and throughout the museum alleviates the guests’ tension and sense of loss, as they know that those they are learning from lived to tell their tales. This approach also leaves the guest better able to embrace the museum’s messages of hope and positive change and reinforces the notion of survivors as individuals rather than mere nameless casualties. After viewing the film, visitors pass by quotes from these survivors and proceed into the Holocaust Gallery.
The introductory chapter of the Holocaust Gallery, “Origins” and “Mosaic,” offer a heart-wrenching contrast between pre-war Jewish society and the rise of Nazism in Germany that would eventually lead to that society’s destruction. The relative stability of everyday Jewish life, marked by such common occurrences as bar mitzvahs and weddings, family meals and music, are set against the backdrop of the political destabilization, economic recession, and social unrest that would fester anti-Semitism and change the lives of European Jews forever.
After “Mosaic,” the tone of the museum becomes more somber, the stories more desperate, the voices more isolated. Even the exhibit lighting reflects the harshness of the Jews’ new reality, as calming blues and whites give way to garish, abrasive reds. Survivors recount the horror of Kristallnacht and the shelling of WWII bombs outside their windows. Stories abound of Germans who watched the atrocities but did nothing, bystanders to the suffering of their neighbors.
But the stories of upstanders also rise to the surface – like that of rabbi Dr. Julian Morganstern, who invited eleven Jewish scholars and five rabbinical students to his campus at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, providing them with scholarships and thereby saving their lives. Or the many parents who sacrificed themselves for their children, securing the necessary paperwork for them to flee or urging them to run as the bullets flew. These upstanders placed a higher value on others’ lives, often at the expense of their own.
The museum employs a number of interpretive techniques to offer layers of information while not overwhelming the visitor with content or beleaguering them with scenes of oppression and violence. Push button-activated panels pan in, up, or out to provide additional levels of detail while maximizing the museum’s small footprint. Video clips are kept to one to two minutes – perfectly suited to students’ shorter attention spans. Art pieces engage the guest in an impactful and thought-provoking manner with few to no words – from a mural of the Einsantzgruppen shooting massacre constructed from 60,000 spent bullet casings, to the reproduction of David Odire’s haunting painting, “The food of the dead and the living.”
In the “Deportation” exhibit, visitors are reunited with Werner Coppel, who recounts how German citizens passively watched as Jews were loaded onto railcars, destined for the death camps. Behind this video, a window to the outside offers a view onto the actual Union Terminal train tracks, reinforcing the connection between the museum and its location and offering a stark contrast to the positive connotation of the railway as a path to freedom. Via a series of subsequent media pieces, the visitor can follow Werner to Auschwitz and bear witness to the horrors he found there in the “Annihilation” exhibit. In “Survival”, they can learn the great lengths to which he and the other Auschwitz prisoners went to sustain themselves physically and mentally. In “Liberation”, visitors hear about his death march and escape. And in “Aftermath”, they observe via graphic map the route he and his family took to America.
The Holocaust Gallery concludes with “Rebuilding”, where instead of reflecting upon the horrors of war and the pain of loss, Werner excitedly contemplates what his first purchase in America will be (a bag of oranges). Visitors again see depictions of everyday life as they did in “Mosaic”, but these seemingly normal events and activities hold a greater poignancy and significance when set against the previous decades of devastation. These moments, so often taken for granted, are now emblematic of the survivors’ triumph against the Jews’ Nazi oppressors, while also serving as symbols of an existence that 6 million Holocaust victims would never live to see.
Upon leaving the historical portion of HHC, visitors find themselves in the Humanity Gallery. In the gallery’s introductory Points of Light Theater, visitors are re-united with Werner Coppel, but in an entirely different context.
In 1975, Werner read a letter to the editor in the Cincinnati Enquirer asserting that The Diary of Anne Frank was pure fiction and that the Holocaust never happened. Werner decided to channel his anger into action, becoming the first local survivor to share his experiences during the Holocaust. Having been deeply affected by the inaction of bystanders throughout the war, Werner chose to become an upstander, educating hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and community members throughout the rest of his life. The remainder of the film introduces the various personal strengths that characterize upstanders such as Werner, reinforcing the belief that those values live inside all of us.
Throughout the rest of the gallery, visitors encounter local upstanders, those tackling such contemporary injustices as civil rights violations, environmental degradation, gentrification, and gender inequality. In the final interactive of the museum, visitors are asked to add their photograph to a digital mosaic and to share the three personal strengths that they can personally activate to become an upstander. A closing graphic reads, “everybody, every human being has the obligation to contribute in some way to this world.”
Closing the Circle
As visitors exit the Humanity Gallery, the find themselves back in the lobby at the Neltner mural. Now that they have come literally full circle, the faces amongst the red, white, and blue artwork are no longer strangers. The visitors’ experiences in the museum have forged a connection with these stories, these voices, these journeys. The preamble of the novel has now become the postscript, and the visitor leaves feeling reverent and melancholy, yet at the same time hopeful and empowered.
The juxtaposition of bystanders and upstanders, the authentic connection between the museum and its location, and the emphasis on local stories differentiates the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center from other institutions of its type. “This project is groundbreaking and unique in that it presents a holistic narrative that begins with the Holocaust and traverses into a humanity-based thinking conclusion,” says Eddie Jacobs, Partner at BJA. “Yes, the Holocaust is a seminal event that everyone should be aware of, but how and why should greater knowledge of this event shape my behavior and attitudes as a responsible citizen? These are the questions that are answered within this exhibition.”
“HHC chose to approach the subject through a lens of hope,” adds JRA Senior Project Director, Mike Meyer. “They chose to teach about the Holocaust through the eyes and words of the local survivors. As a result, the guest bears witness to the worst of humanity, but is not overwhelmed by it. This approach, combined with a gallery devoted to upstanders, inspires the audience to better their world through action.”
Werner Coppel died in February 2016 at the age of ninety-one. Thanks to the creation of the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, the legacy of Werner and other local survivors will never be forgotten, and the lessons of the Holocaust can be conveyed to a new generation.
As HHC board member John Neyer explains, the key to the museum’s success is meeting visitors where they are. Because guests come to the museum with different levels of understanding and preconceptions of the Holocaust, developing a layered, multi-faceted approach to the content is challenging, yet critically important. Neyer believes that what a guest gets out of the experience thus depends largely on what they brought into it: “so if they have a little awareness…they take away a curiosity. If they had a little understanding, they take away a knowledge. If they came in with knowledge, and we can give them some wisdom? That’s the best we can hope for.”
“In our world today, the idea that human beings can make a difference and must make a difference – and not the other guy, but you and me – is an essential lesson,” concludes Berenbaum. “I hope [visitors] will find their commitment to human dignity and human decency enlarged, and their notion of human responsibility and human conscience enhanced.”
For more information on the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, including hours and ticketing, please visit www.holocaustandhumanity.org.
Photo credit: Janine Spang Photography/Todd Livingston Photography