On January 26, 2019, the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center (HHC) opened its doors within Cincinnati’s historic Union Terminal. Staff, consultants, donors, and dignitaries celebrated in grand fashion, complete with an opening weekend gala, music and dance performances, and informative educational panels about the museum’s content, process, and team.
While the events marked the completion of an 18-month planning, design, and construction process, they actually represented the culmination of eight decades of effort by countless individuals who sought to ensure that the legacies and lessons of the Holocaust would not be lost in the passage of time.
Preserving the Past
The genesis of the Holocaust & Humanity Center occurred in the years following the Holocaust, as survivors began their new lives in Cincinnati. Called the Jewish New American Society and later the Jewish Survivors of Nazism, the group’s aim was to provide fellowship amongst the Jewish community and to begin formulating a way to preserve the memories of those they had lost.
As the group’s members aged over the decades, they realized that they had the obligation to share their stories with future generations. In 1994, the group re-envisioned itself as “The Combined Generations of the Holocaust”, which included the families of survivors and others interested in preserving and sharing Holocaust history. Six years later, the resulting Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education opened on the campus of Hebrew-Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.
With its new brick-and-mortar space within HUC-JIR, the Center was able to produce its first permanent exhibition, “Mapping Our Tears”. The 2,500-square-foot exhibit, designed by JRA, immersed visitors in an environment designed to resemble an attic from a European home of the 1930s. The wartime travails of local survivors unfolded through taped testimonies, photographs, images, and artifacts, but the exhibit also explored the common motifs of love, courage, and loss interwoven throughout these experiences.
“Mapping Our Tears” welcomed over 70,000 students and community members during its 14-year run. Despite its success, the Center’s Chief Executive Officer, Sarah Weiss, knew that a larger, more centrally located space was needed for the organization to truly fulfill its mission of using lessons from the Holocaust to inspire action today.
Securing the Future
In addition to functioning as an Amtrak passenger rail station, Union Terminal houses the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC), a multi-museum complex that includes the Cincinnati History Museum, the Cincinnati History Library and Archives, the Duke Energy Children’s Museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science, and the Robert D. Lindner Family OMNIMAX® Theater. In 2014, the Terminal began a $228 million restoration project. The reconfiguration of the building freed up 12,000 square feet of basement level space, enabling the CMC to invite another cultural institution onsite.
As Weiss and CMC President & CEO, Elizabeth Pierce, discovered through a serendipitous conversation, the renovation period coincided perfectly with Holocaust & Humanity’s Center’s need to expand. In addition to “Mapping Our Tears”, the HHC and CMC had previously collaborated on a temporary exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, “Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz: 70 Years Later.” The opportunity to welcome HHC to Union Terminal was thus the natural extension of an established partnership, and the museum had found its home, one over triple the size of “Mapping Our Tears.”
Once a location was selected and a generous lead gift secured, the next step was to hire the firm that would realize the vision of the newly named Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center. In an unconventional move, Weiss and her board chose not one, but two studios to execute the project.
Berenbaum Jacobs Associates (BJA) had worked with HHC on “Unlocking the Gates” and were recognized experts in the areas of Holocaust, genocide, human rights, and Jewish themes. HHC selected BJA to lead the conceptual development, concept design, interpretive text writing, and media production for the new museum.
In addition to JRA’s work on “Mapping Our Tears,” JRA’s Senior Project Director, Mike Meyer, had previously worked for CMC. The studio thus not only had familiarity with the subject matter, but also the peculiarities of working within the 85-year-old building. Leveraging this expertise, HHC tasked JRA with the museum’s master planning, detail design, graphic design, project management, and art direction. Rounding out the team were exhibit designers Universal Services Associates, architects GBBN, and general contractors Turner Construction.
BJA Partner Dr. Michael Berenbaum jokingly referred to the collaboration as “an arranged marriage that actually worked. The synergy between us and JRA made us able to create in a way that no one firm would have been able to.” Meyer added that the two studios “came to the project with a certain set of unique assets, which allowed for a successful and timely completion of the project.”
The HHC broke ground on November 9, 2018 – the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht – and opened on January 26, 2019, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Celebrating the Present
The weekend of activities kicked off with a grand opening gala featuring master of ceremonies Nick Clooney, remarks by Weiss, Pierce, and lead contributor David Wolf, and a stirring performance by the Cincinnati Ballet created specifically for the occasion. The evening’s ceremony closed with the installation of the mezuzah – a parchment inscribed with religious text that is traditionally encased and placed above the front door of a Jewish home. The mezuzah belonged to the mother of local Holocaust survivor, Stephanie Marks, and was mounted at the entry of the museum.
The following day, a public opening was marked by a ribbon cutting, a procession of local Holocaust survivors, survivor testimonies, tours of the museum, a performance by the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, and a panel discussion featuring members of the HHC, JRA, and Berenbaum Jacobs Associates design teams.
Throughout these events, it was impossible not to sense the magnitude of what the HHC team had achieved and the gravitas of its new location. “This is authentic space. We are the only Holocaust & Humanity Center in the United States that has positive authentic space…,” said Jodi Elowitz, HHC Director of Education & Engagement. “This is the terminal where survivors had their first exposure to Cincinnati. We are taking care of the mission that was set forth by the people who came through the building, and we are honoring their legacy by having it in this space.”
“It’s incredible to think of the journey that the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center has made,” added Weiss. “When I think about the survivors who founded the [Holocaust & Humanity Center], I just wanted to ensure that people would learn from their stories and their experiences and that their stories would be a warning to future generations.”
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
Top photo on stage from left – HHC CEO Sarah Weiss, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, lead donors Nancy & David Wolf, HHC Board President Dr. John Cohen