It seemed fitting that I would head into New York City today to research the St. Louis on the 71st anniversary of its sailing. After spending a couple of hours at the Joint Distribution Committee archives midtown, I traveled to the tip of Manhattan and Battery Park to see the permanent St. Louis exhibit on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place.
But, being the researcher I am, I wanted to take advantage of my time at the museum. After a lovely smoked salmon sandwich at the museum’s second floor cafe, I entered the Traces of Memory exhibit–a photography gallery depicting the traces of Jewish heritage in Krakow, Poland and nearby Auschwitz. (The photos reminded me very much of those I took during my 2008 trip to my grandparents’ villages in Poland–see some of them on my website.) I found the photos haunting, especially one that showed a doorpost with a gouge where the mezzuzah once was. (And that reminded me that I should have looked for that while in my grandfather’s shtetl.)
Another exhibit, actually an interactive gallery called the Keeping History Center, offered earphones and an iPOD to listen to immigrant voices about leaving home, language, adapting to life in America and more. It seemed especially significant that the gallery looks out upon New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island. Voices featured included Henry Kissinger, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, as well as lesser known immigrants from Europe and more recent immigrants from Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Rwanda.
Several school groups were in the museum, led by impressive docents or teachers.
I finally found the St. Louis exhibit. It displayed some ephemera (letters, certificates, etc.) and articles loaned by survivors, such as a photo album. I diligently watched the video that included newsreel footage. I could hear the band playing as the refugees boarded the ship in Hamburg. I immediately recognized the tune of the old German folksong, “Muss i denn.” (Elvis Presley actually recorded this at some point.) The newsreels captured so much visually that I haven’t read about, for instance, just how close friends and family could get to the St. Louis cabin portholes to talk to and touch their loved ones on board.
If you’re in New York City for any reason, make sure you carve out some time to visit this museum.
Question for you: Have you ever been inspired by a museum visit to write a specific story?