Bystanders No More

The new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum opens its doors. 

WORDS BY CONNIE DUFNER

 

Dallas has a new Holocaust museum for our time, one that acknowledges the horror and insists on the healing. Scheduled to open on September 18, 2019, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum is the permanent home of an institution that began in 1984 in the basement of the Jewish Community Center. At 55,000 square feet, the new building is five times larger than its "transition location" since 2005. Early attendance goals project 200,000 visitors a year, with about half of them schoolchildren.

"Our goal is to teach them to be upstanders, not bystanders," says Mary Pat Higgins, President and CEO. The upstander definition - someone who stands up to hatred and tries to make a difference - will be displayed prominently as you enter the exhibition spaces. "We want to promote upstander behavior, and everything in the visitor experience is wrapped around that."

The museum is one of 21 dedicated to the Holocaust in the United States, and the only one serving North Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

The building - distinctive with its copper roof ("the architect chose copper because it's been on a journey," offers Higgins) - is located down the block from the current location in the West End entertainment district. It is not lost on tourists or knowledgeable locals that it's around the corner from the Sixth Floor Museum, housed in the Texas School Book Depository building, that chronicles the life and legacy of JFK. History-minded Dallasites may also remember the downtown protest of the Piccadilly Cafeteria in May 1964 (subject of one of the museum's exhibits). Grim, yes; but do these coincidences of geography matter? Absolutely.

For the message of this museum is not about hiding or forgetting: It's about moving forward, about conquering inhumanity through humanity, education and awareness. Genocide and how to recognize it; modern persecution; civil rights; human rights abuse - nothing's off-limits. Yet with all of the chronicling of horror and hate, it's designed to reach always toward light and hope.

Near the end of the winding tour, for example, is the Call to Action room. Through interactive experiences, it "challenges visitors how to become upstanders," Higgins says. "You will be able to share what you are most passionate about.'' Digital stations will provide tablets that enable you to send an email indicating your interest in an organization that has made a difference even before you leave the building. For frequent Holocaust museumgoers, it's a refreshing respite from often-somber visits.

Beginning the Journey 

You'll purchase tickets for arrival timed to thirty-minute increments. Orientation begins with a four-minute film, after which the doors to the permanent exhibit will open to a flight of stairs. "Most of our visitors aren't Jewish," Higgins says. "The film asks the question, 'Why should I care about the Holocaust? What difference can I make anyway?'"

Walls lining the staircase to the permanent exhibition feature the history of the Jewish people; the roots of monotheism and the history of antisemitism; and photos of local survivors and their lives before the Holocaust. "We want people to realize that they weren't just victims. They had families too. We want people to realize, 'this could have been my family, too,'" Higgins says. The exhibition is divided into three core sections: The Holocaust/Shoah, Human Rights and Genocides, and Pivot to America.

The Shoah: Geography and Chronology

This section features a history of the Holocaust and how antisemitism played out geographically throughout Europe. It includes a replica of swastika banners at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, a chilling symbol of Nazi power, as well as testimony of more than one hundred Dallas survivors. It also contains the "seminal artifact" Higgins says, a railcar used to transport Jews to the death camps. (The Dallas museum was the first American museum to acquire a railcar.) It ends with the story of liberation: "where they went, when they came and then embraced America." Proud of their new home, one survivor's photo features a family in Dallas of the 1950s, with a young girl wearing cowboy boots.

Human Rights Wing: Documentation and Prevention

This exhibition space is devoted to the Nuremburg trials and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the starkly named Genocide Gallery. Here, visitors can learn about the progression of genocide through ten other historic events, each with a parallel to the Holocaust. "The goal is to come through with a basic understanding of the ten stages of genocide, and to understand them with an awareness of what's happening today," Higgins says.

Pivot to America: Equality and Freedom

This concluding gallery features stations on major American events, including slavery, the Native American experience, LGBTQ+ rights, civil rights and more. Visitors will "learn about how upstanders have worked through the democratic process," to build better lives, Higgins says. "This focuses on our incredible country and how we have been focused on our ideals." Visitors can also experience sitting in the Piccadilly Cafeteria in 1964 to protest the refusal to serve Clarence Broadnax, an African American hairdresser at Neiman Marcus. You'll also learn to confront your biases, known and unknown, in the Beyond Tolerance Theater. You'll take a step toward a more just, kind society in the Call to Action Gallery and, finally, pause to mourn the lives lost in the Holocaust, genocide and so many expressions of hate. After all, for so many, there are no graves to visit.

The Reflection and Remembrance Gallery is the only room with natural light, Higgins explains. Here, before stepping back into the history-laden corner of Dallas, the stories come back to life, never to be forgotten.

Details

Opening Date: September 18, 2019 Where: 300 N. Houston St., Dallas

Hours: Open daily, not recommended for children younger than 12 Monday – Friday: 9:30 a.m.– 5 p.m. Saturday – Sunday: 10 a.m.– 5 p.m.