Museum of Tolerance Opens, Hailed as a Treasure With a Timely Message


After more than five years of planning, $50 million and a fair bit of controversy, the Simon Wiesenthal Center dedicated its new Museum of Tolerance on Monday, opening its doors to hundreds of guests from around the globe and kicking off a high-profile campaign to lure visitors.

“CBS This Morning” broadcast live from the museum, introducing television viewers across the country to its gleaming marble facade and its challenging mission: to confront bigotry and highlight the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust.

Then, as a heavy rain fell on an abandoned outdoor stage, politicians, diplomats, clergymen, schoolchildren and Holocaust survivors crowded inside the lobby of the domed, eight-level complex on West Pico Boulevard to hear tributes to a place many are calling one of the most remarkable museums in the world.

“Some might say: ‘Why here, in Los Angeles? And why now, at the end of the 20th Century?”’ said Gov. Pete Wilson, one of many speakers who said the museum--which opens to the public today--was well timed and well situated to attack prejudice head-on. “This museum is a treasure, a treasure especially needed in this California, the most diverse society in the history of mankind.”


Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky agreed.

“In this city of ours, which in its own way is troubled, there is possibly no better place for a Museum of Tolerance,” he said. “If every citizen of Los Angeles--every Asian-American, every African-American, Anglo-American and Latino-American--will walk through the halls of this museum and heed its lessons . . . then this city will have nothing to worry about.”

Part of what prompts such praise is the museum’s sophisticated use of high-tech gadgetry. Employing what the Wiesenthal Center’s dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, calls “the medium of the age” to reach younger visitors, the museum has installed several interactive computers among its 75 exhibits. The goal: to engage even visitors who are not particularly interested in the Holocaust and its legacy.

Moreover, scholars say the Museum of Tolerance is unusual in that it puts ideas--not artifacts--at its center and uses humor to coax visitors into pondering issues that they might avoid. In doing so, many believe it succeeds in portraying the Holocaust not merely as a tragedy of years gone by, but also as a timely inspiration for action here and now.

“This is a monument for the future,” Abraham Secemski, 68, a survivor of a Nazi forced-labor camp in Poland, said as he gazed proudly around the building. Secemski, who was among 40 witnesses whose testimony last year helped convict Nazi commandant Josef Schwammberger of more than 700 murders, said he knew well the importance of memory.

“The museum is going to bring a lot of young people to their senses,” he said, dismissing the suggestion by some critics that by replicating the Warsaw ghetto and the gates of Auschwitz, the museum may have overstepped the bounds of good taste. “What could be more upsetting than it really was?”

The dedication ceremony capped several days of festivities that celebrated the new institution, gave thanks to its supporters and paid tribute to its namesake, the 84-year-old Nazi hunter and scholar Simon Wiesenthal. Dubbed the “Fulfill the Vision” weekend, the string of parties and events also helped raise the final $3 million needed to complete the museum.

For the price of $25,000 per couple, benefactors were treated to VIP tours of the facility, an inaugural concert in the 324-seat theater and a star-studded gala dinner Sunday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The black-tie dinner, which counted actors Martin Landau, Valerie Harper and Arnold Schwarzenegger among its guests, also featured videotaped congratulations from President Clinton.


“You have set an example for all of us,” Clinton told the museum’s creators. “Hillary and I look forward to visiting.”

Wiesenthal was one of the first to visit the museum last weekend, and he said he was very pleased with what he saw.

“Happy is not a word that I’m using after what happened to me, but I have a satisfaction,” said Wiesenthal, a Vienna resident who, after being freed from a concentration camp 47 years ago, abandoned his former career as an architect to devote himself to bringing Nazis to justice.

With a swarm of reporters in tow, he walked slowly through the museum’s corridors Monday, pointing out high points that he found particularly moving. At one point, a videotaped exhibit blurted out ethnic slurs and stereotypes.


“This is very important,” he said. “Because words can kill. And this we should recognize. . . . Nazis didn’t start with gas chambers. They started with dividing people. I always say: ‘Information is defense.’ But we were uninformed.”

He exited the museum’s first half, called the Tolerance Workshop, and entered its stylized walk through the history of the Holocaust.

“In this center, when you walk in you are beginning with today--with racism. Because without racism, the Holocaust could not exist,” he said. “When you walk out of here you are absolutely another person because you are thinking: ‘What can be done that all this horror will not repeat? . . . Recognition makes the danger half.”



The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance is at 9786 W. Pico Blvd., a corner that on Monday was formally renamed Simon Wiesenthal Plaza. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $4.50 for students and senior citizens and free to public school students accompanied by a teacher. On-site parking is free. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays; from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The museum is closed on Saturdays.