Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust bears witness

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In grade school, Randy Schoenberg made a 12-foot-tall family tree. In college at Princeton, he led a Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a litigator, he argued all the way to the Supreme Court on behalf of Maria Altmann and ultimately recovered five Nazi-looted Klimt paintings from Austria for his client.

“A psychiatrist from Vienna once gave me an article about this syndrome called the torchbearer syndrome,” says Schoenberg, 44, who has the intense, heavy-lidded eyes of his paternal grandfather, composer Arnold Schoenberg. “It’s very common in families affected by the Holocaust, where you have one person in the next generation or the generation after who becomes the keeper of mementos, the teller of family stories, the one who’s interested in preserving the history.”

Now Schoenberg, an L.A. native, has embarked on what might be his most ambitious historical undertaking: overseeing and helping to finance with his gains from the Altmann case the expansion of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in its new home in Pan Pacific Park. A 14,000-square-foot concrete cave of a building designed by Hagy Belzberg, the museum officially opens to the public Thursday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony expected to attract Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other dignitaries.


The new museum has nine galleries, covering topics that include pre-Holocaust Europe, the horrors of the concentration camps, and accounts of rescue and resistance. The goal, Schoenberg says, is to showcase artifacts and documents from the museum’s 3,000-plus-piece collection, alongside reproductions, such as large-scale photographs, that give the items context.

“In theory we could have made this one big theater and showed ‘ Schindler’s List’ on a reel all day long,” he says. “That would be wonderful in one way, but our goal is to show original artifacts so people feel like they’re in the presence of this terrible event — something tangible they can see and almost feel.”

He gestures toward a child’s shoe in a display case: “The idea is that this shoe belonged to an innocent child.”

Schoenberg says this content distinguishes the museum, founded in 1961, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which opened in 1993. As its name suggests, the Museum of Tolerance goes beyond the Holocaust to consider contemporary genocides and other sorts of discrimination, past and present, such as public school segregation or cyber-bullying.

“Everybody asks why Los Angeles needs two Holocaust museums. We came first — should we scrap our collection because a second museum opens or a third?” he asks. “Plus, we’re the only dedicated Holocaust museum in Los Angeles.”

Schoenberg speaks not only as president of the museum board but also as its de facto curator. The chairman of the board’s content development committee, he has written many of the wall panels himself and developed the basic concept for the iPod Touch-based audio guides. He also pays homage to his grandfathers, Arnold Schoenberg and fellow Austrian émigré composer Eric Zeisl, with a small section called “Holocaust and Music.”


He describes multiple points of entry into the new Holocaust museum, calling it open-ended, user-driven on a “museum 2.0” or “Wiki-museum” model. One gallery, for example, has 18 touch-screen monitors for 18 concentration camps, with choices such as “statistics,” “victims” and “survivors” providing more information and images on each. “It’s not just Auschwitz here,” Schoenberg says, pointing to lesser-known transit camps, such as Drancy in France.

He says the approach is more “experiential” at the Museum of Tolerance: “You walk in and the lights go off and a speaker goes on to tell you what you’re supposed to know — in a way it’s like Disneyland.”

Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance, rejects the analogy. “This is not some fun trip — our immersive experience has been shown to be extremely moving and effective from an educational standpoint.” (She also notes that a Disney Imagineering team on a recent visit “saw no parallels.”)

But she agrees with Schoenberg that there’s room for two museums. “There are millions and millions of people to serve in Southern California alone. There is always room for good education that helps raise our awareness so we can create a better world,” Geft says.

The L.A. Museum of the Holocaust was founded in 1961 by a group of local Holocaust survivors and for many years was a low-rent, low-profile operation. The museum had four locations, all on Wilshire Boulevard, before it separated legally from the Jewish Federation in 2003 and began looking for a permanent home.

Jona Goldrich, a longtime board member and a sponsor of the existing Holocaust Monument pillars in Pan Pacific Park, says he lobbied for the park location because of its diversity. “Being in the park lets us reach people who think of the Holocaust as a Jewish thing — they don’t realize that next time it might not happen to Jews but to another minority.” (Goldrich adds that in hopes of reaching more park visitors he is trying to overturn the museum’s plans to close on Saturdays in religious observance.)


By the time Schoenberg was elected board president in December 2005, the museum already had Belzberg’s plans for the park site in hand. The following month, to the surprise of many, Austrian judges in arbitration awarded Altmann the five looted Klimt paintings. Altmann and her relatives sold one canvas privately to Ronald Lauder of the Neue Galerie for an amount believed to exceed $130 million. The others went up for auction at Christie’s and brought a total of $192.7 million.

Schoenberg declines to confirm his cut, which Forbes reported as 40%, but he acknowledges that it was staggering. “I will admit I got a lot of money, probably more than anyone should ever get. I decided with my wife, Pam, that if we got all this money, we should be doing something good with it, and relevant to how we got it.”

To date, he has donated $6 million of the $19 million of anticipated building costs, plus an additional $1 million for operating costs. Other lead donors include Goldrich at $4 million and John Martz, a board member who donated $3 million before he died this year.

The board is now working to create an endowment — “ideally $20 million, which would be enough to operate the museum in perpetuity,” Schoenberg says, assuming an annual operating budget of $1 million. (The museum’s lease from the city is $1 a year for 50 years.)

Although the museum is open to the public with free admission, Schoenberg expects the core audience to be students, noting that the Holocaust is part of the 10th grade social studies curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The museum’s goal is 250 schoolchildren a day, or 50,000 a year. (The Museum of Tolerance says it sees around 130,000 students in groups a year.)

“You bring in that many kids and one of them one day is going to be mayor or governor or president,” Schoenberg says. “And one day someone is going to say to them that the Jews are making all of this stuff up. And they will say: No, I saw the documents and photographs.”


As for his own role in growing the museum, he says, “It feels a little like lawyering — you’re putting together evidence of the Holocaust.”