PHOTO: Salvadore Dali's "Orah, Horah" is part of the collection of his works commissioned by the State of Israel on its 20th anniversary, will be part of the "But A Dream" exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education through the summer. (Courtesy OJMCHE)
By ROCKNE ROLL
With a pandemic closure and the preparation for a major expansion in the rear-view mirror, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education will stage a grand reopening celebration Sunday, June 11.
The centerpiece of the re-opening will be the museum’s 1,000 square feet of new exhibit space on the ground floor, much of which will be devoted to a new centerpiece permanent exhibit, “Human Rights After The Holocaust,” which uses the Holocaust as a foundation to discuss genocide and other human rights violations since 1945 as well as looking at the activism that is combatting hate around the world and here at home. That last part is an important facet for OJMCHE Executive Director Judy Margles.
“We don’t want visitors to come into this exhibition and just go, ‘Oh, this is so distressing, what you know, what can we possibly do,’ but to give them hope,” Margles said. “So, in the activism section, we’re talking about activism in Oregon, activism in Jewish communities around the world, and activism around the world.”
The exhibit, designed by former United States Holocaust Memorial Museum curator Scott Miller, consists of three sections. One centers on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established by the United Nations in 1948. Displays highlight each of its core principles and the ways they’ve been violated in the last three-quarters of a century. Behind that display is a discussion of genocide; how and where it’s happened – and happening. Margles knows this will be a lot for viewers to take in; in a world where we compartmentalize the news, seeing the enormity of what’s happening all at once is part of the point.
“In this exhibit, it’s just an atrocity, after atrocity, after atrocity. And it is distressing, and it seems difficult, and it seems impactful,” she said. “But I think it is going to have a point that we have a lot of work to do.”
One of the most powerful individual pieces of the exhibit are five strips of cloth covered in names and phone numbers. They belong to Mansour al-Omari, a Syrian journalist who was imprisoned by Bashar al-Assad’s regime for almost a year in 2012, during which time he was repeatedly tortured. When he learned that he was to be released, Margles explained, he fashioned a writing implement out of cloth, and wrote the names and phone numbers of 82 of his fellow prisoners on to strips of a t-shirt in a mixture of rust and blood, and smuggled them out when he was released so that he could contact the families of the men. Of the 82, four were released and are safe, seven are confirmed dead and the remaining 71 are unaccounted for.
Margles flew to Sweden, where al-Omari has received asylum, to pick up the five cloth strips earlier this year. She spent four hours with al-Omari in Stockholm.
“It was utterly transformative to me, for me to be with someone who has endured such atrocities,” she said. “I did leave thinking, ‘if there are people like that in this world, we’ve got a chance.’ He is not giving up. Not giving up at all.”
It’s a segue into the third portion of the exhibit, which shines a light on those fighting for change. The digital panels that make up this portion of the exhibit are changeable at a keystroke, and while some of the other portions may need a little more work to be changed, the exhibit is designed to be easily updateable as needed.
“We are talking about things in the present, and things are changing rapidly,” Margles said. “It’s an exhibit that’s live, literally living and breathing, because we have to keep updating it as things unfold. We can always hope that we won’t have anything to say, right?”
The museum will also unveil two new temporary exhibits. The first, titled “The Jews of Amsterdam: Rembrandt and Pander.” It combines a series of etchings produced by Rembrandt of Jewish residents of Amsterdam in the 1600s and paintings of the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam made in 2019 by Dutch painter and former Portland resident Henk Pander, who passed away in April of this year.
“Rembrandt lived in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam, and really is the first artist who normalized Jews in his work,” Margles explained. “These are drawings of Jews in Amsterdam. They are not vile; they are beautifully portrayed. He had wonderful relationships with his neighbors, and he is showing it in these beautiful etchings.”
Pander’s large-scale but delicate oil paintings detail the buildings of the same neighborhood, devoid of people, fusing the present with his recollections of childhood there during the aftermath of World War II.
The second summer exhibit is a series of works by Salvador Dali, who was commissioned by the State of Israel to create a series of paintings on the country’s 20th anniversary. The exhibit is titled “But A Dream,” a play of Dali’s surrealistic style, and includes a display of items from Oregonians discussing affairs in Mandatory Palestine in 1947, just before Israel’s establishment.
“It’s just a way to look at Israel, kind of through this dreamscape, and we’re really posing the question what happens when dreams and reality don’t quite line up,” Margles said. “A lot of it is just getting visitors to make their own observations about what they’re looking at.”
The museum’s gift shop will also reopen on June 11, while Lefty’s Café, now run by Jacob and Sons, will reopen on June 14.
The grand reopening will include a multicultural street party, with a land acknowledgment statement, performances by taiko drummers and Chinese lion dancers along with klezmer music and food trucks offering food for purchase. The party begins at noon and admission to the museum will be free that day. For more info, visit ojmche.org.