PORTLAND, Ore. -- With sunlight streaming through the former art gallery’s near floor-to-ceiling windows and excited visitors streaming through its doors, directors of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education officially debuted their new 15,000 square-foot home to the public Sunday afternoon.
“It's phenomenal,” said executive director Judy Margles. “We couldn't be more excited.”
The new space, located at 724 Northwest Davis Street, is more than twice the size of the museum’s prior location near Northwest 20th and Kearney.
Futher, noted Margles, this one isn’t leased.
“We’ve been a museum for 25 years. We’ve never owned our own home,” she said. “So, arriving at this moment where we have permanence in Portland is astonishing.”
Margles and board members say ownership has been a goal for the museum for a long time, adding that expanding their space allowed them to add new exhibits with interactive, modern twists.
Downstairs, to the right of the entrance, visitors will find intricate Russian tapestries, divided into dozens of squares, each one displaying an image of a mythical-looking figure.
The tapestries correlate with a digital touch screen, which explains each figure as a take on the Jewish identity.
Located upstairs, the Holocaust exhibit features chilling relics like a knife and a fork, used in Auschwitz.
They sit alongside high-resolution video interviews from survivors, which play on a loop.
Feet from that sits an intricate explanation of the history of the Jewish people in Oregon.
Next to that, visitors found exhibits about discrimination in general; some examples were more recent.
Visitor Robert Wilner, who just finished a class on the Holocaust at Portland Community College, was glad to see the lessons of the Holocaust linked to more modern trends.
“People in their upbringing are not taught about it,” he said. “They need to know about it so they can have more respect for the fragility of humans.”
Sadly, said Margles, the museum's work in education is seeing a spike in interest.
“We've seen such an uptick in phone calls from schools who are experiencing anti-Semitism and racism in the classroom,” she said. “So, we've been sending our Holocaust educators out to speak to students.
Holocaust survivors on hand for the event say that trend is chilling but added the new space and its message give them hope.
“Helping to educate people about it makes people think and talk about it, and maybe help them to stand up for the rights of other people,” said Evelyn Banko, who escaped Nazi-occupied Austria with her parents.
“Hatred is not acceptable, doesn't get you anywhere. You have to accept people the way they are,” said Miriam Greenstein, whose family was captured by the Nazis in their home country of Poland.
Greenstein’s mother and father were murdered in separate camps. She came to Sunday’s opening with her daughter and other family.
She serves on the museum’s board and now, like Banko, speaks about her ordeal as much as possible.
“It is a first-class museum,” she said. “It is not just for Jewish people by any means.”
In May, 2016 the executive board began raising the needed $7.5 million to buy and renovate the new space.
As of Sunday, they’re just $350,000 short. If you'd like to donate, click here.