The theme of survival is celebrated front and center at the Holocaust Center Gallery. The gallery window is lined with names — all are Holocaust survivors who settled in the Pittsburgh region. The gallery’s latest captivating exhibit, “Revolving Doors,” exemplifies that notion of survival.
The multimedia exhibit is filled with curated artifacts and artworks from the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s collection, many with very personal Pittsburgh connections. The chronological narrative begins in the 1800s with antisemitic caricatures and continues through the Holocaust to the Tree of Life tragedy and the state of antisemitism today. Pieces preserved from the past are combined with contemporary artists’ creations.
“We have the history of the Holocaust in this room,” says Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. “But we’re also telling a longer story about antisemitism. And it’s unique. I don’t know any other place that’s doing this at this point.
“We’re inspired to do that because when the attack on the Tree of Life building happened in 2018, we heard from students and community members all over the region. They were shocked because their Holocaust education made them believe that antisemitism dated from 1933 to 1945. To us, as Holocaust educators, we know that antisemitism is an ongoing violent threat.”
The name “Revolving Door” was inspired by a series of 10 paper collages made by artist Man Ray in 1916 and 1917. When the entire “Revolving Door” set debuted, the prints were displayed on a hinged, spinning stand similar to a revolving door that created the illusion of many objects moving in a small space. One of the panels is on display in the exhibit.
An example of assimilation, Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky to a Jewish family in Philadelphia. The family changed their last name to Ray to avoid antisemitism, a common practice in the early 20th century.
“We’re telling the story of antisemitism and assimilation and how they kind of go hand in hand,” says Bairnsfather. “They revolve; they come back around. We thought that the name of that piece of art is the perfect name for what we’re doing in this exhibit.”
Just as the term “revolving door” describes short-term solutions to recurring problems, the phrase catches one of the main challenges for the Holocaust Center: to recognize patterns from the past that are recurring today and to find alternative courses to break the cycle.
Each piece in the exhibit carries its own QR code that provides additional background and stories with fascinating details beyond the exhibit placard.
Take the Nazi Locomotive Eagle as an example. The QR code tells us about Staff Sergeant Arthur M. Ferguson of Butler who arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp weeks after its liberation. Ferguson, part of the 1282nd Engineer Combat Battalion, removed the metal eagle from a locomotive outside of the camp on April 27, 1945, and inscribed his initials and the date on the back. The eagle is displayed upside-down to show his inscription and avoid glorifying the Nazi symbol.
The sculpture of a tree titled “On This Day” comes from Pittsburgh-based artist Caroline Mead. She was a student at the University of Pittsburgh when she built the piece in 2019 in reaction to the Tree of Life attack. Her father, Dan Mead, was with the first unit to respond to the call and was injured by the shooter. The tree is made from birch, which is known to adapt and survive under harsh conditions. In her artist statement, she writes: “This tree stands for the world of difference that just one day can make.”
The Concentration Camp Prisoner’s Coat stops many visitors in their tracks with its recognizable design. Scan the QR code and learn how these uniforms helped dehumanize prisoners, who were referred to only by number, not by name.
This coat shows a special status for the prisoner who wore it. Pockets, for instance, were considered a luxury because they could hide extra rations. And this coat is made with a thicker fabric than standard-issue concentration camp uniforms.
Bairnsfather’s favorite piece is Jakob’s Torah, which dates to sometime before 1918.
“This artifact has been in our collection for many years,” she says, “but this is the first time we were able to display it. And it’s huge. … Those spindles are 4 feet long.”
Bairnsfather says she gets chills telling the story of the Torah and Jakob Weinblum, whose photo is encased alongside it:
Seventeen-year-old Jakob and his family lived in Forst, Germany, during Kristallnacht and he saved the Torah from their synagogue when it was destroyed. He and his family escaped to Shanghai but were only allowed one bag each. Jakob carried the Torah in his bag.
After the war, the family made their way to San Francisco and then to New York. There, the Torah sat in a closet while Jakob looked for a synagogue that would take it.
Finally, in 1977, the Tree of Life-Sfard Synagogue in White Oak accepted the Torah and brought it out for celebrations. Twenty-two years later, the Torah found a new home with the Holocaust Center.
“That we have it here is so important in the narrative of the exhibit because it covers the whole historical scope that we have here,” Bairnsfather says. “The whole timeline speaks to survival. So, while we have stories of violence and loss throughout this exhibit, this is the story of our survival.”
The “Revolving Doors” exhibit is located at the Holocaust Center Gallery in the Jenny King Mellon Library at Chatham University, the academic home of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Tickets to the exhibit are available Monday through Friday for three entry times: noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Reserve a free ticket online or by calling 412-421-1500.