Looking across Tremont Street from an empty downtown building, reminders of the struggle for freedom and dignity are front and center. There’s the Granary Burying Ground, where Revolutionary heroes are interred, and Park Street Church, where the spark of the abolitionist movement was fanned into flame.
For Todd Ruderman and Jody Kipnis, this brick building along the Freedom Trail will be an ideal location for the city’s first Holocaust museum, an ambitious, self-funded project they hope will inspire future generations to continue the fight.
“If we can have one kid a day leave here and act differently and treat someone a little differently, then we’ve done our job,” Kipnis said. “We want to make it a call for action: Never again.”
With antisemitic acts and other hate crimes on the rise, and Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine descending toward genocide, Ruderman and Kipnis see a Holocaust museum as not only timely but essential going forward.
“There’s a tremendous amount of hate,” Ruderman said. “This will be more for the next generation, the youth. There’s a fear that it can happen again, and it’s a very real fear.”
The building was purchased recently for $11.5 million by the Holocaust Legacy Foundation, which the couple created and funded. Discussions have begun on how to transform its three floors and basement, as well as a possible fourth-floor addition, into a world-class, 18,000-square-foot museum.
“In an effort to have an efficient and fast-paced building process, we intend to fund the museum independently, without outside investors,” Kipnis said.
Ruderman, 53, has an extensive background in commercial real estate. Kipnis, 51, worked as a dental hygienist before shifting full time to the Holocaust Legacy Foundation. They both spent their early years in Malden, attended the same Jewish youth group in Peabody, and even lived in the same dorm at Northeastern University.
All without knowing each other until a blind date in 2016. They are now engaged.
“We believe our paths have brought us to where we need to be at this time in our lives,” Kipnis said.
The museum site once held classrooms for English-language instruction, and a 7-Eleven convenience store at street level, directly across Tremont Street from Park Street Church. Revamping the space is still early in the conceptual phase, but the couple envision an integration of artifacts, art, film, photos, text, and testimony from Holocaust survivors.
Visitors are expected to come from a broad swath of backgrounds: school groups, tourists on the Freedom Trail, and Bostonians interested in learning more about the many stories embedded in the horror.
The hope is to open in 2025, said Michael Berenbaum, an academic, writer, Holocaust researcher, and filmmaker whose company has been hired for concept and design work.
“We will test it with the community — people, educators, scholars — to understand how the museum works to make sure we are appropriate to the place and also appropriate to the time,” said Berenbaum, who was project director for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“We are in a moment of time, for example, where the last survivors are among us and will not be among us for long,” he said. “The audience is different from what it was 10 or 20 years ago.”
The Boston museum will be designed to complement the New England Holocaust Memorial, the six glass towers dedicated in 1995 near Faneuil Hall that honor the 6 million Jews and others murdered by the Nazis during World War II.
Michael Ross, the former Boston city councilor whose father, Stephan, was a Holocaust survivor and founded the memorial, said a new museum is “even more necessary today, a time of rampant escalation of antisemitism, racism, and hatred throughout the world, our country, and our region.”
Connections to the museum also are envisioned with Armenian Heritage Park, a memorial on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway that is dedicated to the victims of the 20th century’s first genocide.
Although about two-thirds of the Holocaust Museum will center on the Holocaust, Ruderman said, the overarching concept will be engendering respect for human dignity.
That’s a vision that resonates with Jack Trumpeter, a 79-year-old Cambridge man who was hidden with a Catholic farming family in the Netherlands from ages 3 months to 3 years as the Nazis searched for Jews in the countries they occupied.
“I got lucky because there were enough people who were smart and kind and brave. I’m here because there were great people,” said Trumpeter, who reunited with his parents, who also were hidden, after the Netherlands was liberated.
A new Holocaust museum is important to “know that this happened on our planet in our time,” said Trumpeter, a member of the advisory committee for Schechter Holocaust Services, which provides support for survivors in Greater Boston.
Kipnis and Ruderman said the idea had grown out of their experience with a youth program they founded several years ago called Holocaust Legacy Fellows, which seeks to perpetuate the memory and lessons of the Holocaust and includes visits to death camps and other sites.
After the program’s pilot trip in 2019, Kipnis said, “we came back wondering how we could make a bigger impact than just taking 16 to 20 Jewish teens to Germany and Poland each year.”
“We knew the Holocaust is not only a Jewish story. It’s a human story where killings were justified as taking the lives unworthy of living,” Kipnis continued. “We decided to build the museum to make a larger impact and make the unbelievable, believable.”
The couple have visited Holocaust museums around the globe, including one in South Africa that Ruderman said provided an “epiphany” of what could be done, even with limited space.
“We know that, beyond our children, they won’t have a chance to hear from a firsthand Holocaust survivor,” Kipnis said.
Berenbaum, who attended Boston University, said that the museum must be both “timely and timeless,” and that one of its goals must be pushing back against “the trivialization, the minimalization, and the falsification” of the Holocaust.
A glaring example is occurring in real time in Eastern Europe, he said.
“When Putin projects to the world that he is attacking the Nazi government of Ukraine, with a Jewish president, you have a falsification of enormous magnitude,” Berenbaum said.
The museum, located close to many Revolutionary landmarks, also will strive to connect with the aspirational American ideals.
“How do we relate this story today?” Berenbaum asked of the Holocaust. “How do we relate it to the founding of the United States, which are seemingly completely unrelated? We’re testing ideas at this point.”
One important comparison could be the Holocaust as the “desecration of human dignity,” Berenbaum said, and the “foundational idea” of the United States as “the potential of human dignity.”
Ruderman and Kipnis are all in.
“The story of the Holocaust teaches universal lessons,” Kipnis said. “How can human dignity be enhanced? When I leave the museum, what am I going to do differently?”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.