The World Trade Centre was an anchor for our neighbourhood, a north star to help one navigate the warrens of New York’s streets, a beacon for all who could catch a glimpse of its Twin Towers. The date of its destruction is a similar anchor to the calendar, a fixed point against which we measure our growth. As we gain distance from that day, pixilated images and inchoate impressions have found a measure of coherence, hardened to memory.
Our museum is just a few blocks south of the World Trade Centre site, and, on 9/11, we were engulfed by the giant cloud of dust and smoke and ash that emanated from the collapsed buildings. Our colleagues on that day found their way by foot and ferry to safer ground, but were forever marked by their shared experience. Located in the “frozen zone,” our neighbourhood was sealed off and inaccessible in the days and weeks following the attacks.
Following the attacks, we were faced with the daunting task of rebuilding. Although we suffered no significant physical damage, our collective sense of well-being and confidence were shattered. The museum family was spared direct loss, but each member of the staff who witnessed the attack and its aftermath was changed.
I was in Berlin on 9/11 at the opening of the Jewish Museum and returned erev Rosh Hashanah to find my apartment uninhabitable and my colleagues, each in their own way, responding to their collective and individual traumas. I had lunch with the museum’s chairman, Robert Morgenthau, a week or so after my return, and he told me to get the museum open again as soon as possible. I responded that it would be difficult since we were locked down by roadblocks and surrounded by armed guards.
“I’ll take care of the roadblocks,” he said, “you get the museum cleaned and ready.” He also instructed me to continue with our plans for a major expansion to our building.
Our museum was sited in the ‘frozen zone’
Although I did not voice them, I had many misgivings. It struck me as imprudent at that moment to commit scores of millions of dollars to a major building effort in a grievously wounded neighbourhood. But I followed his instructions; we reopened on October 5 and broke ground for the expansion in November.
Ours was the first new construction project in Lower Manhattan following 9/11, and we were warmed by this distinction, which held a particular resonance since our core exhibition focuses, in part, on the period following the Holocaust, with its dramatic story of the rebirth of life and community following great tragedy.
There were days when trucks conveying new steel for our construction mixed in traffic with trucks transporting twisted relics of steel away from Ground Zero. This jarring juxtaposition in the noisy street presented a potent metaphor for the continuity of life and the impulse to rebuild.
Our new wing opened on the second anniversary of 9/11, finally completing the original vision of the museum, providing a magnificent building permitting us to offer, finally, a full range of exhibitions and programming. Although more people can fit in my dining room than visited us each day during the period immediately following our reopening, the numbers are now up, and downtown is booming once again with new amenities and the promise of a bright future.
On the first yahrzeit of 9/11 (23rd of Ellul), we opened a remarkably moving and inspiring exhibition about 9/11 focusing on our neighbourhood and on the Jewish community, and we mark the anniversary each year with a memorial candle in our lobby and a commemorative programme in our theatre.
Since 9/11, we have experienced our share of natural disasters — two hurricanes (Irene and Super Storm Sandy) and even a mild earthquake. The disruption caused by these events, and their undeniable emotional impact, reminded us all of that September morning when the norms of everyday life were suddenly upturned, and the stabilising anchors of our lives were dislodged. But the waters subsided and the earth stopped shaking, and we were left again to face a world that was so unalterably changed 12 years ago.