September 26, 2007

Ruth Gruber at 96

Ruth Gruber at the Museum
(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

One of the genuinely great pleasures of my job has been the opportunity to get to know the legendary Ruth Gruber, and to be able, on occasion, to be in her presence. For those who do not know of Ruth, I have appended excerpts from a recent press release, which outlines her career. Ruth Gruber has led one of the 20th Century's most remarkable lives. She was not only a witness to significant events of the past century, but she brought to her witnessing a prodigious talent as a writer and photographer. Ruth is an inspiration, and we have been privileged to have an exhibition of her photographs, From the Heart -- The Photojournalism of Ruth Gruber, which will be on view until December 2, 2007. We wish Ruth the happiest of birthdays!

Ruth Gruber is —without a doubt — a force of nature and living history. In her new book, Witness (Schocken Books, 2007), she illustrates, through haunting and life-affirming photographs taken while on assignment, the cultures, the people, the courage, and the hope she witnessed first-hand during most of the 20th century. Today, at 95, Ruth Gruber is an inspiration. The photographs and stories in Witness chronicle not only the daring adventures of one woman, but provide new insights into some of the most dramatic events of the last century.

Among the photographs and essays included in Witness are Ms. Gruber’s accounts of:
 Her top secret assignment for FDR and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, where she accompanied 1,000 refugees to America — the only Jewish refugees allowed in this country — and brought them to Fort Ontario, Oswego, NY. This chapter of her life was made into a CBS mini-series with Natasha Richardson as Ruth and was the subject of her much lauded book Haven.

 The most harrowing story she reported on as a journalist, when she witnessed the American lend lease boat, Exodus 1947, try to deliver 4,500 Jewish refugees — including 600 orphans — to Israel when it was attacked by five British destroyers and a cruiser. Gruber witnessed the Exodus 1947 entering the Haifa harbor and watched the British storm the ship. She writes how the Exodus crew fought back with potatoes, sticks, and cans of kosher meat. Gruber stayed with the Exodus prisoners when the British sent them back to Germany aboard the prison ship Runnymede Park. Her account of those events—Exodus 1947—was published in 1948 and was used by Leon Uris to write his best-selling novel Exodus.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1912, Ms. Gruber graduated from New York University in three years, received her master's from the University of Wisconsin a year later, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne (magna cum laude) a year after that. At age 19, she was the youngest Ph.D. in the world, and made headlines in the New York Times because of it.

Gruber’s thesis in Germany was the first book ever written on Virginia Woolf; most of Woolf's work was still to be written and published. Never before published in America, that thesis, Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman, was released in 2006 by Carroll & Graf.

In 1935 at the age of 24, Ms. Gruber was hired by Helen Rogers Reid, publisher and owner of the New York Herald Tribune, to be an international correspondent. In 1998, Gruber received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She is the author of 19 books, including I Went to the Soviet Arctic, Destination Palestine, Haven, and Raquela. She lives in New York City.

September 25, 2007

The UN, Iran, and Albania...

NYPD Security Post with Museum in the Background

Every year at the end of September, New York is transformed. The United Nations General Assembly meets, and leaders from around the world come to New York. Located, as we are, across the street from the Ritz Carlton Hotel, our lives are affected each year by the annual migration. For whatever reason, the Ritz is considered an appropriate place for high visibility leaders to stay. It may be that it is easier to provide the necessary level of security.

In any case, for this entire week, the Ritz, and consequently the Museum, has been subjected to the most visible and rigorous security precautions that one can imagine. For periods of time, the entire area is blocked off, requiring arriving hotel guests to be dropped off hundreds of feet from the hotel. Portable bollards have been installed, and there are literally hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothed law enforcement personnel all over the place. For much of last week, the rumor was that President Ahmadinejad would be staying there along with the Iraqi leader. The local press speculated that the Iranian President might just pop across the street and visit the Museum.

We were faced with the delicate issue of how to handle a possible visit from Ahmadinejad and whether to invite him (as many had urged us to do). We were opposed to issuing an invitation but committed to allowing a visit were it to take place. Because of all of the speculation about a possible visit, and in light of the significant publicity that his appearance at Columbia had engendered, we decided to prepare a statement, which we issued late yesterday afternoon:

We have not extended an invitation to President Ahmadinejad to visit the Museum, nor do we intend to do so. As an institution dedicated to educating the public about the Holocaust, we open our doors each year to tens of thousands of people of all ages and from all backgrounds. Were President Ahmadenijad to visit the museum, he, like all of our visitors, would be confronted with the undeniable fact of the Holocaust --a powerful antidote to the poisonous distortions of history.

It seems unlikely that he will show up at our door, but we did receive a very special visit yesterday from a man of a very different calibre -- Sali Berisha, the Prime Minister of Albania. He came by to see the Museum and visit with our Chairman, Robert Morgenthau. Prime Minster Berisha is a former president of his country and also the former leader of the opposition. Sitting across from this impressive man, I reflected on those men and women in the post-communist era, who came to fill positions and take leadership roles in totally unexpected ways. These individuals were not groomed for the government and diplomatic posts that they were called upon to fill, but stepped forward to change the course of the history of their countries.

The Prime Minister talked with us about the little known history of Albania during World War II, and the admirable record of benign treatment and protection of the Jewish Population. We agreed that the Museum would investigate the possibility of public programs or a small exhibition on this important topic.

It was an exhausting and exhilarating day of contrasts, personalities, and some high drama.

September 10, 2007

9/11 and our 10th Anniversary

The Museum and the World Trade Center
(Photo by Peter Goldberg)

The Museum was dedicated on September 11, 1997, and this week, along with remembering the sixth anniversary of 9/11, we are marking the tenth anniversary of the Museum. Last week, I received an email from Jonathan Mark, one of the most thoughtful and talented writers at The Jewish Week, and in the entire Anglo-Jewish press, for that matter. Jonathan enters my thoughts each year around this time because I got to know him in September 2001, when we were both invited to participate in a study trip to Germany, sponsored by the German government, which included participating in the opening of the Berlin Jewish Museum on September 10th. We were in Leipzig on the afternoon of 11th, and had just toured the Gewandthaus, when we learned by cell phone of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Our group, including John Silber, the former president of Boston University, was scheduled to return to the US the next day. We were forced, however, to remain in Germany through the next weekend, and some, Jonathan included, remained through Rosh Hashanah.

I got back to the US on Monday, September 17, spent Rosh Hashanah with my family in Washington, and returned to New York on September 20th. It was then that I met with our Chairman, Robert Morgenthau, and it was then when he told me to get the Museum open as soon as possible and to move forward with the construction of our new wing.

Anyway, Jonathan Mark wrote a quick note last week to thank me and my colleagues for helping him with a story he was doing on our special exhibition, The Other Promised Land. After the thanks, his note concluded:

My admiration keeps growing for the museum's coverage of the Jewish experience, beyond the Shoah, and I very much appreciate how helpful you've always been. Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos folks would be proud of you. Of all the Holocaust memorials and museums I've seen, no one but MJH has that Oyneg Shabbos sensitivity for capturing the sweet essence and small pleasures of Jewish life that was and that is. You all do a tremendous job.

Children's Calendar (Ringelblum Archives)

Jonathan, likely had no idea how especially meaningful his comments were, but he paid us the highest compliment imaginable. He might not have remembered that in September 2001 we were actively working on our special exhibition, Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto , which is about Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos, a group that met secretly to collect and to record details about the lives of Jews in Poland under Nazi domination. The collection was buried in tin boxes and milk cans, only to be recovered after the war (there remains an undiscovered and presumably irretrievably lost cache). The original artifacts, lent for the first time outside of Poland, were scheduled to arrive on 9/11 and were delayed several weeks. For reasons that I cannot adequately articulate, our exhibition on Ringelblum struck a deeply resonant chord with all of us at the Museum when we opened it in November, and my colleagues and I will forever identify the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath in some significant way with our work on Ringelblum.

And the link with Ringelblum has been deepened since we opened Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust, which places the work of Oyneg Shabbos in the context of the Jewish response to the Holocaust. In June, during our mission to Germany and Poland, we visited the Jewish Historical Institute, and were invited into the vault there by the director,Lena Bergman, and given the rare opportunity to view originals from the Ringelblum Archive and see the milk can in which they had been buried and in which they outlived their creators and survived to tell their story. For many, it was their first and likely their only opportunity to see these originals. It was for me like visiting old friends, for these documents had hung on our walls in the months following 9/11.

Jonathan’s note came at the right time; I can’t imagine a better way to sum up our first ten years as an institution...