August 27, 2007
Mengele Investigation, Brazil (April, 1986)
Readers of The New York Times will have noticed the obituary last week of Dr. Leslie Lukash, former Nassau County medical examiner. Dr. Lukash was one of the team of forensic experts sent to Sao Paulo, Brazil in June of 1985 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to examine the purported remains of Josef Mengele, the notorious Auschwitz physician and war criminal. There were a lot of experts there: the Brazilian team from the Medical-legal Institute, a team from Germany, and two teams from the US -- the Lukash team and one assembled by the US Department of Justice.
A significant tension characterized the evaluation of the remains. Romeu Tuma, the Chief of the Federal Police in Sao Paulo, presided over the investigation and ferried between the international press on one hand, and the assembled team of experts, on the other. He seemed acutely aware of being at center stage in the biggest story of the day and wanted to make sure that he could deliver a confident answer on the question of the identity of the skeleton while public and press interest remained high. I was present at the private meetings and can report that, although there was no overt pressure, Tuma wanted an answer soon.
There was a deep split within the group of forensic experts. The Wiesenthal Center team, with Lukash at its head, argued that it was too early to close the case. There was still more investigation necessary and there were issues that needed clarification. Others were willing to be more definite. The assembled group of specialists -- forensic pathologists, radiologists, odontologists, finally agreed upon compromise language and settled on the formulation that the body was Mengele's "within a reasonable scientific certainty." Tuma got the answer he wanted, hosted a dramatic press conference, announced the findings, and closed the investigation. Within a short amount of time, Tuma rose to the position of Chief of the Brazilian Federal Police.
It could have ended there: a closed case with many loose ends and a great deal of uncertainty. A few of us at the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department appealed to Neal Sher, the head of our office, to allow work to continue on the case. There were, we argued, a number of leads that needed pursuing and newly discovered sources that needed study. With Neal's approval, and without the glare of publicity, we returned to Sao Paulo in April 1986 and followed those leads and studied the sources, including Mengele's diaries and correspondence which were found after the body was discovered.
The new sources led to the discovery of additional medical and dental records, which removed the ambiguities and uncertainty that had been present earlier on, and which would have, over time, undermined confidence in the conclusion that Mengele was dead. Like that of JFK and Marilyn Monroe (and others), the death of Josef Mengele might have been the subject of speculation and suspicion. Instead, with patience and careful work, we addressed every issue and removed all doubt.
August 22, 2007
Museum Program on the Armenian Genocide, 2005
The subject of the Armenian Genocide was in the news over the past few days. The Regional Director of the ADL in Boston, Andrew Tarsy, was fired by the National Director, Abe Foxman, for openly challenging the policy of the ADL to avoid using the term, "genocide," in connection with the Armenian tragedy. The precipating event involved intense opposition to an ADL program in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Local residents opposed the town's involvement in the ADL program because of the ADL's policy regarding the the use of the term, "genocide." Tarsy had apparently defended the ADL position until he decided that it was no longer possible for him to do so. He publicly refuted the position and was promptly fired by Foxman. In an unusual turn of events, Foxman reversed himself yesterday and stated what happened to the Armenians was "tantamount to genocide."
The complexities of this issue are not to be underestimated; they extend beyond the technical definition of genocide and involve highly-charged questions of geopolitics and international relations. We have had some experience with this subject at the Museum. Two years ago, we had a public program about the Armenian Genocide, and I received a number of phone calls from Jewish leaders in New York urging me to reconsider. The following is an excerpt from my remarks that evening:
Before I introduce our moderator and tonight’s guest, I want to say a few words about this evening’s program and about why we decided to hold it at the Museum. I say this because we have been criticized by some about our decision.
It is hard to imagine a subject that so underscores the power of history to move and to motivate than the Armenian Genocide. Those who are unaware of the ongoing, passionate, and politicized debate about this nine-decades-old history will be surprised, no doubt, that the program we hold this evening has been the object of an attempt to pressure and influence the Museum.
Earlier this month, our Chairman, Robert Morgenthau, and I received letters from the Consul General of Turkey in New York, who stated his disappointment that the Museum was planning to hold an event that would be “defamatory to Turkey and likely impede efforts to promote reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.” The Consul General wrote that it was “disheartening” that “[t]hose who choose acrimony over dialogue” had been given permission to hold an event at the Museum. He predicted in his letter that the participants would try to “build a lasting equivalence between the unique experience that is the Holocaust and the tragedy that befell the Ottoman Armenians at the end of the First World War.”
Let me be clear. I understand why the Consul General wrote to me. It is an indication of how real and raw this history is, and I mean no offense to the Turkish Government in raising this issue this evening.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it may not need to be said, but let me say it anyway: at its root, history is not a matter of opinion. To be sure, our libraries are full of books that interpret history differently, that offer wide ranging explanations for the causes, and differing accounts for the effects of historical events. In many ways, these differences can be defining. But it is the job of the historian, and the well informed citizen, to try to understand what happened – the how it happened, and why it happened, can be argued and debated. But what happened needs to become part of a common currency – a shared vocabulary. What happened is not a matter of opinion.
Our guest this evening, Ara Sarafian, has produced a set of volumes that contribute significantly to our knowledge of what happened in the Ottoman Empire 90 years ago. He has published a complete edition of the diary of Henry Morgenthau, US Ambassador to Constantinople from 1913 to 1916. And a compilation of official US records on the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1917. These volumes, both together and apart, provide crucial evidence about what happened 90 years ago in Ottoman Turkey. Sarafian has given us access to the raw material of history – an eyewitness contemporary account, and official documentation. His mission was not to interpret these records, but rather to place them at our disposal, for our own clear reading.
It is particularly ironic that tonight’s program should have invited such opposition from official Turkish sources and from others who have called me on their behalf. It is ironic because tonight’s program introduces primary source materials that are part of our own American history and that can be examined openly and freely by anyone who wishes. If all of the records that are relevant to the history that is the subject of tonight’s program were similarly available, perhaps much of the heat of an unproductive and distracting debate would be replaced by a cleansing light.
Allow me from this podium this evening to call for complete and open access to all records that bear on this tragic history. Let others follow Ara Sarafian’s example and work to secure free and unfettered access to every relevant record.
There is, of course, another reason why it is appropriate for us to hold this program in this Museum this evening. Above our door stands the name Robert M. Morgenthau. Our Chairman and the DA of New York County is the grandson of the man whose diary is the subject of our program. There are clearly many who influenced Robert Morgenthau to pursue a public life, but my bet is that the example of his grandfather was extremely important. So beyond the debt we owe Henry Morgenthau for his clear and insistent voice during difficult times, we can add the part he played in setting his grandson on a path of civic and communal service.
For many reasons (some of which I touched upon in my remarks), the subject of the Armenian Genocide is of particular interest to us at the Museum. We will continue to explore this subject in public programs and hope to deal with it in an upcoming exhibition. Stay tuned.
(Photo by Melanie Einzig)
August 16, 2007
The Jewish Week asked me to write a tribute to Raul Hilberg. The following, an edited and expanded version of the previous blog, was published today, in the August 17th issue.
Documenting The Horror
Remembering the pioneering work, and presence, of Raul Hilberg.
David G. Marwell - Special To The Jewish Week
When I learned last week that professor Raul Hilberg had died from lung cancer at 81, it was a sad reminder of the passing of a generation. Nearly every week, we learn of the death of another Holocaust survivor or World War II veteran, and we wonder what our world will be like without them.
Hilberg was born in 1926 in Vienna, left his native land for Cuba in 1939, and eventually landed in the United States. A graduate of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, Brooklyn College and Columbia University, he served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. He was a political science professor at the University of Vermont for more than 35 years.
I first encountered Hilberg in the form of his landmark book, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” which I had been assigned — all 790 pages — as the seminar reading for one particular week during my junior year of college in the spring of 1972. The two-inch-thick-plus paperback, which cost $3.95, is on my bookshelf today, and I still consult it.
The book, first published in 1961 and followed by two expanded and updated editions over the years, was based on Hilberg’s meticulous examination of the transcripts and exhibits of the Nuremberg trials and the huge collection of captured German records to which he had access as a member of the team of analysts hired to catalog and assess them. From these documents, Hilberg revealed a comprehensive picture of the Nazi regime, its institutions and the bureaucracy that was its backbone. Hilberg’s reliance on the documents and his skill in putting them into context made a powerful impression on me.
And I was not the only one. Indeed, Hilberg’s work defined a field of study and inspired a generation of scholars. In his memoir, “The Politics of Memory,” published in 1996, Hilberg describes the origin of his masterwork — the lonely effort, the years of research and writing, the long and difficult search for a publisher. He also describes the surprising inspiration he found. Hilberg tells how he arranged his narrative in the way he believed Beethoven crafted a symphony: “I grasped for an overall symmetry. ... The first chapter was thematically reflected in the last. The second was matched with the next to last, and the third with the tenth. The longest of my chapters was the one on deportations. It was the Andante of my composition, with a theme and multiple variations that mirrored the special conditions under which deportations were carried out in each country.”
Perhaps the musical metaphor reached too far, but Hilberg had composed a masterpiece, whose contribution to our understanding of the actions of the perpetrators remains unmatched.
When I worked for the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s, I had the opportunity not only to meet Hilberg but to work with him. He served as an expert witness in a number of our cases, and I was assigned to work in preparing him for his testimony. I confess that I was star-struck when I first met him because he was so towering a figure to me, and I was nervous indeed when I first delivered to Hilberg the fruits of my own archival research for his interpretation. We met in his office at the University of Vermont and in his home in Burlington, and I saw firsthand how he approached a document.
Hilberg was of a generation of scholars who came of age before the advent of low-cost photocopying and computers, and I remember him describing his research methods to me. He made his way through archives with pencil and paper, taking careful notes and digesting key documents. His mastery of those documents and their meaning was a model for all of us who worked in the field.
“I could not write about this complex phenomenon without searching for evidence in pieces of paper, sifting them, combining them, immersing myself in the atmosphere of the time when they had been composed, measuring the pulse of the whole development and assessing its gravity,” he wrote in “Sources of Holocaust Research,” published in 2001.
Hilberg was a riveting speaker — in the courtroom and at the lectern — with a distinctive voice and elocution. He could deliver a stream of well-structured paragraphs, extemporaneously, as if he had drafted and edited them beforehand. Those who saw him in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” will recall his measured tone and simple eloquence. Those who had the privilege of hearing him in person will not forget the precision and clarity of his delivery.
I was privileged to have known Raul Hilberg and to have sat at his feet. I will remember him with profound respect and affection and will treasure my dog-eared copy of his path-breaking work. It will remind me of a great scholar who labored to make clear what was unimaginable.
August 7, 2007
Raul Hilberg at the Museum, January 2005
I first encountered Raul Hilberg in the form of his magisterial book, The Destruction of the European Jews, which I had been assigned -- all 790 pages -- as the reading for a particular week in a seminar I took in my junior year of college in the spring of 1972. The two-inch-thick-plus paperback, which cost $3.95, is on my bookshelf today, and I still consult it from time to time. The book is based on Hilberg's careful examination of the huge collection of captured German records which first became available to scholars in the 1950's. From these documents, Hilberg revealed a comprehensive picture of the Nazi regime, its institutions and the bureaucracy that was its backbone. Hilberg's reliance on the documents and his skill in putting them into context made a mighty impression on me.
Later, when I worked for the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, I had the opportunity not only to meet Hilberg, but to work with him (I confess that I was star-struck because he was so towering a figure to me). He served as an expert witness in a number of our cases, and I was assigned to work in preparing him for his testimony. I met with him in his office at the University of Vermont and in his home in Burlington. Hilberg was of a generation of scholars who came of age before the advent of low-cost xerography and computers. He made his way through archives with pencil and paper, taking careful notes and digesting key documents. His mastery of those documents and their meaning was a model for all of us who worked in the field. Hilberg was also a riveting speaker, who could deliver well structured paragraphs, extemporaneously, as if he had drafted and edited them beforehand. Those who saw him in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah will recall his measured tone and simple eloquence.
I was privileged to have known Raul Hilberg and to have sat at his feet. I am saddened by his passing and will remember him with profound respect and affection.
(Photo by Melanie Einzig)