April 30, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Day

We mark this day in a number of meaningful ways at the Museum. One of the most important elements is bringing survivors to our galleries to talk with students and other visitors. These men and women share their wisdom, strength, and life lessons freely with the understanding that their stories will not be forgotten. As more than one student has told us, reading about the Holocaust cannot compare with talking to a survivor.

Some of our Museum family are artifact donors as well as survivors. When you imagine what men and women had to endure in the camps and on death marches, it is nearly impossible to envision how a birthday card or a child’s toy or eyeglasses could stand as the object that is a metaphor for one’s life. In any other situation these objects might be thrown in a box or worse, thrown away. But in our Museum they illustrate the humanity that would not be extinguished, the hope that would not fade, and the history that cannot be forgotten.

As our friends age a little more each day, we are fortunate that many have taken pen to paper and written their memoirs. While there are common threads that weave in and out of these accounts, I never fail to be amazed at the strength of character, the depth of love, or the sheer number of friends and loved ones who were taken away, but who live on in these books. Our Pickman Museum Shop offers a wealth of memoirs and I hope you will take the time to read through some.

On Friday morning the staff will participate in an intimate candlelighting ceremony. We do this before the Museum opens, without the glare of media. It is a chance to rededicate ourselves to the work of the Museum in our safe space. Six High School Apprentices (interns) are paired with six survivors. Each pair reads a statement and lights a candle. These statements were written by Norbert Friedman, a survivor and long-time member of the Museum family, now living in Florida. When we read these statements together it is as if Norbert is with us in the lobby. Norbert’s words are for anyone to use in a Holocaust commemoration.

CANDLE 1: In memory of the one-and-a-half-million innocent children whose lives were extinguished in the cruelest way, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 2: In memory of parents whose indescribable anguish of separation from their children was exceeded only by the torment of witnessing their murder, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 3: In memory of those saintly sages whose lives were dedicated to the teaching of Torah, and who went to their death with the cry of Sh’ma Yisrael on their lips, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 4: In memory of all the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to save and protect their Jewish brothers and sisters, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 5: In memory of all the brave souls who perished offering physical and spiritual resistance, not in expectation of conquest, but for the honor and glory of the Jewish People, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 6: In memory of all those men, women, and children who have no one else to remember them or say kaddish for them, whose very names have been erased, but whose memory lives on in our hearts and in our thoughts, for them, a candle is lit.

April 23, 2008

"To Return to the Land…”

Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, 1943

As we approached the 60th anniversary of Israel’s statehood, the Museum staff thought about how to mark this important anniversary. We could think of no better way to honor the birth of the State of Israel than by showing the powerful images of its struggle and its triumphs. "To Return to the Land…” Paul Goldman’s Photographs of the Birth of Israel does just that through Goldman’s beautifully composed and intimate work. The New York Sun called the exhibition “not-to-be-missed.”

Hungarian-born photojournalist Paul Goldman fled to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1940, where he chronicled the events leading up to the foundation of the State of Israel. Goldman’s photos of life before statehood, during the War of Independence, and the ingathering of dispersed Jews are complemented by rich memories of individuals who lived through those same events. Images and words together tell stories of the birth of Israel through the lenses of photographic and human memory. From Tel Aviv streetscapes to the bombing of the King David Hotel, from street vendors to Prime Ministers; both the extraordinary and every-day document this monumental story.

Goldman, born in 1900, fled Budapest in 1940 to escape the spreading threat of Nazism. He worked as a freelance photographer for local newspapers and international news services during the 1940s and 1950s. His role as a member of the British Army, and later as a confidant to important Israeli leaders, provided him with privileged access and a front-row view to Israel’s growing pains. Unfortunately, Goldman’s eyesight failed him in the early 1960s — he died penniless at the age of 86 in Israel. Sadly, he never was able to see Israel’s physical beauty beyond her adolescence.

Jewish State, Haifa, October 1947

The exhibition includes more than 40 images culled from a collection of negatives that lived in a shoebox until they were rediscovered in recent years. While Goldman was one of only a few photojournalists working in the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1940s, he remains largely unknown, mostly because of the practice at the time of not including photo credits in newspapers. The photos are on loan to the Museum from the collection of Spencer M. Partrich. After its run at the Museum (it closes on May 19th), "To Return to the Land..." will travel to the Oregon Jewish Museum in June.

(Photos by Paul Goldman. From the collection of Spencer M. Partrich/Photo Art Israel)

April 8, 2008

Suite Française.

Today we had a press conference announcing our upcoming exhibition, which will open on September 24th. Here are the remarks that I delivered this morning:

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We are extremely excited and pleased to be able to introduce our upcoming exhibition, Women of Letters: Irene Nemirovsky & Suite Française. We hope to see all of you in September when the exhibition opens at our Museum. We are very grateful to our hosts, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Kareen Rispal and her marvelous staff, especially Fabrice Gabriel and Amoury Laporte. And we are honored that Jack Lang could be with us this morning. Not only is Jack Lang a figure of great significance in the political and cultural life of contemporary France, but he is also the President of the Institut Memoires de L’Edition Contemporaine, also known as IMEC, a remarkable institution that has been our partner in this endeavor.

I am pleased beyond words to have met and to have worked with IMEC’s visionary founder and director, my friend, Olivier Corpet, and his talented and dedicated staff, especially Emmanuelle Lambert, who is with us today. I am also pleased that Garrett White, of Five Ties Press and the publisher of the companion volume to the exhibition, has also joined us this morning. And last but hardly least, I would like to introduce Sandra Smith, the gifted translator, who has made Irene Nemirovsky’s work so beautifully available to the English-speaking world.

It is most appropriate for me that we are holding this event in this place this morning. It was almost exactly two years ago that I attended the US book launch of SF in this very room. It was here that I saw for the first time what was perhaps the most powerful artifact I had ever seen. I am speaking of the leather notebook that contained the handwritten draft of SF, which was on view to the public for the first time.

In the last year or so of her life, in the small village of Issy L’Eveque, Irene Nemirovsky could be seen writing furiously in this notebook. Fearing that her supply of paper and ink would not last -- and that she was running out of time-- Irene wrote in a tiny script, filling the large pages of this notebook with stringy filaments of text. Like tiny capillaries, the blue veins of ink scored the ivory pages, animating them with her imaginings. She did not finish what she had started. She stopped work on this, her last project of a prodigiously productive career, when she was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where she perished. She left the notebook behind.

After her husband’s own deportation and murder, Irene’s two children—even as they were forced to go into hiding-- took possession of the notebook and the small valise into which it had been deposited along with family papers and photographs.

The story is well known now of how Denise, the older daughter, discovered decades after her mother’s death that the notebook was not her mother’s diary, as she had always believed it to be, not the diary that she had been afraid to open. It was instead the manuscript for SF. When I saw this artifact, I was profoundly moved by it. Even in our contemporary world, with its unlimited supply of sensory opportunities, the experience of being in the presence of an original artifact, especially one as powerful as this, cannot be matched in any medium.

I was moved by how this notebook communicated an entire story. I thought at that time, that this manuscript must be part of an exhibition at my Museum, but only if we could also exhibit the valise in which it had rested for more than fifty years before Denise opened and read it for the first time. Together, they would tell an impossibly poignant story about memory and forgetting, about mothers and daughters, about legacy and loss. I am thrilled to report that both objects will be in our exhibition.

When you are responsible, as we are, for relating the complex and difficult history that is the subject of our Museum, you learn over and over again that context is crucial. In our exhibition on Irene Nemirovsky, we intend to tell the story of a real woman who lived in a particular time and place and who was confronted with unimagined and unimaginable challenges. Our interest is not hagiography but rather history, history with all of its nuance and texture.

When we resolved to do an exhibition on Irene Nemirovsky, we realized that it might well be a controversial project for a Jewish museum to undertake. We knew that Irene seemed to have had an ambivalent connection to her Judaism and indeed converted to Catholicism in 1939. We knew that her early works contained disturbing stereotypes of Jews, and that she had been criticized for the company that she kept. I was confident, however, that her story was unambiguously a Holocaust story; after all, she was deported to Auschwitz and died there. And I was equally confident that hers was a Jewish story. Not only was she deported to Auschwitz with a Jewish star stitched to her blouse, but with all of its complexity, her story echoed and reflected the stories of many who shared her fate.

What I was not prepared for was that Irene and her memory would be the target of tendentious and mean-spirited attacks that would accuse her of self-hatred and perfidy and even suggest that her works contributed to a kind of enabling of those who ultimately killed her. I was not prepared for the suggestion by some that the story of the discovery of Suite Francaise was at best exaggerated and at worst fabricated – that commercial hype was responsible for the success of the book and not Irene’s talent, or the poignancy of her story. Ironically, some critics have created of Irene the very kind of one-dimensional stereotype that they excoriate her for including in her novels.

I do not intend to offer a defense against such baseless and destructive comments, except to say that anyone who reads the work of Irene Nemirovsky and understands the context in which she wrote, anyone who appreciates literature, will see ambiguity, perhaps ambivalence, but not anti-Semitism. And anyone who meets Irene’s daughter, Denise, and listens to her account of the discovery of SF, will neither question its authenticity nor its impact.

Now, good exhibitions should not be “books on the wall” overwhelming visitors with text and contextual orientation; and exhibitions do not have footnotes to add details or supply explanations. For us to provide the public with the kind of context that is necessary for a full understanding of a complicated story, we intend to produce a series of public programs that will examine in detail important issues that are raised in the exhibition. Moreover, as a part of the exhibition, we will create a space in which the public can read and discuss the works of Irene Nemirovsky – and her critics. In this reading room, we will organize programs and presentations and hope that it will become a venue for discussion and debate.

We have a reputation at the Museum for producing exhibitions on important topics that are exquisitely designed and executed, and that are mindful in their perspective and approach of the crucial context that is all important if history is to have meaning. We will do nothing less with this exhibition, and I would like to introduce the curator of Woman of Letters, my gifted deputy, Ivy Barsky, who will give you a very brief overview of the exhibition itself.

April 4, 2008


(Gift of Ione Steigler)

Last week, the Museum moved the offices of its affiliate, JewishGen, from Texas to New York. The move coincided with the departure from JewishGen of its founder and longtime managing director, Susan King (I am including excertps from our recent press release). The move will allow us to integrate JewishGen more intimately with the Museum's programs and mission, and I look forward to significant and meaningful improvements in the website and the important service it provides.

NEW YORK, NY – Susan King, the founder of JewishGen, the primary Internet source connecting Jewish genealogy researchers from around the world, is leaving the organization after 21 years.

“Susan King’s tenure as Managing Director of JewishGen has ended after more than two decades of extraordinary leadership of that pioneering institution,” announced Dr. David G. Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, which oversees JewishGen. “Susan’s vision and dedication saw JewishGen develop from a bulletin board in the early Internet era to the premier online resource for Jewish genealogy today.”

Dr. Marwell also announced the appointment of Warren Blatt, currently the Editor-in-Chief of JewishGen, to serve as JewishGen's new Managing Director. Mr. Blatt, who has been actively involved with JewishGen since 1990, was awarded the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. “Warren Blatt brings great skill and experience to his new position, and we look forward to working with him,” Dr. Marwell said.

In an email to the JewishGen community, Susan King wrote, “We can all take enormous pride in what we have established collectively. There is nothing better than knowing that you have fulfilled a dream and to know you have made a difference in so many lives. Even though I may be moving forward, please know that JewishGen will remain in my heart forever.”

Founded by Ms. King in 1987, JewishGen is the principal Internet source connecting Jewish genealogy researchers from around the world. With more than 300,000 registered users, its most popular features are the JewishGen Discussion Group, the JewishGen Family Finder, ShtetLinks sites for more than 200 communities, Yizkor Book translations, and databases containing more than 13 million genealogical records.

Created to assist those interested in researching their Jewish ancestry, JewishGen, Inc. is staffed primarily by volunteers. It is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, non-profit corporation relying on the generosity of its users to ensure continued growth. JewishGen has been an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage since 2003.