November 24, 2008

Holocaust by Bullets

Father Patrick Desbois at the Museum

We opened our newest special exhibition on Sunday night. Here are the remarks I delivered at the opening:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is David Marwell, and I am the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Opening an exhibition must surely be among a Museum Director’s most welcome responsibilities.

After all, it is exhibitions that are unique among a museum’s offerings to the cultural life of a community. To be sure, a museum presents a variety of programs and educational opportunities, but it is the exhibition that defines its singular contribution. Exhibitions, especially history exhibitions, combine many disciplines, apply the best elements of design and interpretation and, most important, showcase original and powerful artifacts. The creation of an exhibition is a remarkable process that involves thousands of decisions each made with a single objective – to enrich the public. And so I welcome the opportunity this evening to welcome all of you and to mark the opening of this remarkable exhibition.

Beyond a welcome responsibility, an opening is also an occasion to acknowledge all who were involved in creating the exhibition, and to thank those whose generosity made it possible. I am pleased to carry out my responsibility and will, with great pleasure acknowledge and thank.

First a word about the exhibition. The Shooting of Jews in Ukraine: Holocaust by Bullets joins another special exhibition at our Museum, Woman of Letters: Irene Nemirovsky and Suite Francaise, the story of a Jewish writer who was born in Kiev in 1903, who emigrated to France, and who perished in Auschwitz in 1942. Now, had Irene Nemirovsky, not left Kiev, she and her family would more than likely have been killed by bullets fired by a German policeman or soldier within a short distance from her home and within earshot, and perhaps under the gaze, of her neighbors. Irene’s fate, instead, was to be arrested in her home and transported by train to the ultimate site of her death, hundreds of miles away. The fate she left behind when she left the land of her birth, and the fate that she experienced when she moved to France define the Holocaust in its deadly diversity.

In much of the West, the Holocaust archetype is the concentration camp –epitomized by Auschwitz – a death factory to which Jews were brought from the far corners of Europe. In the former Soviet Union, however, the memories of the Holocaust are defined by mass shootings close to home. Certainly, information on these shootings, and how they were carried out has been available since the war. Knowledge (as distinct from information) and understanding of them was however, limited. That it was limited has much to do with the cold war and with how the narrative of the Holocaust was formulated and where it found its most articulate expression.

It took what many would suggest was an unlikely actor to investigate and make widely known these monstrous crimes. In a reversal of Irene Nemirovsky’s movements, Father Desbois left his native France and traveled to Ukraine in search of his own family history and ended up illuminating the history of hundreds of thousands of families. I don’t think there is a person who has heard the story of Father Patrick Desbois and his work who has not been immediately and deeply moved by this extraordinary man. His work and the work of his organization, Yahad in Unum, are at the heart of this exhibition. I will save any additional comments about Father Desbois until later, when I will interview him here on stage and give all of you an opportunity to ask your own questions.

Introduction of Eric de Rothschild
Holocaust by bullets was originally created by the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris. It opened there in June of 2007 to significant acclaim and received tens of thousands of visitors. When I visited Paris last year and toured the exhibition, I decided that we had to host this exhibition in New York. We worked closely with our French colleagues to create a North American version of the exhibition, adjusting the design to accommodate our space and revising the English text for an American audience. We are grateful to our French friends, especially Jacques Fredj, the director for the Memorial, Karel Fracopane, his “foreign minister,” and Sophie Nagiscarde, who was the curator of the exhibition.

It is now my pleasure and honor to introduce, Baron Eric de Rothschild, eminent financier, and distinguished leader of the French Jewish community. Among his many positions and honors, he is the president of the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris – a remarkable institution that would not have been possible without his vision, drive, and energy. Ladies and gentlemen, Baron Eric de Rothschild….

Thank the Staff
I want to thank those who made the New York version of the exhibition possible: Lou Levine and his team, especially, Jason Steinhauer, Sherrie Adler, Erica Blumenfeld, Matt Peverly, and Andy Piedilato; Mike Minerva, and his team. Our designers (Rita Meyers Design and Yvette Lenhart Design); the fabricators, Final Push Construction,

Thank the Funders
I do not want to say that it was easy to raise the necessary funds to support this exhibition. It is never easy to do that, but I will say that the three foundations that share the honor of bringing this exhibition to New York and share our profound gratitude, did not seem to need a great deal of convincing that this undertaking was worthy of their support. Their generosity and willingness are simply an indication of their true natures. They share the conviction that the story told by this exhibition is a story that needs to be told and needs to be heard. We are grateful beyond words to each of these foundations and pray that we have proven to them that that their support landed in worthy hands. We thank them all.

We thank the Robert I. Goldman Foundation, especially Walter Weiner, one of its trustees, and one of our trustees, who saw the value of this exhibition immediately, and knew that Robert Goldman, whose family history can be traced to areas where mass shootings took place during the Holocaust, would have been keenly interested in the subject matter of this exhibition.

We thank the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, and our Trustee, Lily Safra. The Museum is deeply indebted to Mrs. Safra, as we were to her late husband, our friend and trustee, Edmond J. Safra. We have benefitted from Lily’s continued support over the years, and especially for her magnificent gift of this theater, which bears her husband’s name and which is the venue for some of New York City’s most creative and powerful programs. The EJSPF has another intimate connection to this exhibition since they are important supporters of Father Desbois’s important work.

Introduction of Victor Pinchuk
Finally, we thank the Victor Pinchuk Foundation and its president, Thomas Eymond-Laritaz. The Victor Pinchuk Foundation is also a supporter of Father Desbois’s work and an early and passionate backer of this exhibition. As you can read in your program, the Foundation seeks to be a force for good in the world and has initiated innovative projects in the fields of health, education, and contemporary art. The driving force behind the Foundation is its founder, Victor Pinchuk, who has honored us this evening by traveling all the way from Ukraine to be here. Ladies and gentlemen, Victor Pinchuk….

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

November 10, 2008


Rosa Strygler at our Generation to Generation Dinner

We had our 20th annual Generation to Generation Dinner at the Museum last week and honored Rosa Stryler, our Trustee Emerita, who did so much to help establish the Museum. Rosa is a remarkable woman with a remarkable personal history. The following is an excerpt from my remarks at the dinner.
I can’t imagine a better place to honor Rosa or to contemplate her story. In so many ways, Rosa’s story is our story, the story that we teach in this Museum. Our many visitors can learn about Rosa, and the many like her, on each of the three floors of our core exhibition. On the first floor they can learn about the rich and varied and virbrant lives that Jews led before the Holocaust. On the second, they learn about the violent destruction of that life and the murder of millions, and the obliteration of communities and a way of life. On our third floor, they learn about the most inspiring and stirring story that we tell. Here they learn about how people returned to life after the Holocaust.

Surely the most profound, indeed heroic, phenomenon in the context of the Holocaust is that those who had been confronted with unimagined and unimaginable trauma -- the loss of loved ones, exposure to extreme and unrelenting violence, the constant presence of paralyzing and sickening fear – that these poor souls -- or at least some of them -- were able to choose and lead lives that followed a different path than their experience might have defined for them. Their response to death was desire – desire to grab a firm hold on life and pull from it meaning and pleasure. Surely one could have emerged from Rosa’s past severely handicapped, cynical and suspicious, damaged and demanding. That Rosa and others found their way to distill from life an essential spirit that looked away from dark despair and sought out the bright light of vitality and service and the pursuit of good works must undoubtedly be one of the most inspiring stories of the human spirit.

Just on the other side of the window behind me is the Garden of Stones that tells Rosa’s story with a quiet eloquence. This garden, composed of eighteen boulders out of each of which grows a single oak tree, gives powerful expression to the potent metaphor that life will take root and flourish even in the most unforgiving circumstances. The circumstances that defined Rosa’s young life, and that of so many of you, provided, it might seem, very little prospect for life to renew its vital force. Yet Rosa created a new life in this new land and pursued it with a single purpose that enriched so many other lives and from which we have all benefited.

We sit this evening within view of the Statue of Liberty. Think for a moment of the day when Rosa arrived in New York Harbor, beneath the benevolent gaze of that most beloved symbol. She was an orphan who had lost so much, her family and her childhood -- do you think that she might have imagined on that day, that some day, just across the water she might help to build a beautiful and proud museum that would tell her story? And that she would inspire others to work hard to ensure its survival.

Photo by Melanie Einzig