November 24, 2009

Kennedy Assassination

This past Sunday, November 22nd, my thoughts turned as they do each year to that day in 1963 when President Kennedy was murdered.  I was in the sixth grade and can remember clearly that I was in class when one of the teachers came in with a concerned face and reported that the president had been shot.  We left class, and I can remember watching Walter Cronkite (on one of those big televisions on a wheeled cart) as he reported in a shaken voice that the president was dead.

Thirty years later, I was appointed Executive Director of the JFK Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB).  This independent federal agency was established in the wake of the Oliver Stone film to identify, locate, and make available all records related to the Kennedy assassination.   To accomplish this challenging task, the ARRB was given a range of powerful tools.  The Review Board, composed of five members appointed by the President and confirmed by the senate, included two historians recommended by the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, a librarian recommended by the Association of American Archivists, an attorney recommended by the American Bar Association, and a member at large.  The ARRB was ably led by Judge John Tunheim of Minnesota.  I was appointed as staff director and hired the staff, located and constructed our offices, and established the procedures and policies to carry out the unusual and daunting task that Congress has set out for us.    

Normally, agencies have the power to release their records to, or withhold their records from, the public. The public has recourse through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to challenge an agency's decision.  Moreover, certain records, like the operational records of the CIA, are exempt from FOIA.  In the case of the ARRB, the decision on access to assassination-related records (as defined by the ARRB) rested with the ARRB.

Under the Act that established the ARRB, all assassination-related records were presumed to be open, and the agencies had the burden to prove why they should continue to be classified.  The Act provided several provisions under which an assassination record, or a part of an assassination record, could continue to be withheld. These provisions included personal privacy, presidential security, and intelligence sources and methods.  The Review Board ruled on the agency requests, and the agency's only appellate recourse was to the President, who had the non-delegable  authority to overturn a decision of the Review Board.  We had the power to grant immunity and issue subpoenas. The staff all were granted the highest level of national security clearance and we had daily dealings with all of the relevant federal agencies.  We also extended our reach to state and private records, and interpreted our mandate to include the clarification of existing records.

In the end, we opened a vast collection of records at the National Archives and set release dates for those records,and portions of records,  that the ARRB agreed should continue to be withheld.  Our final report was issued in September 1998, after I had left the ARRB.

November 13, 2009

The Morgenthaus

The Morgenthaus: Henry Sr., Henry Jr., Joan, Henry III, Robert

We held our press preview this morning for our newest special exhibition, The Morgenthaus: A Legacy of Service, which opens to the public on Monday, November 16th  Visit our Exhibition Website to discover more about this remarkable family and their contribution.

Here are my remarks from this morning's event:

I welcome you this morning to the Museum and to a preview of our newest special exhibition, The Morgenthaus: A Legacy of Service.  Let me note at the outset that it is not a normal occurrence for a Museum to mount an exhibition that explores the life and family of its chairman.  Indeed, I would imagine that it is a unique.  But then, the Morgenthau family is unique – unique in its impact on history, unique in its example of service, and unique in the opportunity it offers to explore import themes and events of world, American, and Jewish history. 

Like most exhibitions and good ideas, the origins of this one are difficult to pinpoint with precision.  It really began as at least two exhibition ideas.  We had wanted to address the question of the Armenian Genocide, and we had wanted to address the question of the American response to the Holocaust.  Examining the history of the Morgenthau family has allowed us to do both and much more. 

January 1, 2010, will be almost the first day in nearly a century that a Morgenthau has not gotten up, shaken off sleep, knotted his tie, and set off to do the people’s work.  This nearly unbroken, century-long, chain of public service reveals much about this family, and our exhibition shows how its individual members reacted at times of crisis to find within themselves deep reservoirs of strength and commitment to the public good.  Indeed, one historian comments that there may well have been something in the Morgenthau DNA that equipped them to respond the way they did. 

Now I don’t know much about DNA, but I do something about the DA, the Honorable Robert M. Morgenthau, who is with us this morning.  Normally one might think that there could be significant risk for a Museum director to prepare an exhibition about his boss’s family and his boss.  One could worry that a mistake could mean their job, and when the boss is the DA, one could be thinking handcuffs and jail time.  Not with Bob Morgenthau, whose absolute fidelity to the purest principles of independence and fairness extends to his service to this Museum. Work on this exhibition began a long time ago, long before we knew that the Boss would not be running for his tenth term. He and his siblings were extremely generous with their memories and their possessions, which have provided rich material for this exhibition.

This morning is the first time Bob Morgenthau will have a chance to see the exhibition, and we hope that he, like you, will find it balanced and accurate and educational and enriching. While, I am certain that he will likely learn no new facts about himself or his family, he will see important artifacts for the first time and will see the lives of his grandfather and father, and indeed his own career, placed in a context that draws from them a fascinating, profound, and powerful story of legacy and service.

November 10, 2009

Kristallnacht and the Return of a Stolen Bible

Yesterday, we hosted an event that saw the return of a 16th century bible to the Jewish community of Vienna, from which it was looted 71 years ago on Kristallnacht. Here are my introductory remarks at the ceremony:

I want to welcome you to the Museum and to this important event that marks the return of a priceless book to its rightful owners after more than seven decades. This is not the first such return of stolen property that has taken place at the Museum, and we are pleased to be host today.  We believe that, as an institution dedicated to Memory and Hope and to continuity and heritage, there could be no better place.

It is appropriate, I believe, that we recall what took place in Germany and Austria, seventy-one years ago today, on November 9 and 10, 1938.  We recall the hundreds of synagogues plundered and burned, the thousands of shops, businesses, and homes looted, their windows smashed, giving a name to this horrific night, -- Kristallnacht -- “Night of Broken Glass.”  We recall those who were forced to leave their homes and their possessions.  We recall those who were, imprisoned, beaten, driven to suicide, and murdered. And we recall the darkest history for which Kristallnacht served as portent.

We are grateful to Professor Ori Soltes for researching the provenance of the Bible that is being returned today.  Details of his research can be found in your press kits. 

The Bible being returned is more than the paper, ink and binding, or the words and frontispiece image that comprise its contents. It is a powerful symbol. 

It is a symbol of the centuries-long connection between the Jewish people and its sense of God; 

It is a symbol in the long and complex history of Jewish-Christian relations; consider that it was printed in the Ghetto in Venice at the beginning of the 16th Century.
It is a symbol of the larger love of books on the part of Jews as a People of the Book. 

It is a symbol of the immense theft of art and cultural property that was an integral part of Holocaust.  We must always remember that the Holocaust was not only the greatest murder of all time, but it was also the greatest theft.

And finally this Bible is a symbol of continuity of Jewish life and a sign that, even after more than a half century, that there can be some small measure of justice. 

November 9, 2009

The Berlin Wall: Twenty Years

Fragment of the Berlin Wall

Over the weekend, I attended a reunion of Americans (Army, State Department, civilians) who were present in Berlin when the wall fell twenty years ago.  I saw many old friends and colleague, and my memories flew back to that most exciting and surreal night.  I had a front-row seat at one of the most remarkable events in modern history.  The fall of the wall and the periods both preceding and
following it changed the world.

The following is an excerpt from the commencement speech I delivered last July at Touro College in Berlin: 

My family joined me in Berlin shortly after New Years, arriving at the very beginning of 1989.   In the context of the wide sweep of European history, with the exception, perhaps, of 1848, did a single year see such a confluence of potentially history changing events as occurred in 1989.  The year did not start happily in Berlin.  In January, Erich Honecker boasted that the Wall would still be standing in “50 or even in 100 years.”  On February 6, Chris Gueffroy, a 20-year-old East German, was shot dead as he tried to cross the Wall.  On the same day, the communist regime in Warsaw began talks with the Solidarity trade union and its leader Lech Walesa.   Also in February, the Soviets pulled their last troops out of Afghanistan.  In March, Winfried Freudenberg fell from the sky into a garden in Zehlendorf as he was attempting an escape by hot air balloon from East Berlin.

In April 1989, Solidarity gained legal standing in Poland, and students in China marched in Tiananmen Square.  By May, there were demonstrations in more than 400 cities in China, until martial law was imposed.   In June, the Ayatollah Khomeini died, marking the end of the beginning of the Islamic revolution.  One wonders today whether we may be witnessing the beginning of its end.

During the summer of 1989, East Germans, free to travel within the East bloc, flocked to Hungary where they then crossed into Austria and gathered in the compounds of the West German Embassies in Prague and Budapest.   Tens of thousands left.  In September, the Hungarians let 14,000 East Germans pass through in a single week. 

During the autumn of 1989, large crowds demonstrated in Leipzig and other cities.  In the midst of all of this, the East German government held a celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the German Democratic Republic.  The heads of state from the East bloc countries attended;  Ceaucescu and Honecker, of course.  Within months, one would be dead by firing squad and the other out of office.

In early November, my wife and children had returned to the States for a visit, where I was to join them for the Thanksgiving holiday.  With no family obligations, I worked late on the evening of November 9th, and happened to catch Guenther Schabowski’s now-famous news conference on the car radio as I drove home from work.  I will confess to you that I had no idea of its far-reaching significance as I made my way through the streets of Zehlendorf.  Of course, neither did Schabowski or anyone else for that matter.  When I arrived home, I turned on CNN and watched as the incredible scenes unfolded.   Although my home in Grunewald was too far away for me to actually watch the streams of Trabis that poured into West Berlin, the atmosphere was electric. 

The next day, I took Bus 29 all the way down the Kudamm and witnessed the throngs of people.  There were huge lines surrounding all of West Berlin’s banks, which extended their hours to disburse the 100 mark--Begrussungsgeld--that each East German citizen was eligible to receive.  Food markets were selling bananas at an alarming rate, and along the Wall itself, there were surreal scenes that are now familiar even iconic pictures.
That weekend, as the world watched the historic events on television, I was present as the section of the Wall by Potsdamer Platz was removed by a crane, and Mayor Momper with his red scarf marched across.  The air was filled with the irregular cadence of chisels striking concrete around the city as the Wall began to fall victim to individual demolition efforts and souvenir collecting.    

September 14, 2009

Fred Gottschalk

Fred Gottschalk and DGM, Spring 2001

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

Dr. Alfred Gottschalk died on Saturday after a long struggle to recover from injuries that he received in an automobile accident last fall. I attended his funeral today at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati. Fred was my boss for a number of months when I first arrived at the Museum. He had assumed a new position at the Museum -- that of President -- after the founding director, David Altshuler resigned in 1999.

Fred came to the Museum after a brilliant career at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), where, following in the footsteps of his mentor, Nelson Glueck, Fred became President 1971 and Chancellor in 1995.

Fred was a huge personality with great personal charm, genuine warmth, and intelligence. Born in Germany in 1930, Fred and his family were lucky to get out after Kristallnacht and make their way to the United States. After Boys High and Brookyn College, Fred attended HUC and was ordained a Rabbi in 1957. He later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

His impact on the Jewish world was immense, not only through his own contribution as a scholar and communal leader, but also in the impact he had on the thousands of rabbis and other religious and communal leaders, whom he taught and touched in profound ways. Fred ordained the first female Rabbi and did much to strengthen and make more meaningful Jewish life in America.

There were four eulogies at the funeral today. Three by distinguished Rabbis -- all students of Fred's -- and one by his daughter on behalf of his family. The collective message of all of them was that Fred Gottschalk was an extraordinary figure both in his public accomplishments and in the human qualities he brought to his friendships and private relationships.

I was fortunate, indeed, to have had a chance to work closely with Fred Gottschalk, to have been by his side for a while, and to have called him my friend.

September 11, 2009

September 11th

View From My Apartment Window 

It's impossible today not to focus on memories, and my mind keeps circling back to an event that we held at the Museum in early 2002 for the community to offer thoughts on healing after 9/11.  Here are the remarks that I delivered at that emotional event:

Remembering and rebuilding represent the essential themes of this Museum. Carefully carved into the granite in our lobby are two quotes form the Bible: “Remember, Never Forget,” and “There is hope for the future.”

We take these messages seriously and reflect them in our programs, in our exhibitions, and in our actions.

Shortly after 9/11, I met with Museum chairman Robert Morgenthau. He gave me very clear instructions: (1) reopen the Museum as soon as possible, and (2) continue with the planning for the construction of the East Wing.

On October 5, we held a ceremony in this room, attended by Governor Pataki, Senator Clinton, and NYC officials, and reopened this Museum. In late November, we began construction on the East Wing. We were able to achieve these important objectives only through heroic and Herculean efforts on the part of Museum staff.

I want to say something about the staff.

Although the Museum had not yet opened to the public when the WTC was attacked on the morning of 9/11, the staff was here in the Museum building and in our executive offices across Battery Park. They were among the first to see the second plane as it flew overhead and hit the second tower. They were intimate eye-witnesses to these events, and each has there own story of how they got from work to home that night or in the days following.

Each has had their own reaction to the tragedy. Each of them came back to work and focused their considerable energy on reopening the Museum and providing programs again for the public. And each has dealt every day in different ways with the aftermath of that morning. I am immensely proud of my colleagues and grateful to them.

As many of you may know, I was in Germany on 9/11 and was spared the trauma of the witness. I experienced a kind of exile in Berlin, connected to my colleagues and my family by CNN and

Last night, in thinking about what I would say this evening, I reviewed some of my email communications from 9/11. I came across an email that my then 13 year-old son, Gabriel, sent me. (I recall my wife describing my son in this effort as a cross between Homer Simpson and Benjamin Franklin.) My family lives in University Park, Maryland, where I join them each weekend. A family from our neighborhood was on the plane that hit the Pentagon, and Gabe had gone to elementary school with one of the two little girls, Zoe, who was killed.

Late in the evening of 9/11, he wrote this email to all of his friends and family. I received it in my cramped hotel room in Berlin. I quote from it here because it seems appropriate for this evening.

Gabe wrote: ”I understand that people handle their anger and sorrow in many different ways, and I respect it… This is a time when we want to retreat to our childhood, just to be a small child with no idea what's happening and just to sit there and be told by our parents that everything's going to be ok. With that in mind, I feel that we should all be there for each other. I have two shoulders here, and if you need them to cry on, I'm here for you.”

This event is our attempt as an institution to address the issues raised by our collective and individual responses to 9/11, and to serve our community, to be there for you.

We are very gratified that so many of you came this evening. I see among you colleagues and neighbors. This evening is for you, but unlike any other program that we have ever done, it is also for us.

September 1, 2009

70 Years Ago...

German soldiers prepare to enter Poland

World War II began seventy years ago today with the German invasion of Poland, and the world was forever changed.

I recall that on the 50th anniversary -- 20 years ago -- (I was living in Berlin and serving as the Director of the Berlin Document Center) I was invited to participate in an international conference on the start of World War II, which was held at the Reichstag building in West berlin. Our host was Rita Süssmuth, the President of the German Bundestag, and I recall having a tour of the building. This was, of course, still divided Berlin, and we were taken to a room on the east side for a photo-op of Frau Süssmuth gazing out at East Berlin.

The conference, which was by invitation only, was attended by a small number of historians from around the world. We were hosted one evening by Chancellor Kohl at Schloß Charlottenburg. I recall that he spoke from handwritten notes for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes and then joined us for a glass of wine. He was particularly interested in speaking with a French scholar (whose name I can no longer remembe) whose work on the Third Republic had made a deep impression on Kohl. I was taken by Kohl's engagement and the level of his participation in this event.

Six weeks after this conference, on October 6th, I observed the preparations for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the DDR. Erich Honecker invited Gorbachev, Ceauşescu and other leaders of East Bloc countries. There was a military parade and stirring oratory. Four weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the world changed again...

August 27, 2009

Goodbye, Irène...

Irène Némirovsky and her family, August 1939.
(Courtesy of IMEC)

Seventy years ago the Némirovsky family had no idea of the tragedy that the next years would bring. They were a family intact with successful parents and beloved daughters, who believed that they had every prospect of continuing as they were. The photo above captures the last moments of this family before the beginning of the war that would change everything.

On Monday morning, we will begin to take down our exhibition, Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française. If you haven't seen this exhibition, Sunday is your last chance. If you miss it, you will have failed to see one of the most profoundly beautiful exhibitions ever mounted. Just having the opportunity to see the handwritten manuscript of Suite Française would be worth the visit. Seeing it in the context of the richly illustrated story of Irène's life, is an unmatched opportunity.

I am obviously proud of this exhibition and filled with admiration for its curator (and my Deputy) Ivy Barsky and its designer, Amy Forman, and the many others who worked so hard on it, including Sarah Griswold (who was the assistant curator) and Henrietta Foster (who made the brilliant films). My thoughts also turn to Denise Epstein, Irène's daughter, who gave so much, and to our friends at IMEC, who were the best possible partners. The entire experience of creating this exhibition was a remarkable one for all of us -- the things we learned, the friends we made, and the irreplaceable feeling of satisfaction that we did something important and did it so well.

I always feel regret when we take down one of our exhibitions. So much effort goes into them, and they become, for a while, such an integral part of the Museum. This weekend, I will feel not only regret, but a deep sense of loss. Thankfully, we can focus on the good prospect of Woman of Letters opening again (in a modified form) in Paris sometime in the future.

August 23, 2009


Jonathan Wenk/Columbia Pictures

I saw "Julia and Julie" last weekend and was very moved. I suppose my reaction had much to do with my own relationship with Julia Child. I used to joke that I took Julia to bed with me most nights at college -- I meant the book, of course. I read both volumes cover to cover, and I cooked my way through most of the recipes. I also watched her various TV shows with rapt attention. My favorite was the Chicken Marengo show, when she butchered a chicken with a cavalry saber as she recounted Napoleon's victory in the decisive Battle of Marengo.

There is no doubt that memories of food and the social context of food -- preparing it and partaking of it -- are among the most potent that humans have. And I was reminded of this power as I reviewed the draft of a cookbook, Recipes Remembered, which will be published in association with the Museum some time next year. The author, June Hersh, interviewed a number of Holocaust survivors and others whose lives were disrupted by the Holocaust, and recounts their stories including one or more recipes of defining dishes. Altogether a charming project.

Getting back to the film. Meryl Streep's Julia is uncanny. She delivers a miraculous performance that captures Julia perfectly -- including Julia's saucy side. Streep is also a favorite of mine for many reasons, not the least of which is the magical job she did for us on our audio tour. She and Yitzhak Perlman accompany our visitors through the core exhibition with warmth and sensitivity.

August 18, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Francois Duhamel/
Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

We had a sneak preview of Quentin Tarantino's new film, Inglourious Basterds, last week at the Museum. The screening was introduced by Harvey Weinstein, and Tarantino hosted a Q&A after the film joined by Melanie Laurent, the female lead.

I will confess that I was nervous about this screening given the nature of our audience and the distinct possibility that some might have come to see the film thinking it was a serious movie about a serious history. Well, it's not. I had seen the movie several weeks ago in a mid-town screening room. It is, in parts, stunningly violent, and it departs from historical fact in both intended and unintended ways.

By now, most people are aware of its premise: a rag-tag group of Jewish soldiers are dropped into occupied France to kill --and scalp -- Nazis in dramatically violent ways. The denouement involves the kind of revenge that some people dream about: A movie theater filled with Nazi leaders and the German High Command that is.... well, I won't spoil it.

Now, we were careful to warn everyone about the explicit violence and the fantasy nature of the film, but nevertheless, as I scanned the faces of the audience as they arrived at the Museum, I was concerned.

My worries were misplaced. With one or two exceptions, the audience remained throughout the screening, and the general reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive. I think Inglourious Basterds has every prospect of becoming a sensational success. It is brilliantly acted, with sharp and intelligent dialogue, and is chock full of subtle --and not so subtle-- film allusions. I also think that it will attract its share of criticism from those who will claim that it trivializes the Holocaust, champions revenge at the expense of morality, and devalues historical truth.

Harvey Weinstein anticipated such criticism in his introduction to the screening by saying the first words of the film are, "Once upon a time," emphasizing its fable-like character. And Quentin Tarantino responded to one critic during the Q&A by saying, "It's a war movie, dude." For my part, I am perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief -- and perhaps some of my better judgment -- in the face of such a thoroughly entertaining and well-made movie.

Quentin Tarantino, Rita Lerner, DGM, Ann Oster at the Screening
(Photo by Max Lewkowicz)

July 31, 2009

90th Birthday

Robert M. Morgenthau during WWII

I attended the 90th birthday party of our Chairman Robert M. Morgenthau last night. It was a wonderful celebration for family and friends. One guest remarked that Morgenthau was one of the few people he knew who had to leave work early to attend his 90th birthday. It is indeed remarkable that "the Boss" is still so active and engaged, not only in his day job as Manhattan DA, but also for the benefit of the Museum. Here is the toast I delivered at the party:

Judy and I are honored beyond words to have been invited to celebrate your 90th birthday with you. On behalf of all of my colleagues, I raise my glass to you, Boss, and convey a museum-full of good wishes and affection.

Your impact on all of us has been so rich and profound, it is no wonder that our next exhibition, opening on November 15th, will tell your story and the story of your family. We know that the legacy of public service that inspired you, and to which you have added so remarkably, will move and inspire our visitors as it has all of us.

Thank you for devoting so much of your precious time and prodigious energy to the Museum, thank you for your wise counsel, thank you for the example you have set for us all.


The exhibition that we are working on, The Morgenthaus: A Legacy of Public Service, will examine three generations of the Morgenthau family and their contribution to American life. With the help of Robert Morgenthau and his two siblings, Henry and Joan (both of whom were there last night), we have collected extremely interesting artifacts and stories. More about this wonderful exhibition later.

July 29, 2009

New Homepage Design for JewishGen

We launched a new design for the JewishGen website homepage this week in advance of the annual meeting of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS), which opens this weekend in Philadelphia. If you haven't visited JewishGen, now would be a good time to try it. There is a special introduction for beginners, and the JewishGen FAQs offer a comprehensive guide to getting started with Jewish geneaology.

June 23, 2009

Officer Johns

(Note: This post was originally published on June 14th, but got lost somehow in the ether...)

Yesterday, I had just started my walk. I was in the City by myself (my wife was on an annual weekend retreat with her book group) and was looking forward to an uptempo crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge -- a route that offers a surprising incline and the most dramatic views of Brooklyn and Manhattan. As I was approaching J&R, the famous electronics retailer, with my head filled with the Philip Roth novel on my Ipod, I was startled by a hand on my back. I turned quickly to confront whomever it was who had invaded my personal space, and found myself face to face with the kind and funny Rabbi Katz from the Chabad in lower Manhattan. "Are you doing anything now?" he asked, obviously not thinking that my purposeful pace and deep, Roth-inspired concentration represented meaningful occupation. "I'm taking a walk," I replied, "heading for the Brooklyn Bridge." "I need you for a minion, " he told me, and so off we went to the Chabad's small room on the second floor of a nondescript building a block off of Broadway.

At the end of the service, during which I was given the honor of being called up to say a prayer before and after the reading of a portion of the Torah, Rabbi Katz spoke of the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. He spoke of the murdered guard, Stephen Tyrone Johns, and of his courage and of his status in the Rabbi's mind as a righteous gentile, who had given his life to save others.

Of course, Rabbi Katz was right. Officer Johns performed a heroic deed and quite likely helped save many lives. The shooting in Washington brought significant focus to our Museum as well. Local news focused on our institution and the security we had in place. My colleagues and I participated in more than twenty press calls and we were given broad coverage in the local broadcast media.

Our message was that our Museum has always had a high level of security. In the wake of the shootings, we have examined our security program and taken additional steps. We believe that a visit to the Museum is more important now than ever as a statement against ignorance and hate.

May 20, 2009

New Life Exhibition

Henryk Schönker and his Grandson, Ori
(Photo by Hamutal Davidl)
On May 5, I was in Poland and had the great pleasure of attending the opening of the latest exhibition at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim, which is an affiliate of our Museum. Entitled, New Life, the exhibition is a photographic tribute to Holocaust survivors from Oświęcim, Poland who live in Israel today. The exhibition illustrates the continuation of Jewish life after the Holocaust in the context of those who found a “new life” in Israel.
Through images and testimony, New Life tells the powerful story of the triumph of life in the face of overwhelming devastation.  The exhibition presents 19 contemporary photographs of Jews born in Oświęcim who are now living in Israel with their descendants.  The photographs are accompanied by text panels with personal stories of survival, the subjects’ return to Oświęcim after the Holocaust, and life in Israel. 
A documentary film with former Jewish residents of Oświęcim, along with their children and grandchildren, expressing their feelings about their hometown, Poland, and life in Israel is also featured in the exhibit
Visitors at the Exhibition 
(Photo curtesy of Auschwitz Jewish Center)

May 1, 2009

Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow

Ernst Borinski teaching at Tougaloo College, MS, CA 1960.
(Photo courtesy Tougaloo College Archives and The Mississippi Department of Archives and History)
Last night, we opened our latest special exhibition, Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges. It was a very warm event with former students, and the families of professors, from the colleges represented in the exhibition in attendance. The exhibition examines the relationships that were forged between Jewish refugee professors from Germany and Austria and their students at the historically black colleges in the south, where they taught.
Here are some excerpts from my welcoming remarks:
I welcome you warmly to the Museum this evening and to the opening of this extraordinary exhibition, Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges. I have said before that exhibitions are a museum’s unique contribution to the cultural life of this city, and so it is always exciting for me to welcome our supporters and colleagues to an opening. Exhibitions are what museums do that no other institutions do, and we are justly proud this evening of what we offer you.

It is not often in this Museum that we can open an exhibition that tells a happy and uplifting story. To be sure, the context of the story of this exhibition is anything but happy, but the story, itself, is both positive and inspirational. It is the story of teaching and learning and their life-changing power. It is the story of exile and empathy, of the common experience of discrimination shared by students and their teachers, and of the uncommon bond that was forged between them.

Of course, when we first started work on this exhibition several years ago, no one could have predicted that it would open on the 101st day of the first term of the first African-American president of the United States. Surely our country has advanced in some far-reaching ways since the time period of this exhibition. I am certain that I am not alone in attributing that progress at least in some small way to the values that animated the remarkable relationships that are the focus of the exhibition that we open this evening.

Dr. Joyce Ladner, former President of Howard University and graduate of Tougaloo College, in the Exhibition.
(photo by Melanie Einzig)

April 22, 2009

Yom Hashoah

Hsinju Lin and Yenming Chen in the Museum (photo by Melanie Einzig)

Here are the short remarks I delivered at the Museum's staff and volunteer Yom Hashoah commemoration:

I had a professor in college who used to point out the paradox that people would gather together to carry out an essentially private act – learning. "You can only learn by yourself," he said, "yet you come together to learn." You come together to be alone. This conceit made an impression on me at the time, and I am always reminded of it on Yom Hashoah each year. We gather together so we can be intensely alone – alone with our thought, our prayers, our memories.

There is another kind of paradox today, and that is we observe this day at the Museum by doing what we do every day – commemorate and teach about the Holocaust. Of all people, one could argue, we do not need a special day to remind us of what we do every day. I would argue just the opposite. We need it just as much as anyone else. Perhaps more. We need it to remind us and to inspire us. And we have chosen a way to mark this day that speaks so powerfully to what we are as an institution. As our visitors walk through the Museum’s galleries on this Yom HaShoah, they will encounter survivors, who will talk about their objects – bringing life to them and to their memories.

Of all of the Yom Hashoah events around the world – in their manifold approaches – candles, music, political speeches, survivor testimonies, the reading of names -- our small one, right here, for our family, has the most meaning for me. I can’t imagine any other group I would rather be alone with.

March 24, 2009

The Visit of the Cardinals

Dr. Bernard Lander,  Cardinal Vingt-Trois, DGM
(AP Photo/Museum of Jewish Heritage and Touro College, Diane Bondareff)

I have already written several time about Father Patrick Desbois and his important work.  Our exhibition, The Shooting of Jews in Ukraine: Holocaust by Bullets, closed today.  Among its last visitors was a delegation of Catholic leaders, who were shown through the exhibition by Father Desbois.  The delegation, led by the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Vingt-Trois, included a number of Cardinals and Bishops, primarily from France, who came to New York to visit the Museum and meet with Jewish leaders.  

Here is an excerpt from my welcoming remarks:

When Father Patrick Desbois called me several weeks ago and announced that he would like to bring a group of high church officials to the Museum, I immediately said yes.  After all, it was here in the Museum, in 2005, that Father Desbois first described to the Jewish world the full scope of his undertaking –locating and identifying the graves of Jews murdered by the Germans in Ukraine during the  Holocaust.  And it was it was the Museum that became the first American venue to host the remarkable exhibition that details Father Desbois’s work. 

I immediately said yes because we have always sought a close connection with the Catholic Church, indeed John Cardinal O’Connor spoke at the dedication of our Museum and forged our connection with the schools of the Archdiocese, stating that it was his desire that every student from every Catholic school visit the Museum.  And since then, thousands of Catholic students and their teachers have come to the Museum and learned about a painful and difficult history. They have learned about this history because people like Cardinal O’Connor – and Father Desbois -- recognized that, to become a good man or woman, to become a good citizen, to become a good Catholic, one must learn about and learn from perhaps the darkest moment in human history.

And so, we welcome this group of distinguished leaders to our Museum as we continue to carry out our crucial mission.  And we welcome them at a particularly painful moment as we try to absorb the still stinging news that a reinstated Church leader, Bishop Richard Williamson, has publicly denied a history that any recent graduate of a New York Archdiocese school knows to be true and irrefutable. 

We welcome our guests knowing that, by their visit, they send an undeniable message to all that there is no room for Williamson’s message, or that of others like him, in the hearts and minds of good men and women, of good citizens of the world. 

Speaking before the press after touring the exhibition, Cardinal Vingt-Trois made a very strong statement on the subject of Holocaust denial:

Let this be another opportunity to recall -- whether the time is right or not -- that being a Catholic is radically incompatible with denying the Holocaust, and that recent statements have caused suffering among our Jewish brothers as well as among many Catholics.

March 3, 2009

The Boss

Robert M. Morgenthau and David G. Marwell 
(Photo by Melanie Einzig)
We learned last week that Robert M. Morgenthau, the Chairman of the Museum, has decided not to seek reelection and will step down as District Attorney of New York County (Manhattan) at the end of his ninth term in December.  The Boss (as he is called), who will turn 90 in July, has been a remarkable force in New York public life for more than four decades, serving first as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York  under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. President Nixon threatened to fire him when the Boss wouldn't step down explaining that he still had important work to do.  He was elected DA following the death of the legendary Frank Hogan, who had held the record for having served  as DA for the longest period until the Boss overtook him early last year.  He made of the DA's office a creative and relentless force that contributed to making New York City a safer and fairer place to live.  He devoted his efforts and resources not only to combating crime in the streets but also in the suites, taking on white collar crooks with same kind of gusto that he employed in going after the mob.  He extended the reach of his office far beyond the island of Manhattan, and legions of his former Assistant DA's have occupied judges' chambers and law firm offices around the country for decades.  
I first met Morgenthau when he interviewed me for the Museum director position in the fall of 2000, and I quickly realized that getting to know him and work with him would be the most rewarding part of my job.  Over the past eight and a half years, I have spoken to him every week (sometimes every day) and meet with him regularly.  From the very beginning, I learned that the Boss has what I have called "exquisite instincts" -- he senses the solution to  a problem or the right path to take and is confident in these instinctive judgments.  I also learned that one will underestimate him at their peril.  In a recent interview in Jewish Week, Leslie Crocker Schneider, who challenged Morgenthau in the last election -- and was trounced -- intimates that he is no longer entirely with it.  She could not be more wrong.  I was at a meeting with him on the day the article appeared, and he was as sharp as ever.
I will admit that, when I learned that he was not running again, I was a bit concerned. But upon reflection, and after speaking with him, I feel much better.  I know that he is in good health and completely at ease with his decision and I know that he will continue to work hard for the Museum.  My colleagues and I wish him the very best and look forward to working with him for many years to come.

February 19, 2009

My thoughts on The Reader

A lot of ink -- and gigabytes -- have  been devoted to Steven Daldry's film, The Reader, which is up for a number of Oscars, including Best Picture.  Much of what has been written is full of praise, while some is seething in its criticism.  Perhaps the most vehement example of the latter is the Slate article by Ron Rosenbaum, which accuses The Reader of Holocaust revisionism because, he alleges, it means to "exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution." Perhaps I saw a different film, but the one I saw had nothing in it to justify Rosenbaum's attack.   

I am uncomfortable even characterizing The Reader as a film about the Holocaust.  It is rather a film about post-war Germany and the generation of Germans born after the war (or who were young children at the end of the war).   No one can claim that this generation had any first-hand knowledge of the war or war crimes, and they certainly could not rely on their parents to provide full disclosure.  In the early years of the Federal Republic there were not the same efforts that have marked modern day Germany’s exemplary record of Holocaust education.  Following the early prosecutions of Nazi war criminals (at Nuremberg and elsewhere) and the end of denazification (both efforts effectively ended by the cold war), there was a period in the 1950’s when there was little discussion or public education about the crimes of WWII.  Rebuilding Germany (the scenes from the 1950’s in the film show constant construction) was the order of the day, and many had hoped that a final line had been drawn separating Germany's past from its present and future.  

Rather than a film that intends to teach about the Holocaust or even to portray Holocaust history, The Reader is about what happens when you love someone and discover that that person did horrible things. The film is about one generation learning about the crimes of another.  The only parts of the film that deal directly with the Holocaust are the trial scenes, which are certainly not intended to teach us Holocaust history.  What they do (and I think effectively) is frame the question of motivation and moral depth or lack of it.  No one, it seems to me, can watch this part of the film and come away with any sort of sympathy for the accused.  Hanna’s codefendants (unattractive figures all), conspire to set her up, and she offers, in the context of a criminal trial, an explanation of her actions which is absolutely devoid of moral consciousness. 

I have some first-hand experience with the themes of this film from earlier in my career.  During my time as the Director of the Berlin Document Center (BDC) – the late 1980’s and early 1990’s – the Holocaust was a topic taught in the schools and examined nearly every week in one television documentary or another.  Public knowledge about Nazi war crimes was widespread.  The depth of German responsibility for these crimes was broadly acknowledged.  As the keeper of the personnel-related records of the Nazi Party and its component organizations – including the SS – I occupied a curious position in the eyes of the German population.  I was the keeper of family secrets.  I had routine encounters with people of Bernard Schlink’s generation (and that of The Reader’s central character, Michael Berg) who sought me out to learn about their parents’ or grandparents’ possible membership in the SS or Nazi Party.  These were people who sought to come to terms with precisely the issues raised in the film – how to reconcile deep feelings of love for someone with deeply troubling knowledge (or fear) about that person’s past conduct. 

As a historian for the Office of Special Investigations (the Nazi war crimes unit of the Justice Department), I found myself one day, in 1985, in the office of Rolf Mengele (who has since changed his name) investigating the whereabouts of his father, Josef Mengele.  In a long conversation, young Mengele, voiced his own personal struggle.  He acknowledged his father’s crimes, but, at the same time, admitted an emotional connection to him. 

Now, I am certainly not suggesting that the young Mengele, or others in Schlink’s generation, deserve our sympathy, but we can certainly acknowledge that they have been confronted with a complex emotional challenge that was not of their making.  And we can appreciate serious attempts to give voice to this challenge in the form of novels and films without misrepresenting what they are and what they intend to do.  

January 26, 2009


We are all very excited about our upcoming concert featuring thirteen never-performed pieces by Felix Mendelssohn.  Mendelssohn, who was enormously popular during his lifetime, published only a small fraction of his work before his death at 38. There are a number of factors that explain the surprising fact there are literally hundreds of unpublished, unperformed, and unknown Mendelssohn pieces.
Stephen Somary, the founder of The Mendelssohn Project (www., who has spent the past ten years trying to locate the unpublished manuscripts, explains that it was a combination of  Richard Wagner's anti-Semitic vitriol, which darkened Mendelssohn's name and reputation, the banning of Mendelssohn by the Nazis, and, most important, the dispersal of his unpublished manuscripts during the war to the far corners of the earth.   It took Somary's painstaking research and evident passion to track them down. 
It is thrilling to think that we will have the opportunity -- for the first time ever -- to  listen to works composed more than a 160 years ago by one of the greats.  Obviously such a concert calls for great artists, and we will deliver.  The Shanghai Quartet will perform along with pianists, Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss, and singers, Abigail Nims and Kevin Deas.  

January 21, 2009


The Steering Committee at the Haus der Wannsee Konferenz
(Photo by Eileen Eder)

I have just returned from a week in Germany where I attended a conference at the new Bergen-Belsen memorial museum, see Michael Kimmelman's article in today's New York Times ( The centerpiece of the trip, however, was meeting up with the Steering Committee of a very exciting new program with the Museum that will offer graduate students, future leaders, and leading scholars, a unique forum to examine contemporary ethical issues using the Holocaust as context. 

Currently titled the Auschwitz Professional Ethics Initiative (APEI), the program will focus on graduate students (initially in Law, Medicine, Business, Journalism, and Theology) who will convene annually in Germany and Poland for an intensive educational experience, which will explore the role of their chosen professions in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.   The APEI will partner with some of the most prestigious Universities in the US and abroad, and will engage students from varying backgrounds in a dialogue that is meant to foster an understanding of the Holocaust as more than a historic event.  The APEI is predicated on the conviction that the study of this history and the distilling of lessons from it, are powerfully enhanced by the location of the study itself.  By taking students to the villa in Berlin where the Wannsee Conference was held and then to Auschwitz, we believe that we will provide an educational experience that will have an extraordinary impact.

 The Committee started their trip in Poland, where they visited the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the Auschwitz State Museum, both prospective partners in the APEI.  I joined the group in Berlin, where we visited the site of the Wannsee Conference and had a very productive meeting with the colleagues there, who run programs that are similar to the APEI.  The trip was stimulating and productive and will yield, I hope, tangible results as we plan for a pilot program of the APEI later this year. 

Committee Members at Gleis 17, the Memorial for the Jews Deported from Berlin (Photo by Shiri Sandler)