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.