October 14, 2010


Hannah Senesh Self-Portrait (Courtesy of the Senesh Family)

We opened our wonderful new Special Exhibition on Tuesday.  Here are my introductory remarks:

I want to welcome you to this opening celebration of our newest special exhibition, Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh. I am fond of saying that our Museum – a museum about 20th Century Jewish History and the Holocaust -- is much more about life than about death. This exhibition about hero and poet Hannah Senesh is perfect proof of that assertion. For many, Hannah’s death was the defining moment of her life. While this exhibition explains the circumstances surrounding her death, its center of gravity is her life – and what a life it was! Tragically cut short, but lived with commitment and purpose and meaning.

Surely this story could be told in other media. It has, in fact, been conveyed to the public through the printed word and, recently, brilliantly on film, and certainly it will continue to be told in new and changing ways. But it has never and can never be so powerfully presented as it is in a museum – in this Museum. Should anyone argue that museums have been superseded by more exciting and flashier media, let them come to this exhibition. Let them encounter remarkable, authentic artifacts in an intimate setting, let them view the pages of Hannah’s diaries and notebooks – the drafts of her poems – the last note to her mother. Let them come face to face with objects that Hannah touched, with photographs that she composed, with letters that she wrote. Let them experience the singular feeling that is only possible in the presence of such objects. Indeed, there is something uniquely human in the reaction we have when we encounter powerful artifacts. The receptors that we possess for empathy and imagination are engaged, and we have the capacity to understand and to sense kinship that has no match in our experience with other media.

And when this profound and human interaction takes place in the context of a story like that of Hannah Senesh, the impact exceeds our ability to describe it in words. We are moved directly as we follow the exemplary life of Hannah Senesh and we are moved deeply as we witness the evidence she left behind.

August 23, 2010

A Lovely Evening in Sagaponack

     The Rennert's Lovely Dining room

We were privileged and honored to be the focus of a remarkable benefit dinner hosted by Inge and Ira Rennert at their magnificent home in Sagaponack,NY on August 8. The theme of the dinner was inspired by our special exhibition, Project Mah Jongg, and the evening was punctuated with Asian-accented decor and delicious menu. We were so pleased that so many friends came out to support the Museum and so grateful to the Rennerts for having opened their home.

             DGM, Inge and Ira Rennert

(Photos by Melanie Einzig)

July 23, 2010

The Visit of Wally

     Egon Schiele  (1890 - 1918)
Portrait of Wally Neuzil, 1912
Leopold Museum, Vienna

As you may have read, the disposition of Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally has been settled. The Leopold Foundation in Vienna will pay the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray $19 million, and the painting will be returned to the Leopold Museum in Vienna. However, according to the terms of the settlement, the painting will be on temporary display here at the Museum beginning next Thursday, July 29 through August 18.

The painting was taken from Lea Bondi Jaray by a Nazi art collector shortly before Bondi Jaray’s departure to England in 1939, where she resided until her death in 1969. Following the war, Wally came into the possession of Dr. Rudolph Leopold, who subsequently placed it in the collection of the Leopold Foundation which operates the Leopold Museum. When the painting was loaned to the Museum of Modern Art by the Leopold Museum in 1997, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau prevented its planned return to Austria on the suspicion that it was stolen property. In 1999, the federal government commenced legal action against the Leopold Foundation with the aim of returning the portrait to the Bondi Jaray family. That action was finally settled this week.  It can be argued that the dispute over this painting was responsible for raising the entire issue of Nazi-looted art and for the establishment of policies and programs designed to identify artworks of questionable provenance and return them to their rightful owners.

We will mark the beginning of Wally’s short visit to the Museum and memorialize the Bondi Jaray family and others like them, whose property was stolen by Nazis, in a ceremony at the Museum next week.

We honor the memory of victims of the Holocaust every day at this Museum and we remember the millions who, while they may have themselves survived, lost their communities, families, homes, and property. While they can never recover what they have lost, it is important to set some things right when at all possible—no matter how long it takes. Compensating the heirs of Holocaust victims and survivors represents a small measure of justice, and we commend all parties for their dedication to this cause. We are honored to host Wally for her brief visit to the Museum where she will help our visitors understand an important element of Holocaust Remembrance and make clear that justice – even delayed – is worthy of pursuit.




May 28, 2010

New Americans

                                                  Phong Thanh Nguyen, Franklin Manuel Sans, and Kens Germain

We hosted a citizenship ceremony at the Museum yesterday, during which 127 new citizens were sworn in.  These newest Americans, coming from 47 different countries, took their oath of citizenship from Federal Judge, Robert Katzmann.  I had the distinct privilege and honor of welcoming them to the Museum and joining Judge Katzmann in shaking their hands and congratulating them on this most meaningful event.  I include below my welcoming remarks:
I cannot tell you how honored we are to serve as the venue for your citizenship ceremony this morning.  Frankly, I cannot think of a better place for you to spend your first hours as American citizens. This building stands right on the water’s edge and looks out across New York Harbor. In this building, you stand within sight of powerful symbols of American history. From this building you can see what generations of immigrants saw as their first glimpse of America – the welcoming figure of the Statue of Liberty and the distinctive structures of Ellis Island. You can look out to where the World Trade Center once stood. You are only a few blocks from where the Bill of Rights was ratified and where George Washington took the oath of office as our first President.

When you take your oath in a few minutes, you will take your place within a great and proud tradition that has made this the greatest land in the world -- a land that takes its strength from the diversity of its people. We are moved beyond words to be your host today and send you every good wish. At the conclusion of the ceremony this morning, we invite you to be our guests and tour the museum and especially our exhibition on the third floor – Voices of Liberty – which is about coming to America. It is, in every real sense, your story. Congratulations.
This was a most moving and inspiring event, and I will admit that I was unprepared for how emotional I would find it.  The 127 handshakes brought me in contact with such a rich and vibrant group of people -- young and old, well-dressed and dressed down, nervous and proud, from rich countries and poor. This was surely a uniquely American occurrence.

May 5, 2010

Project Mah Jongg

                            Illustration by Christoph Niemann for Mah Jongg: Crak, Bam, Dot, a 2wice Books publication

We opened Project Mah Jongg earlier in the week.  It was, by far, the most fun we have had at any Museum opening and included the debut of a commissioned cocktail, the Mah Jongg Martini.  I include below an excerpt from my remarks at the opening which address why we decided to do this exhibition.

I will admit that the reaction to the news that we were doing an exhibition about mah jongg was different than what we normally get. I am quite frankly not used to people laughing when I tell them about forthcoming projects. In the case of Project Mah Jongg, the typical conversation would go something like this:
Museum Director: “You know, we are preparing an exhibition about the game of mah jongg?
Museum Supporter (or just about anyone I would meet): [giggle] “You’re kidding me…”
And so it would go, one after another.

More often than not, however, their next comment would be something like, “I remember my mother used to play….” It became wonderfully clear very quickly that this project tapped a rich vein of nostalgia and warm memories and has proven itself to fit squarely within the mission of this Museum.

Perhaps more than any other we have undertaken, this exhibition proves that this Museum is much more about life than death. To be sure, there is a tragic history at the center of the history we present here, but the context that surrounds that history is animated by the full range of human activity and is stamped by a decided focus on vibrancy, and continuity, and, yes, joy.

In this exhibition, we explore what might be called “small history” – we do not examine world events or the actions of great men and women (the Morgenthau exhibition does that). In this exhibition, rather, we focus on the history that we all take part in, the history that defines our lives. We provide in this jewel of an exhibition a slice of Jewish history that was common to so many. And we also take a look at how history is transmitted. After all, games are about much more than simple play; they are carriers of identity, fantasy, and cultural memory, and they are important vehicles for community building and togetherness. The mah jongg game was a key opportunity for Jewish women to share stories, eat and gossip together, engage in a unique and generous philanthropy, and create life-long bonds.

As new generations learn the game today, it serves as a connector to past generations and to the memories of our mothers and grandmothers. I know that as visitors take in this exhibition, many will recall profound moments in their lives, or a time in their lives, or a person long gone but somehow still near. There is no more powerful history than that which can connect us to such potent memories.

As exhibitions go, the history of Project Mah Jongg is remarkably short. Indeed, we normally mark exhibition development in glacial time -- this one took a New York Minute --- from start to finish, about six months. But in those six months, the stars aligned just so – bringing together a constellation of remarkable talent and good will that one can only dream about.

Then I went on to thank Melissa Martens, the brilliant curator of the exhibition and Abbott Miller of Pentagram, who designed it, and my Deputy, Ivy Barsky, who oversaw the entire project.  And I thanked New York Magazine for being our media partner, and Sylvia Hassenfeld for her financial support, and Ruth Unger and the National Mah Jongg League for their significant financial contribution as well as the remarkable work they have done throughout the years to preserve the game and the wonderful role it played and plays in the lives of so many.

March 17, 2010

Traces of Memory

                     Installing Traces of Memory

In the fall of 2005, I visited Krakow for the first time in nearly twenty years.  Poland occupied the chair of the International Task Force for Cooperation of Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, and I was a member of the US Delegation.  My previous trips to Krakow were in connection with my work at the Office of Special Investigations of the US Department of Justice, and I spent some time in the archives of the Auschwitz State Museum (about an hour away from Krakow) researching our cases.  I even spent several nights in the camp itself, sleeping in a section of one of the administrative buildings that served as a very modest hotel.  In connection with one of these visits in December 1981, I stayed in Krakow on the last night of my visit.  This was a tumultuous time in Poland with the Solidarity movement challenging the government, and soon after I left, marshal law was declared.

The Krakow that I visited in 2005 was far different than the one I left on that cold December morning in 1981.  The city, which is one of the most beautiful in the world, had become a popular tourist destination with a modern airport and was chock full of visitors.  The city seemed cleaner and brighter, which may have been the result of the closing of the Nova Hutte steel complex which had been located just out of town and which, because of topography and climatic conditions, spewed its corrosive pollution directly onto the beautiful facades of Krakow's buildings.  During my stay, I visited a new museum in Kasimierz a part of Krakow that had been the center of Jewish life there.  The Galicia Jewish Museum, which was then only a year and a half old, made a startling impression on me.  Located in a former warehouse, it featured an exhibition by a British photojournalist named Chris Schwarz documenting the Jewish past in Poland with contemporary photographs and text by Professor Jonathan Webber.

When I saw the exhibition, I immediately thought that we should bring it to New York.  It took more than four years and, sadly, Chris Schwarz died in 2007 and never got to see his photographs hanging on the wall of our Museum in New York City.  When we opened the exhibition on Monday night, members of Chris's family were present as were Jonathan Webber, who is Chairman of the Board of the Galicia Jewish Museum, Ian Montrose, a Trustee of that Museum, and Kate Craddy, its Director.  The exhibition will be on view through August 15th.

January 27, 2010

Holocaust Commemoration

Ban Kee Moon Opening the Exhibition at the United Nations

Today is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. This day has been chosen by many countries, and by the United Nations, to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. To mark the occasion, the UN has orchestrated a series of events at the headquarters in New York. Last night, I attended the opening of a small exhibition created by Yad Vashem displaying architectural drawings of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. The Secretary General, himself, was present to open the exhibition, as were a number of other dignitaries.

I will admit that I believe that it is unfortunate that this date was selected for the commemoration since it could be interpreted as putting more emphasis on one kind of experience over another. Consider that by the time the gas chambers at Auschwitz were operational, the Germans had already murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews through shooting actions in the Soviet Union. Too often, the narrative of the Holocaust has ignored those whose experience had nothing to do with concentration camps.

That being said, it is extraordinary that the UN has undertaken to commemorate the Holocaust at all, and encouraging to reflect on the progress that has been made in Holocaust education and commemoration over the past decade. Ten yeas ago, forty-seven nations sent representatives (including a number of heads of state) to Stockholm to attend the Stockholm Forum. Emerging from that important meeting was the Stockholm Declaration, which set out certain principles that should guide nations in their pursuit of Holocaust commemoration and education. Acceptance of the principles of the Declaration became the basis for membership in the Task Force for Cooperation on Holocaust Education, remembrance, and Research. I was privileged to be present at the Stockholm Forum, and will always recall the tremendous impact it had on me.

The Washington Post published a disturbing article last Sunday about the questionable conduct of a suburban Washington Rabbi and Torah scribe who claims to have discovered a number of Torah scrolls that have dramatic and moving Holocaust-related stories. The article points out a number of inconsistencies that, when taken together, raise significant questions about the veracity of those stories and the conduct of the Rabbi. It is distressing to consider that someone -- especially a Rabbi -- should seek to mislead, and to profit, by spreading false stories about the Holocaust. One hopes that there is an explanation.