November 15, 2011

Two New Documentaries

I will be in two major documentary films, both premiering this evening at 9:00 pm.  One, Elusive Justice, by Jonathan Silvers, will be on PBS (check you local listings) and was the subject of a glowing review in last Friday's Wall Street Journal.  The other, a project of Creative Differences, was reviewed in this morning's New York Times and will air on The History Channel.   Both films will be shown at other other times throughout the next week or so.  While I am frustrated by the timing, I am happy that these films have received such promotion and will be available to a wide audience.

October 4, 2011

Polish Medal

Knight's Cross
Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland

I was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland last week by the Predisent of Poland at the Polish Consulate in New York City.  Needless to say, this was a high honor and big surprise.  The award was the result of my work with the Museum's Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim and its contribution to Polish Jewish Relations.

While sitting in the consulate waiting for the decoration to be conferred, I thought back on my first visit to Poland in January 1981. I was part of a team from the Office of Special Investigations, US Department of Justice that was taking depositions in a war crimes trial.  It was a particularly tense time in Poland during a rather chilly phase of the Cold War (we were there on the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president). In response to Solidarity and democratic stirrings in Poland, the Red Army was massing troops on the Polish border.  I returned later that year, in late November - early December to conduct research in the archives of the Auschwitz State Museum.  There were nationwide strikes, food shortages, and a crisis atmosphere.  I was witness to a demonstration in the main market square in Krakow on November 29, commemorating an uprising against the Russian Empire in 1830;  it was the first time this event had been marked since before World War II.

I departed Poland the next week, shortly before martial law was imposed....

My photo of a demonstration in Krakow on November 29, 1981

September 11, 2011


At least two of the dwarf chestnut oak trees in Andy Goldsworthy’s Garden of Stones, the Museum’s Memorial Garden, produced their first acorns recently.  I discovered them late last week while giving a tour to a visitor.  We had been told that the trees would produce acorns years earlier, and for several autumns, I searched carefully.  After a while, I simply gave up the annual vigil. And then unexpectedly, there they were.

I will confess that the timing could not have been more meaningful.  As we were all gearing up for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, distracted a bit by earthquake and hurricane, nature spoke up and produced these beautiful and tangible tokens of renewal.  Andy’s garden has always been a potent metaphor for the tenacity of life and its ability to take root even in the most unforgiving circumstances.  And now, with the life-cycle of these trees, which grow from stones, ensured, we have new and compelling evidence at just the right moment.

August 30, 2011

Perfect Storm

The impact of Irene was predicted to be especially threatening for us – arguably one of the most vulnerable buildings in lower Manhattan.  Meetings at Battery Park City Authority on Friday morning  imparted the warning of an 8 to 12 foot surge combined with the effects of heavy rain, high tide, and a full moon, which led us to take significant precautions against the storm.

Sandbags headed for the harborside door
Museum Staff de-installing artifacts in Core Exhibition

We deployed sandbags at the most threatened points of the building. We de-installed the first floor of the core exhibition, moved all electronics (including security x-ray machines) from the first floor, relocated stock from the floor of the book store, and secured the piano and all sensitive audio and lighting equipment  from Edmond J. Safra Hall.  To accomplish these major tasks, we closed the Museum at noon, and the entire staff pitched in.  On Saturday and during the storm itself, four colleagues from Security and Operations remained in the Museum to continue our preparations and mitigate any damage that we might sustain. 

Empty Case

I am pleased to report that, with the exception of some minor leaks on the 4th floor of the Robert M. Morgenthau Wing and in the Rotunda Gallery in the original building, we had no damage and –notably – there was no infiltration of water on the first floor or in the basement.
On Monday, with concerted effort, we reversed the process we had engaged in on Friday, returned the Museum to working condition, and welcomed our first guests shortly after 10:00 am. 

Although most of our precautions turned out -- thankfully-- to be unneeded, they were a necessary and prudent response to the threat that was presented.  I am enormously proud of our staff for their herculean efforts over the past few days. They demonstrated once again that they are our most precious resource.

For her drama and restraint (in our case), Irene will remain in my memory as the perfect storm. 

May 2, 2011

Annual Gathering of Remembrance

Annual Gathering of Remembrance, Temple Emanu-El  (photo by Melanie Einzig)

Yesterday we held our annual Holocaust commemoration day with more than 2000 people in attendance.  The following are the remarks that I delivered:

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, I welcome you to this annual gathering, where we assemble to be alone, where we join together to find solitude, where we find strength in our numbers to confront the lonely task of remembering.  A year has past since we last gathered here, and in this year the world has changed, our families have changed, we have changed.  One thing that remains constant, however, is our stone-like resolve to keep a place in our hearts and our minds that is reserved for our deepest reflection – a place to which we return each year to remember what we have lost – what we have lost as individuals and what we have lost as a community. 

Although it may be possible to identify the losses we have suffered personally and the losses that befell our families and mutilated our communities, no one can possibly quantify the vast potential that was denied our people and robbed from the world.  Today we mourn our private losses and we mourn our collective loss that grows in time as we consider generations that were never born, creativity that was never expressed, achievement that could never be realized.

Yet in this crowded place of solitude and memory, we reflect today not only on loss but also on the uplifting story of rebirth and renewal. As we look around us at this room, filled with more than 2000 people, we marvel at the exponential power of survival.  And we know that it belonged to the responsibility of those who survived and those who followed them to remember those who perished, to learn about the monstrous crime that was their murder, and to identify and bring to justice those who committed that crime.  And although that effort was incomplete and flawed, it is important that we recall it and that we recognize what was achieved.  And so today we reflect on the defeat of those who sought to destroy us and we recall the moments of Justice that punctuated the postwar period. 

This year, we note that sixty-five years have passed since the victorious allies placed the Nazi leaders in the dock at Nuremberg, and fifty years since the still young State of Israel, through a combination of chutzpah and heroics, delivered to the glass booth of justice Adolf Eichmann, the man who helped to organize the murder of its people.

Within months of the end of the war, with the earth still smoldering and the dimension of the destruction still undigested, the victors devised a code to judge the offences of their enemies – including crimes against peace and crimes against humanity.  Although imperfect, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg succeeded in documenting the deeds of the Nazis, preserving crucial records for future historians, and removing from the earth some of the perpetrators of those immense crimes.   Exactly 65 years and two weeks ago, those assembled in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg heard the testimony of the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess.  In a series of chillingly straightforward answers to simply posed questions, Hoess described the killing process at Auschwitz.  With his testimony and that of the others, the court and the rest of the world learned of the colossal crimes of the Holocaust.

Almost as an antidote, and certainly as a respite from the rigors of the trial and the horrors revealed there, the prosecutors and the staff of the tribunal attended a concert at the Nuremberg Opera house on May 7, 1946, one week less than 65 years ago.  On the program was an orchestra of ex-inmates of ghettoes and concentration camps, and among the performers was the dear mother of Rita Lerner, who has served as the co-chair of this commemoration for so many years.  Henny Durmashkin Gurko and her colleagues in the orchestra, dressed in striped uniforms, gave powerful and eloquent expression to their survival.   A sign stood before them on the stage and announced in Hebrew “Am Yisroel Chai.”

Exactly on this day, May 1st, 50 years ago, in the theater that became a courtroom in Jerusalem, converted for the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a slim young man with thick dark hair took the witness stand.  In accented English he told the story of his experiences during the war and how he lost his mother, father, and all six of his siblings one by one.  Dr. Leon Wells of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had also testified at Nuremberg and had been a teenager when the war began, told the court how among his many experiences, he had been forced to serve in a special unit that was sent to destroy the evidence of the Nazi crimes by digging up the mass graves and incinerating the bodies and crushing the bones to dust.

Despite this desperate attempt by the Germans to hide their crimes, the evidence survived, and despite their efforts to destroy Leon Wells and Henny Durmashkin Gurko, both survived to live long lives and give birth to children and to tell their stories.  Today we honor their memories as we honor the memories of the millions who perished, and we are mindful today that even if ultimate justice in the context of the Holocaust is not possible, the pursuit of justice in all things is not only worthy but is a sacred responsibility. 

March 27, 2011

Two Books

Two books which we were involved in arrived at the Museum last week, hot off the presses.  Last Folio: Textures of Jewish Life in Slovakia, published by Indiana University Press in record time --  less than two months -- accompanies our newest exhibition, which opened this week.  Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival, a wonderful cookbook by June Hersh and published by Ruder Finn, has been in the works for several years.  I was privileged to write introductory pieces for both books.  In reading them over this week in their published form, I was struck how, in such different projects, the theme of memory predominates.  Although I wrote them more than 18 months apart, I was struck by their similarities. Here they are:

Photographic Memory
I believe that it is most fitting that this exhibition of Yuri Dojc’s photographs should be inaugurated at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust – an institution that is dedicated to remembering those who perished in the Holocaust by celebrating their lives and exploring the legacy that they left.  Consequently, our narrative is devoted not to how Jews were killed, but rather to how they lived.  I can think of no better way to convey the tragic fate of Slovakian Jews, or to commemorate their lives, than to present these remarkable images.  Yuri Dojc has focused his camera-eye with exquisite care, offering us evidence of lives lived that evokes a heartrending history.  

Following the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the independent state of Slovakia was established.  Closely allied with Nazi Germany and adopting its anti-Jewish policies, Slovakia was the very first country outside of Germany to deport its Jews.    The first transport left on March 26, 1942, a trainload of nearly 1000 young women.  There followed a succession of trains, nearly all to Auschwitz, which emptied Slovakia of almost three-quarters of its Jewish population within six months.   Among those who were taken were the boys who attended a school in Bardejov.  I cannot look at Yuri Dojc’s photographs of the abandoned books from that school without imagining the people who left them behind.  My mind’s eye can see these boys closing and kissing their sacred texts and placing them down for the last time before they left forever.  The photographs of these books, whose words once conjured worlds, show them as if they have turned to stone, frozen in the available light, petrified by the passing of time.  There is no question that they have a certain power over us, and it is not simply their undeniable beauty.  

While we have no way of knowing for sure, we can surmise that the last memories of the poor souls, who were torn from their lives by Slovak police and paramilitary, were populated with images of the kind that Dojc has captured – people, places, and things – the basic elements of life distilled.  In the bleak monotone of the cattle car and the sickening fear that engulfed them, one can imagine that they found comfort in calling upon such images of normal life.  Indeed, our memories can produce vivid pictures from our past – like photo albums -- that can link by reflection to other times.          

It should come as no surprise that when we think or talk about memory, we often resort to photographic metaphors.  After all, our memories are, for the most part, delivered to us as images that play in our minds.  Indeed, psychologists have tied certain memory phenomena explicitly to photography.  Consider eidetic or “photographic memory,” which describes the phenomenon of total visual recall, or “flashbulb memory,” which refers to vivid recollections of particularly meaningful experienced events (we all remember where we were on 9/11).  It is believed that, under certain circumstances -- often those associated with traumatic events -- memories can be fixed into a vivid photographic permanence. 

In the context of the trauma of the Holocaust, Dojc has delivered hauntingly beautiful images -- jewel-like tokens -- that link us by imagination to a lost world and time.  Somehow in looking at them, we can “remember” all they represent.  Our uniquely human capacity for empathy and understanding is triggered, and we are transported inward to a world that is animated by our collective memories.  As we look at these images of all that remained, we remember all that was lost. 

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.  One need not read Proust to understand the capacity for food to unlock powerful memories and to transport us through time.  Whatever explanation we seek – brain chemistry or something less clinical -- we have all experienced how an aroma or a particular flavor can take us to another place.  This meaningful and warmly written book -- Recipes Remembered -- is perfect proof of this phenomenon.  Here we see how individuals whose lives were disrupted or torn apart by the events of World War II and the Holocaust retain intense memories of the food they enjoyed in happier times.   It is as if food were the grain of sand around which pearls of memory were formed, enduring as tokens of a lost world and time.

We are so very pleased that June Hersh approached us with the proposal to write this book, and we were eager to cooperate in any way we could.  Of course, June deserves all of the credit for the delicious and diligent work that is reflected here, but I would like to think that her experience in our Museum inspired her to approach the complex and tragic history of the Holocaust through the individual stories of those who lived it.  Indeed, our visitors encounter the messages of our Museum through the personal narratives of the people who were lost and of those who survived to build new lives.  Rather than having an impersonal voice guide our visitors through our Museum, they are led from one personal story to another.  They relate to the history we teach by relating to the people who recount it.  In this same way, June has sought out engaging individuals, whose stories and memories connect us to a different time and whose examples of determination and survival are both deeply compelling and inspirational.

Of course, just as recollections of food populate the prewar memories of the people whose stories are told in these pages, memories of the absence of food often plague those who experienced the hardships of war and persecution.  In this sense, the memories—and recipes—revealed in this book have a special significance.   Not only do they link to happier times, but they are, in a way, also antidotes to the poisonous periods of anguish and deprivation.  One of the most powerful stories of our time remains how those who endured the worst –- unceasing hatred, unpredictable violence, unimaginable trauma—found the best in themselves and mustered the fortitude and resolve to choose life and to rebuild their lives.  Surely in this precarious and uniquely personal journey, they were strengthened along the way by warm memories of the kind that animate this book.

March 17, 2011

March 16

Excerpt from Document Reproduced in Justice Department Report on Mengele

Yesterday we held our 12th Annual Fanya Heller Conference for Educators on the subject, The Medical Profession and the Holocaust. The two hundred or so teachers had the opportunity not only to hear Fanya Heller discuss her own experience during the Holocaust, but also to listen to two scholars on the subject, Dr. William Meinecke from the USHMM and Dr. Michael Grodin from Boston University. We once again provided an opportunity for teachers in middle and high schools to have access to first-rate scholars on important subjects. This program, and other similar ones that we offer to educators from around the region, have earned us a well-deserved reputation for taking teachers seriously and providing them enriching experiences that they can pass on to their students.

As I was listening to one of the lectures, I reflected on the fact that today, March 16th, would have been Josef Mengele’s 100th birthday. As I have written before in this blog, I was actively engaged in the search for Mengele in 1985 and then in the investigation surrounding the identification of his remains. In 1985, we were looking for a 74 year old man – someone who by any actuarial standard would have had a good chance of still being alive at that time. Of course, we did not know that Mengele had already been dead for six years when the investigation went into high gear. He died just before his 68th birthday when he suffered a stroke while swimming in Bertioga, Brazil.

I suppose it was only natural to reflect on how we are on the cusp of new phase in our understanding of the Holocaust and in how we remember it.  Soon there will be no one left who has any personal memory of what transpired.  The world will rely on institutions like ours and symposia like the Fanya Heller Conference for Educators to preserve the memory and educate the public.