November 18, 2013

UN Secretary General Visits Auschwitz Jewish Center

UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon at our Center

We were honored to receive a visit from the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, at our Auschwitz Jewish Center.  Here is the note he left in our guest book:

September 11, 2013


I submitted the following comment on 9/11 to the London Jewish Chronicle, which published a version of it in their September 4th issue:

The World Trade Center was an anchor for our neighborhood, a north star to help one navigate the warrens of New York’s streets, a beacon for all who could catch a glimpse of its twin towers.  The date of its destruction is a similar anchor to the calendar, a fixed point against which we measure our growth.  As we gain distance from that day, pixelated images and inchoate impressions have found a measure of coherence, hardened to memory. 
 Our Museum is located just a few blocks south of the World Trade Center site, and, on 9/11, we were engulfed by the giant cloud of dust and smoke and ash that emanated from the collapsed buildings.  Our colleagues on that day found their way by foot and ferry to safer ground, but were forever marked by their shared experience.  Located in the “frozen zone,” our neighborhood was sealed off and inaccessible in the days and weeks following the attacks.  When first allowed to return to the building, we discovered that the roof was covered with scorched scraps of paper – artifacts of commonplace pursuits -- carried there by the currents of catastrophe. 
Following the attacks, we were faced with the daunting task of rebuilding.  Although we suffered no significant physical damage, our collective sense of well-being and confidence were shattered.  The Museum family was spared direct loss, but each member of the staff who witnessed the attack and its aftermath was changed.  I was in Berlin on 9/11 at the opening of the Jewish Museum and returned Erev Rosh Hashanah to find my apartment uninhabitable and my colleagues, each in their own way, responding to their collective and individual traumas.   I had lunch with the Museum’s chairman, Robert Morgenthau, a week or so after my return, and he told me to get the Museum open again as soon as possible.  I responded that it would be difficult since we were locked down by roadblocks and surrounded by armed guards.  “I’ll take care of the roadblocks,” he said, “you get the Museum cleaned and ready.” He also instructed me to continue with our plans to build a major expansion to our building. 
Although I did not voice them, I had many misgivings.  It struck me as imprudent at that moment to commit scores of millions of dollars to a major building effort in a grievously wounded neighborhood, the future of which was uncertain.  But I followed his instructions, and we reopened the Museum on October 5th and broke ground for the expansion in November.
Ours was the first new construction project in Lower Manhattan following 9/11, and we were warmed by this distinction, which held a particular resonance since our Core Exhibition focuses, in part, on the period following the Holocaust, with its dramatic story of the rebirth of life and community following great tragedy.  There were days when trucks conveying new steel for our construction mixed in traffic with trucks transporting twisted relics of steel away from Ground Zero.  This jarring juxtaposition in the noisy street presented a potent metaphor for the continuity of life and the impulse to rebuild.
Our new wing opened on the second anniversary of 9/11, finally completing the original vision of the Museum, providing a magnificent building permitting us to offer, finally, a full range of exhibitions and programming.   Although more people can fit in my dining room at home than visited us each day during the period immediately following our reopening, visitation has since rebounded, and downtown is booming once again with new amenities and the promise of a bright future.  On the first Yahrzeit of 9/11 (23rd of Elul), we opened a remarkably moving and inspiring exhibition about 9/11 focusing on our neighborhood and on the Jewish community, and we mark the anniversary each year with a memorial candle in our lobby and a commemorative program in our theater.
Since 9/11, we have experienced our share of natural disasters – two hurricanes (Irene and Super Storm Sandy) and even a mild earthquake.  The disruption caused by these events, and their undeniable emotional impact, reminded us all of that September morning when the norms of everyday life were suddenly upturned, and the stabilizing anchors of our lives were dislodged.  But the waters subsided and the earth stopped shaking, and we were left again to face a world that was so unalterably changed 12 years ago.

August 19, 2013

Jacques Vergès -- Klaus Barbie

Jacques Vergès

The controversial French attorney, Jacques Vergès, died last week, and the news brought me immediately back to a chilly February evening in Paris.  It was February 2007, and I was in Paris working on the documentary film, Elusive Justice.  I arrived at Vergès's beautiful apartment a bit later than my colleagues, and the film's director, Jonathan Silvers, met me at the door and whispered, "He's the perfect Bond Villain," or words to that effect.  Jonathan was right.  Vergès was unlike anyone I had encountered before.  

Elegant and sophisticated, somehow he did not square with what I had imagined. After all, Vergès had defended Klaus Barbie before the French courts and represented a virtual rogues gallery of other unsavory characters like Carlos the Jackal and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan. I thought I was about to confront the devil, or, at least the devil's advocate, which was a nickname that had been applied to him. I was so convinced that I would have a fight with Vergès that we worked out a plan with the cameraman, Bobby Caccamise, to make sure he would catch both sides of the contretemps.  No such thing transpired.  Vergès was a perfect gentleman, who did not rise to my bait and answered every question with a pointed reserve that was at once seductive and intimidating. 

Before entering his impressive office, which was decorated with tapestries and works of art from several continents, we had to pass through an anteroom containing one long table covered completely with a museum's worth of chessboards and chessmen. The message was clear.

Rat Line Memo

The death of Jacques Vergès came nearly on the 30th anniversary of the release of the Justice Department's report on Klaus Barbie.  In 1983, I was privileged to have been able to work on the Barbie Investigation, which was led by Allan A. Ryan, Jr., who had been my boss at the Office of Special Investigations. Allan was just about to leave OSI when the Barbie case broke, and he remained on as a special assistant to the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division to conduct the investigation.   

We broke new ground in this unusual effort.  For the first time, we revealed how US Intelligence had employed former Nazis against the Soviets and we published a massive appendix with copies of original (although redacted) records.  A major break in the investigation came when I discovered documents at the National Archives Records Center in Suitland, Maryland that revealed the existence of an escape route, known as the "Rat Line," which was used to evacuate Barbie (and many others) out of Europe.  

The Barbie Report still makes interesting reading today ....

April 9, 2013

Kickstarter Campaign for the Auschwitz Jewish Center

Our Kickstarter Campaign for the Auschwitz Jewish Center's project to save the home of the last Jewish resident of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) is well underway.  We just received our 50th contribution and crossed the $4000 mark.  Please take a look at the project and give whatever you can to support it.

April 8, 2013

Annual Gathering of Remembrance

Photo: Melanie Einzig
Yesterday, we observed Yom Hashoah at the Annual Gathering of Remembrance, which is held each year at Temple Emanu-el in New York City. More than 2,000 people were in attendance, including Holocaust survivors and their families.   And Today, at the Museum, we have our day-long observance, which features Holocaust survivors in our galleries talking about artifacts that they gave us and which are on display in our Core Exhibition. 

Here are the remarks that I delivered yesterday:

The cycle of the Jewish year has its rhythm.   Sabbath days, like a metronome mark the measures of the weeks.   Holidays and festivals give a cadence to the year, motifs and melodies that bring meaning to our days. The cycle of a Jewish life has its rhythm as well, the high notes of simchas – births and weddings – the dark chords of death and the ritual of mourning. The cycle of our year has brought us again to this day and to this place to carry out our sacred task.
As I look out and see this magnificent space brimming with people -- two thousand of you -- I am reminded of the paradox that our gathering defines.  We have each made our way here today from far and wide, but we have come together essentially to be alone.  Today we confront the lonely task of remembering and mourning.  Strengthened by our numbers, we dig down in our solitude to find that place where we can be alone with our deepest thoughts. 

In that place, we remember and we mourn what we have lost as individuals and what we have lost as a community.  Although it may be possible to identify our personal  losses and the losses that befell our families and marred our communities, no one can possibly quantify the vast potential that was denied our people and robbed from the world.  We mourn a loss that grows in time as we consider generations that were never born, creativity that was never expressed, achievement that could never be realized.

In this place of solitude and community, we also honor those who survived and demonstrated the power of the human spirit to recover and to rebuild.  Having witnessed the worst in the human experience they found the best in themselves.  The presence here today of so many survivors, although sadly, fewer and fewer, and the presence of their children and their children’s children, and, yes, even their children’s children’s children, is a potent demonstration of the exponential power of survival.

And so we come together and gather alone, moved by our resolve – a resolve that like a stone, is formed by the pressure of memory and the weight of sorrow, a resolve that moves us each year to come to this place, to follow the cadence of the days and the course of the calendar.   Today, we will remember and we will honor and we will mourn.

And this year, among the many whom we mourn privately, as a community we recall the loss of two people who were so important to this gathering.  Vladka Meed, who along with her beloved husband, Ben, was a driving force behind the move to remember. Her own conduct in the Warsaw Ghetto, 70 years ago, was an inspirational example of courage and action.  And we remember Mayor Edward I. Koch, who did so much for this city and who, at this commemoration 31 years ago, conceived of the idea that became the Museum of Jewish Heritage.