December 26, 2007

Guest Blog: Abby Spilka's Trip to Poland

My colleague, Abby Spilka, the director of communications for the Museum, recently went to Poland for a week. This was her first trip, and she made a point of sending e-mails almost daily to share her experiences with us in New York. I have asked her to “guest blog” about her trip and share her experiences with you.

Guest Blog
As David mentioned, I traveled to Poland earlier this month to help make a promotional film for the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a film that will inspire viewers to want to go themselves, or make it possible for others to visit.

My First View of the Gate at Auschwitz I

Although we had some logistical issues, we were able to start filming in Auschwitz –Birkenau beginning at 8 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9. Wladyslaw, our guide, drove us to meet the crew of 5 from Krakow, Tomasz, the photographer from Oswiecim; Robert, the guide from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum; and Artur, the historian from the Auschwitz Jewish Center. We had a list of shots to get before the sun went down, which begins at that time of year at 3:15.

The Arbeit Macht Frei gate was the first shot of the day. If ever there were an iconic image to represent the Holocaust, and the Nazi’s unbridled evil, it would be this sign. To see a representation of it so many times in books and films cannot compare to seeing it in person. The power of that sign and what it was meant to communicate to the prisoners, and what it means to us more than 60 years later is really quite terrifying.

For most of the day a combination of frost and mist remained on the grounds as we walked around, fixing a suitably ghostly atmosphere on the otherwise sunny day. From the gate we went to the crematorium, the one that remains standing in Auschwitz I. It ceased operation in 1943 when the gas chambers opened at Birkenau. When I entered and stood in what must have been a place to disrobe, I was overcome with a feeling I had once before: When I went into the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center soon after it re-opened after September 11, 2001, I could not help but think that this place was all but destroyed after 2 hours of man-made terror rained down upon it. And here it is, re-built, with shorter palm trees, giving the outward appearance that nothing untoward had happened, while remaining the site of such terror. The empty rooms in the gas chambers/crematorium contained nothing physical, but, years later, they could not be separated from their designed purpose.

The crew and I went to the river across from the commandant’s house, we drove to the Judenrampe, and then to the entrance at Birkenau. We filmed in the guard tower to illustrate the sheer expanse of this place. What look like cement foundations have been placed around the edges of buildings that are no longer there; they function as mini memorials. In some cases, all that exists are the chimneys from the barracks. The train tracks leading into the building that houses the guard tower is another one of those images that has been in my memory since I was in high school.

From the guard tower we walked to a women’s barracks to film what remained. The barracks were based on a design for stables to accommodate 55 horses; instead they held several hundred women.

We filmed in the pond and in the vestiges of crematoria 4 and 5. The eponymous birch trees behind the ruins of the crematoria in the winter light and the mist were appropriately eerie. The red brick, the green moss, and the white trees added unexpected touches of color. Considering it was December in Poland, it was surprising not to traipsing in snow.

Birch Trees

Literally, at the end of the day when we concluded filming, I looked up to see an orange reflection. The sky was full of orange striations and the sun was reflecting off a guard tower. I have never seen anything quite like it. Colleagues know that I seek out the sunsets over the Statue of Liberty in winter that we can see from our offices. When you see them, you wonder how such beauty can be created from air, water, and light. The sunset at Birkenau rivaled our west side sunsets. To see such beauty in such a place of darkness made me feel even more connected to the Museum.

Sunset at Birkenau

(Photos by Tomasz Mol)

December 18, 2007

Thou shalt not stand idly by...

(Photo by Richard Levine)

This month we are pleased to announce the launch of two new initiatives to educate students and the public about the crisis in Darfur. The Education Department has created a new workshop for middle and high school students, Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By. As an institution devoted to educating all who walk through its doors about the Holocaust and the universal lessons that can be learned from this unique period of history, the Museum feels a special responsibility to speak out about Human Rights violations.

The workshop’s title refers to the Biblical phrase “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The initiative features artifacts, images, and written testimony from witnesses to the genocide in Darfur — most of whom are young adults and children — to teach abut the crisis and to offer information about actions students can take. The Museum has also created a dynamic website page devoted to educating teachers, students, and the general public about the situation. Visitors to the site can read background information, download videos, get recommendations for books, and launch their own letter writing campaigns.

We invite you to visit this webpage, bring students to the Museum to participate in the workshop, and most of all to get involved in speaking out against genocide. Click here

December 8, 2007

Blog from Prague II

Flags of ITF Member Countries

I attended the final Plenary Session of the Czech Chairmanship of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research in Prague. This meeting was also my last as the Chair of the Museums and Memorials Working Group. Beyond the real meanginful work of the Task Force, these meetings provide a useful opportuinity to connect with colleagues from around the world. The major issues at this meeting involved the establishment of a permanent office for the Task Force in Berlin and the engagement of a permanent Executive Secretary. Since the Task Force operates by consensus, the meetings involve a unusual brand of diplomacy. Much of the work takes place in the hallway and at the dining table, with passionate lobbying and intensive jaw-boning.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwartzenberg Opens Plenary

Task Force Plenary Session
My Working Group met for two long days. In addition to making decisions on applications for the funding of projects, we addressed the appropriate follow-up to our important work in June on Historic Sites and charted our work for the future, which will focus on best practices for Museum education.

Gate at Small Fortress in Terezin

We visited Theresienstadt (Terezin), which was the site of a Ghetto, which incarcerated tens of thousands of Jews from around Europe. It was also the site of a great propaganda hoax, the socalled beautification action, which was engineered by the Germans to fool representatives of the Internation Red Cross, who visited the the Ghetto in 1944.

ITF Delegates Visit Terezin

For me the most striking aspect of our visit was learning that much of the former ghetto is the current home for Czech citizens, who live where Jews were once forced to live. Among the most moving of the sites we visited was the secret synagogue, which served as one of the several clandestine places of prayer for Jews in Theresienstadt.

Terezin Museum Display

ITF Delegates Visit Terezin Secret Synagogue

November 18, 2007


I traveled to Paris for a remarkably productive several days with my deputy, Ivy Barsky. I was particularly fortunate that my wife Judy could also come along on this trip. Our main activity was working on the Irene Nemirovsky exhibition, which is scheduled to open in New York in June of next year with the title, Woman of Letters: Irene Nemirovsky and Suite Francaise. Ivy, Amy Forman,who will design the exhibition, and I spent a day at IMEC, the extraordinary archive, located in Normandy, which maintains the Nemirovsky papers. We also had a memorable meeting and lunch with Denise Epstein, Irene's daughter, who is very supportive of our exhibtion and has promised to lend us some artifacts which are still in her possession. My good friend, Olivier Corpet, the visionary founder of IMEC, was our host, and we were pleased to get to know Emmanuelle Lambert, who is in charge of exhibitions at IMEC.

Ivy and Amy reviewing documents at IMEC

Irene Nemirovsky's story becomes more compelling as we learn more about it, and we are convinced that this exhibition will attract a broad and passionate audience. Surprisingly, there are some people who object to the notion of an exhibition on this subject, believing that, because Irene converted to Catholicism and because of the content of some of her writings, she is not an appropriate subject. We are confident that her story is an important one for our Museum to tell and, at the same time, we are mindful of the challenge to tell it with candor and nuance.

Denise Epstein and Olivier Corpet at Lunch

DGM, Denise Epstein and Ivy

We took advantage of being in Paris to visit the Shoah Memorial and see the special exhibition there that tells the story of Father Patrick Desbois and his remarkable work in discovering and documenting mass graves in Ukraine. Desbois, a Catholic priest, visits Ukraine several times a year, and travels from village to village interviewing local residents, who relate their memories of mass shootings during the war. We met with Desbois, and he described the phenomenon of the unforced testimony of the locals who seemed to be waiting for an opportunity to unburden themselves of the traumatic memories. All in all, the exhibition makes a profound impression, and it is unusual to meet a man like Desbois, whose charisma and sense of mission are rare indeed. We are planning to bring this exhibition to New York next fall.

Serge Klarsfeld in his Office

I was also able to see some old friends. I hosted a dinner on Saturday night for Claude Lanzmann, the legenday filmmaker, who can be counted on to make any evening interesting. I also met with Serge Klarsfeld, whom I have known since the early 1980's when I worked on the Klaus Barbie case. Serge is a great man, and it is always a treat to see him.

I have always loved Paris, and this trip only confirmed my belief that it is among the most beautiful and exciting cities on earth.

Shop Window in Paris

November 4, 2007


It has been a very busy and hectic time, which explains why I have failed to post for a while. Now with a little time to breathe, I hope to catch up a bit....

At the beginning of November, I was in Amsterdam for a meeting of a special working group of the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research which was convened to consider how the work of the Task Force could be made more efficient. The second plenary of the year will be held in Prague in two week's time.

The Task Force Special Working Group Meeting in Session

I hadn't been in Amsterdam for years and was impressed once again with the beauty of the city. I took full advantage of being there to visit a number of museums, including the Anne Frank House, the Rijksmuseum, the Jewish Historical Museum, and the Amsterdam City Museum. I had a very enriching and stimulating time.

I returned to New York for three days and was able to take in a remarkable concert at the Museum featuring Micha and Cipa Dichter, before departing for Paris, which will be the subject of my next post.

October 23, 2007

Jewish Resistance Reconsidered

If you have any interest in Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, plan to come to the Museum on Sunday,October 28 for our symposium, Jewish Resistance Reconsidered. You will have the rare opportunity to hear two towering figures in Holocaust scholarship, Professors Israel Gutman and Yehuda Bauer, who will be traveling from Israel to make rare New York City appearances. This symposium is being held in conjunction with our special exhibition, Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust. In addition to Bauer and Gutman,Judith Baumel-Schwartz, David Engel, Robert Shapiro, and Yitzchak Mais will participate.

The exhibition,the symposium, and the companion volume to the exhibition are all important contributions to combatting the widely held stereotype that Jews were passive victims in the Holocaust. The following is an excerpt from my Preface to the companion volume:
As a historian, I am fond of saying, “context is everything.” In trying to understand the study of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, this dictum becomes especially critical. If the reader has any doubts, he or she need only think about the oft-repeated question, “Why did the Jews go like sheep to the slaughter?”

This question, in and of itself, is evidence that the public, including many Jews, has confused Jewish powerlessness during the Holocaust with passivity. People conclude, wrongly, that, because Jews were not able to mount significant, sustained, and effective opposition to Nazi persecution, they did not resist at all. The question, based, as it is, on a false premise, requires an answer that calls for layers of understanding, and yes, an appreciation of context.

The Cover of the Exhibition's Companion Volume

The answer involves understanding the context in which Jews found themselves, the inconceivable choices they were forced to make, the limited options that were available to them, the incredible isolation of their communities, the lack of knowledge of their true situation, and the overwhelming strength and ruthlessness of their enemy. The answer also requires knowledge of the many ways that Jews tried to maintain their dignity, to spread the word of their fate, to ensure that their stories would be known, to save fellow Jews.

The myth that all Jews went passively to their deaths persists, in part, because there has been little effective public education that relates this very complex issue with appropriate context and perspective.

I am immensely proud of the work the Museum’s leadership and staff have done to remedy this deficit through this special exhibition, Daring to Resist. Not only have they communicated this vital story of Jewish resistance through an engaging and visually striking exhibition, they have further elaborated upon that bold statement with this eloquent volume which, in and of itself, is an enormous contribution to the field.

We have broken new ground with our exhibition, and the upcoming symposium promises to make an extraordinary contribution to a neglected and often misunderstood history.

October 10, 2007

Daniel Pearl World Music Days

Idan Raichel

Tonight, we will hold the third in a series of concerts dedicated to the memory of Daniel Pearl and held in conjunction with the Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Israeli Idan Raichel will perform along with Colombian singer/songwriter, Marta Gomez; New African Jazz and Soul artist, Somi; Ethiopian-Israeli singer, Cabra Casay; and percussian master, Itamar Doari. Daniel Pearl's parents, Judea and Ruth, sent the following message to be read at tonight's concert. Daniel would have been 44 today....


We wish we could be with you at the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust concert series which they have so kindly dedicated as part of the sixth Daniel Pearl World Music Days, in honor of our son Daniel, his ideals, and his contribution to a better world.

Our deepest appreciation goes to Idan Raichel and all of the musicians, the United Nations Outreach Programme , established to raise awareness of the Holocaust and to help prevent genocide, and the Museum who has been presenting concerts each year in Danny's memory, and to all those who have helped put this evening together.

On October 10 this year Danny would have turned 44. And, as in every year around his birthday, thousands of music lovers all over the world have come together to defy the hatred that took Danny's life, and to reaffirm their commitment to sanity and humanity.

As of today, over 400 concerts in 35 countries have joined our call, from Pakistan to Montenegro, from Jerusalem to Peking, all united in a hymn for tolerance, friendship and humanity.

Danny lived a life that knew no geographical boundaries, with a spirit that knew no prejudice. Through words and music, he communicated friendship, respect, humor and joy wherever his journeys took him. He recognized the power of music to bring people together and used it consistently to build bridges and spread understanding.

In his last words: "My father is Jewish, My mother is Jewish, I am Jewish" he came to personify the historical resilience of the Jewish people, their unwavering commitment to peace and Tikkun Olam, and their amazing capacity to weaving the dignity of being different with the sanctity of being one.

We know that Danny will be watching us tonight, listening to your music as it blends with other voices, placed so far apart, and we can envision him smiling to himself and saying: "This is still my favorite planet; still so much music, so much hope".

And we may say to him: This music is your victory, Danny, the victory of the boldness with which you loved humanity.

It is our victory too, for it empowers us with unity and clarity as to who we are and what we stand for in a world gone mad.

So, mark our words, Danny, and mark our music: Humanity will triumph and Harmony will prevail.

Ruth and Judea Pearl Los Angeles, California

September 26, 2007

Ruth Gruber at 96

Ruth Gruber at the Museum
(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

One of the genuinely great pleasures of my job has been the opportunity to get to know the legendary Ruth Gruber, and to be able, on occasion, to be in her presence. For those who do not know of Ruth, I have appended excerpts from a recent press release, which outlines her career. Ruth Gruber has led one of the 20th Century's most remarkable lives. She was not only a witness to significant events of the past century, but she brought to her witnessing a prodigious talent as a writer and photographer. Ruth is an inspiration, and we have been privileged to have an exhibition of her photographs, From the Heart -- The Photojournalism of Ruth Gruber, which will be on view until December 2, 2007. We wish Ruth the happiest of birthdays!

Ruth Gruber is —without a doubt — a force of nature and living history. In her new book, Witness (Schocken Books, 2007), she illustrates, through haunting and life-affirming photographs taken while on assignment, the cultures, the people, the courage, and the hope she witnessed first-hand during most of the 20th century. Today, at 95, Ruth Gruber is an inspiration. The photographs and stories in Witness chronicle not only the daring adventures of one woman, but provide new insights into some of the most dramatic events of the last century.

Among the photographs and essays included in Witness are Ms. Gruber’s accounts of:
 Her top secret assignment for FDR and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, where she accompanied 1,000 refugees to America — the only Jewish refugees allowed in this country — and brought them to Fort Ontario, Oswego, NY. This chapter of her life was made into a CBS mini-series with Natasha Richardson as Ruth and was the subject of her much lauded book Haven.

 The most harrowing story she reported on as a journalist, when she witnessed the American lend lease boat, Exodus 1947, try to deliver 4,500 Jewish refugees — including 600 orphans — to Israel when it was attacked by five British destroyers and a cruiser. Gruber witnessed the Exodus 1947 entering the Haifa harbor and watched the British storm the ship. She writes how the Exodus crew fought back with potatoes, sticks, and cans of kosher meat. Gruber stayed with the Exodus prisoners when the British sent them back to Germany aboard the prison ship Runnymede Park. Her account of those events—Exodus 1947—was published in 1948 and was used by Leon Uris to write his best-selling novel Exodus.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1912, Ms. Gruber graduated from New York University in three years, received her master's from the University of Wisconsin a year later, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne (magna cum laude) a year after that. At age 19, she was the youngest Ph.D. in the world, and made headlines in the New York Times because of it.

Gruber’s thesis in Germany was the first book ever written on Virginia Woolf; most of Woolf's work was still to be written and published. Never before published in America, that thesis, Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman, was released in 2006 by Carroll & Graf.

In 1935 at the age of 24, Ms. Gruber was hired by Helen Rogers Reid, publisher and owner of the New York Herald Tribune, to be an international correspondent. In 1998, Gruber received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She is the author of 19 books, including I Went to the Soviet Arctic, Destination Palestine, Haven, and Raquela. She lives in New York City.

September 25, 2007

The UN, Iran, and Albania...

NYPD Security Post with Museum in the Background

Every year at the end of September, New York is transformed. The United Nations General Assembly meets, and leaders from around the world come to New York. Located, as we are, across the street from the Ritz Carlton Hotel, our lives are affected each year by the annual migration. For whatever reason, the Ritz is considered an appropriate place for high visibility leaders to stay. It may be that it is easier to provide the necessary level of security.

In any case, for this entire week, the Ritz, and consequently the Museum, has been subjected to the most visible and rigorous security precautions that one can imagine. For periods of time, the entire area is blocked off, requiring arriving hotel guests to be dropped off hundreds of feet from the hotel. Portable bollards have been installed, and there are literally hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothed law enforcement personnel all over the place. For much of last week, the rumor was that President Ahmadinejad would be staying there along with the Iraqi leader. The local press speculated that the Iranian President might just pop across the street and visit the Museum.

We were faced with the delicate issue of how to handle a possible visit from Ahmadinejad and whether to invite him (as many had urged us to do). We were opposed to issuing an invitation but committed to allowing a visit were it to take place. Because of all of the speculation about a possible visit, and in light of the significant publicity that his appearance at Columbia had engendered, we decided to prepare a statement, which we issued late yesterday afternoon:

We have not extended an invitation to President Ahmadinejad to visit the Museum, nor do we intend to do so. As an institution dedicated to educating the public about the Holocaust, we open our doors each year to tens of thousands of people of all ages and from all backgrounds. Were President Ahmadenijad to visit the museum, he, like all of our visitors, would be confronted with the undeniable fact of the Holocaust --a powerful antidote to the poisonous distortions of history.

It seems unlikely that he will show up at our door, but we did receive a very special visit yesterday from a man of a very different calibre -- Sali Berisha, the Prime Minister of Albania. He came by to see the Museum and visit with our Chairman, Robert Morgenthau. Prime Minster Berisha is a former president of his country and also the former leader of the opposition. Sitting across from this impressive man, I reflected on those men and women in the post-communist era, who came to fill positions and take leadership roles in totally unexpected ways. These individuals were not groomed for the government and diplomatic posts that they were called upon to fill, but stepped forward to change the course of the history of their countries.

The Prime Minister talked with us about the little known history of Albania during World War II, and the admirable record of benign treatment and protection of the Jewish Population. We agreed that the Museum would investigate the possibility of public programs or a small exhibition on this important topic.

It was an exhausting and exhilarating day of contrasts, personalities, and some high drama.

September 10, 2007

9/11 and our 10th Anniversary

The Museum and the World Trade Center
(Photo by Peter Goldberg)

The Museum was dedicated on September 11, 1997, and this week, along with remembering the sixth anniversary of 9/11, we are marking the tenth anniversary of the Museum. Last week, I received an email from Jonathan Mark, one of the most thoughtful and talented writers at The Jewish Week, and in the entire Anglo-Jewish press, for that matter. Jonathan enters my thoughts each year around this time because I got to know him in September 2001, when we were both invited to participate in a study trip to Germany, sponsored by the German government, which included participating in the opening of the Berlin Jewish Museum on September 10th. We were in Leipzig on the afternoon of 11th, and had just toured the Gewandthaus, when we learned by cell phone of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Our group, including John Silber, the former president of Boston University, was scheduled to return to the US the next day. We were forced, however, to remain in Germany through the next weekend, and some, Jonathan included, remained through Rosh Hashanah.

I got back to the US on Monday, September 17, spent Rosh Hashanah with my family in Washington, and returned to New York on September 20th. It was then that I met with our Chairman, Robert Morgenthau, and it was then when he told me to get the Museum open as soon as possible and to move forward with the construction of our new wing.

Anyway, Jonathan Mark wrote a quick note last week to thank me and my colleagues for helping him with a story he was doing on our special exhibition, The Other Promised Land. After the thanks, his note concluded:

My admiration keeps growing for the museum's coverage of the Jewish experience, beyond the Shoah, and I very much appreciate how helpful you've always been. Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos folks would be proud of you. Of all the Holocaust memorials and museums I've seen, no one but MJH has that Oyneg Shabbos sensitivity for capturing the sweet essence and small pleasures of Jewish life that was and that is. You all do a tremendous job.

Children's Calendar (Ringelblum Archives)

Jonathan, likely had no idea how especially meaningful his comments were, but he paid us the highest compliment imaginable. He might not have remembered that in September 2001 we were actively working on our special exhibition, Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto , which is about Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos, a group that met secretly to collect and to record details about the lives of Jews in Poland under Nazi domination. The collection was buried in tin boxes and milk cans, only to be recovered after the war (there remains an undiscovered and presumably irretrievably lost cache). The original artifacts, lent for the first time outside of Poland, were scheduled to arrive on 9/11 and were delayed several weeks. For reasons that I cannot adequately articulate, our exhibition on Ringelblum struck a deeply resonant chord with all of us at the Museum when we opened it in November, and my colleagues and I will forever identify the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath in some significant way with our work on Ringelblum.

And the link with Ringelblum has been deepened since we opened Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust, which places the work of Oyneg Shabbos in the context of the Jewish response to the Holocaust. In June, during our mission to Germany and Poland, we visited the Jewish Historical Institute, and were invited into the vault there by the director,Lena Bergman, and given the rare opportunity to view originals from the Ringelblum Archive and see the milk can in which they had been buried and in which they outlived their creators and survived to tell their story. For many, it was their first and likely their only opportunity to see these originals. It was for me like visiting old friends, for these documents had hung on our walls in the months following 9/11.

Jonathan’s note came at the right time; I can’t imagine a better way to sum up our first ten years as an institution...

August 27, 2007


Mengele Investigation, Brazil (April, 1986)

Readers of The New York Times will have noticed the obituary last week of Dr. Leslie Lukash, former Nassau County medical examiner. Dr. Lukash was one of the team of forensic experts sent to Sao Paulo, Brazil in June of 1985 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to examine the purported remains of Josef Mengele, the notorious Auschwitz physician and war criminal. There were a lot of experts there: the Brazilian team from the Medical-legal Institute, a team from Germany, and two teams from the US -- the Lukash team and one assembled by the US Department of Justice.

A significant tension characterized the evaluation of the remains. Romeu Tuma, the Chief of the Federal Police in Sao Paulo, presided over the investigation and ferried between the international press on one hand, and the assembled team of experts, on the other. He seemed acutely aware of being at center stage in the biggest story of the day and wanted to make sure that he could deliver a confident answer on the question of the identity of the skeleton while public and press interest remained high. I was present at the private meetings and can report that, although there was no overt pressure, Tuma wanted an answer soon.

There was a deep split within the group of forensic experts. The Wiesenthal Center team, with Lukash at its head, argued that it was too early to close the case. There was still more investigation necessary and there were issues that needed clarification. Others were willing to be more definite. The assembled group of specialists -- forensic pathologists, radiologists, odontologists, finally agreed upon compromise language and settled on the formulation that the body was Mengele's "within a reasonable scientific certainty." Tuma got the answer he wanted, hosted a dramatic press conference, announced the findings, and closed the investigation. Within a short amount of time, Tuma rose to the position of Chief of the Brazilian Federal Police.

It could have ended there: a closed case with many loose ends and a great deal of uncertainty. A few of us at the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department appealed to Neal Sher, the head of our office, to allow work to continue on the case. There were, we argued, a number of leads that needed pursuing and newly discovered sources that needed study. With Neal's approval, and without the glare of publicity, we returned to Sao Paulo in April 1986 and followed those leads and studied the sources, including Mengele's diaries and correspondence which were found after the body was discovered.

The new sources led to the discovery of additional medical and dental records, which removed the ambiguities and uncertainty that had been present earlier on, and which would have, over time, undermined confidence in the conclusion that Mengele was dead. Like that of JFK and Marilyn Monroe (and others), the death of Josef Mengele might have been the subject of speculation and suspicion. Instead, with patience and careful work, we addressed every issue and removed all doubt.

August 22, 2007

Armenian Genocide

Museum Program on the Armenian Genocide, 2005

The subject of the Armenian Genocide was in the news over the past few days. The Regional Director of the ADL in Boston, Andrew Tarsy, was fired by the National Director, Abe Foxman, for openly challenging the policy of the ADL to avoid using the term, "genocide," in connection with the Armenian tragedy. The precipating event involved intense opposition to an ADL program in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Local residents opposed the town's involvement in the ADL program because of the ADL's policy regarding the the use of the term, "genocide." Tarsy had apparently defended the ADL position until he decided that it was no longer possible for him to do so. He publicly refuted the position and was promptly fired by Foxman. In an unusual turn of events, Foxman reversed himself yesterday and stated what happened to the Armenians was "tantamount to genocide."

The complexities of this issue are not to be underestimated; they extend beyond the technical definition of genocide and involve highly-charged questions of geopolitics and international relations. We have had some experience with this subject at the Museum. Two years ago, we had a public program about the Armenian Genocide, and I received a number of phone calls from Jewish leaders in New York urging me to reconsider. The following is an excerpt from my remarks that evening:

Before I introduce our moderator and tonight’s guest, I want to say a few words about this evening’s program and about why we decided to hold it at the Museum. I say this because we have been criticized by some about our decision.

It is hard to imagine a subject that so underscores the power of history to move and to motivate than the Armenian Genocide. Those who are unaware of the ongoing, passionate, and politicized debate about this nine-decades-old history will be surprised, no doubt, that the program we hold this evening has been the object of an attempt to pressure and influence the Museum.

Earlier this month, our Chairman, Robert Morgenthau, and I received letters from the Consul General of Turkey in New York, who stated his disappointment that the Museum was planning to hold an event that would be “defamatory to Turkey and likely impede efforts to promote reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.” The Consul General wrote that it was “disheartening” that “[t]hose who choose acrimony over dialogue” had been given permission to hold an event at the Museum. He predicted in his letter that the participants would try to “build a lasting equivalence between the unique experience that is the Holocaust and the tragedy that befell the Ottoman Armenians at the end of the First World War.”

Let me be clear. I understand why the Consul General wrote to me. It is an indication of how real and raw this history is, and I mean no offense to the Turkish Government in raising this issue this evening.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it may not need to be said, but let me say it anyway: at its root, history is not a matter of opinion. To be sure, our libraries are full of books that interpret history differently, that offer wide ranging explanations for the causes, and differing accounts for the effects of historical events. In many ways, these differences can be defining. But it is the job of the historian, and the well informed citizen, to try to understand what happened – the how it happened, and why it happened, can be argued and debated. But what happened needs to become part of a common currency – a shared vocabulary. What happened is not a matter of opinion.

Our guest this evening, Ara Sarafian, has produced a set of volumes that contribute significantly to our knowledge of what happened in the Ottoman Empire 90 years ago. He has published a complete edition of the diary of Henry Morgenthau, US Ambassador to Constantinople from 1913 to 1916. And a compilation of official US records on the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1917. These volumes, both together and apart, provide crucial evidence about what happened 90 years ago in Ottoman Turkey. Sarafian has given us access to the raw material of history – an eyewitness contemporary account, and official documentation. His mission was not to interpret these records, but rather to place them at our disposal, for our own clear reading.

It is particularly ironic that tonight’s program should have invited such opposition from official Turkish sources and from others who have called me on their behalf. It is ironic because tonight’s program introduces primary source materials that are part of our own American history and that can be examined openly and freely by anyone who wishes. If all of the records that are relevant to the history that is the subject of tonight’s program were similarly available, perhaps much of the heat of an unproductive and distracting debate would be replaced by a cleansing light.

Allow me from this podium this evening to call for complete and open access to all records that bear on this tragic history. Let others follow Ara Sarafian’s example and work to secure free and unfettered access to every relevant record.

There is, of course, another reason why it is appropriate for us to hold this program in this Museum this evening. Above our door stands the name Robert M. Morgenthau. Our Chairman and the DA of New York County is the grandson of the man whose diary is the subject of our program. There are clearly many who influenced Robert Morgenthau to pursue a public life, but my bet is that the example of his grandfather was extremely important. So beyond the debt we owe Henry Morgenthau for his clear and insistent voice during difficult times, we can add the part he played in setting his grandson on a path of civic and communal service.

For many reasons (some of which I touched upon in my remarks), the subject of the Armenian Genocide is of particular interest to us at the Museum. We will continue to explore this subject in public programs and hope to deal with it in an upcoming exhibition. Stay tuned.

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

August 16, 2007

Remembering Raul Hilberg

The Jewish Week asked me to write a tribute to Raul Hilberg. The following, an edited and expanded version of the previous blog, was published today, in the August 17th issue.

Documenting The Horror
Remembering the pioneering work, and presence, of Raul Hilberg.
David G. Marwell - Special To The Jewish Week

When I learned last week that professor Raul Hilberg had died from lung cancer at 81, it was a sad reminder of the passing of a generation. Nearly every week, we learn of the death of another Holocaust survivor or World War II veteran, and we wonder what our world will be like without them.

Hilberg was born in 1926 in Vienna, left his native land for Cuba in 1939, and eventually landed in the United States. A graduate of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, Brooklyn College and Columbia University, he served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. He was a political science professor at the University of Vermont for more than 35 years.

I first encountered Hilberg in the form of his landmark book, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” which I had been assigned — all 790 pages — as the seminar reading for one particular week during my junior year of college in the spring of 1972. The two-inch-thick-plus paperback, which cost $3.95, is on my bookshelf today, and I still consult it.

The book, first published in 1961 and followed by two expanded and updated editions over the years, was based on Hilberg’s meticulous examination of the transcripts and exhibits of the Nuremberg trials and the huge collection of captured German records to which he had access as a member of the team of analysts hired to catalog and assess them. From these documents, Hilberg revealed a comprehensive picture of the Nazi regime, its institutions and the bureaucracy that was its backbone. Hilberg’s reliance on the documents and his skill in putting them into context made a powerful impression on me.

And I was not the only one. Indeed, Hilberg’s work defined a field of study and inspired a generation of scholars. In his memoir, “The Politics of Memory,” published in 1996, Hilberg describes the origin of his masterwork — the lonely effort, the years of research and writing, the long and difficult search for a publisher. He also describes the surprising inspiration he found. Hilberg tells how he arranged his narrative in the way he believed Beethoven crafted a symphony: “I grasped for an overall symmetry. ... The first chapter was thematically reflected in the last. The second was matched with the next to last, and the third with the tenth. The longest of my chapters was the one on deportations. It was the Andante of my composition, with a theme and multiple variations that mirrored the special conditions under which deportations were carried out in each country.”

Perhaps the musical metaphor reached too far, but Hilberg had composed a masterpiece, whose contribution to our understanding of the actions of the perpetrators remains unmatched.

When I worked for the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s, I had the opportunity not only to meet Hilberg but to work with him. He served as an expert witness in a number of our cases, and I was assigned to work in preparing him for his testimony. I confess that I was star-struck when I first met him because he was so towering a figure to me, and I was nervous indeed when I first delivered to Hilberg the fruits of my own archival research for his interpretation. We met in his office at the University of Vermont and in his home in Burlington, and I saw firsthand how he approached a document.

Hilberg was of a generation of scholars who came of age before the advent of low-cost photocopying and computers, and I remember him describing his research methods to me. He made his way through archives with pencil and paper, taking careful notes and digesting key documents. His mastery of those documents and their meaning was a model for all of us who worked in the field.

“I could not write about this complex phenomenon without searching for evidence in pieces of paper, sifting them, combining them, immersing myself in the atmosphere of the time when they had been composed, measuring the pulse of the whole development and assessing its gravity,” he wrote in “Sources of Holocaust Research,” published in 2001.

Hilberg was a riveting speaker — in the courtroom and at the lectern — with a distinctive voice and elocution. He could deliver a stream of well-structured paragraphs, extemporaneously, as if he had drafted and edited them beforehand. Those who saw him in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” will recall his measured tone and simple eloquence. Those who had the privilege of hearing him in person will not forget the precision and clarity of his delivery.

I was privileged to have known Raul Hilberg and to have sat at his feet. I will remember him with profound respect and affection and will treasure my dog-eared copy of his path-breaking work. It will remind me of a great scholar who labored to make clear what was unimaginable.

August 7, 2007

Raul Hilberg, 1926-2007

Raul Hilberg at the Museum, January 2005

I first encountered Raul Hilberg in the form of his magisterial book, The Destruction of the European Jews, which I had been assigned -- all 790 pages -- as the reading for a particular week in a seminar I took in my junior year of college in the spring of 1972. The two-inch-thick-plus paperback, which cost $3.95, is on my bookshelf today, and I still consult it from time to time. The book is based on Hilberg's careful examination of the huge collection of captured German records which first became available to scholars in the 1950's. From these documents, Hilberg revealed a comprehensive picture of the Nazi regime, its institutions and the bureaucracy that was its backbone. Hilberg's reliance on the documents and his skill in putting them into context made a mighty impression on me.

Later, when I worked for the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, I had the opportunity not only to meet Hilberg, but to work with him (I confess that I was star-struck because he was so towering a figure to me). He served as an expert witness in a number of our cases, and I was assigned to work in preparing him for his testimony. I met with him in his office at the University of Vermont and in his home in Burlington. Hilberg was of a generation of scholars who came of age before the advent of low-cost xerography and computers. He made his way through archives with pencil and paper, taking careful notes and digesting key documents. His mastery of those documents and their meaning was a model for all of us who worked in the field. Hilberg was also a riveting speaker, who could deliver well structured paragraphs, extemporaneously, as if he had drafted and edited them beforehand. Those who saw him in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah will recall his measured tone and simple eloquence.

I was privileged to have known Raul Hilberg and to have sat at his feet. I am saddened by his passing and will remember him with profound respect and affection.

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

July 19, 2007

Visits to the Camps


Over four days, we visited Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Each of the sites and memorials have a different history and impact. Treblinka was completely destroyed by the Nazis, and what is left is a stark and powerful memorial on the site of the former camp. A field of stones – each of a different size and shape – representing the destroyed communities occupies the ground upon which an estimated 800,000 Jews were murdered.


Majdanek, on the other hand, survived the war nearly intact, and a section of the original camp serves as a museum. The communist regime constructed a huge memorial in the form of a domed roof covering a mound of ashes of victims. It is difficult to estimate the number of victims at Majdanek. Early Soviet estimates put the number at 360,000, which has been significantly revised recently. The current director of the Maidanek Museum, historian Tomasz Kranz, estimates the number at 78,000, of which 58,000 were Jews. When our guide communicated this estimate, some in our group were suspicious it had been intentionally lowered to minimize Jewish suffering as an ominous step on the dangerous road toward revisionism. Although the revised number is the result of careful scholarship (the estimate of the number of Jews is also quite close to Raul Hilberg’s estimate), the skepticism with which it was received underscored a concern shared by many in our group with the attitude of present-day Poles towards the Holocaust, and how it is commemorated and taught (if at all) in the schools.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: The "Sauna"

Our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau began with a stop at the newly constructed memorial at the Judenrampe, where all incoming prisoners arrived until the spring of 1944 when a rail spur was constructed inside the camp to accommodate the Hungarian transports. We then went to the recently dedicated memorial at the “Red Cottage” which served as an early gas chamber until the construction of the purpose-built gas chamber/crematoria complexes. We then walked through a birch forest to the sauna exhibition, which is an example, in my opinion of the best of museum practice and commemorative intent. We ended the day with a visit to the Museum's Auschwitz Jewish Center. The visit provided a welcome respite and a stark contrast to the powerful experience of visiting the death camp. There, we connected with a tangible remnant of Jewish life within a few kilometers of perhaps the darkest spot on earth.

July 15, 2007

Krakow Jewish Culture Festival

[Note: Travel and technical issues have prevented me from maintaining a regular blogging schedule, for which I apologize. Over the next week, I will be posting a number of entries related to the Museum's recent mission to Berlin and Poland with the hope that my delay in getting them out will not lessen their impact or interest.]

We were in Krakow for the final day of the Jewish Culture Festival – a remarkable event that brings together the best in Jewish music and culture. Janusz Makuch, the visionary behind the festival,started it more than seventeen years ago and succeeds each year in attracting the best and the brightest to what must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My wife and I were invited to experience the final concert (which was televised live on Polish television)from a rented apartment overlooking Szeroka Street which serves as center stage.

The Crowd on Szeroka Street

Our host was Sigmund Rolat, a great friend of the Museum’s, who has long-standing and intimate ties with Poland. Sigmund, whose birthday we celebrated, treated us not only to good food and a privileged perspective from which to view the concert, but also to the company of a range of interesting people, including Shevach Weiss, the former Israeli ambassador to Poland, and Theodore Bikel, who stopped by between performances.

Theodore Bikel

There are those who question the very concept of a Jewish Cultural Festival in Poland, a land that has lost almost all traces of Jewish life, but anyone who witnessed this final concert has to admit that music has the potential to transcend time and to move people in powerful ways. This festival is part of a larger phenomenon, which we witnessed in Poland, of the attempt by Poles and Jews to (re-)discover elements of their common history and culture. The new museum to be built in Warsaw, which will be devoted to Jewish life in Poland, is another example.

Janusz Makuch and me back stage

June 27, 2007

More Photos from the Mission...

Checkpoint Charlie Building at the Allied Museum

The Reichstag

Battle of Berlin Walking Tour

Memorial at the Grunewald Train Station

June 26, 2007

News from the Mission...

Rosenstrasse Memorial in Berlin

Berlin Document Center

I'm writing from Berlin to report from our mission. I have been so busy (and so exhausted) that it has been difficult to write, but here are some photos. We have been on the go from the very start,and my only fear is that we have scheduled too many activities. I am gratified that so many of my friends and colleagues received our group with such openess and generosity. We leave tomorrow for Warsaw...

Our Group at the Reichstag

Our Group at the Neue Synagogue