November 24, 2008

Holocaust by Bullets

Father Patrick Desbois at the Museum

We opened our newest special exhibition on Sunday night. Here are the remarks I delivered at the opening:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is David Marwell, and I am the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Opening an exhibition must surely be among a Museum Director’s most welcome responsibilities.

After all, it is exhibitions that are unique among a museum’s offerings to the cultural life of a community. To be sure, a museum presents a variety of programs and educational opportunities, but it is the exhibition that defines its singular contribution. Exhibitions, especially history exhibitions, combine many disciplines, apply the best elements of design and interpretation and, most important, showcase original and powerful artifacts. The creation of an exhibition is a remarkable process that involves thousands of decisions each made with a single objective – to enrich the public. And so I welcome the opportunity this evening to welcome all of you and to mark the opening of this remarkable exhibition.

Beyond a welcome responsibility, an opening is also an occasion to acknowledge all who were involved in creating the exhibition, and to thank those whose generosity made it possible. I am pleased to carry out my responsibility and will, with great pleasure acknowledge and thank.

First a word about the exhibition. The Shooting of Jews in Ukraine: Holocaust by Bullets joins another special exhibition at our Museum, Woman of Letters: Irene Nemirovsky and Suite Francaise, the story of a Jewish writer who was born in Kiev in 1903, who emigrated to France, and who perished in Auschwitz in 1942. Now, had Irene Nemirovsky, not left Kiev, she and her family would more than likely have been killed by bullets fired by a German policeman or soldier within a short distance from her home and within earshot, and perhaps under the gaze, of her neighbors. Irene’s fate, instead, was to be arrested in her home and transported by train to the ultimate site of her death, hundreds of miles away. The fate she left behind when she left the land of her birth, and the fate that she experienced when she moved to France define the Holocaust in its deadly diversity.

In much of the West, the Holocaust archetype is the concentration camp –epitomized by Auschwitz – a death factory to which Jews were brought from the far corners of Europe. In the former Soviet Union, however, the memories of the Holocaust are defined by mass shootings close to home. Certainly, information on these shootings, and how they were carried out has been available since the war. Knowledge (as distinct from information) and understanding of them was however, limited. That it was limited has much to do with the cold war and with how the narrative of the Holocaust was formulated and where it found its most articulate expression.

It took what many would suggest was an unlikely actor to investigate and make widely known these monstrous crimes. In a reversal of Irene Nemirovsky’s movements, Father Desbois left his native France and traveled to Ukraine in search of his own family history and ended up illuminating the history of hundreds of thousands of families. I don’t think there is a person who has heard the story of Father Patrick Desbois and his work who has not been immediately and deeply moved by this extraordinary man. His work and the work of his organization, Yahad in Unum, are at the heart of this exhibition. I will save any additional comments about Father Desbois until later, when I will interview him here on stage and give all of you an opportunity to ask your own questions.

Introduction of Eric de Rothschild
Holocaust by bullets was originally created by the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris. It opened there in June of 2007 to significant acclaim and received tens of thousands of visitors. When I visited Paris last year and toured the exhibition, I decided that we had to host this exhibition in New York. We worked closely with our French colleagues to create a North American version of the exhibition, adjusting the design to accommodate our space and revising the English text for an American audience. We are grateful to our French friends, especially Jacques Fredj, the director for the Memorial, Karel Fracopane, his “foreign minister,” and Sophie Nagiscarde, who was the curator of the exhibition.

It is now my pleasure and honor to introduce, Baron Eric de Rothschild, eminent financier, and distinguished leader of the French Jewish community. Among his many positions and honors, he is the president of the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris – a remarkable institution that would not have been possible without his vision, drive, and energy. Ladies and gentlemen, Baron Eric de Rothschild….

Thank the Staff
I want to thank those who made the New York version of the exhibition possible: Lou Levine and his team, especially, Jason Steinhauer, Sherrie Adler, Erica Blumenfeld, Matt Peverly, and Andy Piedilato; Mike Minerva, and his team. Our designers (Rita Meyers Design and Yvette Lenhart Design); the fabricators, Final Push Construction,

Thank the Funders
I do not want to say that it was easy to raise the necessary funds to support this exhibition. It is never easy to do that, but I will say that the three foundations that share the honor of bringing this exhibition to New York and share our profound gratitude, did not seem to need a great deal of convincing that this undertaking was worthy of their support. Their generosity and willingness are simply an indication of their true natures. They share the conviction that the story told by this exhibition is a story that needs to be told and needs to be heard. We are grateful beyond words to each of these foundations and pray that we have proven to them that that their support landed in worthy hands. We thank them all.

We thank the Robert I. Goldman Foundation, especially Walter Weiner, one of its trustees, and one of our trustees, who saw the value of this exhibition immediately, and knew that Robert Goldman, whose family history can be traced to areas where mass shootings took place during the Holocaust, would have been keenly interested in the subject matter of this exhibition.

We thank the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, and our Trustee, Lily Safra. The Museum is deeply indebted to Mrs. Safra, as we were to her late husband, our friend and trustee, Edmond J. Safra. We have benefitted from Lily’s continued support over the years, and especially for her magnificent gift of this theater, which bears her husband’s name and which is the venue for some of New York City’s most creative and powerful programs. The EJSPF has another intimate connection to this exhibition since they are important supporters of Father Desbois’s important work.

Introduction of Victor Pinchuk
Finally, we thank the Victor Pinchuk Foundation and its president, Thomas Eymond-Laritaz. The Victor Pinchuk Foundation is also a supporter of Father Desbois’s work and an early and passionate backer of this exhibition. As you can read in your program, the Foundation seeks to be a force for good in the world and has initiated innovative projects in the fields of health, education, and contemporary art. The driving force behind the Foundation is its founder, Victor Pinchuk, who has honored us this evening by traveling all the way from Ukraine to be here. Ladies and gentlemen, Victor Pinchuk….

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

November 10, 2008


Rosa Strygler at our Generation to Generation Dinner

We had our 20th annual Generation to Generation Dinner at the Museum last week and honored Rosa Stryler, our Trustee Emerita, who did so much to help establish the Museum. Rosa is a remarkable woman with a remarkable personal history. The following is an excerpt from my remarks at the dinner.
I can’t imagine a better place to honor Rosa or to contemplate her story. In so many ways, Rosa’s story is our story, the story that we teach in this Museum. Our many visitors can learn about Rosa, and the many like her, on each of the three floors of our core exhibition. On the first floor they can learn about the rich and varied and virbrant lives that Jews led before the Holocaust. On the second, they learn about the violent destruction of that life and the murder of millions, and the obliteration of communities and a way of life. On our third floor, they learn about the most inspiring and stirring story that we tell. Here they learn about how people returned to life after the Holocaust.

Surely the most profound, indeed heroic, phenomenon in the context of the Holocaust is that those who had been confronted with unimagined and unimaginable trauma -- the loss of loved ones, exposure to extreme and unrelenting violence, the constant presence of paralyzing and sickening fear – that these poor souls -- or at least some of them -- were able to choose and lead lives that followed a different path than their experience might have defined for them. Their response to death was desire – desire to grab a firm hold on life and pull from it meaning and pleasure. Surely one could have emerged from Rosa’s past severely handicapped, cynical and suspicious, damaged and demanding. That Rosa and others found their way to distill from life an essential spirit that looked away from dark despair and sought out the bright light of vitality and service and the pursuit of good works must undoubtedly be one of the most inspiring stories of the human spirit.

Just on the other side of the window behind me is the Garden of Stones that tells Rosa’s story with a quiet eloquence. This garden, composed of eighteen boulders out of each of which grows a single oak tree, gives powerful expression to the potent metaphor that life will take root and flourish even in the most unforgiving circumstances. The circumstances that defined Rosa’s young life, and that of so many of you, provided, it might seem, very little prospect for life to renew its vital force. Yet Rosa created a new life in this new land and pursued it with a single purpose that enriched so many other lives and from which we have all benefited.

We sit this evening within view of the Statue of Liberty. Think for a moment of the day when Rosa arrived in New York Harbor, beneath the benevolent gaze of that most beloved symbol. She was an orphan who had lost so much, her family and her childhood -- do you think that she might have imagined on that day, that some day, just across the water she might help to build a beautiful and proud museum that would tell her story? And that she would inspire others to work hard to ensure its survival.

Photo by Melanie Einzig

August 27, 2008


I returned from Ireland (no opportunity to post, but I include a photo from the walk here) and went directly to the Conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) in Chicago. I attended the conference to announce an exciting new relationship that we have just worked out with, the commercial genealogical website. The agreement with Ancestry represents a win-win-win for JewishGen (and the Museum), Ancestry, and the public.

Here is what I said about the Agreement at the Conference:
On Sunday night, we honored Susan King and acknowledged her pathbreaking efforts. I am pleased that tonight we announce a new chapter in the life of JewishGen that will build upon and extend the remarkable institution that Susan founded.

We are very excited about our new partnership with It is the result of a long and complex negotiation that was marked by unusual good will on both sides. While I can’t give you a blow-by-blow account of the negotiation process that led to the agreement, I can describe to you the principles that guided us throughout. First, we were determined to remain faithful to the basic tenet that the records available on JewishGen would remain free and freely accessible. Second, we were determined to find a way to ensure that JewishGen was technically stable, indeed robust, and that it had sufficient bandwidth to serve a growing and demanding public. Third, we sought a way to improve the functionality of JewishGen and ensure that we can get more data up more quickly. Our driving concern was to continue to serve our public.

Principle elements of the Agreement
1) JewishGen data, and Warren will detail which data that is, will be available on Ancestry at no charge;
2) Ancestry will provide pipe and power and maintain JG servers;
3) JewishGen will receive a percentage of revenue that derives from business driven to Ancestry from JewishGen;
4) Ancestry will consult with JewishGen on technical, design, and user experience issues.
5) JewishGen will consult with Ancestry on Jewish genealogical issues.

Now is a decidedly for-profit company, and JewishGen is decidedly not-for-profit. How could these two entities, which are so wildly different when it comes to the bottom line, reach an agreement that would serve each of their individual interests and that of the public all at the same time. Well it happens sometimes that the stars align and that there is a happy coincidence of interests, and that was absolutely the case here. As I understand Ancestry’s business, they profit from interest in genealogy because they know that if people are engaged in family research, they will end up at Ancestry. For this reason, they are interested in a stable and thriving JewishGen. JewishGen, on the other hand, desperately needed to find a means to ensure its future. The financial component of the agreement with Ancestry will go some way to ensure JewishGen’s survival, but more important, the reach of Ancestry will introduce a significant new audience to JewishGen and allow us to extend our reach and add more and more members to our family.

Ancestry will benefit from the expanded exposure that its relationship with JewishGen will enable, and JewishGen will benefit from a stable technical platform, and the increased power of Ancestry’s marketing and promotional reach, and all of you will benefit from continued access to crucial records and the assurance that JewishGen will survive and flourish.

Important Points to Remember
1) JewishGen will remain an independent, non-profit organization. It will retain its current structure and continue to rely on volunteers and donations. It will continue to provide unique tools and content that will not be available anywhere else, and it will continue to host the data of other organizations like JRI-Poland and LitvakSig.
2) JewishGen records will remain free and freely available both on JewishGen and on Ancestry.
3) Ancestry will provide “pipe and power” to JewishGen; they will not administer the site nor will they have access to any personal data for JewishGen users.

I know that when the full extent of this agreement is realized, when JG is installed on powerful servers with generous bandwidth, when Warren and his team can focus all of their attention on acquiring more records and getting more records on line, when we can make useful changes to improve navigation and the user’s experience, I know that you will all agree that we have made the right move in developing this relationship with Ancestry. Until that time, I am here to listen to your concerns, address your questions, take your suggestions, and provide you with whatever information you need.

It will take time before we can really assess the reaction of the community to the Ancestry agreement. It took no time, however, to learn that there are a number of people who are very upset at the new logo which we introduced! For good and supportable reasons, we decided to give JewishGen a new graphic identity and we engaged in a deliberate and consultative process that resulted in the logo that appears at the begining of this post. It replaces the original logo:

If you have a strong feeling about this logo issue, please feel free to comment. For more on Ancestry, JewishGen, and the logo, see:

Here is the promised photo from my walk in Ireland:

July 30, 2008

I was away...

Moonrise over Lake Winnipesaukee

Apologies for the absence of new posts. I was away in New Hampshire for a few days and am terribly occupied with two new exhibitions, which will open at the Museum this fall: Women of Letters: Irène Némerovsky and Suite Française, which has been the subject of several posts, and Holocaust by Bullets, about Father Patrick Desbois and his search for mass graves in Ukraine. I will write more about this fascinating subject in the future. I am off to Ireland next week for a walking trip in Cork. Perhaps I can post some photos along the way....

July 9, 2008

Némirovsky Exhibition

Sarah Griswold, Exhibitions Project Manager, with the famous valise

The artifacts for our exhibition, Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française arrived from France recently, the first time any of them (with the exception of the manuscript of Suite Française) has ever been out of France. You can imagine our excitement in unpacking the crates and examining the powerful objects, which will help us to tell this remarkable story. In the photo above, you can see the valise which held the manuscript of Suite Française, which can be seen below.

Suite Française Manuscript (Courtesy of IMEC)

Irène's Identity Card (Courtesy of IMEC)

June 22, 2008

Documentary Film

I have just returned from ten days in Germany, where I was working on a documentary film about the search for and prosecution of Nazi war criminals (working Title: Elusive Justice). I have been working with Jonathan Silvers, the film's director, for the past year or so and joined him and the crew (including the very talented cameraman, Bob Caccamise) in Berlin; from there, we traveled to Cologne, Krefeld, and Frankfurt.

Bobby Caccamise, Neal Robin, and Jonathan Silvers in the Courthouse in Cologne

In Berlin, we filmed at the former and current sites of the Berlin Document Center. We interviewed Henry Leide, an expert on East German prosecutions of Nazi war criminals, and Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank.

In Cologne, we interviewed Judge Fassbender, who presided over the Kurt Lischka trial, and Peter Finkelgruen, who carried on an eleven-year quest to see Anton Malloth, the murderer of his grandfather, brought to justice.

Judge Fassbender and Petra Krischok, our local producer

Peter Finkelgruen

In Krefeld, we interviewed Ralph Klein, an anti-fascist activist, who carreid out demonstrations two years ago against one Horst Richter, who had been convicted of war crimes, in absentia, by an Italian court and who lives in Germany, without fear, apparently, of the German justice system. We filmed outside of Richter's home, and his wife came out to speak with us, providing a spontaneous and dramatic interview.

Ralph Klein in Krefeld

In Frankfurt, we interviewed Gerhard Wiese, who had been a prosecutor in the Frankurt Auschwitz trial, and is perhaps the only survivng figure from the trial. Sitting in the courtroom, where the trial commenced, Wiese provided details of and reflections about this most important proceeding.

Bobby Caccamise, our cameraman

Gerhard Wiese, prosecutor in the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial

This film will tell a crucially important story about the pursuit of justice and the failures and successes of that pursuit. I am very excited to be working on it.

June 5, 2008

Dr. Ruth

Dr. Ruth hoisted aloft at her party

Last night, the Museum was the venue for a remarkable event -- our Trustee, Dr. Ruth Westheimer's 80th birthday party. Ruth and her family hosted their 350+ guests to a night to remember. It was was described by one veteran party-goer as "the best celebration ever."

Dr. Ruth wore a beautiful tangerine-colored silk brocade jacket with silk pants. Surrounded by her beautiful family and all of her friends, she danced the night away to Greg Wall, who played a variety of rock-n-roll, klezmer, and Israeli tunes that inspired festive dancing all night long. From the first hora to the last jazz riff, the events hall practically vibrated with revelers. Fireworks over the Statue of Liberty provided the veritable icing on the cake, created by David Bouley (the cake, not the fireworks), and Ruth and her family were as joyful and loving as you could imagine. In lieu of gifts, Ruth’s guests were asked to make contributions to the Ruth Westheimer Fund for Holocaust Education in memory of Fred Westheimer. More than $60,000 was raised to further the educational mission of the Museum. Others who celebrated with Dr. Ruth include Bob Morgenthau, Manhattan DA and Ruth’s boss at the Museum, Christie Hefner, Debbie Friedman, and the New York City Sports Commissioner Ken Podziba representing Mayor Bloomberg, who had a plaque made for Ruth that declares “The world is a better place with you in it.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I was honored to be asked to deliver some remarks. Here they are (note: for full effect, they should be read aloud with a certain elocution):

It is difficult to talk about Dr. Ruth without thinking about a certain subject, but I promised myself that I would avoid the cliché, that I would try get through my remarks this evening without mentioning “you know what.”

Well, given that restriction, what can you say about Ruth?

• What can you say about this extremely short person who has a giant heart?
• What can you say about this extravagant personality who is modest in so many ways?
• What can you say about this extrovert, who is thoughtful, and deliberative, and even very private?
• What can you say about this extraordinary achiever who takes time and care to speak to everyone?
• What can you say about this exemplar of grandmotherly qualities whose expertise on television risks expurgation by the FCC?
• What can you say about this exile who has found a home in the hearts of so many?

I, for one, can simply say, I love Ruth. I love her for her big and kind and generous heart; for her commitment to important causes (like ours); for the priorities that order her life; for the example she makes for us all about living meaningfully. She is one of my heroes, and I couldn’t be prouder to call her my friend or happier that she chose to celebrate her birthday here in our home. Thank you, Ruth, and Happy Birthday.

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

May 16, 2008

Imre Hecht

Imre and Vera Hecht

We lost a good friend recently. Imre Hecht died at 98, only a short time after his beloved wife Vera. I delivered these remarks at Imre's funeral on May 4th:

I didn’t meet Imre Hecht until he was 90 years old. Now if you first meet someone only after they have lived nine decades, you might expect to encounter a person of significantly diminished capacity. You might expect them to be frail. You might expect their cognitive acuity to be compromised. You might expect them to be focused on themselves and on their end. In short, you might expect to encounter a person who had used up their life.

Now I knew no younger Imre to compare, but the Imre at 90, whom I met, was not a man who had used up his life. He was a man who was squarely in the middle of it. Both feet. Full speed. Deeply engaged. He was the only 90 year old, whom I knew who sent me emails, and the only person of any age whose emails contained such an unconventional, yet effective approach to the English language.

I must assume that the Imre I met at 90 was operating at some diminished energy, which leads me to marvel at what Imre must have been like at 30, when he was making movies for MGM in Budapest, before the war, the war that destroyed his beloved homeland and saw the murder of hundreds of thousands of his people. I wonder what he was like at 40, when he met and, within three days, married his beloved Vera, a story that I heard just last week during the memorial service that Imre planned for Vera at the Museum, and which his last illness kept him from attending.

He was a creative personality and he gave expression to his feelings and his musings in dramatic and memorable ways. Imre was often frustrated with us at the Museum; he had an endless series of suggestions for exhibitions and improvements and marketing strategies. On one visit I made to his apartment, Imre gave me a well thought out plan, including sketches, for an entire new gallery at the Museum. In the end, though he loved who we were as an institution, and he knew that we were there to tell his story.

The last time I saw him, in March in Sarasota, he looked marvelous. Tan and fit. He looked like Picasso with his straw hat and lively eyes. We talked about the memorial service for Vera, and he talked with Izabela about what he wanted to do, where he wanted to travel – Paris, Budapest.

Imre and Vera Hecht

If Imre Hecht had not been born, he would have had to be invented. The world needed a man like Imre -- not because he won great victories for humankind and not because he left behind enduring evidence of prodigious talent. No, Imre’s hold on all of was his unequaled love for life. He thirsted to experience the adventure that life on earth offers, and he was equipped to take it all in.

April 30, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Day

We mark this day in a number of meaningful ways at the Museum. One of the most important elements is bringing survivors to our galleries to talk with students and other visitors. These men and women share their wisdom, strength, and life lessons freely with the understanding that their stories will not be forgotten. As more than one student has told us, reading about the Holocaust cannot compare with talking to a survivor.

Some of our Museum family are artifact donors as well as survivors. When you imagine what men and women had to endure in the camps and on death marches, it is nearly impossible to envision how a birthday card or a child’s toy or eyeglasses could stand as the object that is a metaphor for one’s life. In any other situation these objects might be thrown in a box or worse, thrown away. But in our Museum they illustrate the humanity that would not be extinguished, the hope that would not fade, and the history that cannot be forgotten.

As our friends age a little more each day, we are fortunate that many have taken pen to paper and written their memoirs. While there are common threads that weave in and out of these accounts, I never fail to be amazed at the strength of character, the depth of love, or the sheer number of friends and loved ones who were taken away, but who live on in these books. Our Pickman Museum Shop offers a wealth of memoirs and I hope you will take the time to read through some.

On Friday morning the staff will participate in an intimate candlelighting ceremony. We do this before the Museum opens, without the glare of media. It is a chance to rededicate ourselves to the work of the Museum in our safe space. Six High School Apprentices (interns) are paired with six survivors. Each pair reads a statement and lights a candle. These statements were written by Norbert Friedman, a survivor and long-time member of the Museum family, now living in Florida. When we read these statements together it is as if Norbert is with us in the lobby. Norbert’s words are for anyone to use in a Holocaust commemoration.

CANDLE 1: In memory of the one-and-a-half-million innocent children whose lives were extinguished in the cruelest way, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 2: In memory of parents whose indescribable anguish of separation from their children was exceeded only by the torment of witnessing their murder, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 3: In memory of those saintly sages whose lives were dedicated to the teaching of Torah, and who went to their death with the cry of Sh’ma Yisrael on their lips, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 4: In memory of all the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to save and protect their Jewish brothers and sisters, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 5: In memory of all the brave souls who perished offering physical and spiritual resistance, not in expectation of conquest, but for the honor and glory of the Jewish People, a candle is lit.

CANDLE 6: In memory of all those men, women, and children who have no one else to remember them or say kaddish for them, whose very names have been erased, but whose memory lives on in our hearts and in our thoughts, for them, a candle is lit.

April 23, 2008

"To Return to the Land…”

Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, 1943

As we approached the 60th anniversary of Israel’s statehood, the Museum staff thought about how to mark this important anniversary. We could think of no better way to honor the birth of the State of Israel than by showing the powerful images of its struggle and its triumphs. "To Return to the Land…” Paul Goldman’s Photographs of the Birth of Israel does just that through Goldman’s beautifully composed and intimate work. The New York Sun called the exhibition “not-to-be-missed.”

Hungarian-born photojournalist Paul Goldman fled to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1940, where he chronicled the events leading up to the foundation of the State of Israel. Goldman’s photos of life before statehood, during the War of Independence, and the ingathering of dispersed Jews are complemented by rich memories of individuals who lived through those same events. Images and words together tell stories of the birth of Israel through the lenses of photographic and human memory. From Tel Aviv streetscapes to the bombing of the King David Hotel, from street vendors to Prime Ministers; both the extraordinary and every-day document this monumental story.

Goldman, born in 1900, fled Budapest in 1940 to escape the spreading threat of Nazism. He worked as a freelance photographer for local newspapers and international news services during the 1940s and 1950s. His role as a member of the British Army, and later as a confidant to important Israeli leaders, provided him with privileged access and a front-row view to Israel’s growing pains. Unfortunately, Goldman’s eyesight failed him in the early 1960s — he died penniless at the age of 86 in Israel. Sadly, he never was able to see Israel’s physical beauty beyond her adolescence.

Jewish State, Haifa, October 1947

The exhibition includes more than 40 images culled from a collection of negatives that lived in a shoebox until they were rediscovered in recent years. While Goldman was one of only a few photojournalists working in the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1940s, he remains largely unknown, mostly because of the practice at the time of not including photo credits in newspapers. The photos are on loan to the Museum from the collection of Spencer M. Partrich. After its run at the Museum (it closes on May 19th), "To Return to the Land..." will travel to the Oregon Jewish Museum in June.

(Photos by Paul Goldman. From the collection of Spencer M. Partrich/Photo Art Israel)

April 8, 2008

Suite Française.

Today we had a press conference announcing our upcoming exhibition, which will open on September 24th. Here are the remarks that I delivered this morning:

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We are extremely excited and pleased to be able to introduce our upcoming exhibition, Women of Letters: Irene Nemirovsky & Suite Française. We hope to see all of you in September when the exhibition opens at our Museum. We are very grateful to our hosts, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Kareen Rispal and her marvelous staff, especially Fabrice Gabriel and Amoury Laporte. And we are honored that Jack Lang could be with us this morning. Not only is Jack Lang a figure of great significance in the political and cultural life of contemporary France, but he is also the President of the Institut Memoires de L’Edition Contemporaine, also known as IMEC, a remarkable institution that has been our partner in this endeavor.

I am pleased beyond words to have met and to have worked with IMEC’s visionary founder and director, my friend, Olivier Corpet, and his talented and dedicated staff, especially Emmanuelle Lambert, who is with us today. I am also pleased that Garrett White, of Five Ties Press and the publisher of the companion volume to the exhibition, has also joined us this morning. And last but hardly least, I would like to introduce Sandra Smith, the gifted translator, who has made Irene Nemirovsky’s work so beautifully available to the English-speaking world.

It is most appropriate for me that we are holding this event in this place this morning. It was almost exactly two years ago that I attended the US book launch of SF in this very room. It was here that I saw for the first time what was perhaps the most powerful artifact I had ever seen. I am speaking of the leather notebook that contained the handwritten draft of SF, which was on view to the public for the first time.

In the last year or so of her life, in the small village of Issy L’Eveque, Irene Nemirovsky could be seen writing furiously in this notebook. Fearing that her supply of paper and ink would not last -- and that she was running out of time-- Irene wrote in a tiny script, filling the large pages of this notebook with stringy filaments of text. Like tiny capillaries, the blue veins of ink scored the ivory pages, animating them with her imaginings. She did not finish what she had started. She stopped work on this, her last project of a prodigiously productive career, when she was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where she perished. She left the notebook behind.

After her husband’s own deportation and murder, Irene’s two children—even as they were forced to go into hiding-- took possession of the notebook and the small valise into which it had been deposited along with family papers and photographs.

The story is well known now of how Denise, the older daughter, discovered decades after her mother’s death that the notebook was not her mother’s diary, as she had always believed it to be, not the diary that she had been afraid to open. It was instead the manuscript for SF. When I saw this artifact, I was profoundly moved by it. Even in our contemporary world, with its unlimited supply of sensory opportunities, the experience of being in the presence of an original artifact, especially one as powerful as this, cannot be matched in any medium.

I was moved by how this notebook communicated an entire story. I thought at that time, that this manuscript must be part of an exhibition at my Museum, but only if we could also exhibit the valise in which it had rested for more than fifty years before Denise opened and read it for the first time. Together, they would tell an impossibly poignant story about memory and forgetting, about mothers and daughters, about legacy and loss. I am thrilled to report that both objects will be in our exhibition.

When you are responsible, as we are, for relating the complex and difficult history that is the subject of our Museum, you learn over and over again that context is crucial. In our exhibition on Irene Nemirovsky, we intend to tell the story of a real woman who lived in a particular time and place and who was confronted with unimagined and unimaginable challenges. Our interest is not hagiography but rather history, history with all of its nuance and texture.

When we resolved to do an exhibition on Irene Nemirovsky, we realized that it might well be a controversial project for a Jewish museum to undertake. We knew that Irene seemed to have had an ambivalent connection to her Judaism and indeed converted to Catholicism in 1939. We knew that her early works contained disturbing stereotypes of Jews, and that she had been criticized for the company that she kept. I was confident, however, that her story was unambiguously a Holocaust story; after all, she was deported to Auschwitz and died there. And I was equally confident that hers was a Jewish story. Not only was she deported to Auschwitz with a Jewish star stitched to her blouse, but with all of its complexity, her story echoed and reflected the stories of many who shared her fate.

What I was not prepared for was that Irene and her memory would be the target of tendentious and mean-spirited attacks that would accuse her of self-hatred and perfidy and even suggest that her works contributed to a kind of enabling of those who ultimately killed her. I was not prepared for the suggestion by some that the story of the discovery of Suite Francaise was at best exaggerated and at worst fabricated – that commercial hype was responsible for the success of the book and not Irene’s talent, or the poignancy of her story. Ironically, some critics have created of Irene the very kind of one-dimensional stereotype that they excoriate her for including in her novels.

I do not intend to offer a defense against such baseless and destructive comments, except to say that anyone who reads the work of Irene Nemirovsky and understands the context in which she wrote, anyone who appreciates literature, will see ambiguity, perhaps ambivalence, but not anti-Semitism. And anyone who meets Irene’s daughter, Denise, and listens to her account of the discovery of SF, will neither question its authenticity nor its impact.

Now, good exhibitions should not be “books on the wall” overwhelming visitors with text and contextual orientation; and exhibitions do not have footnotes to add details or supply explanations. For us to provide the public with the kind of context that is necessary for a full understanding of a complicated story, we intend to produce a series of public programs that will examine in detail important issues that are raised in the exhibition. Moreover, as a part of the exhibition, we will create a space in which the public can read and discuss the works of Irene Nemirovsky – and her critics. In this reading room, we will organize programs and presentations and hope that it will become a venue for discussion and debate.

We have a reputation at the Museum for producing exhibitions on important topics that are exquisitely designed and executed, and that are mindful in their perspective and approach of the crucial context that is all important if history is to have meaning. We will do nothing less with this exhibition, and I would like to introduce the curator of Woman of Letters, my gifted deputy, Ivy Barsky, who will give you a very brief overview of the exhibition itself.

April 4, 2008


(Gift of Ione Steigler)

Last week, the Museum moved the offices of its affiliate, JewishGen, from Texas to New York. The move coincided with the departure from JewishGen of its founder and longtime managing director, Susan King (I am including excertps from our recent press release). The move will allow us to integrate JewishGen more intimately with the Museum's programs and mission, and I look forward to significant and meaningful improvements in the website and the important service it provides.

NEW YORK, NY – Susan King, the founder of JewishGen, the primary Internet source connecting Jewish genealogy researchers from around the world, is leaving the organization after 21 years.

“Susan King’s tenure as Managing Director of JewishGen has ended after more than two decades of extraordinary leadership of that pioneering institution,” announced Dr. David G. Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, which oversees JewishGen. “Susan’s vision and dedication saw JewishGen develop from a bulletin board in the early Internet era to the premier online resource for Jewish genealogy today.”

Dr. Marwell also announced the appointment of Warren Blatt, currently the Editor-in-Chief of JewishGen, to serve as JewishGen's new Managing Director. Mr. Blatt, who has been actively involved with JewishGen since 1990, was awarded the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. “Warren Blatt brings great skill and experience to his new position, and we look forward to working with him,” Dr. Marwell said.

In an email to the JewishGen community, Susan King wrote, “We can all take enormous pride in what we have established collectively. There is nothing better than knowing that you have fulfilled a dream and to know you have made a difference in so many lives. Even though I may be moving forward, please know that JewishGen will remain in my heart forever.”

Founded by Ms. King in 1987, JewishGen is the principal Internet source connecting Jewish genealogy researchers from around the world. With more than 300,000 registered users, its most popular features are the JewishGen Discussion Group, the JewishGen Family Finder, ShtetLinks sites for more than 200 communities, Yizkor Book translations, and databases containing more than 13 million genealogical records.

Created to assist those interested in researching their Jewish ancestry, JewishGen, Inc. is staffed primarily by volunteers. It is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, non-profit corporation relying on the generosity of its users to ensure continued growth. JewishGen has been an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage since 2003.

March 24, 2008

Sosúa (again)

Settlers on the beach

The staff continues to be delighted by the response from the Dominican community with regard to our exhibition, Sosúa: A Refuge for Jews in the Dominican Republic, on view through July 25. A wonderful article appeared in the Feb. 21, 2008 edition of The Riverdale Press, “A Haven from the Holocaust in an unlikely place” by N. Clark Judd. (¤t_edition=2008-02-21)

The article was the front cover of the second section of the paper and was illustrated with great photos from the exhibition, including the one you see on the webpage. After the article appeared, two letters to the editor arrived shortly thereafter. One praised the show and another gave an account of a true, only in New York moment. See that letter below:

Sosúa article caused quite a stir

To the editor:

We are new to the neighborhood, new advertisers as well as new readers. I had to take this opportunity to let you know what a hit your Feb. 21 Better Living article, "A haven from the Holocaust in an unlikely place," was with my customers, particularly my Dominican customers, at Super Sonic Suds Laundromat and Dry Cleaners. After reading The Riverdale Press each week, I promptly place the sections on display for customers to peruse as they wait for their laundry. Coincidentally, this past Saturday five of my customers were from the Dominican Republic. They were browsing through the paper when they came across the article.

Within a very short period of time, Super Sonic Suds became a hub of political conversation as Rafael Trujillo came under the limelight. Each and every Dominican customer knew the history of the Holocaust and Trujillo's part in accepting Jews fleeing Hitler. Many customers learned this history on their grandfathers' knee. The pride these people take in Sosúa and its Jewish population is incredible. Everyone wanted to take the Better Living section home with them to show their families. We had to call your office to request more copies.

Customers were excited and planned to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage to see the Sosúa exhibit.

Thanks for a great article.

PAULl BREITSTEIN Owner, Super Sonic Suds Laundromat and Dry Cleaners

If you haven’t taken the time so see our first bi-lingual exhibition, please come down. Soon the flowers will be blooming in Battery Park, and the Garden of Stones already has its first buds. Take some time to read Sandee Brawarsky’s review of the exhibition and Marion Kaplan’s insightful accompanying book, Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosúa, 1940-1945. (

(Photograph: Dr. Herbert Kohn, collection of Ruth Arnoldi Kohn)

March 11, 2008


One of the great pleasures of working at the Museum has been getting to know remarkable survivors, who dedicate their lives to Holocaust education. One such person, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, is an asset to the Museum in so many ways. At the Museum and at schools throughout the country, she speaks passionately about her experiences during the war, providing students with honest and frank first-person testimony. Fanya is also one of the most knowledgeable and best read people I know. As a Trustee, her erudition enables her to offer educated and insightful opinions about what is going on in the world and how we can best serve the public as an educational institution. The Museum is grateful for Fanya’s generous support. This year, March 18, marks the Ninth Annual Fanya Gottesfeld Heller conference for Educators, which will once again be a testament to her dedication to the Museum and to her foresight. As Fanya and I both believe, one of the best ways to teach the public about the Holocaust is to ensure that those who teach have the tools they need.

More than 200 participants are expected to convene for the conference, which this year explores the unique difficulties women faced, and the particular adversities they overcame, during the Holocaust. Narratives of the Holocaust: Women’s Perspectives will take place at the Museum on Tuesday, March 18 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The oral and written histories of women in the Holocaust are an under-explored, but extremely important part of Holocaust and Jewish history. Examining women’s roles and choices, this conference will help teachers guide their students in understanding what women went through in the ghettos, in the concentration camps or in hiding, and after liberation.

Women remained silent for many years after the Holocaust. The conference will begin with a consideration of what happened in the last several decades to help the voices of women gain a more prominent place within Holocaust studies. The conference will continue by focusing on how women’s roles as caregivers, wives, and mothers were significant factors in their responses to the Holocaust. Guest speakers will share inspiring stories of how women supported and sustained their families and others, how they bonded in friendship to cope with loss, how they played key roles in resistance across Europe, and finally, how they struggled to rebuild their lives.

This facet of Holocaust history will be approached with an emphasis on narrative in oral and written testimony, scholarship, and literature. Fanya Gottesfeld Heller will speak of her experiences as a young woman in Ukraine. Joan Ringelheim will discuss the history of the study of women in the Holocaust. Bonnie Gurewitsch will provide case studies of women’s wartime experiences. Sara R. Horowitz will talk about women in relation to Holocaust literature.

February 23, 2008

Sosúa Exhibition

We are often told about Jews being turned away from country after country, but last month the Museum opened a new exhibition that will give us the chance to tell a different kind of story. Sosúa: A Refuge for Jews in the Dominican Republic brings to light the rarely-told history of Jews who found a haven, half-a-world away. Despite the indifference and intolerance many Jews faced in Europe from their neighbors, none of the Jewish settlers to Sosúa interviewed for this exhibition experienced anti-Semitism in the Dominican Republic. On the contrary, their dealings with their Dominican counterparts were congenial and friendly.

During the latter part of the 1930s, the Nazis were still allowing Jews to emigrate, but few countries were willing to take them in. Following the Evian Conference in 1938, when 32 nations met to discuss the refugee crisis, one nation — the Dominican Republic — offered to accept Jewish refugees. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided passage and ongoing support in order to establish a small refugee agricultural settlement at Sosúa, an abandoned banana plantation on the northeastern shore of the Dominican Republic. The settlers, with the help of their Dominican neighbors, began to cultivate the land and built a thriving town that still exists today.

Seen here L to R: DGM, Sosúa settler Ernie Schreiner, and New York State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman

In 2005, the American Jewish Congress, New York State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, and the Sosúa Jewish Museum joined forces with the Museum for a collaborative effort to archive, preserve, and interpret original artifacts related to the Jewish refugees in Sosúa. The project was launched formally at a free public program at the Museum in April 2005.

The result of the project is a bilingual exhibition in English and in Spanish, presented in association with the Sosúa Jewish Museum. The exhibition focuses on the stories of Jews forced to make the terrible choice of leaving home for a strange place they had never seen — other than on a map. The Jews did not have an easy time adjusting to their surroundings, as German settler Ruth Kohn said, “It was all very difficult. The language, the climate, the social situation — but we were saved.”

While most of the Jews left Sosúa after the war to rebuild their lives in the United States or Israel, some families stayed in the Dominican Republic where they remain to this day. A still active synagogue and a Jewish museum stand as a testimony to the resilience of the Sosúa Jews and the humanity of their Dominican neighbors. As the community museum’s last plaque reads, Sosúa is truly “a community born of pain and nurtured in love.”

The exhibition will be on view through July 25, 2008.

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

January 14, 2008

Honorary Degree

DGM Addressing Graduates at Fontbonne University
(Photo: Fontbonne University)

In December, I had the rare honor of receiving an honorary degree from Fontbonne University in St. Louis. Fontbonne had just completed an innovative semester dedicated to the exploration of Jewish history and culture, with courses across many disciplines. The entire experience was extremely meaningful and moving for me. I reproduce below the remarks I delivered.

Chairman Ferry and the Board of Trustees, President Golden and the administration and faculty, and most important, graduates and your families and friends, I am grateful for the opportunity and the honor to address you this evening. I do so mindful of the traditional responsibility of the commencement speaker to offer profound advice to the graduates, but also aware of how unlikely it is that many of you would be interested in any advice a museum director could possibly impart – especially tonight.

Last May, shortly after receiving the invitation to speak here this evening, I attended my own son’s graduation from college. The president of the college delivered the commencement address, and admitted that he faced a daunting task indeed: he could not hope, he said, to compete in any way with the accomplishments celebrated by the graduates and their families. He could not hope, with his few words, to match the importance of the life transition that the commencement marked for those in attendance. He concluded that we should all “pity commencement speakers, as hapless victims who distinguish themselves only by the ways they fail, and the degrees to which they recognize their miserable performances.” His unambiguous advice to the graduates was “never, never accept an invitation to speak at a commencement.”

By the time I had heard those words, it was too late. So here I am, grateful beyond any words for the privilege to address you, and, at the same time, doomed in some certain sense to fail to reach you on a day, and at an occasion, that properly dominates your thoughts and claims pride of place in your attention and focus. Aware as I am that the odds are against me, I think, however, I may just have something useful for you to consider as you end this important chapter in your lives and turn to all that awaits you outside these walls.

I want to spend a few minutes talking about memory – about the powerful instinct to remember and the equally powerful drive to forget. I want to draw a parallel between what museums do to create public memory and what we all do to cultivate our own memories. In this regard, I will suggest to you that you have power over your own memory, just as museums and historians do over public memory, and, perhaps most important, that you also have power over how you will be remembered.

But before I start, I have a confession: I remember absolutely nothing about the speech delivered at my own college commencement. Absolutely nothing: not the topic, not a single word, no advice, nothing. I can remember who spoke -- Undersecretary of State George Ball -- and I have other memories from that day, but I haven’t the vaguest recollection of what was said. Although I am frustrated, and, especially on this occasion, slightly embarrassed by my failure to remember, I do recognize that memory, indeed healthy memory, is as much about forgetting as remembering. In fact, scientists believe that the act of forgetting is the product of evolution: our memories have adapted to retain that which is necessary for us to operate in our individual environments and to let go of that which we do not need. After all, we simply cannot remember everything, and the few thousand words spoken by George Ball on that hot June day in 1973 did not make the cut for me.

Of course, had his words made a deeper impression, or had I made an effort to imprint them on my memory, I just might be able to remember them today. Memory researchers have found that we can train ourselves to remember certain things. We can decide that something is important for us to remember and can, with the right effort, save the memory.

The power of human memory is staggering; its capacity is almost beyond imagination. Scientists tell us that a single memory is a stored pattern of connections between neurons in the brain. With 100 billion neurons, each capable of 10,000 synaptic connections with other neurons, there are as many as one quadrillion synapses available for connections. To give this number meaning to the computer generation, if we equate a synapse with one byte of information in a computer’s memory, the human brain would be capable of storing the complete digitized print holdings of the Library of Congress – not once, but three hundred times over. To download that much information from the internet, it would take more than 5000 years with a dial-up modem and more than 180 years with more modern equipment!

As much as I can understand it, I must confess that I am unsettled by my memory’s lapses (and increasingly so). I am, after all, in the business of memory. My entire career has been dedicated to trying to make sense of memory, preserve memory, and use memory as a tool to help understand the present and guide the future. As a historian, as an archivist, and as a Museum director, my job has been to cultivate our public memories, to preserve and interpret the past.

To be sure, museums are all about memory, and Jewish museums seem to have a particular compulsion to preserve the past. Carved into the granite wall that greets visitors in our Museum in New York City is a quote from the Bible. It begins, “Remember,” and, to underscore the imperative, concludes, “Do not forget.” I am told that the Hebrew word for memory, Zachor, appears, in its various declensions, 169 times in the Bible. And the cycle of a Jewish year is punctuated with the telling and retelling of the same stories, so that they will be imprinted on memory and will not be forgotten. The Torah is divided into recountable portions, which are recited with cantillation and trope to ease their recollection and retelling.

Museums are, of course, more than simply storehouses for memory; they are definers of memory. Through selection and distillation, Museums preserve public memory and place it in context. In a certain sense, Museums and historians wield tremendous power to shape how the past is perceived in the present and how it can help to define the future. The great Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, who died earlier this year, wrote in his memoirs, that the artist (and historian) “usurps the actuality, substituting a text for a reality that is fast fading. The words that are thus written, take the place of the past; these words, rather than the events themselves, will be remembered.”

I would like to share with you one recent example from my personal and professional experience that explains why I am so focused on the role of memory and why I choose to explore it with you on this special occasion. Last year, we opened an exhibition at my Museum about Pope John Paul II and his relationship to the Jewish people. We were the only Jewish venue in the country to take this travelling exhibition, which was created by Xavier University in Cincinnati and had previously been shown at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC. The exhibition examines the life of Karol Wojtyla, from his childhood in Wadowice, Poland, near Krakow, through his Papacy, and suggests that it was the memories from his youth and early adulthood that largely defined his papacy.

Walking through the exhibition, I became increasingly convinced that, just as it can be said that all politics are local, so can it be said that all history is personal. History, even that which is played out on the world stage is, in some meaningful way, the aggregate of the personal histories of the people involved, and those personal histories are the product of life experiences and preserved memories.

There can be no argument that Pope John Paul II changed in some significant way the relationship between Catholics and Jews, and there can be no argument that his early history and his memories of childhood events played a major role. We can see in the life of Karol Wojtyla how his childhood friendship with his Jewish neighbors affected his positions as Pope, led him to be the first Pope since Saint Peter to enter a synagogue, and led him to visit and establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. We can see how his own experience in Poland during World War II and German occupation made him aware of the persecution of the Jewish people and acutely sensitive to the plight of his own country under Communist domination. In looking at the life and accomplishments of this great man, we can see the influence of the child and the young man that he had been. We can almost track the impact of his early memories on the actions of his later life.

If I am going to draw a parallel between the cultivation of private memory and the creation of public memory, perhaps I should first say something about how public memory is forged – in this case, the way in which museums go about shaping public consciousness, and, in turn, influencing public memory; more specifically, how museums create exhibitions. We begin by choosing specific topics and themes that deliver broader important messages to the public. The process of creating an exhibition – how to convey that topic, that theme -- is a complex one. The curator is the architect of the exhibition; he or she must tell a story in three-dimensional space that is accurate, in proper context, and that does not dumb-down complicated issues, but, at the same, time is accessible and interesting.

The curator interprets historical events, distills their meaning, and communicates it to the public—often through the choice of which artifacts to use, and how to present them to best effect. The process is iterative, each round often increasingly challenging, with the goal being how best to tell the story. Museums, in a sense, serve as the masters of public memory. They stand against forgetting and select what should be remembered.

Two exhibits, among many, in my tenure as a museum director, illustrate this play between forgetting and remembering and the powerful relationship between these forces.

The first exhibition I want to describe was about a Polish Jewish historian named Emmanuel Ringelblum, who, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews found himself removed from life as he had known it and was confined in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. At the beginning, no one knew what fate awaited them. No one could know, or could even imagine, that they would be deported from Warsaw to an anonymous death in a concentration camp. Gradually, the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto organized their drastically altered and restricted lives and brought meaning to their days, which offered less and less in the way of physical, spiritual, and intellectual nourishment. Ringelblum had the idea to organize a group of scholars and others – artisans, artists, writers-- who met on the Jewish Sabbath and therefore took the name, Oyneg Shabbos, or the Joy of Sabbath.

This group decided to record and collect for posterity all aspects of their lives in the ghetto. Ringelblum commissioned specialized studies and monographs about Jewish life. He called for the collecting of ephemera – posters, theater programs, school art projects. His goal, at first, was to capture and preserve a picture of the lives that he and his fellows were leading. It also helped to bring meaning to their ill-fated lives. Later, when it became clear that death was the only exit from the Ghetto, the goal of Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos was to record for future generations not only evidence of their lives but also of their deaths.

When it became clear that the end was near, the archive was carefully packed in metal boxes and milk cans and buried beneath the streets of Warsaw, so that it would survive the deaths of those who created it and would survive the destruction of a way of life that would be no more. After the war, some of the archive was discovered. Among the most moving documents found in the archive are the last wills of young Jews, who called out to be remembered. One of them, Dawid Graber, age 19, wrote:
What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground. I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know all. So the ones who did not live through it may be glad, and we may feel like veterans with medals on our chests. … May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world

The second exhibition, one that we are in the process of developing into an exhibition, is in some ways about the power we all exercise over what we remember. It is a story about legacy, and, ultimately, a story about a mother and her daughter.

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish family. During the Russian Revolution, she and her family were forced to leave their home and eventually settled in France, where Irene attended the Sorbonne. Irene, from her earliest age, was a writer. She was remarkably productive and eventually took her place – a prominent place -- within French literary society. Her novel, David Golder, was made into a major motion picture, was translated into English in 1932, and was well received by critics and the public.

Irene loved her life in Paris and was able, through her writing, to earn quite a good living and enjoy a privileged and exciting existence. She was a member of the French Academy and certainly considered herself fully integrated into French life. Toward the end of the 1930’s, with war clouds gathering, Irene and her family converted to Catholicism, perhaps in the hope that they would be protected from the looming threat of anti-Semitism.

When the Germans occupied France, Irene and her family, despite their conversion, were classified as Jews and subjected to all of the regulations designed to exclude Jews from French life. They left Paris for the countryside, taking up residence in Issy L’Eveque, a small town in the occupied part of France, close to the Vichy border.

To support her family, and probably to remain sane, Irene kept up her writing. Words flowed from her pen and found their way into publication, although she was forced to publish under a pseudonym, providing income for her family. As anti-Jewish measures became more intense and restrictive, it became more and more difficult for Irene to publish.

Her family, which consisted of her husband, Michel, and her two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, pursued a quiet life in Issy L’Eveque. When the regulation was issued, they stitched Jewish stars to their clothing. Irene could be seen each day writing furiously in her leather notebook. Fearing that her supply of paper would be insufficient, Irene wrote in a script that became increasingly smaller, and the large pages of her notebook filled up with stringy filaments of text. Like tiny capillaries, the blue veins of ink scored the dull ivory pages of her notebook, animating them with her imaginings.

When the French police came to arrest Irene in July of 1942, she could not have known for certain that she would not return to her family. Although she could not have known her fate, she felt increasingly certain that she would not survive the war. Three days before her arrest, she had written her publisher that she supposed her writings would be posthumous works. Perhaps it was this intuition that led her to leave her notebook behind.

Irene was sent to a small transit camp in Pithiviers, and, a day later, along with more than a thousand others, boarded a train for Auschwitz, where she died shortly after she arrived. She had left her husband and two daughters, and all of her belongings, not knowing, of course what would become of her or them. Her husband spent the next three months desperately trying to locate her and get her released. Even after Irene was dead, Michel, unaware of her fate, wrote long letters to French and German officials and even offered to take her place.

When Michel was arrested in October and sent to the transit camp at Drancy, and then to his death in Auschwitz, his two young daughters were left alone in the charge of their nanny. All they had to remember their parents by was a small suitcase and its contents – including the large leather notebook that had been their mother’s constant companion. The daughters survived the war with the help of others and vainly waited for their parents to return. Wherever they went, they carried the suitcase.

They did not, however, explore its contents. They did not open the leather notebook. Believing it was their mother’s diary, and repulsed by painful memories and associations, they let it be, and moved on with their lives.

Elisabeth died in the late 1990s, and Denise, who still lives in France today, at some point, decided to read what her mother had written. She soon discovered that the notebook was no diary, but rather the start of a magisterial novel about the unfolding of the war in France. Sixty years after her mother’s death, Denise read the words that her mother had so furiously poured out onto the page. She lovingly transcribed them and showed them to a publisher, who rushed them into print. The resulting book, Suite Francaise, won France’s most prestigious literary award, was translated into multiple languages, and has, to date, sold more than a million copies in English alone. Suite Francaise is composed of the first two parts of what Irene had planned to be a five-part novel.

For Denise and her sister, the small leather suitcase contained memories too painful to confront. It was, I imagine, an object that was both powerfully attractive and abhorrent, the tangible remains of her mother and the conduit to unapproachable memories. They had chosen not to confront those memories. We will open an exhibition in June 2008 about Irene Nemirovsky and Suite Francaise, and will include not only the leather notebook, but also the small suitcase that was its home for so many years.

I realized that the stories that are the basis for these two exhibitions, relate to each other and to a childhood memory of mine that emerged unbidden as I was preparing these remarks. I have a distinct memory as a child of the 1964 World’s Fair and the publicity surrounding the time capsule -- the steel tube, which was to be buried and remain unopened for several millennia. I remember, in fact, at least one class, in sixth grade, devoted to a discussion of what should be buried in this capsule. Although I couldn’t recall what was actually placed inside, a quick look at Wikipedia reminded me that among the 41 objects were a ruby laser rod, a plastic heart valve, birth control pills, a Beatles 45, a transistor radio, and a bikini.

It strikes me that the two stories I have just related both reflect time capsules of sorts. Ringelblum’s milk cans preserved evidence for the future of a way of life that had been destroyed, and Irene’s suitcase preserved her memory for her daughters and provided evidence of her rare talent for a time when it could be published and appreciated. Ringelblum’s time capsule was opened as soon as it could be unearthed. Irene’s was carefully carried by her daughters from place to place, unopened, until the time was right.

I won’t presume to tell you what lessons are to be drawn from these stories, but I can say that I believe they can tell us quite a lot about remembering and forgetting – about our ability to influence our memories as well as the memories of others. The work of historians and museums is to find these stories and to make them available to all of you. Your job, it seems to me, as educated and responsible individuals, is to open yourselves up to the lessons these stories and others like them, can impart. We must remind ourselves not to forget, and we must not forget how we want to be remembered.

And finally in closing, if I can make one confident prediction, it is that you will all forget what I have said this evening, and forgetting it, will be different for each of you. Some of you will retain a memory only until you leave this room, and others may hold on to an increasingly dimming recollection for some time. I hope, however, that you will not soon forget how you feel this evening. I hope that you will carry into the future a warm association with this event, which marks a meaningful and important transition in your lives. As you move into the future, and you continue to engage in the endlessly exciting process of living your lives, as you form memories and let memories fade, I hope that you can distill and refine those memories that can serve you well, and I hope you can make your mark on the memory of others.

Thank you….

(I learned a great deal about the science of memory from reading Daniel Schachter's books as well as a recent article by Joshua Foer in National Geographic)

January 9, 2008

Martin Luther King Day

Dr. Carolyn Goodman at the Museum

Last summer, the Museum lost a longtime friend and inspiration, Dr. Carolyn Goodman. Many of you know her name from her commitment to the Civil Right Movement. In 1964, members of the KKK murdered her son Andrew, along with Michael Schwerner and James Cheney, civil rights workers who had gone down to Mississippi to register Black voters. Following the murders, Dr. Goodman took up her son’s cause and devoted much of her life to civil rights. A beloved and frequent speaker at the Museum, Dr. Goodman shared intimate family details that made audiences truly feel like a part of her family. In honor of Dr. Goodman’s life and work, it is only fitting that we dedicate this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute to her memory.

In Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is in the spirit of Dr. King’s teachings and writings that a panel of distinguished religious leaders from the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist faiths will join moderator Reverend Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation, for a tribute to the important work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The evening will feature an interfaith discussion that will focus on the relationship between spiritual practice and social change, and the lessons of justice and equality that have inspired the panelists’ own activism. The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will take place at the Museum on Wednesday, January 16 at 6:30 p.m.

“It is a fitting tribute to the legacy of Dr. King that we spend his birthday talking about the positive role faith and spirituality can play in social change,” said Rev. Gaddy. “Dr. King was able to bring people of many different faiths together to support the cause of Civil Rights. I would hope that religious leaders of today would turn to Dr. King’s legacy as a model for positive change rather than continuing to use faith as a source of division.”

The panel will include: Fr. Daniel Berrigan, West Side Jesuit Community; Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, Pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church; Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Director of Islamic Chaplaincy and Professor, Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian Muslim Relations, Hartford Seminary; Rev. T.K. Nakagaki, Head Resident Minister, The New York Buddhist Church; and author Al Vorspan, Director of Social Action Emeritus, Union for Reform Judaism.

The evening is co-sponsored by The Interfaith Alliance Foundation, a religious liberty organization dedicated to promoting the positive and healing role of religion in public life though education, research and civil discourse.

Click here for more information:

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)