Behind the Headlines; Dedication of Holocaust Museum Caps Long Struggle over Its Role

The new U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a federally chartered, privately funded museum standing almost in the shadow of the Washington Monument, confers a broad base of legitimacy — a government’s imprimatur — on the memory of Hitler’s slaughter of European Jews.

But the sense of accomplishment among survivors, Holocaust educators and many Americans — Jew and gentile — whose family members were victims of Nazi fanaticism, comes at a price.

The 13 years of planning for the museum were rife with false starts, emotionally charged infighting and fund-raising woes.

The problems, museum officials believe, are behind them, as well as the controversy stemming from the status conferred on the museum as an American institution.

But some difficulties remain.

A pointed example of the of ten awkward but necessary attempt to skew what is essentially a Jewish story to an American context was played out just two weeks ago in the ill-timed but expected dismissal of museum Chairman Meyerhoff and Vice Chairman William Lowenberg, effective May 1.

Both men were Reagan appointees.

Meyerhoff, whose property development expertise is credited with making the museum a reality, was reportedly asked to resign because of a clash with White House officials over his refusal to extend an invitation to Israeli President Herzog to speak at the dedication.

Museum communications director Naomi Paiss denied in The Washington Post that Meyerhoff refused to invite Herzog. She did acknowledge that Meyerhoff felt strongly that an American president should open the museum.

The ideological pressure that led to Meyerhoff’s demise may be just political — Meyerhoff, a staunch Republican, is a wealthy real estate developer, prominent Baltimore philanthropist and longtime contributor to the GOP.

‘UNFORGETTABLE LESSONS IN DEMOCRACY’

But Meyerhoff, who is not a survivor and was named the founding vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, made no secret of trying to downplay Jewish aspects of the Holocaust to make certain the museum would be an American institution.

“He wanted the memory of the Holocaust to be expansive because he saw a universal significance to the Holocaust,” said Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute of Christian-Jewish Studies in Baltimore.

“He antagonized influential Jews and survivors who wanted to lift up and celebrate the uniqueness of the Holocaust.”

Indeed, the creators of the museum have gone to great ideological lengths to give the museum an identity as American as the country’s founding documents.

“What better place to have this museum than on the Mall,” said Joseph Brodecki, national director of the museum’s fund-raising campaign, which just topped $160 million.

“The museum offers unforgettable lessons in democracy, the fragility of democracy and human rights. It will provide a necessary contrast to the Mall’s monuments that celebrate America’s values, that shows what happens when society fails to live by these values.”

A major transition is under way at the museum as it becomes a federal museum under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.

Employees are moving onto the federal payroll and the bulk of the day-to-day costs are being assumed by the federal government. Some $21 million is budgeted for the current fiscal year.

The public-private partnership that created the museum began with the formation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 1980.

Following the initial impetus of President Carter, the 55-member council was created by a unanimous act of Congress with the support of his successor, President Reagan.

The government authorized the transfer of 1.9 acres of federal land for the museum site, but stipulated that all funds to construct the facility be raised privately.

OPPOSITION FROM RABBIS AND DONORS

Elie Wiesel was the founding chairman of the council. During his tenure, the museum’s progress was marred by several false starts and disagreements over the internal and external design of the museum.

In 1987, he abruptly resigned as chairman because he felt that survivors had lost control of the council’s museum project to businessmen who contributed large sums to the enterprise. Meyerhoff’s family contributed the largest gift in the campaign — $6 million.

Wiesel said at the time that he felt incompatible with Meyerhoff, who, as an experienced property developer, took a leading role on the committee that supervised the planning and construction of the museum.

By 1988, when Joseph Brodecki, a Jewish federation campaign director in Milwaukee, took over the museum’s national campaign, there was only $30 million in the coffers.

Construction of the proposed $147 million museum was slated to start in the summer of 1989.

Brodecki said he first struggled to convince potential donors of the relevance of the Holocaust to today’s world. He also clashed with some local Jewish leaders who feared that the Holocaust Museum campaign would siphon money from Operation Exodus, the campaign to resettle Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants in Israel.

Some rabbinical leaders, who now grudgingly support the museum as a fait accompli, felt that the money would be better spent within the Jewish community on education.

“The best way to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust is for Jews to live as Jews,” said one Washington-area rabbi, who would not let museum campaigners solicit in his congregation.

Brodecki, the child of survivors, established fund-raising offices in Chicago, Washington, Palm Beach, Fla., Los Angeles and Philadelphia. His campaign workers solicited Jewish communities, synagogues, non-Jewish philanthropists, corporations and foundations.

The campaign is expected to reach its goal of $168 million, Brodecki said.

The “Campaign to Remember” has surpassed 200,000 donors, whose gifts, said Brodecki, ranged from the millions down to pennies from schoolchildren.

NEXT STORY