The Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust announced last week that longtime museum trustee Jack Kliger will take over as president and CEO of the Battery Park City institution. (He had been in the position in an interim capacity last year.) Kliger, 73, part of the so-called “second generation” of Holocaust survivors, has served in a number of high-profile positions in the publishing world, including executive vice president of Parade Publications and president and CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. The Jewish Week caught up with him last week via email. This interview is condensed.
Q: What is your vision beyond the “Auschwitz” exhibition — will you continue to focus on “Jewish heritage” and “the Holocaust” or will the emphasis shift to Holocaust programming? There was talk about a shift in direction for the museum when the show opened.
A: The museum has always had a focus on the Holocaust and Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust. Against a backdrop of increasing anti-Semitism around the world, we are now focusing more deeply on using the lessons of history in the fight against anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred because the times require it. We will always be an institution grounded in Jewish heritage and a living memorial to the Holocaust.
What have you learned about the museum’s potential audience from the “Auschwitz” exhibition?
The exhibition “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” has attracted more than 165,000 visitors since it opened, including a diverse audience of New Yorkers as well as people from around the world. Many of our visitors have no personal connection to the Holocaust, but have been moved to walk through our doors because they feel the importance of learning and reflecting on this painful history. People want authentic experiences and meaningful content.
Can you share an anecdote or two about the power of the exhibition?
Visitors find they can’t spend enough time in the exhibition. They expect to spend an hour or so and they leave three or more hours later, and tell us they still need more time. We hear this from visitors who know a great deal or very little about the Holocaust.
This past September, a shofar that was clandestinely used in Auschwitz was loaned to the exhibition by Judy Baumel-Schwartz. Her father was in Auschwitz and it was given to him by another prisoner for safekeeping during a death march. Judy had visited the Auschwitz exhibition shortly after it opened last spring and felt that this precious family artifact and its story had to be part of it.
In what ways do you see addressing anti-Semitism as part of the museum’s mission? What is Abe Foxman’s role?
Combatting anti-Semitism lies at the core of the museum’s mission because you cannot understand the history and impact of the Holocaust without understanding anti-Semitism. The increase in anti-Semitic incidents around the United States in recent years has only heightened the urgency of this aspect of our work.
Abe Foxman’s long career fighting anti-Semitism makes him an important part of our museum community. Most recently, he played a key role in the development and launch of a recently announced partnership with the NYC Department of Education to bring 14,000 eighth and 10th graders from Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park to the museum as well as allowing all NYC public school students to bring up to three family members to the Museum for free.
In addition to exhibitions such as “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” the museum’s work to educate about anti-Semitism includes a new lesson plan in our Meilman Virtual Classroom, which is widely available to teachers, along with our Holocaust Curriculum for free at holocaustcurriculum.nyc.
Public programming provides another avenue to focus on contemporary anti-Semitism. For example, we have presented programs on the events in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. Last month, the museum served as the host for the kick-off event for the citywide “upstander” trainings led by JFREJ [Jews for Racial and Economic Justice] and a coalition of organizations, and the museum was also the site for two of these workshops.
How does your own background as the son of Holocaust survivors connect to your work at the museum? In what ways are you getting the “third generation” involved?
The involvement of 3Gs at the museum is increasing in various ways. The Museum’s Young Friends division hosts a variety of activities that provide social events as well as opportunities to connect with Holocaust survivors. Heritage Testimonies™ trains 3Gs and 2Gs to tell the histories of their relatives to the public. Several new initiatives are in the planning stages and will be announced in the coming months. The involvement of the third generation is crucial to the life of the museum.
How does the Folksbiene fit into your plans?
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is a national treasure and we’re thrilled that the museum is its home base. [The Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered at the museum last year before moving to Off Broadway.] NYTF’s award-winning presentations from the rich cultural heritage of Yiddish theater and its innovative connections to the world of today make it the perfect partner for the museum.
Is there a recent book on the Holocaust that particularly informs your views?
Two books about the Holocaust are particularly important to me and to the museum’s work. The first is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, which inspired the creation of the Auschwitz exhibition. The second is “Henny and Her Boat” by Howard Veisz, which details the remarkable story of a boat in the museum’s collection and how it was used to rescue hundreds of Danish Jews in 1943.
The museum is also engaged in ongoing support for the newest writings about the Holocaust. This January we hosted a book launch event for “Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death” by David Marwell, a former director of the museum (see story on page 14), and in March we are hosting another book launch for the memoir “Franci’s War” by Helen Epstein.