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Holocaust Museum Council Chair: Money, Relevance Key Challenges

March 7, 2003
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The chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, Fred Zeidman, sees a wide range of new goals for the institution as it enters its second decade.

“We are truly at a watershed point in the museum’s history,” Zeidman told JTA in a recent interview. “The first 10 years were truly the honeymoon period. When the museum opened, people — knowing the need for this museum — really were incredibly forthcoming philanthropically, and the survivors were all here to tell the story.”

Fundraising remains constant even with the survivor generation in its twilight, Zeidman said, but the challenge of spreading the museum’s message takes on a new urgency.

A longtime ally and fund raiser for President Bush, Zeidman was nominated to the council chairmanship by the president last year. He has pledged to keep politics out of museum operations, while maintaining a focus on the Holocaust itself.

“We’ve got to keep this story alive; we’ve got to make it breathe,” Zeidman said. “There are 2 million people a year that come to the museum,” but “there are so many people who can’t come to the museum.

“We’ve got to take it to the rest of this country. There are 280 million people in this country, every one of whom needs to be knowledgeable about what we do here,” he said. We need to be America’s national educator.”

Toward that end, Zeidman said he wants to increase teacher training programs, work with more museums with traveling exhibitions and increase existing cooperation with law enforcement officials.

Police officials in Georgia, for example, are speaking with the museum about setting up daylong training visits similar to existing programs with departments from Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

“We’ve got to take it to the people with the greatest potential to impact society, the caretakers of democracy, the educators, the law enforcement officials, the judiciary, the military, the civic leaders,” Zeidman said.

In addition to the yearly Days of Remembrance ceremonies in April, a number of special events are planned for this year.

In June, to honor the anniversary year, the museum will sponsor a new exhibit of some original writings of Anne Frank, the first time the writings will be shown outside of Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House.

In late summer or fall, the museum will host a special night for Holocaust survivors and their families.

“That will arguably be the last time that this will ever happen,” Zeidman said. “We’ll have a special night so that survivors can bring their children and grandchildren and hopefully tell their stories and show the museum to their kids. There has been a tremendous reticence on the part of so many survivors to truly tell their story.”

But, Zeidman said, the museum has given many people a chance to tell their stories, keeping the institution’s research department busy.

“We’re trying to record every story we can possibly get,” he said of the research efforts. “The real problem is that we don’t have a lot of time left.”

Noting that the museum so far has weathered the nation’s economic downturn, Zeidman said he sees a bright financial future for the museum.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I’m not hearing ‘I’m not giving this year because the stock market’s down, I’m not giving this year because I had to give to 9/11. I’m not giving this year because I’m giving to Israel,’ ” he said.

“The more money I can raise privately, the less dependant I am on the federal government,” Zeidman said, adding that a “key goal” of the coming decade was to raise an endowment for the museum.

As for the fear that the Holocaust may be seen to lose relevance with every passing year, Zeidman said that the history the museum represents remains as important as ever.

“The incidences of terrorism and 9/11 are bringing the reality of this kind of activity home,” he said. “It’s just reinforcing the importance of telling our kids, ‘Let me tell you what happens when this starts and we don’t do anything about it.’ “

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