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Holocaust Museum’s Driving Force to Step Down in Favor of ‘young Blood’

January 14, 2000
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The chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is stepping down five months after he was criticized in an independent report ordered by Congress.

Miles Lerman has served as chairman for the past six years and has been a driving force behind the museum’s creation since 1978, when he was appointed by President Carter to a precursor of the council. Lerman informed President Clinton of his decision during one of their regularly scheduled meetings.

Lerman, in an interview, said he would stay on as chairman until the president selects his successor from one of the council’s 55 members. He also said he will remain on the council. “This museum is my life,” he said.

Lerman, who was born in Poland, was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a slave labor camp. In 1942, he escaped and formed a resistance group that spent the next two years fighting the Nazis in the forests of southeastern Poland.

During the interview, Lerman, who is nearly 80, excitedly listed what he describes as the museum’s “fabulous accomplishments.”

Since the museum opened its doors six and a half years ago, nearly 14 million people have visited — 80 percent have been non-Jews and 4 million have been children who are educated about the Holocaust by 30,000 teachers from across the country.

“This museum is more than just a museum,” Lerman said. “We are a moral platform.”

Despite the museum’s success, there also have been a number of well-publicized controversies during Lerman’s tenure that have tarnished the institution’s reputation.

The independent report, ordered by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who chairs a subcommittee that approves federal money for the museum, came in the wake of one those controversies: the on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to tour the museum.

The study, conducted by an outside panel of administrative experts, concluded that the institution has been stifled by “excessive involvement” of the museum’s governing council in day-to-day operations and specifically criticized what it called Lerman’s tendency to “act unilaterally,” suggesting that he and others let go of the reins and allow the director to assume greater responsibilities.

It said power was concentrated within a small group of council members and criticized the institution for what it called its “weak committee system, inadequate discipline, and a lack of professionalism.”

The study recommended that the legislation governing the museum be changed to strengthen its administration, scale back the role of the council and give the director of the museum more of the powers of a chief executive officer.

Regula, in an interview from his home in Ohio, praised Lerman’s service.

“Everyone owes him a great debt of gratitude for the service he has given,” he said, adding that “without him there wouldn’t be a museum.”

In statements provided by the museum, several of the institution’s officials and members of the council also praised Lerman’s efforts.

Lerman said the report, issued by the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to make federal, state and local governments more effective, did not play into his decision to step down.

Lerman said he appointed a commission earlier last year, before the NAPA report came out, to prepare its own recommendations for changes in management and governance.

In December, the council approved the recommendation, which also take into account some suggestions made by the NAPA report. One of the recommendations was to bring in “young blood,” Lerman said.

“A leader who preaches certain concepts to others and does not apply these concepts to himself is not a serious leader,” he said.

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