By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Miles Lerman, 88, who as a young man fought the Nazis in the forests of Poland and who helped found the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as an enduring reminder of the millions who perished, died Jan. 22 at his home in Philadelphia. The cause of death was "multiple complications of aging," his daughter said.
A survivor of a Nazi labor camp and a resistance fighter, Mr. Lerman joined the planning committee for the museum in 1978 and became chairman in 1993. During his seven-year tenure, he raised nearly $200 million and negotiated historic international agreements that helped create the museum's permanent exhibition and establish its archives.
The New Jersey businessman also was the force behind the creation of the Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance, dedicated to dispelling the myth that Jews did not resist the Nazis and their collaborators.
"Miles taught his successors the meaning of memory," Holocaust Museum Chairman Fred S. Zeidman said in a statement. "Those of us who follow in the path he forged owe him a debt of gratitude and bear a tremendous responsibility to carry on his legacy."
For Mr. Lerman, memory was a way to lessen the pain of the atrocities he saw and experienced. He and his wife, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, "have constantly talked to one another about that part of our lives, because we believe that brushing it under the carpet would only increase the pain," he told the New York Times in 1993.
Mr. Lerman was born in Tomaszow Lubelski, Poland, in 1920, to a prosperous family whose flour mills were seized by the Nazis. As a young man, he dreamed of immigrating to Palestine and living on a kibbutz, but that dream was dashed when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The Lermans fled eastward to Lubov, in present-day Ukraine. His mother and several of his siblings died in concentration camps.
Interned in a slave labor camp in 1942, he witnessed unspeakable atrocities, including a Jewish father being forced by the Nazis to choose which of his two sons he would have to hang. Recalling the event in the Times article, he described the father, his eyes closed, reaching out and randomly touching one of the boys -- the boy he would kill. The father killed himself the next morning.
Less than a year later, Mr. Lerman and three other Jewish prisoners overpowered their guards, killed them with shovels and escaped into the woods. Joining a group of Jewish partisans, Mr. Lerman did everything in his power for the next two years to sabotage the Nazi war machine.
"The obligation of the partisan units was to drive the German soldiers crazy, to do as much damage as we could," he told The Washington Post in 2003. "Our message was: Here are people who are willing to die on their feet, not on their knees."
In 1947, Mr. Lerman and his wife immigrated to Brooklyn, where he got a job in a warehouse. The next year they moved to Vineland, N.J., where several Jewish families had established an agricultural community, and Mr. Lerman became a chicken farmer. Deciding he didn't want to raise chickens the rest of his life, he bought a used truck and established a successful home heating oil business and also began investing in real estate.
"I've been a very lucky man; America has been very good to me," he told the Times.
Mr. Lerman took part in the first meeting of the Holocaust Memorial Council in 1980. Appointed to the governing board by President Jimmy Carter and reappointed by three of Carter's successors in the White House, he served for 23 years, spending two days a week in Washington while maintaining his business interests in New Jersey.
He was chairman through most of the museum's first decade, years that were occasionally tumultuous. In 1998, he found himself in the middle of a tempest about an invitation that was extended, rescinded and extended again to PLO leader Yasser Arafat to visit the museum. Although Arafat eventually declined, citing schedule conflicts, critics accused Mr. Lerman of mishandling the incident. "All I wanted to do is to bring Arafat in and teach him the lessons of the Holocaust," he told The Post.
Despite the occasional controversy, Mr. Lerman expressed satisfaction a year after the museum opened, a year in which it welcomed nearly 2 million visitors, two-thirds of them non-Jews.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I guess the success would be so enormous," he told The Post. "We felt it would take a while to educate America as to why the tragedy of the Holocaust should be of concern to them. As it turned out, the visiting public immediately grasped the message."
Mr. Lerman also led the effort to establish a memorial in 2004 at Belzec, a camp in Poland where his mother was among a half-million Jews who died.
Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Rosalie Christine Lerman of Philadelphia; two children, David Lerman and Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, both of Philadelphia; a brother; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.