By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 25, 2008
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum would never have been built if not for the dedication of a small number of people. Chief among them was Miles Lerman, who died Tuesday and was buried yesterday. Lerman, who escaped from a Nazi labor camp and fought in the resistance, was determined to make the museum a reality. Ultimately, it became his obsession.
I was a consultant to the museum while it was being built. Lerman, then chairman of the museum's international relations committee, negotiated with an array of Eastern European countries to obtain objects for the museum's exhibits. I remember hearing him excitedly relate the details of the "deal" he had just struck with various governments. One day it was for a Polish railway car that had transported Jews to the death camps. On another occasion it was for a milk can in which the Ringelblum diary, an account of daily life in the Warsaw ghetto, had been hidden.
Lerman, who was joined in this effort by an exceptionally dedicated staff, relied on his knowledge of an array of languages and, as Holocaust Museum Director Sara Bloomfield recalled in her eulogy yesterday, an amazing ability to consume inordinate amounts of vodka to persuade foreign officials to make copies of their Holocaust-related archives available to the museum. For many countries, this was the first time they shared archives with a foreign institution. His efforts changed the face of Holocaust research.
Ruth Mandel, who was vice chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Council under Lerman, recalled that, despite being a Holocaust survivor, he "defied victimhood with every cell of his being." Though he fought with the resistance in the forest, Mandel recalled, he never "took one iota of credit for surviving the Holocaust." Whenever she asked him how he survived, he responded, "It was luck, dumb luck."
But he did not look only for those who could help the museum; he also looked for those who could be helped by it. Often these were not desirable characters. He was convinced that if he could get the perpetrators of genocide and the tyrants of the world to visit the place, they would abandon their evil ways. If he had a fault, it was that he loved the museum so much, maybe even too much. He believed it could do anything. Sometimes he acted impulsively and succeeded beyond measure. On other occasions, things blew up in his face, as with the controversial decision to invite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the museum.
He was immensely proud that on his watch the museum created the Committee on Conscience, whose job it was to act as an "early warning system" about genocide. The committee was responsible for some of the first alerts about the Darfur tragedy. Though the genocide continues unabated, the committee made it impossible for bystanders to fall back on the oft-heard Holocaust era excuse "We just did not know."
When the world's leading Holocaust denier, David Irving, sued me for libel in Britain, I knew I faced a long, difficult and complicated legal battle. I needed help. One of the first people I turned to was Lerman. Without hesitation he replied, "We will be by your side." And he was, spearheading the effort to raise money for my legal defense. Upon returning from London after winning a resounding legal victory, I came to the Capitol Rotunda for the annual Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration. Lerman rushed over, enveloped me, and whispered: "Thank you." To be thanked by a man who had done so much to ensure that history would not be forgotten left me without words.
In Jewish tradition there is a custom of writing an ethical will. It is a chance for the departed to impart to their heirs not just possessions but the moral teachings that shaped their lives. Often these wills challenge the survivors to make their lives meaningful. Miles Lerman's legacy is not simply the magnificent structure that stands in the heart of Washington and through whose portal 26 million people have entered since it opened in 1993. It is also to be found in his challenge to find a way to use the lessons of the Holocaust to stop genocide.
It is a massive -- some would say impossible and naive -- undertaking. But that's what Lerman was told when he dreamt of a museum to which millions would come.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University and the author of "My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier."