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The Man Who Never Forgot
Shaike Weinberg, Holocaust Chronicler

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2000; Page C01

When Shaike Weinberg was 14, he had an encounter with authority that changed the course of his life. The second son of a Polish Jewish family living in Berlin, he'd been told not to wear his Zionist Youth badge to school. But, ever the rational thinker, when he saw some of his fellow students wearing emblems of the Nazi Party, which had just come to power, he complained to his teacher. Why can they wear political symbols when I can't wear mine?

Later that day, his teacher advised Weinberg's older brother that he couldn't guarantee Shaike's safety. His brother immediately told their parents, and the next morning Shaike and his father were on a train to Warsaw, where the family still had relatives, friends and property. His mother was left behind to pack up their extensive library. Within the year, the family resettled in Palestine.

The anecdote, with slight variations on the embellishments, is one that all of Weinberg's friends know--and it's a great story. But the episode is also a metaphor for his life, a life that had little use for the unreasoning dictates of authority. Not that he was a particularly rebellious man, but if he could see a better way--and he usually did--why not choose that direction?

A master storyteller, Jeshajahu "Shaike" Weinberg lived a life that embodied much of the drama of the Jewish experience in the 20th century: A childhood under the influence of the Nazis in Germany and Poland. The Zionist movement and the European exodus to Palestine. The beginning of the kibbutz movement. The growth of urban Israel. American citizenship. And finally, a return to Israel to be near two of his children and close family friends.

His great gift was the ability to share the larger framework of those stories through three astonishing works of art: the permanent exhibitions at Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv; the Museum of the History of Jerusalem in that city; and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Those last two were undertaken and completed after his first and second attempts to retire, and while he was experiencing his first problems with heart ailments.

By the time he died last Saturday morning in Tel Aviv, his friends and family had given up attempts to get him to really retire. He was still, at 81, actively at work as both the chairman of the design team of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and as a consultant for the design and construction of the permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Despite his much less than perfect health, he traveled to Europe at least once a month to monitor both projects.

He was in Berlin this past September when he collapsed on the 19th--Yom Kippur morning. He'd gone there as usual for a meeting, but this time he had only recently emerged from the hospital during a 10-week siege of vasculitis, and his friends had begged him not to go. He wouldn't hear of it. He had taken on the job of advising the museum, and nothing was going to stop him from making sure they got it right.

He had led the way by getting it right at his own institutions, where he created a storytelling model that defied museum conventions. No dioramas. No static panels. Instead, he used video monitors, soundtracks, photographs, artifacts, film, architectural models, lighting for special effect, all assembled in a manner that evoked worlds gone by. Even the text blocks and captions were honed for maximum impact rather than maximum information.

Working on intuition, he ignored the rules of exhibitions that most museums adhered to--in part because he didn't have the disadvantage of a formal education or the professional training that taught those rules. (How he had the unhesitating nerve to go from working on a kibbutz to becoming an early data-processing expert for the Israeli government to becoming the director of the Municipal Theater of Tel Aviv to leading his museums--with time off for fighting in World War II as a member of the Jewish Brigade of the British army and two marriages is another story.)

It was in that iconoclastic spirit that he evidenced a little competitive tension with the other great groundbreaking artist at the Holocaust museum, architect James I. Freed. Weinberg was proud of his work there, and though he never admitted concern that praise for Freed's work would eclipse his own achievement, his close friends could sense the tension.

He was not, however, competitive with the people who worked for him. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, supported the former, and hoped that they would prevail. If not, well, you could take other people only so far. We are all responsible, he knew, for our own choices.

He regretted some of his own, and talked openly of what he saw as his and his wife's shortcomings as parents. They had spent too much time on their careers, he said. It was hard on their children, Mei'ra, Michal, Ruthie and Na'aman.

Perhaps that was part of the reason for his extraordinary generosity to family members and friends, offering his ear and great intelligence to those who sought it out; paying for books, CDs, meals, movies, you name it--to share the pleasures of life he'd discovered. (That was why we all knew about the books of Jose Saramago long before the Portuguese writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Shaike had bought us copies of Saramago's books, told us to read them, and we did.)

Although certainly not all, many of the recipients of these gifts were women--motherly women, intelligent women, pretty women, strong women. He was at home with all of us. He seemed to need us to fill the vacuum left after the death of his beloved wife, Hanna, an American whose job in Washington in the late 1980s brought Weinberg here, much to the delight of the members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council who were trying to get their museum built and sought his guidance. In 1989 they persuaded him to come out of retirement once more and accept the directorship of the museum, a position he held until 1995, when he returned to Israel.

But he missed his American friends (and his favorite bookstores) and found ways to visit us and reasons for us to meet him in other cities whenever he could. There was the great adventure of his 80th-birthday celebration two summers ago in Cyprus, when the guests' ages ranged from 23 to 80. (Why Cyprus? Because he hadn't been there.) And a trip to New York last summer when a few of his Washington friends went up to see him, all on a carefully orchestrated schedule so that he could spend private time with each of us.

It was on one of those very hot early July days that I got to see him. I was alarmed that he seemed more frail than usual, and as we crossed First Avenue in the blinding sun to go to a restaurant, I got the courage to ask him, "Shaike, do you check with your cardiologist before making these trips?" "No," he said with a shrug. "What's the point? It will happen when it happens."

Well, it has happened, and despite his extraordinary legacy, we are all the poorer.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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