Two years after Steven Spielberg's colossal and controversial Holocaust documentation project hired scholar Michael Berenbaum to bolster its academic credibility, the foundation has removed him as president.
Berenbaum, who joined the Hollywood project after running the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's research institute, has stepped down as chief of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and will be a consultant instead, said Marvin Levy, a spokesman for Spielberg and the foundation.
"It was worked out in an amiable way," Levy said last night. "This gives Michael a chance to do more of the things he wants to do, his own writing and lecturing. We're taking the foundation to a different step, a little different direction."
It was a desire for a different direction that first brought Berenbaum to the foundation, which is housed in a series of trailers on the lot of Universal Studios. In the rush to meet the goal of 50,000 interviews in five years that Spielberg set when he established the project after the huge success of his movie "Schindler's List," the Shoah Foundation found itself accused of assembling a massive archive of questionable usefulness.
Academics argued that they had been shut out of the process, leaving amateurs to conduct many of the interviews. Historians said the foundation's interviews were rushed, failed to provide historical perspective and placed undue emphasis on emotional catharsis--getting the survivors to cry.
When Berenbaum arrived, he spoke of "a tension between an academic respect for the material and the Hollywood desire to glitz it up."
Foundation executives argued that with the population of survivors dwindling rapidly, there was no time for traditional academic deliberation. They had to move to get the interviews, then worry about their cataloguing and use later.
A former foundation executive said Berenbaum was asked to step down because fund-raising was not going well and because the foundation has continued to face criticism for its emphasis on production values over historical fidelity.
Levy said the foundation made the change not because of dissatisfaction with Berenbaum's work, but because the foundation has met its goal of collecting 50,000 video testimonials by Holocaust survivors, "and now we are focusing on using the material in other media--film, CD-ROM. Technology and the media areas--with the direction we're going, there'll be a greater need for those talents."
Berenbaum's secretary said he was traveling this week and was not available to comment.
Berenbaum was instrumental in planning the permanent exhibition of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He helped to change the focus of the collection from a melange of small, personal items to a more comprehensive attempt to tell the historical story of the destruction of European Jewry from its roots in German society to the memories of aging survivors.
"The Last Days," a documentary based on several of the Shoah Foundation's video testimonials, won an Academy Award this year. And the foundation's first CD-ROM will be made available to schools this fall, Levy said.
Levy said a search for a new president will begin later this year.
CAPTION: Michael Berenbaum departs as Shoah still faces controversy.