The Holocaust Museum: Origins

My latest book, a critical biography entitled The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel, has just been released after 15 years in the making.  The book is available here:

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part iv.  In 1993, the United States Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., opened its doors.  The history of that buildout has never properly been told.  Really, it’s a Ph.D. dissertation waiting for an ambitious and brave scholar.  Brave because that researcher would be up against the lion of Holocaust narrative, Elie Wiesel. 

     In The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW), I dove into the first half decade of that buildout.  From his appointment to the presidential commission, in August 1978, until his resignation from the presidential council in December 1986, Wiesel absolutely dominated the museum project.  His reach touched every aspect, with tentacles spreading from subcommittees to staff offices to the Capitol Rotunda to the East Room and the Roosevelt Room of the White House, even into the Oval Office.  His dominance continued in the way the history has come down to us.  A few years after the museum opened its doors two key sources chronicled the history of the museum.  Edward Linenthal’s Preserving Memory reached for broad strokes.  The records, documents and artifacts hadn’t yet been codified.  He didn’t have access the way a researcher would today at the Holocaust Museum archive in suburban Baltimore.

     Linenthal relied heavily on one source.  While he interviewed many of the key players involved in the project, he found his guide in Marian Craig.  An office manager who ran a doctor’s office before joining the Carter White House – according to one source, that doctor was a known Quaalude pusher – Craig joined the project at its inception.  Originally, she came from Georgia and she was part of President Carter’s Georgia group.  She became Wiesel’s personal secretary.  She developed an intense loyalty for Wiesel.  In fact, she placed him high atop a pedestal.  Linenthal’s work has Wiesel’s footprints all over it.

     Wiesel followed Linenthal’s book with his own chronicle of the era in his second volume of autobiography from the 1990s, And The Sea Is Never Full.  In that chronicle Wiesel built the story arc of a Spielberg movie.  What began with hope and excitement soon devolved into quarrel, dissension, and, ultimately, treachery and deceit.  The central character, a pristine figure, became increasingly swept up by the many feuds.  How did the wrangling impact his virtue?  How did the ugliness of partisan politics color his purity?  

     Those questions formed the arc of Wiesel’s story.  The ending came straight from E.T.  Rather than playing politics, rather than sullying his core values, the central character walked away.  He turned his attention to wider causes.  Maybe Wiesel’s version of events will be Spielberg’s next movie project?

     How accurate was the portrayal?  In GAEW, I dove in.  Here, let’s concentrate on the museum’s origins, for in microcosm that initial period set the stage for the total morass that would follow.

     A thorough reshaping of the American landscape began on May 1, 1978.  On the 30th anniversary of the State of Israel, in a commemoration ceremony at the Rose Garden, President Jimmy Carter had the Holocaust on his mind.  He declared, “Many nations have memorials to the Holocaust victims.  There is no such formal memorial in the United States.  To ensure that we in the United States never forget, I will appoint immediately a Presidential commission to report to me within 6 months on an appropriate memorial in this country to the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust.”

     Note his statistic: 6 million.  Carter’s first reference and he used a number that defined the Holocaust as a Judeocide.  The records show that he will reconfigure that statistic in later speeches and executive orders.  Wiesel will go ballistic.

     Note the pace.  It wasn’t until November 8, some six months later, that Carter announced the commission members.  It wasn’t until February 15, 1979, some nine months after Carter’s original announcement, that the commission first met.  Seven months after the first meeting the commission handed over its recommendations to the White House.  The date was September 27, 1979.  The slowness suggested a harbinger.  It took 15 years for the Holocaust Museum to open its doors.

     White House records indicate that Wiesel was not the administration’s first choice to lead the commission.  In the days following the ceremony at the Rose Garden, a White House staffer, Ellen Goldstein, outlined a “rough agenda.”  Part of that agenda suggested commission members and, importantly, the commission chairman.  Goldstein first suggested Arthur Krim, president of Orion Films.  She listed his attributes: “keen political skills, articulate moderator, Democrat, consummate fundraiser, and he is highly regarded and respected.”

     Subtract the last line and none of the attributes outlined Wiesel.  The position called for a clear-minded political force.  Wiesel proved to be volatile, mercurial.  His survivor psychology shone out.

     An anecdote occurred early in the project, questioning Wiesel’s leadership.  This story comes from Siggi Wilzig, a camp survivor turned American entrepreneur.  He had the personality of a pugilist.  After the first commission meeting of February 15, 1979, a participant approached Wilzig.  “That’s the wrong man,” this unnamed man said of Wiesel.  “He’s got no power of operation and administration.  He will never appeal to the public.  He’s not strong enough.”

     Wilzig replied, “Muscles and strength we had with Hitler.  What we need is brain and heart.”  (See council transcript, December 4, 1986, USHMM, Minutes and Records Relating to Council Meetings, May 1980 – April 1993, Accession Number 2000.051, Box 9.)

     White House records indicate that Arthur Krim rejected the position.  The administration then sought suggestions.  Names were bandied about: Morris Abrams, a past president at Brandeis; Supreme Court Justice Abraham Fortas; CBS news president Fred Friendly; billionaire and philanthropist Laurence Tisch.  All power players within the Democratic Party.

     Another power player put an abrupt end to the search.  Arthur Goldberg, former Secretary of Labor (under Kennedy), former Justice on the Supreme Court (appointed by Kennedy), former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (under Johnson), named Wiesel.  Goldberg’s suggestion quickly gained a consensus within the administration.  A June 16 memo referred to Wiesel as the “one candidate who would be undisputed by the Jewish community.”  A month later, another memo classified Wiesel as the “undisputed expert on the Holocaust period” and “his appointment would be without controversy.”

     Wiesel as expert on the Holocaust shows the naiveté of the Carter administration.  He wasn’t even an expert on his own history, at least as he recorded in his many memoirs.  Importantly, the Carter administration named an expert to the commission.  His name was Raul Hilberg.  To students of the Holocaust his name will need no introduction, but Hilberg, to this day, is known as the author of the preeminent history on the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews.  Strikingly, Hilberg used no survivor testimony in producing his work.

     To this origin story of the Holocaust museum, Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s chief on domestic affairs, offered more color.  He recalled a conversation he had with Carter.  Asked by the president who should serve as chairman, Eizenstat named Wiesel as the only person “suitable” for the job.  Eizenstat then phoned Wiesel, who was out of the country.  “When I found him,” Eizenstat recalled, “he was very excited, agreed, and came to see the president.”  (Rochelle G. Saidel, Never Too Late To Remember.  See also Stuart Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II.)

     Aside from receiving the phone call on foreign soil, Wiesel’s version of events differed entirely.  As chronicled in And The Sea Is Never Full, Wiesel reacted to the offer with uncertainty and resistance.  He immediately saw the commission as a “public relations game.”  On the phone with Eizenstat, he rejected the offer.  The call ended with Eizenstat’s plea: “Please reconsider.”

     The next day, according to Wiesel, Eizenstat phoned again.  Wiesel’s mind hadn’t changed.  But Eizenstat threw a curveball.  “The president wishes to see me,” Wiesel chronicled.  “This I cannot refuse.  The appointment is set for the following week.”

     Two different versions of events then emerged in the reflections of Eizenstat and Wiesel.  In Eizenstat’s version, Wiesel responded to the offer with excitement and acceptance.  In Wiesel’s version, he had suspicions.  “We must never use the Holocaust for political purposes,” he reflected.

     In that reflection the beginnings of a character took shape.  As depicted by Wiesel, that character distanced himself from the machinations of politics.  That character didn’t get dirty.  The character remained above.

     Notably, the character formed tentacles to an earlier Wiesel-chronicled character.  When describing his own behavior during his Holocaust year, Wiesel developed an image.  The coward survivor.  “Logically, I shouldn’t have survived,” he reported in his first volume of memoirs from the 1990s, All Rivers Run To The Sea.  “Sickly, timid, fearful, and lacking all resourcefulness, I never did anything to stay alive.  I never volunteered for anything, never jostled anyone to get a tin of soup.  Coward that I was, I preferred to eat less and to let myself be devoured by hunger rather than expose myself to blows.  I was less afraid of death than of physical suffering.”

     In his chronicling of the museum building era, Wiesel developed an offshoot of the coward survivor.  “I’m not a political person,” he wrote, when describing his initial rejection of Eizenstat’s offer.  “I have no desire to become one; all I want is time to write and study.”

     What got lost in that character?  According to a White House memo, Wiesel accepted the position by August 7.  There was no mention of a hesitant Wiesel, no mention of a meeting with the president.  Rather, Wiesel the politico took shape.  The opposite of the coward survivor formed.  The rough elbower.

     The record of the rough elbower began immediately upon accepting the position.  According to another White House memo, Wiesel immediately began a push back.  He received a phone call from Ellen Goldstein, who detailed her office’s recommendations for the commission, including a list of appointments.  Wiesel objected.  He didn’t like the official title.  He didn’t like the names on the list.  He was unfamiliar with a series of people.  He wanted to know why a certain person, the notable Irving Greenberg, was “kept off.”  

     If his word choice implied accusation, suspicion, even paranoia, Goldstein set the record straight.  Greenberg made the request himself.  But to counter his objections, Wiesel proposed a considerable increase to the size of the commission.  In fact, he wanted to add his people, or as he chronicled in his autobiography, “to gather as many survivors as possible.”

     Stuart Eizenstat responded to Wiesel’s push back.  In a handwritten note in the margin of a memo, he asked for a meeting with Wiesel “asap so this can be wrapped up.”  That meeting was scheduled for the morning of September 5, 1978.  The date proved pivotal, as the negotiations between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat began at Camp David.

     Did Wiesel meet with Eizenstat that September morning?  Wiesel’s version of events spun in a different direction.  He went to the White House.  He met with President Carter in the Oval Office.  A negotiation took place.  Wiesel had a list of conditions for accepting the position.  He wanted the memorial, in whatever undefined form it took, to be educational in nature.  He wanted the commission members, as part of a fact-finding mission, to travel to Holocaust sites in Europe and Israel.  He also wanted the commission to organize and administer a national Day of Remembrance (DOR) for Holocaust victims.  Up to this point in time, there were local commemorations, with the largest at Temple Emanu-El in New York City.  There was no central DOR commemoration.

     Wiesel had a scene in mind for the first national DOR commemoration.  He wanted a joint session of congress.  He would address the full body.  Notably, the scene positioned Wiesel along the lines of a president or a consequential dignitary.  There would be Wiesel, like FDR after Yalta, like Churchill in 1943, like Sadat and Begin who would address the Congress one month later.  Wiesel held onto the scene even though no president had the authority to determine congressional ceremony.  In the ambition of Wiesel, he brought the Holocaust to such hallowed ground.

     According to Wiesel’s version of events, President Carter agreed to his conditions and the work of the commission began.  To this chronicle, there remains great contention.  For the full story, please see GAEW, but here’s what we know.  From the outset, and throughout Wiesel’s tenure as chairman of the project, perpetual turf wars played out.  Never did the culture of the project mellow into healthy compromise, negotiation and reason.  Even the very first meeting of the commission included some nastiness, bordering on deep-seated prejudice.

     The first turf war occurred over the definition of the Holocaust.  When President Carter spoke at the Capitol Rotunda during the first national DOR commemoration in April 1979, he began with a recollection from his recent trip to Yad Vashem.  “I walked slowly through the Hall of Names,” he said.  “And like literally millions before me, I grieved as I looked at book after book, row after row, each recording the name of a man or woman, a little boy or a little girl, each one a victim of the Holocaust.  I vowed then – as people all over the world are doing this week – to reaffirm our unshakable commitment that such an event will never recur on the Earth again.”  

     His attention then swung to the “awesomeness of the suffering involved” during the Holocaust years.  He put a statistic on that “awesomeness”: “11 million innocent victims exterminated, 6 million of them Jews.”

     Carter’s initial remarks formed a fascinating juxtaposition.  He invoked Yad Vashem.  That institution recognized the Holocaust as a Judeocide, six million dead.  Carter then pivoted to something greater.  His definition of the Holocaust spoke to pluralism.  It spoke to inclusion.  Carter’s “11 million” spoke to diversity.  Although originally proposed by a non-American, Simon Wiesenthal, Carter’s “11 million” resonated as an American number.

     Here’s what we should know about Jimmy Carter and his relationship to the Holocaust.  To understand the genocide better, he did what many Americans did.  He found a guide.  Carter, in fact, welcomed Simon Wiesenthal to the White House in August 1980.  A ceremony took place in the East Room.  The ceremony recognized Wiesenthal as the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, an award decreed by the congress but bestowed by the president.  Carter appeared reverential.  He placed the medal around Wiesenthal’s neck.  He called Wiesenthal’s appearance “an exciting thing for me.”  The two men had first met in 1976, according to Carter.  “He gave me his good wishes and we exchanged in just a few minutes some memorable thoughts between two men who encountered each other on life’s way.”

     A photograph, taken of Wiesenthal and Carter at the ceremony, displayed Carter’s goodwill.  Not only was he glowing in Wiesenthal’s presence, but, when Carter signed the photo for Wiesenthal, he added to the standard “best wishes” sentiment.  In his neat and tidy penmanship, Carter added “& admiration.”

     Wiesenthal’s “11 Million” definition of the Holocaust was a felony to Wiesel.  Wiesenthal as a righteous man, in Carter’s framing, was even worse.  To Wiesel, Wiesenthal was a competitor, a rival, a combatant.  In his memoirs, Wiesel went on the offense.

     Following the DOR ceremony, he joined the president for the limousine ride back to the White House.  According to Wiesel, he asked Carter “where he obtained this figure.”  Carter named his source: Simon Wiesenthal who “insists on including all victims: six million Jews and five million non-Jews.”  Wiesel corrected Carter, “This figure does not reflect the facts.”  There were non-Jews in the camps but their deaths “did not number five million; they were a fraction of that figure.”  

     That fraction, according to Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, was “about half a million.”  (Yehuda Bauer “Don’t Resist: A Critique of Phillip Lopate,” Tikkun Vol 4, no. 3, May-June 1989.)  Wiesel’s fraction was less statistical and far more emotional.  Among the non-Jews, he told the president, there were “heroes of the Resistance and brave humanists.”  There were also “fierce anti-Semites and sadistic criminals.”  With the last group in mind, Wiesel asked, “‘Would it be just, Mr. President, to honor their memory together with that of my parents?’”

     According to Wiesel, Carter got the message.  He “never cited this figure again.”  The historical record reflects the exact opposite.  In September 1979, the commission submitted its report to the president.  In a ceremony at the Rose Garden, President Carter continued with his wider definition.  While noting the “Jewish people who were engulfed by the Holocaust simply because they were Jews” he also spoke of “5 million other human beings.”  Carter continued, “About 3 million Poles, many Hungarians, Gypsies, also need to be remembered.”  Carter made these remarks with Wiesel standing behind him.

     A month later, on October 26, 1979, President Carter moved the museum project forward.  The commission had done its work.  The successor body, the Holocaust Memorial Council, came into existence by executive order.  That order defined the Holocaust as “the systematic and State-sponsored extermination of six million Jews and some five million other peoples by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.”

     The phrasing had a devastating effect on Wiesel.  He saw the administration as acting in an “unreasonable, even irrational” way.  In his memoirs, he took the framing further afield.  He framed a classic fight between right and wrong.  Like all good classics, he established two competing characters.  The protagonist carried the weight of profound suffering.  Heavy victimization, a geometry of imposition, reverberated.

     The villain, meanwhile, appeared obtuse.  The villain manipulated the process.  He based his decisions on realpolitik.  Realpolitik, of course, ran counter to Wiesel’s ethereal character.

     Again, the story arc hit the key markers of a Spielberg movie.  Again, maybe Wiesel’s version of events will be Spielberg’s next movie project?

     The real story is something else entirely.  Behind the scenes, Wiesel embraced the realpolitik.  His behavior became pugilistic, chaotic, conniving.  He began a hostile push back.  The record of the rough elbower began.

     The election of Ronald Reagan solved the issue.  From his first public words to the council, Reagan recognized the Holocaust as a Judeocide.  But definition of the Holocaust immediately morphed into representation on the Council.  The Carter administration pushed for “Euro-ethnics,” or a multi-ethnic, pluralistic council.  Wiesel pushed for a Jewish, survivor-dominated body.  Records show that when the Carter administration won the day, Wiesel formed a kitchen cabinet, or a Sanhedrin in Jewish terms.  The Sanhedrin included only camp survivors.  All saw the Holocaust as a Judeocide.

     The Republican administration of Reagan didn’t stop the infighting.  The Reagan White House did what all incoming administrations do.  They began to appoint their own people to council positions.  Wiesel began to lose his trusted people.

     A new fight played out during the Reagan years.  As the U.S. government ceded land to the museum project on the Mall, as specific buildings were identified, and then rejected, a series of wealthy, Jewish-American real estate developers came to the project.  The survivors on Wiesel’s Sanhedrin saw these men as mall developers.  In other words, as schlumps.  They accused the developers of an ulterior motive for their large financial contributions. According to those accusations, the developers wanted to name the museum after themselves.

     The developers saw the survivors as unhinged.  They fired back.  They accused Wiesel of keeping his position on the project until the Nobel committee awarded the peace prize.  That award for Wiesel came in October 1986.  He resigned from the museum project in December.  The timing of his resignation sparked the intrigue. 

     When Wiesel departed the scene, followed by his most trusted lieutenants, the conflicts receded.  The pace of the project jumped.  Such a dynamic posed a series of questions.  Did Wiesel grasp the wider vision of memorialization?  Was he able to downplay his own personal motivation?  Or, did he stoke the conflict?  Did he need the conflict to maintain control of all moving parts?

     To this agent of chaos, let’s circle back to where this profile began.  Had Arthur Krim, or any high-ranking Jewish Democrat, become chairman of the project, the history would have played out in a very different way.  The building of the Holocaust Museum became a fight for power.  Survivor power, with all the distrust, jealousy and paranoia associated with the survivor psychology.  That dynamic would never have been stoked by a chairman like Krim.

     Let’s also note the emergence of Marian Craig.  She became a gatekeeper to Wiesel.  Notably, before her time in the Carter White House, she worked for a doctor who pushed Quaaludes.  As the records show, those sedatives might have been helpful in the push and pull that came to define Wiesel’s time on the project.  

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