FRANCE REMEMBERS “LES JUSTES” — ACKNOWLEDGES ANTISEMITIC BARBARISM
At a private March 4 reception held at the French Embassy in New York, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, France’s minister for culture and media, conferred the rank of officer of the Legion of Honor upon Philippe de Montebello,* the longest-serving director in the 135-year history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During his tenure, de Montebello almost doubled the museum’s size to 2 million square feet. Among those witnessing the ceremony were France’s ambassador to the United States, **Jean-David Levitte; France’s consul general in New York, François Delattre, New York Sun editor (and former Forward editor) Seth Lipsky, and author and attorney Serge Klarsfeld. In the past, Klarsfeld and his wife, Beate, were touted as “Nazi hunters” for their relentless pursuit of the likes of Klaus Barbie, Alois Bruner and Maurice Papon. Author of “French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial” (New York University Press, 1996), Klarsfeld now is president of Sons and Daughters of the Jewish Deportees of France.
The night before, at a dinner hosted by the American Jewish Committee, M. de Vabres announced the jointly sponsored exhibit that will be touring the United States to showcase the heroism of France’s non-Jews who helped save Jewish lives during World War II. The exhibit will feature a film by Agnès Varda detailing acts of heroism by les Justes. The AJCommittee screening audience included Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (with whom in the past I had conversed in Yiddish) and Klarsfeld. AJCommittee’s executive director, David Harris, noted: “This exhibit provides nearly 3,000 examples of courage, and the AJC is honored to help bring this exhibit to a large audience here in the United States.” The exhibit’s debut is scheduled for year’s end in Washington.
During my conversation with de Vabres (with the help of superb simultaneous translator Robert Wolfenstein, whose parents are Holocaust survivors from Poland), he touted the exhibit as a counterbalance to the “barbarism, collaboration and crimes against humanity” during the Vichy regime. De Vabres also extolled Simone Veil, former minister and president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah at the Pantheon. During my chat with Klarsfeld (whom I had interviewed in the past for this column), he stressed the urgency to transmit the message of the exhibit to the American public and its youth. Alluding to the rise of antisemitism and racism in France, Klarsfeld expressed visceral urgency in “making the younger generation aware of the reality that threatens us now.”
CHIMPANZEES — HUMANS’ CLOSEST ‘MISHPUKHE’, ACCORDING TO GOODALL
“You can get a blood transfusion from chimpanzees [if you know your blood type]; they are so close,” the guests at the Wings Worldquest Women of Discovery Awards dinner were informed March l, when Jane Goodall received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Greeting the Cipriani 23rd Street black-tie assemblage in chimpanzee-speak, Goodall belted out “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” eliciting a surprise chimpanzeese reply from someone in the room. Acclaimed for her lifelong study of primates, Goodall recalled: “I could not afford university, had no money, worked in a hotel and at 23, [influenced by the Tarzan mythology,] went to Africa.” Archeologist Louis Leakey, with whom Goodall worked in a gorge in Kenya, suggested she study chimpanzees. The rest is history.
Accepting the award from tall, stunning film star Uma Thurman, Goodall mused: “How like us the chimps are, using tools for different purposes, interacting with each other in connections that last for as long as 60 years… mothers, sisters… with compassion and altruism as well as brutal and violent behavior…. There once were 1 million chimpanzees,” Goodall lamented. “Now there are only 15,000.” Regarding the destruction of the “ecosystem,” she noted somberly, “If everyone lived the way we [in the developing countries] do today, we’d need four planets.”
“[Al] Gore may have raised awareness about the fate of our planet, but it is the remarkable women honored [tonight] who are trying to make amends,” informed event chair Sylvia Earle, a noted undersea explorer. I thought of “Climb every mountain, ford every stream,” lyrics of a song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” as that evening’s four other honorees — all young women! — received their awards. Courage Award recipient Constanza Cerutti specializes in high-altitude archaeology, studying Inca centers atop such Andean summits as Llullaillaco (22,100 feet), the site of the highest archaeological dig ever undertaken. The Award for Sea recipient marine biologist, Terrie William, was honored for her study of the Antarctica seals’ lung capacity and ability to conserve energy, and for the effect of global warming impacting on the seal populations; The Award for Earth was presented to glaciologist Erin Petit for her critical study of glaciers, where, hanging from wires at dizzying heights, she was shown in a film clip drilling into glacial faces extracting cores going back 10 million years! Ethnobotanist Grace Gobbo of Tanzania received an award for her field research and race-against-time and deforestation in her attempt to identify plants that for countless generations had been used to treat the local populations. “My father was a medical doctor, and to him everything else was witchcraft,” she said. But when university-trained Gobbo discovered that 80% of Africans depend on traditional medicine, she began to catalog plants and to interview the few remaining native medicine practitioners while their memories were still sharp. “Our young people are not interested… they are too computer acculturated,” she said.
Among the evening’s festive crowd were New York Post columnist Liz Smith; former New York City parks commissioner Henry Stern; psychologist Carol Reich, of the Beginning With Children Foundation; Anna Roosevelt (yes, she is a relative), and Winston Churchill’s granddaughter Edwina Sands (who vociferously lamented, “Poland got such a rough deal!” as we reminisced about the Battle of Britain). Also in attendance were Thurman’s mother, Nena, a former model, and father, Robert, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk who now teaches at Columbia University. The evening’s corporate “angels” included Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, and on the patrons roster were Eva and Yoel Haller, Caroline Schimmel, and Laurie Lister and Judd Burstein.