Holocaust Museum Turns 20 as Sara Bloomfield Ends Controversies

Steady Leadership Helps Bring Success to Memorial

getty images

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 01, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 4)

Some in the community at the time questioned whether this large commitment of funds was the best use of Jewish philanthropic resources. But time and the enormous crowds of mostly non-Jews from across the nation that have thronged the institution have pretty much settled that debate.

Since its opening, on April 26, 1993, after a dedication by President Clinton and Wiesel, nearly 35 million people have visited the museum. The institution has also won recognition as one of the world’s top Holocaust research institutes.

Bloomfield’s life story did not prepare her for the task of heading up such a morally fraught historical museum. She grew up in Cleveland with no family connection to the Holocaust. Her first encounter with anti-Semitism, she recalled in a July 12 interview with the Forward, was after graduating as an English major and teaching school children in Australia. She assigned the students a reading of Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, “Night.” When discussing the book, she revealed to the class she was Jewish, and the response shocked her.

“They asked, ‘How can you be Jewish, because you’re so normal?’ and, ‘How can you be Jewish, because you’re so nice?’ and, ‘How can you be Jewish, because you’re an American?’” she said. A few students found it hard to talk with her after learning she was Jewish. “It was a big moment for my life,” she said, “but I don’t think that [was what] set me on a path [to] devote my life to the Holocaust.”

Bloomfield, 63, joined the Holocaust museum project in its early planning stages in 1986, and when it opened she was in charge of educational programs.

But the early years of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum were characterized by high-profile fault-lines. Today, Bloomfield dismisses them as “growing pains.” Some stemmed from the inherent tensions between lay leaders and survivors, including Wiesel, on one side and the professional staff on the other. Other sources of tension were related to the difficulty the institution encountered in defining itself, both to its supporters and to the general public.

Survivors and leaders of the Jewish community viewed it primarily as a memorial to the killing of 6 million Jews and, in some ways, given the sources of its financial support, as a quasi-Jewish institution; Congress saw it as an American institution telling an American story; human rights activists wanted the museum to focus on preventing future acts resembling the Holocaust, and academics saw it as an opportunity to establish a well-funded research and archive center.

Even the issue of the museum’s schedule was contentious. To the consternation of its Jewish backers, the museum’s initial plan was to close only on Christmas Day, the same as many other institutions on the National Mall, and to remain open, as a secular American institution, on Jewish holidays. Eventually, the board agreed to also close on Yom Kippur.

Global politics also played a role, most notably in 1998, when State Department officials seeking to advance the Middle East peace process asked museum board members to invite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to visit the museum. It was a move supported by some as a step toward Arafat’s education and denounced by others as an effort to mitigate his image among many Jews as a terrorist motivated by anti-Semitism.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.