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!
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • 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.