Holocaust Museum Turns 20 as Sara Bloomfield Ends Controversies

Steady Leadership Helps Bring Success to Memorial

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By Nathan Guttman

Published August 01, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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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.

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