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.

(page 3 of 4)

The museum’s director at the time, Walter Reich — a psychiatrist and writer on the Holocaust who was born in Poland to parents in hiding from the Nazis — objected to the invitation, while the chairman of the museum’s governing council, Miles Lerman, who was a survivor of the Holocaust and a Jewish anti-Nazi resistance fighter in wartime Poland, supported it. The invitation became a political hot potato that was revoked, reinstated and finally declined by Arafat as the furor grew.

One month later, with a push from Lerman, Reich was ousted as director.

Reich himself had taken the post in 1995, only after the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council’s first choice, Cornell University professor Steven Katz, was forced to publicly withdraw before he took office, when The Washington Post disclosed that Cornell University had imposed disciplinary measures on him for misrepresenting his accomplishments and improperly taking a job while on paid leave from the university.

The appointment of Bloomfield, whom the Holocaust Memorial Council promoted quickly after Reich’s abrupt departure, marked the end of such public dramas. Indeed, steering the museum to calmer waters virtually defined Bloomfield’s first mission once she took over.

“The proof is in the pudding: How well is the institution run?” Bloomfield replies when asked about those who questioned her lack of professional background in the field of Holocaust research or her lack of a personal background involving the Holocaust. “I leave it to people to judge my record on what’s happened here since 1999.”

Fred Zeidman, who served as chair of the Holocaust Memorial Council from 2002 to 2010, is unreserved in his evaluation of Bloomfield’s record since her ascension. “She’s an example of choosing someone who is not from the field but ends up being the most talented one,” he said.

Overcoming internal strife has allowed Bloomfield to focus on expanding the museum’s outreach and the scope of its work. Getting visitors to enter the museum gates was never a problem, and the permanent exhibition (which has not been changed since the opening) and special exhibits have been seen widely as the best in their field. In recent years, however, the museum has increased its efforts to reach audiences outside the Washington building by developing the museum’s website as a leading global resource on the Holocaust.

Bloomfield is also working hard to add to and enhance the museum’s collection of Holocaust-related documents and artifacts. Keenly aware that Holocaust survivors, who have always been a key part of the museum’s ability to communicate its story, are now dying off, she terms this effort “now our absolutely No. 1 priority.”

“We know that when all the eye witnesses are gone, the collection will be the sole authentic witness to the Holocaust,” Bloomfield said.

The museum has also increased significantly its investment in research under Bloomfield’s direction. She negotiated the opening and sharing of Nazi-era documents from the International Tracing Service, in Bad Arolsen, Germany, helping establish the Holocaust museum as a prime resource for historians and researchers.

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