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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The conflicts that once bedeviled the museum’s dual mission — memorializing the mass slaughter of Eastern European Jewry on the one hand and serving as a research institute devoted to examining the universal problem of hate and genocide through the lens of the Holocaust on the other — have largely subsided in recent years. Bloomfield herself believes it was always a false dichotomy. The institution she heads succeeds in both paying respect to the Jewish Holocaust and provoking thought about its causes and current-day parallels, she said. Bloomfield pointed to the museum’s ongoing programs with law enforcement and military officers as a sign of its relevance in “building a moral compass” for those on America’s frontlines.

But when it comes to the museum’s lesser-known role, as a center for current-day genocide prevention, achievements are harder to find. The museum has served as the main venue for speeches, including by President Obama in April 2012, about the need to ensure that genocides do not take place. It has compiled a report detailing precursors to genocide and measures that can be taken to deal with them. But still, atrocities in Rwanda and Darfur have taken place in the past two decades with hardly any effort by the United States or the international community to intervene — a theme that is also highlighted in the museum’s treatment of the Holocaust.

“Was there any institution that succeeded in preventing genocide?” asked Berenbaum, who immediately answered his own question: “No.”

Bloomfield would not say whether she views the current situation in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in a bloody civil war, as genocide. The role of the museum when it comes to Syria and other cases of human rights abuses, she argued, is to educate, not to advocate policy. Zeidman even recalled that during his tenure as chairman of the museum, he received numerous requests regarding recognition of genocides, including one that talked about the “genocide of the unborn child.”

Of the many challenges Bloomfield has faced as director of the Holocaust museum, nothing equaled the experience of June 10, 2009. Bloomfield and Zeidman were at a meeting on Capitol Hill, when their phones rang with the notice that an armed attacker had entered the museum and shot one of the guards. They rushed back, as roads closed and police helicopters circled the museum, only to learn that special police officer Stephen Tyrone Johns had been killed while trying to stop James von Brunn, an 88-year-old white supremacist, from carrying out an attack in the museum.

“It was, without a doubt, the worst day in my career here, and probably, other than losing members of my own family, the worst day of my life,” said Bloomfield, who has since stayed in touch with Johns’s widow. Bloomfield choked up when she recalled the outpour of support from the public after the incident. “The question was: ‘Will the public show up? Will the public be scared away?’ But not only did they show up, but they showed up in extraordinary numbers, and it was a great testament to what we stand for and what this country stands for.”

Bloomfield’s latest goal is establishing a $540 million endowment fund to secure the future of the museum, which is roughly equally funded both federally and privately. In 2012, the museum received $50 million in federal appropriations and $40 million in private donations. As the struggle for federal dollars becomes increasingly tough, private donations are needed to expand the museum’s activity. Most of the donations so far have come from the Jewish community.

As for her personal future, Bloomfield has no plans for change. Colleagues and friends have noted her total devotion to the institution. Bloomfield insists that “as long as the United States Holocaust Memorial Council wants me, and I am healthy to do it, I would like to be able to serve.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


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