With chamber music ensembles and lavish buffets dispersed throughout its three floors, and the Statue of Liberty silhouetted against a setting sun, the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust hosted its May 15 annual Heritage Dinner on home turf. “We hope that by holding this dinner here instead of at The Waldorf-Astoria, we will introduce or reintroduce you to the riches of this extraordinary institution,” said David Marwell, the museum’s director. “[And] though we are devoted to Holocaust commemoration, we are far more about life than death,” Marwell underscored.
At the museum’s Edmond J. Safra Hall, dinner chair Edgar Bronfman Jr., chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group, introduced singer-songwriter Jewel, who sang “Who Will Save Your Soul.” Robert Morgenthau, the museum’s chairman, acknowledged “tremendous friend” Charles Gargano (chairman and CEO of the Empire State Development Corp.), then harked back to a trip to Mannheim, Germany. He recalled a taxi driver’s comment: “I guess you’ll be flying El Al?” A pained Morgenthau cautioned, “Whoever you are, Orthodox or secular, they know who you are.” Heritage Award recipient Thomas Lee (president and CEO of Thomas H. Lee Capital), declared, “I read everything I could about the Holocaust.” Lee, whose company has raised more than $14 billion in venture capital and private equity, has served as a trustee or overseer of such institutions and organizations as Brandeis University, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Intrepid Museum Foundation. Concluding the evening’s program, Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, led the Wynton Marsalis Quintet in mellow renditions of George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and “Lady Be Good”; then Marsalis got the crowd of 350 jumpin’ to “Big Fat Hen,” a New Orleans samba beat. Among the guests was ubiquitous sexpert Ruth Westheimer, who brought along her book “Musically Speaking” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), which Marsalis had endorsed. “You know what the Nazis thought about jazz,” Marsalis said. “And here we are, still swinging!”
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“I came to this country with my mom and dad in 1951. They wanted to assimilate. [It was] a double-edged sword to lose the culture,” said Miriam Katz, daughter of Holocaust survivors Sima Katz and her late husband, Nathan. The couple was honored at the May 10 YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Heritage luncheon, held at the Center for Jewish History. The Katzes are founding members of both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Their daughter, Rita Levy, quoted her father: “Giving to charity has been a hallmark of my life.” Also honored were Paula Hanover and her late husband, Henry, Holocaust survivors whose 59-year marriage was a team effort to support the State of Israel. There they founded a total of five day care centers. “Parents are always proud of their children’s accomplishments,” said their daughter, Mimi Ford. “Today I am thrilled to reciprocate.”
Keynote speaker Fanya Gottesfeld Heller — a survivor, author, philanthropist and YIVO board member — declared: “I stand before you with humility. I came from ashes and destruction. In my old age, I became a teacher. It’s not enough to teach young people how we perished, but how we lived. In the worst moments, we had universities, schools, orchestras, published books — that’s what we have to teach the young people. We survivors are in our 70s and 80s. We worry about what is going to happen to preserving memory. YIVO is our Yiddishkeit neshome — our consciousness.”
Mira Jedwabnik Van Doren presented the Vilna Award to her childhood friend, Holocaust survivor William Begell. (Van Doren is the producer-director of “The World Was Ours,” a documentary about the Jewish community of prewar Vilna. The documentary had its world premiere April 30 at the National Center for Jewish Film’s Festival 2006 at Brandeis University.) “It took a lot of chutzpah to survive,” said Begell, now president of an eponymous New York publishing house. He said that, as a chemical engineer, “I did research on nuclear submarines under Jewish admiral [Hyman] Rickover.” Begell revealed: “I am not a full-blooded Litvak; I am half Galitzianer. What I really am is a child of the Vilner Ghetto. [I passed] because my Polish was accent free. I did not speak Yiddish.” Begell is one of 300 Holocaust survivors who owes his life to Karl Plagge, a German major known as “the Nazi who saved Jews.” Begell told the audience that, during a death action in the ghetto, “my father recalled that [Josef] Pilsudski [Poland’s premier from 1926 to 1928, born near Vilna, who was then in and out of office until his death in 1935] had sent a message to my grandfather that he would be promoted to the rank of general if he converted to Catholicism. He refused. In the terrible winter of 1943, my father and I agreed that my grandfather did the right thing.”
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“There are no good jokes about the Middle East,” said CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, host of the May 22 Seeds of Peace gala at The Pierre Hotel. “Seeds alums are now in their mid-20s and into careers,” organization president Janet Wallach said. “More than a dozen are journalists — Al Jazeera, Israeli TV. A Seed is a star of an Israeli reality show, ‘The Ambassador.’” On the program’s roster of Seeds alums was Malvina Goldfeld, an émigré to Israel from Moldova in the former Soviet Union. Fluent in Russian, Hebrew, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Japanese and somewhat in French, she served as a sergeant of communications in the Israeli air force. Active in Seeds since 1995, she is now a senior at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; her doctoral thesis was on “the impact of the Israel-Palestinian conflict’s on the Jewish and Arab communities of Argentina.” Palestinian Seed Ghadeer Tarazi (1997-98) is now a staff assistant for Senator Debbie Stabenow in Washington, D.C. Like others at the dinner, I assumed that the announced conversation with Suzanne Mubarak would be in person. Instead, Egypt’s first lady offered greetings and support via a video presentation.