Having known Polish World War II hero Jan Karski, I watched a gaunt Oscar-nominated David Strathairn amazingly bring to life this Catholic Holocaust messenger to the free world in the Jan Karski Theater Project’s “My Report to the World” by Clark Young and Derek Goldman showcased at The Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
In credible Polish-accented English, Strathairn — accompanied by a Greek chorus ensemble of young actors/dancers — muses: “Governments have no souls, they have only their interests in mind. Individuals have souls. The question remains— who are you? What is your duty as an individual—what does it mean to look? Human beings have an infinite capacity to ignore those things that are not convenient…. When I think by myself I have nightmares. I don’t go back in memory.”
Karski, a member of the Polish Underground who survived the Soviets’ Katyn Massacre of Polish officers, was beaten and tortured by the Nazis before escaping. After being smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 (by 2 Jews, one a Bundist the other a Zionist) he was sent to London, then the U.S. where he met with President Roosevelt and others in the hope that the world would listen.
His greatest frustration was not being believed. Recreating — verbatim — Karski’s encounter with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Strathairn (as Karski) is at his wits’ end as he transmits Frankfurter’s [documented] response: “I am not saying you are lying. I’m saying, I do not believe you.” Giving life to Karski’s endless agony, Strathairn relates the attempt of Shmuel Zygelboym — my parents’ friend whose son was my schoolmate in Warsaw — to alert the world of what was happening to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. In despair, when no one would listen, Zygelboym discharged a pistol in his mouth leaving a suicide note, which I remember reading in 1943 Montreal in the The Forverts: “The responsibility for the crime of murdering the whole Jewish population of Poland rests in the first place upon the murderers themselves, but indirectly it rests upon all humanity, the governments and peoples of the Allied States which have not yet undertaken any concrete action to stop this crime.”
Debbie Bisno of Bisno Productions, producer of “My Report To the World” introduced the post-performance dialogue between writer/director Derek Goldman, journalist Andrew Nagorski and Strathairn who revealed: ““I first learned of Karski the year he died  through a Polish friend.”
“I grew up on stories of the Polish Underground,” said Nagorski. “My grandfather was in the Polish government in exile… When we at Newsweek were planning an issue on ‘The Voices of the [20th] Century’, the first person I thought of was Karski.” Visiting him in Chevy Chase, Nagorski recalled: “He said ‘I just did what I was supposed to do. We know that most people did not do what they were supposed to do in those kind of situations.’” Goldman said, “I’m a professor at Georgetown. I didn’t get to meet Karski personally, but many of my colleagues knew him and we started to dig into his history.”
The first of my several meetings with Karski was on September 8, 1997 at a YIVO sponsored lecture: “Opening Pandora’s Box: Poles and Jews 50 Years After the Holocaust.” In memory of his wife — a Holocaust survivor and dancer — Karski established in 1992 the Pola Nirenska Prize at YIVO. We last met at the April 3, 2000 United Nations tribute to rescuers at which Karski grasped my hands in his and in both Polish and English wished me well. He died on July 13, 2000.
In 2012, he was posthumously awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barak Obama.
Bruce Ratner, executive chairman of Forest City Ratner Companies, was elected chairman-elect of the board of trustees of the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, according to a June 12 press release. Ratner is the principle developer of The Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, which includes the new Barclays Center arena.
The position of chairman-elect is a new one for the museum, and is intended to ease the process of succession within the board. The current chairman, Robert M. Mogenthau, has served in the position since 1982 and will assume the post of chairman emeritus following a transition period.
“I’m… thrilled that the Board has elected Bruce Ratner as the Chairman-elect,” wrote Morgenthau in a statement. “Bruce has long been a friend to me and the Museum.”
Ratner has been a member of the museum’s board of trustees since 1996. He was also co-chair of its building committee and provided pro-bono project management services through his company during the museum’s expansion in the early 2000s. The Robert M. Morgenthau Wing opened in September 2003.
In a statement provided by the museum, Ratner recalled how his own family was affected by the Holocaust.
“After the war, my mother committed herself to resettling survivors, finding homes and apartments,” he said. “She, most of all, would remind us, ‘Never Forget.’ In that spirit, and her memory, I’m humbled and excited to accept the position of Chairman-elect.”
Of all the Jewish institutions in New York, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, found itself in the most vulnerable position as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the city Monday night. It was thought that the museum, located right on the edge of New York Harbor, in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, was sure to be severely damaged by swells roaring over the sea wall.
To everyone’s surprise, MJH came through the storm intact, despite the water’s rising to an unprecedented 13.8 feet. Associate Director Abby Spilka said it was “a miracle” that the building and exhibitions, save for some water damage in the basement, came through unscathed. Spilka attributed this to shear luck relating to the museum’s position on the uneven landfill underneath Battery Park. Whereas nearby areas were completely flooded, it appears that the specific physical placement of the building prevented it from suffering a similar fate.
Having suffered from being merely blocks away from Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, MJH takes emergency preparedness extremely seriously. “Irene was a perfect dress rehearsal for us,” Spilka said referring to the precautions the museum took in August 2011, and which were repeated last Sunday in anticipation of Sandy. Staff dismantled and removed all the artifacts exhibited on the first floor and moved them to a higher floor in the building. While the dismantling took six hours, Spilka expects it will take three days to reinstall the exhibitions.
Most people encounter Emma Lazarus only inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” written in 1883, has become inextricably identified in the public mind with the wave of immigration to the United States from the 1880s until 1924. However, a new free mobile tour produced by the Museum of Jewish Heritage now enables us to get to know Lazarus by visiting sites around Manhattan that were integral to her life, and at the center of intellectual and artistic life during the Gilded Age.
Produced in association with the museum’s new exhibition, “Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles,” which opens October 26 and runs through the fall of 2012, the tour makes 19 stops from Battery Park to the Upper East Side (with 80 percent in and around Union Square and Madison Square Park). The tour app, which is downloadable to iPhones and Android smartphones, is programmed with GPS, so that users can visit sites closest to them geographically and not just follow the tour chronologically.
“Everything is back to normal today” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City at the lower tip of Manhattan, according to Associate Director Abby Spilka.
Spilka was afraid this was not going to be the case when she left the Museum late Friday, after taking precautions against the possible effects of Hurricane Irene. “Currently, we are all feeling the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and there are things that will put us back to that morning. When I was told to evacuate and pack up, not knowing what I would return to, it was harder than I was expected it would be. We were all so relieved that the Museum fared well and we couldn’t wait to get back to work this morning,” Spilka said.
Despite the evacuation orders issued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, four members of the Museum’s security and operations staff hunkered down on site for the duration of the hurricane. Spilka and other senior staff were in touch with them throughout, checking in for regular updates.
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