Monitoring Changes at Detroit’s Holocaust Memorial Center
Of the many local and regional Holocaust memorials and museums scattered across America, one stands out among the best: The Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit. For me, the legacy and future of the institution is personal.
Correctly billed as America’s “first Holocaust museum,” the Detroit enterprise was conceived fourteen years before the dominant United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. was commissioned by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. The Detroit museum opened its original doors, at its first location in suburban West Bloomfield, Michigan, in 1984. The Washington D.C. museum opened its doors in 1993.
Although there are currently scores of Holocaust museums and memorials throughout America, when it debuted, the museum in suburban Detroit was nothing short of historic. It was the first free-standing museum in the country devoted to the topic.
This extraordinary museum was the dream of Rabbi Charles H. Rosenzveig, a Polish Holocaust survivor, in tandem with a local congregation of fellow survivors possessing a visionary and fiery determination to not only document the heartless brutality of the twelve-year Reich war against the Jews, but to understand the underlying socio-economic and political causes that led to the Nazi genocides. Hence, Rabbi Rosenzveig and I always enjoyed a special rapport. We shared the same fire and felt the same burn. In my case, it propelled me to write books on these topics, documenting corporate collusion and ethnic collaboration, which made a life and death difference to so many.
Rabbi Rosenzveig invited me several times to lecture at the Museum regarding American corporate involvement with the Third Reich. This included documenting how IBM co-planned and co-organized the Holocaust with its punch card processes, as well as the involvement of General Motors and Henry Ford; inviting me was a courageous act in a city where those two automobile companies were headquartered and maintained powerful influences in the community.
More than just lectures, the Museum became known for its extraordinary exhibits that delved into the heartless economics that fueled Hitler’s Germany. The rabbi and I shared an uncanny realization of what was at stake. More than just stimulating memory and sorrow, the challenge was to prod deeper thought about the consequences of corporate connectivity with death machines.
We also shared a common heritage. Rabbi Rosenzveig was from Poland, lost nearly all his family in the Holocaust, and told me he was not even sure how old he was. My parents were from Poland. We lost nearly all our relatives, and the two brave teenagers that became my parents were likewise unsure of how old they were. When Rabbi Rosenzveig and I sat together in the Museum, the conversation was often just silence — the silence of two people who understand the agony of a common mission. No need for convincing, but plenty of commiserating. Our job was to inform about the worst and inspire the best for those confronting the Holocaust.
When the new, larger, and dramatically more architectonic museum opened in nearby Farmington Hills, it set the standard for such edifices. Many said the structure resembled a death camp, and drivers passing by complained that its very appearance made them uncomfortable. In 2003, the Wall Street Journal published an article, “Should a Museum Look as Disturbing as What It Portrays?” The article asserted that the center “may be the most provocative Holocaust memorial of them all,” with its stark exterior suggesting electrified wire and the bleak walls at Auschwitz. Rabbi Rosenzveig was actually fond of the impact his structure made. He did not believe in making an uncomfortable topic more palatable.
We both shared a fear that the Holocaust could happen again. In 2006, a decade ago, years before the Iran nuclear threat leapt onto the front page everywhere, Rabbi Rosenzveig invited me to speak at the museum’s annual gala. That night, I used the term — “A Second Holocaust” — and warned that it could be enabled by petrodollars fueling the Iranian nuclear program. The idea was to enunciate this warning in Detroit, where gas guzzling vehicles were still being manufactured. I felt that it was ever more appropriate given Detroit’s unique status as the one city most pivotal to buttressing Nazism — thanks to Henry Ford’s gift to Hitler of an “international Jewish conspiracy” that rationalized his quest to expunge Jewish existence across Europe. This was compounded by GM leaping to its role as “the arsenal of Nazism” with its manufacture of the Blitz trucks, JU-88 airplane engines, Panzer tank motor parts, torpedo heads, and land mine components.
The 2006 gala competed with a major sporting event that evening, so my comments were cut short due to abundant speakers and the truncated schedule. But, the rabbi whispered in my ear, the museum wished to have me back to deliver the fuller message about Iran and a potential Second Holocaust.
Two years later, presidential candidate John McCain echoed the same fear I expressed that night. In July 2008, running against Barack Obama and focused on Obama’s position on the Iranian nuclear program, Republican contender John McCain declared, “The United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust.”
Rabbi Rosenzveig died later that year, in December 2008. A Congressional resolution lauded him as one who “endured and bore witness to the horrific atrocities of the Holocaust.”
During his tenure, he elevated the Detroit museum to one of international stature. He helped many scholars. For example, he worked with renown Paper Walls author, David Wyman, on a special volume, The World Reacts to the Holocaust, a massive tome published in 1996 by John Hopkins Press. Rabbi Rosenzveig was listed as co-author, and Wyman paid tribute to the rabbi in the foreword as the man who “originated the concept of the book.”
In the book, Wyman saluted the Detroit center for being the first free-standing Holocaust museum in America. The book and Rabbi Rosenzveig’s contributions were hailed, with one reviewer writing that the book was an “innovative study,” adding, “It is beautifully researched, well written, and beautifully (even elegantly) published. We owe a debt of gratitude to its editor and contributors for raising a question no one had previously asked.”
Rabbi Rosenzveig was succeeded by the Holocaust scholar Guy Stern. Stern served as interim director. He had also worked on the Wyman book. Stern, who escaped Nazi Germany, was globally known for his expertise on the Holocaust and had received the Grand Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his academic accomplishments. Stern is still with the Museum, and now heads up the Center’s Harry and Wanda Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous.
Stern is hardly the only long-time devoted staffer at the Museum. The center maintains a valuable Library Archive under the baton of Feiga Weiss. Rabbi Rosenzveig did a number of the pivotal video interviews.
In 2012, I returned to Detroit for a Museum co-sponsored two-event visit. That year, I completed and updated the 2006 warning about the Iranian nuclear program in a presentation at the nearby synagogue. In the Museum auditorium, we helped set the stage for a global recognition of The Farhud, the 1941 Arab-Nazi pogrom in Baghdad that attempted to exterminate the Jews of Baghdad. This was referred to by some as the long-overlooked Sephardic Kristallnacht. While the idea was bold and new when explored within the walls of the Museum in 2012, it eventually caught traction worldwide. Last year, together with other Jewish leaders in a live-streamed global event in the United Nations, we proclaimed International Farhud Day. Earlier this year, on June 1, the 75th anniversary of the pogrom, special commemorations were held in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., in a Manhattan synagogue, in a London synagogue, and also in the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem. While this observance is now globally known, the Detroit Museum boldly confronted the topic four years earlier.
With its special place in American Holocaust commemoration and documentation, the Detroit center must be preserved as it was intended to be and as it has been from its first day — a torch of Holocaust enlightenment that flickers the reminder, “Never Again.”
Too many Holocaust memorials have lost their original identity and transitioned to institutions that devote themselves to both Holocaust and genocide, or simply to global genocide. As one who plumbs the dark recesses of the genocide of many groups throughout history, from Herero Africans to Romanian Gypsies to the Ottoman Armenians, I know that all of these shameful chapters must be thoroughly illuminated to reduce the chance of their repetition.
Holocaust research and memorial centers need to bring those chapters within their walls to document the similitude of blood and suffering at the hands of madmen. Otherwise “Never Again” is just a slogan and not a fateful warning to the world.
Recently, we’ve learned that Detroit’s Holocaust Memorial Center is contemplating changes. The institution is now being directed by Cheryl Guyer, who holds the unusual title of both “interim director” and “director of development.” This means her two hats cover both the soul of the museum and fund-raising — two spheres that aren’t always in sync. Rabbi Rosenzveig went against conventional economic wisdom to create the Museum. I think this tradition should be honored.
When contacted by this writer, Guyer confirmed that the museum and its board are now undergoing a period of what she called “new strategic thinking and transition.” She refused to elaborate. When asked again, she steadfastly refused to comment, saying, “We are not ready to talk about it.” In the ensuing days, Guyer declined to respond to more than eight emails and voice requests for further information for this story.
The Museum’s official media spokesman, Glenn Oswald, one of the most affable and responsive publicists in the field, also refused to speak with me.
Despite the wall of silence, I’ve learned that a new director is being considered to assume the Museum’s top leadership slot next year as part of the transition. According to Museum sources, a local rabbi with a distinguished record is under consideration. That process is now in full swing. Until a decision is made, the Museum continues to remain mum about its plans. No one knows what the “transition” is — or what prompts the continued reticence to speak about it.
Holocaust museums belong to the survivors and their succeeding generations. After all, it was their suffering, indelible stories, and unforgettable nightmares that excavated the depths beneath the concrete foundations, the walls, and the exhibits. The boards of directors of such museums everywhere are mere trustees of the legacy. They don’t own it. They don’t even rent it. They are custodians.
Therefore, Guyer should check with the community before any “strategic thinking or transition” is announced or implemented. Survivors and their descendants hold the trademark on Holocaust memory. For many, the mark is tattooed on their forearms; for many others, it is permanently written in their hearts.
Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, Nazi Nexus, War Against the Weak, and The Farhud. In February 2016, he was awarded the Moral Compass Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Naples Holocaust Museum. He can be found at www.edwinblack.com.