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 even 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 museum opened its doors in 1993.
Although there are currently scores of Holocaust museums and memorials throughout America, the museum in suburban Detroit, when it debuted, was nothing short of historic. It stood as the first freestanding museum in the country devoted to the subject.
This extraordinary project was the dream of Rabbi Charles H. Rosenzveig, a Polish Holocaust survivor, in tandem with a local congregation of fellow survivors possessing 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 powering 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 that made a life-and-death difference to so many.
Rabbi Rosenzveig invited me several times to lecture at the museum on American corporate involvement with the Third Reich and the ethnic factors that facilitated the destruction of six million Jews. 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.
That the museum allowed me to speak freely on the latter was a courageous act in a city where those two automobile companies were headquartered and maintained powerful influences in the community.
The museum became known for more than just lectures; its extraordinary exhibits delved into the heartless economics that fueled Hitler’s Germany. Rabbi Rosenzveig 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, and told me he was not even sure how old he was. My parents were from Poland. We lost nearly all our relatives, and 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 and the unspoken certitude that passes noiselessly between 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 – the rabbi devoted to his work in Detroit and me speaking around the world on my works and my research.
When the new, larger, 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 titled “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, years before the Iran nuclear threat leapt onto front pages everywhere, Rabbi Rosenzveig invited me to speak at the museum’s annual gala. That night, I used the term “Second Holocaust” and warned 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 it was ever more appropriate given Detroit’s unique status as the one U.S. 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, and GM leaping to its role as “the arsenal of Nazism” with its manufacture of Blitz trucks, JU-88 airplane engines, Panzer tank motor parts, torpedo heads, and land mine components.
The 2006 gala evening competed with a major sporting event, and my comments were cut short due to the abundance of speakers and the truncated schedule. But the rabbi whispered in my ear that the museum wished to have me back to deliver the fuller message about Iran and a potential Second Holocaust.
Two years later, in July 2008, presidential candidate John McCain echoed the same fear I expressed that night. Referring to Iran’s nuclear program, McCain declared, “The United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust.”
Rabbi Rosenzveig died later that year. 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 and helped many scholars. For example, he worked with renowned Paper Walls author David Wyman on a special volume, The World Reacts to the Holocaust, a massive tome published in 1996 by Johns Hopkins Press. Rabbi Rosenzveig was listed as co-author, and Wyman paid tribute to him in the foreword as the man who “originated the concept of the book.” Wyman also saluted the Detroit center for being the first freestanding Holocaust museum in America.
After Rabbi Rosenzveig departed, he was succeeded by the Holocaust scholar Guy Stern, who had also worked on the Wyman book. He is still with the museum and now heads up its Harry and Wanda Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous.
Stern is hardly the only longtime devoted staffer at the museum. The center maintains a valuable library archive under the baton of Feiga Weiss.
In 2012 I returned to Detroit for a museum co-sponsored two-event visit. I updated my 2006 warning about the Iranian nuclear program in a presentation at a 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. 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 Jewish leaders in a live-streamed global event at the United Nations, we proclaimed International Farhud Day. This year, on the 75th anniversary of the pogrom, special commemorations were held in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.; in New York in a Manhattan synagogue; in a London synagogue attended by diplomats and dignitaries; and in the Knesset in Jerusalem.
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 now are devoted to both the Holocaust and genocide in general, or simply to global genocide.
Don’t get me wrong; as one who plumbs the dark recesses of the genocide of many groups throughout history, I know that all those 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; otherwise, “Never Again” is just a slogan rather than a fateful warning to the world.
But we in the Holocaust community do this best when we conserve Holocaust remembrance and the uniqueness of the Holocaust as an unparalleled and unique twelve-year onslaught perpetrated worldwide in broad daylight with headlines blaring.
Recently it emerged 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 when he created the museum.)
Guyer confirmed to me that the museum and its board are undergoing a period of what she called “new strategic thinking and transition.” She refused to elaborate. 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 several e-mail and voice requests for further information.
The museum’s official media spokesman, Glenn Oswald, one of the most affable and responsive publicists in the field, who promoted my earlier events at the museum, was contacted. He too declined all comment and failed to respond to several voice mails and e-mails attempting to gather ordinary background information about the museum. So no one knows just what changes or transitions are in store.
Despite the wall of silence, it has been 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.
Holocaust remembrance and Holocaust museums, built with community money, belong to the survivors and their succeeding generations. The boards of directors of such museums are mere trustees of the legacy. They don’t own it. They don’t even rent it. They are custodians.
Guyer should therefore check with the community before any “strategic thinking and transition” is announced or implemented, and shine the light of openness upon what is in store. 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.