Miles Lerman z’l 1920-2008

Miles Lerman died on January 22nd after a long illness. Lerman was born in Tomaszov Lubelski, son of Israel and Jochevet His prosperous family owned flour mills and other businesses throughout eastern Poland. He and his four siblings were raised in an observant home; his father was a supporter of the Belzer Hasidim. In his youth, Lerman joined Ha-Shomer ha-tz’air, and following his father’s untimely death in 1938 helped run his family’s business. Following the German invasion of Poland the Lermans fled to Lvov, where he was arrested and forced to work at the Viniki labor camp in December 1941, from which he later escaped. For 23 months in the forests surrounding Lvov, Lerman was a leader in organized armed resistance against the Nazis.

Following the war, Lerman settled in Lublin and established a leather business with fellow survivor Leon Feldhandler, a leader of the heroic revolt at Sobibor. After Feldhandler’s murder, Lerman settled in Lodz and met his future wife, Krysia Rozalia (Chris) Laks. They married in the Schlachtensee displaced persons camp and immigrated to the United States in February 1947. Lerman purchased a poultry farm in Vineland, New Jersey, which became the home of so many survivors after the war, and established profitable businesses in the gasoline, heating, and real estate sectors, becoming a prominent member of the Jewish community.

President Jimmy Carter named Lerman to the Advisory Board of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in 1979 and thus began more that a quarter of a century of service to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Lerman had served as Chairman of the International Relations Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and simultaneously as Chairman of the Campaign to Remember that raised the $190 million necessary to build, equip and endow the Museum. Shortly after it opened he was named Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and guided the Museum board through the first seven years of its creation.

Permit me to write of what I believe was his most important contribution to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In a period of time between 1988 and 1990, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum negotiated a series of agreements with the governments of Eastern European countries which brought to the Museum literally thousands of artifacts that helped shape its permanent exhibition. Lerman was not then chairman of the Council, but headed its International Relations Committee and, in that capacity, led the negotiations that brought these artifacts to the Museum. As project director, I traveled with you many times to Eastern Europe and met with the Heads of State, diplomats, museum directors and curators — every echelon of leadership necessary to come to an agreement.

We worked together at a moment unparalleled in history. Everyone knew that Communist regimes were about to collapse; aged leaders were desperate for an American connection and in walked an American delegation anxious to showcase their holdings adjacent to the National Mall. Lerman was uniquely skillful. He would negotiate with these leaders, dine with them, socialize with them in the East European fashion – a partisan’s capacity to hold his liquor was a unique asset in Eastern Europe. He would do everything necessary to conclude an agreement. When doors were closed Lerman opened windows. If back channels did not work, he used a sledgehammer. And he flawlessly made the transition to democratic rather than Communist leaders.

Miles Lerman was indefatigable on these trips – as throughout life. The day would begin at six and end at one in the morning. Colleagues thirty and forty years his juniors were dropping from exhaustion, as he was raring to go.

In truth, our much-venerated Museum Director Jeshajahu Weinberg was opposed to artifacts within the Museum’s permanent exhibition. A product of the theater, he had pioneered in the Museum of the Diaspora a Museum exhibition without artifacts, a storytelling Museum where the story was the center and not the artifact. He faced internal opposition from his design team and some opposition within the Museum’s lay leadership. But once the artifacts were received – the railroad car of the type used to transport Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka, the concentration camp barracks from Birkenau, the shoes from Majdanek, canisters which had stored Zyklon B, suitcases, combs, shaving kits, and toothbrushes from Auschwitz, the debate ended. The magnitude of the artifacts, their quantity and quality mandated their use in the Museum. Shaike Weinberg understood that. An unorthodox thinker, he had the wisdom to overcome even the orthodoxy of his own thinking.

So as visitors go through the middle floor of the permanent exhibition and walk on cobblestones from Warsaw, see sewing machines from Lodz, the Tarnow cemetery gate, the Milk Can, which hid the Ringelblum Archives, even before they enter the box car and the barracks, they can thank Miles Lerman for leading the effort to obtain these artifacts and maintaining the ongoing relations with these countries that have permitted the renewal of agreements to keep them at the Museum.

Though he would never have patience to sit in an Archive and read its original documents, he also forged the archival agreements that have made the Archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum the holder of copies of important archival collections from throughout Europe. You opened the archival holdings of many eastern European countries to the scrutiny of Western scholars, wisely using the words United States in the title of the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Miles Lerman was single minded in your determination to build the Museum. He opposed Elie Wiesel’s idea to have the United States Holocaust Memorial Council resign to protest President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, a decision that was personally difficult because one did not oppose Elie Wiesel’s moral authority easily, especially during the Bitburg controversy, which he led so skillfully.

History has vindicated the wisdom of that decision. The President has passed from the scene, Helmut Kohl has left office, and new generations of Germans are asking questions that their parents were too polite to ask of their grandparents. They read books by Daniel Goldhagen and attend exhibitions linking the Wehrmacht [The German Army] to the killing processes. More than 25 million people have visited the Museum whose future would have been jeopardized by resignation.

Together with the Benjamin Meed of blessed memory, and the late Hadassah Rosensaft, he remained on the Council and increased his activity after the resignation of Elie Wiesel in 1986. Together with Ben and Hadassah , he led the efforts to protect the integrity of Jewish memory within the Museum against powerful forces that wanted both to dejudaize and to universalize the memory, fearing that the Holocaust Museum would be known as a Jewish Museum and therefore be of only parochial interest to its visitors. He was able to marshal support for the development team led so ably by Wiesel’s successor Harvey M. Meyerhoff and Albert Abramson and to insure that Wiesel’s values were preserved even after his departure. He fought to retain the academic component of the Museum, its library and archives, and its scholarly center when funds were scarce and budget cutters thought that it could be eliminated.

Building the Museum became the essential content of his life, a passion shared by Chris, who was heroic in her willingness to share you with the Museum and have the Museum play so central a role in his personal and not only his professional life. His children David and Shelly understood his passion; so did Jeanette and Joe as well as his grandchildren. Lerman was so single minded about building the Museum that he gracefully accepted your demotion when you was asked to step aside as chairman of the Campaign to Remember as a new chairman was named shortly after Harvey Meyerhoff came to office. Equally gracefully, he accepted reinstatement without recriminations a while later.

Lerman began his involvement with the Museum when you were 59 and continued with undiminished energy and commitment to grow for two decades while many of your peers retired and just stopped growing. Despite illness and four score years, his energy and drive had been unstoppable. I was privileged to work with you day and night for most of this time. It is a memory that I will cherish to the end of my days.

After resigning as chairman in 2000 Lerman performed one more great act of duty to Holocaust Memory. He singlehandedly led the efforts to build an appropriate memorial at the death camp pf Belzec where 500,000 Jews were murdered in 1942. The devastation was so total that there are only two known survivors, only one who bore witness. When we first visited the camp in 1979, he was startled to discover that the place where his mother and sister and her family had been murdered was within sight of their family home. It was a garbage dump with a Soviet era monument and no mention of Jews. He took on the responsibility of raising the funds for the Memorial and when the Holocaust Memorial Museum could no longer sponsor the project after some controversy, Lerman brought it and his own determination to the American Jewish Committee which completed the project. The result is a memorial of great power and a museum that tells the story of what happened at Belzec. The result is also that more visitors come as pilgrims each month than came in years; more visit each and every year than visited in the first half century after the Shoah. None of this would have happened without the leadership of Miles Lerman.

Lerman gave the Museum all that he had, all that he was — and in the process he became more – and the Museum became so much more!

Michael Berenbaum