The Man Who Kept Remembrance Alive
The legacy of Miles Lerman, partisan fighter and driving force behind the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Miles Lerman: A Holocaust survivor, he made a bond with younger, American-born Jews and non-Jews. Getty Images

by Irving “Yitz” Greenberg
Special To The Jewish Week

The loss of Miles Lerman is more than another devastating experience of the passing of the survivor generation.

Miles is almost the last of the unique band of survivors who played a central role in the extraordinary rise of Holocaust remembrance in the United States. Until the 1960s, there was widespread unwillingness to hear about the Holocaust. Now 80 percent of American Jews say that remembering the Holocaust is the hallmark of a good Jew. In national polls, a substantial majority of Americans say that knowledge of the Shoah is essential for all Americans. The Shoah has become the incontestable touchstone of evil and of moral norms in a relativistic world.

This is in no small measure the legacy of Miles Lerman and the survivors

who built the institutions of Holocaust memory in the United States.

Miles, who died this week at 88 in Philadelphia, was a survivor and his wife, Chris, lived through Auschwitz. He fought in the partisans in those years when they were hunted by the Germans, abandoned by the Poles, by the Allies, by everyone. (I will never forget Miles’ understated voice speaking in an early documentary film, describing going to battle without having a gun for each fighter. More often, each had only a rationed handful of bullets — eight to 10. Knowing the pitiless tortured death that awaited them if they fell into Nazi hands, he added without bravado, “You always saved the last bullet for yourself.”)

Yet Miles was never embittered or angry. He was unfailingly kind and sweet in every contact I had with him. He never let the egos or the personal agendas throw him or distract him from the task. He set a goal; he unstintingly worked on the details and followed up to the end.