The Man Who Saved The N.Y. Holocaust Museum
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The Man Who Saved The N.Y. Holocaust Museum

Remembering iconic DA Robert Morgenthau, who ‘was dedicated to the lessons’ of the Shoah.

Robert Morgenthau, in 2003, in the Garden of Stones at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Museum of Jewish Heritage
Robert Morgenthau, in 2003, in the Garden of Stones at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Museum of Jewish Heritage

Even into the late 1980s, arguably the greatest Jewish city in the world had no Holocaust museum.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, had been open for more than 30 years. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam opened in 1960. Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, had yet to really catch on here. And it would not be until 1993 that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors in the nation’s capital.

But in the late ’80s in New York City, home to tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors, there was almost no public presence of the defining event in modern Jewish history, save for a small Holocaust memorial park in remote Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Enter Robert Morgenthau.

With fundraising for a planned Holocaust memorial in New York City stalled, Mayor Ed Koch called on Manhattan’s district attorney to help out. Mr. Morgenthau was co-chair of the city’s Holocaust Memorial Commission, which had made the recommendation for a museum to Koch.

Over one weekend Mr. Morgenthau “made cold calls to millionaires — some he knew, like Steve Ross of Time Warner, and some he didn’t, like Steven Spielberg,” according to the 2014 memoir “Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me” by Mr. Morgenthau’s wife, Lucinda Franks. “By Monday, Bob had raised several million dollars, and plans for the museum suddenly took life.”

In 2002, Morgenthau signs his name to a construction beam used to build the Robert M. Morgenthau Wing of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Museum of Jewish Heritage

Mr. Morgenthau, who died in Lenox Hill Hospital on July 21, 10 days short of his 100th birthday, was remembered this week as a public figure and a visible representative of the Jewish community. He was lauded as a long-serving district attorney, a World War II Navy veteran who gained his nascent legal skills while serving on destroyers and as the inspiration for Adam Schiff on NBC’s “Law and Order.” He was a patrician who advocated for the poor; a white man who advocated for African-Americans and other minority groups; a philanthropist and scion of a prominent Jewish family with long roots in public service; a cancer survivor who indulged himself in the occasional cigar; a devoted supporter of Israel; an unsuccessful candidate for New York State governor; a gentleman farmer in upstate Fishkill; and, briefly, a deputy mayor in the John Lindsay administration.

And, he was the driving force behind the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, which opened in 1997 in Battery Park City and configured as a six-sided structure rich in symbolism: Positioned at the tip of Manhattan, with a view of the Statue of Liberty, it was an architectural rendering meant to evoke both the Star of David and the Six Million who perished in the Shoah.

“He was the singular driving figure that made the museum a reality,” said Ronald Sobel, senior rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El, who was to officiate at Mr. Morgenthau’s funeral on Thursday.

“The museum was a serious priority for him and was in his heart and soul,” said George Klein, a vice chair of the museum. “He was dedicated to the lessons of the Holocaust and he was a proud American Jew who continuously spoke about the victims and the role that the American Jewish soldiers played during the Second World War. It was Morgenthau’s seniority and stature that gained the respect and support of the Jewish community and other New Yorkers.”

Steven Goldstein, who worked for Mr. Morgenthau as an assistant DA for more than two decades, tells the story of his first meeting with “The Boss.”

“I waited outside his office for a while and just as I was about to go in, some guy comes flying past me and enters his office cutting me off,” Goldstein said. “My wait begins again, and I waited there for some time. When I finally got in to see The Boss, he apologizes first and then proceeds to tell me who the guy who cut me off was.

“‘That man captured Adolph Eichmann,’ he tells me, and he proceeds to relate to me fascinating stories about his good friend and former Mossad agent, Peter Malkin,” Goldstein said. “At the time I was weighing offers from the DA’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s office, and that meeting with Mr. Morgenthau closed the deal. When I tell people the story about how I chose to go with Morgenthau, I always say, ‘He had me at Eichmann.’”

David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, called Mr. Morgenthau “a proud American, a proud New Yorker and a proud Jew” whose legacy includes “imposing sanctions on those doing business with Iran when others looked the other way, restoring Holocaust art to the families of victims, protecting Torah scrolls and so much more.

“Few have served so honorably and effectively over so long, and his legacy will be felt for many years to come,” Pollock said. “He served with unwavering integrity, a deep sense of fairness, and a commitment to equal justice that voters rewarded again and again.”

Mr. Morgenthau estimated that he supervised 3.5 million prosecutions during his tenure as DA, including murderers and embezzlers, rap artists and athletes, mafia bosses and drug dealers. (He eventually admitted to making a mistake in prosecuting the 1989 “Central Park Five” murder case; Morgenthau ordered a new DNA test in 2002 after another man confessed to the crime and had the wrongful convictions of the black teenagers vacated.)

Elected DA in 1974, he retired in 2009 at age 90. Known to the general public as “Morgy” and as “The Boss” to everyone who worked with him, he continued to work as a lawyer until recently at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, advising pro bono on immigrant-deportation cases and helping to establish the Immigrant Justice Corps, a legal fellowship program.

His dedication to Jewish issues was, people who knew him said, inspired by the records of his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey during World War I and alerted the U.S. government to the Armenian Genocide; of his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., who as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary lobbied to save Europe’s endangered Jews; and the memory of a distant, elderly cousin who died in Treblinka.

At a 2007 naturalization ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage for 141 new U.S. citizens, Mr. Morgenthau introduced himself as “the grandson of an immigrant.” (Henry Morgenthau Sr. was 10 when his family came here from Baden, in present-day Germany, in 1866.)

“Always remember where you came from,” Mr. Morgenthau advised the newcomers. “Remember that all of us have an obligation to help immigrants.”

“By the time I went to college in the fall of 1937, everything going on in Nazi Germany became the focus of my attention,” he said years later in a profile posted on Jewish Virtual Library. “I thought a lot about what Hitler was doing to the Jews and the minorities [in Germany] … I wanted to get involved and fight against Hitler.”

He enrolled in a Navy training program, eventually becoming a destroyer’s Executive Officer and its court martial office. “It was there where I learned about plea bargaining. I didn’t know how to try a case, just to plea bargain.”

Rabbi Sobel, a friend of Mr. Morgenthau for almost six decades, called him “a quintessential gentleman, always polite, always correct. He had strong opinions, but he was not doctrinaire. There was never a scintilla of arrogance about that man.”

A member of Temple Emanu-El, Mr. Morgenthau continued to sit in his grandmother’s pew.

During a 1990 trip to Germany with a son and grandson, a cab driver in Mannheim, where Mr. Morgenthau’s grandfather was born, asked, on the way to the airport, “I guess you’ll be flying El Al,” he said in an interview in Hadassah Magazine. “You’d better know who you are,” he told his family members, “because they know who you are.”

A Garden of Stones and a wing of the Museum of Jewish Heritage bear the name of Mr. Morgenthau, who last year donated to the Leo Baeck Institute an 1842 diary written by his great-grandfather.

He would tell people his commitment to preserving the memory of the Shoah stemmed from his interest in Israel, and in the education of young people.

“I just felt that if you wanted people to understand Israel, they had to understand the Holocaust,” he said in the Virtual Jewish Library profile. “This museum is important for young people to understand what happens when criminals take over the government.”

Mr. Morgenthau invited Cardinal John O’Connor, Catholic archbishop of New York, to speak at the Museum’s 1997 dedication.

The Cardinal’s appearance was “controversial,” Lucinda Franks wrote in “Timeless,” but he surprised the mostly Jewish crowd by apologizing “for all Christians who helped in any way to make the horrors of the Shoah possible.”

It was a historic request for forgiveness by a high-ranking member of the Vatican hierarchy.

Mr. Morgenthau’s decision to invite the Cardinal to the ceremony was vindicated.

“We don’t want to be talking to ourselves,” he told scoffers, according to Frank’s book. “It’s important to have a broad range of people of all religions visiting the museum.”

Bruce Ratner, who has served as the museum’s board chairman for five years, said Mr. Morgenthau stayed active in the institution’s affairs, attending board meetings, since after he stepped down from the same position. “Up until the end he was the museum’s primary fundraiser.”

Ratner said he stopped by the museum about eight years ago, and found Mr. Morgenthau, by then in his 90s, unexpectedly at work in a conference room overlooking the Statue of Liberty, making a fundraising call.

“‘Hello, this is Bob Morgenthau,’ he said, introducing himself to a well-heeled stranger.

“This” — and the Police Athletic League, another favorite cause — “were crucial for him,” Ratner said. “He really was the museum.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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