Michael Berenbaum recalls coming of age in a world shaking off the darkness of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II. America was on the move and its citizens were enjoying a robust economy and the belief that just about anything was possible.
But Berenbaum also remembers his childhood neighborhood in New York being filled with Holocaust survivors. The synagogue he belonged to included large numbers of German refugees, many of them his teachers.
“I never heard the word Holocaust mentioned,” he says. “But I did hear a lot about death and destruction and concentration camps.” What his teachers and neighbors didn’t have the words to express, he adds, “they communicated to me in silence.”
Their silent testimony has become Berenbaum’s life’s work. Today he’s a well-known and respected rabbi, professor, filmmaker and writer. He’s also one of the nation’s leading scholars on the Holocaust.
Berenbaum, currently Professor of Jewish Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, will be in Atlanta later this month as the Scholar-in-Residence at Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb. He’ll be speaking at several events, including Shabbat services, focusing his remarks on the relevance of the Holocaust in the 21st Century and the changing nature of anti-Semitism.
“The tragedy of the world today is that the Holocaust is still relevant,” Berenbaum says. “I wish that humanity had learned the lessons from those days and we could relegate it all to the past.”
Berenbaum has paid special attention to the dark teachings of the Nazis for decades, opening up the nightmarish acts of the Holocaust in an effort to understand the madness. His work has landed him in a number of high-profile positions.
In the 1970s, Berenbaum served as chairman of President Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust. A decade later he helped plan and create the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, served as its project director for a time, then led the museum’s academic and research institute until 1997.
The following year he became president of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the organization that has conducted more than 50,000 interviews of Holocaust survivors and liberators. A few years later, in 2000, he took all that he had learned about museums and the Holocaust and formed his own consulting company, the Berenbaum Group.
For the next decade he was involved in the planning and creation of museums devoted to the Holocaust and the history of persecution and genocide around the world. He’s also written more than 20 books on the Holocaust and related topics, was the Executive Editor of the New Encyclopedia Judaica, and co-produced the Oscar-winning documentary, “One Survivor Remembers: The Gerda Weissman Klein Story”.
Berenbaum’s life continues moving at warp speed these days. He stays busy consulting on new museum projects, teaching and speaking, but occasionally finds a few moments to reflect on the lessons – what he calls the “silent words” – he learned as a youngster.
“I was taught that my generation was to make up for the ‘glorious generation’ that was destroyed,” he says. “What I experienced in silence, I now put into words.”
BY RON FEINBERG / Web Editor
Dr. Michael Berenbaum will be the Scholar-in-Residence at Congregation Etz Chaim the weekend of Nov. 30. He will present four lectures dealing with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. For a full schedule of events, visit www.etzchaim.net/lilmodereg or call 770-973-0137.