N.J. businessman being called likely pick for Holocaust panel

April 08, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The White House is likely to name Ne Jersey businessman Miles Lerman, a Holocaust survivor and original member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, to succeed Baltimore developer Harvey M. Meyerhoff as the council's next chairman, several Democrats close to the decision-making process said yesterday.

Mr. Lerman, a Polish immigrant in his early 70s, has been involved in the development of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, scheduled to open here April 26, since 1980, when he was appointed to the Memorial Council by President Carter.

The Vineland, N.J., petroleum and real estate executive has chaired both a national fund-raising campaign for the museum -- which has raised more than $100 million -- and an international relations committee of the council.

His expected appointment comes on the heels of the dismissal last week of Mr. Meyerhoff, a Republican fund-raiser who donated $6 million to the museum and was appointed in 1987 by President Reagan.

The White House told Mr. Meyerhoff, and vice chairman William J. Lowenberg, also a Republican appointed by Mr. Reagan, that they could retain their positions until after the opening of the museum, and after April 30, remain on the council.

The administration also told the current chairman to end the council's search for a new museum director.

Although it was fully expected that President Clinton would replace the council leadership with his own appointees, many inside and outside the process continued to wince at and question the timing of the personnel move -- made only weeks before the museum's opening.

Some involved with the museum and the White House have said Mr. Clinton was pressured to make the move now so his own appointees would be in a position to select the new director, instead of the Republican-heavy council membership.

"It comes down to a strong president moving in and saying he wants his own people," says one Jewish leader close to the museum.

Some also point to ideological differences between Mr. Meyerhoff and Mr. Lerman, one of the many conflicts and controversies that have plagued the council since it was established 13 years ago to oversee the building of a national Holocaust museum.

From the start, the museum, built by private donations but on federal land, has been a sort of crucible, crackling with sparks that result from mixing an emotionally charged subject, such as the Holocaust, with politics.

After resolving some of the earlier conflicts -- whether such a museum should be built in this country at all, whether it should be on the National Mall, whether it should be in an existing building or in a new one and how it should be funded -- council members have been embroiled in questions over the museum's emphasis and direction.

"Just by definition, everything is controversial," said a former council member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This is a unique subject. Even language, the meaning of language, is difficult. Everything is highly charged. If you think you can run a [Holocaust] Council meeting like a Rotary Club meeting, it's impossible. That's been the challenge all along."

One person familiar with the council explained the philosophical split as largely focused on the audience for the museum. "The issue is whether the museum is a memorial for an ethnic group that lost so much -- a Jewish experience for Jews -- or an educational institution with lessons to teach people who know very little about European history.

"Mr. Meyerhoff was looking at the people who were going to be coming through the door in three weeks. But there was always a faction that thinks of [the museum] as Yad Vashem [the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem] West."

Those who defend the White House's moves argue that the council has been highly politicized in the last 12 years, with Presidents Reagan and Bush making appointments to the 65-member council mainly on the basis of politics.

Members are appointed by the president to five-year terms, and some, like Mr. Lerman, have been reappointed. Days before he left office in January, Mr. Bush appointed seven new members to the council and reappointed four others.

"This museum is supposed to be a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, not a memorial to the contributors to George Bush's and Ronald Reagan's campaigns," said Mark Siegel, a White House aide during the Carter administration who was instrumental in launching the Holocaust council.

Mr. Siegel has been highly critical of the past two presidents for what he calls the "intellectual cleansing" of the council -- the replacement of prominent Jewish scholars and leaders with "Republican fat cats."

Noting the uproar over Mr. Reagan's replacement of chairman Elie Wiesel with Mr. Meyerhoff in 1987, Mr. Siegel adds, "The greatest Holocaust writer on Earth was unceremoniously fired by Ronald Reagan and replaced by a Republican contributor."

Council members and those who have worked with Mr. Lerman said the Holocaust survivor and resistance leader, who came to the United States in 1947 with his wife, Chris, is not heavily connected to either Democratic or Republican politics.

Aside from traveling the country to raise funds for the museum, Mr. Lerman, whose mother, sister and three nieces were killed in Nazi concentration camps, has negotiated agreements with foreign governments for the release of artifacts and documents that will be part of the museum when it is dedicated in two weeks. Three years ago he worked out an historic deal with the former Soviet Union for access to its Holocaust-related documents, and he has helped gain access for U.S. scholars to eastern European archives.

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