U.S. Shoah museum leader will step down

WASHINGTON — After 22 years of helping lead the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Miles Lerman will scale back his role at the institution.

Lerman told President Clinton last week that he plans to step down as chairman of the museum's council, a title he has held for the past six years. He has been a driving force behind the museum's creation since 1978, when he was appointed by President Carter to a commission studying how to remember victims of the Shoah, or Holocaust.

In an interview last week, Lerman said he would stay on as chairman until the president selects a successor from one of the council's 55 members. He also said he would remain on the council's executive committee.

While the museum has enjoyed a great deal of success during Lerman's tenure, there also have been a number of well-publicized controversies that have tarnished the institution's reputation. Lerman insisted that criticism from these episodes did not play into his decision to step down. Other members of the council said he was not forced out.

William J. Lowenberg, a San Franciscan who served as vice chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council from 1986 to 1993, called Lerman a "very good chairman."

"Miles has done a good job. He has given an awful lot of his time to the museum…He has given his all to it and deserves a lot of credit," said Lowenberg, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau.

"He micro-managed a lot, which not everybody liked, but he got it done."

Lerman said he began discussing with his family the possibility of stepping down three years ago and feels now is the right time for a change.

"Transition is healthy for any organization," he said. "We need young blood."

In an interview, Lerman, who is nearly 80, excitedly listed what he describes as the museum's "fabulous accomplishments."

Since opening its doors 6-1/2 years ago, nearly 14 million people have visited the museum, which has become almost a required stop for most tourists in Washington. Around 80 percent of the visitors have been non-Jews and 4 million have been children.

"This museum is more than just a museum," Lerman said. "We are a moral platform."

Museum officials credit Lerman with spearheading the campaign that raised $200 million to build the imposing, industrial structure just off the National Mall. He also negotiated agreements with Eastern European governments that allowed the museum to acquire artifacts for its permanent collection.

Lerman was born in Poland and was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a slave labor camp. In 1942, he escaped and formed a resistance group that spent the next two years fighting the Nazis in the forests of southeastern Poland. He and his wife, Chris, also a survivor, eventually settled in Vineland, N.J., where Lerman became a prominent businessman.

Those who worked with Lerman over the years praised his dedication to the museum.

"Miles made an enormous impact on the museum," said Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and a longtime member of the council. "Holocaust survivors' gratitude to him will remain for a long time. We will be forever appreciative of his wisdom and devotion to the cause of remembrance."

While Lerman has garnered praise for his year's of service, he also has not gone without criticism.

In January of 1998, the museum came under fire for Lerman's on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to visit the museum. The subsequent ouster of the museum's director, Walter Reich — who some charged was made a scapegoat for the Arafat debacle — proved to be another public relations disaster.

After the Arafat episode, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who chairs the House subcommittee that approves federal money for the museum, ordered a study of the museum's governance and management.

The study, conducted by an outside panel of administrative experts, concluded that the institution has been stifled by "excessive involvement" of the museum's governing council in day-to-day operations and specifically criticized what it called Lerman's tendency to "act unilaterally."