Former treasury secretary Blumenthal to speak in S.F.

If you’re old enough to remember Watergate, the fall of Saigon and Willie Mays in a New York Mets uniform, then the odds are you’ve had W. Michael Blumenthal’s autograph in your pocket.

You almost definitely didn’t ask Blumenthal for his signature, but, then again, you’d be happy to have it. As Secretary of the Treasury under President Jimmy Carter, Blumenthal’s John Hancock graced the lower right side of all paper currency — you might still see it on an old $2 bill (or, if you’re especially lucky, a $50 or $100).

And, though it’s a distinction he won’t be quick to mention, the German-born Blumenthal was probably the first U.S. secretary of the treasury that had to step over rotting corpses in ghetto alleys during his formative years.

The Blumenthal family’s dress shop was put to the torch by the Nazis, along with all the other Jewish businesses during the ascent of the Third Reich. His father, a decorated World War I veteran, was sent to Buchenwald, and his mother scraped together the last of their worldly possessions to bribe her husband out of the camp and book the family a trip to Shanghai. The family languished in the Shanghai ghetto for eight years.

On Jan. 11, Blumenthal will return to San Francisco, the city that jump-started his path on what can only be called the American dream. After scraping by as an elevator operator, hospital worker and factory employee, he enrolled at City College of San Francisco — “Which was entirely free, and that was the only way I could go, because I did not have any money.” In short order he parlayed his stunted 10th-grade education into a bachelor’s degree from U.C. Berkeley, a Ph.D from Princeton, a gaggle of jobs in the private sector and places in the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter.

“I will always have a soft spot for that institution,” said Blumenthal of CCSF. He is the featured speaker for the celebration marking the school’s 70th anniversary.

Now on the cusp of his 80th birthday and in semi-retirement, Blumenthal has found the time to deeply reflect on his Jewish roots and the painful plight of his fellow German Jews. He has penned a book exploring German-Jewish relations using several hundred years of family history as a center point. Since 1997, he has also served as the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

The first thing Blumenthal will tell you about the Berlin Museum is that it’s no Yad Vashem. The Holocaust is an unavoidably massive element of Jewish history, especially for a museum located in the capital city of Germany. But it’s not the whole story.

Germany, notes Blumenthal, is a country of more than 80 million with fewer than 200,000 Jews. A child growing up anywhere but the largest cities may never have even met one. That’s what his museum is all about.

“When they hear the word Jew, ‘Jude,’ they think of a victim. Auschwitz. The gas chambers. They know about the gas chambers, but they really don’t know about the Jews as a people,” said Blumenthal, who lives full-time in Princeton, N.J. and spends about three months a year in Berlin administering the museum.

“The purpose of the museum is to focus on young people, but 85 percent of Germans walking the streets today were not alive in Hitler’s day or were very young kids. We say to them, ‘You know, Jews were German citizens like everyone else. We had the same hopes and dreams and there were the same smart ones and not-so-smart ones and successful ones and not-so-successful ones.'”

Of course, that’s not to say the Jewish story in Germany was thousands of years of enlightenment preceding a sudden and ignominious end.

“If we tell the 2,000 year history, we have to talk about the Crusades and Jews being massacred and the Black Death and Jews being massacred and lots of discrimination. But we also talk about the ups, the good days,” he said.

Blumenthal’s memories of his German youth were not good days, though. But he is optimistic about the nation’s present and future.

“This country has now been a Western democracy for 60 years. It probably has the least anti-Semitism of any country in Europe. This is a country that has been willing to face its past and not sweep history under the rug.”

W. Michael Blumenthal will speak at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11 at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Tickets: $15 general, $10 students and seniors. Information: (415) 392-4400 or

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.