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Interviews of, Articles about, and Books that Include Sonia

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Sonia Pressman Fuentes

“Which Holocaust survivors may tell their stories?”

Washington Jewish Week

June 29, 2006

by Adam Levin
WJW Intern

Each year, some 1.7 million people visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Of those, thousands hear personal accounts from survivors volunteering their time. Some other survivors, however, believe the museum is wrongly preventing the stories of many more from being heard.

The Speakers Bureau and the First Person program, the museum’s two featured arenas for survivor talks, both operate under a policy that allows survivors to speak through these programs only if they also are museum volunteers.

“We have a special obligation to the volunteers because they devote their time, energy and stories. They give a good part of their life experience to make the museum more authentic,” said Arthur Berger, senior adviser for external affairs. “They also tell about the museum because it’s an important asset of their life. They feel the museum will represent them after they are gone.”

Martin Goldman, the museum’s director of survivor affairs from 1997 to 2005, also believes that the museum owes a debt of gratitude to its volunteers, and he firmly followed the policy during his tenure.

“It is a way of honoring the volunteers and appreciating them,” said Goldman. “Since the volunteers are a part of the museum, they will speak about the museum in a personal way. That’s the official reasoning for using volunteers.”

But the policy has come under fire in recent months. When Edith Cord, a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor and resident of Columbia, decided that she would like to speak about her experiences at the museum, she contacted officials there. Cord was told she would have to first serve as a consistent volunteer at the museum, a commitment Cord could not make because of the travel time required to get to the District.

According to the museum’s Web site, volunteers must contribute one four-hour shift weekly, or one six-hour shift every second weekend for a minimum of three months.

“I thought that volunteering for the Speakers Bureau would be volunteering, but [the museum’s] definition is someone who shows up on a regular basis,” said Cord, a former professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “I would be willing to go through the process to become a speaker. But I cannot come to the museum weekly or every other week to volunteer.”

Cord’s understanding of that policy differs from that offered by museum officials.

“The rationale that I got is that the museum is now an institution and the institution is more important than individual speakers,” said Cord. “It is a matter of politics.”

Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a Holocaust survivor living in Potomac, agrees with Cord’s assessment. Fuentes, an author, met Cord through a friend and was upset by Cord’s recounting of her interaction with the museum.

“The museum should have the best qualified speakers to speak. What does being qualified have to do with being a volunteer?” said Fuentes.

Fuentes decided to look into Cord’s situation. Fuentes spoke with Goldman, Berger and Ellen Blalock, director of survivor affairs and the Speakers Bureau. She was not satisfied with any explanation she heard.

Blalock “said that she did not start this policy, but she believes in it and will continue it. She wants speakers to also be able to discuss resources at the museum,” said Fuentes.

“Goldman’s reason for the policy was that the museum did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. There are 60,000 survivors in the United States, and if all of them wanted to speak at the museum, the museum did not want to hurt their feelings by telling them they are not qualified,” she said, recounting her conversation. “I said, ‘That’s the job of someone at the museum, to make decisions.’ ”

Goldman acknowledged this process, but justified the policy.

“I felt badly that Sonia was upset. To have new speakers, we would have to develop biographies and see them speak,” said Goldman. “I don’t want to be in a position to say to one, ‘You can speak,’ and to another, ‘You can’t speak.’ ”

Goldman also noted that the museum has a large section devoted to oral histories, which is open to any survivor who desires to come in and give testimony.

Some area survivors are defending the museum’s policy.

“If you are a speaker, you have to speak on behalf of the museum and you have to be a part of the museum,” said Silver Spring’s Nesse Godin, co-president of the Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Friends of Greater Washington and a museum volunteer. “You get acquainted with the policy of the museum, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.”

Another local survivor and volunteer agrees. “We will not be here much longer. It is our duty to speak,” Alexandria’s Charlene Schiff said. “But if you speak under the umbrella of the museum, then you must work at the museum.”

Other survivors took less definitive stances, worrying more about the historical accuracy of nonvolunteers.

“I think [the policy] is fair in a sense. I think it is fair not only that it should be just for survivors, but if you allow anyone to speak on the Holocaust, you can get misinformation,” said Martin Weiss, a survivor living in Bethesda who volunteers at the museum and will speak with the First Person program on July 26.

The museum insists that although it may not bring every survivor inside its walls to speak, it has other avenues for fulfilling its mission.

“There is a limit on what we can do, but we want to make sure that no survivor does not have an opportunity. We give survivors the name of a Holocaust institution in their community, and we follow up with a phone call to the institution saying, ‘There is a survivor in your community who wants to speak,’ ” said Berger, who estimates there are around 70 regular volunteers at the museum. “Almost never have we heard someone say this is not the right way to go.”

Others echoed Berger’s sentiments of encouraging nonvolunteers to speak outside the museum. Schiff, a volunteer at the museum since it opened in 1993, said that speaking out is a powerful act regardless of venue.

“Not too many people speak up. The ones that do, what difference does it make if they are under the umbrella of the museum?” said Schiff. 

While the museum may provide aid in finding local engagements for survivors to speak, Cord nonetheless believes an aura of authority pervades the museum, which is a federal institution, and its volunteers.

“I do tell my stories in other places,” said Cord. “The volunteers that I know live within traveling distance [of the museum]. They may feel that they are volunteers, so everybody should do the same thing that they are doing. I thought we were all aiming for the same thing. I didn’t make a distinction between the museum and the survivors.”

Fuentes and Cord want the museum policy reformed.

“One of the goals of the museum is to educate people about the Holocaust. One of the ways to educate people is to have a speakers program. Being a speaker has nothing to do with being a volunteer,” said Fuentes. “The museum needs to have a central office that looks for speakers themselves and reviews qualifications.”

Cord wants to see more flexibility. “I think the Department of Survivor Affairs and the survivors should have the same interest,” she said. “I think people are more important than institutions.”

While the two women see the museum’s policy as divisive and elitist, Berger insists that Cord and Fuentes have misunderstood the true spirit of the museum, which he believes is one of inclusiveness.

“We do have an obligation to all survivors, but especially to those who volunteer at the museum, those who have given their own time and energy,” he said. “We have never turned away a volunteer.”