Between World Wars I and II, about 37,000 Jews lived in the Lithuanian city of Kovno, also called Kaunas. they constituted one-quarter of the population and tended to cluster in the commercial, artisan and professional middle class. Kovno's Jewish community, home to one of the most prestigious religious institutions in Eastern Europe, also gloried in its rich secular culture and became a center for Zionist activity. After the German Wehrmacht overran the Baltic states in 1941, Elkhanan Elkes, a respected doctor who was the personal physician to the Lithuanian prime minister and the German ambassador to Lithuania, was confined to Kovno's ghetto.
As good a doctor as Elkes was, however, it was really his extraordinary role as head of the ghetto's Jewish Council that so captures the admiration of Sara J. Bloomfield (WCAS72), director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Under Elkes' leadership, almost the entire Kovno ghetto methodically -- and secretly -- chronicled the destruction of a community that had existed for 500 years. "It's the only ghetto whose Jewish Council launched a systematic attempt to document the atrocity," says Bloomfield, who was actively involved in creating a special exhibition on Kovno that was on display in the museum until October. "There's something compelling about their story. It's a heroism that's different from other kinds of heroism. This is a doomed community that found it in itself to produce this documentation. These people gave us such a gift."
What motivated Elkes, who eventually was sent to his death like the rest? One can only speculate, but, most likely, he must have felt a deep need to bear witness so that succeeding generations might draw whatever lessons they can from the ultimate unknowability of the Holocaust. Bloomfield, who has been involved with the museum for 13 years, relates well to that impulse. Although today she supervises a staff of more than 400 in an internationally respected institution that has drawn more than 13 million visitors, Bloomfield sees herself first and foremost as an educator.
"This is the perfect place for me," she says. "After all, what is this museum about? It's about teaching, speaking out and transmitting memory from generation to generation."
Those who are associated with Bloomfield offer nothing but praise for her commitment and ability. "She's an unbelievably competent, no-nonsense person, and she has people skills, too, a way of making others follow her gladly and excitedly," says Miles Lerman, chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
Reared comfortably in suburban Cleveland, Bloomfield, an English major at Northwestern, was intent on a life in literature. "I treasured my copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare," she says. "I thought I'd write the great American novel. I was very idealistic and naive."
During her Northwestern days, she also followed her mother's practical advice and did some student teaching at nearby New Trier High School to obtain a teaching certificate. "It was a terrific experience," Bloomfield recalls, "and it really set me off on a different career path."
After graduation, she took a teaching position in a working-class suburb of Sydney, Australia, almost on a lark. Although students and staff represented 32 different ethnic groups, she was the only Jew.
Always foraging for instructional material, Bloomfield one day found a copy of the book Night, Elie Wiesel's fevered remembrance of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. She read it to her seventh grade class, which sat riveted by the harrowing narrative.
"When I was done, a girl came up and commented on how well I had read the book, how much emotion I had in my voice," Bloomfield relates. "I told her that was natural because I'm Jewish. She was horrified. The first words out of her mouth were, 'Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me.'
"I decided that I needed to tell this class that I was Jewish," she says. "I spent a lot of time thinking how I could do it in a way that would be meaningful for them."The following day, she asked her students which ethnic groups they felt animosity toward and listed each group on the blackboard. "Then I said, 'Let's talk about who we are. What's our own identity? Do we fit into any of these groups?'" Indeed, many found their own ethnicities on the list.
Finally, she asked if anyone had prejudice against Jews. Several raised their hands. "Then I asked who was Jewish, and I raised my hand. Of course, I was the only one, and pandemonium broke out."
In contrast with the courage underlying that gutsy act, Bloomfield did not grow up terribly conscious of anti-Semitism. Still, the deep-seated but perpetual wariness of a minority was a frequently transmitted thought.
"My parents always told me what a difficult world it could be for Jews, but it was something I never quite grasped," Bloomfield says. "The '30s and '40s were the height of anti-Semitism in America, and they had just come out of that era. I grew up not thinking about who was Jewish and who wasn't, who was black and who was white. I was almost oblivious to those things. I felt very safe and secure."
Continuing in her teaching career after leaving Australia, she eventually established and ran the learning disabilities program in the Shaker Heights, Ohio, public school system, the same racially and religiously mixed district that had educated her.
From there, Bloomfield entered the business world, where she also succeeded. "I learned a lot about finance, marketing, organizational structures, things that have been very helpful to me here," she says. "That training and my education background very much dovetail."
Those Cleveland years saw Bloomfield constantly on the go from the Jewish Federation to the City Club to the Cuyahoga County Women's Political Caucus to the American Jewish Committee.
Eventually, that part of Bloomfield's life crowded out the rest. At the same time, she realized that, despite her fondness for Cleveland, it was too small a stage for what she wanted to accomplish. So, in 1986, Bloomfield jumped at the chance to become deputy director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, before the building's first brick had been laid. After holding several key museum positions, she was named director last February.
When the actual facility opened in 1993, Bloomfield and others in its leadership wondered if non-Jews would come. They were surprised to find that, from the first, Gentile visitors were in the majority and today comprise more than three-quarters of those entering the door.
"Clearly, this is a museum that non-Jews find terribly important," says Peter Hayes, Northwestern professor of history and German and a member of the Holocaust Memorial Council's academic committee. "They do think there is some kind of revelation here." Why? Of the many reasons, perhaps the most significant is that -- unlike the Cambodias, Rwandas, Bosnias and Kosovos that the world has produced -- the Holocaust sprang from the heart of Europe, the source of so much of America's culture.
Regarding those more recent atrocities, Bloomfield emphasizes the museum's willingness and responsibility to speak out. In 1995, a Committee on Conscience was established within the museum's framework, and the committee often acts as a moral voice on genocidal and potential genocidal situations around the world.
Still, "the reality is that, since the Holocaust, we don't seem to have learned our lessons very well," she says sadly.
Within the Jewish context, Bloomfield and the museum must grapple with many issues. Not the least of these, Hayes notes, is how to meet the fast-approaching day when no Holocaust survivors remain.
"This is most disquieting for the Jewish community," he says, "and Sara will be in a key position to help determine how the issue will be handled."
Council chair Lerman, who during the war escaped from a slave labor camp in Poland to join the partisans, remains confident the story will continue to be told. "We are finite, whether we like it or not," he says. "Preserving these memories will serve as a lesson and a guide."
Two innovations mandated by the council toward that end particularly excite Bloomfield. First, the museum has developed extensive teacher training materials for middle and secondary school levels, and, second, it has established traveling exhibits to bring Holocaust information to libraries, colleges and universities, Jewish community centers and all types of museums for people who cannot come to Washington.
To maintain her familiarity with the vast amount of material in the exhibits, Bloomfield still occasionally takes visitors -- these days, mostly VIPs -- on tours. After all this time, one wonders, has she had to harden herself to deal with the enormity just outside her door?
"I get swept up by it all the time," Bloomfield responds, adding that on the previous weekend, she had shown the permanent exhibit to a group from the U.S. Department of Defense. The last thing visitors see is a wrenching, contemporary film of survivors relating their experiences. One of the women tells of having to put her child in hiding. She discusses her deliberate attempts to distance herself from the little girl beforehand so she wouldn't miss her mommy so much. "I've seen that clip I don't know how many times," Bloomfield says, "but this time, I got choked up. It often happens."
She adds that an important source of lessons for Jews and non-Jews alike can be found in the large section devoted to the thousands who risked everything to save the persecuted. The photo reproductions show faces that would not be distinguishable from the millions who did nothing or even abetted the Nazis. Most of these selfless individuals were ordinary people who somehow found the internal strength to do extraordinary things.
"They didn't have to be angels," Bloomfield says. "They just had to be good enough. If we can make their actions the norm, if we can all just be good enough, then the phrase 'Never again' will be more than a hope. It will be the reality."
Robert Freed is associate editor of Northwestern. Many of his and his wife's relatives were among the millions who perished in the Holocaust.