BERENBAUM, MICHAEL (1945–), U.S Holocaust scholar who played a prominent role in what he describes as the "Americanization" of the Holocaust: the transformation of a sacred Jewish memory into a significant part of the conceptual and physical landscape of the American public culture.
Berenbaum was born in Newark, New Jersey, and educated at Hebrew-speaking New York yeshivot, Queens College (B.A., 1963), the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Boston University, and Florida State University, completeing his Ph.D. as a student of Richard Rubenstein,
whose influence was apparent in Berenbaum's text of the President's Commission on the Holocaust (PCOH) Report presented to President Carter on September 27, 1979. Influenced by the magisterial work of
, Rubenstein and Berenbaum understood the Holocaust in large measure as a bureaucratic triumph of a Nazi society of total domination. Among the recommendations to the president offered in Berenbaum's text was a "living memorial," to consist of a memorial and museum space, an educational foundation, and a committee on conscience. The commission's recommendation would eventually become the conceptual blueprint for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in April 1993. Berenbaum played a major role in the creation of the museum and the content of its permanent exhibition, serving as project director from 1988 to 1993 and director of the Museum's Research Institute from 1993 to 1997. Berenbaum directed a design team that created an exhibition narrative focusing on careful inclusion of non-Jewish victims, a balance between Jewish life before the Holocaust, the extermination, the return to life after, and an emphasis on Americans as bystanders (often complicit ones) and liberators.
In recent years, Berenbaum has served as president and chief executive officer of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (1997–99) and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the University of Judaism. He consults widely on the development of Holocaust museums and films. He was one of three American representatives to the international competition that chose the memorial at the Belzec death camp and a member of the team that created the accompanying and highly acclaimed museum. His many film projects include co-producing One Survivor Remembers: The Gerda Weisman Klein Story, which received an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary and an Emmy Award in 1995. He was historical consultant to The Last Days, which won the Academy Award in 1998.
Berenbaum has written or edited 16 books, including After Tragedy and Triumph: Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience (1990); Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications (co-edited with John Roth, 1989); A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis (1990); The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (1993); The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Re-examined (co-edited with Abraham Peck, 1998); and Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? (co-edited with Michael Neufeld, 2000). He also served as executive editor for the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
Holocaust memory has become a compelling, volatile, sometimes controversial element in American public culture. Berenbaum's career, particularly his many years of service to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum project, has been dedicated to ensuring that Holocaust memory moved beyond ethnic boundaries into a wider culture in the hope that Holocaust memory – expressed through cultural representations of so many kinds – will offer a sober reminder of what is possible in a modern society.
[Edward T. Linenthal (2nd ed.)]
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