February 24, 2005
First Steve, Then Bill
When those people at the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation put on a fundraiser, they don't fool around.
After Sheryl Crow sang, the event's host, Steven Spielberg, spoke. And after him, 20 minutes of stand-up by Robin Williams ("Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Temple Beth Pravda...This evening's meal will be milchidik, fleishadik, and sushidik.") Then more comments from the evening's emcee, Tom Cruise. And a keynote address by the evening's Ambassador of Humanity honoree, President Bill Clinton.
A huge tent goes up on the Universal back lot -- a grand structure featuring dozens of massive chandeliers suspended above 750 guests paying $1,500 per plate. The stars come out: John Travolta, Lance Armstrong, Sharon Stone, Scarlett Johansson. I'm not even bothering to mention the name-brand TV celebrities scattered around the room like less-potent fundraisers might use helium balloons.
Needless to say, the obligatory video presentation is of fairly high quality.
Spielberg used profits generated by his 1994 movie "Schindler's List," to establish the foundation. As its primary mission, it has collected nearly 52,000 videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. The foundation is now developing a state-of-the-art system to bring these testimonies and other learning tools to educational institutions worldwide.
All this costs a lot of money, and the obvious question is why Spielberg needs other people's. Contribution implies ownership, a foundation officer told me, and the director wants the widest possible sense of communal responsibility for the foundation's mission.
Fundraising, at least in our day and age, also implies dinner and entertainment. Yet there is always something discordant about award banquets on behalf of the shoah. Several years ago at a major Holocaust organization's dinner, I watched tables full of survivors and rabbis go pale listening to Chris Rock, who was then a relatively unknown comedian.
Rock was a last-minute replacement for an ailing Garry Shandling. After his routine on jailhouse sex met with gasps, Rock stopped, looked out into the sea of shocked faces, and said, "I warned them. I don't have a dinner act. This is my act."
I know there are dinners on behalf of incurable diseases and even dinners to end world hunger -- but even on this score the Holocaust is unique:
The joyous chatter of friends and colleagues dressed up and out together, interrupted by speeches about extermination;
People grabbing for appetizers and drinks as videos play newsreel footage of Auschwitz;
People who once were a crust away from starvation being served plates of seared salmon and roasted vegetables, groaning as if they're being punished when the molten chocolate soufflés appear;
People being exposed to horrific tales of murder and survival, then stopping to complain when some free lipstick was missing from their swag bag;
People who just 60 years ago were begging for the world's attention -- now basking in it.
None of this is wrong, just interesting. How do you mesh something as evil and tragic as the Holocaust with something as banal as the rubber-chicken circuit? How do you honor memory and get them to the valet by 10 p.m.?
The Shoah Foundation somehow manages all this. This year I finally understood how: it's not just about the Holocaust.
It's about genocide.
Each banquet honors the memory of the witnesses and survivors by invoking whatever current tragedies challenge us not to repeat the same sins of omission. This year it was Clinton's turn to remind us.
The former president recalled President Franklin D. Roosevelt's refusal in 1939 to admit more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the German ship St. Louis. He called it "one of the darkest chapters in United States history."
He then went on to acknowledge his own culpability for not responding to the genocide in Rwanda in a timely fashion.
"No one in my administration thought to call a meeting on it, and I never asked anyone to," he said.
After he left office, Clinton went to Rwanda to ask forgiveness of the survivors, and to hear their stories. The 1994 genocide claimed an estimated 800,000 victims in a three-month period.
The Rwandan genocide led Clinton to speak about the Darfur province of Sudan. There, some 220,000 black Africans have been slaughtered in a campaign of ethic cleansing by government-backed Muslim militias. The death toll is estimated to rise by 10,000 per month -- this month, next month, the month after. One day in the future, Clinton asked, will we have to go to Sudan and apologize for what we didn't do, but could have done, now?
The president left the stage, but his point was clear. The 52,000 videotaped testimonies are not just a monument to Jewish suffering, but a call to Jewish conscience. If the Holocaust was truly unique, then we are uniquely obligated to speak out, to donate, to write our representatives, to act.
That way we can have our dinner, and enjoy it, too.