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Schiller’s List

Holocaust museum chairman tries to fundraise without exploitation.

by Michael Aushenker

August 2, 2001 | 8:00 pm

You've seen it in movies, television, even as the engine behind some fundraising efforts: the crass commercialization of the Holocaust. Dr. Gary Schiller is very aware of this phenomenon.

"You know the old joke: 'There's no business like Shoah business.' People are making so much money on the back of the Holocaust, and they're not even survivors," said Schiller after a long day at UCLA's division of hematology-oncology, where he is an associate professor.

Since April 2000, Schiller has served as chairman of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, a department of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Exploitation of Holocaust history is exactly what Schiller and Museum Director Marcia Reines Josephy attempt to avoid. It's the reason why Schiller became affiliated with the museum and has, until now, avoided going down the fundraiser route. On Aug. 5, the museum will honor its founding father, Holocaust survivor and humanitarian Fred Diament.

Toeing the line of "pure, uncommercialized integrity," as Schiller put it, may have come with a price. The Museum of the Holocaust (formerly Martyrs Memorial) struggles, eking by on shoestring allocations provided by The Jewish Federation and other sources.

Located on Wilshire Boulevard in Museum Row, the museum is the oldest Holocaust memorial in the country, yet its future is very much in doubt, Schiller said. "As a volunteer chair, I sure wouldn't like to see it become a big commercial venture. We've never used the Holocaust as an excuse for a fundraiser."

But at what cost?

"Can a noncommercial entity, which reason for being is educational, survive in this milieu?" Schiller asked. "I don't know."

It's a challenge that Schiller, 41, was well aware of when he became chairman. No stranger to this institution, he has worked with the museum since his decade-long tenure as president of Second Generation, the Holocaust descendants group.

One reason why funding is problematic, Schiller noted, is resistance to have fundraising benefits based on drudging up Jewish guilt. Yet another is ingrained in the culture itself.

"American Jewry has a problem with Holocaust remembrance. I am not the first or the last one to explain this," continued Schiller, who believes that the Holocaust has overshadowed positive Jewish associations for many Jews.

Schiller also sees an abandonment of Jewish tradition in favor of "secular idols " -- sex, money, fame and celebrity.

"Young people intermarry because Judaism is not the most important thing in their lives," Schiller said.

Judaism has always played a profound role in Schiller's identity. Even as this Hancock Park native attended secular schools (Bancroft Junior High School and Buckley High School), Schiller cherished attending Wilshire Boulevard Temple, during which time Rabbi Edgar Magnin presided.

Schiller strongly believes that the future of Holocaust scholarship lies in the lap of non-Jews. He pointed to the amazing progress made by Germany in the Holocaust's aftermath: "Better than Americans with slavery. The Germans have made amazing inroads. I don't know if there could ever be a great Jewish life in Europe again, but people should be encouraged to the commitment to dialogue some people in Germany have made."

Schiller would like to see the museum establish its own building "so that we're very visible to the non-Jewish community."

Children also figure in the continuance of Holocaust study. Schiller pointed to the success of the museum's Jay Shalmoni Holocaust Arts and Writing Contest, which pairs Jewish and non-Jewish students alike with survivors.

"Young people really give me hope," Schiller said. "Young people, mostly gentile, make an evolving interest in the subject that is not commercial, that is pure."

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust will honor Fred Diament on Aug. 5, noon. For information and reservations, call (323) 761-8170.

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