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Miles Lerman, 88, Chair of U.S. Holocaust Council

January 31, 2008
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Miles Lerman, 88, one of the founders and chairman emeritus of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, died Jan. 22, in Philadelphia.

Lerman was born in Tomaszov-Lubelski, in southeastern Poland, to a prosperous family that owned flour mills and other businesses. Following the Nazi invasion, the family fled to Lvov, where Lerman was arrested and incarcerated at the Viniki slave labor camp in December 1941, from which he later escaped. He spent 23 months in the nearby forests, fighting with the partisans, disrupting German supply lines and hiding Jewish refugees in the woods.

After the war, Lerman moved to Lodz, the site of a missing-persons center, where he met his future wife, Rosalie Chris Laks. They married in 1945 and immigrated to America in 1947.

Lerman took a job in a Brooklyn grocery warehouse. After the birth of their first child, the family moved to a chicken farm near Vineland, N.J.

After 10 years of farming, Lerman began a home heating-oil business, which eventually grew into the largest Amoco gasoline and fuel oil distributorship in South Jersey. He also invested in real estate.

A lifelong Zionist, Lerman served on the National Executive Board of the Israel Bond Organization since its inception in 1951. He became a prominent leader of the American Jewish community, known for his ability to organize projects, galvanize support and raise the funds necessary to execute them.

Successful Negotiator

President Jimmy Carter appointed Lerman to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing board of the then future museum. He was reappointed by presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Between 1988 and 1990, as chair of the International Relations Committee, Lerman negotiated a series of agreements that brought thousands of artifacts and documents to the museum. These negotiations occurred as Communist regimes in Eastern Europe were on the verge of collapsing in the late 1980s. The multilingual Lerman persuaded fledgling democratic regimes -- eager for American goodwill -- to open Holocaust-era records and donate artifacts to the new museum being built on the National Mall in the heart of the American capital.

Lerman was chosen to lead the museum's capital campaign. At a time when Holocaust survivors were reluctant to speak of their experiences -- and postwar generations were hardly aware of why remembrance was important -- Lerman traveled across the nation, raising awareness and funds to successfully complete the $200 million campaign.

Following the museum's dedication on April 22, 1993, President Clinton appointed Lerman to be the third chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, a post he held until 2000.

During his tenure, the museum became one of Washington's top tourist destinations, attracting millions of visitors a year.

Among a number of differ-ent initiatives, Lerman established the Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance, which documents physical resistance in ghettos, forests and elsewhere throughout German-occupied Europe. He also created the museum's Committee on Conscience, whose purpose is to speak out on behalf of today's victims of human-rights abuse.

After his term as chair ended, Lerman assumed the leadership of the museum's endowment fund.

Lerman also led the effort to memorialize more than 500,000 Jews murdered at Belzec. Nazis destroyed physical evidence of the death camp once Galician Jewry was annihilated; the killing fields were abandoned, a Communist-era memorial disintegrated, and shards of the deceased were desecrated. Lerman worked with a succession of Polish governments, first in partnership with the museum, and later with the American Jewish Committee, to sanctify what was in effect, a vast Jewish cemetery. The Belzec Museum and study center opened in 2004.

During an audience with Pope John Paul II, Lerman described the Belzec project speaking Polish, their shared native tongue. The moment embodied an enormous change in the attitude of the Catholic Church toward Jews and the fulfillment of decades of efforts to build bridges of tolerance. For his lifetime achievements working to improve relations between Poles and Jews, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski presented Lerman the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit, the highest award Poland grants to noncitizens.

He received 11 honorary doctorates from U.S. universities.

Lerman is survived by his wife of 62 years, Rosalie Chris Lerman; daughter Jeanette Neubauer; son David Lerman; brother Jona Lerman; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations can be made to: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Member and Donor Services, P.O. Box 90988, Washington, D.C. 20090.

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