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Spare Us From Petty Political Hacks: A South Florida Holocaust Center Under Siege

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Peter Bober, the mayor of Hollywood, Fl., since 2008, epitomizes what the late US District Court Judge Whitman Knapp (for whom I had the great privilege of clerking) used to refer to as the Equine Theory of Life: there are far more horses' posteriors in the world than horses. Elected after a nasty campaign against the previous mayor, Mara Giulianti, Bober's disdain for his predecessor makes House Speaker John Boehner's attitude toward President Obama seem positively reverential.

Ordinarily, the peremptory proclivities of this petty South Florida municipal politician would not be of academic or esoteric interest to anyone fortunate enough to live, well, anywhere outside Hollywood, except that Bober, driven by his loathing for just about everything he inherited from Giulianti, seems intent on harming if not destroying the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center, one of the most important institutions of its kinds in the nation.

Founded in 1980, the Center's stated mission includes documenting and preserving the eyewitness testimonies of Holocaust survivors, liberators, and other eyewitnesses as well as serving as a non-denominational resource and reference for government, education, and human rights institutions, and organizations throughout the world seeking to document and study the Holocaust.

Under the leadership of its president Rositta Kenigsberg, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who happens to be both a colleague and a friend of many years, the Center has been at the forefront of Holocaust remembrance for decades. It has organized major educational symposia and workshops and sponsors a speakers' bureau of survivors who regularly address school groups across Florida and elsewhere.

Kenigsberg was also instrumental in the Florida legislature's 1994 enactment of a law mandating Holocaust education in that state, and she served for ten years as chair of Florida's Commissioner's Task Force on Holocaust Education. (In the interest of full disclosure, we served together on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council during the Clinton years and we are both vice presidents of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)

In 2003, the Center brought a highly acclaimed exhibition about diplomats who saved Jews during World War II, to Hollywood. The following year, the Giulianti administration offered to provide the Center, which was then housed in rented premises, with a permanent home. So far, so good. The Center purchased a building from Hollywood's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) in 2004, agreeing to repay a $1.2 million loan plus interest over 15 years. As Steve Geller, a former Florida state senator and the Center's pro bono attorney, wrote in the Sun-Sentinel earlier this month,

"Before purchasing the building, the Holocaust Center insisted on inspections and letters from the city confirming that there were no code violations, other than minor ones that would be fixed by normal renovations. The city hired a contractor to perform the inspection and paid for it. Both the inspection report and the letters turned out to be wrong."

According to Geller,

"Within a few months of the Holocaust Center taking possession of the property, we were told that the elevator violated code and we had to replace it. We replaced the roof, changed the façade because of leaks, replaced the windows, etc. We spent over $3 million on renovations to this money pit and there are still code and ADA violations that will cost at least another $500,000 to fix. Recently, the city condemned the second floor of the Holocaust Center because of code violations that had been there for decades. The city is enforcing these violations on a building that the city sold us and confirmed in writing didn't have code violations!"

Unless Geller is lying, the City of Hollywood and its CRA sold the Center a lemon. Quite reasonably, the Center does not want to both repay the $1.2 million loan and spend millions of dollars more just to make its new premises habitable. Rather than fixing the building at the City's expense, however, Bober and his minions have commenced foreclosure proceedings. As far as they are concerned, neither facts nor the City's own prior misrepresentations appear to matter. Worse, they are glaringly oblivious to the moral dimensions of the institution they seem intent on destroying.

Logic dictates that the parties to this unfortunate fiasco should try to resolve it in an equitable manner. Except that Bober is a bean counter for whom the Center is nothing more than a potential source of revenue in the context of a monumental budget deficit he is incapable of surmounting.

The Center has been willing, even anxious, to find a solution. Not so Bober. For two years, Rositta Kenigsberg told me, Bober put forward various proposals only to renege each time the Center agreed to one of them.

"First," she said, "he proposed a 99-year lease, we said yes, he changed his mind. Then he discussed the possibility of forgiveness, we said yes, he again changed his mind. And then last April Mayor Bober had his attorneys, with his new CRA director, negotiate with our attorney on what was to be called a descending loan grant. This was based on the premise that the Center would accomplish mutually agreed upon thresholds outlined by the City and at the end of 10 years the CRA would be satisfied. Guess what, the Center once again said yes and Bober once again changed his mind."

What a guy.

The Center and Hollywood are clearly not made for each other. The Center must and, according to Kenigsberg, wants to get out of Dodge, but it needs adequate time to do so. More importantly, it should certainly not be encumbered with a crippling debt not of its making. At the very least, Bober must be shamed into modifying his crass take-no-prisoners approach to a problem that the Center did not create and which he is continuously and knowingly acerbating.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the laws schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse.

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