THE BLOG
01/29/2015 09:04 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

A Campaign to Remember: The Lessons of the Holocaust Are Critically Relevant Today

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I was watching the HBO special, Night Will Fall, which depicts the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. I was deeply affected by these horrific acts and wanted to do something, anything to help us to remember, and to inspire us to do our part to make sure this never happens again. Then I thought about the Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria who have massacred 5,000 people and the estimated 1.5 million people reported to have fled their homes since the violence accelerated in 2009. I also reflected on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the anti-Semitic sentiment currently spreading across Europe and the plethora of conflicts in our world today. All of these acts of hate and violence have a common theme -- they are all rooted in racism, intolerance and fear. It is very clear to me that the lessons of the Holocaust are very relevant today. Can it happen again? Is it beginning to happen? Will we let 11 million people die and millions more be tortured and displaced? How do we, fellow citizens of the world, respond to these heinous acts? These are tough, complex questions that I certainly don't have answers to, however I feel compelled to ask these questions and to personally struggle with the answers. One small thing I felt I could do today, is to share a little about one man's courageous journey to help the world to never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust -- and to learn from them.

Joe Brodecki was the executive director of the Campaign to Remember, the fundraising initiative for the development of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Under Joe's leadership, the campaign raised nearly $200 million. I interviewed Joe for my first book DreamMakers: Putting Vision & Values To Work. Joe is a phenomenal DreamMaker -- DreamMakers are people who have a compelling vision, a dream of the future they want to create, and they make their dreams come true against tremendous obstacles. Over the years I have become friends with Joe and his wife Shelly. During our conversations he always reminds me that, "First we remember, then we learn". I feel compelled to share a little of his story in hopes that we will remember, learn and do what each of us can do, to create a world that respects our differences and yet values our shared humanity.

The Holocaust Museum is not a Jewish museum. It is the result of a highly diverse international initiative. The museum was commissioned by a unanimous act of the U.S. Congress, started in President Carter's administration. President Carter established a commission chaired by Elie Wiesel, professor, novelist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Metal of Freedom. Mr. Wiesel proclaimed that the museum had to be more than a memorial -- it must educate.

When Ronald Reagan came into office another unanimous act of Congress set aside the land for the museum with the proviso that all the money to build it had to be raised privately. The first Campaign to Remember honorary campaign committee was highly diverse. It included Father Theodore Hesburgh, the Reverend Bill Graham, the U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jean Kilpatrick, baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti, Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, publisher and diplomat Walter Annenberg and President of the AFL-CIO Lane Kirkland.

The $200 million raised included: eighty gifts of $1 million dollars or more, and nearly 300,000 contributors from people from all walks of life including corporate, labor, military, Holocaust survivors, churches, fraternities, the entertainment industry, and people who responded to direct mail campaigns. Joe recalls:

This was a team effort, it had to be. Nobody could have done this alone. There was Adam StarKopf, from Chicago whose mother told him when he was a boy that a Jewish life was worth less than a penny; he collected six million pennies for the museum. There was a nun who inherited $3,000 and left it all to the museum. Fundraising was tough, it was the 80's and the economy was weak.

My initial feeling was that we needed a shared vision to start the campaign. It is easier to take day-to-day rejection when you have a shared vision. If you can see your desired future, and you can get other people to see and internalize it, not only in terms of today but in terms of what it will mean for this country and the world you can attract others that share your vision. And if you can help them see what it means for them, their families and their future families, they will persist through the roughest times.

Defining Moments of Joe's Journey:

Joe was very generous in this interview. He shared some of the defining moments of his personal journey that led him to dedicate five years of his life to help create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Eighteen months before my mother gave birth to me, she was a slave in a Nazi concentration camp; so was my father. My father was born in Warsaw in 1921. His mother died when he was eight so he was raised mostly by his aunt. His father was an accountant and did not want to leave Poland. When the Nazi's came, everyone in his family was killed; only he survived. My father was sent to Auschwitz. He has the numbers tattooed on his arms by the Nazis. My mother is from a town in Southern Poland called Sosnowiec. She was from a very wealthy family, she was sent to several different camps. My mother was a dancer, almost like a child star. She danced for the people in the camps. After the war she tried to go back to her hometown, but they were killing the returning Jews, and she barely escaped with her life. My parents met in Landsberg, the displaced person camp where I was born, then in 1949 we immigrated to Richmond, Virginia.

I grew up knowing about the Holocaust, but it wasn't an obsession in our family. The messages my parents taught us were not to hate, be positive and that you can make a difference in the world. I remember being taught in the fourth grade, that prior to the Civil War, the slaves loved their masters. The school was teaching what they called "the War of Northern Aggression." Remember, Richmond, now a great city, was the capital of the Confederacy. When I told my father what I had learned in school, boy was he angry, he hit the ceiling. About the same time, all the parents in the neighborhood got a letter asking them to sign a petition to keep our school segregated; my parents refused to sign it. It was because of the Holocaust and what they had gone through. They told us, "We didn't go through all that and survive to discriminate against somebody else." Other than that, and not having grandparents, the Holocaust didn't come up much in my childhood. There was no effort to avoid the subject, it just wasn't our focus.

The impact of the Holocaust really hit me when I went to the Middle East as a volunteer civilian replacement during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. While I was there I learned to love Israel; I was also disturbed by what I saw. There were all these countries engaged in military efforts to destroy this small country. The Israeli people, many of who were Holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren, were trying to raise their families and live normal lives. I remember saying to a friend, "In six months we will be back to our normal lives in the U.S." but that never happened -- everything changed. I decided to get involved.

Inspired by what he had experienced in Israel, when Joe returned to the United States he got involved in a big way. He joined the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. Seven years later he became the executive director of the Minneapolis Federation for Jewish Service. In 1985 Joe went to a Holocaust survivors' conference in Philadelphia. It was at this conference while watching a film from the Holocaust that Joe had an epiphany. That film affected him more than all of the horror he had read about.

There was a scene from this one film that really got to me. It was actual footage filmed by the Nazis, of a little boy who must have been four or five years old. He was trying to get to his mother. A Nazi soldier kept pushing him away from her and kicking her in the behind like she was nothing. That really affected me. Little children think their parents are omnipotent, but that boy's mother was powerless, there was nothing she could do. For weeks I couldn't get that scene out of my mind. I kept thinking; that soldier probably had children of his own. He probably went home that night and was a loving father -- yet he was doing this to someone else's child.

That scene brought to mind a story my mother told me about the last time she saw her mother. She described how it was raining and her mother couldn't do anything to save her except put a shawl on her shoulders to protect her from the rain -- and then she said good-bye. Looking at that film,, I thought about my daughters Ariella and Talia, my wife Shelly, my parents, my grandparents and where I came from.

Joe went to Auschwitz in 1987. What he saw there moved him to made a sacred vow to do something. One year later Joe was Executive Director of the Campaign to Remember, raising money for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum -- the institution that would tell this story.

"I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was going to do whatever it took to make sure the world never forgets. It was at that moment that I knew this story had to be told."

When the search firm interviewing candidates for the executive director job, asked Joe why he thought he was the most qualified he answered -- "It is my destiny. The campaign is the right place, at the right time, right now." Another true sign that synchronicity played a powerful role in Joe getting this position is the meeting he had with Harvey Meyerhoff, Chairman of the Campaign to Remember. Mr. Meyerhoff insisted on meeting Joe on the day that his wife was dying.

I couldn't believe that Mr. Meyerhoff wanted to meet under the circumstances. I offered to talk at another time. He looked me in the eye and said, 'My wife told me that building the Holocaust Museum is the most important thing I will ever do in my life and that I must take this meeting. I promised her, so let's talk now.' It was one of the most memorable encounters I have ever had.

"First Remember, Then Educate"

We can never forget that 11 million people were killed in the Holocaust. We must also remember that millions intentionally or unintentionally colluded in the Holocaust. These stories must be told so we can continue to learn. It is our individual and collective responsibility to never let this happen again. It is also our responsibility to work together to do what ever it takes to create a world where we, and all of our children can flourish.

Today, Joe is a Principal in the Private Client Practice of Bernstein Global Wealth Management, Inc. He is a co-founder of the firm's Washington, DC office. He is a presidential (of the United States) appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, the museum's governing board. Joe's father is 93 years old and his mother is 87. After coming to the United States, his father went dancing every night until he was 87 years old. One night he met Jack Lemon, which resulted in him being cast in a dozen movies because of his love of dance and commitment to joy. Take it from me, Joe, his wife Shelly and their daughters Ariella and Talia exude the same joy as Joe's father. I have learned a great deal about the Holocaust from Joe. He also reinforced the importance of doing our part to help end the pain and suffering in the world, and at the same time, choosing to live life to it's fullest. Joe and his family are a gift to the human spirit.