L.A. Rabbi’s Organization Commands International Attention : Judaism: Marvin Hier sees his Simon Wiesenthal Center as a ‘Jewish defense agency.’
The head of West Germany and a Los Angeles rabbi have engaged in an unusual debate by mail about how to allay fears among Jews and others over the possibility that fascism could resurface in a united Germany.
The exchange last month between West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder-dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, highlighted a grass-roots concern that has been largely ignored in the public discussions of political leaders.
But it also put a spotlight on the Orthodox rabbi who opened a modest Holocaust research center in Los Angeles’ Westside 13 years ago. Hier has shaped his organization into what he calls a “Jewish defense agency” that commands attention in international circles.
Now second in membership only to B’nai B’rith International with 380,000 members, the Simon Wiesenthal Center at times rivals the venerable American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress for its impact and access to world leaders.
The organization’s reach is demonstrated by the response from the West German leader to Hier’s Feb. 9 letter.
Hier, talking of the “great fear that German reunification brings to the community of victims of Nazism,” proposed that the reunification process include Holocaust-education programs, government monitoring of hate groups and other measures to deter anti-Semitism, as well as specific programs to preserve the memory of Nazi crimes.
The rabbi wrote that he was particularly concerned about educating East Germans, who have lived under a dictatorship and without full information about Nazi crimes.
In his four-page response on Feb. 28, Kohl expressed his “deep disappointment at how little” attention opponents of a reunified Germany have given to West Germany’s education of its youth about the Nazi era. Kohl said that East Germans have not lived in isolation, but because of television and other means they “had a very clear picture of what was happening in the free part of Germany and in the world.”
In releasing texts of the correspondence, Hier observed disappointedly, “He’s saying, ‘Trust us. We’ll take care of it.’ ”
Hier is no stranger to Kohl. “I’ve met four or five times with Mr. Kohl in the chancellor’s office and two times with his predecessor,” Hier said in an interview this week. Hier, who will turn 51 Friday, also discussed his visits with Italian, French and Israeli prime ministers and stops at the Oval Office.
Known for a scrappy, go-it-alone style of approaching issues, Hier said he has been criticized for his independent course.
“People ask me why we need another multifaceted Jewish agency. I respond that in the field of cancer or heart research, nobody asks that question,” he said.
The center, bearing the name of the famous hunter of Nazi war criminals who lives in Austria, dropped “Holocaust Studies” from its title seven years ago because of its broadened agenda. Although Hier still presses governments for documentation and prosecution of reputed war criminals, the center addresses Israeli, Soviet and U.S. government policies affecting Jewish rights.
Hier and the center are not universally admired in Los Angeles. They are “regarded as being outside the mainstream of the (Los Angeles Jewish) community,” said Yehuda Lev, a columnist for the Jewish Journal, writing last year in The Times. That is largely because, Lev continued, “they do not coordinate programs with--or seek affiliation with--the Jewish Federation Council, an umbrella group for most of the organized Jewish community.
“Nor are many of the organizational leaders particularly sympathetic to Hier’s close relationship with (Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Shamir and the Likud Party, because of what they regard as an unnecessarily stubborn policy regarding the future of the occupied territories,” Lev said.
But in the same article, Lev described the success of a Hier-suggested gathering of world Jewish leaders in Israel. Last March, 1,631 Jewish leaders from 44 countries met for two days with the leaders of Israel’s coalition government to vent criticism on internal Israeli policies and to exchange frank views in person rather than through press releases and news accounts.
Hier, who had broached the idea to Shamir, said many Jewish leaders were initially unenthusiastic about the meeting. “But when the train pulled out of the station, no responsible Jewish leader wanted to miss that train,” Hier said.
This week in Washington, Hier held the center’s first annual National Leadership Conference, which attracted Vice President Dan Quayle, U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the West German and Soviet ambassadors to address various issues such as Soviet Jewry, Middle East events and German reunification.
The center’s public relations staff noted that part of the three-day meeting was on C-Span cable network and that Hier appeared after the conference on CBS’ “This Morning.”
“People who like working at a slow pace probably wouldn’t like working at the center,” Hier said.
“I was born and raised on the lower East Side (of New York City),” Hier said. “I was taught there are no shortcuts in life. The day is early and the night is late.”
Hier studied at Brooklyn College and was ordained at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Theological Seminary. He spent 12 years as director of the Hillel Jewish campus center at the University of British Columbia.
With $500,000 from brothers Samuel and William Belzberg of Vancouver, Canada, and Beverly Hills, respectively, Hier was able to lay the groundwork in 1977 for the West Coast branch of Yeshiva University and its Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, as the center was known then.
One of the center’s earliest projects, “Genocide,” a documentary film about the Nazi Holocaust co-narrated by Elizabeth Taylor, won an Oscar in 1982 for co-producer and co-writer Hier.
“In 1977 I thought we would found a memorial to the Holocaust with local flavor and aspirations,” Hier said. “It never occurred to me that the center would have offices around the world and (be) involved in international issues.” Besides its base at 9760 W. Pico Blvd., the center has offices in six other U.S. and foreign cities and a legal counsel in Washington.
Hier is quick to note that the center is not a religious organization or Orthodox-oriented, though he and Abraham Cooper, the associate dean, happen to be Orthodox rabbis.
“Twenty percent of the members are non-Jews,” he said, and most of the 140 staff members who are synagogue-affiliated are Reform or Conservative Jews.
The center’s widening program is also seen in the $50-million Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance, next door to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, scheduled for completion next spring. The museum, which obtained a $5-million state grant, will house a Holocaust exhibit and will feature sections on the history of American prejudices, as well as facilities to study contemporary human rights issues.
FROM THE DESKS OF RABBI HIER / CHANCELLOR KOHL Here are excerpts from correspondence between Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany:
From Rabbi Hier, Feb. 9:
“I must tell you, I am not among those in the cheering section applauding the rush towards German reunification. . . .
“You are undoubtedly aware, Mr. Chancellor, the great fear that German reunification brings to the community of victims of Nazism. Those who bear the scars of the last ‘unified Germany’ do not see their concerns being addressed in the current reunification discussions between world leaders. . . .
”. . . Not a single word is said publicly about the great internal questions of how to educate millions of people who have lived under an oppressive regime and have been cut off from the real world for more than 40 years and how to prevent their ignorance of the past from negatively affecting the course of the future.
”. . . It is not the potential weakness of the Deutsche mark that is critical, but the consequences that may lead to a weak ‘Deutsche memory.’ ”. . . (Discussions during reunification should include) the continuation of the special relationship with the state of Israel and the establishment of close cultural and educational contacts, particularly in East Germany where contact between the people in East Germany and the state of Israel was forbidden.”
From Chancellor Kohl, Feb. 28:
”. . . I understand the anxiety expressed by some victims of National Socialist dictatorship in view of the prospect of German unity. On the other hand, it needs to be asked whether such anxiety is essentially justified.
”. . . Relentless political measures to combat right-wing extremism as well as the intensive public information campaign will be continued.
“The vast majority of young people in Germany are fully aware of the inestimable value of a free democracy. . . . They deserve our sympathy and encouragement, not our distrust and discouragement.
“By peaceful means (East Germans) have overcome a dictatorship which ignored their fundamental rights and which, by invoking an allegedly ‘anti-fascist’ ideology, sought to impress upon them a distorted view of history. Often risking considerable disadvantages for themselves, they fought against the lack of freedom and truth. To my mind this makes them especially immune to any new totalitarian temptations.
“To me, learning from the historical experiences of this century also means not repeating the mistake of forcing the Germans into psychological isolation. This would be but grist to the mill of right-wing extremists.”