Sara Bloomfield ’77G and Travis Roxlau ’92 help develop and expand the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
By John Walsh
Although the career paths of Sara Bloomfield ’77G and Travis Roxlau ’92 to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington were quite different, they’ve been working there for 20 years to help confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.
“I’ve had such an extraordinary career here,” says Bloomfield, the museum’s executive director. “I’m able to meet Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans, and other people from a time in history we can’t understand. What these people did with those experiences after the Holocaust is remarkable.”
“It’s a privilege to work here,” says Roxlau, the director of collections services.
The museum, which is one of the largest Holocaust museums in the world, welcomes 1.7 million visitors a year – one-third of whom are schoolchildren and 90 percent of whom aren’t Jewish. Architecture sets the tone of the museum, which has a subdued atmosphere.
“If you walked around, visitors are contemplative and quiet,” Bloomfield says. “And people are surprised at how well teenagers respond to the exhibition.
“We focus on getting people to think about why the Holocaust happened in a country that was highly educated and advanced, and yet those aspects of society failed when you think they should have helped prevent societal collapse and such atrocities,” she adds. “We look at hate, fear, and indifference and hope to stimulate conversations about their role in society.”
The museum, which sits on federal land, is funded publicly and privately. The federal government supports the maintenance and security of the museum, which was dedicated in 1993. All funds needed to build the museum and operate the educational programming come from the private sector, including prominent donors from Cleveland, such as the Miller and Ratner families.
“We’re very grateful for their contributions,” Bloomfield says.
The museum’s educational programs include training law enforcement officers (police and FBI agents), as well as military and judiciary personnel in the U.S. and its allied countries to look at how these professions in Germany behaved before the Nazis came to power and then their evolution under the Third Reich and during the Holocaust.
“Over time, these institutions became part of totalitarianism and eventually genocide,” Bloomfield says.
Those in the military program study Holocaust history, as well as the German military’s role during the war. The educational program analyzes the army’s role in society and decision making within that role.
The museum, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year by going on a four-city tour, receives one new collection a day, about 350 a year, but significant Holocaust material still exists in private hands, Roxlau says. In the scope of the collection, all material is important and unique, and all are considered masterpieces. The majority of the collection is documents and photos – there are 65 million pages and 16,000 objects, as well as film, music, and oral history.
The museum recently helped U.S. authorities track down the diary of a leading Nazi ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, which was recovered after missing for almost 70 years. The diary originally was in the possession of Robert Kempner, a German-born American lawyer who served as assistant U.S. chief counsel during the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
Other interesting projects Roxlau is working on bringing to the museum include an oral history project of perpetrators and bystanders throughout Europe who collaborated with the Nazis or witnessed their atrocities. Also, because the museum collects materials on all victims of Nazism, the acquisitions department is reaching out to Polish and other communities in the U.S. to acquire their materials.
Roxlau visited Poland several times to see the concentration camps, the site of the Warsaw ghetto, and Auschwitz. He visited sites where events occurred and has gotten to know the people working at the Holocaust museums in Europe.
“The close working relationship with these partners helps us tell the story of the Holocaust,” he says.
The U.S. museum, which is a global and virtual institution, won’t expand its footprint near the national mall; however, the David and Fela Shapell Family Collections and Conservation Center will open in 2016 just outside D.C. The center, which will include labs and reading rooms, will afford more room for state-of-the-art collections care.
The paths to meaningful work
Bloomfield, whose main focus is strategic planning, wound up at the museum by a fluke. She lived in Cleveland, taught, and then moved into educational administration while working on her MBA at Cleveland State University. She wanted to do something different with her career but wasn’t exactly sure what. While looking for work in Washington in 1986, she came across a job, deputy director of administration, with the project to build the Holocaust museum, which was just starting.
During Bloomfield’s first year, the project sounded precarious: “Would we get it built? Did we have the right architect? Would we do it right?”
Pieces came together, and the museum opened in 1993 to greater success than anticipated. Bloomfield’s role was behind the scenes – overseeing educational outreach and programming and administrative duties. In 1998, the director of the museum at the time left, and Bloomfield became the acting director. After a national search for a new director, Bloomfield was chosen.
“I get asked all the time how I got where I am,” she says. “Being an educator helps prepare you for leadership. You need to relate to people and communicate well. It’s a constellation of things, many of which I studied while at John Carroll.”
Roxlau, by contrast, planned on going into the museum profession because he’s always been interested in museums and archeology. The history major and secondary education minor chose an independent study track and interned at the Western Reserve Historical Society while attending Carroll. Now-retired history professor Dave Robson encouraged Roxlau to continue with the museum line of work. Subsequently, Roxlau attended graduate school at George Washington University where his fellow students were working at the Holocaust museum and told him about a job there during his second semester in 1993.
“And 20 years later, I’m still here,” he says.
Roxlau started working on the registry of Jewish Holocaust survivors, which started in 1983 in New York as a national database of survivors and descendants, which eventually was transferred to the museum. He gathered photos and digitized them to make them publicly accessible. Even though there are 200,000 individuals in the now international registry – including spouses, children, and grandchildren – there are still many survivors and their descendants yet to be registered, Roxlau says.
In 1995, Roxlau became the oral history archivist (oral history of survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders), caring for them, preserving them, organizing them and duplicating them. From 2000 to 2006, he was the collection manager. The collection includes objects, film, photos, music, and art, some of which are stored in an off-site facility. He worked with the insurance, import, export, transportation, and logistics of the objects. He also was involved in borrowing Anne Frank’s original writings, which were housed in Amsterdam.
“It was the first and only time they left the Netherlands,” he says, adding that he was involved with every aspect of their transport, including police and security.
After more than 20 years, Bloomfield and Roxlau are drawn to the significance of working at the museum.
“In the back of my mind, I always thought about leaving, but this is such an incredible place,” Roxlau says. “Watching it become what it has makes me want to stay.”
“In honoring the memory of the dead, I can help teach young people in memory of the dead to make the future different,” Bloomfield says. “It’s an incredibly meaningful job.” JCU
Click here for more information about the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.