Looking back at the Morgenthau legacy

November 6, 2009
Source: The New York Times

By Andrew Keh

At the end of this year, when Robert M. Morgenthau leaves his job as Manhattan district attorney — the position he has held since 1975 — it will be not just the end of an era for the prosecutor’s office, but also the close of another chapter in the Morgenthau family’s complex, century-long legacy of public service.

An exhibition that opens Monday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City examines the lives of three Morgenthaus: Robert, now 90; his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr. (1891-1967), who was secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr. (1856-1946), who was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Titled “The Morgenthaus: A Legacy of Service,” the exhibition features objects and historical documents. “I hope it will encourage people to be involved with public service,” Mr. Morgenthau said of the exhibition during a media preview on Friday morning.

Mr. Morgenthau said it was his grandfather who first encouraged him to serve others, telling him: “I couldn’t get into public service until I was 55. You don’t have to wait that long.”

His priorities were further shaped, he said, by a near-death experience while aboard the destroyer Lansdale during World War II. On April 20, 1944, the ship was attacked and sunk by an enemy torpedo.

As he treaded water in the Mediterranean Sea, unsure of whether he and his crewmates would be saved, Mr. Morgenthau vowed to devote his life to public service, he said.

“I made a lot of promises to the Almighty,” Mr. Morgenthau said.

Mr. Morgenthau’s cap, medals and oar from his time in the Navy are on view in the exhibition, alongside campaign materials from his failed gubernatorial run in 1970.

Also on display is a note from Sonia Sotomayor, newly sworn in as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, dated Aug. 25. The message, handwritten in blue ink, reads: “Few can say they have a friend and mentor like you. I was blessed the day we met. Thank you for all your support.”

Henry Morgenthau Sr., one of 12 children born into a Jewish family in southern Bavaria, came to New York in 1866. He was appointed to his ambassadorship in 1913, and is today credited with drawing needed attention to the Armenian genocide. A telegram written in 1915, by which he informed the secretary of state that “a campaign of race extermination is in progress,” is prominently displayed in the exhibition.

Also displayed is correspondence that Henry Morgenthau Jr. had with his staff and with President Roosevelt regarding the American response to the Holocaust.

The Morgenthau and Roosevelt families became friendly while living as neighbors in Dutchess County, N.Y., and President Roosevelt appointed Henry Jr. as his Treasury secretary in 1934.

As evidence of the atrocities committed against Jews in Europe began to emerge, many people, including Henry Jr. and his staff, accused the State Department and the Allied powers of ignoring and even suppressing information about the crisis.

Officials of the Treasury took it upon themselves to compose a report that is said to have compelled President Roosevelt into action — though historians still debate whether that action was sufficient.

On view in the exhibition is a copy of the staff’s original report, titled “A Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews.” Henry Jr., the display shows, changed the title before forwarding it to the president, out of worry that his friend would find it offensive.

Three days after receiving the report, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9417 (on loan at the museum from the National Archives) to create the War Refugee Board, which, according to the display, saved the lives of an estimated 200,000 European Jews.

Melissa J. Martens, one of the exhibition’s curators, called the documents “cornerstones of America’s response to the Holocaust.”

Ms. Martens said she and her co-curator, Karen Franklin, were given broad access to the family’s trunks, bookshelves and closets to find the diverse objects that ultimately made it to the exhibition.

Mr. Morgenthau is the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, and David G. Marwell, the museum’s director, acknowledged the strangeness of creating an exhibition about his “boss.”

But he explained that he relished the opportunity partly because it gave the museum a rare opportunity to feature exhibits on the Armenian genocide and Roosevelt’s policies during the Holocaust.

The exhibition will run through December 2010.