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An enthusiastic audience of more than two hundred packed the McNally Amphitheater for the conference, which participants described as a huge success from start to finish.
The day was filled with vigorous discussions and some remarkable revelations.
Conference emcee Thane Rosenbaum, a Fordham professor, prominent legal scholar, and award-winning novelist, welcomed the attendees, as did Fordham's associate dean, Prof. Matthew Diller.
The opening session, "La Guardia and the Holocaust," featured new research by Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff revealing the little-known role played by New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in lobbying the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
The session was chaired by one of La Guardia's successors, former Mayor Ed Koch, who said President Roosevelt's unresponsiveness to appeals for the refugees was "unforgivable." Koch said, "I am sure FDR is in purgatory as punishment for turning his back on Holocaust victims." Also on the panel were LaGuardia biographer Prof. Thomas Kessner and Dr. Rochelle Saidel, who is editing the memoirs of La Guardia's sister Gemma.
In the second morning session, the conference attendes viewed an interview with former U.S. Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, filmed recently by the Wyman Institute. McGovern described how bombing missions he led as a U.S. pilot in 1944 targeted oil factories next to Auschwitz, and he criticized President Roosevelt for refusing to order the bombing of the death camps.
The panel of discussants featured Wyman Institute board member and Holocaust survivor Sigmund Rolat; filmmaker Stuart Erdheim, who was involved in the McGovern interview; and Dr. Racelle Weiman, director of Hebrew Union College's Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, who initiated the McGovern project. The Wyman Institute is grateful to Mr. Rolat for his sponsorship of this session.
The afternoon portion of the conference began with a session honoring U.S. journalist Varian Fry and diplomat Hiram Bingham IV, who helped more than 2,000 refugees escape from Vichy France in 1940-41. The Fry rescue mission was discussed in remarks by Fry's widow, Annette, making a rare public appearance; Bingham's son, Connecticut attorney William Bingham; and Dr. Bella Chagall Meyer, granddaughter of painter Marc Chagall, who was rescued by Fry and Bingham.
This segment of the conference was sponsored by the Wally Findlay Galleries International, Inc., whose chairman and CEO, Wyman Institute board member James Borynack, also introduced the participants. Noting that Mrs. Fry, Mr. Bingham, and Dr. Meyer, were meeting for the first time, he said he is "proud that this unforgettable and historic moment was facilitated by the Wyman Institute and took place under the auspices of this important conference."
Adding another special dimension to the proceedings was the participation of Academy Award winning actor William Hurt, who spoke about his starring role in the dramatic film "Varian's War."
The final afternoon session of the conference began with another extraordinary revelation. John R. Miller, a former Congressman(R-WA), who is now the U.S. ambassador for combating human trafficking, revealed for the first time in public that David S. Wyman's book The Abandonment of the Jews, helped save the lives of over 900 Ethiopian Jewish refugees.
Ambassador Miller said that when the Ethiopian Jews became stranded in Sudan in early 1985, he brought a copy of Prof. Wyman's book to then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. "This is a chance to write a very different history than the history of America's response to the Holocaust," Miller told the vice president. Miller said that in a later conversation with Bush, the vice president confirmed that Wyman's book "was a major influence in his decision to order to the airlift."
Miller's statement was part of a conference session, chaired by former U.S. Congressman (and Wyman Institute board member) Stephen Solarz, marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of The Abandonment of the Jews.
In the same session, noted criminal defense attorney Benjamin Brafman spoke about how the pioneering Soviet Jewry activism of his uncle, the late Morris Brafman, was influenced by the lessons of the Holocaust.
Also speaking were Dr. Racelle Weiman of Hebrew Union College's Holocaust center, and Prof Leonard Swidler, editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. The journal's latest issue, coedited by Dr. Weiman and Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff, focuses on the impact of The Abandonment of the Jews and the issues it raised. (To order a copy, click here.)
"There's just nothing like a Wyman Institute conference," one enthusiastic participant commented afterwards. "The powerful scholarship, the compelling topics, the cultural dimension--you walk away knowing that you have been part of something really special."