The very long New York Times obituary of Robert Morgenthau, the longtime Manhattan District attorney, manages to omit entirely Morgenthau’s Jewish identity, which was strong.
Morgenthau was the founding chairman of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and worked for years to raise money for that museum, plan its design and content, recruit other leaders, and get it up and running. Other than the Police Athletic League (another cherished Morgenthau cause that the Times obituary also strangely omits) it was his main charitable endeavor.
Morgenthau’s commitment on the Holocaust issue extended also to the matter of fine art that had been looted by the Nazis. In 1998, when a Jew’s heirs laid claim to an Egon Schiele painting called “Portrait of Wally” that the Museum of Modern Art was planning to return to Austria, Morgenthau subpoenaed it as evidence. As the chief of Morgenthau’s investigation division, Daniel Castleman, told The Wall Street Journal at the time, “If you’re doing a stolen property case, it helps to have the stolen property.”
The action triggered a complaint letter to Morgenthau from Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, a former Times publisher who was then chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a director of the New York Times Company. The Times obituary entirely omits the “Portrait of Wally” episode, but it was one of Morgenthau’s finest moments.
Morgenthau had fought the Nazis in World War II. His father, Franklin Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, was involved in the efforts during that war to try to rescue Jews. Rather than looking away from the story, Morgenthau did what he could to make sure it was retold to millions of tourists and schoolchildren who passed through the doors of the Manhattan museum. And he tried to pursue a measure of justice for the victims’ families, even if it ticked off some of the big shots of the New York art world. The New York Times may, strangely, not wish to remember any of this history, but plenty of Jewish Americans and New Yorkers do remember it with grateful appreciation to Morgenthau for his distinguished service.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.