W. Michael Blumenthal

Founding Director of the Jewish Museum Berlin

W. Michael Blumenthal

Following a diverse and unusual career as economics professor, politician, manager and author, W. Michael Blumenthal was director of the Jewish Museum Berlin from 1997 to September 2014. Also in 2015, he will continue to serve the museum in an advisory capacity as founding director for a transitional period.

W. Michael Blumenthal was born in Oranienburg near Berlin in 1926. His family moved to Berlin when he was three years old. In 1938, his father was deported to Buchenwald where he was held and mistreated for six weeks. After his release, the family was able to escape to Shanghai where they survived the war.

In 1947, W. Michael Blumenthal immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen in 1952. After completing his Ph.D. at the renowned Princeton University, he was professor of economics there from 1953 to 1956. He then joined Crown Cork International Corporation where he rose to vice president and director.

In the 1960s, he entered politics and public service. He served in the State Department from 1961 until 1967 as advisor on trade to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Ten years as president and then chairman of the board with Bendix International followed before President Jimmy Carter appointed him as Secretary of the Treasury in 1977. In 1979, W. Michael Blumenthal resigned from this position. He returned to the business sector and joined Burroughs Corporation in 1980 as vice chairman, then chairman of the board a year later. After a merger into the Unisys Corporation in 1986, he became chairman and CEO of Unisys. Following his retirement, he was first partner, then advisor of Lazard Frères & Co. LLC (1990-96).

It was during this period that W. Michael Blumenthal turned his attention to the history of German Jews. Researching the life stories of his ancestors – among them Rachel Varnhagen, famous for her ‘Berliner Salons,’ the opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, and literary critic Arthur Eloesser – he knitted their biographies into the larger historical framework in his book "The Invisible Wall: 300 Years of a German-Jewish Family," which was published in 1998. It traces the difficult relationship of German gentiles and Jews since the 17th century and explores the question of how the catastrophe of the Holocaust could have come about.

Following his appointment as director of the Jewish Museum Berlin in 1997, the museum’s primary focus shifted from the history of Berlin Jews to German-Jewish history in its totality. The long-aspired independent status for the museum from the Stiftung Stadtmuseum (Foundation of the City Museum) was granted on 1 January 1999. In 2001, the 14th German Bundestag passed the law to form a "Jewish Museum Berlin Foundation," which has since been a foundation directly under federal government control. Its festive opening took place in September 2001.

W. Michael Blumenthal portrait

W. Michael Blumenthal, our museum's founding director (photo 2006); Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Sönke Tollkühn

In recognition of his work in Berlin, W. Michael Blumenthal was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in June 1999 and the Leo Baeck Medal in New York in November 1999. In June 2000, he became an Honorary Citizen of the city of Oranienburg and in 2002, he was honored with the Goethe Medal and the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin. Since 2015, he is also an Honorary Citizen of Berlin. In November 2006, he was awarded the Great Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) honored him with the "Ernst Cramer Award" in March 2008, the Jewish Community of Berlin awarded him the Heinz-Galinski prize in October 2011. In 2012/2013, he received the Roland Berger Human Dignity Award, in 2013 the Lucius D. Clay Medal from the German-American Society, and in May 2014 the "Estrongo Nachama Prize for Tolerance and Civil Courage." In April 2015, the Founding Director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, W. Michael Blumenthal, was awarded honorary citizenship of the City of Berlin. The Governing Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, and the President of the Berlin House of Representatives, Ralf Wieland, presented the tribute.

In November 2015, the Jewish Museum Berlin and the circle of friends of the museum jointly awarded W. Michael Blumenthal the Prize for Understanding and Tolerance. In his laudatory speech the Federal German President Joachim Gauck acknowledged Blumenthal’s merits.

W. Michael Blumenthal has several honorary doctorates including one from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, and one from the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien, Heidelberg. Furthermore, he is a member of the Advisory Board of the American Jewish Committee (Berlin) and of the International Rescue Committee (New York). He continues to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe Foundation (Berlin), is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations (New York) and the Century Club.

W. Michael Blumenthal lives with his wife Barbara (née Bennett) in Princeton, New Jersey. They have one son together and he has three daughters from a former marriage. His memoirs entitled "In achtzig Jahren um die Welt. Mein Leben" (Around the World in Eight Years. My Life) was published by Propyläen Publishers in October 2010. In October 2011, a series of interviews with the Deutschlandfunk journalist David Dambitsch about his life’s work were published by Membran Music Ltd. in the talking book "Auf den Einzelnen kommt es an" (It’s the individual that counts).

W. Michael Blumenthal in front of his portrait

W. Michael Blumenthal at the festive unveiling of his portrait by Michael Triegel in the honorary citizens gallery at the Abgeordnetenhaus of Berlin on 25 April 2017; Landesarchiv Berlin, photo: Thomas Platow