The Memory Keeper
World Jewish Congress General Counsel Menachem Rosensaft '79 works tirelessly to ensure Holocaust remembrance efforts strengthen with the advancement of time
Menachem Rosensaft ’79 keeps a grainy, black-and-white, 1943 photo of his paternal grandfather on the desk in his office at the World Jewish Congress (WJC). In the picture, culled from a German-made film depicting the ghetto of Bedzin, Poland, where Rosensaft’s father was born, his grandfather is shown wearing a white armband that identifies him as Jewish. Rosensaft, whose parents both survived the Nazi concentration camps, and who was born in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen, has carried that photo with him since he was a child in Switzerland. “It reminds me of where I come from,” he says, “and why I am doing everything that I am doing.”
History weighs heavy on children of survivors, and Rosensaft, 66, has made it his life’s work to remember. As the WJC’s general counsel since 2009, he oversees the organization’s legal work and serves on its 47-member executive committee. The WJC functions as the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people, focusing on anti-Semitism, the legacy of the Holocaust, interfaith relations, and other issues of relevance to Jewish communities worldwide.
Rosensaft enjoyed a long career as a litigator in private practice prior to taking on his current role at the WJC, but he has always pursued Holocaust remembrance activities—serving as an advocate for children of survivors—through his writings and his nonprofit leadership. That work has taken on heightened relevance today as the number of survivors dwindles. “This is a transitional moment in history,” Rosensaft says. “We have to make sure that what we received from the survivors’ generation is passed on.”
After completing a federal clerkship, Rosensaft worked as a securities litigator and as a member of the legal department at Chase Manhattan Bank. Later, he was a partner at a national law firm and general counsel of a New York Stock Exchange financial services firm.
His second career dates to a chance conversation with Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir and current WJC president, on the shuttle back from Washington, D.C., in 1995. While the two had known each other casually through their work with Jewish organizations, sitting on the plane that day, Lauder encouraged Rosensaft to call him. A few days later, Rosensaft did so, and accepted a job as senior international counsel for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which works on rebuilding Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. When Lauder became the WJC’s president in 2007, he recruited Rosensaft, first to redraft its constitution, then as general counsel. “I’m enormously grateful to him,” Rosensaft says. “He’s given me the opportunity to blend my professional life with my passions.”
In addition to his work with the WJC, Rosensaft—whose wife, Jean Bloch Rosensaft, directs communications at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is also the daughter of survivors—maintains a full plate of extracurricular activities. He serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and is senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendents. He also teaches classes on the law of genocide at Columbia Law School and Cornell Law School, drawing parallels between the Holocaust and other genocides of the 20th century.
Rosensaft’s latest project is a forthcoming book from Jewish Lights Publishing titled God, Faith and Identity in the Ashes: Perspectives of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. It is a labor of love for Rosensaft, who wants to ensure that survivors are viewed as role models, rather than victims. “They could have given up in 1945 after everything that happened,” he says. “Instead, they rebuilt families and created communities in other countries, and provide an insight into how to constructively approach life after catastrophes.”