August 23, 2019

Jay Kronish is using Holocaust education to preach tolerance — in South Korea

NAME: Jay Kronish
AGE: 71
BEST KNOWN FOR: Former Holocaust educator in South Korea
LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: Befriended Robin Williams — before he was famous — during a stint as a Bay Area restaurateur

As Jay Kronish took the stage in April at the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in South Korea in front of a group of American soldiers, he wore a long overcoat and flat cap with Jewish stars of yellow cloth pinned to his arm and chest — the costume of a ghetto-bound Jew under Nazi rule.

“Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God, my soul, that turned my dreams to ashes,” he said, quoting Elie Wiesel. “Never shall I forget those things even if I were condemned to live as long as God.”

The costume was new, but the speech was polished: Kronish had spent the previous four years as a Holocaust educator in South Korea, a country almost devoid of Jews.

In 2013, Kronish opened the Busan Israel House, a cultural center in the southern port city of Busan, after a stint living in Israel with his Korean-born wife. In addition to introducing Koreans to Israel, the couple operated a permanent Holocaust exhibition. Drawing on his involvement in the civil rights movement as a teen — in 1963, he heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Washington, D.C., and met activist Rosa Parks — he used the exhibition to preach tolerance and acceptance.

Kronish’s wife died in January after a yearslong battle with cancer, and he moved to Los Angeles shortly afterward, returning to the low-slung 1916 home in Silver Lake where he was raised and which he now shares with his brother and their dog, Didi. He sat in their living room for a recent interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Journal: How did the Busan Israel House come about?

Jay Kronish: One of the friends we had made in Israel was the Israeli ambassador to South Korea, Tuvia Israeli. A wonderful guy. He asked me and my wife to find someone in Busan to open an Israel cultural center. So we did, and the person after a year or so backed out. Since nobody else was interested in doing it, we did it.

JJ: How did people in Korea respond to the Israel House?

JK: The interest in Israel in the almost 40 percent population of Korea that is Christian is staggering and enormous. From the time we opened on March 4, 2013, till the time I left in February of 2017, over 9,000 people came to the Israel House.

JJ: Did the funding for the house come from the Israeli government?

JK: Not a cent. The funding came from us, from the money that I had saved and made, and the mandate was, “I want you to open an Israel culture center.”

I just felt in my heart that it wasn’t just about a culture center. It was about all of the things that I had done in my life that were meaningful, coming from the early days of the civil rights movement, and that could be manifested through a Holocaust museum and experience.

I went to several of the Holocaust education centers in Israel and they gave me a ton of digital files and I made a Holocaust museum — bought a bunch of TVs, got a bunch of films from the foreign ministry and from the different Holocaust groups and put together presentations and started educating people.

JJ: Did people in Busan even know what the Holocaust was?

JK: To some extent, because Koreans are very bright, well-educated people. Especially among the Christian community, if there’s any affinity or interest in Israel, there is an absolute segue into the Holocaust, primarily because of their own experience of the atrocities that occurred to them during the Japanese occupation. They got it. They got it in their heart. They got it in their gut.

JJ: Now that you’ve been back in Los Angeles for some months, what’s next for you?

JK: I’m retired. I go to the gym. I have a bunch of old friends that I see. And I’m pursuing figuring out how to get into different speaking circuits. There’s a man named (Lt.) Gen. Thomas Vandal, now the commander of all the United States forces in South Korea. After I gave the Holocaust presentation at his camp, Camp Red Cloud in 2015, we were chatting afterward, and he said, ‘You should go to the States and give these talks on college campuses. Our kids need to hear this.’ And since that time, I could not get that out of my mind.

JJ: I see you have a Hebrew tattoo on your arm — Baruch HaShem, blessings be to God. Why ‘Baruch HaShem’?

JK: Because after what I went through, in being the caregiver to my wife for eight years of her suffering with cancer, the only thing that I was left with was being thankful: being thankful that I was willing to give up my ego and my will, my likes and dislikes, my habits and cravings, to serve another person in their time of need; thankful that I went through what I went through — the pain, the suffering, the degradation that I went through in dealing with a person who was slowly dying. n