January 16, 2019

Masha Loen, the last living founder of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, dies

Masha Loen, the last living founder of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), the oldest Holocaust Museum in the United States, died peacefully in the care of her loving son, David yesterday. She was a champion of LAMOTH since 1961, and a force to be reckoned with.

Mariashka Sapoznikow Loewenberg (she became Masha Loen upon her arrival in America) was born in Lithuania, and loved to tell everyone that a Litvak was an “Emeser Yid” (Real Jew). Her grandfather was a rabbi, and her early childhood warm and safe. After a period in the Ghetto, her family was deported. She survived the infamous Stutthof concentration camp, three additional labor and concentration camps, a death march, and two rounds of typhus (which she jokingly referred to as The Typhuses) before finally being liberated. She was in a pile of dead bodies, but managed to move her arm up and down to signal that she was still alive. She met her husband Cornelius, who was working for the Allies after the war in Germany. He spoke several languages, and was considerably older and more sophisticated. He was smitten the first time he saw her, and she with him. They were married 70 years, and totally devoted to one another. We lost Cornelius several months ago.

I never discovered her true age, but she was “about 70” when I met her 20 years ago working for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation). She was an interviewer for the project, and a some-time volunteer at the Foundation’s headquarters in trailers on the back lot at Universal Studios. I was assigned to do quality assurance on a few of her interviews, and we spoke often. When I became the Executive Director of LAMOTH in 2001, I inherited her as my secretary, a term she thought much more glamorous then the word assistant, which she insisted I not use. Masha taught me more about managing people than any advanced degree ever could. She taught me how to dress (“You are my director, look like it!”), how to ask for what I wanted, and how to take a stand for the institution I was charged with running, without fear.

Though she couldn’t type, use the computer, and often could not tell the difference between the fax machine and the printer (“But it’s coming out like a fax” she used to yell at me daily), she was by far the most tenacious, loyal and brazen employee I will ever have. Masha’s passion for the Museum knew no bounds. I witnessed her confront wealthy philanthropists fearlessly, once tearing what she considered a measly donation check to her beloved institution in half. “You can do better than that” she said, looking the donor square in the eye. “Double it and bring it back tomorrow!” He did. She worked tirelessly for the Federation for a myriad of Survivor causes in Los Angeles over the years, as a lay member and on the payroll when the Museum was an agency of Federation. She felt betrayed when the then-leadership of the Federation tried to shut her Museum down. She wasn’t afraid to confront this upsetting issue, once pointing her finger in the face of the CEO at the time, and telling him he should be ashamed of himself. She was right.

Her sense of humor, like her tenacity, also knew no bounds. Once, when we attended the Remembrance Ceremony at the Lodzer synagogue, a couple who had received honorary doctorates at an Israeli University was called forth as Dr. and Dr., to light a candle. In what can only be described as the loudest stage whisper in history, she tartly noted “So if I was a millionairess, I should be Dr. Masha Loen.” But her true gift was talking to children who came to the Museum about the Holocaust, meeting each child on their own level. She shared her story, and the story of each artifact in the Museum, including the last photo of her mother ever taken, holding her infant sister. Children loved her, their parents and teachers loved her, and we would often get requests from all over the Southland requesting that Masha be at the Museum when they returned.

You probably had never heard of Masha. She wasn’t wealthy, or scholarly, or what many in the Jewish community in Los Angeles considered to be an important person. She was however, one of the brave women that helped to build the Jewish community in post-war LA. She owned her own business, raised her (wonderful) son David, and gave her time, her money and her energy to the Survivor community in LA. We are losing our Survivor community is a phrase we all hear regularly from the directors of our organizations. It’s a phrase used as a fundraising tool, or to inspire you to become involved, or to teach, and for a plethora of other reasons, all valid. But these Survivors are not merely living history lessons. They were and are people, with flaws and gifts, who made 20th century Jewish America what it is today. Each loss is profound in a unique sense. They are irreplaceable. Masha is irreplaceable. Years ago, I wrote a piece eulogizing the death of a Survivor and founding member of the LAMOTH board, Freddy Diament z’l. Masha liked what I wrote, and asked me if I would write her eulogy someday. I promised her I would. “Call it Masha’s Eulogy” she told me. “And be sure to write it good!”

Rachel Lithgow is the Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City. From 2001-2007, she was the Director of the LA Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH).