Focus on the Holocaust Museum Director Doneson Is Immersed in That Horrific Time

By Deborah Peterson Of The Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

Focus on the Holocaust Museum Director Doneson Is Immersed in That Horrific Time


Deborah Peterson Of The Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


JUDY DONESON admits she has lost her perspective.

She does not understand why she is so passionate about life, lives it so intensely, and yet has surrounded herself with death.

Doneson is the new administrative director of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis. As such, she is immersed in memories, photographs, oral histories, music, literature and film from the years 1933 to 1945, when the systematic destruction of European Jewry occurred. "The Holocaust just somehow worked its way into my life," said Doneson in a recent interview. "But I don't know what it means (to study the Holocaust). I don't have any perspective anymore." A woman of energy, enthusiasm and definite opinions, Doneson has a thick corona of black hair enlivened with streaks of silver. Her enormous brown eyes seem to shine with intelligence and her smile conveys friendliness. She is reluctant to give her age or to reveal current personal details, but she speaks openly about her traditional Jewish upbringing in Clayton when, she says, it was a community that had many assimilated, but few traditional, Jews. Doneson's educational background is artistic and scholarly, and even though she spent 16 years in Jerusalem, she says she never would have envisioned herself working for a Jewish organization. "I saw myself going to Hollywood, going to New York, doing what I did. But never in a particularly Jewish context." What Doneson did was go to Boston University and major in film studies. After graduation her mother gave her a year's living expenses to go to New York to write, which is what she planned to do. But Doneson was inspired by the works of author Elie Wiesel. When she was offered a job on "The Eternal Light," a public affairs television show about religion, and discovered that Wiesel would be the topic of one of the shows, she took the position. "I started reading Elie Wiesel and I just connected with him. I just thought, `This is it. I want to study the Holocaust.' " One summer when "The Eternal Light" was filming in Jerusalem, Doneson stayed on a whim to take two classes at Hebrew University, one on the Holocaust and another on contemporary Jewish history. She was hooked. Doneson received her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the Hebrew University's Institute of Contemporary Jewry. She taught a course on the Holocaust in film at Tel Aviv University and at the University of Pennsylvania and currently teaches a beginning history course at St. Louis University. She is recognized as one of the nation's foremost scholars on the Holocaust, and in her specialty of the Holocaust in film. Doneson is also the author of "The Holocaust in American Film," a leading publication on the topic. She is also a determined - if not yet recognized - writer of screenp lays, and has written a series of scripts for the purpose of developing a filmed history of the contemporary Jewish world. The scripts have not been filmed. When Doneson says this there is an unspoken "yet," at the end of her sentence. She said she still works on screenplays regularly and has not given up her dream of working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Doneson returned to St. Louis 1 1/2 years ago to be with her mother, Florence, who was sick and dying. She and her brother, Michael Doneson, were raised by their mother. (Their father, George, was a dentist who died when Judy was 14.) After her mother died, Judy Doneson says, "I didn't feel like leaving." Her decision to stay put her in contention for the administrative director's position at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, which is a department of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Carla Feuer, a spokeswoman for the federation, said the directors expect Doneson to attract more attention to and interest in the Holocaust Museum because of her high profile in the scholarly community. Michael Litwack, chairman of the commission that oversees the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, said Doneson has already drawn other known scholars to the museum and is helping it achieve a wider audience. …

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