The donation is the result of a combination of old friends and current events, the 72-year-old philanthropist said. In the 1970s, Rubenstein worked for Stuart E. Eizenstat, a domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter who was instrumental in forming the commission that led to the building of a national Holocaust museum, which opened in 1993. In January, President Biden tapped Eizenstat to be chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which acts as the museum’s board of trustees. Biden also named Rubenstein’s longtime business partner and Carlyle Group senior partner and managing director Allan M. Holt as vice chair.
The pair quickly appealed to their old friend and colleague.
“When Allan and Stuart suggested it, it was something I was interested in,” Rubenstein said. “It’s an area I care a lot about, documentation and history.
“Maybe I made a mistake in not doing something sooner. But this opportunity came along, they asked me and I’m happy to do it,” Rubenstein added.
Holocaust Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield said the donation will advance the museum’s scholarship, education programs and exhibitions, all of which are based on its collection. The institute includes almost 24,000 objects, 23,000 oral testimonies, thousands of hours of historic film, more than 110 million pages of archival documents, and 200 million digital images and photographs. The items come from every country in Europe, as well as Argentina, China and other countries around the world and represent the perspectives of survivors, eyewitnesses, victims, soldiers and others.
The money will help to digitize the collection, making the material accessible to scholars around the world and unlocking untold stories, Bloomfield said.
“When you digitize, you can start to connect the dots and draw links between events and people, between papers, photographs and oral testimony,” she said.
Rubenstein said the ongoing conflict in Ukraine also motivated him to make the donation. Russian atrocities in Ukraine show that the lessons of the Holocaust still need to be taught, and he feels a “moral obligation” to help, he said.
“My ancestors came from Ukraine; I’m obviously Jewish. The Holocaust was an effort to wipe out the European Jews,” he said. “If you look at the Holocaust and what happened, people say, ‘Why didn’t the U.S. do more? Why didn’t we intervene?’
“We are living in a similar moment,” he continued, describing Russia’s aggression as “a Holocaust without concentration camps.” “Antisemitism is on the rise in the world. People are saying, ‘What can we do?’ There are many things you can do, and reminding people of the Holocaust is one.”
Passionate about history, Rubenstein, whose reported net worth is $3.8 billion, has given to the National Archives, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Washington and Jefferson monuments, the Library of Congress and a host of exhibitions at multiple Smithsonian museums. A $50 million gift from him, made in 2012, led to the Steven Holl-designed expansion of the Kennedy Center. Known as the Reach, it opened in 2019.
He is the author of four books, including “The American Experiment: Dialogues on a Dream,” published last year. As the host of “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations” on Bloomberg TV and PBS, he has interviewed luminaries of entertainment, business and politics, including television producer/writer Shonda Rhimes, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, designer Diane von Furstenberg, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and actor Sylvester Stallone.
Rubenstein is chairman of the boards of the Kennedy Center, National Gallery of Art, Economic Club of Washington, D.C., and the University of Chicago and serves on at least eight others, including the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, National Constitution Center and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
This gift is one of the largest he has made to institutions that he hasn’t had a hand in governing. Although he witnessed the Holocaust Museum’s creation and gave the keynote speech at the 2018 National Tribute Dinner celebrating its 25th anniversary, he has never served on its board.
Bloomfield said Rubenstein’s gift aligns with his donations to other cultural and historic organizations.
“He has such a stellar reputation for preserving humanity’s heritage, and democracy and human achievement,” she said. “If you care about the future of freedom, this museum reminds you how fragile freedom is. It’s a nice complement to his other gifts.”