Repairing the World: An Interview with Tad Taube
Tad Taube, biggest donor of the new Polin Museum in Warsaw, talks about his early days in Poland, interrupted film career in Hollywood, and the difference between good and bad philanthropy. He also explains why the Polin Museum was one of his easiest philanthropic decisions.
Tad Taube was born in 1931 in Poland, and had the good fortune to leave the country on the eve of the Holocaust in 1939. Today, over 70 years, later he feels like he's symbolically returning to the country of his birth. He considers his philanthropic involvement in the Polin Museum, an unprecedented public-private partnership that will open on Oct. 28, 2014, a contribution to the culture of his forefathers. The Tad Taube Family Foundation and the Koret Foundation which Tad Taube presides were able to secure around $19 million in support for the Museum. Who is the man behind this effort?
Find out more about the Polin Museum: here
From Toruń to Upper State New York
Tad Taube was born in Kraków in 1931, but at the time his family was living in Toruń, a big - majorly German - town which after WWI found itself within the borders of the newly established Poland.
‘My mother's family had a long history of living in Kraków, and it was customary when I was born for the woman who was going to have a child to go to the house of her mother and have the child there. So that's why I was born in Kraków.’
A couple weeks after birth, his mother moved back to Toruń, where they lived until he was about six. Here his father had a business and factories. The family spoke German as did most of the citizens of the city:
‘Toruń when I lived there was 100 percent German-speaking. Everyone spoke German. You couldn't survive if you didn't speak German.’
When his father's business grew, and it became important that there be a central office in Warsaw, the family moved. That would have been around 1937. Tad Taube went to school ('I think it was a French private school', he remembers) and only then did he begin to learn Polish.
The family lived in Warsaw in an apartment house that was completely destroyed during WW2. Taube remembers that the square was called Plac Napoleona [today: Plac Powstańców Warszawy].
‘It was on the same street as the Prudential building. So when people ask me what do I remember from Warszawa, I say Prudential, because I used to walk down there with my nanny and look at this enormous building. It was the highest building in Poland at that time.’
In May or June 1939 his mother and father went on a business trip in the US.
‘They were living in NYC and made the decision not to come back to Poland. I was staying with my grandmother in Warsaw, but when my father's best friend went to the US, I went with him.’
The 8-year-old got to New York (or Ellis Island, to be more precise) via Paris and Cherbourg.
‘I went to live with my mother and father in NYC, but the first thing they did - and that was very smart - was to send me to a summer camp in Upper New York State. I was in a summer camp with 100 boys, nobody spoke German, nobody spoke Polish. So it was a 100 percent immersion - within seven or eight weeks I could speak English fluently’, he remembers.
In retrospect he considers it a very good experience: ‘ I went immediately into school. No one had even the faintest idea that I was a refugee... My English was so good.’
War and propaganda movies
When Hitler invaded Poland his parents lost many assets which they had in Poland. Very soon the family couldn't afford to live in New York and they moved to LA.
‘My parents had some friends in the film industry. At that point the US were making mostly propaganda war movies. One of the things that were in great demand were kids that could speak Polish or Russian. So I was offered a part in one of those films .’
He played a part in a short film called Greenie and one entitled Tomorrow the world - about a Nazi youngster that moved into a residential area of Long Island, and tried to organize everybody in a kind of Hitler Jugend. ‘I was a little Polish kid that this German kid beat up,’ he recalls.
He played a few other parts - usually roles of boys from Eastern Europe - before his father and mother declared it was enough. He was henceforth able to focus on school. Looking back, he sees the experience as ‘a pretty good film career’.
When asked about the beginnings of his philanthropic activity, Tad Taube points to his early childhood. ‘Growing up in the US, one is giving money to the boy-scouts and girl-scouts, community chests, etc. Philanthropy is part of the culture.’
‘But from my standpoint there's a big difference between philanthropic activity which is part of the culture and having essentially a business model which is what I have and have had for a number of years’, he adds.
For Taube, who was a successful real-estate entrepreneur and corporate executive (‘I've been fortunate to be a pretty good investor, I mean there's got to be some reason how I was able to be a major donor to the Polin Museum,’ he says), this formal philanthropic involvement dates back to over 45 years ago.
‘I made my first serious gift of philanthropic nature in the early 70s. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and Stanford has a very elaborate outreach for people who went to that school. This means that wherever you are they're going to find you. And they found me and that's how it started.’
When asked if he thinks the tradition of Jewish charity culture shaped his activity in any way he answers:
‘I think Jewish people have more cultural commitment to philanthropy and to helping other people and that they have some religious orientation to make the world a better place. It's not something that I'm really focused on because your idea how to make the world a better place and my idea may be very different. But you might still have a very legitimate reason for whatever it is that you're supporting.’
He adds that this ties back to the Hebrew tikkun olam, which means 'repairing the world'.
‘But repairing the world is very broad, generalized - and philanthropy is actually specific amounts of money for specific purposes.’
Good and bad philanthropy
For years now Taube has been making philanthropic gifts which have a chance of making a real difference. ‘ There's a lot of philanthropy that happens that doesn’t do anyone much good, and that's wasting money in my opinion.’
Taube insists that the Polin Museum was an easy decision.
‘That was the easiest one. Not the easiest philanthropic gift ever made but it's in the easiest category: capital gifts that translate into creating something, a building, an exhibit, or project. So the philanthropic gifts that we made to this Museum were immediately translated into the building or to finance the permanent exhibition.
‘But there's a lot of philanthropic gifts that are made to support some organization that takes care of unwed mothers or children that are in need - and those are much harder to evaluate because usually what money goes for is to pay for the salaries, and the salaries can't take care of people.’
So how do you measure how effective a gift was? This is difficult, says Taube, and suggests that it's not through the amounts of money invested that you measure the success of a philanthropic endeavor.
‘Ultimately you can have a huge amount of money and invest it into some philanthropic effort - you can put a fortune in fighting climate change, financing research, but how would I know how effective my gift was? I wouldn't have the faintest idea...’
This he calls 'bottomless pit' philanthropy:
‘It means pouring water into the sand. We try to stay away from this bottomless pit philanthropy.’ But with the Polin Museum, adds Taube, it was exactly the opposite.
The Polin Museum in Warsaw which opens on October 28, was built as a unique private-public partnership between the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the City of Warsaw and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland (Stowarzyszenie ŻIH). The institutions of the Polish State covered the costs of the building, estimated at around 35 mln dollars (180 mln zł), while the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute secured 44 mln dollars (145 mln zł) from donors for the exhibition. This money was gathered from donors from all over the world but the biggest gifts came from the Taube Family Foundation and the Koret Foundation which Tad Taube presides.
‘Our direct gifts and the gifts that we solicited from people we work with is estimated at around 18-19 million dollars collectively.’
‘That gives some indication of the confidence we have in this project.’
When asked about the new exhibition of the Polin Museum, which was also realized through his contribution, Tad Taube says:
‘It's spectacular. It's nothing like you've ever seen. We've been waiting for this moment for years. And now all of a sudden we have this museum and it's exceeding all expectations of all that we've ever dreamed’
But how has it all started? Tad Taube has been involved in this since the beginning.
‘The first time that I had a direct involvement with the Museum was the lunch at the Royal Palace hosted by the then President Kwaśniewski. He had a group of people there - possible donors. After lunch we went to see a scale model of the museum and it didn't look like anything what we have now.’
2006 and 2007 were the years when the idea of a Jewish Museum in Warsaw was first introduced.
‘After the initial period when everything was very sketchy, and lacking in detail, we started talking about how it's going to be financed. I'm a real-estate guy so I see a lot of real-estate possibilities but the first question in my mind is how are we going to finance it. When the possibility of financing by the city of Warsaw and the Polish government became something more than a theory I became very excited. And then I started working on supporting the Museum through my various philanthropic contacts.’
‘But the idea of a big capital project was something that we didn't consider. We warmed up to the idea. And before I knew it we became pretty important donors to this project.’
Measuring the change
How to measure the impact of the Museum, and how to assess whether it is good philanthropy?
‘I think the Museum has already - even before it opened - changed Poland. This Museum has changed the way Poles think about Jews and Jewish history. It's had a tremendous impact on American Jews that have been here, that don't think a lot about Jewish history.’
Taube believes that the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will also have an important impact in the US:
‘In the US we have a large Jewish population. With 4,5 million Jews, it's the second largest Jewish population after Israel, but most of the intellectual knowledge about Jewish history focuses on the Holocaust. They know a lot about the Holocaust, which has sort of dominated the landscape of Jewish historical teaching in the US. We have Holocaust museums in Washington, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia.’
‘The thing that is extraordinary about this Museum is that it's a history museum,’ he emphasizes. ‘It teaches us about a thousand years of Jewish and Polish history. You could say it's a history of Polish Jews and you could say it's a history of Jewish Poles. They're almost interchangeable.’
Tad Taube remembers a conference organized by his foundation in San Francisco:
‘This was actually when I was first thinking about coming to Poland and being involved here in helping recreate some kind of ability of Jewish existence. I remember the Polish council general who was invited to the conference had an incredible statement about the importance of Jewish culture in Poland. He said: when we lost our Jewish population, it was as if Polish culture had been amputated’, remembers Tad Taube who for the last couple of years has been himself the Honorary Consul of the Polish Republic in the US.
‘In other words, Poland, the Poles lost really almost as much as the Jews because their culture was so interwoven with Polish culture. And that's why I think there's such a support for what we're doing here, people are aware now of what they lost and are anxious to have that cultural contribution come back into the Polish dialog. And that's a huge impact.’
Poland: 80 years later
When speaking about the exhibition which he helped to finance, he emphasizes the importance of a larger perspective on Jewish culture:
‘The importance of the exhibition is the tapestry of history that shows how the Jewish people, over a thousand years, created our Western culture. That culture has ethical, artistic, philosophical, scientific foundations – and some of those came out from a period of history which happened right here. And that's very powerful.’
This is also a very powerful message in the US, where a lot of people ask: why Poland?
‘We say because Poland had that special place in history where the Jewish people, in combination with the Poles, the Russians, the Germans and the Austrians, created Western culture. And this is our culture.’
‘I never for a minute lost sight of the fact that most of my family was murdered during the Holocaust,’ says Taube.
The parents of his first cousin (whom he calls 'sister') did not get out of Poland in time. They were taken to Auschwitz. The girl was rescued by a Catholic order and stayed in a convent during the entire war. In 1946 Tad's parents brought her to America and adopted her.
‘The reality of my Polish background was always part of me. It has never left my consciousness even for a minute and I'm very proud of it,’ he says.
‘I think that having been born here (of course if I hadn't got out of Poland in 1939, we wouldn't be talking) it's a tremendous level of satisfaction for me to be able to come back to the country of my birth and to be able to make a contribution to our culture here in Poland.’
‘To continue a cultural experience that started over 80 years ago and keep it going at this point of my life in another country... I just can't think of anything that would give anybody more satisfaction than that.’
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, the conversation with Tad Taube took place in August 2014.