Founding Father: A Profile of Commissioner Pete Berkowitz of Houston
By J.E. Wolfson
In 2009, a few years into his retirement, Pete Berkowitz was contacted by Governor Rick Perry, who wanted to know why the Houstonite had not submitted an application to a commission on the Holocaust and genocides that was about to be established. The governor informed Pete that he was already unofficially slated to be the commission’s first chairman, and thus he would now need to go through the formality of completing the application. Accepting the invitation is a decision he does not regret.
Seven years after that conversation, Pete is happy to reflect on the many accomplishments of the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. His tenure as chairman lasted from 2009 to April of this year, and he still continues in his roles as a commissioner and as head of the Friends committee, which provides funding for several of the commission’s projects. Pete remains one of the state’s most active and visible forces behind Holocaust and genocide education, and he has no plans to slow down. As he explains with some amusement, however, he never expected that life would take him in this direction: “My wife was the educator… Frankly, I did not know anything about education until I joined the commission.”
Pete’s original plan for this stage of his life had been to travel with his wife and engage in philanthropic work, but his involvement with the THGC has provided him with what he calls “a whole new career after retirement” – a retirement from a very successful career as an engineer and businessman. Pete was born in New Jersey and raised in Dallas. In 1957, after studying electrical engineering at SMU, he entered the army to work for two years in a top-secret division that was assigned to special weapons development; to this day, the details are not known to the public. After returning to SMU to earn an M.A. in chemical engineering, he held a series of positions, eventually settling in Houston. He formed his own engineering company in 1982. Nearly two decades later, he sold the business and its worldwide operations to GE, retired, and set out to see the world and engage in philanthropy. But then Governor Perry called.
(With TX Representative Elliott Naishtat, THGC January 2016 Quarterly Meeting, State Capitol)
To be sure, Pete was no stranger to the world of Holocaust memory by the time the governor sought him out. For one thing, Pete had already spent 2004-2006 as chairman of Holocaust Museum Houston, and had worked with his wife to track down and generously donate a boxcar that had been used to transport Jews to a camp during the Holocaust. While several American museums have acquired similar boxcars as part of their exhibits, the one that the Berkowitzes donated to HMH is unique among them in that it was actually verified as having transported Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. Pete and his wife would also help the Houston museum acquire a boat that was once used in the famed rescue transport of Danish Jews to Sweden.
Pete’s motivation to preserve Holocaust memory is partly driven by his love for his family. While his own immediate ancestors were already comparatively safe in America decades before the war, many members of his wife’s family fell victim to Nazi brutality. As he recalls, his wife was once reminded by her father that her grandfather had cried every year at the Seder table after receiving word by letter that 82 of his relatives had been massacred in a town square. The heartfelt desire to speak out against atrocities has deep roots within the Berkowitz family, who have made a point to help improve what is being taught throughout Texas.
That is all the more reason why, just a few years ago, Pete was shocked to hear that his grandson had never studied the Holocaust or genocides in school. Pete wondered how this could be possible. After all, one of the first successful initiatives of the THGC under his direction had been a campaign for inclusion of these subjects in the TEKS. However, Pete’s grandson was enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, which had their own, separate standards. Pete set up some meetings to address this loophole in the educational system. Initially, his efforts at outreach were dismissed, with several individuals telling him that he would never get anywhere with changing anything in Advanced Placement. Now even more driven to fix the problem – Pete bristles at being told he cannot do something! – he found a sympathetic ear when he personally called the head of AP. Pete, along with a few staff members from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, met with representatives of the AP in New York, and after a lengthy process, saw to it that appropriate additions were made to AP World History and European History curricula.
Finding a way to include the Holocaust and genocides in AP United States History, however, proved more of a challenge. After thoughtful deliberation, Pete proposed a focus on American soldiers who liberated Nazi camps. Once this topic made it into the required curriculum, the THGC immediately began working with Texas Tech University on a phone app and a book that will bring the liberators’ experiences to Texas students in a new and engaging manner. So far, this initiative has identified 175 Texan WWII veterans, who liberated a total of 36 camps. A huge kickoff event at Fort Hood is now being planned for August of 2017.
(Recognized for his work as Chairman, THGC July 2016 Quarterly Meeting, El Paso Holocaust Museum)
Over the 7 years of the THGC’s existence, Pete has seen enormous growth in its educational programming initiatives, as well as in the size of the commission’s support staff. Under his leadership, the commission worked with Baylor University to preserve oral testimonies of Texas veterans, copies of which are now held at the Library of Congress; set up a traveling exhibit, Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide; introduced student video contests and educator grants; designed and offered free copies of posters based on Dr. Gregory Stanton’s “10 Stages of Genocide”; sent letters regarding situations in Hungary and in the Middle East to a number of influential politicians; improved communication between fellow Holocaust commissions throughout the country; and planned educator workshops on teaching the Holocaust and genocides. The THGC owes much to Pete’s vision and commitment, and he in turn is grateful to the commission for its impact on his life. “That’s the joy,” he says. “Every day I learn something else.”
Commissioner Pete Berkowitz’s birthday is today. Please join us in wishing him a healthy and joyful year.Tags: pete berkowitz texas education advanced placement teks baylor university texas tech university holocaust museum houston holocaust genocides' 10 stages