The idea for the 2 1/2-day Israel trip took shape more than a year ago, before Schwarzenegger had entered the recall campaign. Schwarzenegger had been helping raise money for the Wiesenthal museum. He is a longtime donor to the center, and the founder -- Rabbi Marvin Hier -- asked him to come to the groundbreaking.
The two have been friends for 20 years. At the banquet Sunday, each offered a light take on the origin of Schwarzenegger's stock movie phrases. Hier said the lines are rooted in Jewish scripture; Schwarzenegger said the inspiration was Hier.
"Remember 20 years ago? I said what can I do for you?" Schwarzenegger recalled. "And you said, 'I need a big donation.' I said, 'OK, I'll give you $100,000.' You said, 'That's all?' I said, 'That's all.' You said, 'I'll be back.' "
Schwarzenegger said he had dedicated a portion of his movie earnings to the center.
"And in those days I still made below $10-million salary in the movies," he told guests at the banquet. "So I said, 'Why don't we make an arrangement that a certain percentage of my income from movies" would go to the center. "And this is exactly what we did ever since then."
Schwarzenegger invited the center to look into his father's background. Gustav Schwarzenegger joined the Nazi "brownshirts" on May 1, 1939, about six months after the storm troopers helped set off Kristallnacht -- the night of broken glass -- according to Austrian state archives reviewed by The Times.
That was when Jewish interests were attacked in Germany and Austria and thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps.
The center concluded that the governor's father had not committed any war crimes.
Schwarzenegger described himself as part of a new generation that wants to atone for ancestors' misdeeds.
"I think to myself, if only those who were crammed into the dark boxcars and crowded bunks could have glimpsed what we're doing here today," he said at the museum ceremony. "If only those in the camps could know that we have them in our hearts a half-century later and that our hearts are not hardened -- that they're still opened." The $200-million museum, scheduled for completion in 2007, is a symbol of Israel's "optimistic future," Schwarzenegger said.
"Today the world should know that we're not building a bunker," he said. "We're building something that breathes with life, just as God breathed life into us." Various interests have sought to derail the project. Yad Vashem had quietly lobbied to scuttle the museum, seeing it as competition. The center has promised to avoid mention of the Holocaust in deference to Yad Vashem.
Muslim religious authorities in Jerusalem have also raised objections. They contend that an undetermined number of Muslim graves will be disturbed as a result. A number of centuries-old Muslim graves, some marked and some unmarked, are scattered throughout the park in central Jerusalem that sits near the planned museum.
Muslim officials say they are almost certain that more graves lie beneath the building site itself, which is covered by a parking lot and garage built about 20 years ago, and a seedy square housing a peddlers' market.
Schwarzenegger did not mention the protests. He expressed complete confidence in Hier to carry out the project. Indeed, Hier stood with him as he laid the wreath at Yad Vashem. The floor was inscribed with the names of Nazi death camps. By custom, the person who sets the wreath down doesn't speak. So the governor quietly carried the wreath to the stone slab. He laid it down, then stood up slowly, hands clasped in front of him. He looked at the wreath for a few extra beats -- ashes buried below -- then left.
Special correspondent Maher Abdulkhater in Jerusalem contributed to this article.