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Re-Education: A Collective Responsibility

dsc0801-version-2In planning for the anticipated return of Stitching History From The Holocaust and the added stories of the Oelsner and Spira/Stern families, Jewish Museum Milwaukee was excited to present a timeline that would integrate their narratives with the Strnad’s and provide context for events surrounding World War II. Little did we know that in contextualizing the individual experiences that happened seventy-five years ago, we would encounter disturbing parallels to what we are witnessing in our world today.

In Paul Strnad’s first letter to his cousin, Alvin, in Milwaukee dated October 1938, he writes “even now strong anti-Semitic tendencies are making themselves felt, such tendencies that never even existed before in this country.”

Re-reading this statement in the days leading up to the recent one year anniversary of the white-nationalist led ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA, and watching that community along with our nation’s capital brace for another unbridled display of racism, anti-Semitism and sheer hatred for ‘the other’, I couldn’t help but reflect on two phrases which are part of our collective consciousness – “never forget,” and “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

The anniversary saw the rally supporters outnumbered by counter-protesters but we must ask ourselves what gave rise to that explosion of vitriol? On the television, in podcasts, on social media platforms and in our country’s streets, our society has witnessed an unprecedented show of unity among white supremacist groups and movements. Despite those two seemingly engrained phrases, segments of our world ARE forgetting.

According to recent polls conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, two-thirds of American millennials surveyed cannot identify what Auschwitz is and 22% of millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it. There was a much greater awareness of modern-day bias against Jews, with 68% of respondents saying anti-Semitism is present in America today, and 51% saying there are “many” or “a great deal of” neo-Nazis in the United States today.

dsc0801-version-2After seeing these statistics, two other well-known quotes come to mind: “fear springs from ignorance,” and “knowledge is power.” While these concepts are universally known, understanding and knowing how to practice them are something else entirely.  These are lessons we urgently need to be re-educated about – sustained reminders of this responsibility are essential to the foundation of our humanity.

-Molly Dubin, Curator

Bottom image: (left to right) Rebekah Sherman, Judy Sidran, John Tortorice, Tony Michels, Michael Stern, Amos Bitzan, and Chad Gibbs at “Translating Lives: An Exploration of the Correspondence of Sara Spira” program where University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Amos Bitzan revealed the statistics released by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.