As Jewish Museum Milwaukee prepares to launch Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare, which focuses on an area of history that has personally interested me for decades, I have to confess to spying a wall calendar notation in a JMM staff member’s office and literally nagging to be included in the planning! I waged an unprecedented campaign for a volunteer position, and I am honored and proud to co-chair this exhibit with Lori Craig.
One might ask, What’s Jewish or Milwaukee about this topic? The answer could be: What isn’t?
The most direct Milwaukee connection is our state’s history as the constituency of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the name that instantly comes to mind when we hear Red Scare. McCarthy was dangerous and a threat to American democracy. A portion of the exhibit and one lecture program will focus on his crusade. His mission was to “out” and oust Communists in the State Department and other federal agencies, as well as in the military. Finally, in 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings signaled the beginning of his downfall.
I remember, as a child during the McCarthy era, that my parents did not subscribe to the North Shore Herald newspapers, because the chain’s owners were pro-McCarthy. But the Jewish community, locally and nationally, was not so monolithic in opposing him.
Jews were also prominently involved in the Red Scare as it played out in Hollywood and the entertainment industry investigated by the earlier and simultaneous hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Jews and non-Jews alike were both good guys, who resisted the congressional witchhunts and risked contempt of court citations, and bad guys, who named names. Whether one reacted, when the FBI knocked on the door, out of fear or with courage would affect one’s livelihood and family life, in some cases permanently. Prominent name namers were the mostly Jewish owners of the major movie studios, whose likely motivations were both economic survival and the desire to be considered “real Americans.”
Many of the targeted writers, actors, directors, production people and journalists had been lauded for their World War II support. Many had fought in our military when the Soviet Union was our ally. Some were refugees from the Nazis, only to be deported by the Red Scare.
Some had been members of the Communist Party long before it became a crime (1954). Others were sympathizers whom today we might call liberals or progressives or social justice advocates. Even if their views diverged from the government’s, they assumed they could express themselves freely and associate freely, protected by—you know–the First Amendment.
There were no tweets or Facebook or alt-right or alt-left bloggers, but there were boycotts, sponsorships rescinded, passports confiscated, friends betrayed, whipped up rallies, children hounded, suicides.
McCarthy’s ultimate nemesis, the Army’s General Counsel Joseph Welch, made the definitive pronouncement on the Red Scare era: “At long last, have you no shame?”
Relevance? To Milwaukee? To Jews? To our history? To our NOW? Do we have to ask?
– Linda Frank, co-chair of Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare
Images (top to bottom):
– Senator Joseph McCarthy points to a newspaper with an inflammatory headline.
– Dalton and Cleo Trumbo on location for Exodus (circa 1960). Courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
– Family and friends rally for the Hollywood Ten (circa 1949). Courtesy of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.
By: Ellie Gettinger, Education Director
I am sitting at LaGuardia reflecting on the past two whirlwind days. I am flying back after the opening of Stitching History From the Holocaust and completely overwhelmed by the experience. Walking into the gallery at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I was bowled over the staging of the exhibit and seeing Hedy Strnad’s eight dresses staged in their beautiful space. I couldn’t let the experience go without reflecting on what this means for Jewish Museum Milwaukee and for me personally.
JMM is a small museum that opened roughly eight years ago. The materials that were donated by the Strnad family in 1998 before the Museum was a glimmer in founding director’s Kathie Bernstein’s eye. We brought new life to these materials–eight dress designs, one letter, two envelopes, and one picture–as they became part of JMM’s permanent exhibit. They are central to the story we tell and visitors were impacted by the elements of the story that we presented.
As we proceeded to research and curate this larger exhibit, many people were pulled into the orbit of this exhibit. The Strnad family, the team from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Costume Shop, researchers and humanities scholars in Milwaukee, Prague, the producers and talent at The Arts Page, which airs on Milwaukee Public Television, students, docents, visitors–all became part of the cult of Hedy. They were pulled into the idea of giving this woman, this couple, this family back some part of the legacy that was taken from them. When the exhibit was in Milwaukee, we reached thousands of people. National publicity, including an article by Samuel Freedman in the New York Times and a piece on PBS Newshour Weekend, created a buzz and we received so many inquiries about whether visitors would be able to see this exhibit elsewhere.
All of this energy followed me on my trip to open Stitching History in New York. The audience in New York expands the reach of this story considerably. The curation and design in New York is just lovely, adding elements to the exhibit that enliven the story–I love the addition of Hedy’s Signature to the wall and the ingenious way in which they MJH team made the fabrics accessible to touch. More than this, the position of the Museum of Jewish Heritage overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, offer yet another narrative ark to the story. Here we see Hedy’s beautiful dresses in the shadow of icons of American immigration.
This is yet another beginning for this exhibit, another chance to induct more people into Hedy’s sway. And it is start of a broader national conversation in which people all over the country will have the opportunity to be part of this story. At the end of the opening event, one patron came up to me and said, “I am taking Hedy with me.” She thanked me and this Museum for sharing her story. We hope that so many more will come away with this feeling.