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.
In 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.
After 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.