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.
Wow! Three years. It really doesn’t seem possible that I have been at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee for three whole years. They say that time flies when you are having fun, and if you consider fun the ability to learn, grow, converse, contemplate and create; then I have certainly had my share at JMM.
The people, the programs, the exhibits, the education programs and the special events all make each day meaningful and unique. I am awed by the talent of the staff and interns, inspired by the passion of the board, docents and exhibit committees, touched by our visitors’ stories, thankful for treasured donations to the archives, warmed by the thousands of school children who visit, grateful to our loyal members and encouraged by the donors and all who believe in what we do.
JMM is strong today because of this collective passion, vision and dedication.
JMM occupies a unique niche in the museum world in Milwaukee. We use the Jewish experience to build bridges between groups of people and between eras. We live our tagline “Where Conversations Happen” by looking at multiple perspectives of a topic or issue, by partnering with diverse organizations, by asking visitors to use critical thinking skills to contemplate commonalities and differences of a particular subject over time. The board and staff of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee met this fall and after considerable discussion, data gathering, and reflection put to writing our collective understanding of what we see as JMM’s impact in the Jewish community, Greater Milwaukee community, South Eastern Wisconsin schools and residents, and even national audiences.
“Use the Jewish experience in Milwaukee and beyond to connect and create dialogue on relevant critical issues and to inspire and transform visitors.”
We certainly had that goal in mind when we decided to exhibit Allied in the Fight: Jews, Blacks and the Struggle for Civil Rights and related programming this past winter. The intent was to share the history of these two groups as it relates to the Civil Rights movement and the Fair Housing marches of 50 years ago. We were also intent on building bridges between the two communities and two eras. The exhibit engaged the national and local alliances between African Americans and Jews historically, during and after the 1960s, and contemplated issues that are relevant today. Programs explored redlining, segregation then and now, and contemplated actions needed for moving forward toward effecting positive change. The exhibit and programs fittingly ended with an African American Jewish Freedom Seder. Twenty City of Milwaukee schools were subsidized so they could bring their classes to learn about the Civil Rights era of 50 years ago. One thousand nine hundred students learned about this important time period. Diverse audiences came to the nine sold-out programs. These programs demonstrated that the audiences were hungry for information and open dialogue – wanting to understand Milwaukee’s history and to take actions to change the status quo.
One visitor commented, “My first time at this museum and it was powerful and inspiring about the past and present of this state. Don’t change too much, we have lots to do!” Another stated: “Beautiful exhibition. Two voices that can only build off each other.”
The remount of Stitching Histories From the Holocaust, is at its essence stories about the human toll and talent lost during the Holocaust. The stories of three families with local ties personalizes the enormity of the Holocaust. JMM added a timeline to the exhibit which highlights immigration laws and anti-Semitic activity from the 1920s to 1950s. The three families’ watershed moments complete the timeline – asking visitors to contemplate the personal toll laws and public opinion had on the outcomes of these three families.
Programs for the exhibit look at the historical context like the Diaspora in China: German and Polish Refugees in Shanghai on August 7. JMM will also provide context for the rise of nationalism and immigration issues of today. On July 11, former United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic Andrew Schapiro will explore the rise of nationalism in relation to his family’s story of immigration from Czechoslovakia in 1940 and the return of populism and nationalism in the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe today. Darryl Morin will present Contemporary Issues in Latino Immigration on July 25. These presentations will offer historical threads, impart new knowledge, and spur thoughtful conversation.
This October, with our most ambitious exhibit to date, JMM will consider the question that echoed through the United States in the 1940s and 1950s: Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
JMM’s originally curated Blacklist: Hollywood’s Red Scare explores the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation of alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens and organizations suspected of having communist ties. Driven by fear of the spread of global communism, HUAC demanded that actors, writers and directors declare if they ever had communist ties and to name others who may have communist affiliations. HUAC and its supporters espoused that it was a citizen’s patriotic duty to share their political affiliation and to identify others’ associations. Those who refused to declare their affiliation or to name names felt they were the defenders of the First Amendment Rights of Free Speech and Assembly.
I hope you were impacted and maybe even transformed by the exhibits and programs of the past year, as I was. I certainly hope you join us this fall as we contemplate and discuss the definition of patriotism. We hope school children explore the exhibit and partake in workshops to learn more about their First Amendment rights. Thank you to all of you for making my first three years memorable, transformative, insightful and treasured. Please join us again and again, for only through shared discourse and learning can we make a difference.