Thursday, August 6, 2009

Jewish Museum Opening

Tonight we had a difficult choice between a klezmer concert and an opening at the Tolerance Centre of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. We decided to attend the opening as we were curious about the nature of the event. We had not yet been to the Museum and the opening was sponsored by the Bulgarian Embassy and the Israeli Embassy. The exhibit was “The Power of Civil Society: the Fate of Jews in Bulgaria” with a preview of a documentary “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp”.

The museum is housed in what used to be one of the many Jewish theaters prior to WWII. As we entered there were some wonderful posters from 1919 of shows that were once held in that space. I often experience Hebrew or Yiddish letters as graphics as my brain doesn’t immediately grasp the meaning of the words and I especially liked the graphic quality of these posters.


There were some introductory remarks by embassy representatives in English with translations. I must confess that I could not have easily placed Bulgaria on the map, but soon learned that it sits below Roumania and above Turkey and Greece. The exhibit told the story of how Bulgaria fought back against the deportation of the Jews and as a result their Jewish population was the only one in Europe that actually grew slightly during the war. While Jews were deported to the provinces, they did not leave the country or perish in concentration camps. The Greek Orthodox leader was particularly instrumental in taking a stand and the concerted efforts of many Bulgarian leaders as well as the support of the people resulted in a very different outcome than other parts of Europe.

I am interested in the differences in cultures that contributed to such different outcomes. In many countries the people within the country collaborated with the Nazis and anti-Semitism continued after the war. In Bulgaria civil protests succeeded in thwarting the Nazis. We theorized that differences may arise from the role that the church played or chose not to play, economic stresses and the degree of assimilation. Still I wonder if there is actually a difference in the values that a country holds that may influence behavior on a national level.

After the opening comments we had a brief reception. I chuckled when I saw an exhibit of Lithuanian Jewish Americans. Next to Jaffa Heifetz were the Three Stooges with Harry Moshe Horwitz, his brother Samuel and their friend Levi Feinberg. The Three Stooges often incorporated Yiddish humor which probably sounded like nonsense syllables to many listeners. Lithuanian Jews also laid claim to Bob Dylan, Aaron Copland and Al Jolson.

After the reception several of us met up for dinner at our new favorite restaurant, Guru, a very Zen restaurant with salads, soups and teas. The exhibit continued to spark interesting conversations as one of our French classmates shared with us the story of being hidden as a young child on a farm during WWII while her father was in the French resistance. She recently located the daughter of the person who hid them and will be meeting with her soon as she tries to reconstruct the details of that time. She told us of how her father escaped from the Gestapo when they came to where he was living and making identification papers. Her cousins were in school when the Gestapo came for a roundup and were saved by the teacher who told them to go out the classroom window and hide in the woods. Another relative was hidden in a convent. The survival of her family was reliant on many people taking actions in support of them, or at minimum choosing not to report their presence. It would have taken only one betrayal to lead to their deaths.

The Holocaust seems much more current in Eastern Europe than it does in America. Every time I see someone here who would have been alive during the war, I wonder what their role was. Did they look the other way? Did they collaborate? Or did they take actions to save their fellow townsmen? And today, what is their view of what occurred? There is much more focus here on the genocide of the Soviets than the genocide against the Jews during the war. History is subtly recast and the past is well hidden.

If someone is older and Jewish, I assume they have a story of resistance, of hiding or surviving a camp. I wonder about the people who once lived in the apartment in which we are now residing. It is in the corner of what would have been the little ghetto. There are stories lurking around every corner.

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