Saturday, November 19, 2011

An Investment in Zionism

So often genealogists are faced with dry documents out of which they try to conjure the spirits of their long-gone ancestors.  A fortunate few have letters that create a fuller picture.  For me, knowledge of what my family valued came from an unexpected source.

I had become aware of a site for The Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victim Assets  which seeks to reunite heirs to the assets their ancestors held.  Now I had no illusions of any windfall, but I was intrigued when I went into the database and typed in Radom, the Polish town from which one branch came.  Up popped twelve pages of names, among them my great-grandfather. In many cases I knew the descendants of many of those listed.  Now it didn’t appear any great wealth awaited as most had a listing titled JCT Shares.  The JCT stands for Jewish Colonial Trust and represented shares in the Jewish Colonial Fund established by Theodor Herzl in 1899 to serve as the Zionist Movement's financial arm.  I recalled reading that many people purchased one share and when you divide that up among descendants it is probably not worth filing from a monetary standpoint.

As a genealogist I had a different interest.  I was intrigued with the idea that my great-grandfather was enough of a Zionist to make an investment in the movement.  It appeared that he had purchased at least one share so I began the process to confirm that it was in fact him.  The data they asked for was easily accessible for a genealogist so I sent the forms back and waited.  Some time passed and I received correspondence verifying that this was in fact my great-grandfather.  While I doubt I will go the additional step to collect on the assets, I feel as if I have a fuller picture of my ancestors and their views.  I had previously learned, from a friend who is a survivor from Radom, that Zionism was an important part of the Radom community.  Apparently it was also something on which my great-grandfather placed value.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Artwork: Postcard from New Ulm

Storytime! Time for another story and another painting in the ongoing Identity and Legacy series.   One of my most moving interviews was with Trudy, a survivor from Stuttgart.  Trudy reminisced about food and her grandparents and then launched with some hesitation into the story that defined her youth, life in Nazi Germany.  She recounted the pre-war period in Germany where she first experienced the new regime through the loss of a friend.

I had a good friend, a girlfriend.  She was my age and we went to school together. We were close.  She lived just around the corner from where I lived.  Sometimes she stayed overnight at my house, sometimes I stayed overnight at her house.  She was not Jewish.  And it was about ’33, all of a sudden my girlfriend was a little strange towards me.  And one day she came and said, “Trudy, I cannot be friends with you anymore.”  I said, “Why?’ ‘Because my father worked for the radio station and if they find out that I am having a Jewish friend, then he will lose his job”.   

Trudy was fifteen when this occurred and it was the beginning. I was especially touched by this story as it spoke to the experience of a young girl and her friendships, irretrievably altered by a political regime.  Soon they couldn't get jobs anymore or go to school and they were evicted from their apartment.   Five years later, the morning after Kristallnacht, Trudy's father was taken to a concentration camp and then released on the condition that he leave Germany.  This was still early. Some German Jews were offered the option of leaving the country.  They desperately began to search for a country that would let them in.

My father had to report to the Gestapo every week about his immigration and he was in danger if he wouldn’t go away they would take him back  (to the concentration camp).  So we waited a little bit and they came up with a trip to Shanghai.  Shanghai opened, and let the Jews come in.  I was included too, my passport was not ready.  My parents had to leave.  My parents left in 1939, beginning September and they said two weeks later goes a second transport to China, Shanghai and I could be on that boat.  But in those two weeks the war broke out.  That’s how I was stuck in Germany. 

Trudy joined her aunt and uncle.  Ironically their son had gone to Shanghai with Trudy's parents.  Six weeks later everyone over 30 was shot, including her aunt and uncle.

Trudy told me stories about her time during the war and the ten camps in which she was held.  Many of the stories emphasized the sheer chanciness of her survival.

After the war the towns in Germany were abandoned as the Germans ran from the Russians.

Every night we stayed overnight in a different house in a different village and ... all the villages were empty, the houses.  The Germans did run away from the Russians, they left and left everything behind so we had food.... We went in and chose a house where we could stay and I was sick and a few of our friends were sick. ... Polish soldiers came and asking, they did go through the houses and asking if anybody was sick and I said, “I’m sick” and they had a cart, a wagon with cows in front pulling the wagon and take me to the hospital.

After the war Trudy was reunited with her parents in Minneapolis, a joyous occasion after a nine year separation.  Her father lived for six more years.

They (her parents) went on a trip to New Ulm and he passed away in the night.  After the funeral of my father I got a postcard in the mail from my father, from New Ulm, and he writes, “We have such a good time, everyone speaks German here, German, born in Germany, raised in Germany and the food is so good, German food”.

There were so many colorful stories that it was challenging to narrow the scope for a painting.   There was almost too much - Shanghai, the theme of separation and such visual imagery of abandoned houses and cow drawn carts. What especially stayed with me was the after-death postcard from her father and the fact that it represented his delight in all things German, a familiar home despite the war.  This painting, Postcard from New Ulm, incorporates many of the images from Trudy's stories with the postcard as the central image.  The monument in the foreground is nicknamed Herman the German, a monument in New Ulm, a Minnesota town with largely German roots.  A procession of vehicles includes an image from Shanghai, a boxcar and a cart pulled by cows taking those who were ill to the hospital.  Each is representative of a part of the journey undertaken by both Trudy and her parents which for her father ended in New Ulm.  The houses are abandoned with doors open and curtains flying in the wind.  The words of her father are on the card emphasizing the importance of their German heritage even when Germany had turned on them.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Artwork: Fire, Light and Legacy

This week I received the good news of a second grant to fund my ongoing oral history project on Jewish Identity and Legacy.  Early this year we completed a series of interviews with elders within a Jewish elder facility.  Our interviews were with Russian immigrants, Holocaust survivors and those who grew up in immigrant communities in the Twin Cities.  This second grant will enable us to focus upon cross-generational interviews and examine the question of how legacy transmits across generations.

I’ve been working on a series of paintings based upon the stories we’ve gathered and in the next few entries will share some of the artwork and the stories with you.  Some of the interviewees were truly amazing story tellers.  Fannie, who grew up in the Jewish community in the Twin Cities was one of the most prolific storytellers, perhaps because she had progressed to recording her stories in books.

When I begin a painting I reread the transcript for that particular person and think about whether there are some themes that emerge.  In the case of Fannie, every story related to fire, light and legacy.

Fannie had begun by telling us about her mother, a central figure in her life.  She related that her mother had told her stories when she was a child and urged her to write them down.

My mother was always afraid that we wouldn’t remember anything she said or did ... and she wanted the children to know that she had a life... all of the things that she did and saw and heard and she was afraid that it would all be forgotten.  And so she chose me as her spokesperson. She would always grab me in from play and there would be a cup of coffee and milk and a caramel roll and she’d say “Ess”, Eat, listen to what I say and then “Shreibses arupt”, write it down.  I said, uh huh,uh huh, and I’d  be busy eating my caramel roll and drinking my coffee and she’d keep me for about an hour and when she was all through talking she’d say, “Go out to play”.   I didn’t shreibe arupt, I didn’t write it down.  And one day I came home, she was staying with us and she was burning all kinds of papers, citizenship papers, a whole bunch of them was on the floor in a bag.  And she was destroying them.  And I yelled, “What are you doing?”  And she says, “Did you shreibe, write it down?” And at first I didn’t know what she was talking about, and I said, “no”.  "Well so what do I need all this for? Who’s going to care?  No one’s going to care! "  And then I said, “Mama, please.”  Well she stopped destroying and my old age I discovered I could write, I didn’t know how, but the kids bought me a word processor.  I was 77 and I remembered Shreibses arupt, that would be the title.

When I asked her if there was something she grew up with that is still part of her life she replied "Benching licht".

Benching licht, Blessing the candles on Friday night.  My grandmother who came to live with us had her set of candles, my mother had her set of candles.  And you see my mother, when they were packing her up to send her to America so she could marry her boyfriend, you see the first thing that his mother put in the trunk were a pair of candlesticks.  They are over 200 years old.

Fannie also related a story about the candelabras that have been a part of a local synagogue since 1926.  The story began with a fire in the shteibel, attached to the synagogue. Her father was quite distressed by this as it was caused by candles and he thought they should have electric lights.

And he thought about it and he thought about it and one day he was walking home from synagogue with his neighbor and he was discussing the situation.  Mr Osias Silvers (his neighbor), said he was a smith… a tinsmith and he thinks he could make a reasonable pair of candlesticks. So Pa said, you mean if I get you drawings and patterns you will be able to make an actual thing?  Oh sure he said.  He does that every day for a living.  And so they started.

Mr Silvers went back to work and he asked his boss if he could have some metal strips, scraps that they didn’t want to use anymore, so that he could make something for the synagogue.   The guy says sure, so along the floor he picked up some brass strips and some metal… .And he put them in a bag and in a box and he brought them home. And he said, Mr Schwartz, nobody called anyone by their first name.  Mr Schwartz, could you make something out of these strips of scraps?  And he said, you know, I think we can make some candlesticks.  OK so he put them away and Pa went to work and designed a pair of candelabras.  They’re over five feet tall and he specified to be electrified for electricity.  And he brought them to Mr. Silvers and he said if we had a drawing he could cut it out.  He has instruments and things that could cut the metal to just like a pattern on a dress.  So Papa set about getting paper long enough and he had someone help him draw the outline of what he wanted and it was made.  The patterns were made and he brought them to Mr. Silvers and said, “Could you work from this?”  Absolutely he could work from this … and they set about making the patterning for the candelabras.

The candelabras have been in the synagogue since and in fact represent a multi-generational legacy.  Fannie restored them prior to her daughter’s wedding at the synagogue.

My raw material is story. Sometimes I have some imagery to work with as well.  In this case, I had images of the candelabras, the candlesticks and a photo of Fannie’s mother.  With fire as a central image I made the background flame colored.  I pulled out the suggestion of the candelabras at an angle and duplicated part of the image to fill in the left side of the canvas.  Making use of negative space I darkened the empty space that surrounded the form of the candelabra.  I sketched in one of the candlesticks with smoke forming an arc above.  The central figure was Fannie’s mother holding two papers just bursting into flame.  The figure is in front of the candlestick, but I liked the form of the candlestick and left the figure with some transparency so the candlestick shows through. The white of the papers, the candle and the face draw the focus.

I liked the idea of the candle burning representing the ebbing of time and the urgency to preserve legacy in the light of the flames so rapidly destroying it.  The candelabra represented a multi-generational legacy that continues to this day.

  This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.