Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Question of Memory

Last weekend I saw a thought-provoking film which spoke to the question of memory. The film, Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones, addressed how subsequent generations deal with the murderous history that occurred on their soil.

In reading the book “A Hole in the Heart of the World”, I found myself wondering how Jews who lived through the Holocaust were able to resume life in the same city as the people who sought their extermination. As those original people have died, both victims and those who murdered or looked the other way, the next generation was left to come to terms with this past. The film follows the story of Gunter Demnig, a German artist who creates “stumbling stones” , concrete cubes with a brass plaque that reads “Here lived”….together with the name, birth date, date of deportation and fate.. With the support of local municipalities, Gunter installs these in front of the homes where Nazi victims lived. Funds are raised locally for each stone and demand has grown substantially over time. Today there are 8000 stumbling stones in Germany, Hungary, Austria and the Netherlands.

What struck me in the film were two middle-aged women who polished the stones in Germany. They had gotten involved in the project through their women’s group. One spoke about how her father used to get angry if they raised questions about the war. He had been an SS officer. Since he died, his daughter has sought a way to respond to this troubling history. The stones are often controversial with Munich refusing to allow them while other cities anxiously seek to install them as soon as possible. I am struck with the different responses to memory, be it denial or an effort to set right the unthinkable.

I was touched with the efforts of Demnig and his partner as they painstakingly sought to restore each name to the victim, to acknowledge them in life as well as in death. Demning makes each stone by hand, resisting the ease of systematizing the process as that echoes too much of the Nazis’ process of systematizing murder. As each stone represents a life, he nurtures it into being. I saw a similar commemorative spirit when I went to Bad Arolsen, Germany. In a nearby village a man had created a museum to commemorate the Jews who once lived in his community. His effort was a heart-felt one and softened the unease I had carried with me on my first trip to Germany.

On a related note, through correspondence with a cultural center in Radom, Poland, I learned about a series of programs on the traces of the Jewish community in Radom. They asked if I would be interested in speaking with a group of high school students who are very interested in learning about the Jewish community that once represented 30% of the population of their city. In preparing for my travels to Radom, the one-time home of my grandfather, I have already connected with a young high school girl who was studying the Jews of Radom. I had shared information with her and she has offered to assist us while in Radom. So what is the source of this interest among young Poles?

I have read that Jewish culture is of growing interest within Poland. I am curious as to what feeds this interest. Perhaps the generation that lived through that time had to pass on before future generations could come to terms with the past. Poland was the site of pograms post-war as Jews returned from the camps to their homes which Poles had taken over. In Kielce, a city 45 miles from Radom, forty Jews were killed in a pogram in 1946 by the local Poles. This pogram began an exodus from Poland of the surviving Jews who concluded they were not safe in the cities of their birth.

The Holocaust is taught in the schools in Poland. So how does Poland process this past? What is the view of young people who are learning about this today? All questions I hope to learn more about in my travels.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Rise of Baltic Nationalism

I received an article recently that I wanted to share in these pages. The article was from the Guardian in the UK and is titled The Threat of Baltic Ultra-Nationalism (April 3, 2010 by Efraim Zuroff-see link on right). Zuroff writes of his concern that the EU ignores the rise of neofascism in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. He believes that it creates a threat to European democracy.

I often wonder when I write about the Holocaust whether for others it seems like ancient history. Because I have family that perished, it has a greater feeling of immediacy, but I am aware that for many it lacks that sense of the personal. The article was a reminder of the reason we need to focus on this history. Looking at the horrific events of the Holocaust, we find it hard to imagine how sane people could allow such things to occur. And yet, I recall reading articles from 1939 in old newspapers, tracing the reports from Europe and the response or lack of response of the rest of the world (see entry titled 1939 in Moorhead, Minnesota). At what point do we pay attention? Genocide is a slippery slope. It begins in exactly the sorts of activities of which Zuroff writes.

Zuroff writes about the recent march in Riga of 1000 Latvian Waffen-SS veterans and supporters. A similar march has happened in Vilnius for the past few years. These marches have been accompanied with slogans such as “Jews, this land is for the Latvians” and “Jews out!” The irony of such slogans is that over 90% of the Latvian and Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and make up a minute portion of the total population today. In the article Zuroff speaks of the Latvian foreign minister who condemned those who believed there was a distinction between the victims of the Nazis and those who died fighting for the Third Reich.

The Baltic States had a high level of complicity with the Nazis. Jews in those countries died in a much higher proportion than elsewhere largely because of that complicity, yet no collaborators have been punished by a Baltic court since Independence. At the same time there has been harassment of Jewish anti-Nazi partisans and efforts to obscure the magnitude of the Holocaust by equating it to the period of Communist control.

We see nothing of this in the US press. It is only because of my travels to Lithuania and Latvia that I am even aware of what is occurring. Looking back through the lens of history, the lack of condemnation is particularly disturbing. These countries are now part of the European Union. To allow such actions to go unchallenged and unreported only fosters their growth and acceptance.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Readings on the Jews of Eastern Europe

Whenever I travel somewhere I create a reading list to prepare for my travels. My current focus is Eastern Europe, especially Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Cracow, specifically the Jewish experience. I thought this would be a good place to share some recommended reading for others who may be interested in similar travels or a similar emphasis.

One of the books that I would highly recommend is A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe by Jonathan Kaufman. Kaufman is a journalist by training and used to be a page one feature editor for the Wall Street Journal. He tells the story of five Jews living in Prague, Budapest, Poland and East and West Berlin. While he touches on their experience during the war, the primary focus is on the period after the war under Soviet control and the difficult compromises that people had to make to survive. While most books on Eastern European Jews end with the Holocaust, Kaufman’s book pursues how one reconstructs one’s life in the midst of countries which often contain the very people who either actively or passively supported your extermination. While the book is a powerful history lesson, it is also personalized by the focus on the real experiences of its five protagonists. Because the stories span several generations he captures the ebb and flow of Jewish consciousness throughout generations. While many people of the post-war era had to suppress their religious and cultural identity, their children and grandchildren are finding their way back to their heritage.

In writing about the pre-war period he underscores the fact that the poor shtetl Jew who has entered the public’s consciousness through productions such as “Fiddler on the Roof” was not representative of the broader Jewish experience in the cities. A recent article in the New York Times on the photos of Roman Vishniac also addresses the often misleading image that was created of the Eastern European Jew (see links).

In the larger cities of Eastern Europe one often found wealth and sophistication within the Jewish community. Jews edited the newspapers, owned the department stores and in 1933 75% of plays in Berlin were written or directed by Jews. Before the Nazis, Germans were the most frequent recipient of the Nobel Prize. After 1933 a quarter of those receiving the Nobel prize in medicine were German-Jewish. None of them lived in Germany. In many ways the loss of the Jews robbed these cities of an energy and vibrancy that had existed in earlier times and furthered the growth and vitality of the city.

I was surprised at the level of pre-war assimilation and intermarriage, trends that I tend to associate with the United States. Post-war many Eastern European Jews backed away from Judaism both because of the pressures of Soviet control as well as the harm which they experienced because of being Jewish. Ironically the very fact of the Holocaust deepened the sense of Jewish identity for many American Jews.

Kaufman follows the stories through the Soviet occupation to the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall. He reports the rise of anti-Semitism after the fall and then the stabilization and rediscovery of Jewish roots among the next generation and those that remained. This book was first published in 1997 and closes with the resurgence of the Jewish community within Eastern Europe.

The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe by Eli Valley was published in 1999 and focuses upon Budapest, Prague, Cracow and Warsaw. While it does not address the period of Soviet control, it reports on the Jewish communities and institutions as they existed in 1999 and provides important back story on the Jewish communities from those cities, dating back many centuries to their origin. Valley also shares Jewish legends that had developed within these communities. History book, folk stories and travel guide, this book is an insider’s view of the Jewish communities within these cities. The book is written in a very readable style and would be of interest to anyone with an interest in Jewish history even if not traveling to these regions.

Valley's history of the Jewish people reminds us that the Holocaust, while on a scale previously unknown, was an extension of a long tradition of anti-Semitism often fostered by the church or economic competition. Kaufman in turn reminds us that it did not end with the Holocaust and continues to rear its head whenever economic distress or nationalistic tendencies develop.

Eli Valley is the son of a New York rabbi and clearly steeped in Jewish history and folklore. He also was a travel guide in Prague, having moved there soon after the fall of communism.

Valley also writes of the resurgence of interest in Jewish roots and the role historic Jewish buildings play in coalescing a community as it develops a new identity.

I found this book at the library and quickly decided it would be an invaluable addition to my personal library. Its only drawback is that it is over 500 pages which makes it cumbersome to take on one's travels. I can only hope that Amazon will come out with a Kindle version prior to our departure.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

More Paintings: I Was Here and What Is Left

Two more paintings to add to my Lithuania collection.  The first is recycled from another painting I shared on this blog called "Tombstone Braille".  I decided I wasn't quite satisfied with it and attempted to rework it.  Along the way I destroyed it and then turned it into a new painting. Despite my frequently expressed wish for an artwork undo button, I often find that my favorite works comes from being willing to destroy and re-create.

The painting is called "I Was Here" and is based on the Ninth Fort located outside of Kaunas, Lithuania.   The Ninth Fort was a place of mass murder used by the Nazis to kill 50,000 Jews.  In addition to Lithuanian Jews, this site was used for the murder of Jews from France, Germany and Austria.  The building was used as a temporary holding point prior to executions in adjacent killing fields. If the Nazis didn't complete all their murders during the work day, they held the Jews overnight until the next day.  It was in the holding cells that I saw the imagery which inspired this painting.  Carved into the bluish rose walls were names and dates.  A last attempt to say, "I was here", to assert one's existence in the face of death.   When I painted over the face in the earlier painting, it still showed through the layers of paint.   I liked the effect and decided this subject required a face to remind the viewer that a person stood facing this wall as they carved their last words.

The second painting that I've completed is based on a vestige of the great synagogue of Vilnius.  In 1938 the synagogue was celebrating its 500 year anniversary.  The synagogue survived the war, but was badly damaged and torn down by the Soviets.  In the Tolerance Museum I found the doors to the Torah Ark.  I was captivated by their handcrafted quality and surprised by how modern they appeared.  I loved the variation in colors on the metal and wanted to try to capture it with paint.  Because I made use of metallic paint, the colors change with the light.  The name of the painting is "What Is Left".