Thursday, September 15, 2011

Recommended Reading III: Germany During the Third Reich and Jewish Cultural Revival in Poland

Sometimes I find a book that is challenging to read, but an informative and important source.  Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich is such a book.  It is a book of oral histories with German women who were young women during the Third Reich and their late in life recall of their reactions and awareness of what was occurring.  I am very interested in the question of how humanity fails.  How do we allow genocide in our midst? What do we see? What do we close our eyes to? What do we reframe to make it acceptable?  I found I couldn’t read it straight through because of the content, so interview, pause, next interview became my rhythm.  Owings interviews a cross-section of women, from a prison guard, to members of the Nazi party to the widow of a resistance leader.  Along the way it forces one to imagine one’s own response to similar circumstances .

Also based in Germany is the recent book In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen.  This fascinating book is based on the experience of Ambassador Dodd, a history professor who becomes the Ambassador to Germany in 1933.  He has a front row seat to the emergence of the Nazi party and the people whose names we associate with evil.  His daughter has an initially sympathetic view of the Nazi government until events cause the family to recoil in horror.  Dodd is not in the mold of the typical foreign service ambassador and struggles with the good old boy aspects of the job.  Upon returning to the United States he spoke widely of his concerns about what he observed.  The book also presents an interesting view of the anti-Semitism embedded in the State department that sought to prevent wider awareness of what was occurring.  Their main concern was with collecting money Germany owed to the US.

There are two books that I read prior to going to Poland to build a backdrop for my travels.  One is by Ruth Ellen Gruber titled Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.  Gruber writes of the resurgence of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe despite the fact that few Jews remain in that region. Jewish museums, klezmer music and Jewish cafes are suddenly in demand and embraced by non-Jews.  Gruber explores the reasons behind this.  When I attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute there were many students who were not Jewish.  American students found this unusual, but many of the students from Eastern Europe viewed the Jewish history as part of the history of their country as well.  In Radom, Poland I observed first hand this renewed interest when I exhibited artwork on the former Jewish community.  In fact, the arts and culture center does a focus on the former Jewish community each year and the former Jewish school has been adopted by a Polish school on the same street.  They seek to commemorate the students and teachers on a website.  It is a phenomenon that I find quite interesting and somewhat puzzling.

The second book that helped to build some context for my travels in Poland was Shtetl by Eva Hoffman.  Hoffman traces the history of Jews in Poland and focuses in on one town to explore the often intersecting lives of Poles and Jews.  As both a Pole and a Jew, Hoffman brings an objectivity to her subject.  While sometimes dry, the book added to my understanding of the history of Poland and the shared history of the Jews and Poles.

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