Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's All About Story

I've been hard at work getting ready for four talks that I am giving this weekend at an artist residency at Bet Shalom, a temple in Minnetonka that is exhibiting three bodies of my artwork.  The show is titled "It's All About Story" because I've realized that is the central theme in what I do.  We spend so much of our lives figuring out our own story and then how it connects to other people's stories.  Much of my recent work has been focused on stories related to Jewish heritage and how they connect.  It is a journey through both geography and time, beginning in pre-war Poland, then moving to war-time Lithuania and how that history is dealt with today and then finally settling in Minnesota where I gathered stories from elders that often interwove with those earlier stories.

Recently I wrote an article about the show that was just published in TC Jewfolk so rather than reproduce it here, I will refer you to It's All About Story in their on-line publication.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Legacy of Shared Lives

My last interview in the cross-generational series was with a gentleman who I had interviewed previously.   Walter is a tall courtly gentleman in his 90s with a faint accent.  He speaks slowly and thoughtfully.  At our first interview he had recalled being in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded. He had taken the last train from Czechoslovakia to Romania, later taking the last boat from Italy to the US with his family in 1940. His mother had grown up in the US which allowed her to gain entrance and bring the family in. After Pearl Harbor he had been drafted and sent to Camp Ritchie where he was trained to interrogate German prisoners because of his fluency in German and other European languages.

At the second interview we were joined by his daughter and his son and daughter-in-law.  I began our interview by playing the video from the first interview.  They watched with interest and I asked them if there were any surprises in it.

“He never talked about this when we were kids”, replied his son.  He was referring to Walter’s  history as what was known as a “Ritchie Boy”, a name that was given to the group of mostly Jewish soldiers, immigrants from Europe, who were trained to interrogate the Germans because of their language proficiency,  A film came out about them in 2005 and it was only then that Walter spoke of this experience and the tightly-knit group within which he spent his early years in the US.

As we spoke, his children recalled him saying something when they were growing up about interrogating German prisoners. It had seemed so unlike their father with his quiet demeanor that they hadn’t known what to make of it.  He had never added any color and it remained a vague recollection until the movie came out and he became involved in telling its story.

When we continued our interview, Walter and his children offered memories of his wife and her mother, both of who had even more harrowing survival stories.  His wife had been in France studying nursing during the war and had successfully crossed into Switzerland when France was no longer safe.  Her mother was not so fortunate and ended the war in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.  The rest of her family perished in the camps.  This history lingered over Walter’s children and was perhaps the source of their active involvement in human rights.  His daughter was deeply involved in her work in support of human rights and dignity and palpable emotion underscored that passion.  Their Jewish heritage was best reflected in this deep commitment to the values of human rights.

I asked Walter’s children what they recalled that best reflected their father’s legacy.  His interest in people and commitment to family they replied, sharing examples of his active efforts to stay connected with his family that was spread around the country.  They recalled that each week for decades he had written a letter to family on carbon paper. Copies were sent to family around the country even as they each wrote their own letters.  They recalled grandparents and siblings all participating in this pre-email round robin.  His daughter still has many of the letters, an amazing legacy of shared lives.

And so I have concluded my series of interviews, seventeen in total.  When I began this project I was in search of source material for my artwork.  I found far more than that.  Even as I was to be a dispassionate interviewer, I felt an emotional connection to each of my interviewees.  A similar thing happens when I paint someone.  It is as if our boundaries become more porous when we connect to someone else and it stirs something inside of us.

I have learned a great deal from this project.  Some of those lessons were practical ones on interviewing, video recording and video editing.  I have also had an opportunity to reflect on Jewish identity and the various forms that it takes, from the “yiddishkeit” of which Fannie so eloquently spoke, to the movement from oppression to freedom of religion experienced by Liana and Raychel, to the expression of Jewish values through Walter’s children.  The Jewish experience may be religious, but just as often it is expressed through values embedded both in the religion and in the Jewish experience within society. 

As I reflect on these interviews I am struck by the way in which the experiences of our parents and grandparents continue to reverberate throughout our lives.  They can easily become disconnected from their origin, yet reverberate nonetheless.  We remember the survival skills, the values and the resourcefulness, but forget the circumstances that bred them into our heritage.  It is story that provides the connection; that reminds us of why we hold these beliefs and attributes that have become our legacy.

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.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Citizens of the World Part 2

Harold told me that he came to Minneapolis when he was offered a position with a large food products company.When I came here I knew nobody. All the big companies go around to the graduate schools and interview those who are about to leave. I was about to get my PhD from Northwestern, and they make me an offer. It was not so easy for Jewish boys to get offers, but it got easier all of a sudden because this is during the war(1943) and the government is giving money to companies who start research operations. So these companies wanted to start research operations and they needed researchers so all the graduates had no trouble getting jobs. 
He confided that he was the second Jew to get a job at that company. The first was Mr. Goldberg who was the janitor. In the end he became a Vice President, something that he believed was unique as far as Jewish employees.

This was at a time when Minneapolis had a reputation as highly anti-Semitic and finding employment as a Jew was challenging. Harold related how over time acquisitions brought in new Jewish employees. So they had to take them too. But today of course no company would dare to say they have such a policy, but they can still have it. But I think it’s changed, a good deal.

When Harold came to Minneapolis, Dorothy was a young widow. Her husband had been killed as an aviator in WWII one month before their son Ralph was born. Many in the Jewish community were happy to play matchmaker and when Harold entered the community he was encouraged to connect with Dorothy. They recalled meeting through several different organizations within the Jewish community which they happily attributed to "beshert" (destiny).

Son Ralph remembered vividly when he acquired a father. When his mother and Harold returned from their wedding Ralph greeted him as Hay-rold, his childhood pronunciation. He remembered Harold picking him up and saying “I’m not Hay-rold anymore, I’m your Daddy”.

Harold and Dorothy raised two children together and took in a foster child as well, a ten year old boy from the displaced persons camps. What was to be a temporary arrangement soon became permanent. He stayed until he married and was considered a third son. Dorothy noted that, “the reason (he) escaped was he had practically white hair and blue eyes so he was able to pass." Their son looked up to this new brother who “at the age of ten was in the underground smuggling people and weapons in and out of the camps. He was the guy who was passing as a Polish peasant lad on the haystack with partisans buried underneath.”

After raising her boys Dorothy returned to work as a medical social worker. As the director of social work for an area hospital she trained other social workers. Following a lengthy career Harold had no plans to retire. Dorothy had always wanted to make aliya in Israel so they picked up and moved to Israel. Harold continued to work as the director of research for an Israeli company and they lived in a small town in the desert. Several years later they moved to NY when Harold was sought for a position with a consulting firm. They lived there for some time and then did a stint at the London office. His job involved the development of a course in industrial chemistry that was quite unique. Harold taught that course all over the world, in Bangkok, Beijing, Africa and South America. While Harold taught chemistry, Dorothy taught English. She recounted how China was the most interesting teaching experience as they entered just as it opened to Americans. She told us, “They were so tremendously eager to learn and they would learn ahead before I was even there. That was a tremendous experience.” I was struck by her willingness to roll up her sleeves and jump in as she related assessing the range of knowledge in the class and then going to the main drag in China and getting books with which to teach.

I felt great admiration for this modest, yet accomplished couple who both shared a deep interest in the world around them. As we explored their legacy their son related his path as a community organizer, fed through his parents’ involvement in Labor Zionism. He cited their love of learning as a thread that continued to influence his life. Harold and Dorothy were citizens of the world, actively engaged and contributing wherever they went. This also clearly extended to their granddaughter who traveled widely with ease, not as a tourist, but with the sense of active engagement modeled by her grandparents.

As we concluded our interview commenting on their long and rich life together, Harold noted research that indicates that couples who live many years together live longer. I was very struck by the fact that they shared a sense of adventure and engagement in the world and have no doubt that plays a role in both their longevity and the satisfaction they have found in their lives.

"This project has been financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota through the Minnesota Historical Society from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund."