Monday, November 26, 2012

Lessons from the Past

While in the Chicago area we decided to visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum.  The museum is located in Skokie, a community that was the focus of a neo-Nazi march in the late 1970s. At the time the population of Skokie was half Jewish and home to about 7000 survivors.  The march galvanized the community which organized a foundation to support Holocaust education, ultimately leading to the museum.

I have visited many Holocaust museums and exhibitions throughout the years and done much reading on the Holocaust.  Through the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project I have also done a number of interviews with survivors.  I came to this visit with a fair amount of knowledge so was curious if I would find anything new. My test of a good museum  is if I experience new information and insights that cause me to examine my knowledge from a different vantage point.  The Illinois Holocaust Museum passed that test with flying colors.

The entrance to the museum was past bushes with branches that were as gnarly as fingers.Spiky rocks set in the ground at various angles mirrored the larger field of boulders one finds at Treblinka, each representing a town, a lost Jewish community.  The architecture was clearly designed to mimic that of a prison, but also had a reflection room  designed to capture light, the antithesis of the dark prison-like structure.

The exhibition began with a view of those lost Jewish communities, preserved in memory and faded photos.  One cannot fully understand the impact of the  Holocaust without realizing that in addition to countless lives, a world was lost, whole communities erased.

We then moved into a historical view of Hitler's rise to power.  Unsuccessful in his first attempt at political power he decided to use the democratic process to in effect vote democracy down.  I found myself reflecting on the recent political environment in the US and the attempts to suppress access to voting.  As an American Jew I have never believed that any country is immune from the events of the Holocaust, even the United States.  I think that is a fundamental difference between me and my non-Jewish friends and it deeply informs my political views. I believe we must always be vigilant in protecting human rights as each incursion brings us closer to a precipice, a diminishment of our humanity that makes all sorts of evil possible.

As Hitler's power built, many Germans supported him on economic grounds even though they didn't share his anti-Semitic views.  They assumed that once in power he would be forced to moderate his views.  I have heard uncomfortable echoes of such beliefs in our recent political discourse, reminding me once again of the vulnerability of any country once it loses its mooring in fundamental human rights.  I am convinced that there are lessons to be learned in the study of this prewar time in German history.

The museum then began to move into the events which first affected German Jews. They looked at the Jews who escaped Germany before the war, 50% exited as they witnessed the looming dangers up close.    I had interviewed a woman whose parents were able to escape to Shanghai and a woman who was on the Kindertransport to London.  These two stories were echoed in the Shanghai and Kindertransport stories told at the museum. Until my interview with Trudy I had not realized that the early policies of the Nazis encouraged Jews to leave Germany. Trudy had told me that her father was released from a concentration camp on the condition that he leave the country.  He was required to report to the Gestapo each week on his plans.  Documents in the museum told precisely this story.  It was only with the conquering of additional countries with their significant Jewish populations coupled with the unwillingness of other countries to accept the Jews,that the Germans began to concoct the Final Solution to what they  referred to as the Jewish Problem.

The exhibition continues through the early measures against the Jews to gathering them in ghettos and ultimately their extermination in forests and camps.  The initial measures were gradually implemented with an awareness of the world response which in fact proved negligible.  Here again was another point where actions taken could have altered the flow of world events.  When word of the camps was sent through diplomatic channels, the State Department with its anti-Semitic bent suppressed the message.  How can one adequately address  the movement from  bigotry to murder when one is infested with the same bigotry?

Countries fell like dominoes to Hitler's advances.  A telling comment by one of the survivors in the museum video was that the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto succeeded in standing up to the Nazis for longer than any country that he invaded.  When I reflected on why that was possible I noted that the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto saw certain death ahead, they chose to fight to the end and die with dignity if necessary.  Countries did not hold that same perspective.

The other fact that the museum noted was that two wars were being fought, one for world domination and one against the Jews.  The US only participated in the first war.  I had not bisected the war into two wars, but that perspective clarifies the role of the US and its failure to respond to Jewish refugees and news of the camps until the end of the war when there was no room for denial.

The museum also goes a step beyond liberation to follow the lives of survivors from Displaced Persons (DP) camps on through immigration into their new lives and new families.  The museum does an impressive job of sharing the full breadth of the story and highlighting aspects that made me consider the gradual erosions in civilized society that can lead to unthinkable horrors.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Memories

We are driving to downstate Illinois. It is a sunny temperate day, lots of sky and land with a narrow band of human existence on the horizon, a delicate etching of silos, barns, houses and trees. In Illinois we will pick up my mother and bring her up to Chicago for Thanksgiving, a holiday she spearheaded until she turned 80. Then my niece picked it up, skipping a generation. She faithfully recorded and recreated my mother's recipes, down to the saved spoonful of frosting from the traditional birthday cake for my sister and me, both November babies.

Last year we had driven this same route hoping to deliver my parents to my niece's doorstep. My father was ill so the plans were rejiggered and it was the first Thanksgiving in many years where my parents were not in attendance. A few days later my father ended up in the hospital and a little over two months later was gone. Thanksgiving is a marker, the last time I saw him in his own home when I finally acknowledged how frail he was, how unlikely it was that he'd survive another year with physical infirmity finally outweighing will.

Just a few weeks earlier I had been amazed that my parents had managed to sing Happy Birthday to my answering machine. This act took a level of coordination of which I no longer thought them capable. First they had to remember my birthday, something challenged by failing memories, my mother no longer able to fill in the gaps in my father's memory. For many years I received birthday cards inscribed with my mother's beautiful first grade teacher penmanship. Often my father picked out the card. Now that was a task that eluded them.

My mother now will no longer pick up the phone to make a call so it took my father to place the phone call, it was likely my mother who retained my subtle mention of my birthday and suggested the call. "Happy birthday" my mother sang, leading off, befitting her central role in matters of family. My father chimed in until the song dissolved into "dah dah dah dah."Most amusing was their dialogue at the end where my mother asks my dad what she should do to which he replies, "hang up the phone". I preserved that call which came exactly three months prior to the day of my father's death. This year I played it to myself, an annual ritual for future birthdays.

I remember yet another Thanksgiving four years earlier. Realizing on a conscious level, if not an emotional one, that my father would not be around forever, I decided I needed to have him do a DNA test to further my genealogy research. I ordered the kit and brought it with me on Thanksgiving. Much to my dismay I realized that three cheek swabs were required. As I read the instructions, I began to understand the difficulty of the task I was about to undertake. Several hours had to pass between each swab, then a period of time without food. At Thanksgiving.

We arrived at my niece's home with its bounty of food, the warm up to Thanksgiving dinner. I had done the first cheek swab and awaited the second, but soon had to recalibrate. "Now don't eat anything until I do this," I had cautioned my father. I glanced over at him as he popped a cracker into his mouth. "Aargh!"

I checked my watch for the next opportunity and again reminded him. Again I lost to the food. Take one man with failing memory, put him in a home with tempting food all around and tell him he can't eat. Then try to explain this is so I can get a reading on his DNA. Somehow I managed to get a second swab in the course of a long evening with the third swab postponed until morning.

The hotel we were staying at offered a breakfast so I knew I would have to coordinate with my father before breakfast. We agreed that we would knock on their door at 8 AM, do the final swab and then eat. At 7 my phone rang. "Where are you?" asked my dad. ""We weren't going to meet until 8," I responded. "Oh we're up and at breakfast," he replied. "Have you eaten?" I asked excitedly. "Not yet" he said. "Don't! I'll be right there!" I exclaimed as I grabbed clothes and swabs explaining the urgency to my husband as I hastily dressed. I ran down the stairs to find my parents seated in the breakfast room, juice before them. I did that last swab, not sure I believed their assurances as to food, but hoping it would work. They were able to get a reading and I now get periodic emails advising me of matches for things I don't understand, a project for another day.

This is my mother's first Thanksgiving without my father. She has adjusted well and it occurs to me that failing memory smooths out the sense of jarring absence. I suspect she hasn't retained the memory of last year, the beginning of the end for my father. She is a person of contentment, happy to be awakened by her cat, happy to find her paper at her door on a sunny day. Happy to hear from her daughters each day. My husband and I take the day after Thanksgiving to visit the Art Institute, something that was too complex an undertaking to do with my father in later years. This year my mother looks forward to joining us on this outing. Next year I am taking her to Israel, a lifelong dream of hers. She'll be almost 87 when we go. There is much to look forward to for her even now and for that I am thankful, both for her and for me to be able to share that experience with her.

Monday, November 19, 2012

When the Well Runs Dry

I am a productivity junkie. I need to be productive to justify my existence. There, I’ve said it. I get lots done. I paint, I write, I speak, I exhibit artwork,I edit video. I don’t sleep a lot. That’s the downside of being constantly productive.

So what does one do when the well runs dry? Mind you, it hasn’t yet, but for someone who has a need to produce that is always the fear that lurks. What do I do when nothing comes, be it words from my keyboard or shows or paintings?

When I left my job six years ago, I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to take me. I learned a lot about letting things happen and trusting the universe with a little nudge from me from time to time. I have become an appreciator of process and “beshert” (destiny), of how life unfolds, each action we take feeding the next experience. I am fascinated with the way we each write our own story, most of us unaware that we are doing it day by day. And I must confess to being intrigued with watching my own story unfold, as if I am reading a very interesting novel and want to see what happens next. I often peek at endings, but in this case can only live it out.

I began this blog almost four years ago when I went to study Yiddish at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania. I hadn’t envisioned that I would still be writing it. At the time I thought my experience would be of interest to others traveling in that region or attending the Institute. The conventional wisdom of blog writing is that you hew to a specific theme to attract readers who have an interest in that theme. I don’t work that way. I have many interests and many of them interrelate. If you are reading this blog you get a mixed bag from family history, travel, literature, identity and legacy, artwork and the occasional reflection on how it all knits together.That is the benefit of not doing this for a living. I write because I have something I want to say that I think might be of interest to someone else out there in the world.

But lately I have been thinking, “What next?” I recently closed out my most recent interview series. I’ve written about each of the interviews in this blog. There is not much more family research to uncover and I’ve visited all the towns in Eastern Europe that family came from. A few weeks ago I wrapped up an Artist Residency at a local synagogue working with different groups of congregants.

Now lest you fear things have come to a screeching halt, let me assure you I still have a few things on my plate, but I am at a point of reassessment. When I began this journey I framed what I did in terms of areas of interest, artwork and family history. As I moved into it more deeply I reframed it to a broader purpose, that of telling stories. And why stories? Stories are how we understand another’s experience and artwork helps to fix them in our memory. My artwork is one medium through which to tell stories, this blog and my talks are yet another. With story as my larger purpose I begin to think about the many ways one can tell a story and the prospect of a book may lie ahead. My interview series certainly gives me rich material with which to work. Researching some of the themes that arose may take me deeper into the material.

A very different direction has been suggested by friends who advise me to write about reinvention. Reinvention is something that I have done with some success and a lot of conscious thought. I am an observer by nature, identifying the patterns and points of connection, distilling them down to the core learnings. Many of my contemporaries are at that stage in life where they are thinking of how to navigate a transition to a different kind of life, one that feels meaningful and fulfilling. Whether my experience offers broader insights is something I will consider and possibly explore further in this blog.

So I am at a turning point. I remind myself that change often comes out of listening carefully and being open, a lesson I have struggled to learn and often need to remember. There is less certainty about the next step because it is a new one, one that takes me into unknown and less familiar territory.

I am often struck by the irony that in my former work life I succeeded because of my sense of urgency, my need to drive to a conclusion, to get things done. Now I remind myself that the need for immediate results is often a trap. Results come in their own time, not always in response to my sense of urgency. There is a gestational stage in painting where a painting begins to emerge in my thoughts long before I put brush to paint. Then there is an interaction with the idea, shaping and reshaping it as it begins to take form. I think that same process is one we play out at the change points in our life. A time where we must let go of result and open ourselves to the process, feeling our way, testing and reframing until we find our new direction.




Saturday, November 10, 2012

Grandma Zelda

I started yesterday with an open schedule which is always a luxury, a runway of time to take on the bigger projects.  That quickly ended with an email telling me that Zelda, one of my interview subjects, had passed away at age 94.

When I interviewed Zelda in 2011 she told a lovely story about how she came to be known as Grandma Zelda within her Beth Jacob synagogue.  I did a painting of her titled Grandma Zelda which is in a current show and oddly enough I had just connected with her family members who had seen and expressed their appreciation of the painting.  Now, just a few days later, they were alerting me to her death.  Sometimes the synchronicity of events causes me to feel that there is a message to which I should pay attention.

Off I headed to the funeral which was truly moving.  Many of her classic stories were recounted and I realized I had many of them in her video.  Her interview had touched me because there was an edge of sadness in it about her early life.  So often I find that when someone recounts an emotional time many years ago, it still can conjure tears, betraying the deeply felt hurt that still lurks beneath.    Zelda's mother died when Zelda was seven and her father remarried. Zelda’s voice had choked as she recounted that she didn’t really get to know her mother and my heart went out to the motherless child within her.  The second marriage was not a successful one and Zelda spoke of how her stepmother would tell her she was worthless. 

"When the child is told, “You’re no good”, which I was told, and you’ll never amount to anything, but I proved her wrong.  I proved her wrong.  I don’t claim to be better than anybody else, but as good.  I will always say I am as good."

I was struck by the self-talk that helped her to reaffirm her own worth and move forward in her life.  Zelda talked about her work as a nursing assistant at a children’s hospital where her sensitivity to children was deeply felt.  I have to believe that her own experience as a child deepened her awareness of how a child experiences the world.

"I was glad when they went home, the little darlings and I would tell them, “Don’t come back, we don’t have no Disneyland here”.   It’s sad to see a sick child.  It’s very sad.  I went home many nights crying believe me, until one of the nurses said, “Zelda, you have to harden up." I said, “How can I harden up when I see a sick child.  I can’t harden up."

Zelda spoke warmly of her father who she viewed as her best friend.  When he was ill she left school and took care of him until his death.  Zelda never married, but didn’t feel that as a loss.  She found her satisfaction in her relationships with others.  At the funeral the rabbi spoke of Zelda as instinctively sharing an understanding expressed by Martin Buber, that God is found in relationship with others. 

One of the most pivotal relationships in Zelda’s life was with the community of Beth Jacob.  Here her natural connection with children was felt and she acquired the honorific of “Grandma Zelda”.  When I asked her how that relationship developed she responded,

"Through the children.  Because I always love children and they know it.  The kids at Beth Jacob know it.  I’m only known as Grandma Zelda, Grandma Zelda.  

Two little boys came up to me and one said, “Hi Grandma Zelda, how are you?" 

And the other one looked at him and said, "She your grandma?"  

And the first one said “Yes she’s my grandma and she’s everybody’s grandma." And he goes like this (pointing) "And listen, she could be your grandma too if you want her to". 

So the second one says, “Do you think she would be?” 

And the first one said, “All you have to do is ask her”, 

So he comes up to me and he says, “Can I ask you something?” 

 And I jokingly said, “Is it going to cost me money?”

And he said , “No, would you be my Grandma Zelda?”   

I almost…I had tears in my eyes.  I said, “I would be happy to be your Grandma Zelda, but when you see me what are you going to say to me? "  

“No problem, if it’s on Shabbos I’ll say Good Shabbos Grandma Zelda.  If it's on any other time I’ll say, Hi Grandma Zelda, how are you?”

Kids to me are beautiful, I love children. I’ll take all the time in the world to talk to them and if they have anything to say that they want me to help them, I’ll be there for them because I love kids."

And you didn’t have children?

I was never married, but I have a lot of grandchildren.  I have a lot of grandchildren. They call me Grandma Zelda and I love it.

(Hear Zelda tell her story)

While I can’t tell this as effectively as Zelda who acted out the different parts in the retelling, I hope it conveys the flavor.  My painting of Zelda is one of a few portraits in the series. I had decided I would only do portraits if they were important to the story I was trying to retell and in this case Grandma Zelda was absolutely central.  I of course had to surround her with children and include a feature from the Beth Jacob building to represent the community which she embraced and which in turn embraced her.

So what happened to that previously open day?  I spent the balance of my day doing video editing on the interview with Zelda as I felt it needed to go to her family.  At the funeral I ran into a friend who attends Beth Jacob who also asked if I could share a copy with the synagogue.  So that open day was devoted to the memory of a warm and giving woman who I had the good fortune to encounter through my interview project.  And synchronicity of events introduced me to her family so I could share the result of that interview with 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.