Monday, August 27, 2012

“Learning to Be a Better Teacher”

This blog was written by Social Studies teacher Bill Mason, currently a teacher at Our Lady of Fatima School in Jackson Heights, Queens. Bill has attended a number of our summer teacher trainings, and he was happy to share what draws him to the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Friends often ask me “What’s a nice Catholic boy like you doing spending all your time in a Jewish museum?” Well, the answer is simple: learning to be a better teacher. I was introduced to the Museum of Jewish Heritage seven years ago through Bearing Witness, a program that familiarizes Catholic school teachers with the issues surrounding Jewish-Catholic relations and a methodology for properly teaching the Holocaust in the classroom.  Since then, I have taken several workshops and seminars at the Museum, all of which have greatly enriched my knowledge of Jewish history and the Holocaust.

This summer I attended two seminars: Holocaust: The Role of the Professions and Teaching about Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust. A problem that many Catholic school teachers face is the student’s lack of identification with Jewish culture and Holocaust issues. “What does this have to do with me?” is often the mantra of the students. Through the use of testimonies, exhibits in the Museum, and classroom-useable materials, we are able to help our students with this difficult topic.

MJH serves as an indispensible resource for teachers by providing illuminating speakers such as Fr. Dennis McManus and the many survivors who share their often horrific but triumphant stories of survival. In addition, Elizabeth Edelstein’s Education Department provides pedagogical training for teachers in the use of the Museum’s Core Exhibition. I highly recommend MJHs workshops and seminars to all of my colleagues as a wonderful educational experience and an opportunity for truly amazing professional development.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Must See Exhibit at The Jewish Museum

On our days off, members of the MJH staff have been known to visit other cultural institutions around the city. In fact, last week I ran into Peter, one of my co-workers, uptown at The Jewish Museum.  In the past I’ve run into our former deputy director at the Met’s new Roman art wing, a former executive assistant at the Morgan’s Babar exhibit, and so on. In short, we’re a gaggle of culture vultures, so when we say an exhibit is a must see, you can believe it. 

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 at The Jewish Museum certainly fits into that category. I’ve long admired Vuillard’s lovely work. However, I’ve only ever seen his paintings in group shows, when he has been a sidekick of more well-known artists such as Pierre Bonnard, or in permanent collections. The Jewish Museum’s show sheds light on the importance of Vuillard’s inspiration, including his Jewish patrons, friends, and paramours. However, his beautiful paintings are really at the center of the show, and they speak for themselves. His intimate later portraits, in particular, are really quite unusual. It was a pleasure to learn more about this artist who rightly deserves his own exhibition. The exhibit runs through September 23.

Edouard Vuillard (French, 1868-1940)
Woman in a Striped Dress, from The Album, 1895
Oil on canvas
25 7/8 x 23 in. (65.7 x 58.7 cm)
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.38

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Q&A with author Dr. Suzanne Vromen about the rescue efforts of Belgian nuns during the Holocaust

Visitors to the Museum are often quite happy to see the lobby full of school children, but what they may not know is that we spend a lot of time with educators as well. Every year we welcome public and private school teachers for conferences and workshops. This week, we are offering a course for elementary and middle school teachers at Catholic schools during which we will explore how to teach about the Holocaust and Jewish heritage. One of the featured speakers will be Dr. Suzanne Vromen, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Bard College. Dr. Vromen is the author of Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and Their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis (Oxford University Press, 2008). In advance of her remarks, we asked her to tell us about her groundbreaking research.

MJH: What interested you in the hidden children of Belgium in particular?

SV: I was living in Belgium when the Germans invaded in May 1940 and suffered under the occupation until spring 1941. With my parents and brother I was then lucky to escape all the way to the Belgian Congo, a Belgian colony at the time, where I went to school in a convent because all education was in the hands of missionaries and there were no secular options.

After the war, I was haunted by my luck. I could have been a hidden child, or I could so easily have been deported and exterminated. In part to justify that I had been spared and survived, I taught courses on the Holocaust for many years, as a way of giving back. When I wanted to give my students material on the Holocaust in Belgium I found that not much existed in English and I decided before my retirement that I would try to partially fill the gap. I wanted to find out how the ex-hidden children felt today about their experiences in religious institutions and what they remembered of their daily lives. I also wanted to hear the voices of the nuns who had sheltered them. Nuns are not usually interviewed, and because of my experience during the war I felt comfortable going to convents. My book gives a voice to the nuns, a rare and valuable occurrence. I wrote my book as both a mission and an acknowledgment: a mission to inform and enlighten, and an acknowledgment of the role of nuns both in Belgium and in my own life.

MJH: Can you tell us a little about civil resistance activities in Belgium?

SV: The civil resistance had the goal of ensuring survival. It was organized in Belgium by Jews for Jews relatively early and efficiently. It asked for the help of non-Jews and received it. One of the results is that half the Jewish population of Belgium survived, while in neighboring Holland 80% of the Jewish population was exterminated. It is important to stress the Jewish initiative because, after the war, some said that Jews went to slaughter like sheep. As more and more archives are opened and studies done, this alleged passivity is shown to be patently false.

MJH: You call parents “the first rescuers.” What do you mean by that?

SV: The parents had to be willing to hand over their children to people they did not know. Their children would be taken to unspecified hiding places. Parents were not allowed to know where their children would be hidden because if the parents were rounded up by the Germans and tortured they might reveal the hiding addresses. Parents were the first rescuers because it is only through their willingness to separate themselves from their children and to trust their children to complete strangers that the rescue was made possible.

MJH: How was it possible to keep children’s Jewish identity a secret? How were the Jewish children integrated into convents and orphanages?

SV: Mothers superior often just shared the secret with a small circle of nuns. There were exceptions when all the sisters were informed and asked to keep silent. Some nuns were openly anti-Semitic. However, it is important to remember that nuns owe obedience to their mother superior. Some convents insisted on baptism and conversion, others did not. There was no uniform policy for all convents. As for the children, the non-Jewish ones did not seem to find the newcomers strange. Some Jewish children wanted to be baptized and become like all others, some resisted. The hidden children reported that they were treated like all others, except in cases where they were seen as Christ killers and beaten. The most interesting issue is how the Jewish children kept their identity secret. The nuns were very astonished in retrospect about how carefully the children flipped their identity and kept their past secret. When there was a denunciation, it was mostly due to a disgruntled outside employee of the convent. As I report in my book, there were many different experiences and policies, it is impossible to generalize.

MJH: What did you learn about the roles mothers superior played?

SV: Their role was pivotal. They took the responsibility to admit or refuse to admit hidden children. Their important role has often been forgotten in narratives of resistance. They were skilled CEOs who had to manage with scarce resources, make room in cramped lodgings, and find sufficient food in a starving country whose resources were diverted to Germany.

MJH: What do you think their motivations were in helping Jewish children? Did the higher ups in the Catholic Church know of their efforts?

SV: Their motivations were both humanitarian and religious. They were saving lives and souls. These motivations cannot be disentangled though, when interviewed in recent times, the nuns emphasize the humanitarian aspect.

The higher clergy were bystanders. One bishop told his parish priests to help, all others remained silent. They did not want confrontations with the Germans. They did not oppose the rescue. In some cases, especially at the end of the war, they facilitated somewhat. In general, there was a big difference between the lower clergy moved by humanitarian feelings and the higher clergy interested in the regular running of Church institutions.

MJH: In your estimation, how many Jewish children were saved in Belgium by the nuns?

SV: There are no exact numbers, only estimates of between 2,500 and 3,000.

MJH: The last chapter of your book very fittingly explores issues of Holocaust commemoration. It is a fascinating look at how the former hidden children have come to terms with their experiences and started talking about them, and the recognition of the role of the nuns in rescuing Jews.

SV: I am glad that my book restores them to their rightful place in history. As of 2008 there were 48 nuns recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Nations. Since 2008 there may have been one or two additions.

MJH: Thank you to Dr. Vromen for taking the time to talk to us. For the full picture of this little-known chapter of history, we highly recommend reading her book in its entirety.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fall Forward

This blog comes from Gabriel Sanders, our director of public programs, who loves to spoil us.

SPOILER ALERT: The following post will discuss the changing of the seasons and the cooling of temperatures that – historically at least – has accompanied the move from summer to fall.

It’s been a light-hearted season of fun here at the museum, what with six weeks of Mel Brooks , but before long we’re going to be putting our flip flops into storage, doing our back-to-school shopping, and moving from August to august.

That said, we’re not going to throw you straight into the deep-end. We’ll ease into fall gently, with a little food. Our first program of the fall season, on September 9, will be a look at the unique world of Italian-Jewish cuisine with a panel of distinguished chefs and food writers, followed by light reception featuring some kosher Italian delights.

This September we’ll be honoring not just one but two centenarians, one long vanished, one still very much with us. On the 19th, together with UN’s Holocaust Programme, we’ll be paying homage to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, whose centenary is being celebrated across the world this year. On the 30th, we’ll party with photographer Ruth Gruber, who, that very day, will be turning 101.

To help get into the High Holiday spirit, puppet master Jacob Stein will bring his guitar and the Bakery Band Puppets for a celebration of the season of renewal and forgiveness for children 3 through 10 on September 23.

On the 27th, the day after Yom Kippur, we’ll be offering a sneak preview of a new documentary from Israel called Six Million and One, which follows four siblings on a trip to Austria to see firsthand the concentration camps that help their father during the World War II.

In October we’ll play host to two book discussions. On the 3rd, we welcome Andrew Nagorski, author of the Hitlerland, which looks at Hitler’s rise through the eyes of American diplomats and journalists living in Berlin during the 30s. On the 17th, writer Rich Cohen (Tough Jews, Sweet and Low) will be here to discuss his latest: The Fish That Ate the Whale, a biography of banana magnate Sam Zemurray. A larger-than-life figure, Zemurray went from penniless Russian immigrant to captain of industry and key figure in the creation of the State of Israel.

We’ll be saying goodbye to our Filming the Camps exhibition in October, but before we do we’ll mark it and its themes with two programs. On October 10, we’ll be screening The Big Red One, filmmaker Samuel Fuller’s semi-autobiographical portrait of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division, in which Fuller himself served during World War II. On the 14th, we’ll assemble a panel of photographers and newspaper writers for a discussion of embedded journalists and the risks and ethical dilemmas they face when serving alongside military units during wartime.

On October 21, we return to the Emma Lazarus, the Museum’s guiding spirit for the last year, and to the subject with which her name has become inseparable: immigration. We’ll bring together a panel of historians and policy experts for a discussion of the place of the immigrant in American life both historically and today.

And to close out the season, we’ll dance to hora. In celebration of our new exhibition Hava Nagila: A Song for the People, we’ve invited Ruth Goodman, co-founder of the Israeli Dance Institute, for a dance lesson and a grand ‘ole Hava Nagila Hoedown.

It’s going to be quite a season. Hope to see you here.

Monday, August 6, 2012

New Recipe for the New Year from the Italian-Jewish Kitchen

From Roman artichokes to Venetian fried fish, Italian and Jewish cuisines have been nourishing each other for more than 2,000 years. On Sunday, September 9 at 2:30 p.m., James Beard nominated cookbook author Jayne Cohen will lead a lively discussion entitled Exploring Italian-Jewish Cuisine at the Museum.

The panel will feature: food writers Cara De Silva and Alessandra Rovati; chef and food writer Silvia Nacamulli; and chef and restaurant owner Walter Potenza. The chefs and writers will share recipes and stories from Italian- Jewish kitchens throughout the ages. A reception will follow featuring Italian specialties and a guided tasting of kosher Italian wines and cheeses donated by Sentieri Ebraici Wines and Brent Delman, The Cheese Guy.

Here is a sneak peek at a fabulous recipe for Rosh Hashanah, courtesy of Walter Potenza.

Sfratti (Jewish nut and honey filled cookies)

Walter’s recipe is a traditional Rosh Hashanah specialty from the Tuscan village of Pitigliano, which was once known as Little Jerusalem.

Yield: Makes 42 cookies


3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1/3 cup cold, unsalted butter (or 1/3 cup vegetable oil)

approx. 2/3 cup chilled dry white wine


1 cup honey

2 cups chopped walnuts

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

dash of nutmeg

¼ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper

Egg Wash

1 large egg beaten with 1 Tablespoon of water


Make Dough First: Combine flour, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the wine a little at a time, mixing with a fork to moisten the dough. Continue adding wine until the dough just holds together. Divide dough in half and press into balls. Flatten balls into discs, then wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Dough can be made up to 3 days ahead. When ready to use, allow dough to stand at room temperature until malleable but not soft.

Make the Filling: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the honey to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. If it starts to foam over, lower heat slightly. Add remaining ingredients and cook, stirring constantly for another 3-5 minutes, then remove from heat. (If the mixture begins turn dark, it is starting to burn—remove from the heat immediately and keep stirring!)

Let the mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until it is cool enough to handle. Pour mixture onto a floured surface, divide into 6 equal portions, and shape the portions into 14-inch-long sticks.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Prepare the cookies: On a piece of waxed paper or plastic wrap or on a lightly floured surface, roll each disc of dough into a 14-by-12-inch rectangle, then cut each rectangle lengthwise into three long rectangles. Place one of the strips of filling near a long side of each rectangle, then roll the dough around the filling.

You will have six long sticks of dough with filling in each. Cut these into 2-inch sticks. Place seam side down on the prepared baking sheet, leaving 1 inch between the cookies. Brush with the egg wash.

Bake cookies until golden, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool. You can store them in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.