Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Over Here and Over There: WWII and NYC

 I recently made it uptown to see the New-YorkHistorical Society’s wonderful WWII & NYC exhibition. It was a little like going to visit your kids in college, as many of our own artifacts are on loan to the exhibition. I was proud to see the stories and personal artifacts of librarian-turned-spy Florence Mendheim, army doctor Dr. Philip Freiman who served POWS in Italy, and Army Corps Staff Sergeant Ralph Feuerstein proudly displayed, along with various other materials from our archives.

The exhibit itself is very well done. It shows how when World War II broke out in 1939, New York was a heavily immigrant city, whose people had real stakes in the war and held a wide range of opinions about whether to intervene in the worldwide conflict. It explores how the Pearl Harbor attack brought the county into the war and how New York became an important port which saw troops and refugees and contributed greatly to the war effort. 

While in other less subtle hands, the exhibit could have been painted in just one patriotic color, The New-York Historical Society is not afraid to delve into difficult topics such as the racism that still prevailed when African Americans and Japanese Americans were trying to serve their country. 

As someone who works at a museum that tells many stories about World War II, it takes a lot to surprise me, but I had never heard that museums themselves helped with the war effort, including the New-York Historical Society which opened its doors to the Red Cross, the MoMA, which hosted a poster art competition in support of the war, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had curators from the armory division help design new helmets for the troops based on classic designs. Art from the time period by Jacob Lawrence, Isamu Noguchi, and other talented artists, round out this not-to-be-missed exhibition. 

Image: Florence Mendheim, New York City, 1921  Gift of Channa and Shragai Cohen.

Mendheim was a Jewish spy reporting to Rabbi J.X. Cohen of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and subsequently, the FBI. Ms. Mendheim was an American Jew of German-Jewish descent, who grew up on the Upper West Side.  Dedicated to fighting Nazism, she risked being exposed, by going undercover and reporting on the activities and plans of the Friends of the New Germany.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

He Had a Dream

My husband and I were in Atlanta over the weekend for a family event, and since it was Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend, it was the ideal opportunity to pay our respects to the great Dr. King. We set out for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Park Service historic site, which includes a number of facilities like the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King was baptized and ordained, and the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which is the memorial created by his family. There are banners hanging in the center that remind the public that his birthday is a day of service, a day to use his teachings to solve social problems. The banner’s tagline is “A day on, not a day off.”

The center has biographical rooms devoted to Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I found the MLK room particularly moving because there were seemingly ordinary objects used to illustrate the life of an extraordinary man. In one gallery we see his suitcase, clothes, monogrammed wallet, and the Lorraine Motel key from his last day in Memphis. Outside of the gallery, displayed with subtlety and humility, are the replica of his Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously in 1977. Blink and you might miss them.

In the D.R.E.A.M. Gallery in the Historic Site’s visitor center there are photographs that trace Dr. King’s journey from April 3 – April 9, 1968, from his speech in Memphis protesting the conditions of the sanitation workers, to photos taken in the aftermath of his assassination, through the funeral procession, and the actual memorial service. I learned that Harry Belafonte flew Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King to the funeral on his private plane.  In the middle of the room is a-cart (not sure if it was the real one or a replica) that carried MLK’s plain coffin through the streets of Atlanta pulled by two mules.

In the main exhibition hall, Jim Crow laws are printed on a wall that seems to stretch from the ceiling to the floor. They are categorized by subject and written after each law is the state in which it was enacted. Here is a sample from the NPS site. In 2013 it is still inconceivable to me that elected officials thought these ideas were sensible. Truly frightening.*

At the conclusion of our visit to these important sites, we walked around the Reflecting Pool and stopped at the tomb that holds the remains of Dr. and Mrs. King. It was a powerful visit that left me in search of his texts. I purchased a book of his speeches at the Ebenezer Baptist Church Shop, but here is a link to his “I Have a Dream” speech from the National Archives.

*To learn about the Jim Crow laws in a different light, see the exhibition we curated in 2009 called Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, now on view at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Photo by John Henderson

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Hava Story We Haven't Heard

Rosa Strygler and Moritz Goldfeier
On Thursday night, Trustee Ingeborg Rennert and her husband, Ira, hosted a dinner in their home to benefit the Museum. The guest speaker for the evening was Roberta Grossman, long-time Museum friend and filmmaker; her most recent work is, of course, Hava Nagila (The Movie).

Hava Nagila (The Movie) has been booked at 76 Jewish film festivals; serving as the opening or closing night film at nearly half of them. We will be showing it at MJH on February 27 with Roberta in attendance.

As I’m sure she will do here in February, Roberta regaled those in attendance with the history of the tune, how it became synonymous with the hora or as she described it “finding its soul mate, the hora,” and how it has become the theme song for joyful celebrations, athletic endeavors, and frankly any happy occasion.
No one doubts the song’s ubiquity, and as the movie and our exhibition point out, the song Hava Nagila has been interpreted widely, as a search of YouTube would suggest. At dinner we heard a story from our beloved Trustee Emerita Rosa Strygler, who shared with us a memory that is a testament to why this exhibition is at this Museum.

Rosa was born in Poland and lived with her family in Krakow. She recalled having been in an orphanage in Hungary for Polish girls. She was a teenager and feeling completely alone in the world, as she said, “like the only Jew alive.” One day, she went into the Great Synagogue in Budapest and slowly, more and more people arrived. “Others who were like us,” she said. The group stayed and talked for hours, and during the course of the day people left. There were four or five people remaining in the synagogue and one of them asked, “What should we do next?” Another member of the group responded, “We should sing Hava Nagila.”
You could hear a pin drop.

To Rosa and other survivors like her, Hava Nagila has tremendous meaning. Its words, which exhort us to rejoice and be glad, have the power to shine light on lives that have endured such darkness. To Rosa, Fanya, Moritz, Angie, and Dr. Ruth, the survivors who dined with us on Thursday, thank you for allowing this light to shine on all of us.
Photo by Melanie Einzig.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Return of an Old Friend

It seems like I am always writing about transit news regarding the Museum. I still marvel how life changing it was to connect the R, A, C, and F at Jay St-Borough Hall, and now that the R continues on its merry way to Manhattan after a two-month hiatus as a shuttle in Brooklyn one could hardly dare to contemplate how our transit lives could be further improved in Lower Manhattan, besides the obvious of course … the re-opening of that beautiful South Ferry Station. Until that time, we can tell you about the return of the M9.

The M9 was a Battery Park City presence until service cuts ended our romance in 2010. But as part of the MTA’s Service Enhancement Plan, the M9 began rolling through BPC yesterday. It looks like the closest stop to MJH will be South End Ave and W. Thames St, but you can look for yourself on this Manhattan bus map. If you scroll to the right on the bottom, you can enlarge the PDF to make it legible. I am a fan of that purple color. For transit information you can use all the time, be sure to visit the MTA’s website and see apps galore for your real time subway service updates.

We are always looking at ways to encourage visitation, and access to more public transit is just one inexpensive way.