Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Q&A with Zalmen Mlotek of The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene

We are very excited to be working with The National YiddishTheatre-Folksbiene, an organization that is as passionate as we are about preserving and celebrating Jewish culture before, during, and after the Holocaust. We will welcome them to the Museum of Jewish Heritage on March 10 for an evocative concert of music created in Europe's underground cabarets called “GhettoTango.”  

In advance of the performance, we caught up with Zalmen Mlotek, the Folksbiene’s artistic director, who shared some really interesting stories about the discovery of this music. Zalmen Mlotek will be joined on stage by Daniella Rabbani and Avram Mlotek.

MJH:  What was your first exposure to music performed in the ghettos?

ZM: My father ran from Warsaw in Sept of 1939 when he was 21— most of his family were trapped in Warsaw, and then either went to their deaths in Treblinka or in the Warsaw Ghetto. My mother is a musicologist and has published books of songs from the Holocaust. I went to Yiddish summer camps where they commemorated the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 with songs that were very moving and impactful on a young teenager growing up.

MJH:  How did these underground cabarets exist at all? How did they not get caught? Who was their audience?

ZM: These cabarets were in the ghetto. The ghettos that were made from the massive Jewish communities in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, Bialistok and others, were lessons in the amazing resources the human spirit will create under duress and stress. The ghettos had schools, religious and secular, children’s choirs, theaters, cabarets – and while they were allowed to function, they had to be careful with their texts as the puppet ghetto regimes would sometimes send spies as censors. The audiences were the populations de-located to the ghettos themselves. 

MJH: How did popular music influence Yiddish music of the time?

ZM: Popular American music of the time, from ragtime to swing, was heard in Europe in the late 20s and 30s. We forget that these cities in Poland, where Ghettos were established were once thriving vibrant cultural communities with sophisticated art and music being performed and heard. Yiddish music reflected what was being heard on the streets at the time.

MJH: What most surprised you about what was performed and who performed it?

ZM: Some of the bitter, sarcastic songs that bring to life people in the ghettos like Chaim Rumkowski, the Nazi appointed leader of the Jewish Ghetto.  While we have scant records of who performed this material this performance of “Ghetto Tango” is unique in that the performers, both in their 20s, are close in age to the writers and composers and most-likely the singers of these songs. They bring that youthful energy and perspective to the music itself which gives us a good sense of how these songs were created and the effects they had on other young people at the time.

MJH: What is your favorite piece and why?

ZM: I have many favorites:
"Friling,"  (Springtime) by Kaczerginsky is one of them. It is a beautiful narrative about lost love in the ghetto and a great example of the hope that comes out of the lyric and music.

Another favorite is "Yisrolik" – the poignant and moving depiction of a child in the ghetto who has lost his parents and survives by selling cigarettes.

MJH: What should we specifically listen for on March 10?

ZM: Listen to the immediacy of this material: how each song , in very different ways, gives us a clear, sometimes difficult to bear,  picture of the lives of Jews who used music and song to overcome their grief, sorrow, pain, and  unspeakable horrors.

MJH: What do you want audiences to take away from the performance?

ZM: Audiences will get a rare glimpse into this world of music and song that was created by our people in the ghettos and camps and see how music sustained them, inspired them, and comforted them. They will hopefully be inspired to come and see other productions by The National Yiddish Theater- Folksbiene whose mission it is to find new ways to bring songs, stories, and theater to life so that audiences of today can be inspired , touched, and exhilarated.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Praise of our Lipper Interns

This blog is from Loren, who really enjoys working closely with our interns, and who somehow finds the time to take part in our staff book club, too.

Each spring and fall, the Museum hires 16 idealistic, intelligent, and dedicated young adults committed to taking action against genocide and social injustice.  They are Lipper Interns, a select group of students trained at the Museum to teach Holocaust education classes at public middle and high schools across the northeast.   

Since 1998, more than 450 students from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have become Lipper Interns.  The EGL Charitable Foundation, which funds the program, envisioned a peer-to-peer learning experience that includes both classroom visits and tours of the Museum.  

Participating teachers' responses are overwhelmingly positive:

Students come away realizing the need to show tolerance and understanding towards others.       
 – Larry Laifer, R.J. Lockhart Elementary School, NY

The museum visit itself is irreplaceable. Students were very moved by the exhibits in a way that showing photos or sharing stories in class can’t replicate. – Chris Rettig, Graham and Parks Alternative Public School, MA

This program provides a comprehensive overview that is developmentally appropriate for students to delve into an emotional topic. It also emphasizes the power of staying optimistic and celebrates life. –Beth Zigmont, Radner Middle School, PA
The Museum visit was excellent.  The students learn about the Holocaust in school, but at the Museum they felt it! – Peter Ryan, Township of Ocean Intermediate School, NJ

For Lipper Interns, their semester of teaching is unforgettable. Many come back semester after semester to lead tours and help with education programs. Here's what some of our recent interns have said:

Sharing the stories of the Holocaust with a younger generation is an honor. Seeing how passionate students became makes me hopeful that the future will be a better place.
– Melissa Sedlacik (Fall 2012)

I can unequivocally say that without the Lipper Internship, I would not be nearly as effective an educator.  As I prepare to enter the Peace Corps leading HIV/AIDS community education programs, I know my Lipper training and experience will continue to serve me well.  – Daniella Montemarano (Spring 2010)

I give tours to school groups that visit historic Philadelphia. My training as a Lipper Intern taught me to ask questions and get students thinking as opposed to lecturing to them. – Lawrence McClenny (Spring 2008)

The Lipper Interns’ enthusiasm and desire to make the world a better place is an inspiration to all of us and reinforces the words we see every day in the Museum’s rotunda entrance, “There is hope for your future.” 

For more information and a link to the application, visit www.mjhnyc.org. If you have questions, please email lipperinterns@mjhnyc.org or call (646) 437 4273.

Monday, February 4, 2013

In Memory of John Balan

Longtime friend of the Museum, John Balan, who was a member of our Speakers Bureau, passed away last week. We thought it was only fitting to share his story with you, which was first printed in our Museum newsletter in 2006. May his memory be a blessing.

(Jan Braun) was born in 1934, the only child of Alexander and Cornelia Braun in Bratislava, then  the capital of the province of Slovakia. John lived with his Orthodox grandmother from 1934 to 38. It wasn’t until recent decades, however, that John  learned of his Jewish roots.

Baptized just before his fourth birthday by a man his father befriended, the family immediately began their efforts to lead their lives as Christians. “I went to Sunday school, and we went to church, we did all of these things, pretty much for the rest of my life.” Added John, “My grandmother ran a very Jewish household. She was very much against this. She was angry at my father.” Yet, the family’s hope was that their efforts would provide protection otherwise unavailable to Jews at the time.

His family moved to the Jewish area of Bratislava in 1942. John does not consciously remember whether or not his parents explained the real reason for moving, whether it was because they were Jewish or because they wanted to be closer to the river. In hindsight, John acknowledges, knowing why their lives had to be disrupted—why they had to separate—would have been easier to understand. The decision to go into hiding was made in 1944. The Nazis occupied Slovakia and the situation became more and more dangerous for John and his family. John said, “It became clear that we were days or weeks away from major, major deportations. The only alternative available since you couldn’t go East, South,West, or North, was to find a hiding place—especially during the night.” Nazi roundups took place in the very early morning hours.

John’s elementary school homeroom teacher, Nora Palethys, and her husband, Karel, became friends with John’s parents over time. John characterizes Karel as “fighting for the underdog … being morally motivated.” Knowing who they were up against, Karel and Nora offered to hide the family. Every night, or whenever it was appropriate, John and his family would leave the ghetto and sleep over with the Palethys and their child. After nearly two months of these nocturnal sojourns, a loud, close rumbling could be heard. “It was the noise of the roundup from within the apartment. We were on the very top floor. The searchers stopped on the floor just below. ‘Let’s go,’ they called out, ‘there are no more Jews left here.’”

It was increasingly difficult to maintain a safe haven for the household of six. The time came for the Brauns to separate from their friends and from each other. John’s mother bribed her way into a Catholic-run tuberculosis sanitarium. John’s father left for the farm of a woman who had been close to the family when John was a baby. John went to live with a family that was paid to hide him. John’s father visited him nightly with the help of Karel, who would use a small flashlight to signal whether or not it was safe to continue down the road. (This flashlight is on display in the Museum’s Children’s Gallery on the second floor). Living apart lasted two months, but eventually the family was reunited after being liberated after the Soviet army passed through Slovakia. Jan and his parents became the Balans and immigrated to the United States in 1948.

The family maintained their Christian identities after the war. “When we came to the US the first thing my parents did was join a church. I didn’t find it unpleasant because I would have rather gone to a Jewish service; I found it unpleasant because it was boring to sit there,” John recounted dryly.

Hints of a Jewish life presented themselves in subtle ways. “My cousins in Israel had made Aliya, so my father sent them some clothing. My father asked them to send the mail to the office, rather than to the house because he didn’t want the postman to see that letters were coming from Israel.”

As an adult John would visit these cousins frequently and they would share their childhood experiences, but John maintained his non-Jewish persona. “I was raised this way, and I saw no great overpowering reason to change. Unlike some little kids who were hidden in a monastery and were actually raised Catholic, and don’t remember their Jewishness because they went into the convent at age two or three, I was nine or ten, so I knew that I was Jewish, but for practical purposes, I wasn’t. I went through high school that way … I went through college that way. I joined a Christian fraternity, not a Jewish fraternity.”

John’s partner of 36 years, Annie, was Jewish, and made him aware of the Jewish world. This awareness, combined with dozens of trips to Israel, has helped to erode what John refers to as “the charade.” What sealed his fate, however, was a professional experience that took place in the 1990s.Working at a phone company in Pennsylvania that employed more than a thousand employees, John was given advice that he considers the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” His attorney told him not to reveal his true identity. She told him, “John, you know, you would be well advised, from a career point of view, not to reveal your Jewishness to this company.”

Following a diagnosis of cancer in 1997, John sought help through meditation led by a rabbi he liked very much. He attended services and gained a sense of community unknown to him before He became more involved and became a founder of the Shul of New York on the Lower East Side, where he would take on the role of treasurer for many years and watch with joy as the congregation grew.  John admitted that it took some time to truly reveal who he was, even in this safe environment. “Whenever I say ‘I am Jewish’ I am very aware I am saying it.”

You can read more of John’s history in the book To Life: 36 Stories of Memory and Hope. He worried that after survivors are gone, and the children of survivors are gone, that after two or three generations no one will remember what happened to Jews during the Holocaust. His role, he felt, was to tell the story. John said, “I can contribute, I will do that.”

Image: Photo of Jan Braun at 9 and a half years old. April 1944, Slovakia.

Gift of John Balan

Friday, February 1, 2013

Statement on the Passing of the Honorable Edward I. Koch

Hon. Robert M. Morgenthau and the Hon. Edward I. Koch

Statement from Robert M. Morgenthau, Chairman
and David G. Marwell, Director
 Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
On the Passing of Hon. Edward I. Koch, Founding Chairman

This morning we mourn the loss of our dear friend and “Godfather,” the Honorable Mayor Edward I. Koch. Since his death was announced early this morning, the news coverage describing “New York’s Mayor” has focused on his political life as four-term congressman and three-term mayor. But his role in our Museum has made a significant impact on this city as well. Simply put, were it not for Ed Koch, we would not exist.

As mayor, he created a Holocaust task force whose work determined that a museum and a memorial should be built in New York City. In 1982, he established the New York City Holocaust Memorial Commission, and from there our Museum was born.

The son of Polish-Jewish parents who came to this country in the late 19th century, he took great pride in his Jewish heritage and as a young infantryman in World War II, he encountered anti-Semitism on both a personal and global level.

He felt a great sense of responsibility to the Jewish people and to Holocaust memory, and to ensure that the memories of survivors would not be forgotten, he envisioned our Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

May his memory be a blessing.

Robert M. Morgenthau, Chairman
David G. Marwell, Director