Thursday, May 30, 2013

Behind the Scenes of Against the Odds

Now that Against the Odds: American Jews andthe Rescue of Europe’s Refugees, 1933-1941 is open and receiving such positive reviews, we thought we’d offer readers a behind-the-scenes interview with the Museum’s Deputy Director, Anita Kassof.

What attracted you and curator Bonnie Gurewitsch to this chapter of Jewish American history?

The inspiration for Against the Odds was the Museum’s receipt of the Jacob and David Kestenbaum family collection—some 700 case files. In all, the files included 358 separate affidavits, representing the Kestenbaums’ attempts to bring 873 people to the United States during the Nazi period. Over the years, a number of staff members and volunteers worked with the collection, organizing and translating documents, and they were very moved by what they found. It was Bonnie Gurewitsch who recognized the material’s potential as the basis for an exhibition.

David Marwell has called Against the Odds the third in a trilogy that includes Ours to Fight For: American Jews In the Second World War and Daring To Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust. Together, they dispel the myth of Jewish passivity during the Nazi period.

Why are American Jewish rescue efforts still relatively unknown?

It surprises me that the efforts of American Jews to bring European refugees to safety are relatively unknown, because while we were developing the exhibition—and since it’s opened—many people have approached us and said, “That’s my story.” U.S. immigration laws established in the 1920s made no special allowances for refugees, and required all applicants for immigration visas to identify an American citizen or resident who would guarantee that they would not become “public charges” in the United States. So everyone who received an immigration visa to come to the United States in flight from Nazi persecution between 1933 and 1941—the period the exhibition covers—had a sponsor here. We’re glad to have the opportunity to bring to light the efforts of individuals who answered the call for help.

I think that when people look at this period of history, and at the American response to news of Nazi persecution of the Jews, they tend to look at the government’s official position. Against the Odds shows what individuals, working within the constraints of American immigration law, were able to do to help European refugees.

The design of the exhibit is so unique and dramatic. It's clearly a great collaboration between the curatorial team and the designers. How did you work together to tell this story?

The development of Against the Odds was truly a team effort. C&G Partners had developed other exhibitions for us (Voices of Liberty; Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles) so we knew they would be a pleasure to work with. But I think we initially underestimated how fully invested they would become in this project, really appreciating the nuances of the history and the personal stories we were portraying. I think their sophisticated grasp of the material is evident in their very thoughtful and powerful design. Visitors to the exhibition have called C&G’s central design metaphor—paper walls, representing bureaucracy and obstructionism—“brilliant,” and “genius.” I agree that the concept of the walls was truly an inspiration.

As with any collaborative creative process, Against the Odds entailed a great deal of compromise and flexibility. It helped that Museum staff and the C&G team had a deep respect for each other’s areas of expertise. I think that the final product reflects that cooperative spirit, and that historical content and design complement each other very effectively.

Which story or artifact do you find the most powerful?

For me, the Max Heller materials—letters, phrase book, and dictionary—are some of the most powerful artifacts in the exhibition. They are humble objects that tell a remarkable story: After the Anschluss, Max Heller, a Viennese Jew, reached out to a young American woman whom he had only met once, when she visited Austria the year before. He spoke hardly any English, so using his phrasebook and dictionary he crafted a letter to her in which he wrote, “I please you from heart if you can write me, that you will help me.” He didn’t know whether he would hear back from her, but not only did she respond, she found him a sponsor who made it possible for him and his family to come to the United States, where they settled in Greenville, South Carolina. We don’t tell the end of the story in Against the Odds because it falls outside of the exhibition’s timeframe, but Max Heller went on to become the mayor of Greenville.

The opening of the exhibit was packed with children and grandchildren of the American rescuers and the European refugees. What was their reaction to the exhibit?

One of the things that made the opening so rewarding was that while strolling through the gallery you could find yourself, at almost any moment, in the midst of an impromptu family reunion. I would stand in front of an object case or a mural and, invariably, within a few minutes, a guest would come up and start talking with his or her relatives of all ages about how a particular object or image reflected their family story. It was very personal and very emotional.

What do you want visitors to take away from Against the Odds?

I hope that the exhibition gives visitors a fresh perspective on the American response to the refugee crisis, not by casting retrospective judgment, but by painting a portrait of a period and letting them draw their own conclusions. We aim to situate the rescue efforts of American Jews within a broader context, so that visitors understand both the constraints and the opportunities individuals faced when they tried to bring people to safety here.

What do you think the exhibit can teach us about current immigration issues?

We made a decision not to draw explicit parallels between U.S. immigration policy during the 1930s and the contemporary immigration debate in the exhibition, but it’s natural that visitors will identify commonalities and contrasts. And perhaps the exhibition will spur them to think more deeply about immigration-related issues that are as relevant today as they were 70 or 80 years ago: Should America serve as a haven? Does it have an obligation to do so? What can individuals who want bring refugees here do to help? At the end of the exhibition, we include a rather free-form feedback area in which visitors are invited to reflect on how they, personally, might respond to a refugee in need. And additional information about organizations working on refugee relief and resettlement today can be found on the exhibition website.

Image: Courtesy of C&G Partners. Photo by Alex Solis.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fostering Dialogue Among Neighbors

Council Member Jumaane D. Williams (left-center) visits the Museum of Jewish Heritage with high school students and teachers from Brooklyn College Academy and the Yeshivah of Flatbush as part of a cross-cultural event commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Month, organized by Council Member David G. Greenfield and him. 
Photo Credit: Keith Dawson/NYC Council
Museum Educator Loren Silber shares her perspective on a unique student visit.

Meeting Hate with Humanity is the Museum’s most popular tour for school groups. In fact, educators at MJH conduct this tour for most of the 50,000 students who visit annually.  But last month, this tour took on new depth and meaning for both our staff and a special group of students from City Council District 45 in Brooklyn.

It all started with Councilman Jumaane D. Williams’s idea to create an educational gathering that would foster better understanding among the younger residents of his district.  He recruited 9th graders from Brooklyn College Academy (BC) - a school with predominantly African American and Hispanic students, and 10th graders from the Yeshiva of Flatbush (YF), along with their teachers, to participate in a day-long program of cultural exchange and communication, starting at MJH before continuing over lunch at City Hall, and concluding with a trip to the African Burial Ground National Monument.

In preparation MJH education staff met to strategize about how to work with this unique group.  The challenge was to find a way for students who had never met before, and who had very different backgrounds, to be able to talk and share their experiences. To achieve this, we decided to expand our usual group question and answer format to allow students to engage in one-on-one discussions in response to our prompt questions. We would organize the students into small groups to have equal representation from BC and YF in each one.

We approached the first artifact, the Schacter Family Tree, and soon the high-schoolers chatted away in answer to my first questions. “What do you know about your name?” “What does your name tell you about your heritage?” I asked. Working in pairs (one student from BC, one from YF) each shared the story of her name, an important aspect of personal and family identity, with her partner. One of the sweetest exchanges I overheard was between two girls who found a common bond, both having been named after their grandmothers.

With each artifact my group became more articulate and willing to share.  By the time we reached the Rat Catcher, a blatantly anti-Semitic illustration from late 19th century Germany, my group, all girls, couldn’t stop talking to each other.  This was a rare opportunity for the students to voice freely their frustration at being misunderstood, isolated from neighbors of a different race or heritage.  I hated to interrupt as they swapped stories of the discrimination and stereotyping they have already experienced in their youth, but more artifacts awaited them.

When the tour concluded, two girls told me how much they appreciated and enjoyed their visit. Although I couldn’t accompany them to their other destinations, I felt certain that as the day progressed, these two groups would continue to talk and bond in ways that would resonate for each of them personally and perhaps even radiate out to their communities.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Q&A with Gary Fagin about Jewish Refugee Composers

On Sunday, May 19, at 2:30 p.m., the Museum of Jewish Heritage welcomes the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra  for a powerful musical event — Banished Genius: Émigré Composers in America, inspired by the Museum’s new exhibit Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees, 1933-1941, which opens to the public on May 21.

The concert will present the work of Kurt Weill; Erich Korngold; Arnold Schoenberg; Darius Milhaud; and Erich Zeisl, five of the many acclaimed Jewish composers who were forced into exile by National Socialism and who found their way to America.
In advance of the concert, we caught up with the KCO’s very talented music director and conductor Gary Fagin.

MJH: How did you go about curating the concert? There is clearly a lot of material from which to choose.

GF: The list of émigré composers is long, and the number of excellent works by émigré composers is rich. I chose composers whose journeys from the Old World to the New World connect with the Museum's Against the Odds exhibit, and I selected works of theirs that would best reflect each composer's aesthetic and, that together, would make a moving and entertaining program.

MJH: How did the composers’ experiences as refugees shape their music?

GF: Some composers slipped on the clothes and cultural persona of their new country with ease. For example, Kurt Weill, in America, insisted on having his last name pronounced beginning with a W rather than, as in German, with a V. And his music took on a more popular, less continental/academic quality. Other composers, like Schoenberg, retained strong consistency with their pre-immigration musical sensibility.

MJH: How did American jazz work its way into Darius Milhaud’s compositions?

GF: Milhaud had been in America in the early 1920s, visited Harlem jazz clubs frequently, and enthusiastically infused his music thereafter with the new American style just then being called jazz. His music exhibits, as well as any composer, a wonderful mix of jazzy vibrancy and continental tradition.

MJH: How did the composers, in turn, help change the existing musical landscape here in the States?

GF: The émigré composers' influence on the American musical landscape cannot be overstated. Composers like Schoenberg, Zeisl, and Milhaud taught the next generation of great American composers; composers like Kurt Weill became Broadway stalwarts; and the film scores of composers like Erich Korngold defined that genre.

MJH: Why do you think Kurt Weill’s distinctly European style was so important in the development of  American musical theater?

GF: In short, his melodic gift. Kurt Weill famously said, "I have learned to make my music speak directly to the audience, to find the most immediate, the most direct way to say what I want to say, and to say it as simply as possible. That’s why I think that, in the theater at least, melody is such an important element, because it speaks directly to the heart––and what good is music if it cannot move people?"

MJH: Why did so many exiled composers, like Erich Zeisl work as film composers?

GF: That's where the money was. In America, there was not, as in Europe, a tradition of supporting and honoring composers in the concert hall that would enable a composer to make a living strictly composing concert music. Thus, most composers had to teach and/or compose for film or theater.

MJH: Are there any distinctly Jewish musical themes worth noting?

GF: There is a beautiful example of what I would call Jewish sensibility in Erich Zeisl's Andante from his String Quartet No. 2. His daughter, Barbara Schoenberg Zeisl, wrote me that her father thought of this piece as: "a conversation (but a sad, almost gently reproaching conversation) between man and God."

MJH: What would you like audience members to take away from the concert?

GF: I’d like audience members to walk away with an appreciation of the journey and artistry of these composers whose lives were upended by circumstances beyond their control, but who survived and thrived with the help of their American experience.

Photo: The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Robert Simko.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Remembering One of My Favorite Children's Books

Photo of Metropolitan Museum of Art - Michelangelo Buonarroti portrait by Wally G

Last week I had the pleasure of taking a 90-minute trip to Philadelphia by train. Among my reading material was my original copy of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I was saddened to read of the death of the author E. L. Konigsburg earlier in the week, and like so many readers of the book, I have terribly fond memories of reading it.
As a small child growing up in the midwest, I missed a lot of school due to illness. My bed was always strewn with piles of books courtesy of my mother and the Scholastic Book Club. What a pleasure it was for me to read about Claudia, her stingy little brother, and their adventures in New York City, and not just in New York City, but in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I always appreciated how Claudia didn’t just want to run from something, she wanted to run to something. Long before I cared about museums or knew about MetroNorth tickets, I could think of nothing more exciting than being a kid on the loose in this city.
Of course, in New York City circa 2013, immediate notification via Amber alerts, social media, and Pat Kiernan and Roger Clark would have announced that Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, of Greenwich, CT, were last seen on their school bus on their way to school. And that’s the way it should be. But for 90 wonderful minutes last week I had the benefit of running away with them, discovering the beautiful little statue, and more importantly, meeting the mysterious and possibly glamorous Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, as she traded one secret in exchange for another.
Photo of Metropolitan Museum of Art - Michelangelo Buonarroti portrait by Wally G