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.

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