November 9, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass.” It is the night many point to as the beginning of the Holocaust.
I remember observing Kristallnacht in the small Jewish community I grew up in – Flint, Michigan. In Michigan, by November, it’s usually pretty cold after dark. My memories of Kristallnacht services, held outdoors, consist mostly of people huddled together for warmth; solemn readings of prayers and poems; candles lit, blown out, and lit again. The dark, cold night lent itself well to an imaginative child putting herself in her ancestor’s shoes, feeling the cold grip of fear they must have felt as windows shattered and screams sounded and evil went from local to government-sanctioned.
Recalling these events, the eve of the Holocaust, people from all walks of life came together over a brokenness in the world.
Shortly after I moved to Mississippi in 2003, I was invited to attend another sort of memorial service. Several of us drove from Jackson up to Neshoba County, Mississippi, for the 39th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and in particular to commemorate the brutal murders of three Civil Rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
One black man from Mississippi, two Jewish men from up North, all working for freedom – all killed on a dark, terror-filled night. The memorial service for them took place in a small Baptist church. In Mississippi. In June. There was no central air conditioning, just people crammed together, waving church fans, sweating, crying, singing gospel hymns. The sweltering, singing church lent itself well to an imaginative young woman putting herself in the civil rights fighters’ shoes, feeling the echoes of the evil they faced and the losses their families endured. Though this was my first time at that church, there was something so familiar about where we were and what we weredoing.
Recalling the events, the casualties of Freedom Summer, people from all walks of life had come together over a brokenness in the world.
This November, we mark 75 years since Kristallnacht. This coming June, we will mark 50 years since Freedom Summer.
We are always hesitant to connect tragedies, to link one loss to another, fearing diminishing the pain or significance of either. Facing these two milestones of memory, I find that I cannot – I dare not – compare the Holocaust to the Civil Rights movement. However, I do find that I absolutely can, and will, and must compare the way that both of these events are remembered. Years later, people of different faiths and backgrounds come together, demonstrating by their very presence that they understand this truth about brokenness: Bad things happen when good people do nothing, and what impacts one group impacts us all.
We do not always learn this the first time, but when we come together and remember, our understanding is strengthened. We acknowledge past wrongs and pledge to build something better in the future.
The histories may be different. The weather, the setting, the stories are not the same. But whether we are standing outside and shivering in the cold, or fanning ourselves in an oppressive heat, we come together over brokenness. We remember. And together we say, amen.
I’d like to preface today’s post by saying that while I *wish* this were some sort of April Fool’s Day joke, it is not.
A friend just sent me this article about a controversial art installation in Germany. In this installation, now informally dubbed “Jew in a Box,” visitors can see, encased in glass, a living person of Jewish descent. They can ask that person questions about what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany, about Jewish beliefs – anything they have ever wanted to ask a Jewish person, they can pose the question to a Jew in a box.
When my friend (who is not Jewish) sent me this article, her email asked me just one question: “How do you feel about this?”
My immediate response to her, after reading the article, was “SO FREAKING WEIRD.”
There is something deeply unsettling to me about this exhibit – this stark presentation of “us” and “them”; a venue where people are literally put in boxes. I read the curator’s rationale, about how this will catch folks’ attention, and be in their face, and give Germans a chance to interact with a real, live Jew.
But is this the sort of interaction we want?
Why not actual interaction? Something more organic, and less disparate? Jewish docents, perhaps? Moderated conversations? An exchange, even if it’s still in-your-face? As an educator, it seems counter-intuitive to me to humanize someone, or some group, by putting an actual wall between people. It seems to me that this does not emphasize unique-ness, but other-ness. And isn’t that the problem Germany is still painfully recovering from, decades later?
I also had to wonder why on earth someone would get in the box. Who would volunteer? Luckily, the article covers this, with a volunteer Jew-in-a-box describing why he is participating in the installation:
“With so few of us, you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece,” volunteer Leeor Englander said. “Once you’ve been `outed’ as a Jew, you always have to be the expert and answer all questions regarding anything related to religion, Israel, the Holocaust and so on.”
I considered this. After all, I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I have been several people’s FJF (First Jewish Friend, y’all). I’ve had to answer questions about Jewish culture and religion, although I’m quick to point out that I can’t speak for all Jews. In other words, yes. I do understand what it’s like to feel ‘outed’ as a Jew in a place where we are so few. I do understand what it means to “feel inevitably like an exhibition piece,” as the installation volunteer puts it – but that doesn’t mean I would want to actually be an exhibition piece.
Still – this exhibition is resonating with some folks, even as it irks others. And here’s the real kicker, in case you didn’t already click on the link and read the whole article already – what museum is hosting this exhibit?
The Jewish Museum. And the curator, Miriam Goldmann, is Jewish.
By the way, the actual name of the exhibit is “The Whole Truth: Everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” and in addition to live people in boxes, it includes installation such as a wall posing the question How Can You Recognize a Jew?, with hats and yarmulkes and “traditional Jewish garb” on display in front of the wall.
The whole truth? How can you recognize a Jew? It reminds me of the last time I went to a zoo, and the various species of birds and monkeys were being described. The more I read about it and the more I thought about it, the more my initial reaction seems to sum it up: SO. FREAKING. WEIRD.
And more than that – a little frightening.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on oral history techniques at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. While there, I met Ruth Frenkel, who has lived in Conway since 1958. (Full disclosure: her daughter, Ellen Kirsch, heads up Hendrix’s Crain-Maling Center of Jewish Culture and had coordinated my visit). When Ruth told me that her family had escaped from Germany in 1937 and settled in McGehee, Arkansas, I had to hear more. Fortunately, I had my equipment with me on the trip.
So, the next morning, I went over to Ruth’s house and conducted a short oral history interview.
Here is an excerpt:
Ruth’s uncle Adolph was not only in contact with his family, but he managed to visit Germany in advance of the coming war. According to Ruth’s telling, he already knew enough about conditions there to secure visas for the family before his trip.
Even with years of experience in the culture and history of Southern Jews, I have trouble shaking the assumption that rural Jewish communities were cut off from international news and the families they had left in the Old Country, whatever it might be. Stories like Ruth’s constantly remind me that many Jews in the American South, even in the years before television, were keenly aware of the challenges that Jews faced in Europe. While Jewish life in McGehee and other southern towns was marked by geographical isolation, the families who settled there participated in transnational Jewish networks, whether through international aid organizations, the Jewish press or, in this case, family connections.