French Connections

Two articles in yesterday’s New York Times really caught my attention.

First up is this profile of Samuel Pisar. I met the Pisar family back in 1990, when I was spending a semester in Paris. During my undergraduate years at Harvard, I held a termtime job in the admissions office, and while I was in Paris I was an unofficial “greeter” for local students who had just been admitted to the school. One of them was named Leah Pisar (Leah is multiply referenced and quoted in the article, too). Meeting her father, a Holocaust survivor, all those years ago made my subsequent reading of his harrowing memoir, Of Blood and Hope, all the more powerful.

Next, sadly, is a story of all-too-contemporary anti-Semitism in my beloved France. In the print edition, this appears on the same page as the Pisar profile. Which, for some reason, also affects me profoundly.

A Visit to the New Illinois Holocaust Museum: Guest Post from B.J. Epstein

A Visit to the New Illinois Holocaust Museum

by B.J. Epstein

On my last trip back to my hometown of Chicago, my grandparents, mother, and I went to the new Illinois Holocaust Museum. Now, I’ll admit at the outset that I am very reluctant to criticize any museum that teaches people about the Holocaust and similar events, because I feel that such places are so important. That being said, however, I did feel there was much that ought to be rethought at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

The museum is in a lovely, spacious new purpose-built building (oddly, however, the entrance is at the back of the building). The main exhibit reviews the history of the Holocaust, from pre-war Germany up through the end of the war and what happened to the refugees. It is powerful, as it should be. The information is mainly given via video screens and posters, so there is a strange lack of objects. Perhaps that is intentional, to remind visitors of what victims did not have. But it can also lead to a lack of tangibility to the situation, even though there were a few artifacts as well. Still, the videos included much suvivor testimony and should be viewed by schoolchildren. In the middle of the exhibit is an original rail car, used during World War 2. To stand in that car, to experience how dark and crowded and frightening it must have been, is to get chills and to be moved to tears.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum also has a art exhibit, featuring artists and works from all over the world. Here the focus is not the Holocaust itself but rather “absence”, and as such it looks at Rwanda, Korean women forced to be prostitutes in Japan, the Gulag, and other tragic events.

In addition, there is a video on holocausts in general, an educational center, and, of course, a gift shop.

As I said, I was at the museum with my grandparents. They were not the only older people there. So what I wondered was why there were no benches. The main exhibit snaked its way through the building and each of the many videos was a few minutes long. So it is natural to expect a few chairs or benches, especially for the older visitors. That doesn’t seem to be very well thought-out to me. It is not a welcoming gesture, unless the intention is to make people uncomfortable and aware of how much they have in comparison to Holocaust victims.

Despite these various complaints, I did appreciate my visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Museums like this are important and we owe it to the next generation to take them here and teach them about this tragedy. Perhaps then situations such as the Holocaust itself or, on a smaller scale, what happened at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum last week won’t happen again.

(Editor’s Note: This new museum is located in Skokie, Ill., a place I first learned about via the story of the U.S. Supreme Court case, National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.)

"Nazi Refugees’ Son Explores Complex Feelings"

The headline–“Nazi Refugees’ Son Explores Complex Feelings”–caught my attention immediately. Because, you see, my father is the only son of Nazi refugees, and I’ve always suspected he has some rather complex feelings about that fact.

But the story beneath the headline, which appeared in The New York Times this week, was not about my father. Rather, it was about children of Jewish refugees from Central Europe who grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, in the 1940s and 1950s (my dad grew up in Manhattan and Brooklyn). And it was about “Last Stop Kew Gardens,” a semiautobiographical documentary about this cohort. A film I will certainly be looking for.

Notes from Around the Web: Third Gaza Edition

Late last week, Nextbook collected and compiled a number of links representing an array of takes on what has been happening in Gaza. Check them out here.
Have you heard about Jon Stewart’s deplorable indictment of Israel? Jon, please, don’t do this to me. Must I abandon The Daily Show, too? Please consider the well-expressed response of Andrew Silow-Carroll. Or are you too busy, Jon (born Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz), savoring the praise you’ve received (says the San Francisco Chronicle) from the Muslim Public Affairs Council?
Thank you, David Harris, for expressing, among other essential truths the world should remember when hearing some of the most twisted accusations currently being made against Israel–accusations and descriptions invoking Holocaust “vocabulary”–those embedded here:

What about all the clergy, cartoonists, protesters, and politicians so concerned about the human rights of those in Gaza? Have they ever uttered a peep while those 10,000 rockets, missiles, and mortars were raining down on southern Israel? Did they ever take to the streets to support the human rights of Israelis? Did they ever read the Hamas Charter and hear the echoes of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, two European books that helped to condemn Jews to their death?

Did they ever put two and two together and ask what would happen if Hamas married its annihilationist goals with ever more advanced weaponry? And did it occur to them that, yes, nearly six million Israeli Jews would be in the crosshairs?

For the full Harris post, click here.

Woman of Letters and Other Goings-on at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

In the current (November) issue of The Writer magazine, I’ve contributed a short news item on Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Woman of Letters runs into March 2009, but if you can’t get to the Museum to see it, you can still check it out online.

Plenty of events are being planned in conjunction with this exhibition, among them a discussion of “Jews in Vichy France” (featuring scholars Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus) and another session on “Irène Némirovsky and the Jewish Question,” with my own former professor, Susan Suleiman, and The New Republic‘s Ruth Franklin. Check out these sessions, and other events planned for this fall at the Museum, right here.

(I won’t be blogging on Yom Kippur. See you back here in a few days.)