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Posts Tagged ‘German Jewish’

‘His Belief Remained Unshattered’: An Interview With Professor Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Besides being the designated date of the birth and death of Moshe Rabbeinu, the seventh of Adar (February 21 this year) also marks the 17th yahrzeit of Chazkel Tydor, father of Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz, a professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University and the author of seven books.

One of very few to have survived six years in Nazi concentration camps, Chazkel Tydor was born in Poland; received most of his education, including his semicha ordination, in Germany; and lived his post-Holocaust years in the United States and Israel.

The Jewish Press recently interviewed Tydor Baumel-Schwartz about her father, whose life story she recounts in her new book, The Incredible Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Bochnia (68715). Portions of the book appeared in The Jewish Press pre-publication.

The Jewish Press: Why did you write this book?

Prof. Tydor Baumel-Schwartz: The book is actually a combination of the personal and historical. For a long time I had felt it was a shame that my daughters, who were so young when their zeide died, didn’t really know much about his life.

Another factor is that I am a historian who deals with modern Jewish history, and I always felt that my father did not only have an extraordinary life, but that his experiences, spanning almost 90 years, three continents and so many different Jewish communities, were actually a slice of contemporary Jewish history.

When people today think of pre-war Europe, they often imagine sharp distinctions: chassidim, yekkes, Litvaks, etc. Many people like your father, however, were “hybrids” due to the upheavals of World War I. Can you talk about this phenomenon?

At the beginning of the First World War there was a mass exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe to Austria and Germany. After the war was over, some of the older refugees returned to Poland but their children often remained in Germany, becoming part of the German-Jewish community.

On the outside most of these young ostjuden [Eastern European Jews] became Germanized, cutting off their [long] peyos, giving up their chassidic dress and even taking on German names – my father adopted the name Heinrich in order to enroll in university. At home, though, they often retained their Eastern European customs. My father and his family, for instance, continued the chassidic custom of saying mizmor ledovid after washing netilas yadayim and not eating gebrokst on Pesach.

At my father’s wedding you could feel the tension between the German-Jewish and chassidic Eastern European parts of my father’s identity. My grandfather and his mechuten dressed in full chassidic regalia. My father, however, adamantly refused to wear a streimel in view of his loyalty to the Breuer German tradition. Instead he was married in a top hat.

How did your father retain his faith during the Holocaust when so many others abandoned theirs?

I asked my father this question many times, and I can only give you the answer he always gave me. He said he had lost everything except God. How could he give that up as well?

No one ever promised that belief in God would guarantee you health, happiness, and a reward in this world. Belief was absolute. You believed because you believed. Not because you were promised a reward for doing so.

Millions died in Nazi concentration camps. Yet your father managed to survive in Buchenwald and Auschwitz for six years. How?

Again, I can only quote what he used to say: siyata dishmaya – the help of the Almighty.

You write in the book that your father, remarkably, arranged Pirkei Avos shiurim in Buchenwald. Can you elaborate?

On Saturday afternoons there was a bit of unsupervised time when prisoners would tidy their blocks and clean their clothing. After completing these chores, some prisoners would walk between the barracks or even towards part of the Buchenwald forest that lay within the camp’s perimeter.

So, from the Sabbath after Passover onwards my father and his friends used some of this time to learn Pirkei Avos together. He and his friends saw it as a triumph against the Nazis, a small victory in their ongoing battle for spiritual survival in the concentration camp.

Twelve years after the Holocaust and 15 years after the Nazis murdered his first wife, your father, at age 54, married your mother. What was it like growing up as the daughter of an older father?

Actually, until I was nine I never realized my father was older than anyone else’s father. Whenever I asked my mother how old my father was, she told me he was 42 and I believed her.

I never really felt my father was “different.” The Ribbono Shel Olam blessed him with good health, and when my daughters were born, my parents would take them, even as newborns, for the night so that I could get a good night’s sleep. I would walk into my parents’ apartment early the next morning to see my father changing diapers, heating up bottles and being quite expert at burping little babies – all this when he was long past 80 years of age.

Did you learn anything about your father when writing this book that you didn’t know about previously?

There were a few revelations. The first was the depth of his courage. As I wrote the chapters about his pre-war years and the Holocaust, I heard stories from friends and family about his behavior under incredibly difficult circumstances. I still cannot fathom from where he had the tremendous strength of character and courage to do what he did.

The second was a financial revelation. Only after learning more about my father’s family’s financial background and pre-World War II life did I realize what a well-to-do man he had been before the Holocaust, which makes his post-war lower middle-class life all the more amazing.

The third was the depth of his faith. He had gone through a test, which no one should ever undergo and, incredibly, his belief remained unshattered. His last words to me before he died were in Yiddish, the language of his childhood, when he woke from a semi-coma and muttered, “Bring mir a tallis un tefillin.”

By his life and even by his death he was an example to me and an inspiration of what a Jew should be. I miss him enormously and am grateful for the many years I had the zechus to be with him and learn from his teachings and experiences.

Anti-Semitism On The Couch: A Conversation with Professor Robert Wistrich

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Robert S. Wistrich, a professor at Hebrew University and a leading scholar on anti-Semitism, published his 24th book last month: A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, 1,200 pages).

Wistrich is the director of The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and, between 1999 and 2001, was one of six scholars who sat on a Catholic-Jewish historical commission that examined Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust.

The Jewish Press spoke with Wistrich during his recent New York book tour.

The Jewish Press: Throughout history, anti-Semites have hated Jews for contradictory reasons. For example, Hitler famously dates the birth of his anti-Semitism to the day he saw a chassidic Jew, with his distinctive garb, walking the streets of Vienna. And yet, Hitler also detested German-Jewish newspaper editors, for instance, who had “infiltrated” and influenced German society. How do you explain this phenomenon?

Wistrich: Most accusations made by anti-Semites, and more recently by anti-Zionists, against the Jewish people are self-contradictory.

At one and the same time they will say that Jews are too tribalistic and particularistic, and that they’re universalists and cosmopolitans. They’ll accuse the Jews of inventing capitalism and at the same time they’ll claim they are the authors of communism or other forms of radical subversion. They’ll say that the Jews are all individualists and that they’re collectivists. They’ll accuse the Jews of being responsible for secularism and at the same time for religious fanaticism, and so on and so forth. The list of logical non-sequiturs and contradictions is truly amazing.

[These contradictions stem from a passionate hatred of Jews and] the rationalizations which are built upon that essentially emotional and psychic foundation are just that – rationalizations. And they have no more logic than that of the passion that drives the anti-Semitism in the first place.

So this passionate hatred is completely illogical in you view?

Well, there are some anti-Semitic themes that have a grain of truth in them – but no more than a grain.

For example, chosenness – the hatred of Jews that is linked to resentment at the idea of the Jews being the chosen people. Sometimes this resentment is religious, as in Christian and Islamic forms of competition with the Jews as being the chosen elect of God. And sometimes it’s purely secular and nationalist. There are even aspects of Nazism that can be interpreted as a kind of gross parody of the Judaic notion of chosenness transformed into a master race ideology.

I suppose from a psychoanalytic point of view – not that I necessarily invoke that – you can say there is an oedipal element in all of this. The Jews are seen as the model of chosenness, and in order to assert your own chosenness you have to overthrow that model or somehow negate it.

So anti-Semitism, then, is not completely pathological.

It’s not 100 percent pathological. There is, if you like, a rational kernel to anti-Semitism. When I say rational, I don’t mean that justifies it. I just mean there is a more banal logic to some moderate forms of anti-Semitism. For example, if you’re in competition for scarce resources with a group which is particularly successful in certain areas, it is not irrational that you might seek to gain an advantage at the expense of a group that you see as a dangerous competitor and use anti-Semitic arguments [to that end].

I regard that as a more banal kind of socioeconomic anti-Semitism of which there are many examples in history. It’s not necessarily life threatening, although I wouldn’t say it’s to be encouraged. The kind of anti-Semitism, however, that I devote more time to and focus on more intensely is reflected in the title of my book, A Lethal Obsession.

You have been writing and lecturing about anti-Semitism for over three decades. Did you discover anything new while writing this book?

There was one phenomenon I was aware of but only when I began to write this book did I realize its scale. That’s what I qualify as anti-racist anti-Semitism: people, generally on the left, who proclaim and genuinely believe they are opposed to all forms of racial discrimination, and yet make an exception for the Jews. In other words, in contrast to their self-proclaimed universalistic vision of things and their belief in human brotherhood and multiculturalism, they flirt with and sometimes even openly embrace ideas which I think I show to be fundamentally anti-Jewish.

In your book you write about the first recorded pogrom in Jewish history. When did that occur?

In Alexandria in the first century. Alexandria was a great city in the ancient world; it was more or less like New York today. Although situated in Egypt, it was under Roman rule at that time and the two dominant communities, which were rivals with one another, were the Greeks and the Jews. The Jews represented perhaps 30 percent of the population and were extremely prominent in many areas of commercial, cultural and intellectual life. The Greeks launched a pogrom against the Jews, and it was eventually suppressed by the Roman rulers.

Pope Pius XII is in the news again due to the current pope’s efforts to beatify him despite questions regarding his activities during the Holocaust. As one of only six members of a Catholic-Jewish historical commission set up by the Vatican and several American Jewish organizations 10 years ago to study the documents relating to this matter, what is your take on the controversy?

My take is that although it is entirely a matter for the Catholic Church and the Vatican to decide who qualifies as a saint in their own terms, I think the Jewish people has a right to express its concern at the fact that a leader of the Catholic faithful should be hailed for his heroic virtue while the available documentation at least casts grave doubt on his moral stance during his period.

But some people argue that Pope Pius XII helped save Jews during the Holocaust.

The evidence I have seen suggests that he may have helped some Jews but could have helped far more had he chosen to speak out a little more forthrightly about the mass murder that was taking place, of which he was very well informed.

My position is: Let historians examine the documents from his pontificate which have not yet been opened. The Vatican has said that in roughly four to six years, the available documentation – we are talking about several million documents – will become available to historians. So what’s the rush? Since it’s a controversial issue, since there are many people who have even accused Pope Pius XII of having been an accomplice of Nazi Germany or wishing for its success during World War II, why not wait?

And that’s my position. It’s not a dogmatic one. If evidence were to come to light that indeed he saved many Jewish lives, I’ll be the first to welcome that news.

A Local, Baltimore Angle On Some Of The Hardships Of Holocaust Refugees

Wednesday, January 26th, 2005

Lives Lost, Lives Found: Baltimore’s German Jewish Refugees, 1933-1945
Through April 2005
Shoshana S. and Jerome Cardin Gallery
The Jewish Museum of Maryland
15 Lloyd Street, Baltimore
410.732.6400
http://www.jhsm.org/


The Jewish Museum of Maryland’s “Lives Lost” exhibit offers a meditation on a “dramatic but little known story” – according to the museum Associate Director Anita Kassof. The museum explores how the Jewish Baltimore community specifically came to accept the German Jewish refugees, and the refugees’ challenges in integrating into the wider community while preserving their identity.

Perhaps the exhibit’s most fascinating component is the presentation that employs a multimedia edifice in which viewers walk through a model sukkah (one family turned a transporting crate into a sukkah) and examine a variety of historical objects.

Viewers see a sewing machine and a rescued Torah; the original spice grinder that the Gustav Brunn family used to found the Baltimore Spice Company – now called Old Bay Seasoning (my grandmother has some on her shelf); black album binders with old pictures; and a network of passport papers and affidavits whereby local residents ensured that the immigrants would be economically cared for. These affidavits were a prerequisite to the immigrants’ entry into the United States, and they demonstrated a tremendous sense of responsibility, as the local residents often found themselves vouching for people they hardly knew.

The curatorial technique that organizes space by leading the viewer through a contextual framework has a lot to do with interactive curating. This technique allows the visitor to relate to the work through dialogue, rather than one-sided lectures. It is the equivalent of “Reader Response” in literary criticism. Like all techniques, it implies certain advantages and disadvantages.

One of the greatest proponents of “Reader Response” is the American literary critic, Stanley Fish (b. 1938). “Reader Response” means that texts are viewed as malleable structures that the reader molds to a large extent, rather than a fixed, concrete creation upon which the author enjoys a monopoly of interpretive powers.

Fish’s “Surprised by Sin: The Reader in ‘Paradise Lost’” (1967) argues that Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which explores the expulsion from Eden and the events immediately surrounding it on both chronological ends, presents Satan as an appealing, heroic character with whom the reader can hardly help but sympathize. Satan is proud, intelligent, persistent and sly.

At some point, though, Fish argues that the reader wakes up from a literary slumber and realizes that s/he sympathizes with Satan, who is clearly evil, over G-d. After realizing this “sin,” the reader launches a process of appeal for clemency. Ultimately, then, Milton aims to send the reader through the Adamic development of sin-realization-atonement. This trajectory of interpretation resembles a “form follows content” model, and “Lives Lost” uses it to involve the reader in a meaningful way.

“Lives Lost” leads the viewer through a maze of information that allows for projection of the self back into time. This move allows the viewer to interact with the museum pieces in a way that proves very rewarding, though hardly intuitive. Museums used to project an “ivory tower” image to their visitors. The viewers who came into the museum had to check “real life” at the door, for the museum set itself starkly in opposition to life by suggesting that it contained a certain orderliness and maturity. Post-modern curators have begun to realize that they must change the way in which they set up exhibits to present their diverse viewers with a venue that allows for different individuals to respond differently to the material, thus making for a more interesting space.

Catch phrases in the museum world are now “dialogue,” “interaction” and the like. This ideology is especially appropriate to a historical museum, which aims to preserve the past in a way that is personal and relevant to viewers.

New media and technology has ensured video and multi-media documentation, especially useful in cataloguing Holocaust victims’ testimony. Although “Lives Lost” does not employ videos (a failure on its part, and the real strength of venues such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, and the like), it does feature a computer screen that lists names of the victims in a continuous fashion that conveys the tremendous number of the Baltimore immigrants, while stressing each one’s individuality.

Founded in 1960, the Jewish Museum of Maryland is the perfect venue for this sort of thing. According to its website, the museum eyes the Jewish-American experience “with special attention to Jewish life in the state of Maryland.” The museum combines the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue and the B’nai Israel Synagogue, joining them together with a museum building in the middle. This cultural and historic venue, with an eye for religious ritual in the synagogues, combines the perfect elements for exploring complicated identities.

Items I noted with specific interest were a Torah Scroll, opened to the “Song at the Sea” (Exodus XV: 1-21) rescued by Louis Kleeman before the Nazis vandalized Gaukonigshofen; a pocket watch stripped of its gold casing (as per a February 1939 law); and a silver kiddush cup that Jewish community of Ober-Remstadt bestowed upon Abraham Wartensleben, its last president. The cup shows a dent from having been thrown from a window (in Wartensleben’s house) by the Nazis during Kristallnacht. But “Lives Lost” is more than a mere amalgamation of objects.

In the catalog introduction, Avi Y. Decter, the museum’s executive director, argues that “The flight of the German Jewish cultural elite has been extensively chronicled,” but the common people often faced anonymity in the curatorial scene. “In contrast, the journeys of ordinary German Jews have received only modest attention.”

“Lives Lost” then aims to record the refugees who came to Baltimore between 1933 and 1945. In fact, as Deborah R. Weiner writes in “The Third Wave: German Jewish Refugees Come to Baltimore” further in the catalog, many immigrants resented the term “refugee,” for it invariably classified them as “other.”

It appears that not only has history written itself around many of the immigrants who did not enjoy social or economic distinction, but the language itself that welcomed them upon arrival to America seems to have aimed to disenfranchise them. “Lives Lost” also illustrates how German Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitism, and had trouble anticipating that the Nazis’ platform would actually become so murderous.

The exhibit also investigates how many Baltimoreans resented the immigrants to an extent, finding them real people rather than the idealized persons they had held them to be. Further, the exhibit tells of the Baltimore Chevra Ahavas Chesed (still effective today), which maintained cemeteries, aided the needy and the sick, and provided a venue for social interaction amongst the immigrants.

However, “Lives Lost” affected me most acutely not only because of its tremendous research and exhaustive images, paper trails and objects, but because it meditated on the local and highly personal elements of trauma, and cast me right in the middle of a totally engulfing, interactive network that was highly particularized and understanding enough to be just intrusive enough, and just open enough to allow me to enter the dialogue, rather than preaching history.

 

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com


CORRECTION: I would like to extend my apologies to Elena Makarova, who curated and wrote the catalog for the Friedl Dicker-Brandeis exhibition at the Jewish Museum. In my last column, I neglected to acknowledge her name, and the credit is most certainly due to her.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/a-local-baltimore-angle-on-some-of-the-hardships-of-holocaust-refugees/2005/01/26/

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