Introducing Menachem Wecker, Guest Columnist, who will henceforth appear regularly on this page.
The wide variety of bric-a-brac that fills a soldier’s pockets, backpack and other gear becomes the medium of exploration in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” his examination of Vietnam era soldiers. A writer who fought in Vietnam and who now is a visiting
creative writing professor and endowed chair at Southwest Texas State University, O’Brien uses the things soldiers carry as a window into the soldiers’ innermost desires and dreams.
The special exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage “Ours To Fight For: American Jews In The Second World War” pursues a similar tactic concerning the Jewish soldier at war, with particular attention to the 550,000 Jews who fought in World War II. Jewish soldiers, to be
sure, found a twofold struggle confounding them; beyond the horrors of war that O’Brien describes, anti-Semitism arose all too readily, while kashrus was much harder to come by.
“Ours To Fight For” casts a spotlight on candles lit in foxholes along with wine and salami sent by Mom to welcome the Sabbath. The Jewish military paraphernalia – Tefillin, candles, and assorted other ceremonial objects – show how dearly some cling to religious identity, even
amidst chaotic machine gun fire.
Rather than preserve the traditional, remote observation point, the exhibit makes some fascinating curatorial decisions, which heave the viewer directly into battle. The viewer becomes eyewitness in a journey that calls for navigation through a life-sized diorama of tight,
claustrophobic spaces of wooden-planked barracks, a uniform closet, an old-style movie theater and caged, jail-like structures, all set on cold, concrete floors.
On the waterside in Battery Park, the Museum of Jewish Heritage is divided between a permanent collection in one building – which contains three chronologically arranged floors addressing the pre-war era, the Holocaust and then Zionism – and a newly opened building which houses special exhibits in the Robert M. Morgenthau Wing. A memorial rock garden
that uses stones, trees and soil to express the purity and primacy of nature, Garden of Stones surrounds the museum and lends it a sculptural feel.
Where the younger generation finds World War II reducible to a set of old photographs, assorted memoirs and The Diary of a Young Girl, the Museum of Jewish Heritage clings fiercely to Holocaust images that sadly fade away with every survivor’s passing. The Museum
employs a multimedia network of video and sound documentation to enliven and to personalize the historical data, but as viewers walk from room to room, they feel that they see merely a small part of the whole, while video reels and sounds permeate the space. Unfortunately, one never sees or hears everything.
This distinct feeling of partial portraits tragically neglects the unknown masses of victims. This omission seems especially important now to American Jews in the wake of the war on terrorism. The viewer will do well to forget the questions of war, though. “Ours To Fight For”
pays tribute to the soldiers, who unfortunately walk too often in anonymity. “My feeling was, I wanted [the Germans] to know that the bombs that were dropping,” said Bernard Branson, U.S. Army Air Corps, “there was a Jew up there doing it.”
As the viewer sifts through a closet of uniforms, army boots and helmets, with glass cases of Kiddush cups, Tefillin, candles and mezuzahs embedded within, he distinctly relates to the torn identity of the Jewish soldier. “I saw more men die cursing or asking for their mothers, than praying,” says Photographer’s Mate 2C Paul Guttman, US Navy.
An unlikely juxtaposition further complicates matters. T4 Marvin Weissman’s bag shows a tool of war irrevocably intertwined with one of beauty. “I had room for my clarinet and my Tommy gun on a little shelf to the right,” he says. This installation recalls a case in the museum’s permanent collection featuring a Talith and violin. Symbolically, one sees Jewish identity, hope and the stark evils of war, thrown together in a distinctly realistic manner. The Goya-like pragmatism frightens and inspires. In an interrogation with an anonymous German POW, Captain Bentley Kassal, U.S. Army Air Forces asked if he ever anticipated capture by a Jewish soldier. “I could tell the animosity and hatred in his eyes,” he said. “I made my point.”
And that point still endures today. Through the accounts of capture as “my vision of Dante’s Inferno,” through the indescribable “sense of what it’s like to be in fear, every day, all day,” Jewish soldiers stand firmly, not to mourn, but to remind and to teach. “You just don’t
have an opportunity to mourn,” says Pfc. Marvin Margoshes, US Army. “You just don’t have time.”
Images of the powerful Jew – the armed Jew – overflow from the museum’s third floor permanent collection on Zionism, into the special exhibition hall. Underlying all the pain and the sadness and the losses that can never be repaid, stands the modern Israeli soldier that Rav A. Y. Kook never saw, but dreamed of.
The exhibition closes with the testimony of the troops who liberated the camps. One soldier recounts speaking with a nun who was so visibly shaken upon discovering he was Jewish, that he knew something awful had occurred. Like that soldier, the viewer learned as if for the first time, of the unfathomable horrors of the death camps, and thus, the exhibit truly leads the viewer through the soldiers’ experiences. It further underscores the help Americans provided to survivors in the war’s aftermath.
And finally, the Robert M. Morgenthau Wing opens onto a sunlit room with tall windows overlooking the Statue of Liberty. The beautiful waves and symbolism offer hope in the wake of a frightful war that – close to 60 years later – we are still fighting.
Visit the MJH online at http://www.mjhnyc.org/index.htm
and for more information on “Ours To Fight For” including short videos, see http://www.ourstofightfor.org/index.jspMenachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art.
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org