History, Reconciliation and Justice
Updated: 8 weeks 8 hours ago
There is no doubt in my mind that I'd have gone on the NYC InsideOut tour of "Slavery and the Underground Railroad" last Friday anyway; but I was so damn moved by what I saw in Munich, Berlin and what I didn't see in Belarus that I've been especially inspired to help do something of our own civic housekeeping with regard to historical memory right here at home.
It was an object lesson in taking the temperature, if you will, of how we do things here in New York and to begin to understand how we might do it better. At lunch the day before with my pal Annie Polland, Vice President at the Tenement Museum (who leads a team of educators downtown that get historical memory pretty damn well), we talked about the essentialness of space and context to telling stories of moral import--like immigration, identity, family, and, of course, race. And in New York City, where just today one can read in the Times about the Brooklyn Diocese decision to abolish Our Lady of Loreto in Brownsville, replacing it with affordable housing. To be sure, making living affordable in a greatly distressed area of the city is necessary and laudable. What interests us, in this context, however, is the destruction of an immigrants' tale--from the architect to the craftsmen and others who built the church, Brownsville's bygone Italian community now replaced leaves little trace of that historical footprint. And while it is true, as Monsignor LoPinto stated, "For all its life it was always more than a structure," we should also remember that when structures stand, their history breathes new, layered life into ever-evolving communities.
I struck by this powerful dilemma on the walking tour of slavery and abolition sites, walking through empty spaces crowded by those worker bees in the Financial District, out for lunch, coffee and cigarette breaks, chatting, mating, bumping up against gawking tourists (like me for a day) on our own conceptual excavations of the fading past. City Hall from Dutch times marked by a brick rectangle on the sidewalk, next to a similarly configured tavern, long gone; bricks and beams barely discernible on Wall Street, marking off the original protective barrier that gave the street its name; Thomas Downing's Oyster House, which no longer stands, near the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, right across from George Washington standing tall at Federal Hall. Downing, a free Black, fed the cities most important people in his day while also hiding fugitive Blacks in his basement. Rebellion right under everyone's noses. He fed Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, and countless important others. And was a great champion of freedom.
But nothing held the power for me than the sheer emptiness of the space where once stood New York's Slave Market. My first thought was outrage, literally, that nothing remained to indicate the existence of this hellish expression of man's inhumanity to man. And having just come home from Germany and Belarus, where one nation's attempt to save in order to remember is jarringly contrasted with another country's reticence to bear witness, I was revolted. At the head of Wall Street, just a stone's throw from the seaport, in the shadow of contemporary commerce, could there be a better moral corrective to the pure pursuit of capital than an archaeological remnant of its cruelest manifestation?
On the other hand, what greater vanquishment of slavery's odious existence than the physical destruction of the market where men, women and children were inhumanly sold. Of course it should be destroyed, beam by beam, brick by brick.
I can't help but think about what a different country we would be living in if the American project, at least since the Civil War, if our civic engagement priorities would have reflected an attempt to truly repent for the wounds and sins of slavery by requiring for all future generations an immersion in remembrance. It's what Bryan Stephenson is doing down in Montgomery at the Equal Justice Initiative, whose offices are in the old Alabama slave market. I first saw this on a great civil rights trip led by my friend Billy Planer at Etgar 36. Education and public history in the service of justice. Anyway, it is nothing short of an ironic redemption that one of the nation's leading voices in racial justice has given new life and a humane voice to a building that once represented nothing more than the grotesque destruction of human life. But even more than this, EJI is also methodically collecting earth from the more than 4000 locations throughout the United States where African Americans were lynched, creating a catalog of memory that brings back to life those whose lives were cruelly cut short by American racism. Seeing the collected earth, reading about the lives of those taken, reminded me immediately of the identity passports Nazis' victims that one receives upon entering the United States Holocaust Museum. Holding memory is always better than the ephemeral, it seems to me.
Anyway, all of these thoughts were awash in my mind as I looked out at the little sign which, frankly, you'd miss if you were just walking around downtown. Call me crazy but I think that until we really deal with the legacy of institutional racism in our country, even in a city as enlightened as New York, the legacy of slavery ought to jump up and make us think over and over again.
Nevertheless, above is the sign. It reads: "New York's Municipal Slave Market" and explains that it was established by Common Council law in 1711. Slavery had been in New York since at least 1626, not abolished until 1827, and then fully in 1847. Slaves built Broadway, the Wall of Wall Street, and Trinity Church. And make no bones about it: this was a MUNICIPAL slave market, meaning it was run by the city of New York, which alone ought to really give pause as we contemplate race and notions of civic responsibility yet again.
It is my goal in the months and years ahead to help lead the way in this city to just such a confrontation with historical memory by marking space and creating opportunities to face history, reconcile ourselves to its complex map, and across divides build new alliances around action that makes our world a better and more just place.
Walking tours are a good start for the occasional tourist willing to pony up $30 for a tour hour journey; but there is doubtless much more we can do.
Berlin, Bronze Markers Where Jews LivedIn Germany, as one can imagine, the national project of historical remembrance is quite intense. Growing up in Milwaukee with a deep sense of Jewishness, with an acute awareness of my grandmother's immigration to the United States, of my father's pride in serving in the Army to fight fascism and Nazism, and of being that generation which defines its Jewishness in large measure by never forgetting the evil that had been done to us, I never really wanted to visit Germany. The thought frightened me. Germany was, in my young mind, the land that had perpetrated the greatest evil in human civilization. I wanted to remain morally pure.
But of course, as one grows, learns, develops and evolves, one understands, however painfully, that evil is all around us. That few of us, even if not perpetrators ourselves, are somehow, in some way, inheritors of, if not responsible for, systems of oppression.
The easiest examples in the American context can be found in what has been done to the Native American and African American populations as a result of establishing, building and developing the United States of America. Surely it is axiomatic that Native Americans were victims of genocide and as a result of their encounter with Europeans, have experienced a near total erasure of their existence on the North American continent. It is also axiomatic that Blacks, through the Middle Passage and the institution of slavery, experienced a near total destruction of family, faith, language and identity of origin that still, to this day, has had a devastating effect on contemporary Black life.
And while we may educate our young through history and social studies courses that have curricular units dedicated to a cursory examination of the American confrontation with Native populations and Black Africans brought here as slaves, we have yet to confront our moral and civic duty to remember and repent on anything of the scale approaching what I saw in Germany this summer.
I visited Munich and Berlin this summer before heading to Minsk, met with community leaders there and was able to see, in just a few short days, what an extraordinarily complex, dynamic, soul-searching place is Germany. My host in both cities was the Janusz Korczak Akademie, an educational and community institution dedicated to the principles of learning and reconciliation among Jews and Germans, as well as the revitalization of a Jewish life that has historical antecedents dating back centuries. Janusz Korczak was a Polish-Jewish pediatrician and educator who established an orphanage in the early decades of the twentieth century, which was eventually taken over by the Wehrmacht and Korczak died in Treblinka alongside his 196 children. EJKA is run by a team of extraordinary young people, Jews from all over Europe who are committed to education, culture, memory and new Jewish life.
It's important to remember of course that Germany's Jewish population is comprised of nearly 300,000 people claiming some Jewish origin, the vast majority of Jews today come from outside Germany. This means, of course that while German Jewish life was decimated by the Holocaust, the reclamation there is a complex melding of old and new, a familiar Jewish trope. Russians, Israelis, Americans, Hungarians, Swiss, and others, as well as a remnant of the few thousand that proud and battered came back to Germany after the war. This is not a new story, mind you. Scholars and journalists have been writing about it for years. But what most impressed me during my own experiences in both places was the deep commitment to what I'll call "moral remembrance," a broadly shared civic commitment to reconciliation.
A few examples immediately come to mind. Within minutes of arriving at the Janusz Korczak Akademie in Munich, were given a stiff shot of coffee and handed a set of tickets to visit the NS Documentation Centre, which traces the founding and development of Nazi Party. It's a stunning achievement of truth-telling and accountability, constructed among the Neo-Classical buildings of the Königsplatz where the Nazis held their first rallies. From the graveyard of murderous National Socialism is a museum, crowded with tourists and, perhaps most important, German student groups, being led through the exhibits on in-depth seminars of confrontation with the brutal scars of German history.
This picture doesn't quite capture the drama of the museum's moving architecture but nevertheless I share it with you. An archival photo of the crowded square in Nazi times, as viewed through the contemporary, documentary lens.
It allows an active engagement with the layering of history, a necessary maneuver for our understanding and evolution as human beings.
I saw and experienced this kind of layering over and over again: in Dachau, with German college students talking to American college students about their family's sense of shame for their complicity in National Socialism along with the astounding statistic that more than one million people visit Dachau each year and thousands of those visitors are required lessons as part of school curricula; in Berlin, one can't walk down streets without stepping over bronze tiles that mark places where Jews had lived and what happened to them; or piles of stone, rubble, enclosed and marked, remnants of synagogues destroyed in Kristallnacht; or the German Resistance Memorial Center, which tells the story of numerous plots, however futile, to resist or even attempt to overthrow Hitler. Stunning architecture and a fierce commitment to memory creating space for acts of reconciliation. While we cannot reverse time and alleviate the senseless suffering of the past, there is, however humbly we choose to strive, a path forward.
Ovens. DachauDeutschland Über Alles, Kurt Tucholsky from the Resistance MuseumAll that remains of Rabbi Leo Baeck's Berlin Synagogue
Remains of Synagogue Destroyed in KristallnachtA path forward. Forgiveness is really not possible for such crimes against humanity. It's just not the appropriate word. It doesn't really get at what needs to be done. But to remember, to know our history, to reconcile ourselves to it, this seems possible. And it's what I continually saw, over and over again.
In my next post, I'll pivot back to Belarus, where the commitment to remembrance and reconciliation is much more fraught. Belarusian society, afterall, is not German society. There are vast differences. And the effects of Sovietization and therefore how a society remembers and takes responsibility for the devastation of the Holocaust is a stunning, confusing, maddening, even infuriating encounter. Suffice it to say that there is not a single building that was once occupied by Jews before the war: synagogues, yeshivas, taverns, workshops, homes (and homes and homes and homes) that are marked as such. Even the cemeteries, places of sacred memory, lie neglected and in ruins. But for the saving grace of a few American philanthropists who are erecting markers in towns where Jews lives and were murdered--of the one million Jews who lives in Belarus before the war, more than 800,000 were killed, 80% of Belarusian Jewry--and committed educators, librarians and tour guides who heroically are trying to tell the story, one would never know that Jews lived there.
In the meantime, where I find myself these days is asking, as an American, what my responsibility to bear witness to those cultures here in the United States that were utterly and totally devastated by our own actions. A museum to African American history is soon to open on the Washington Mall in DC but have we really done enough to know about and understand what slavery and racism have done not only to Black Americans but to ourselves? And further, with the exception of a couple units in a grade school study, what do we really know about the Natives who proceeded European settlement in North America? To what extent are we obligated to tell and take responsibility for their story?
As I look at my life unfolding into this next phase of my work, this question animates me like no other question has in a long time.
There are moments in life we return to over and over again; and one of them for me is my grandfather's funeral. A freezing cold February day in Milwaukee; mourning for my fallen hero; my father's revealed vulnerability; my grandmother's Russian hysteria.
And then, in the enveloping just-this-side-of-suffocating warmth of their apartment, the Shiva. Loud voices, Jewish food, laughter and tears.
At ten years old these moments were seared into my soul, branding me like a servant to memory and binding me to a lifetime of finding meaning among the dead, tracing lines, like gravestone rubbings, impressionist revelations, exposing previously indiscernible truths.
It would be wrong to say I don't know why I decided to go to Minsk this summer, to the small town of Kopyl where my grandmother was born, to stand on blood soaked ground, wet with fertility, softened though not quite not nearly cleansed by Belarusian rains. Many even suggested motivations, like, "to find your roots" or "to bear witness."
Yeah. Maybe. I mean, sure.
But I wasn't quite prepared for the deeply paradoxical, or I might even say radically and insanity-inducing contradictory nature of the experience of standing above a pit where 2965 Jews of Kopyl were forced to dig their own grave and then fall, one by one, into the indignity and ignominy of mass death. Murdered by Nazis. This is an almost grotesquely familiar trope, particularly so for American Jews educated in the years following the Holocaust. After all, who is not familiar with the classic Hebrew school curricula of Jewish identity education rooted in the remembrance of those murders, linking the post-war generation forever to the commandment, heard at Sinai, "Never Again." We the children and grandchildren of the generation that knew the Second World War first hand were brought into this world to testify, to carry names forward, to rebuild a decimated people, to establish a homeland, and eventually, sadly, cynically, to even distance ourselves from this history of suffering and seek, as some have argued, a more joyous and celebratory relationship to "our" Judaism.
So it was almost as if I was watching myself as I stood in front of that pit. Self-conscious, even dangerously aware of the very moment of remembering so that after all these years of waiting and anticipating this visit, there was no authenticity but only a kind of vertical kitsch. I stood tall, the American grandson, come home.
The sun burned my neck. I heard birds singing. I felt a light breeze pick up and thought for a moment I heard voices. Our guide for the day, Valentina, a native of Kopyl, broke the silence and said, "My father was five years old and watched, from that street corner over there, as Nazis lined up the Jews and killed them. He told me that I must never forget. And so I teach people about what happened here."
I was a young boy when we laid my grandfather down, after he lived a long, heroic life as a doctor in Milwaukee. His beloved, my grandmother, was the hysterical one, the depressed one, the suicidal one, for much of her life, characteristics that were, in a rather inaccurate and macabre manner, attributed to her "dark Russian mentality." Her moods were shrouded in silence. As loquacious as my father, her son, could be, there were few theories in circulation about why Grandma's family was so small; why so few of her relatives joined her in Milwaukee at the turn of the century; or, perhaps straight to the point, why Jewishness barely held in our family for much of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Even in the relative safety of America, there was this sense of having to escape, to hide, to push away the brutal machinery devastation.
I memorized certain facts. She was born in 1899 and soon after her father left Kopyl for America, settling in Milwaukee. She followed with her mother three years later. Four younger brothers were born in Wisconsin. Three brothers left as soon as they were men. Grandma and one brother stayed. But growing up, I met no one else from Kopyl. And Kopyl was never spoken about. And I simply assumed, over these many decades, that this was, as Dad put it, a typical immigrant story. You move on, you forget the past.
In the American melting pot, certain parts of certain stories are elided, omitted, erased.
But someone, somewhere recorded.
In a small building in Kopyl that once held a Jewish owned workshop and tavern, I was shown a book which listed, name by name, all of the 2965 Jews who were killed during that infamously brutal wave of destruction. And there, plain to see, were the names of 28 members of my grandmother's extended family. 28 names. An absolutely staggering number. Incomprehensible, really. If my life were a movie, I thought, looking at the names, I'd be smothered in a torrential rain of bodies and limbs and voices and names, falling down upon from above, because the 28 became 56 and the 56 became 300 and in a flaming instant everything changed.
It wasn't one funeral or two funerals from my rooted youth but a spontaneous set of hundreds, thousands, millions. It wasn't one blood soaked ditch but it was a vast spread of earth, "bloodlands," as the historian Timothy Snyder so concisely described them.
And there I stood, with 28 names and millions of deaths and a sun-soaked landscape and chirping birds, and synagogues now hardware stores and well-intended purveyors of historical memory and poor, pathetic villagers looking out from their own economic misery at the descendants of Jews who have come to bear witness.
I mean this in all sincerity and humility: It was one of the greatest moments of my life. When things all came together. Memory, death, silence, suffering, indignation, rupture, beauty, knowledge, difference, friendship, and, impossibly, or so it seemed, continuity.
I understood my grandmother's loss, an unbearable guilt that she carried with her for much of her life. That tore at her incessantly, and must have wounded her sons, who, in turn, lived complicated lives of their own, never really able to convey quite clearly to their own children the meaning of love and loss, of life and its griefs.
But at my grandfather's funeral, back in 1973, my grandma fed me. Not with words but with love and food. She fed me kugel and blintzes, she hugged and squeezed me through her grief and up against her ample breast, she smothered me with kisses. She let me know who I was.
A Son of Minsk, as it were. Who one day found his way home. This puzzle, more than 40 years in the solving, is an example of what can be revealed when we look into grave, when we stand shoulders square to the past, when evil winds blow past our ears to reveal, ever so quietly, the truths that offer a promise to the future.
Some time in the past, let's say about ten years ago, I paid a Shiva visit to a family from my synagogue. They were modest people--humble, kind, and generous. They sought in their lives not attention but goodness and adhesion to community.
They lived in Coney Island, in a housing project built by Donald Trump's father, Fred.
It was a warm summer evening and I had taken my bike, down through Prospect Park and along Ocean Parkway, the Olmsted and Vaux boulevard inspired by routes in Paris and Berlin. While making small-talk with the family, I shared my interest in Brooklyn's history, its many-layered dynamic sense of time and narrative, and this is when someone in the family spoke up and said, "You know, Donald Trump's father built this housing project."
Trump Village. Yes, of course. This was one of his first major projects, built on the ruins of the Trump-sought dissolution of Coney Island's mythic amusement parks, and therefore known to students of urban planning as an object lesson in the inherent tensions of politics, business and community.
"Fred was a piece of work," said one family member. "But he was nothing compared to his son." There was considerable shaking of heads. I should add a kind of knowing shaking of heads. As in, you won't believe what you're about to hear.
"Fred's kid Donald was a rich boy but he used to come around and once he stole a bike," someone said. "I remember the time that Fred pulled up with Donald in his car and made him return the bike. Can you imagine. You could see the embarrassment, the shame."
There was laughter. And the conversation moved on--since it was a Shiva call, it moved on to more serious, sublime matters. Memory, kindness, decency.
I think about that story a lot these days, for all sorts of obvious reasons.
I don't know if it's true or apocryphal. But I'll tell you what: it certainly could be true, given the very nasty stuff that flows from the mouth of the presumptive GOP nominee for President of the United States.
Bankruptcies; fraudulent practices of Trump University; pseudo-declarations of faith before gullible Evangelicals; ingratiating words before the NRA; fear-mongering over Muslims, Mexicans, and other legal immigrants to and citizens of this great nation; and a blatant misogyny that makes my blood boil (being a father of daughters, especially.)
So, you know, maybe he did or maybe he didn't.
But if the shoe fits...