Lessons Learned

A visit with Paula and David in Florida

After spending the last few weeks going over Paula’s survival story, I am struck by so many things. From the mundane: I wonder if her enduring love of chocolate has anything to do with the comfort and pleasure it brought her when the Russian army shared the treats as the war was finally ending. She and her family must have felt some relief, there was light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Paula continues to crave chocolate and perhaps she finds comfort in it. Of course, she could simply like the taste.

I also think of the profound: how having her world turned upside down when she was just a child left her fearful for the rest of her life. She was able to take pleasure in life, she had loving relationships, but the cautiousness and the need to protect herself and those she loved was right at the surface. It was a huge price to pay as a child, an innocent.

I wonder how much of that reticence was who she was, even before the war. She described herself as an obedient child. She was likely shy before being thrust into the uncertainty and chaos that came with the Nazis. We will never know – she will never know – who she might have been, what she might have achieved. She was a smart girl with a sharp mind, good with numbers, a fast learner, quick to pick up languages. But she was growing up in a shtetl culture that didn’t encourage higher education for girls. I don’t know whether she felt that she hadn’t reached her potential or if she felt frustrated by her limited opportunities. Paula poured her energies into her family and they benefitted from that. I think her granddaughters feel an obligation to take up where she left off, to make the most of their opportunities and they have done just that. It is a blessing and a burden for them.

I can’t help but think of the many people, not just survivors of the Holocaust, but survivors of war crimes and oppression throughout history, who were and continue to be stifled. Not only is it a loss for that individual, but the world has been deprived. Paula and David were able to build constructive lives, so many others were not. Many were overcome by their sadness, their loss. We pay a huge price for humanity’s cruelty. Can’t we do better?

I think about the price she paid. About eight years ago we were visiting Paula and David in their condo in Florida. Paula was already on her Alzheimer’s journey, but she was still Paula. They didn’t need an aide yet. I sat at the kitchen table with her while Gary chatted with his Dad in the living room. Paula told me she was feeling troubled. I asked her what was on her mind.

“I keep wondering about my father,” she said.

Samuel had been killed by the Nazis more than 70 years before.

“What is it you are wondering about?”

She sighed, stirring her tea.

“I worry that he was buried alive,” she said.

I didn’t respond for a bit, taking it in, feeling so sad for her. Eventually I responded.

“I’m so sorry, Paula. That is an agonizing thought…but there is no reason to believe that’s what happened.” I said it almost as a question, wondering if she knew something she had not previously revealed. She mulled that over and shrugged.

I imagined her thinking about the story of the two men who came to Serniki, how they climbed out of the pit of corpses to escape. How could she not wonder?

“But what if he was alive?” she asked.

“We’ll never know…. I’m sorry.”

I knew I was out of my depth. I just wanted to comfort her but didn’t know how.

“But,” I continued, “I know you have good memories of your father. Let’s think about that.” I asked her about the stories he told her when she was a child. She didn’t mention her fear again, but I don’t imagine the thought left her.

Though the war took an extraordinary toll, Paula did reap the benefit of unexpected helpers, starting with the assistance provided by a Pole, Dimitrov Lacunyitz. I think about those Poles who stepped forward and those who collaborated and what made the difference. What pushed a person to choose to be on the right side of history? Unfortunately, in Poland today, there is a right-wing government which seems intent on whitewashing their history. They are making it increasingly difficult to acknowledge that there were collaborators. The mass executions could not have happened without local assistance. At the same time, we need to acknowledge those who overcame their fear and did the right thing. The Silberfarbs would not have survived without them. It is a tension that we in America face, as well. The impulse to ignore or sweep under the rug the ugliness in our history is strong, but we do that at our own peril. We all need to reckon with our past. We can’t only celebrate the heroism because it denies the experience, the reality of those who were mistreated.

I think about the importance of family. The Silberfarbs depended on each other; Lea was a tower of strength.  There were times when there were tensions between them, but the bond was stronger. Their extended family offered support through the ordeal in Serniki, too. They regularly sought shelter with cousins during the unrest in town. And, in the ultimate act of generosity, Uncle Nachum opened his home in Cuba to his wife’s sister-in-law and her children. He gave them a new start. My father-in-law, David, also got support from his family – they may not have been quite as warm and welcoming, but they made a new beginning possible. Where would we be without family?

I think about luck. While their survival was made possible by their own strength and ingenuity, luck was a critical element, too. When bombs fell, the Silberfarbs were spared. When Lea chose to go right instead of left in the woods, they avoided violence. When she knocked on a door begging for food, she wasn’t killed. Was that luck? Intuition? Fate? So many times, things could have gone differently. All of it had to fall into place for them to make it.

I think about faith. One might emerge from the ordeal with faith shattered or strengthened. My father-in-law believed God had spared him. That faith doesn’t come naturally to me, but understanding how meaningful it was to David, certainly gives me food for thought.

There are so many lessons to be learned by studying the Holocaust. I wish more people would take the time to learn.

Paula’s Journey Continues

Note: This is the next chapter in Paula’ journey. I have continued to research her story and the Holocaust in general since this was originally posted over two years ago which has allowed me to add more information and to improve the clarity of the narrative. If you have read this before, I hope you will choose to read it in its updated form. If you are new to it, I hope it both broadens and deepens your understanding of the personal tragedies experienced by survivors.

As I noted last week, most of the story comes from Paula’s Shoah testimony. One of the difficulties inherent in working from that is deciphering the names of people and places since they are either Yiddish or Polish. I have done my best to present the correct names and locations but recognize the potential for error. I don’t believe those potential errors materially change the truth of the story.

As a reminder, Paula’s immediate family, the Silberfarbs, included her mother (Lea), her father (Samuel), her older brother (Bernard or Bernie), and younger sister (Sofia). Her paternal grandfather was Gershon. One other piece of information for context: Serniki was a town of about 5,000 people, about 1,000 were Jewish.

After the two desperate men who escaped death shared their horrifying experience, the atmosphere in Serniki changed. Townspeople learned that Pinsk, the closest and biggest city, 19 miles to the northwest, was overrun by the Nazis on July 4, 1941. It was just a matter of time until they continued their march across Poland. As invasion by the powerful German army loomed, the Russians retreated, leaving a power vacuum in Serniki.

Some Gentiles took advantage of the absence of leadership and appointed themselves police, meting out justice as they saw fit. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. Where previously the communities peacefully coexisted, now Jewish homes were robbed, violence against Jews was perpetrated without consequence. Many Jews hid their valuables, believing that they were vulnerable not only when the Germans invaded, but at the hands of their Gentile neighbors. 

The Silberfarbs took their prized possessions to a farmer on the outskirts of town who did business with Samuel. The whole family went because Samuel and Lea planned to leave Serniki permanently, continuing on after securing their things. While they were with the farmer, they received word that Gershon (Samuel’s father) had been murdered. Devastated, Samuel felt they had no choice but to go back to Serniki to bury him.

Upon their return they learned a man named Danilo Polohowicz was the murderer. They heard Danilo shot Gershon as he stood in his backyard garden in broad daylight. There were witnesses and fearing no consequence, Danilo boasted about it in town.  He was right to fear no punishment; he wasn’t arrested or prosecuted for the crime.

Samuel went to his father’s house to oversee the funeral arrangements and, in keeping with Jewish tradition, stayed with the body until the interment. Lea and the children went back to their house, but instead of staying in the main house, they spent the night in the apartment next door. Lea thought, given the atmosphere in town, that the house would be a likely target of robbers. Lea was right. The four Silberfarbs, Lea and her three children, huddled under the bed in the apartment, listening to the sounds of burglars ransacking their house. The next morning, they cautiously returned to their home to survey the damage and found it in disarray, with floorboards lifted.

That day a German soldier on horseback came through the streets shouting, “Every Jew to the market!” Lea knew what that meant. She had no intention of taking her children to the market. Samuel still wasn’t home – as far as she knew he remained at his father’s house. Lea decided to try to escape with the children. She didn’t know where Samuel was or how to get information to him, but she didn’t think she could do anything to help him, so she focused her attention on saving her children.

They ran out their backyard through fields, across roads, towards the Stubla River, avoiding areas they suspected had police activity. As they approached the river, Bernie abruptly stopped. Lea had persuaded him to come, despite his reluctance to leave without his father. Now Bernie was unwilling to go any further – he said he wouldn’t leave without Daddy. Lea couldn’t convince him. Bernie turned back to town. Lea felt she had no choice but to continue. She took the girls to the farmer who hid their belongings. When they got to his house, he covered them all with hay and told them to wait while he went to town to investigate.

It felt like an eternity until the farmer came back and reported that the Germans kept the men to do work – to dig ditches. The streets of Sernicki flooded easily and in preparation for trucks and troops, they commanded the Jewish men of the town to dig drainage ditches. The women and children were sent home. The farmer told the Silberfarbs it was safe to return. Instead they went to a cousin’s house. This cousin’s house was situated closer to the Stubla and offered a better route of escape than their own home. By this time, it was dark out. They were relieved to see a light was on in their cousin’s house– if the house was dark, Lea was prepared to hide under the bridge by the river. They were doubly relieved to find that Bernie was also there. He had gone to the market, but since he was under 14 years of age, too young to be put to work, he was sent home. He, too, decided to go to the cousin’s house. Bernie reported that he hadn’t seen his father.

The next day, Lea went to the market alone to see if she could find Samuel. She spotted her nephew on a work detail but could not locate her husband. While she was near the market a Gentile townsperson gave Lea a message from Samuel, “Say kaddish for me.” [Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead.] Lea couldn’t allow herself to panic or be distracted. She went back to the cousin’s house and thought about what to do next.

That afternoon they heard machine gun fire. Later they heard what happened. Samuel was hiding in the garden of his Aunt Fanny’s house with Lea’s brother, Avrumchik. They discussed escaping. Avrumchik agreed to run to the river first because he wasn’t married and he had no children. If there was no gunfire, Samuel would follow. There was gunfire, but unbeknownst to Samuel, Avrumchik wasn’t injured. Samuel stayed put. German soldiers, combing the town for Jews, found him in the garden and arrested him.

Later that day 120 men, the town’s Jewish leaders, and one woman were executed. They were marched to a ditch near the cemetery, lined up and shot from behind. Among them was Samuel Silberfarb.

The Germans did not liquidate the entire Jewish community of Serniki at that point. They created a ghetto for the remaining Jews. Families doubled up in houses located on just a few streets. The Silberfarbs lived in the ghetto with another family. In Samuel’s absence, Uncle Avrumchik looked after them.

While living in the ghetto, Paula learned to knit and crochet (which turned out to be valuable skills through the war years). Fortunately, they had access to books – Paula sat by the window reading by the moonlight reflecting off the snow. Reading gave her rare moments of peace. Food was scarce – Mother would make a soup with a few potatoes, mostly water. They were barely getting by and, in fact, Lea’s mother passed away while they were in the ghetto.

Lea knew that they would not be permitted to stay in the ghetto indefinitely. It was now April of 1942 and there were rumors of an ‘aktion.’ (An ‘aktion’ was when the Germans would order the gathering of the Jews in the town square and either march them to the rim of a ravine and shoot them or deport them on trains to concentration camps.) The Silberfarbs snuck out of the ghetto and went again to the cousin’s house closer to the river. Across the Stubla there was a small group of wealthier homes (some Jews lived there – Paula thought perhaps they were allowed to stay by paying bribes). Those homes provided an even better opportunity for escape. The Silberfarbs had a relative in one of those homes – they decided to try to get there, though there was a guard at the bridge. Lea studied his routine and advised Bernie, and an aunt and uncle when to sneak across. Lea and the girls planned to go the next day. Later that afternoon there was a call for Jews to re-register. Lea understood what this meant and told her children “We are not going! We will not go back to town.” Uncle Avrumchik did go back to investigate (they never saw him again).

That night Lea couldn’t sleep. She sat in the window looking out. She saw headlights coming across the bridge – she understood that this meant that more of the German army was arriving. Lea woke everyone in the house (more than just the Silberfarbs were there) – they went out the back and fled across the river and into the woods. They dispersed in different directions, though Lea, Paula and Sofia stayed together. The next day they heard the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire coming from town. 850 men, women and children, the remaining Jewish population of Serniki were murdered and buried in a ditch on the outskirts of town.

As Lea and the girls fled, she thought of a man that Samuel used to do business with – they would try to make their way to him. His name was Dmitrov Lacunyetz.  When they arrived he cried like a baby when he saw them and heard what happened to Samuel. Bernie, and the aunt and uncle had already arrived at Dmitrov’s farm. Dmitrov brought them all to a forested area on his property to hide. He kept them there for 16 weeks.

Dmitrov supplied them with food once a day. After a while, he sent his son-in-law to deliver the provisions. In order to avoid bringing suspicion upon themselves, they varied the routine. The son-in-law, now that it was getting colder, built them a little hut out of young birch trees. There were 8 of them in hiding. They had two spoons. Two people at a time would eat from the kettle that was brought to them. There would be some arguing over the food – “Don’t eat so much! Leave for the others!” It was usually a soup with millet (a grain used frequently in the region). At one point, Bernie was so hungry he couldn’t take it anymore – he went begging. He had some success and brought back and shared whatever he was given. On his rounds, he was asked “Are you Gypsy or Jew?” He said, “Gypsy,” thinking it was the lesser of two evils.

There was a Partisan brigade (a group of people resisting/fighting the Nazis) in the area. Though the Silberfarbs weren’t part of the brigade, Lea felt they were safer when they were near them. Unfortunately, there was a dispute with a farmer over a cow and the Partisans killed the farmer’s son in the confrontation. The farmer vowed to inform the Germans. The area became unsafe. It was now the end of 1942. The Silberfarbs had to move on.

Lea Silberfarb on the left. Paula on the right.

A Survivor’s Story: The Beginning

Note: In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am revisiting the beginning of my mother-in-law’s story. When most people think of survivors of the Holocaust, they think of concentration camp survivors. But, there are other important stories, of Jews who made it through by hiding and fighting alongside the Partisans in the woods, using guile and courage, and sometimes the kindness of strangers, to sustain themselves. That is the story of my in-laws. Another thing that is important to remember is the quality of life those survivors enjoyed before the wholesale destruction of their shtetl culture. Not only did millions lose their lives, but a whole way of life ended. This story brings some of that to life. The information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children (with spouses) and grandchildren, went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project.

Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided for her father’s livelihood as a boat-maker. It was a primitive town: there was no electricity or running water in their homes, no cars or trucks, the roads weren’t paved. They didn’t have a movie theater and only one family had a radio (and Paula never heard it).

Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle; they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, but they were able to communicate. They didn’t socialize, though they did have business connections. The cultural and religious separation became important in the crucible of the war.

Paula was the middle child, with an older brother, Bernard, and a younger sister, Sofia. Though middle children are often attention seeking, Paula was not. She was shy and obedient. If Mother gave her a chore, she did it. If she was told not to do something, she didn’t. She left the troublemaking and risk taking to her older and younger siblings.

The Silberfarbs made a loving home. Their house consisted of three rooms: one large bedroom, where they all slept – her parents (Samuel and Lea) in one bed, Paula and Sofia in another, and Bernie in his own; they had a separate living room and kitchen. They also had a large one room apartment next door that they rented out. A lush, colorful flower garden adorned the front and side of the house; a vegetable garden in the back. Further behind the house, they had a field where they grew potatoes and wheat. They hired someone to help with that field. They brought the grain to the mill and Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.

Paula was lovingly cared for by her mother and father. Lea was the primary caregiver, providing guidance and nourishment, in all senses, to her children. Her father, Samuel, was a boat builder. The boats were made of wood and powered by oars. Farmers used the boats to get their produce to bigger markets across the Stubla. Samuel purchased parcels of forested land from farmers, logged it and brought the lumber to Serniki to build the boats. When a boat was completed, the children would gather at the riverside to watch it launch. It was a community event. The business took a great deal of Samuel’s time, he wasn’t home much. When he was home, Paula fondly recalls him sitting on the side of the bed she shared with Sofia, before they went to sleep, telling them stories. He told tales based on Jules Verne’s books. Samuel was a learned man, he had gone to university in Kiev. He was in partnership with his father, Gershon, in the boat business.

Gershon, a widower, lived in his own home, bigger than Paula’s family home, near the market in town. He shared the house with one of his sisters. Gershon had an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki.

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family joined him Saturday morning. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs. Paula watched her brother, father and grandfather through small windows. Though some men in Serniki were bearded, Samuel was clean shaven. He was a modern man. After services, family and friends would come by the house. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

Paula played with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw it further. She also especially liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula was particularly fond of one neighbor friend, Chaya. Once Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one which she readily accepted. Paula was served the pancake on a fine piece of china, not an everyday dish. It made her feel special and was the kind of thing Paula noticed and appreciated, even 60 years after the fact.

In 1939 the Soviets invaded Serniki. Though she was frightened of the newly arrived Russians, Paula was eight when they took over, her day-to-day life went on largely unchanged. She wasn’t very aware of how it impacted her father’s business. The one major change was to her school life. In addition to attending cheder, to learn Hebrew and Torah, Paula went to public school. The public school had been run by Poles and Paula had already completed first grade when the Soviets took over. Though Paula’s father had taught his children the Russian alphabet and to read, the authorities made everyone repeat their grade, so she had to begin again. Paula resented it. She completed second grade in the Russian school. It was during her third year at school that life as she knew it completely changed.

In early summer of 1941, a father and son arrived in Serniki, on the run. They told the story of their town which was to the west; of being marched to stand at the edge of a ditch only to have the Germans shoot them in the back, causing everyone to fall in, one on top of another. The father and son fell just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Nazis left. They climbed out over the corpses and ran.

The Jews of Serniki didn’t believe the story. They thought it was a plea for attention, for sympathy and for help. Paula’s mother, Lea, though, believed it. Lea said, “It is too terrible for a human mind to make up. A normal human wouldn’t make up such a thing.” This was the first Paula had heard about the atrocities – it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but she was shielded from it.

It was a good thing Lea believed it – that belief made all the difference.

Paula just after the war, in her early teens, but no longer a child.

Another Day, Another Controversy

Last week the New York Times headline read: Trump Targets Anti-Semitism and Israeli Boycotts on College Campuses. It caused quite a stir in the Jewish community.

The first paragraph reported that the President planned to sign an Executive Order that would permit the federal government to withhold funding to colleges that fail to combat discrimination. That didn’t sound like a bad thing, but then I read the second paragraph (I added the bold):

“The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students. In recent years, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — or B.D.S. — movement against Israel has roiled some campuses, leaving some Jewish students feeling unwelcome or attacked.”

Reading that the Executive Order would define Judaism as a nation and/or race made the hair on my neck stand up. As I surfed the Internet looking at reaction to this, I found a number of comments picking up on Judaism as nationality as problematic. I was more disturbed by the use of the term race.  That idea, of Jews as a separate race, struck terror in my heart. After all, that was one of the essential pieces of Hitler’s plan to exterminate us. Identifying us as a race, as ‘the other,’ as subhuman, made the Holocaust possible. I came to understand this when I took a class in college called The Making of Modern Germany. That class was the single most important one I have ever taken.

Professor George Stein taught every Tuesday and Thursday for ninety minutes during the fall semester of my sophomore year at SUNY-Binghamton. He stood at the podium, wearing a dark suit and tie, his black hair meticulously combed, and lectured to us. It might sound boring, but it was anything but. It was a history class, but he drew from music, art, folklore, science and philosophy to tell the story of a nation. In the telling he gave context and insight into bigger themes – What is a nation? What is modernity? It was fascinating. It wasn’t interactive. Professor Stein may have left a bit of time for questions, but essentially it was entirely lecture and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. You could hear a pin drop in the hall. I took notes furiously; I wanted to commit to memory all he was offering because it was so compelling and comprehensive. I never considered skipping class. I wish I could take it again. I held on to some of my notebooks from college and graduate school. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find that one. Over the years I have wanted to refresh my memory any number of times.

My mind went to that class when I read about the Executive Order. I remember clearly Professor Stein explaining the importance of Hitler’s manipulation of antisemitism. It was already entrenched in Eastern Europe based on the belief that the Jews killed Christ and the widely circulated lie that Jews used the blood of Christian children as part of the Passover ritual. Professor Stein traced how those seeds were exploited to take hatred to the next level. Judaism became more than a religion – Jews became a race with unique characteristics (a whole science was devoted to elucidating the differences). This was a critical step in building the case for genocide.

This is why reading that Trump was urging the United States government to begin defining Judaism as a race was alarming and terrifying, even as it was being offered to ostensibly combat harassment of Jews on college campuses. I could easily imagine it being turned on its head, as so many things are these days, for nefarious purposes.

When I saw that the Anti-Defamation League supported the Executive Order, I thought there’s no way they would if it was as explained in the New York Times article. I read as much as I could on the Internet. That first day I found a lot written about the Executive Order, but not the order itself – which was frustrating.

As I was reading, I was thinking, wasn’t antisemitism already covered by our nation’s laws? Why was this necessary? I went back to look at the Civil Rights Act and found that Title VI, which covers any entity that receives federal funds, prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin. Title VII of the same act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin or religion. Obviously the two lists are not the same.

Why aren’t they the same? I didn’t do deep research into this, but since educational institutions are permitted to be connected to a religion (e.g., Jesuit colleges, parochial schools) or same sex and still receive federal funds, I think they couldn’t include those categories in Title VI. Whether we should provide public funds to institutions affiliated with a religious denomination is a discussion for another day.

In my work with NYSSBA, though, I knew that this issue of schools addressing antisemitism has been litigated many times. So, the question remained, under what authority, could schools (colleges or public schools) act against antisemitism? The Civil Rights Act is enforced largely through the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Those agencies are responsible for interpreting the law and have offices within them that receive complaints of discrimination and/or harassment (harassment can be a form of discrimination). Over the years, dating back to the Bush II administration, they issued guidance documents (the DOE calls them ‘Dear Colleague’ letters) which interpreted Title VI as covering religion. In the aftermath of September 11th, when Muslim students were especially vulnerable, the government explained that when students were targeted for being perceived as a different race the school district had an obligation to protect those being harassed. So, using the same logic, Jewish students and Sikh students (or any student whose religious practice or nation of origin may make them appear to be of a different race) are covered by Title VI.

Then the question becomes, what does this Executive Order offer that is different? After looking into this, I have no answer.  I came to the conclusion that it remains to be seen whether this is a positive thing, or a dangerous step, or not really a change at all (and just political pandering) – as with many things, it depends on how it is interpreted and implemented.

[By the way, it is worth noting that states also have laws that offer protections, too. New York State’s anti-discrimination laws are much more expansive than federal law and includes LGBT and disabled citizens, among others.]

The Executive Order was finally posted by the White House the next day – needless to say, I read it. I will point out that the Executive Order, and the source document it is based upon (a definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Recognition Alliance) does not say that Judaism is a race or a nation. It also does not say that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being anti-Semitic, despite what Jared Kushner opines; though that is where the waters get muddy. The IHRA document specifically says “….criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

As we know, on college campuses Israel gets a lot of criticism. Where it crosses over into antisemitism is complicated and often in the eye of the beholder. Can a person be anti-Zionist and not be anti-Semitic? If anti-Zionism means you oppose the existence of the State of Israel, it is hard not to get a whiff or more of antisemitism (other than Jews who believe that God – the messiah – is the only one that can create a Jewish homeland).

The founding of the State of Israel was, in my opinion, as legitimate as any nation. After the Holocaust, it was clear that Jews needed a homeland. As a result, the U.N. defined and authorized its creation. Every country I can think of has disputed boundaries and conquests in its history that contributed to their current configuration. The United States, Russia, China, Great Britain all come to mind. I’m not aware of any country that wasn’t built on the blood of a people in some way or another. Israel is no different.

I have lots of criticisms of Israel and how it conducts itself, especially under Netanyahu. But to suggest that it deserves to be isolated in the same way as North Korea or Iran, or to question its right to exist, is a bridge way too far. Students should be able to study in Israel. Academic exchanges should be welcomed. Individuals can choose not to buy its products if they don’t like their policies, as I don’t shop Walmart. But, I am not seeking to have Walmart driven into the sea, or cutting it off from civilized society. I would like Walmart to change – to treat its employees fairly and to operate as a good corporate citizen. Maybe it isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think it makes the point.

If this Executive Order is used to stifle protest of Israel’s actions, then it will be a misuse of governmental authority. If it bolsters the federal government’s authority to investigate harassment of Jews, that would be a positive outcome given the frightening increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes. If it gives authorities more cover, and suggests more political will to confront it, then maybe it can be helpful.

In sum, my two takeaways from this are: (1) the New York Times did a poor job of reporting on this and contributed mightily to the controversy by mischaracterizing the Executive Order. Some might not be surprised at that, I am disappointed.

And, (2) as with all things with the Trump administration, we will have to be vigilant to make sure power isn’t abused or turned on its head.

Going to Extremes

It may not be readily apparent why I am spending so much time writing about the events in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But, 50 years later, there is much to be learned, especially since we find ourselves still struggling with some of the fault lines exposed during that conflict. The strike touched on racism, anti-Semitism, and education policy (the role of community in school management, the value of multiculturalism in curriculum, student discipline and the professionalism of teachers). Each of these topics resonates with me and are actively debated today. We need to learn from our history; the strike and its aftermath are rich with lessons.

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Photo credit unknown — reprinted in Jacobin. Police blocked entry to the school building at one point during the conflict. 

One of the tragedies of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike was that it marked a serious deterioration in the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in New York City. The two groups, through the early 1960s, were allies in the civil rights movement. The strike either created or revealed a schism.

I grew up feeling a connection to African-Americans. Because of my own people’s history, I identified with their struggle against persecution. My parents were believers in equal rights and opportunities. I never heard a racial or ethnic slur from either my mom or dad. Thinking back on it, I know they weren’t perfect, they were a product of their time and place, so I’m sure they had their prejudices, but that would have been the product of ignorance. They were life-long learners, and as they understood more, their thinking evolved. The strike and the emergence of the Black Power movement tested them.

My mother was teaching in a parochial school at the time of the strike. She was employed by the New York City Board of Education as a Title I teacher, a corrective reading specialist, but assigned to Catholic schools and yeshivas, depending on the year. Since the parochial schools were not affected by the strike, she continued to go to work, she didn’t have to cross a picket line. She remembers the time as being rife with tension, though. She taught in a neighborhood not far from Ocean-Hill Brownsville and took a subway line that travelled through there to get to work. She remembers a change in the air, she felt self-conscious on the subway as one of the few white people and previously she had not. Between the riots in cities around the country, and the friction of the strike, she felt the anxiety of the time.

My father, a social studies teacher in a NYC high school, walked the picket line. I recall him coming home and expressing anger with the leadership of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. I remember some of the names he mentioned, telling my mother of the latest inflammatory rhetoric from Sonny Carson and Rhody McCoy. Listening to the panelists at the Brooklyn Historical Society, it sounded like either the incendiary messages weren’t uttered, were overemphasized or misunderstood. It occurred to me that perhaps my father wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.

Now reading about the events, I see a fuller picture. My research revealed a number of interesting pieces.

One of the flashpoints during the strike was the assertion that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community was anti-Semitic. As I noted in a previous post, the panelists contended that Al Shanker, the union president, was largely responsible for stoking the issue. Two of the three panelists, Ms. Edwards and Mr. Isaacs, refuted the claim that there was anti-Semitism in the community. Hearing that, I was incredulous; there is anti-Semitism in every community, just as there is racism. The degree of it, how close it is to the surface, may vary, but to deny its existence struck me as disingenuous.

Unless I misunderstood his point, Mr. Isaacs said it was the union that produced and distributed literature that included anti-Semitic language and images. I found that charge hard to believe. I could imagine that Shanker would want to consolidate his position by, as we might say today, riling up his base, but it didn’t ring true that he would go so far as to create the pamphlets.

I read news accounts, journal articles, recent scholarship and books, so much has been written about the strike. I learned that was that there was an anonymous anti-Semitic letter circulated in the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at the time. The letter said:

‘If African-American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must be done by African-Americans Who Identify With And Understand The Problem. It is Impossible For the Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring to This Important Task the Insight, The Concern, The Exposing of the Truth that is a Must If The Years of Brainwashing and Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught to Our Black Children by These Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be Overcome.’

McCoy and the local Board denounced the letter. The union reprinted it, 5000 copies, as part of a leaflet which asked if this was acceptable; in effect publicizing it. Some might say Shanker exploited it.

I don’t know how strongly the African-American leadership disavowed the letter and its sentiments. I can only imagine how hurtful those thoughts would be to someone like my father. Was Mr. Isaacs suggesting that Shanker actually composed and planted the original letter, or was he criticizing the tactic of publicizing it?

It was not the only evidence of anti-Semitism. A teacher in the district read a poem by a student on WBAI, an African-American radio station in the city, called “To Albert Shanker: Anti-Seimitism.”

Hey Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head

You pale faced Jew boy I wish you were dead…

            Jew boy you took my religion and adopted it for you

            But you know that black people were the original Hebrews

            When the UN made Israel a free, independent state

            Little four and five-year-old boys threw hand grenades

            They hated the black Arab with all their might

            And you, Jew boy, said it was alright

            And then you came to America the land of the free

            Took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy

            Cause you know, Jew boy, there’s only one reason you made it

            You had a clean white face colorless and faded.

When interviewed twenty years after the fact, the teacher had no regrets about reading the poem on the air. He said it was “raw,” but otherwise didn’t see a problem with it.

Unfortunately, there are people in the world who would write that letter and that poem today.

I come away from the panel discussion and my subsequent research believing that everyone shared responsibility for stoking racial and ethnic tensions. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville leadership was unwilling to distance itself from the extremists or troublemakers in their midst. Judging by the statements made by the panelists they still don’t acknowledge the damage done by the anti-Semitic communications. It may be true that the letter and poem didn’t represent the majority of the community. But, think of it this way:  if a single noose was to appear in a school locker, it would not be sufficient if school officials disavowed the symbolism, explained that it didn’t represent the opinion of the majority and left it at that. We would expect more, and rightly so.

It is true that the demographic of the replacement teachers was similar to those that were terminated – the majority were white and Jewish. That would support the idea that McCoy and the Board weren’t blindly anti-Semitic. But, that doesn’t address the hurt and fear engendered by the other events. The hiring of the replacements represented other problems from the union perspective (an issue I will discuss in more depth in my next blog post).

The union leadership, on the other hand, focused on those extremists to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns. There were issues with the quality of the teaching, with the atmosphere of the schools that did not welcome parental involvement and that didn’t include African-American and Puerto Rican contributions in the curriculum. And, the main point, the main issue at the heart of everything, was the problem of poor academic performance. By keeping their rhetoric focused on the hateful messages, the union didn’t appear to be willing to engage on the problems that were at the heart of the community’s anger.

There are parallels to how we engage in political discourse today. People are quick to point to the outrageous claims, or the hateful rhetoric, from the ‘other side.’ While I see the merit in bringing attention to discriminatory acts, they should not be swept under the rug, I think we go too far. The extremes get distorted and end up having more influence than they deserve. I don’t know how we reclaim some balance, but we need to give more careful thought to what we emphasize. We need to be more focused on problem-solving and substance.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike: What is its legacy?

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A notice (see above) came across my Facebook feed that caught my eye. The Brooklyn Historical Society was hosting a panel discussion about the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike (a school district in Brooklyn). Memories were sparked of a very controversial place and time. The topic touched on issues that have interested and motivated me my entire life: education and race relations. To add to my curiosity, the strike touched my family. Though I was a child at the time, I knew my father had been involved, he was an early union organizer for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). I remembered that he walked that picket line. I clicked on the link to look at the details.

The program featured three speakers and a moderator. One was a teacher from the junior high school at the center of the controversy who crossed the picket line, the second was a student who was the valedictorian of that junior high school’s graduating class in 1969, and the final presenter was a scholar who wrote a book that took a fresh look at the conflict and its legacy. The moderator was a current resident and activist in that Brooklyn neighborhood who had family that taught in the district at that time. The teacher, Charles Isaacs, was noted as also having written a book (Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education 1968-69). Conspicuously absent was anyone representing the union. Though I was a bit concerned that the presentation might be skewed, I wanted to hear what they had to say.

I bought a ticket. I found a parking spot nearby, no mean feat in downtown Brooklyn. I got there early; the room was already filling up.  One might think that events from 50 years ago might be long forgotten, but clearly others were equally interested in revisiting this time and place. There was a palpable energy in the room. The space wasn’t very large, I think the capacity was 200. Every seat was taken, with some folks standing along the perimeter. The audience was very diverse: young, old and in between; white, black, and brown; men and women. I didn’t know a soul.

Before going to the session, I did a little research to remind myself what the issues were that surrounded the strike. I read some New York Times accounts and looked at a summary of the book written by Mr. Isaacs.

The strike was spurred by a decentralization experiment in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district.  In 1967 the New York City Board of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation, authorized the creation of three experimental school districts; one in Harlem, one on the Lower East Side and one in Brooklyn (Ocean Hill-Brownsville). The idea was to give decision-making power (in hiring, firing, budgeting, curriculum approval, etc.) to the local community, rather than the central bureaucracy.  The hope was that, as a result, the staff in the district would begin to look more like the community around it and that parents would be more invested in their children’s education if they had a say in it. Each of the demonstration districts was poor and student achievement was abysmal.

What happened next is a complicated story and depends on which account of events you read. I can’t do justice to all of the details in this space (whole books have been written about it!). The agreed upon facts are these: A new superintendent, Rody McCoy, who was African-American, was brought into the newly created district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville. A locally elected school board was seated. Changes to curriculum and pedagogical approach were instituted. After a year in charge, McCoy believed that the effort to implement change was being stymied by some administrators and teachers. As a result, during the summer of 1968 a letter was sent to 19 staff members advising them that they were terminated, and they should report to the central Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. All 19 were white, many were Jewish (this becomes relevant as events unfold).

The teachers’ union interpreted this personnel action as a threat to their authority and a breach of the contract that they had with the New York City central Board of Education. According to their agreement, termination could only occur after due process, and this action had been taken without the necessary administrative steps. The union, led by its president Al Shanker, protested and called for a strike.

All of this was occurring in the context of heightened racial tension in the country as a whole. Though the civil rights movement had resulted in new laws, poverty, discrimination, police brutality and the perception that the Vietnam War was exacting more pain from African-Americans were still troubling realities. During the summer of 1967, called the ‘long, hot summer’ for a reason, there were multiple riots in urban areas (159 of them). Detroit and Newark experienced some of the worst violence, resulting in 43 and 26 dead in each city respectively. Hundreds of others were injured, and swaths of city blocks were burned. Mixed into this violence was a call for African-Americans to forcefully claim their rights, rather than taking the path of nonviolence charted by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The decentralization of schools in New York City was seen as part of a response to the call for Black Power. The conflict over the termination (which became a subject of dispute because some said it was a reassignment, not a firing) of the teachers/administrators was taking place against this backdrop. It became impossible to disentangle the contractual issues from the racial and power politics of the time. Though I was a child, I was aware of the tension. I was aware of the strain on my father. He supported the union’s position.

I think the most common interpretation of events would suggest that the union ‘won’ and that the decentralization experiment failed. Hearing the panelists, a different picture emerged. Their interpretation emphasized that the 19 teachers/administrators were racists and weren’t actually fired but were to be reassigned; and that children were being harmed in the union’s quest for power. They blamed Al Shanker for stoking racial tensions (alleging that he fueled charges of Black Anti-Semitism) and for letting the strike stretch to 36 days (the longest in American history). They highlighted the successes of the experiment in improved self-esteem among the students and empowerment of parents and community.

While I have no vested interest in Shanker’s legacy, my father did walk that picket line. I was troubled by the allegations because it could implicate my father, a man I admired (and still admire) for his moral compass. I listened to their presentations and wondered what my father would have thought. If only he was still alive, so I could ask him. I would have to do more research to see if I could come to my own conclusions.

Next week: More on the panel discussion and the legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

A Mix of Emotions

Somehow, after recounting the drama and trauma of my in-laws journey through an anti-Semitic landscape, the events of this past weekend are crushing to me. It is a terrible reminder of our need to be vigilant in the face of hate and violence. I can only hope that we, as a country, will turn the tide. I hope the coming election sends a clear message. Please vote – and please vote for change.

Although I have covered the broad strokes of the Bakst family’s story, I do have a few more essays to write on that topic. I have learned a lot in the process of researching and listening to David’s stories, and I have thought quite a bit about the meaning of his and Paula’s experience that I would like to share.

But, first, I am taking a short break. In fact, I write this from Barcelona, the first stop on a Mediterranean trip. Lucky me! Don’t worry, though, I voted by absentee ballot and so did Gary!

Some views of Barcelona: