Museum Musings From Poland

Posted on November 13th, 2017 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

I was privileged to spend ten days in Poland on a trip sponsored by the Council of American Jewish Museums with five colleagues from Jewish museums from across the country. During our trip we visited many museums where we explored the different ways that Poles interpret their complex (and often tragic) history. We also had ample opportunity to meet with staff at these museums and to discuss their interpretive strategies as well as to engage in conversation about the difficult task they face in commemorating the history of Polish Jews in a broader context than just the Holocaust.

Here are some highlights from our museum visits:

Museum of the City of Warsaw:

Our first day included a tour of the Old City of Warsaw where we learned about how the city was nearly completely demolished by the Nazis in 1944 following the Warsaw Uprising. The Museum of the City of Warsaw occupies several reconstructed town homes in the Old City. Rather than detailing the city’s history through text panels and recreated spaces, the museum makes innovative use of models, timelines and charts to identify keep events and periods in the city’s history.

Models of the city of Warsaw

A beautifully designed exhibit showcases artifacts, but rather than grouping items in chronological order, they are displayed according to type so that one room houses postcards while another, silver and so on.

My favorite gallery was devoted to mermaids which is the symbol of Warsaw.

Our group of museum professionals was impressed with the clean design of the displays and the interpretive strategy in which one selected object in each case is highlighted. The minimal amount of text allowed for a greater appreciation of the objects.

POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews:

Being able to visit this recently opened museum was one of the impetuses for the trip. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, the museum’s chief curator and advisor to the director, is an advisor to CAJM and was instrumental in helping to develop our trip itinerary. In preparation for our visit, we read several articles about the museum’s guiding principles and participated in a conference call with Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The museum is immense and includes a resource center, educational program space, temporary exhibition gallery and café. We were most appreciative of the opportunity to meet with several of the museum’s staff, including its executive director and education director and were guided through the core exhibit by its co-curator, Joanna Fikus, who shared fascinating insight into how the exhibit came together.

The Museum is located within the boundaries of where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood and its entrance is adjacent to a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that was erected in 1948.

The museum’s mission is to educate visitors about the entire 1,000 year span of Jewish history in Poland and to highlight the extent to which Jewish history and Polish history are intertwined. The galleries are filled with multi-media displays and interactive stations that provide layers of interpretation and engage visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Despite the three hours we had allotted to tour the exhibit, we still did not have enough time to see everything.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is stepping into a recreated wooden synagogue that was built with the assistance of an American workshop – a video explaining the construction process can be found HERE.

Praga Museum

A very different kind of museum experience awaited at the Praga Museum within an old Jewish quarter in Warsaw that survived the destruction of World War II. Unlike the other museums where we received guided tours, at the Praga we were left to wander on our own as we encountered dimly rooms filled with a variety of quirky displays interpreting the history of the neighborhood, juxtaposed with contemporary art installations exploring issues such as multiculturalism and geographical boundaries.

I felt right at home seeing a case filled with sewing machine and tailor implements, just like in Voices of Lombard Street.

The museum is housed in a former townhouse that once contained a private shul. The museum has uncovered fresco fragments from the shul that visitors can view.


Book of Names

Our day spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau was difficult and exhausting as we waited in lines and navigated crowds to enter different barracks that house museum displays (daily attendance at the camp can reach as high as 11,000 visitors). We had difficulty finding the personal stories that are so essential to understanding the Holocaust because the interpretation is from the perspective of the perpetrators and not the victims. A recently opened exhibition in Block 27 by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial, seeks to address this issue by displaying photographs and films of pre-war Jewish communities and an enormous book listing names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust that visitors can peruse. This was an especially emotional experience for several members of our group who found listings of family members who perished during the Holocaust.

Auschwitz Jewish Center

A display at the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

I first learned about the Auschwitz Jewish Center when the JMM hosted the exhibition A Town Known As Auschwitz last year. The museum preserves and interprets the rich pre-war Jewish history of Oswiecim (the Polish name of the town) and also includes the only synagogue in town that was not destroyed during World War II.

The only surviving synagogue.

While there are no Jews living any longer in Oswiecim, the museum serves as an important educational and cultural center. We had the opportunity to meet with the museum’s director who talked about how his staff works to teach visitors that there is more to Polish Jewish history than the Holocaust. We found our visit to the Auschwitz Jewish Center an especially meaningful way to end our day spent in Auschwitz and as we ate dinner in a charming restaurant in the town that has become synonymous with the Holocaust, we discussed the importance of making all Poles understand the extent to which Polish Jewish heritage is an integral part of their history.

Galicia Jewish Museum

Our last two days were spent in Krakow, the center of Jewish renewal in Poland, where we learned about the resurgence of interest in Jewish culture. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow was left largely intact (the Wawel Castle served as the residence for the Governor of the General Government, Hans Frank) and its Jewish quarter contains six restored synagogues. Krakow also hosts an annual summer Jewish festival that attracts thousands of people. The Galicia Jewish Museum has been one of the leading institutions in the city’s Jewish renaissance. Our visit to the museum was the perfect way to bring our week to a close as we met with the museum’s director, deputy director and one of their board members. The Museum’s mission is to educate visitors that the Holocaust did not just happen at Auschwitz (so many visitors to Poland stop only at Auschwitz-Birkenau during their stay) and also to continue the story of Jewish history in Poland post-1945 during the communist regime and into the present. 40% of the museum’s visitors are non-Jewish, a reflection of the interest in non-Jews in learning about Jewish culture and history. As at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, we heard about their focus on working with the non-Jewish community as a means of gaining their assistance in preserving Jewish heritage in small towns and cities throughout the country.

We toured the museum’s temporary exhibit The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rwyka from the Lodz Ghetto, a beautifully designed installation featuring original artifacts and interactive stations that reinforced the concept of how focusing on individual stories can bring to life the history of the Holocaust in such meaningful ways.

The core exhibit Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland showcases color photographs by Professor Jonathan Webber and Chris Schwarz from the past 30 years documenting what remains of Jewish life in Polish towns. The exhibit powerfully reminds visitors that in order to learn about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it is important to look beyond Auschwitz and to visit small towns that once housed vibrant Jewish communities.

I arrived in Poland expecting to learn about the tragic history of its Jewish community in order to enrich my work at the JMM and also to bear witness to the loss of a culture. I was not prepared to visit such a broad array of museums that provide fascinating insight into Poland’s complex and nuanced history. I was inspired by the work that these amazing institutions and individuals are engaged in to ensure that Jewish Polish history is preserved in meaningful ways.

Read more about Deborah’s trip over at JMore: “Touring Poland Was ‘Life-Changing Experience'”

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Museum School Partnerships!

Posted on November 10th, 2017 by

Performance Counts: November 2017

A blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

A museum educator facilitates Hanukkah activities with students at one of our partner schools.

One of the JMM’s education department signature achievements has been its successful museum-school partnership program launched twelve years ago. The JMM piloted the program and worked with four partner Baltimore City schools with great success. The hope of the initiative was to move beyond a one-time annual field trip and one-time classroom activity. The Museum would provide 4-8 programs over the course of the year, in an effort to work more holistically with the school community so that different grades would have access to a variety of our education programs that meet curricular standards.

In each partnership, the JMM’s education staff meets with school teachers and administrators during the first weeks of school to discuss upcoming JMM exhibitions and plan educational programming for the year. The education program is individualized for each school based on the needs of the school. Our education staff strives to create resources and education programs that support the State’s focus on the College and Career Ready Standards in Social Studies and Language Arts along with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) goals for student achievement. Independent evaluations, anecdotal and participant-observer reports, direct testing of knowledge, all support the value and productivity of these engagements between the Museum, the school, and the students.

Some of the educational programs that we provide to our partner schools include:

>Dramatic Living History Presentations on the subject of immigration history, American history, Jewish history and culture.

>Student Storytelling Program featuring facilitated storytelling on key themes.

>Resource and Discovery Kits with historical facsimiles and hands-on materials.

>Archival explorations using primary source materials from the JMM collections.

>JMM’s Voice of Lombard Street exhibition on East Baltimore history.

>Hanukkah Activities

>Preschool Immigrant’s Trunk

>Resource sheets relating to changing JMM exhibitions

>Age appropriate guided tours to our historic synagogues

>Joint Field Trip Opportunities with Partner Institutions

>Neighborhood walking tours

During the 2016-2017 academic school year, we provided educational opportunities to more than 1100 students and teachers in our five museum partner schools. These schools include Patterson Park Public Charter School, City Springs Elementary/Middle School, John Ruhrah Elementary /Middle School, Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School and Windsor Hills Elementary/Middle School.

For the 2017-2018 academic year, we are working with the same schools except for Windsor Hills. The principal of Windsor Hills has switched to a new school this year- – and he requested if the JMM could continue the partnership with his new school, Francis Scott Key Elementary/ Middle School. We have also had successful meetings with the Liberty Elementary School and the Baltimore International Academy and we hope to include them as partner schools for the next year.

City Springs students tour Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage

So far this year, the education department has served over 450 students and teachers in our partner schools. These education programs took place at the museum but also offsite in the classroom.  This year, Baltimore City Public schools is encouraging middle schoolers to participate in National History Day competitions throughout the city that take place in early 2018. In preparation for the projects, students have to research, analyze documents and primary sources, and use critical thinking skills to reflect their knowledge on the topic that is being researched. For many students, this is the first time they have ever done a research paper.

A popular program for our middle schools has been our Lives Lost: Lives Found: Baltimore’s German Jewish Refugees 1939-1945 archival exploration. Students interpret primary sources by studying immigration history of German Jewish refugees that represented a new wave of Jewish immigration in Baltimore during WWII. Students are encouraged to think about the universal conditions of refugees by making connections between US immigration policies in the 1930s and current events. The program was designed to give teachers more resources in Holocaust education.

We have developed new education programs this year that we are piloting with our partner schools.  The Baltimore Book, is a curriculum for 3rd grades designed to teach key civic education concepts and moments from Baltimore history in age appropriate terms and illustrations.  The hope of the book is to get students to begin thinking about Baltimore’s rich history; and that this new knowledge will empower students to take ownership of their city and begin to make it better for themselves, their families, and their community.  Over 150 third graders from John Ruhrah Elementary and Liberty Elementary visited the Lloyd Street Synagogue, Maryland’s first synagogue,  and the Star Spangled Banner Flag House to learn about the rich history of Baltimore and their community.

We recently received funding from the Wells Fargo Excellence Grant to pilot a new education initiative with 8th graders from Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School. Our proposed pilot project, Morrell Park: PROJECTED is a collaborative effort between the JMM and Morrell Park that is intended to provide students with opportunities to learn about sharing their family histories in meaningful ways. With the assistance of J. Scott Fuqua, an award winning young adult author, and Johns Hopkins University film students, our year-long project will teach participating 8th grade students how to interview family members and then develop and share their personal stories with a broader community.

Author J. Scott Fuqua speaks with Morrell Park students.

Students will take part in activities that will help them understand that everyone has a story that can be valued and appreciated. By interviewing family and community members, the students will gain insight into their personal family stories. Classroom study will be enriched as the students learn valuable techniques for conducting oral history interviews and film making. They will learn to tell their own stories and create short film clips using their smartphones. The hope is that at the conclusion of the project, students will gain a better sense of their place within their family and community and feel more rooted in their daily lives.

Two final films will be developed as a conclusion to the pilot program.   One film with showcase the short stories and interviews that the students edited on their smart phones.  A second film will be the actual documentation of working with the students throughout the year in the classroom and in the Morrell Park community.  The films will be screened as a way of celebrating the diversity, culture and roots of the Morrell Park community.  Join us for the premiere screening of MORRELL PARK: PROJECTED  that will  take place on Thursday evening, March 22nd at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.  Mark your calendars so that you reserve a seat to meet these 8th grade students and celebrate their family stories and the community of Morrell Park.

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Match Point: Fighting Racial Discrimination in Druid Hill Park Pt. 2

Posted on November 8th, 2017 by

generations 2004 copyArticle by Barry Kessler with Anita Kassof. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Part II: An Interivew with Mitzi Freishtat Swan

Missed part 1? Start here.

Anita Kassof (AK): Mitzi, tell us about what happened on the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park in 1938.

Mitzi Freishtat Swan (MFS): You could say that it was a protest, and it also was a demonstration because it was well advertised. We put up flyers, we sent notices to the Sun papers, to the police department, to the city officials that we were going to do this. It wasn’t like there was a complete surprise. They knew that we were going to be there.

This was right after World War II. It was 1948, the war ended in 1945. And the tennis courts in Druid Hill were segregated; there were black tennis courts and there were white tennis courts. The black tennis courts were in very poor shape. They were rutted, there were only a couple of them, and they were in very poor condition. Some white friends of mine had some black friends that they used to play tennis with. And they used to meet them on the black tennis courts, but then they decided, well, why not come on the white courts? And they were summarily told to get out by the Park police. There was never any law against interracial tennis; it was just a City policy. And if you disobeyed the policy you were told to get out or you were arrested. So we decided that we were going to stage this protest.

AK: When you say “we” do you mean the Young Progressives?

MFS: Yes, we were part of the Young Progressives, the third party that was under the sponsorship of the Progressive Party of Maryland. This was before the elections of 1948 and as members of the Young Progressives we were very active in promoting Henry Wallace as the third-party candidate. And we believed that things should be integrated. People came home from World War II – having fought for democracy and liberty and all these kind of things – and they came home to a city that was just as segregated as when they left it, and the parks and all the park facilities were segregated. Blacks couldn’t even go to the picnic groves. So it was a pervasive policy that was taking place in the parks, and we thought that was wrong. And we wanted to make a statement to that effect. So, we talked it over, and we decided that a protest would be a good thing to do.

Barry Kessler (BK): When did you start getting involved with the Young Progressives and what brought you into the group?

MFS: Many different things. My parents were part of the Progressive Party, so I saw a lot of the literature that came from them. And there were also some things that were taking place in Washington. As a high school student, with a big group, I heard Paul Robeson in Washington. That was just a marvelous atmosphere. I got involved with the Young Progressives because of the things that I heard, because of the things that I read. That’s why I got involved. I was actually doing it more than my parents were.

AKL Tell us about what you did on the day of the protest.

MFS: On the day it took place, I went with another member to the park and we got permits. You had to have a permit to be able to play on the courts. So we got two permits, one for the women to play on and the other for the men to play on. And we were there at 8 o’clock in the morning to make sure we got those permits, and then we had to wait until 2:00. But meanwhile the Park police knew that we were going to be there and the City police knew we were going to be there. And let me tell you something, they had those police cars waiting for us. I later wrote a story about it in one of my writing classes. I might have exaggerated a little bit but I said, “And there they were, on the crest of the hill, hands on their hips and handy billies in their hands.” And they were. They had that club just waiting to crack a couple of heads.

Mitzi Freishtat in 1947. Courtesy of Mitzi Freishtat Swan.

Mitzi Freishtat in 1947. Courtesy of Mitzi Freishtat Swan.

AK: How did you feel before the protest?

MFS: I was worried. I was scared. To be honest, I was scared to death. I didn’t know what was going to happen. And when we went to get the permits, I was really nervous. And then the whole day, waiting. Once you got on the tennis courts it was all right. We just fell in. We had two whites and two blacks on each court, playing doubles. But it was that waiting around, not knowing what’s going to happen or anything like that. Once you saw all these people there who were supporting you, though, that gives you an added impetus to do it.

When it was time to play, the men started up first and as soon as they went to hit a ball the police – six, seven – came on the courts and told them to leave. And they refused. And the police said, “If you don’t leave we’re going to arrest you.” Well, some of the guys sat down and they had to be carried off. Then when they came to the women’s courts, we started playing and the same thing happened. “Course we didn’t sit down. We walked off. They were putting everyone in the wagons – black mariahs they used to call them- except three of us who were the youngest, females, were taken in a police car. I’d just turned 18.

We were taken down to the Northern Police Station. And three of the women were put in the judge’s chambers and the rest of them were put behind bars. And they were whoopin’ it up and they were singing songs. They were having a good time down there. And then of course bail was posted. It was the next day that we had the hearing before the magistrate of the court. And, oh, it was ridiculous. Some of the police said they were hearing all kinds of songs they didn’t recognized, but people were actually singing My Country ‘Tis of Thee. They were singing patriotic songs! And they were singing the Negro national anthem. But the police said they had no idea what it was.

AK: How did you determine who would play in the match? Were all of the black players members of the Young Progressives?

MFS: Some of them were members of the Young Progressives. But most of them came from the Baltimore Tennis Club. And that was an all-black tennis club. It’s still in existence today. And a lot of those players were much better than we were. Jeannette Fino and I were tennis players, so we automatically said we would play. A lot of us were tennis players. I lived right across the street from the park and I played tennis and my brother subsequently became a champion tennis player, all from playing in City parks. And this other Gloria, she was a tennis player. The only one who wasn’t really a tennis player was Mary Coffee.

AK: Would you describe the crowd and what was going on with the spectators?

MFS:  We brought a big crowd of people, and I mean we had a big crowd. It was like a picnic atmosphere. It was very, very upbeat. Everybody had their blankets out and their picnic baskets and all that kind of stuff. And it was a really nice, a really happy thing. Until the arrests started, and then the whole crowd came up to their feet, and they were hollering. They were saying, “This is Nazi Germany! Why can’t they play? They’re American citizens!” Well, some of the people got a little boisterous and they got arrested for disorderly conduct. But there was absolutely no violence whatsoever.

My family was there, except my father was still working. He came later. But when I was being arrested, my brother was chasing the police car. He was crying, which he didn’t usually do. I mean, he must have been wondering, what’s she being arrested for?

AK: But all the players, black and white, were arrested?

MFS: Yes, all the players were arrested. And also some people were arrested who were mingling outside the Northern Police Station. Because everybody was out there waiting to see what was going to happen and some of those were arrested. There were 22 people altogether who were arrested.

AK: I understand you met your future husband that day. What brought him to the protest?

MFS: He was a seaman. A whole bunch of them came. The flyers came to their union hall. They were also part of the Progressive Party too. They had a very liberal wing in their union. And so a whole bunch of them came up to be there. We both got arrested the same day. He was one of the ones who was arrested for disorderly conduct. He was not a tennis player. He was one of the seamen who came there. There was a whole group that came over. And so I didn’t see him that day, but I met him in court. Oh, we had a big party that night. That’s when I got to meet him. That was in 1948. And I graduate college in ’51 and I got married in ’52. So I didn’t see him all the time during that time. As a matter of fact I didn’t particularly like him when I met him. I mean, I liked him but there were no sparks or anything like that. That wasn’t until later, when I started to get to know him. He was very romantic.

Continue to Part III: An Interview with Mitzi Freishtat Swan Continued

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