A Short Trip to Denmark

Posted on April 28th, 2017 by

Biking around Copenhagen

Biking around Copenhagen

I recently took a short vacation to Denmark where I spent time in Copenhagen, Northern Zealand and Aarhus. In between visiting castles, going on a canal boat tour, biking around the city and sampling lots of tasty dishes, I explored the country’s Jewish heritage. As I am writing this on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I thought I would also touch on some of the county’s WW2 history.

Inside the Danish Jewish Museum

Inside the Danish Jewish Museum

In Copenhagen, I stopped at the Danish Jewish Museum. The architecture by Daniel Libeskind (who also did the Jewish Museum in Berlin), was among the most striking parts of the museum. The space was a kind of labyrinth and the floors, walls and ceiling were slanted. I learned that Jews have lived in Denmark for 400 years. Denmark was the first Scandinavian country where Jews were permitted to settle. Jews were first invited by King Christian IV in the 1620s and they worked as merchants or as financiers and jewelers to the royal family. Similar to Maryland, Danish Jews only received full citizenship rights in 1849. In 1943, when the Danish Jews were about to be deported, the Danish Resistance Movement was instrumental in helping to evacuate nearly 8,000 Jews and their families from Denmark by sea in fishing boats to nearby neutral Sweden. While 500 Jews were taken to Thersienstadt concentration camp, Danish authorities often interceded upon their behalf and ordinary Danes protected the property of their Jewish neighbors while they were gone.

Danish fisherman ferry Jews to safety in Sweeden 1943 . Via USHMM.

Danish fisherman ferry Jews to safety in Sweeden 1943 . Via USHMM.

Since the war, the population has rebounded. Despite recent episodes of anti-Semitism, the Jewish population of Denmark remains at approximately 6,400.Later in my trip, I took the train up the coast to visit the Louisanna Art Museum  and Kronsborg Castle.  These were near several of the towns where Jews were smuggled on fishing boats across to nearby Sweden in 1943. I visited around the time of Passover so when I looked out over the water towards Sweden, it made me realize that the Danish Jews also had an exodus to escape a different kind of oppressor as they ferried across the Oresund strait towards freedom. Back in Copenhagen, I explored the historic center where I walked past the Great Synagogue, dating from 1833, which is the main synagogue of the Jewish community in Copenhagen. It is built in the semi-oriental classical style with mixtures of Greek, Roman and Egyptian elements.

The Occupation Museum

The Occupation Museum

The next day, I took the train to Aarhus where I toured the Occupation Museum which is dedicated to the history of the town during the occupation by the Germans in World War 2. The building served as the headquarters for the Gestapo headquarters during the war and as a place of interrogation and torture. I was interested in learning about the resistance to the Nazis in Aarhus, like a radio used to secretly communicate with England.

Throughout my trip, I thought back to our Remembering Auschwitz: History, Holocaust and Humanity exhibit. While many perished in the Holocaust, it was refreshing to hear some of the stories of ordinary Danes who stood up to the Nazis and as a country ended up saving the majority of Danish Jews from Nazi persecution.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

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Great Lessons from Humble Places

Posted on March 24th, 2017 by

Have you noticed our obsession with top ten lists?  Our tendency to pay attention to something when it’s the first, or the newest, or the largest?

Museums have a long pedigree in displaying the rare and exceptional, but there is an inherent distortion of history in an exclusive focus on the “most important.”  In the 21st century, in an era of shared authority between visitor and curator, we need to re-learn the art of elevating the ordinary – of making the lives of everyday folks as compelling as the extraordinary.

On the recent trip to the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in Massachusetts, I found two institutions doing just that.  Neither would describe itself as a “museum” per se, but both are worthy of a visit.

Entering Vilna Shul

Entering Vilna Shul

The first was the Vilna Shul in Boston.  Built in 1919, the Vilna Shul (or as its original sign says in a Boston accent – the “Vilner Congregation”) is not the oldest, nor the largest, nor the most beautiful religious space by any stretch of the imagination.  It is rather the last remaining synagogue of the great wave of Eastern European migration to Boston’s West End (out of twenty or more than once were there).  Like our own Lloyd Street Synagogue the Vilna Shul was rescued from a city plan to tear it down and put in a parking lot.

Vilna's stained glass window

Vilna’s stained glass window

The architecture is a pastiche – a little Georgian, a little Romanesque, a little Eastern European folk.  It’s most notable feature is its huge stained glass Star of David, unambiguously facing the street.  The interior has some elements in common with LSS, including chandeliers purchased from a neighboring church.  But also some things I would never associate with a synagogue of this period – huge skylights, and in lieu of a balcony, a women’s section set up like a raked theater.  The Shul has literally pealed back the layers of paint to reveal its historic stenciling.

Skylight

Skylight

There is no golden age of the Vilna Shul.  As our guide pointed out, even by the time this was built, the Jewish community had begun to move elsewhere.  Yet this humble congregation offers a glimpse into Jewish immigrant life that is every bit as important and interesting as the most magnificent temple designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Yiddish Book Center

The Yiddish Book Center

The second non-museum on my “must visit” list is the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Walking up to the building, the architecture already builds expectations – after all, how many American buildings are designed to resemble a shtetl?  The Yiddish Book Center takes “humble” to a whole new level… it’s logo is a goat, the same goat that we celebrate in Had Gadya each Passover, the gentle goat of the Yiddish lullaby Oyfn Pripetchik.  The exhibits do not exist in great galleries but rather mostly meander through the stacks of thousands of books.

Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.

Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.

 

The exhibits and tours don’t try to claim that Yiddish is the most influential language – noting that only 39,000 books were printed in Yiddish in the century in which Yiddish books were being printed.  Instead the focus is on the history embedded in the language.  A Yiddish linotype machine and cases of type are used to illustrate the intersection of technology and language.  A giant story book encasing a video screen connects themes in Yiddish literature to contemporary movies and plays.

Check out that address

Check out that address

Perhaps most intriguing they have a crate on display.  There is nothing terribly special about the crate except the shipped-from address.  The shipped-from address is Zimbabwe and suddenly the crate becomes a vehicle for telling the incredible story of books that escaped with their owner from Lithuania to Shanghai before the Holocaust and from Shanghai to Zimbabwe after WWII and from Zimbabwe to Amherst, MA in the 1990s (with duplicates returned to the Jewish community in Lithuania).  An otherwise ordinary crate turns into a ride through modern Jewish history.

What a fun "madlibs" style interactive!

What a fun “madlibs” style interactive!

It’s definitely worth the extra mile if you find yourself in New England.  If it provides an incentive, know that it is on my “top ten” list of Jewish sites to visit, and I say that in all humility.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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Exploring Jewish South Africa

Posted on February 10th, 2016 by

A few weeks ago, I got back from a vacation in South Africa, where among other things, I got to explore its Jewish culture and history. I learned that the first Jews came to region in the 15th century with the Portuguese navigators Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama. On board, were Jewish cartographers and astronomers assisting in the search for a sea route to India. More Jews started arriving with the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, but immigration really picked up with the British colonization in the 1820s. Many Jews moved to South Africa after the Holocaust and now the South African Jewish community is often described as one of the most cohesive and well-organized communities in the Diaspora.

Synagogue interior

The Great Synagogue interior

I visited the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, founded by Nelson Mandela in 2000, which reminded me in many ways of the Jewish Museum of MD. Like us, they have two historic synagogues on their campus including St. John’s Street Synagogue (also known as the Old Synagogue, the first one built in South Africa, dating from 1863) and the Great Synagogue, (the oldest Jewish congregation in South Africa, dating to 1841). While St. John’s Street synagogue occupies a classical revival building (reminding me in many ways of Lloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore), the Great Synagogue has a Baroque style edifice. There was also a Holocaust center in the Museum complex.

The Old Synagogue interior

The Old Synagogue interior

While in the exhibits, I discovered that many of the early Jews made their living as itinerant peddlers or as shop owners. In the late 1870s, some moved to the Oudtshoorn area to domesticate ostriches for their feathers to be used in hats. There was a section in the exhibit on how South African Jews were politically and socially active in the fight against apartheid. On the lower floor of the Museum, I found a reconstruction of a shetl from a village in Lithuania, the country from which most South African Jews trace their origins.

District Six Museum

District Six Museum

After my visit to the Jewish Museum, I walked over to the District Six Museum, which is a living memorial to the vibrant community that was forcibly removed to the city’s periphery during apartheid. The Museum wants visitors to “remember the racism which took away our homes and our livelihood and which sought to steal away our humanity.” Yet, it also aims to encourage others to rebuild the city where all races can live together peacefully. I learned that there was a Jewish connection as many Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in District Six when they began arriving in the 1880s. On the floor of the gallery is a memory quilt where former residents have handwritten the names of businesses and community organizations that were once in their neighborhood.

Me at the ostrich farm

Me at the ostrich farm

While keeping in mind what I learned at the South African Jewish Museum, I later visited an ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn and drove by mansions owned by Jewish feather merchants. I concluded my trip with a ferry to Robben Island where I saw where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island

Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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