A Personal Reflection

A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here.

Tomorrow night is the member’s preview for Passages through the Fire:  Jews and the Civil War.  It is one of those times when exhaustion meets elation.  I wanted to take a moment to make an observation on how this exhibit has changed my perspective on this period of history and to thank a few of the people who made it possible.

Looking through my old e-mails I recently realized that I had been working nearly continuously on Civil War themed exhibits (first at the National Archives and now at JMM) for about five years.  I have to point out that this is longer than the war itself!

This has been an unexpected journey.  I don’t consider myself a Civil War aficianado.  I was never a reenactor.   Growing up in Chicago ,I wasn’t exactly surrounded by Civil War sites.  My first historical passions were cowboys and tales of the wild west (when the occasion is right, I might share a copy of the photo of me in my pajamas and my Davy Crockett “coonskin” cap).

Now I’m not saying I had no connection with Civil War history. I did own a copy of the 1961 How and Why Book of the Civil War.  Though I think that the book was a lot stronger on the “how” than on the “why”…not atypical of its time.  In that same year the National Archives produced a centennial exhibit that never mentioned the word “slavery.”

How and Why, 1961.
How and Why, 1961.

As a kid I also enjoyed climbing up to the dome of the Chicago Public Library to visit Grand Army of the Republic Hall – my favorite artifact was the century-old hard tack.

But I had no real passion for the topic.  When I finally did get to tour the battlefields, it seemed that every visitor center’s exhibit boiled down to two uniforms, three rifles and interminable details about troop movements.

I certainly felt no personal connection.  When people would speak of ancestors as Union or Confederate, my response was that mine were all “anti-Czar” at that time.  The Civil War, and all its horrors, were someone else’s struggle.

While working on my National Archives project, Discovering the Civil War, substantially raised my interest in the topic it really didn’t change my level of personal detachment.

The last six months have been different.  Looking at the war through a Jewish lens has really helped clarify the connection that all of us have to these events – even the folks who arrived 40 or 50 years later.  The “battles” of the Civil War weren’t just at Gettysburg, Antietam and Manassas but also on Baltimore Street.  This was a fight for hearts and minds as much as for territory.  Embedded into the conflicts of the early 1860s were struggles over acceptance and assimilation which profoundly shaped the American Jewish experience.  The Civil War is  part of my history because the social justice oriented, pluralistic Jewish community that I live in was built out of the events of those years.

As for my ancestors being far away in Poland and Lithuania… consider the following thought:  I recently looked up the front page of the New-York Daily Tribune for October 12, 1863 – 150 years to the day before our exhibit opening.  As it happens the headline article for that day was about the arrival of the Russian warship Alexander Nevsky at the port of Baltimore.  The article contained a resolution from the mayor and city council conveying “the high respect of the authorities and citizens of Baltimore for the sovereign and people of Russia” and thanking the Russians for abstaining from any effort to give aid to the “Rebels of the South”.  Over on the left column of the same day’s paper is a much smaller notice reading “the chief rabbi of Warsaw had been arrested”, followed by the curious comment “Continental news is unimportant”.  With a little more research I learned that Dov Ber Meisels, the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw had become involved in a Polish uprising in 1863.   Russian authorities imprisoned the rabbi as part of their effort to put down the rebellion.  Britain and several other Western nations were outraged by Russia’s suppression of the Poles and threatened to “de-recognize” Russia’s acquisition of the territory.  America, by contrast, was silent – after all, Russia’s neutrality in our Civil War was an important diplomatic objective.  Perhaps my ancestral shtetl was not as far from Gettysburg as I originally thought.

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