The Erasure of Gaza

I have been writing for five months about the siege and assault on Gaza, but most of that writing feels too immediate to post here. I’m making an exception for this piece, which has deeper personal resonance and relates to earlier posts:

The Washington Post today has personal reminiscences from 14 Gazan refugees about places that have been destroyed in the last five months: the region’s only university; the oldest Christian church; a mosque; the zoo; a cultural center; an orphanage; a park—the trees bulldozed—and smaller places: a bakery, a pizzeria…

I think about my mother’s family being forced to flee Vienna in 1938, and her enduring love for the places where she grew up… and the fact that decades later, when my sister and I were old enough, she could take us back there, and show us those places.

The Israeli destruction of Gaza goes way beyond the immediate human cost — the 30,000 people killed, the two million homeless and starving under constant assault and bombardment. It is a concerted, intentional effort to wipe out memories, to destroy not only the past but the future; to convince Palestinians who have yet again been driven from their homes that this time there will be no homes to which they might hope to return.

There is nothing “defensive” about the razing of every significant structure in northern Gaza. Some of the buildings were destroyed while people were sheltering in them; some were destroyed when they were empty. Some are being destroyed after serving as temporary bases for Israeli soldiers, who eat the food left in the kitchens, take family possessions as souvenirs, then set the rest on fire when they leave. (That is not a slander; it is from videos the soldiers themselves are posting, proudly.)

The Post story refers to this as “urbicide,” the destruction of a city, but it is more than that, and does not require an academic term. It is an attempt to destroy memory; to destroy culture; to destroy hope.

None of this is accidental; the Israeli government has repeated for decades that Palestinians do not exist, that they are simply “Arabs,” with no particular connection to the homes or land from which they are expelled. When people were driven from their homes in Haifa, they took their door keys with them, and those keys remain a symbol–the image is everywhere in the occupied territories and refugee camps–for their hope of someday returning.

What is happening in Gaza is an attempt at complete erasure. Some of the two million people may survive; some may even remain within borders policed by Israel; but the Israeli state is trying to ensure there will be no place to which they can return — that the only “return” is of the Jews to their ancient homeland, in which some “Arabs” can remain as guest workers, but without a history.

A founding myth of Israel is that the Jews were a people without land who came to a land without people. That was always a lie, always an invention to mask an ongoing policy of appropriation, expulsion, denial, and erasure. In Gaza, as we watch, that policy is being carried to its logical conclusion: utter destruction, wiping out not only the people but the evidence of their prior existence.

The Washington Post piece has the power of personal connection: ordinary people recalling places that they loved, that made their homes a home. The introductory paragraph refers to the common description of Gaza in the past two decades as an “open air prison,” and counters with an insistence that, true as that was in some respects, it was also a place where people lived and loved.

Vienna was not a paradise for Jews; it had a deep history of antisemitism, and my mother had direct memories of the Nazis marching, the books being burnt, the Jews being forced to scrub the streets; but when she took us back there, it was to share the Prater, the Riesenrad, the Stephansplatz, the Brueghels in the national museum, the restaurants where you could order a schnitzel and hear the cook hammering in the kitchen.

That is an authentic Jewish past: not the poisonous Wagnerian myth of a past when our ancestors were warrior kings—the real past of personal connections and memories. It is a past that Zionist propagandists have often sought to destroy, to replace with a myth that we were never happy, could never truly belong anywhere but Israel. What is happening now in Gaza is inseparable from that effort; it requires erasing my true past in favor of a myth, and erasing the past of the people who were living in Palestine before my relatives settled there in the twentieth century.

A Jewish Perspective on the Bombing of Gaza

I normally write as a white American, but in the weeks following October 7 I have been writing specifically as a Jew, because I cannot help reacting as a Jew to what is happening in Israel/Palestine. I have friends and relatives there, and that affects my reaction; I also see and hear people all around me talking about what has happened and could happen to “the Jews,” meaning people like me, not only in Israel, but elsewhere.

My mother grew up in Vienna. She was 14 years old when the German army marched in and was greeted with parades. She spent the next weeks running errands for her parents because it was dangerous for them to be out in the streets. They were not only Jewish, but longtime leftists, and they realized immediately that they would have to leave. It was easier in those first months, and they got out and got to the United States. My grandfather helped other relatives to get out. He tried to help his favorite brother and my mother’s favorite cousin, but for various reasons they did not want to leave until it was too late. They were shipped east in the cattle cars, and murdered.

My mother lived with that experience until she died in her nineties. She always thought of herself as a refugee. She found safety in the United States, but never felt at home there. She also found that in the United States she was treated as a white person, and other white people talked to her about Black people the way the German Austrians talked about the Jews. Even many Jewish Americans talked about Black people the way German Austrians talked about Jews.

She had experienced the Nazis first-hand, and she saw that many white Americans were acting like Nazis. So she did not raise me and my sister to be afraid of Nazis, or to ask who would hide us from the Nazis — she raised us not to be Nazis. She taught us to despise militarism and racism, and to stand up for people who were excluded or oppressed, for immigrants, for refugees, for people treated as “different.” To her, those people were the Jews, the people like her, whoever they might be.

No moral compass is perfect. Sometimes it is hard to figure out who the “good guys” are. Sometimes there are no good guys. But there always is the option of choosing not to be the Nazis – of saying that no matter how far one is pushed, how desperate or angry one may feel, or how frightened, there are things one will not do.

Our mother taught us that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unforgivable atrocities, like the Holocaust – that we must do whatever we could to prevent anything like that happening again. When I read “Slaughterhouse Five” and asked her about the firebombing of Dresden, she said it was the same—an atrocity, targeting a civilian population. The fact that they were Germans, many of them presumably Nazis, didn’t excuse the choice to wipe them out, men, women, and children. Blindly murdering tens or hundreds of thousands of people because of who or where they were was behaving like the Nazis.

My mother was not particularly unusual. Many refugees and survivors from the Nazi Holocaust had similar reactions. It became almost a cliché of Israeli writing about the formation of the Jewish state and the expulsion of Palestinians: the moment when a Jewish soldier looked around him and realized he was now behaving like the Nazis and the Palestinians were the Jews. Some writers took that meditation to its (to me) logical conclusion, and turned against the Zionist state project—some left; some continued to live in Israel/Palestine, but worked to shape a multiethnic, multireligious future, whether in one or two states. Other writers took a (to me) more dubious lesson, concluding that they were doing something dreadful but had no choice: the frequent analogy was that the Jews jumped out of a burning building and unfortunately landed on someone else’s head; they hurt a bystander and were sorry for that, but the essential fact was that they had to jump.

I continue to hear many people echoing that claim: that the Israelis are doing something terrible, but have no choice. But, more and more, I’m hearing a different claim: that the Palestinians—or more specifically Hamas—are the Nazis. I don’t have to celebrate or excuse Hamas to reject that analogy. If the Nazis had been a bunch of desperate fanatics carrying out occasional horrific attacks on civilians, they would barely be remembered, because there have been hundreds of groups like that, all over the world. What distinguished the Nazis was not that they hated Jews – it is a commonplace of Jewish history that we have always had enemies – but that they harnessed the power of a modern nation-state and modern technology to kill not hundreds or thousands, but millions.

I am not going to jump from one Nazi analogy to another. The fact that many people, in many wars, have had moments when they realized they were behaving like Nazis does not mean what they did was comparable. The Nazis committed a methodical genocide that had never been attempted on that scale and has never been equaled—they were by no means the only nation to commit or attempt genocide, but managed it with a cool efficiency that was unique, and in that sense uniquely horrific.

But, as my mother’s son, I do think about that history and turn to it for guidance. My mother opposed the death penalty, unconditionally: she did not believe the state should ever kill people, calmly and efficiently, no matter what they had done—much less kill their entire families, their children. She had a particular horror of “civilized” states killing with modern efficiency: if a nation was dropping bombs on people who had no airplanes, she always imagined herself under the bombs, not in the airplanes. She could imagine herself in Dresden or Hiroshima; she could have imagined herself in a kibbutz on October 7, hiding in a safe room, but would have found it far easier to imagine herself in Gaza, under the bombs. I find it far easier to imagine myself in Gaza, under the bombs. It is a much more common fate, in our modern world; few of the people who die in modern wars see the people who are killing them, nor do the killers see them.

A few years ago, I went to Poland, to Przemysl, to see where my grandmother came from, and also my father’s father. Some Jewish friends were puzzled that I would feel that desire, or feel any closeness to that place. They said, “the Poles were even worse than the Germans.” That comment seemed bizarre to me, so they sent me stories—pornographically violent stories, about peasants disemboweling Jewish women with scythes, or herding Jews into a synagogue with clubs and setting it on fire. Those stories were horrible, but the implication was worse: that peasants who were used to slaughtering animals with butcher knives and slaughtered Jews the same way were worse than civilized Germans who bought their meat in stores and sent Jews off to be efficiently gassed by the millions. To me, that is what defines being “like the Nazis”— methodical, state-sanctioned killing, using the latest technology and wiping out entire families without even having to see the people you are killing.

That is not about one state or another. It is about having the power to kill with efficiency, with clean hands, and is the way the vast majority of people have been killed in most of the wars in my lifetime. And yes, I think it is even more horrible than the old-fashioned kind of killing, because it is easier to pretend that you are not doing it, or would rather not be doing it—and when you can pretend you are not doing it, you can do much more of it, and turn off the images, or dismiss them as propaganda, or lament the deaths, but as numbers, not as people. I see the pictures of the Israelis killed on October 7, with their names and their biographies. The pictures from Gaza are of entire neighborhoods destroyed, masses of wounded and dead people—I hear numbers rather than names: five thousand killed, ten thousand killed. It is the language of statistics, the language of the slaughterhouse, of how many hamburgers McDonalds has sold. Most of us feel a more visceral horror at the death of one person we know by name and face than the deaths of an abstract thousand or ten thousand people. But I also find it easier to imagine myself under the bombs than in the airplanes. And all I want is for the bombing to stop.

That is not the answer to any longterm problems, or to trauma and enmities that go back decades and generations. But it is the first, vital, immediate answer to what must be done now, today. Stop the Killing. Then, do whatever it takes to reduce the hatred, the trauma; do the long, hard work of building, which is always harder and more time-consuming than destroying. But first, stop. Stop the bombing. Get food, water, fuel, and medical supplies to the people who are trapped and dying. That is not an answer to all the deep and painful history, or the infinite questions of what to do next — but it is the only answer that matters right now.

Some Messy Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “cultural appropriation.” The point tends to be that it is appropriate for some people to wear certain costumes or perform certain kinds of music because that is part of their culture, but it is appropriation for other people to wear those costumes or perform that music, because it is not part of their culture.

Having spent much of my life as a white guy playing and writing about blues, this conversation is very familiar to me, and I recently have been thinking, reading, and talking with people about it more than ever.  So I was interested when a news story broke about Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, darkening his skin and donning a robe and turban to go to a costume party as Aladdin, and that sparked the following meditation.

A lot of people have referred to Trudeau’s makeup as blackface, and my first reaction was to say, “No, it’s not.” Because blackface is not just white people darkening their skin; it is a quite specific kind of makeup.

Both of these performers are in blackface. On the left is Bert Williams, an African American singer and comedian born in the Bahamas and raised in California, who was one of the most brilliant and influential Black performers of the early twentieth century. On the right is Al Jolson, a Jewish singer born in Lithuania and raised in New York.

In modern US racial terms Williams was Black and Jolson was white, but it would be ridiculous to argue that the make-up was not racist when Williams wore it. The tradition of blackface makeup is racist, whatever the ancestry of the person wearing it, and the fact that for many decades Black comedians had to use that make-up to have successful careers is at least as ugly as the fact that white comedians used it. Indeed, most Black comedians stopped wearing it by the 1940s — when many white comedians were still wearing it — because they were particularly aware of what it represented.

But this stuff can get complicated…

Sammy Davis Jr. recalled in his autobiography that when he was three years old and started working in vaudeville with his father and uncle, his uncle helped him put on blackface makeup, then told him: “Now you look like Al Jolson.”

Jolson had just hit internationally in The Jazz Singer, the first successful movie with sound, and for a while he was the most popular stage performer in the United States. So in that context you could say Davis wasn’t made up to look like a Black person, or even as the racist stereotype of a Black person — you could say he was made up to look like a Jewish movie star. As he tells the story, he seems to have thought it was fun to look like a Jewish movie star, and throughout his later career he continued to feature impressions of white singers and movie stars in his act.

This is the only picture I’ve found of Davis in that makeup, and I’m not even sure he’s wearing black make-up — he describes his uncle applying burnt cork to his face, but in this photo the most obvious makeup is the white greasepaint around his mouth. So, in a weird way, you could argue he’s actually wearing whiteface…

…though, obviously, in a larger sense it’s still blackface.

My point is not that a Black kid wearing white makeup to look like a white performer in blackface makes the makeup less racist or offensive. My point is is that a Black kid performing in that makeup, in that context, was unquestionably racist, and also weird and complicated.

Getting back to the Trudeau/ Aladdin story: when I read what everyone had written about it I found that most writers do not describe his make-up as blackface—

They describe it as brownface, a recent term for white actors making themselves up as Arabs, Latinos, and other people whose ancestry is neither African nor European.

For example, there were protests against the new live-action Disney production of Aladdin for using brownface, because some of the actors and extras are Europeans made up to look like Arabs.

An odd twist to those protests is that a lot of people argued that the production should have hired Pakistani, Indian, or Bangladeshi actors — which is odd because the original Aladdin character was from somewhere in the region of present-day Iraq or Syria. The historical source of his story seems to have been a Syrian Maronite Christian and, in terms of ancestry and phenotype, Syrians and Iraqis are closer to Greeks or southern Italians than they are to Indians or Pakistanis.

That does not necessarily mean the protesters were wrong, because whatever we are talking about when we discuss race, it is not simply a matter of ancestry or phenotype.

I recently heard Imani Perry give a talk at the Philadelphia library, and she made the point that whiteness in the sense we use that term in the United States or Europe is not a color: it is the absence of color. It is not a particular ethnicity: it is the absence of ethnicity.*

If that is what we mean by “white” — that it is what people in Europe and the United States call those of us who are not marked as “ethnic” — by this Eurocentric standard it makes perfect sense to argue that Iraqis, Syrians, Indians, and Pakistanis are in a single category, all regarded as brown ethnics, while Greeks and Italians are white.

There is no better way to illustrate that point than by showing a picture of Trudeau at the notorious costume party:

Because the two men with him look like they could well be Syrian or Iraqi, and whatever the point of his make-up, it clearly does not make him look like them.

This raises an obvious question: of course it was bizarrely racialist for Trudeau to wear dark brown make-up to look like a character who, in real life, probably had roughly the same skin color as Trudeau. It is a weirdly extreme way of exaggerating and marking the character as non-white…

…but would it have been ok for Trudeau to go to a party in that robe and turban if he had not worn any make-up?

Or would it have been like Katy Perry’s geisha costume?

Perry was widely criticized for performing in this costume, and many people described it as yellowface, another recent coinage applied to white performers who masquerade as Asian.

The logic of this criticism is obvious, but the odd thing in this instance is that, in terms of its actual color, Perry’s make-up made her skin whiter than normal, because Japanese geishas traditionally whiten their faces with rice powder. If we agree that Perry is white, in color-swatch terms it would seem ridiculous to protest against her wearing white make-up…

…but, as we all know, this is not about color in the color-swatch sense.

Which said, the subject of white make-up takes me down another odd historical rabbit hole:

Many of you will recognize this singer from the movie Casablanca

His given name was Arthur Wilson, but he was known as Dooley Wilson. He got that nickname when he was working in African American vaudeville as an Irish imitator, featuring a popular Irish dialect song, “Mr. Dooley.” For that act he wore what some modern writers call “whiteface” makeup, which makes sense because it made him look like an ethnic European…

…but scholars of ethnic vaudeville often refer to the comic Irish acts of this period as greenface, because those performers weren’t imitating ordinary white people — they were specifically imitating Irish immigrants, who were racially defined and comically stereotyped ethnics. In fact, a lot of blackface minstrel comedy was adopted from “Paddy” acts, which remained popular in Britain and the United States through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The two stereotypes occasionally overlapped, as in this comic song from 1898:

Gussie Davis, who composed the melody, was a well-known African American songwriter, and I have no information about Dan Packard’s ethnicity, but he wrote several popular “coon songs,” as blackface songs were labeled in the ragtime era.

A lot has been written about the racism of the blackface tradition, but virtually nothing about African American entertainers who performed other ethnicities. That is an omission worth correcting, since although Wilson’s choice to perform his Irish character in white make-up seems to have been relatively rare,  “ethnic delineators” were almost as popular in Black vaudeville as in white vaudeville.

An ad from 1900 in the Indianapolis Freeman — one of the main African American newspapers — touted Louis Vasnier, a singing and dialect comedian who presented “Natural face expressions in five different dialects, no make up – Negro, Dutch, Dago, Irish and French.” It described him as “the only colored comedian who can do this,” but he soon had plenty of competitors. John Moore, for example, whose range included “Italian, Hebrew, Indian, Chink, Turk, villain (high and low class), straight man and blackface.”

There are very few surviving images of these artists, but here is a photo of the popular duo of Fiddler and Shelton, who were popular for what we would now call a yellowface act, and a cartoon with a portion of their routine:

As with Vasnier, they were by no means unique. A review of Pinkey & Walker said: “As delineators of oriental characters they go to the head of the class. ‘Chinee’ Walker has already won his laurels as a ‘chink’ impersonator… His ‘Dago’ is equally as strong.” Chinese acts seem to have been particularly popular in Black vaudeville: I’ve found mentions of ten men who did them, including the jazz clarinet virtuoso Sidney Bechet, as well as couple of women.

Most comedians in Black vaudeville were men, and relatively few women seem to have specialized in ethnic material, but Lena Henderson was commended for her “splendid interpretation of Irish character singing,” the reviewer noting she “looks Irish all right, and dressed in green,” and Margie Crosby performed songs in Yiddish and was billed as “the girl with the Jewish face.”

H. Qualli Clark, an associate of W.C. Handy who composed the jazz standard “Shake it and Break It,” was likewise known for “Hebrew” imitations, one reviewer writing: “At times it was hard to believe he was a colored man, so perfect was his accent and so realistically faithful were his portrayals of a real Jew.” Among his competitors, Leroy Gresham was so successful that he was known for the rest of his career as “Kike” Gresham, though he also did blackface, Italian, and female impersonations.

A lot has been written about Irish and Jewish performers who worked in blackface, and a fair amount about those who did Irish or Hebrew acts, but I’ve never seen even a substantial paragraph about Black ethnic imitators. One reason is that there has been relatively little research on African American vaudeville in general, and another is that the study of Black performers has tended to ignore or gloss over people whose work does not fit within categories marked as Black culture. There is a great deal of writing on Black artists who performed ragtime, blues, and jazz, but the deep history of African American classical music has had far less study, and likewise the many Black singers and musicians who performed in other styles that were not marked as Black, such as mainstream pop, hillbilly, Hawaiian, Italian, and so forth.

Another reason is the extent to which blackface minstrel shows have overshadowed all the other kinds of ethnic comedy. Along with professional minstrel troupes and solo stars like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, thousands of amateurs blacked up with burnt cork and did songs and comedy in exaggerated “darky” dialect. In comparison, the number of artists who explicitly imitated other ethnic groups was smaller, and the number of African American artists who did that was smaller still — besides which many (perhaps most) of them seem to have worked in blackface even when they were playing Europeans. Dooley Wilson was not the only one to use white make-up — a review of a Chinese impersonator named George Catlin actually criticized him for making up “too white” — but early mention of Qualli Clark’s act refers to his “blackface Jewish and Italian dialect character singing,” and Hen Wise was likewise noted for his appearance as a “blackface Hebrew…”

…which makes exactly as much sense as Justin Trudeau appearing as a blackface Syrian or Iraqi.

The fact that so many Black performers did ethnic acts does not make those acts less offensive. The portrayals of Irish, Jews, Chinese, and Italians as comical foreigners  went along with discrimination in housing and employment, and by the 1920s ethnic stereotyping led to tight quotas on immigration from eastern and southern Europe, while by the 1880s Asians had been excluded both from entry and US citizenship.

It is common for people who have few victories to savor those few, and for people with little power to exercise that power on those with still less. In the battle to be recognized as full citizens, it was natural for African Americans to join in mocking immigrant outsiders, just as it was natural to join with immigrants when their interests intersected. By the same token, it was natural for immigrants striving to become fully American to assimilate American racial prejudices.

Periods of high immigration and intense anti-immigrant agitation come and go, but the bedrock of anti-Black racism remains. The Black ethnic delineators  are an interesting byway of US culture, but their history does not in any way mitigate the enduring racism of blackface minstrelsy. On the contrary, the fact that you could perform pretty much any kind of ethnic caricature in blackface underlines the extent to which racism directed at African Americans has served as a more general paradigm.

That is what it means when recent historians describe Irish, Italians, or Jews as “becoming white” — not that they  came to be considered Anglo-Saxon, but that they ceased to be racialized the way African Americans are racialized. Native Americans were the defining “other” of the colonial period, but for the last two centuries the opposite of white in the United States has been Black, and other ethnicities have been able to blend into an American norm  because Black Americans remained outside — as Toni Morrison reframed the melting pot metaphor, other people could melt because “[Black people] were the pot.”

That is one of the tricky things about the current term “people of color.” It implies a unifying category that includes everyone not marked as “white,” but to be “colored” in the United States has traditionally meant to be Black, and blackness continues to play a unique role in the American imaginary. That is in part because African Americans have such a deep history of oppression, discrimination, and stereotyping in the United States, but also because they have played such a central role in shaping American culture.

As a historian of popular music, I’m intensely aware of the way other groups have become “American” by emulating Black culture —  “becoming white” by first becoming somewhat black. The original blackface minstrel stars were often Irish immigrants or their offspring; the early “white” jazz musicians who came north from New Orleans were mostly Italians, as were the “white” urban rock ‘n’ rollers. I live up the street from a mural of South Philadelphia singers of the 1950s, and aside from the Jewish Eddie Fisher and the Black Chubby Checker, all the others are Italian (though many changed their names to play down their ethnicity, Bobby Ridarelli becoming Bobby Rydell, Jimmy Ercolani becoming Jimmy Darren).

Some people argue that those young Irish, Jewish, and Italian artists were expressing their love of Black culture, not appropriating it — and taken one by one, as individuals, that makes sense. But they weren’t taken one by one: in both the jazz age and the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, the American mainstream consistently welcomed them into venues and played their recordings in situations where Black artists were not heard — and that contrast with Black artists cemented their status as members of the white mainstream.

There is obviously far, far more to be said about all of this, but for now I’ll leave it there. I am trying to complicate some familiar discussions, but inevitably have simplified others, and will go on to explore all of this in more depth. For the moment, these are a few unfamiliar facts and passing thoughts. For the future, I look forward to many more conversations.

[Thanks to Lynn Abbott for introducing me to the subject of ethnic delineators in African American vaudeville.]

*I took notes during Imani Perry’s talk, so am reasonably sure she said this, but I recently checked with her and she says it doesn’t sound familiar. If I reworked or misunderstood her ideas,  I nonetheless got this impression from hearing her, and since I find the formulation useful I’m crediting her, with this caveat.

Frederick Douglass on the Right to Immigrate

In 1869, amid calls to limit Chinese immigration, Frederick Douglass responded with one of his greatest speeches:

Men, like bees, want elbow room. When the hive is overcrowded, the bees will swarm, and will be likely to take up their abode where they find the best prospect for honey. In matters of this sort, men are very much like bees…. The same mighty forces which have swept to our shores the overflowing populations of Europe; which have reduced the people of Ireland three millions below its normal standard; will operate in a similar manner upon the hungry population of China and other parts of Asia. Home has its charms, and native land has its charms, but hunger, oppression, and destitution, will dissolve these charms and send men in search of new countries and new homes….

I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would….

But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense…? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry?

To all of this and more I have one among many answers, altogether satisfactory to me, though I cannot promise that it will be so to you.

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here…. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.

I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth….

So much for what is right; now let us see what is wise.

I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United states, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt….

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization… does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons. Contact with these yellow children of The Celestial Empire would convince us that the points of human difference, great as they, upon first sight, seem, are as nothing compared with the points of human agreement. Such contact would remove mountains of prejudice….

If it could be shown that any particular race of men are literally incapable of improvement, we might hesitate to welcome them here. But no such men are anywhere to be found, and if there were, it is not likely that they would ever trouble us with their presence. The fact that the Chinese and other nations desire to come and do come, is a proof of their fitness to come….

I close these remarks as I began. If our action shall be in accordance with the principles of justice, liberty, and perfect human equality, no eloquence can adequately portray the greatness and grandeur of the future of the Republic.

We shall spread the network of our science and civilization over all who seek their shelter whether from Asia, Africa, or the Isles of the sea. We shall mold them all, each after his kind, into Americans; Indian and Celt; Negro and Saxon; Latin and Teuton; Mongolian and Caucasian; Jew and Gentile; all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same Government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.

Frederick Douglass, 1869.

An Incident in Hebron

I spent my second day in Hebron walking around, taking pictures, getting a better sense of where everything was. I went through a couple of full-scale checkpoints with turnstiles and metal detectors, and others with just a couple of soldiers with automatic rifles, and wherever I went they waved me through with a smile, even when I set off the metal detectors — I was asked my nationality a couple of times and once asked for my passport, but just to see I had one, not to open it and check my photo… because I was obviously a tourist and everybody wants more of those.

So, as I say, I was wandering all over, getting lost, retracing the same streets multiple times, exploring the old city, the Jewish settler area, the hills above… it’s  weird and fascinating, because these inimical populations are completely intertwined, sometimes on different floors of the same house. And no one was bothering me — some people didn’t return my hellos, but the soldiers were consistently polite and cheerful, and when I asked if I could take their picture they said, “Sure, you can do anything you want…”

So then I was up on the hillside above the old city and noticed, walking ahead of me, a couple of white-haired women whom a life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had equipped me to instantly recognize as committed social activists — in another context I would have asked if they knew my mom. So I went over, said hello, and asked if they could help me understand what I was looking at. They turned out to be Israelis from a group called Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch) who had been coming to Hebron a few times a year for 15 years, acting as observers and writing reports on how the situation was changing.

They were very helpful, telling me how things were different in various periods, and we gradually made our way down the hill and back to the street in front of the Ibrahimi Mosque, which I had already walked up and down at least three times. They introduced me to a Palestinian man who runs a souvenir shop there, and while we were chatting the Israeli soldiers who were guarding that end of the street came over from the checkpoint and asked the women who they were and what they were doing. Then the women left to catch their ride back to Tel Aviv, and I had a coffee in the souvenir shop and headed back towards that street in front of the mosque, which was also the street to the hostel where I was staying…

…but this time, the soldiers didn’t just wave me past. They asked where I was from, and took my passport, and told me to stand back while they first examined the identification of a young Muslim woman and asked her a lot of questions. Then they waved her past and asked if I was with those two women they’d seen me with. I said no, and they asked where I was going. I said I was going back to my hostel. They asked, “You are a Jew?” I said yes. They said, “You cannot go here.”

Now, the division of Hebron is complicated even by Israeli/Palestinian standards: the soldiers are very clearly protecting the Israeli settlers from the Palestinian locals, but the current separation followed the killing of 29 Muslims by a Jewish/American/Israeli settler in that very mosque 24 years ago, and since then the mosque part of the building has been kept separate from a smaller section that functions as a synagogue — which is what it was back in Herod’s day, and it has also been a Christian Church, and basically it’s holy to everybody and is the city’s main tourist attraction and I’d already visited it earlier that morning… but for religious purposes, it is firmly divided into Muslim and Jewish sections, with separate entrances on opposite sides to prevent any possible clashes. So OK, there was a logical reason to prevent me, as a Jew, from entering the Muslim side… but, as I say, I’d already walked back and forth down this same street several times, passing this same checkpoint, and had already visited the mosque, and no one had shown the slightest interest in my religious or ethnic identity.

So I explained that I wasn’t going to the mosque, and anyway was not religiously Jewish, and had been wandering back and forth through this same checkpoint for two days, and was just going to my hostel. One of them called their superior on their field phone, chatted briefly, then came back and said, “You are a Jew, you can’t go here.”

I said, “Suppose I say I’m just an American tourist, and not a Jew?”

By now the taller soldier was getting annoyed. Leaning forward, he aggressively  snapped: “Are you a Jew?!”

I said, “My great-grandparents were Jewish, but I’ve never been religious… so if I say I’m not Jewish can I go through?”

He called again to ask his superior, then said, “If you are Muslim or Christian, you can go here, but Jews have to go there…” gesturing to the other entrance.

I said, “But I’m not going in this building at all, I’m just walking back down the street to the old city.”

He said, louder than ever, “Are you a Jew? If you are a Jew you can’t go here.”

The conversation was obviously not going to change, I had no particular reason to go back the same way I’d come, and I was not accomplishing anything by continuing to argue. So I decided to explore the alternatives: “OK, how else can I get back to the old city?” The taller soldier gestured that I could go around through the Jewish area, or around the back of the mosque.

I walked up the dirt road that led behind the mosque, into a thoroughly Arab neighborhood, wandered up dirt roads and down alleys, asked a couple of people for directions, and eventually wound my way down to the other end of the same street in front of the mosque… where another pair of soldiers who hadn’t seen me consorting with elderly Israeli peace observers waved me through with a smile. So that was that. I walked back through the market, bought a handful of almonds and a falafel sandwich with roast eggplant, hot pepper sauce, and pickled vegetables, retrieved my guitar and pack from the hostel, and caught a minibus to Bethlehem.

Make of it what you will.

Walls, Terrorism, and Theater of Fear

Most  people who oppose building a wall on the US-Mexico border think it is  unnecessary, harmful to wildlife, and sends a terrible, xenophobic message about what the United States has become. All of which is true, but also beside the point—which is that it will not have much effect on migration or drug trafficking, but will make Americans less aware and more frightened of the world outside.

I didn’t understand that until I spent a month traveling in Israel and the West Bank. I had heard about the wall there, both from supporters of the Israeli government who credit it with ending terrorist bombings and from supporters of the Palestinians who see it as an instrument for grabbing Palestinian land, dividing Palestinian farmers from their fields, making life difficult for Palestinians who need to cross into Israel, and reminding Palestinians that they are trapped and isolated.

Indeed, I had heard so much about the wall as a hardship and barrier that I was startled when I got to the West Bank and found young men constantly telling stories of climbing over it—to visit friends and family, find jobs, or just go to a party or a concert. Many of them laughed and talked about it like a teenage rite of passage. Not all had made the trip themselves, but all had friends who had, and some had done it multiple times. “It just costs twenty dollars,” one told me. “You pay a guy, and he puts a ladder up on this side and throws a rope to climb down the other side.” Returning is no problem, because there are no controls in the other direction.

Of course, the wall does keep most Palestinians from crossing easily: families, older people, women, children—anyone who doesn’t want to climb a wall and take a chance on being arrested, who just wants to go shopping or take their kids to the beach or commute to work. And, of course, it’s a problem for anyone carrying luggage or goods, any drivers, ambulances, buses. The only people for whom it’s not a real problem are young, adventurous guys…

…which is to say, the only people for whom it’s not a problem are  the most likely  soldiers, fighters, or troublemakers.

The ease of wall-crossing is not just popular hearsay. Estimates of how many Palestinians enter Israel without going through official checkpoints vary, but all are impressively high—an LA Times story cites the Israeli state comptroller’s guess that “more than 50,000 Palestinian laborers… work in Israel illegally on a daily basis.” (It adds that along with climbing over the wall, many use drainage ditches to get under it or find unfinished or damaged sections.)1 So much for the wall’s function as a “security fence”—the official Israeli term, and the function most Israeli Jews seem genuinely to think it serves.

I want to underline the genuine belief of Jewish Israelis—including those who describe themselves as liberal and sympathetic to the Palestinians—that the wall is protecting them from terrorist attacks. Even a lot of people who think the wall is harmful and counterproductive in the long term believe this. Excepting an exceptional few who have spent time on the West Bank—something most Israeli Jews believe is terribly dangerous—none I met had heard of young men crossing illegally by the thousands, or met Palestinians who talked about their adventures making that trip. Since Israeli Jews tend to be very knowledgeable about their country’s history and politics, and to think a lot about how they might possibly, eventually come to some kind of stable situation regarding the Palestinians, this at first surprised me. But then it occurred to me that I had not understood why the wall is there.

My revelation came on a bus from Ramallah to Bethlehem: leaving one city and entering the other, the wall was a towering cement barrier, two stories high. But out in the countryside it gave way to a much less imposing fence of razor wire punctuated with cameras and motion sensors. Given all the stories of Palestinian climbers, I would not be surprised if these less imposing stretches are actually a more effective barrier—but the towering concrete wall is far more impressive, and it struck me that its massive ugliness is no accident. Its size and weight are a constant reminder to Israeli Jews of the horrors lurking on the other side, the enemies so fearsome that mere wire cannot keep them out. It is theater; theater of fear.

It is also a theater curtain, making the stage invisible to the audience. The media carry stories every day of confrontations, raids, attacks, and killings in the West Bank, and most Israeli Jews see only that news and the wall—so it is easy to think of the wall as protecting them from what is on the news, rather than from busy markets, crowded streets, children playing, people going to and from work, and all the normal bustle of normal Palestinian life.

This is not just a Middle Eastern story. Europe and the United States are being swept by a wave of what is broadly mischaracterized as “populism,” but more accurately is politics of fear. Leaders who have nothing positive to offer the mass of voters are relying on paranoia—deflecting worries about declining incomes and a deteriorating planet towards threats from the less fortunate, the foreign, the different. The standard name for this tactic is “divide and conquer,” and what better way to divide than with a towering wall?

Opponents of the US-Mexico wall sometimes point out that it is less popular with voters who actually live near the border than with those further away, as if that was odd or ironic—but in fact, it’s normal. People in border towns are constantly interacting with people across the border, so know that they are people, not monsters. But suppose, instead of seeing people on the other side, one just sees a towering wall and terrifying news stories of the mayhem it hides?

Moving back and forth between Israel and the West Bank, it was astonishing how little Israeli Jews knew about daily life on the other side of the wall—I’ve written about some of that in previous posts, but the short version is that although I made no secret of being Jewish I met lots of nice people, made friends, and would strongly recommend that anyone interested in understanding the situation spend some time there. (And I keep specifying “Israeli Jews” because none of this is news to Israeli Muslims and Christians, many of whom cross to the West Bank regularly to shop, visit, or attend university.)

We live in a world of airplanes, drones, rockets, and mass communication. Walls do not protect anybody from serious threats, but they do prevent normal daily interactions—which is to say their function is not to protect us or make us feel safer; it is to increase ignorance and make us more frightened.

Yes, walls built by powerful countries make life somewhat more difficult for people trapped on the other side, but it is a mistake for citizens of those powerful countries who oppose the walls to focus only on the harm they do to others. Building a wall on the US-Mexico border will not actually have much effect on Mexicans or Central Americans, nor is it intended to. It is not a wall around Mexico—it is a wall around the United States. It is not primarily intended to keep “them” out; it is primarily intended to keep “us” ignorant and frightened.

That is the real terrorist threat: not the few fanatics who might potentially hurt some of us, but the powerful people on our side of the walls who want to control us all with a politics of fear.

 

Perspective on the Migrant Caravan

Over the last couple of years an average of two to three hundred migrants have left Honduras for the US every day. That means the caravan currently traveling north has no more people than normally make this trek every two or three weeks… the only difference is that normally they are prey for gangsters, robbers, and official thugs demanding bribes, while this time they are traveling in a large enough group to protect one another.

That was the original idea that drew people to travel as a caravan, and it remains the idea for the people involved. They set off this month because this is the best season to travel through Mexico, after the heat of summer and before the cold and rains of winter.

Whatever the political fallout in Honduras, Mexico, or the US, the people on the caravan are not marching to make a point. They are trying to get to a safer, better place, wherever it may be, and to avoid the dangers of making this journey alone — because all of them know how dangerous it normally is.

Anyone who thinks this is a conspiracy, whether of the right or of the left, is ignoring the basic reality that everything about this is normal, day-to-day news for anyone who is poor in Central America — all that is different this month is that some migrants are traveling in relative safety and other people are paying attention.

As far as I can tell, the people in the caravan are aware that for a change some powerful people are paying attention to them, and think that is a good thing. As far as I can tell, some people who are not on the caravan think it would be better if the migrants kept their usual low profile, despite the dangers.

I have no problem figuring out which side I’m on.

Visiting the Village of Alexandre Dumas

I’m writing this post in Villers-Cotterêts, a small town about an hour outside Paris on the road to Laon. Like most tourists I came here because of Alexandre Dumas, France’s most famous writer, thanks to The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and dozens of other books. The walk from the center to the hotel where I’m staying led past the royal palace that inspired young Alexandre with dreams of derring-do, then down a wide and grassy lane bordered with towering trees to narrower path along an ancient, moss-covered stone wall. It felt like Dumas scenery, except on the other side of the wall was a modern low-income housing estate. The streets and buildings in it are named for places and characters in Dumas’s novels, the people are the mix typical of modern France: some look like native Picards, some look West African, some wear Muslim headscarves.

The connection between that mix and Dumas is what brought me here. I’ve been reading his novel Georges, published in 1843, about a heroic young man who is, in the terms of the time, a Mulatto (mulâtre), of mixed European and African ancestry. He is from the Island of Mauritius and the action involves his romance with a lady from the island’s ruling class of French plantation owners. It’s an interesting book in a lot of ways, and one is Dumas’s insistence that the prejudice Georges faces from the wealthy French planters is a quirk of the colonial slave system. At the governor’s ball, his lady love is pleased to see him seated between two recently-arrived English ladies, since “she knew that the prejudice which pursued Georges in his native land possessed no influence on the minds of foreigners, and that it required a long residence in the island to cause an inhabitant of Europe to adopt it.”

I was struck by the claim that nineteenth-century Europeans had no race prejudice until they acquired it in the colonies, and would likely have dismissed this passage as naive if Dumas had been a white European—but it is harder to discount the observation coming from someone who had experienced the situation firsthand. Dumas’s mother was the daughter of a prosperous French innkeeper here in Villers-Cotterêts; his father was born a slave in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).

This is a complicated story, with plenty of contradictions. Dumas occasionally described himself as Mulatto, but more often was cagey and at times misleading. He always referred with great pride to his father, a general in the French army and hero of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, but tended to gloss over the details of his father’s youth and wrote in his memoirs that his father was known to the Austrians as “the Black Devil,” and owed “his brown complexion…to the mix of Indian and Caucasian races.” (That is “Caucasian” as in from the Caucasus, and a print in the Dumas museum here shows Dumas himself in traditional Caucasian garb.)

As to his father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, that story is crazy and far too long to tell here, but to give an example: Thomas-Alexandre’s father was a French aristocrat and slave owner in Saint-Domingue, who fell on hard times and paid his way back to France by selling off his slaves, including his own children—except that the sales contract for Thomas-Alexandre included a clause allowing his father to buy him back within five years. His father exercised the clause, brought him to France as his legitimate son, sent him to the best schools, and raised him as a French aristocrat. His siblings were never heard from again.

Thomas-Alexandre changed his name when he entered the army, choosing the surname of his African-born mother, Marie-Cessette Dumas. One of the pleasures of the museum is its multiple portraits of General Dumas, all showing him in heroic situations and none in any way concealing or downplaying his African ancestry. Notably, none of the documents preserved from his military and civilian life make any mention of his race.

The general’s biography is a complicated and interesting story, well told in Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, and it brought me to Villers-Cotterêts because one of the things I’m exploring in my current project is shifting views of nationality and immigration. I was curious to see who is living here today, how the town recalls Dumas, and if people here connect his ancestry with the increasingly heterogeneous ancestral mix of modern France.

The answer turns out to be exquisitely complicated, and it’s going to take more than this visit to make any sense of it. On the one hand the town has a grand statue of Alexandre Dumas on the main square, and a Dumas museum with rooms dedicated to the general, the novelist, and Alexandre Dumas, fils (junior), who was likewise a famous writer. The stone plaque on the house where General Dumas died notes his African ancestry and his birth in Haiti, and the street in front of it has been the site of an annual celebration on May 10, the anniversary of France’s passage of a law abolishing slavery.

On the other hand, since 2014 the town has elected its mayor from the Front National, the far-right, anti-immigrant party, and the first FN mayor quickly made national news by denouncing the annual celebration of abolition as a display of permanent “auto-culpabilisation,” intended to make French people feel guilty and hence sympathetic to newcomers from its ex-colonies, and declaring that the town government would no longer take part. All the news stories about this incident noted the irony of anti-immigrant activists standing under the statue of Alexandre Dumas and lamenting the demise of an ethnically homogeneous France.

The town’s population is clearly changing, and some previous residents are clearly upset. Picardy is a famously poor region, and it’s easy to stir up anger against newcomers for taking the few existing jobs. But the obvious newcomers—the people clearly of African ancestry or speaking to one another in Maghrebi Arabic—are going about their lives here, and I saw about as much social mixing as I’m used to seeing in Boston or Philadelphia, and less apparent residential segregation. At the fire station, the three uniformed firefighters sitting outside were a woman who looked French, a man who looked West African, and a man who could have been from anywhere on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Obviously this is a very cursory view and I don’t have any idea what’s going on here. But it was interesting to sit at a table in the Brasserie Alexandre Dumas, looking across the square at the large building that used to be the inn where Dumas’s parents met… and to think that a marriage between the daughter of the Brasserie’s owners and a Haitian immigrant army officer would almost certainly be more controversial here now than it was in 1792… and also a lot more likely.

Communing with Julian Tuwim

I recently spent a couple of days in Łódź (which due to the oddities of Polish orthography is pronounced woodge, hence, as seat of the Polish film industry, Holly-Łódź), mostly to commune with the memory of Julian Tuwim. Tuwim is a major figure in Polish literature, a poet, songwriter, and author whose songs and children’s poems are still widely known and performed, but I came across him because of one piece that  – not accidentally – was left out of the official five-volume edition of his collected works.

It was an impassioned essay called, “We, Polish Jews,” published in 1944 on the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in a Polish-language newspaper in New York, where Tuwim was living in exile. (He described the city to a friend as “Łódź, but with elephantiasis.”) It was dedicated, “To my mother in Poland or her most beloved shade.” His mother had been shot in August 1942 during the extermination of the Otwock Ghetto, though I’m not clear whether he knew that when he wrote.

I ran across Tuwim’s essay while traveling in Israel/Palestine, and have run across it a couple of times since. The section that caught my attention, and that tends to get quoted is about his Jewish identity. He wrote that he was a Jew because of “blood” – not, he immediately added, in the sense of race, but “Exactly the opposite.” As he explained:

“There are two kinds of blood: blood in the veins and blood from the veins. The first is a bodily fluid; therefore its study is properly the province of the physiologists. Whoever ascribes to this blood any special attributes and mysterious powers other than its organic ones in consequence, as we are now seeing, turns cities into ruins, slaughters millions of people, and ultimately, as we shall see, will bring down slaughter upon his own tribe.”

The other kind of blood was what the Nazis were spilling, “not blood concealed in the arteries but blood on display.” And, he wrote, it was that blood, “the blood of the Jews (not ‘Jewish blood’),” that made him write as a Jew.

I’ve found myself repeating that formulation in various conversations, because I am working on a project on immigration, nationalism and borders, and didn’t want to write simply as a white American defending the rights of people from the southern hemisphere. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Vienna, my father’s parents were immigrants from Central Europe. I grew up on those stories, and I’m tracing them now, which means I’m thinking a lot about my own family history, and about the history of Jews in Central Europe – and the diaspora from Central Europe – and about the question of what it means if I say I am Jewish, and what it means if someone else says that.

Re-reading Tuwim’s essay, I’m struck by my original focus on the part about being Jewish, and the extent to which other writers have highlighted the same sections and phrases. Because that is not how Tuwim starts his piece. He begins by addressing the question of why he claims the pronoun “WE” for both Jews and Poles, writing, “Jews, whom I have always assured that I am a Pole, ask it of me; and now Poles, for the majority of whom I am and will remain a Jew, will ask it of me.” And, he wrote, “Here is my answer for all of them:

“I am a Pole because that’s how I like it. This is my completely private affair which I have no intention of explaining, clarifying, demonstrating or justifying to anyone. I do not divide Poles into ‘pure’ or ‘not pure,’ but leave that to the pure racists, to native and not native Hitlerites. I divide Poles, just as I do Jews and other peoples, into wise and stupid, polite and nasty, intelligent and dull, interesting and boring, injured and injuring, gentlemen and not gentlemen…”

But, in fact, he does explain and clarify. He first notes that “to be a Pole…is neither an honor, nor a glory, nor a privilege. It is like breathing. I have not yet met a man who is proud that he breathes.” That said, it is his identity:

“A Pole—because I was born, grew up, matured and was educated in Poland; because in Poland I was happy and unhappy; because I want ultimately to return to Poland from exile even though heavenly delights were to be guaranteed me elsewhere….

“A Pole—because that is what I was called in Polish in my parents’ home; because from infancy I was nourished there on the Polish language; because my mother taught me Polish poetry and songs…; because that which became most important in my life—poetic creation—is unthinkable in any other language, no matter how fluently I might speak it….

“A Pole—because I have adopted from the Poles a certain number of their national vices. A Pole—because my hatred for Polish fascists is greater than for fascists of any other nationality. And I consider that a very important feature of my Polishness.

“But above all else… a Pole because that’s what I like to be.”

When Tuwim’s essay first appeared, it got a lot of attention and was translated into numerous languages. Not all the attention was positive; in Palestine, Zionist critics took him to task for declaring his Jewish allegiance only now, under pressure, after decades of writing as a Pole. He had never denied his Jewish ancestry and indeed had regularly made reference to it and written poems attacking antisemitism. But he had also written poems satirizing traditional Jews: “Dark, cunning, bearded/ With demented eyes/ In which there is an eternal fear… People/ Who do not know what a fatherland is/Because they have lived everywhere.”  (You can find this and other poems in an article published by the American Association for Polish Jewish studies.)

Today that criticism is often reversed, and Tuwim is taken to task for his naiveté about Poland—his passionate essay concludes with the prophesy that yellow stars will be adopted by the postwar Polish state as the highest badge of honor, pinned on the chests of military heroes, and that was not how things turned out. Poland would continue to be swept by waves of antisemitism, and in the years between the arrival of the Communist government and his death in 1953 Tuwim wrote very little and by some accounts was deeply depressed. But he lived those years in Poland and never seems to have considered leaving, and one of the main streets in the center of Łódź is called Tuwima, and his statue is on the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare.

I’m not saying that’s a happy ending. It’s messy and complicated.

But some of the complications and messiness feel very familiar to me. As those of you who follow my Songobiography know, I have spent my life playing the folk and popular music of the United States. I’ve hitchhiked through all 48 contiguous states, and know the country well. It is my home and I feel very much part of it, for good and bad, better and worse. When a friend who has been active in the Polish klezmer revival (and who is not Jewish) asked if I ever played or wrote about Jewish music, my response was, “Well… I’ve written a book about Bob Dylan.” Who is, I would note, the patron saint of what is now called Americana music. Take that however you choose.

I was recently in Frankfurt, going through an exhibit on possessions looted or otherwise acquired by local gentiles and institutions—including the museum holding the exhibition—from local Jews who were deported or exterminated, and I was struck by a descriptive panel early in the exhibition which referred to “religious Jews and those first turned into Jews by the Nazis.”

I had never before seen that framing of identity, but it immediately struck home, because that was essentially my mother’s story. Her parents were Viennese socialists who dismissed religion as medieval superstition. I am not going to call them “assimilated,” because that word suggests they were somehow less Viennese than their socialist, atheist friends whose ancestors were Catholic. It is like the suggestion that someone in the United States who has one African and seven European great-grandparents is “passing” if she says she is European. It is letting the racists set the terms, and I won’t do that. I cannot deny the power or harm of the racist taxonomies, but I can point out that they are racist and refuse to use them.

My father grew up in Brooklyn, and was far more affected by antisemitism than my mother, the refugee from Nazi Vienna. For her, the racists were the Nazis. For him, they were the kids on his block. And, to make it messier, those kids weren’t unhyphenated Americans. They were all from families of recent immigrants, and when he went off to Washington Square College, he described the student body as “Jewish, Italian, Latin American, Greek, almost all Mediterraneans of one kind or another—and an occasional Christian blond, whom we tended to think of and speak of as the ‘white men’.”

Meanwhile, my mother grew up thoroughly Viennese, daughter of two physicians, one of whom was also a concert-quality pianist, immersed in Mozart, Goethe, the earthy Viennese street dialect, and the certainty that she was at the cultural center of the universe. Her childhood foods weren’t latkes and gefilte fish; they were schnitzel, Kaiserschmarrn, and pastries slathered in whipped cream. When the Nazis labeled her a Jew, that changed the course of her life but didn’t change how she thought about herself. She felt rejected by Vienna and often referred to herself not as Viennese but as European, but her views remained thoroughly Viennese, and socialist, and atheist.

When I graduated high school, one of my college applications had a line asking my religion. Being less sure than my mother, I wrote “agnostic.” That was fine with her, but not with my father. He said, “That’s not what they’re asking,” and told the story of applying to the Brooklyn Athletic Club, responding to the question of religion by saying “atheist,” and having the young man behind the desk smirk and write, “Jew.”

So I’m here communing with the ghost of Julian Tuwim, who insisted he was Polish because he liked to be, and Jewish because Hitler was killing millions of Jews. That formulation bothers me, and makes sense to me. It’s not my formulation, and I have problems with a lot of what Tuwim wrote, both politically and aesthetically. But that essay suggested some different ways of framing these subjects, made me wrestle with some new questions, and helped me clarify my own thinking.

It also led me to study Tuwim’s life and work, which among other things suggested what his response would be to my disagreements: one of his most famous compositions is titled “A Poem Wherein the Author Politely but Firmly Requests a Multitude of Fellows to Kiss His Ass.” (There is a nice modern cabaret version — and yes, the list of “fellows,” includes both antisemites and Jews.)

And lastly… in case there aren’t already enough ironic notes in this story… the Lonely Planet guidebook to Poland cheerfully reports that there is a local custom of rubbing the nose of Tuvim’s statue for luck. The Jew’s nose.

Look for the names…

I recently spent a day at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, where my mother’s favorite cousin, Jutte, was shot at age 16, along with her mother and 996 other Viennese Jews, on November 29, 1941. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to go there, but now I know – it was a powerful experience to be where I know a particular family member was killed, on a particular day.

And it made me angry, because so much of the Ninth Fort museum and the whole project of memorializing the history of genocide and terror in Lithuania is dedicated to keeping the hundreds of thousands of Jews killed here in the Nazi era from overshadowing the murders and terror visited on non-Jewish Lithuanians during the Soviet eras.

Two days earlier I visited the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, which dedicates one room to the genocide of the Lithuanian Jews and dozens to the oppression of Lithuanian non-Jews by the Soviets. (In response to years of protests, this museum has officially been renamed the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, but all its signage still says the Museum of Genocide Victims.) In fairness, the museum is in a building that served for decades as a KGB prison, where thousands of Lithuanians were held, tortured, and in some cases killed. That story is real, and deserves to be commemorated. But…

…the use of the word “genocide,” and specifically the use of Jewish deaths in service of the narrative of non-Jewish Lithuanian suffering is striking. For example, the panel giving numbers of Lithuanians killed: First, during almost fifty years under the Soviets between 1940-1990: 20-25,000 “prisoners who died”; 28,000 “died in deportation”; 21,500 “Partisans and their supporters killed.” Then, during the four years of German occupation between 1941-44: “240,000 killed (including about 200,000 Jews).” In parenthesis.

Of course, it’s fair to argue that numbers are not the whole story – except, in the case of Jews, in this museum, numbers ARE the whole story. Not one Jewish Lithuanian is mentioned by name in the entire museum.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of naming since reading Ari Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land.” For those who don’t know it, it is a liberal Zionist’s exploration of Israeli history, which purports to fairly acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinians. But Shavit’s careful evenhandedness is consistently numeric and falls apart  at the level of naming and specificity. In a long chapter on the terrorist bombings and killings of the 1930s, he scrupulously notes that there were more Palestinians killed by Jewish terrorists than Jews killed by Palestinians – but the Jewish victims are consistently named, along with their ages and details about who they were and what they were doing when they were killed (walking home from a movie, tending an orchard, studying), while the Palestinian victims are just numbers, only a couple named, no ages provided. I’m guessing Shavit did this unconsciously, but that’s not a defense: on the contrary, it underscores the degree to which Jews, for him, are individual human beings, while Palestinians are not.

After reading that book I started paying closer attention to when historical narratives include names, ages, photographs, and details of individual victims and when they only give numbers. It is an interesting exercise, and often very revealing – it is now common to read US historical narratives that refer to the genocide of Native Americans, but how many mention any of the murdered Native Americans by name?

I came to Lithuania following the story of my mother’s younger cousin Jutte, bringing her picture and the story of how she got stuck in Vienna, and the number of the transport that brought her to Kaunas, and the date when the 998 Viennese Jews on that train were chased up the hill at the Ninth Fort, pushed into mass graves, and shot – or in some cases shot, then pushed into mass graves. I wondered if the museum might be interested in having a copy of the photograph of Jutte and her mother, Gustl.

Then I went through the museum at the entrance to the fort. The first section is a dramatic, full-room stained glass installation titled “Undefeated Lithuania.” Then we get the history of the first Soviet occupation, 1940-41, with photos and biographies of Lithuanians who were exiled or killed, and details about what happened to each of them. There is a panel on the “Priests’ Massacre in Budavone Forest,” showing the three priests who were killed. There is a panel on the “Massacre of Panevezys Physicians,” with names and photos of the four physicians who were tortured and killed. Then there are multiple panels on the deportations of Lithuanians during the second Soviet occupation, after 1944, with names, photos, and objects belonging to the victims, like the seven-string guitar V. Lapiusko brought with him to Siberia.

There is a display in this room about the Nazi period, with photographs of the Kaunas ghetto, yellow stars, and Jewish corpses. It gives the numbers of Lithuanian Jews killed, and displays personal items – eye glasses, shaving brushes, a pair of child’s shoes – found in the mass graves. It is a touching display. Not one Jew is named.

There are pictures from Nazi extermination camps outside Lithuania: Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The photos are horrifying, but identified only by camp, except for a display titled “Lithuanian intellectuals at Stutthof concentration camp,” which includes names, photos, and biographies of the title figures, and mentions that 85,000 people were killed there, including 1,100 Lithuanians.

The Nazi display also includes one document that suggests why a patriotic Lithuanian museum might have problems with this period, and might want to shift the discussion from local details to the broader German genocide. It is a typed report from a German officer on July 11, 1941, explaining that a ghetto has been established for the remaining Jews in Kovno (Kaunas). The accompanying label translates a key paragraph: “In Kovno a total of 7,800 have now been killed—a portion through the pogrom, a portion shot by Lithuanian commandos. All corpses have been disposed of. Continued mass shootings are no longer possible. Instead I explained to a committee of Jews that up to now, we have not had a reason to intervene in the internal conflicts between the Lithuanians and the Jews…” Unlike every other display in the room, this document is labeled and translated only in English – not in Lithuanian.

There is a second museum in the fort itself, for those who wish to delve deeper. It does include rooms with photographs of individual Jews, their names, their stories. There is a powerful display on a transport of 878 French Jews killed here in 1944, the walls lined with named photographs, sponsored by “Les Familles et Amis des Déportés du Convoi 73, Paris (France).” There is a room about the Kaunas ghetto, with family pictures, names, and stories from survivors. There is a room about the escape of 64 prisoners who were brought in 1943 to burn the thousands of corpses, naming them and noting that 60 were Jews, along with three Russians and a Pole. There is a room with stories of survivors, saying what happened to them in later years. There is a room about the Japanese consul who in defiance of his government provided 6,000 Jews with exit visas. There is a room about “Lithuanians, the Saviours of the Jews,” with stories of non-Jewish Lithuanians who hid or helped their Jewish neighbors. And there is a room about Hitler and the genocide of European Jews, with names of 1,344 Jews from various parts of Europe who were killed here, each with their age and home town. Jutta and Gustl were not included – I looked for them, and the omission bothered me. But to continue…

At the back of that room is a curtain, and if you go through there is a smaller room with a film showing the testimony of eight Lithuanian soldiers who were sentenced to death by the Soviet government in 1962 for participating in Nazi-organized massacres. One mimes standing at the edge of the mass graves and shooting down into the crowds of people, and explains how he would sell items he picked off the victims to buy a drink afterwards because “when you do such kind of thing you need to wet your whistle.”

I was in that section for fifteen minutes, and maybe two dozen people wandered through the first room, looked at the photos, looked at the quotations from Hitler, looked at the wall of names. Only a couple pulled back the curtain, and not one bothered to watch the film. I understand; there was a lot to see and watching a film takes time. Not one plaque or label anywhere else mentioned that Lithuanians were involved in any of the Nazi murders. I was taking note, because in the Vilnius genocide museum they use the same technique: the room on the Nazi period includes a video that mentions Lithuanian involvement in the murders, but you have to watch the video to get that information – the wall displays do not even hint at that possibility.

I’m not trying to make a point about the Lithuanians. I mentioned an Israeli historian above, and US historians. I’m making a point about how nationalists construct national narratives. Some are more subtle than others, but the process is pretty general.

At the Ninth Fort there are memorial stones placed by the city of Frankfurt in memory of the Jews transported from there to Kaunas; by the Families and Friends of the Jews transported and killed from France; by the city of Berlin in memory of 1000 Jewish children, women and men transported on Nov 17, 1941 and killed here on Nov 25; by the city of Munich in memory of 1000 Jews transported from there on November 20, 1941, and killed here five days later. There is no stone from Austria, or from the city of Vienna, commemorating the transport on November 23 that included my cousins. Like the Lithuanians, the Austrians prefer to recall the Nazi period as their own tragedy, not a Jewish tragedy. They do not deny that Jews were particularly selected for extermination, but they have their own issues, and feel we must remember it was a tough time, and everybody suffered…

Which is true enough, in its way. The Ninth Fort museum even has one photograph that, if you get close enough to read the minimal caption, turns out to show “the exhumation of remains of Soviet prisoners of war.” They aren’t denying that there were Soviet deaths in the Nazi period. If asked, I’m sure they would acknowledge that the Nazis killed millions of Soviet citizens, including some in Lithuania. That’s just not the story this museum is here to tell.

History is always an effort to preserve and remember what is important from the past, which always requires selecting what is important, which always means what is important to us, whoever we may be. But this post is particularly about how national histories are framed to suit nationalist needs. The idea of a nation requires stories that define a national “us” and also make us feel good about being part of that “us.”

One of the most powerful ways of creating a unified us is by recalling the terrible things other people did to us, and how we survived and overcame those trials. That often requires a bit of creative amnesia, since other people often have their own horror stories in which we were the perpetrators. Some people just deny the ugly parts; some are more subtle and figure out ways to make them seem less ugly, or just less meaningful, or less visceral.

In the last few weeks I’ve visited Auschwitz and Majdanek, where far more people were killed than at the Ninth Fort, but neither of those visits hit me as hard as this one. Because this one is personal: I have the photo, the names, the dates, and my mother’s memory of her younger cousin and the crazy, sad story of how she ended up in Kaunas, and what happened to her here. I’m telling some of that story here, and will be writing more of it soon, because individual stories are powerful.

The people making these museums understand that. Their displays are full of individual heroes and martyrs. And, looked at another way, full of absences.

Thinking about borders, migration, and complicated choices