Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Clutter Within

I've been thinking lately about identity. Now one of the reasons I've been thinking about this is because I am preparing to dispose of belongings that no longer relate to the me of today. As a historian of sorts, I find it very difficult to let go of my history and its physical remnants. It occurs to me that perhaps I need to understand these attachments before I can let go. My history forms my identity and when I pitch its physical proofs I am releasing part of who I was. Hopefully it also opens me to new possibilities of who I will be.

So what is this stuff that defines us? Some of it is the everyday stuff of living and those things tell a story of who we are. Our things are intricately interwoven with our identity. I went to my car the other day and chuckled at what one can tell about me from the clutter within. In my 2005 Prius I have two yoga mats and reusable bags from Trader Joes and Whole Foods. There are frequently programs from theater events and nonprofit boards on which I serve. The detritus of my everyday life tells you something about me without me even being present.

The category of stuff that I find most challenging is that of papers and books. I come from a family that is inordinately fond of information. An old friend used to joke that if you plotted information density there would be a huge vibrating black dot over my parents' home. For years my father videotaped everything that interested him as if the act of videotaping acquired all of the knowledge contained within. I am afraid that I am also guilty. Information gives me comfort even if I absorb it only by osmosis.

I have books that I know full well I will never pick up again, but they represent my history of reading. While electronic reading and a list now satisfy my sense of ownership, there is still that history reflected in very tangible books from my past. And then there are the books that populate my shelves that I never read and think I might someday, I remember one time I picked up a Jack Finney book from my shelves and was captivated by time travel. Now I contemplate what other treasures might be lurking. Kind of like shopping your closet.

I once asked a friend how she kept her home so tidy, cleansed of that paper that finds its way to the level surfaces of my home. She motioned to a cluster of woven baskets which she filled up with papers before guests arrived. Upon my return, I went out to Bed, Bath and Beyond and purchased several large baskets which worked perfectly until they were full. I had forgotten to ask her about the next step. How do you empty them? Or do you? Perhaps you just buy more.

Over time I cobbled together an approach. Periodically I go through them and throw out information on events that have passed, but there is a perma layer which always remains. So what is in that layer? A Jewish children's book that I got in the mail. I don't have kids and my step-daughters' kids aren't Jewish. So why do I hold onto this? Well first of all, it's a book, but does it perhaps reflect some sense of the road not taken? I have articles on places I've visited and places I'd like to. Ironically two are about a place my husband and I are planning to visit soon, but I made the reservations totally unaware that I had these articles. There is a sketch of Tai Chi poses an old friend recorded for me almost 20 years ago. Every time I pull them from the perma layer, I think, "Perhaps some day I'll try them" and with that thought, back they go. These scraps seem to represent an identity as well, often the one not assumed, but that coyly beckons.

I was listening to MPR recently and heard a show from This American Life on Andy Warhol's time capsules, 610 boxes of detritus that he began to assemble when moving to a new studio. Someone suggested that he box his stuff and call it art and he went with it. Three women are charged with cataloging his stuff and have a sense of knowing him from his belongings. They talk about which relationships he was happiest in and which of his partners they prefer. From such ephemeral items as a note from Bianca Jagger signed with a lipstick kiss to dirty underwear, they catalog it all. I totally understand the impulse behind such a project though doubt I'll have the luxury of catalogers. Perhaps I should just buy more baskets.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Mystery to Unravel

One of the things that I most enjoy about genealogy are the global connections that emerge. From one town in Poland, I have developed connections around the world. Currently I am doing research for a woman in Australia whose husband came from Radom, the same town in which my grandfather was born. Yesterday I spoke with two Brits on Skype who are interested in visiting Radom and I shared what I knew from my visits there. And as I translate Russian records for my Australian friend, I am drawing on a gentleman in the UK for assistance. Meanwhile in my own town, I've developed a close friendship with a survivor from Radom. I love the idea that the connections from that town radiate around the world and I am part of that web, often in the middle of it as I do the website for those researching their roots.

As I do research for others, I often stumble across new mysteries and am working to untangle one currently. I recently received records that I had ordered from the archives in Radom for my Australian contact. Among those records were the marriage of her husband's great-grandparents, the birth of their children and the death of his great-grandmother. But something was unusual. The children were born in the late 1800s and the marriage occurred in 1903. In 1904 the great-grandmother died. What does that mean?

One gentleman who helped me with the translation said that perhaps it was a marriage allegata which I believe is attesting to the fact that a marriage occurred. Now my guess is that the great-grandmother was ill at that time and they thought it best to make sure there was a clear trail in the event of death. Our original theory was that there had been a religious marriage, but not a civil one, but we soon learned that was not the case. Interestingly two of the children had the same record date for their births. Now I learned from my own family that meant not that they were twins, but that they had delayed in reporting one of the births until the second one occurred.

The plot thickened when a second translator advised me that one of the birth records noted that it was the father's fault that it was late because he had "annulled" the marriage. The word for annulled was not clearly written so we are continuing to translate other records looking for further clues. We then translated the marriage record which clearly stated that this was a religious marriage and they cited their children's names and birthdates. In addition they included the following language: "With this marriage act (the bride and groom) recognise (the children) as their own, andon the basis of the article 291 of Civil Code of the Polish Kingdom guarantee them the status and the rights of lawful children."

Documents tell a story, but we need to connect the dots. Perhaps this is one for which we will never fully know the underlying story.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Look to the Skies II

In addition to this blog I also write one for the Jewish Artists' Lab which is focusing the year on the theme of light.  In recent  days Minnesota has been in the deep freeze for which our compensation has been the sighting of sundogs, a phenomenon which I have been unaware of until now.  Here is a picture that I snapped of one portion of a sundog which resembles a rainbow, but is created by a reflection of ice crystals when the sun is low.  One of the benefits of writing a blog is that I get to pursue concepts that interest me and in this case explore how they were reported and depicted in history.  One can safely assume that natural phenomenon that create wonder in us today, certainly created a perception of meaning in the past.  In this case the history takes us back to Ezekiel and 1535 Stockholm. You can read more at
Creative Connections:Look to the Skies.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Propaganda and Dinosaurs

I am settling back in after a busy Thanksgivukkah in Chicago. While there we spent a day at the Field Museum, a museum that I hadn't visited since I was a child and that I tended to associate with dinosaurs. One of the shows I was interested in was traveling from the Holocaust Museum and addressed the subject of Nazi propaganda. Our visit spanned both dinosaurs and Nazis, certainly an odd combination. Unfortunately many of the beliefs of the latter are not yet extinct.

I've seen many exhibitions on the Holocaust, but this was an unusual perspective that has implications for our current political life. What caught my attention were a number of quotes from Mein Kampf.

The exhibition led off with this quote from Hitler on the role of propaganda.

" After my joining the German Workers' Party I immediately took over the management of the propaganda. I considered this section by far the most important."

He then went on to give some guidelines for effective propaganda: "All effective propaganda must limit itself only to a very few points and use them like slogans". Ah, the origin of the sound bite!

My curiosity was piqued. Certainly politicians today make use of these very same principles.  As I explored further I stumbled across theses additional quotes from Mein Kampf:

"The function of propaganda is not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for."

"Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth and then set it before masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly."

"As soon as our own propaganda admits so much as a glimmer of right on the other side, the foundation for doubt in our own right has been laid. The masses are then in no position to distinguish where others injustice ends and our own begins."

"It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success."

"The masses are slow moving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them."

"When there is a change, it must not alter the content of what the propaganda is driving at, but in the end must always say the same thing. For instance, a slogan must be presented from different angles, but the end of all remarks must always and immutably be the slogan itself. Only in this way can the propaganda have a unified and complete effect."

Now I am fighting the urge to veer into political commentary, but I am certain we can all identify these practices in our political discourse today. Here's a hint -think about how widely the phrase "job killing" is employed as a descriptor.

The Nazis made active use of propaganda and carefully evaluated their audience. Regional Nazi leaders evaluated peoples' response to "the Jewish Question" and calibrated their propaganda accordingly. Many were willing to overlook the anti-Jewish rhetoric. Just as today we often talk about not being one issue voters, many Germans voted on economic issues and accepted racism as part of the bargain.

An organizational chart of the Joseph Goebbel's Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda had divisions for film, music, theater, fine arts, literature, broadcasting and both German and Foreign Press. The free press had been destroyed and all means of communication fell under the sphere of propaganda.

The Nazis played up the growth in the German auto industry that had occurred since they had come to power. They talked of how the Fuher created the People's car, better known as the Volkswagen. In turn they urged people to thank the Fuher by giving him their support.

The party also targeted youth and educators as both targets and disseminators of propaganda. They first began with a purge of Jews and those who were politically undesirable. The teachers who remained became active promoters of Hitler's beliefs with 97% belonging to the National Socialists Teachers League. The Hitler youth was essentially a training ground of both future soldiers and citizens willing to support the Third Reich. It grew astronomically. In 1933 there were 50,000 members of the Hitler Youth. Three years later they numbered 5.4 million.

The Nazis also recognized the power of radio and subsidized production of the "People's Receiver" . In 1938 there were 9 million radios serving 50% of German households. Three years later there were 15 million.

So we see a very effective propaganda program, but how did they make the leap to mass murder? For that we must turn to Goebbels who advises us that, "The cleverest trick used in propaganda was to accuse your enemies of doing themselves what you are doing."

What were the Nazis doing? Starting a war with the objective of world domination and ultimately planning to enslave populations such as the Poles who they deemed lesser beings than Aryans. That translated neatly into their strategy of blaming the Jews for starting the war, seeking world domination and the enslavement of the non-Jewish population. They didn't ask Germans to commit murders, only to not interfere, fostering an environment of indifference.

After the war the Allies employed a strategy of de-Nazification. Material containing Nazi propaganda was destroyed. The publishing of Mein Kampf was banned. Street signs and emblems glorifying the Nazis were eliminated. But one thought nagged at me. What about those 5.4 million Hitler Youth raised to glorify and believe in the Nazi party? How did they square those beliefs with the reality of what occurred?

The show is up through February 2, 2014 if you are in Chicago.