Holocaust Museum: Voices of veterans drive exhibit
Dr. Louis D. Levine is the curator of the Illinois Holocaust Museum's latest exhibition that tells the story of the contributions and experiences of Jewish veterans in World War II. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 24, 2012 8:10AM
It may be more instructive to begin with what you will not find in the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s traveling exhibition about Jewish World War II veterans.
Although packed with photos, newsreel footage, uniforms, weapons and artillery, maps and so many other artifacts, the collection does not emphasize chronology or even geography so much as it does experience.
Nor does it contain a dense set of written summaries and explanations by museum experts as one usually finds in a history program. This exhibition’s voice belongs not to the history books, says Exhibition Curator Louis D. Levine, but to the veterans who fought the war on land, in the air and on sea some 65 years ago.
“There are basically no dates in this exhibit,” Levine said. “There are no places in the exhibit. We weren‘t interested in telling a story about World War II. We were interested in telling a story of what it was like to participate in World War II. It was the individual experience that mattered to us.”
That means that names most associated with the war — names like Midway and Iwo Jima and D-Day and Normandy — are nowhere to be found among the vast array of artifacts. Instead, intimate memories from hundreds of veterans become the paint for this program’s canvas.
“I had room for my clarinet and my Tommy gun on a little shelf to the right,” says army soldier Marvin Weissman. His words in writing accompany a clarinet and a weapon of the likes he describes.
“I was the gunner and my world was that little periscope,” says Army Sgt. Marcus Goldberg. “That’s all I saw.” The quote sits near a World War II periscope, inviting viewers to look through the lens more than six decades after it was used in war.
“I made a point of never having a picture of myself with my rifle so I wouldn’t scare my mother,” says U.S. Army Cpl. Lester Speiser.
“Ours To Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War,” which opened Sunday at the Skokie museum, originally ran for several years at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. It was named grand prize winner of the Excellence in Exhibition Competition at the American Association of Museum’s 2004 meeting.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum’s version, the third and final stop for the touring program, is about half the size of the original New York display. That may be hard though for visitors to believe.
Even in its pared down form, “Ours to Fight For” feels comprehensive and powerful, a mosaic removed from a stale history class and immersed in the life-changing adventures of Jewish men and women called into duty at the country’s most pivotal time.
Levine and his team interviewed at least 400 veterans for the exhibition — some of them well known like former New York Mayor Ed Koch and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — and others who quietly continued their lives after the war.
Levine said that although the veterans expressed varied experiences that make it impossible to generalize, one commonality clearly emerged.
“Almost all of them said serving was the most important experience in their lives,” he said.
“Ours To Fight For” briefly introduces visitors to America’s lead-up to World War II when the country was divided about entering the war.
“On one hand there were those who said we don’t want to go to war. Don’t pull us into another European war,” explained Levine. “And on the other hand, there was this whole group of other people who said we have to get into this war or else it’s going to be very, very bad.”
The exhibition also takes note of the ugly anti-Semitism and prejudice that became part of the debate and the pre-war climate.
The Japanese definitively ended the debate, of course, and America’s entry into the war launches what is really the heart of the exhibition.
“From this point onward, the exhibition changes in character,” Levine said. “You cross into what the exhibition is really about. We’re going to tell you stories of young Jews and why it mattered to them and why it was their own war.”
“Ours To Fight For” is thoughtfully staged and aesthetically experiential. It includes a wardrobe display that, in its own way, shows the “creation” of a soldier from civilian clothes to a variety of uniforms.
The recreation of a prisoner of war hut reflects conditions that U.S. soldiers endured at the hands of the enemy during the war. Smaller artifacts, perhaps not so significant when considered in a vacuum, become much more so in the context of the larger tapestry the exhibition weaves.
Film of Rabbi David Max Eichhorn leading the first Jewish service at the Dachau camp upon its liberation becomes more poignant with the service’s actual Torah scroll displayed beside it.
The exhibition closes out with a wall of wartime pictures of local Jewish veterans. Once the word was out about this part of the exhibition, the submissions came in, Holocaust Museum Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Arielle Weininger said.
Nearly 400 of these photos will be rotated monthly while the exhibition is up. All of them can be seen in books located near the display wall.
What comes across most profoundly while traveling through the twists and turns of “Ours To Fight For” is an unvarnished truth. There is no barrier between the raw voices of veterans and their audience.
“I had never seen a dead person in my life,” says a veteran as film of a beach landing flashes on screen. “There was complete chaos. People were screaming. The water was red with blood.”
Paul Guttman of the U.S. Navy says he saw more men who died cursing or asking for their mothers than those praying.
“I can remember spending a day and a night with a soldier who was dying who thought I was his mother,” said Janet Freeman of the U.S. Army.
“We didn’t want to make this about heroes,” explained Levine. “We wanted to make this gritty and dirty. We wanted to tell the truth.”
That’s why veteran Walter Reed of Wilmette, a former soldier who served in Europe from 1943-46, so admires the exhibition.
“I am not in league with Tom Brokaw and all the people who call anybody over 80 years old who once was in the military the greatest generation,” Reed said. “We were not great heroes or a great generation. We were thrown into a kind of existence where we were always scared, we were always filthy and we were always bitching and complaining about everything.”
For Reed, the exhibition speaks truth rather than bolstering some of the myths that have emerged through more recent cultural interest in World War II.
“I don’t resent that we’re called the greatest generation,” he said, “but I know better.”
Phil Rosenberg of Lincolnshire, a gunner’s mate in World War II, also believes in the importance of the exhibition.
“It shows any doubters that the Jews fought in World War II in every capacity and at every rank,” he said. “The contributions they made have not always been publicized or recognized and this exhibition does both. It’s important.”
The Holocaust Museum has served up a string of eclectic and informative traveling exhibitions in its short existence, but none are likely to draw more interest than “Ours To Fight For.”
“It reflects what it meant to be Jewish and to be able to lend oneself to the effort to fight Naziism and fascism and to bring an American ideal of fairness and democracy and respect for human life to the battlefront,” said Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut. “These young men and women with great trepidation and an undercurrent of fear — fear of the unknown, fear of being killed — were advancing that greater good of fighting for freedom.
“In their minds,“ he said, “the future of the world as we knew it hung in the balance. That deserves special recognition.”