Tag Archives: Jews

The Authentic History Center: A Website Review

A Rotten Place to Visit and You Wouldn't Want ...

Image by John McNab via Flickr

The Internet is rarely the best place for “one stop shopping.”

As in the non-digital world, one often has to go to multiple sites to get the best prices.  For some reason, no one site has the best of everything, which really plays havoc on your shipping and handling costs.

The same is true for the history educator that needs visual artifacts in a hurry.  For frequent visitors to the Neighborhood, there is a list of my “Non-Blog Faves” to the right, websites that cater to the needs of today’s history-minded folks.  Note the length: although many of these sites claim to be “one-stop shops”, there’s always that picture of a basket or a weird Mayan dish that can only be found on certain sites that bug out your school district’s firewall (believe me, I know).

Recently, I needed to find such a place for the entire collection of photographs in Jacob Riis‘ groundbreaking 1890 work How the Other Half Lives.  I was creating a slideshow with the photos and its a royal pain in the ass finding them all in one site.  Usually, it would take multiple image searches and sifts through multiple prints of dubious quality.

Just before I bitch-slapped my laptop in frustration, I cam across a curious little site.  The Authentic History Center had what I needed, and then some.  Not only did it have all the photos, but all the TEXT as well, including the drawn illustrations.

What balls on these guys, I thought.  This had to be investigated further.

Any site that has a single creator or author should be used with a cautious eye.  Too many kooks, nutjobs and dangerously uneducated wingnuts are out there to spread misleading and false information disguised as fact, simply because it sounds kind of official: read www.martinlutherking.org if you don’t believe me.  So I was immediated suspicious of any guy that creates a site claiming “authentic” history.

Well, Thank God.  The creater of the Authentic History Center project is a crazy history-obsessed wierdo like yours truly–and possibly any one of my regular readers.

(…and believe me, the world needs more wierdos like us)

Michael Barnes is a high school history teacher in west Michigan who created this site to provide a catalog of popular culture throughout American history.  His artifacts cover a wide range, from posters (his World War I posters are most impressive) to magazine covers, cartoons to audio and video recordings.

What’s better, the artifacts are meant to be studied with as little editorializing as possible.  A student doesn’t have to worry about some grad-student pea brain or a bedsheet-wearing cross burner slipping bad info into the term paper.   Even if you need analysis, Barnes provides incredibly even-handed views.  Along the way are interpretive essays that give some insight into the historical events, people and crises covered in the artifacts.

His honesty shines through in his intro to How the Other Half Lives, for example:

This pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis focused on the plight of the poor in the Lower East Side, and greatly influenced future “muckraking” journalism. Riis mostly attributed the plight of the poor to environmental conditions, but he also divided the poor into two categories: deserving of assistance (mostly women and children) and undeserving (mostly the unemployed and intractably criminal). He wrote with prejudice about Jews, Italians, and Irish, and he stopped short of calling for government intervention. Still, the catalyst of his work was a genuine sympathy for his subjects, and his work shocked many New Yorkers.

Concise, accurate, good use of the source material and generally a great summary of the work (although he did neglect to mention that many of Riis’ photographs were staged).

The AHC is a work in progress, so don’t expect everything you need to be there right away.  The site is constantly growing with new artifacts and new materials.  Until then, take some time to explore what Michael Barnes has and see how it can be used in your classrooms.

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Who “owns” the Holocaust? – The delicate nature of genocide

Sometimes it’s probably best to not lead with a picture, and today is one of those days in the Neighborhood.

Few subjects have as many landmines in the popular discussion as the Holocaust.   It is often extremely difficult to think about this horror in an objective way, and with good reason.  Many people today–Jews and non-Jews, friends, relatives and acquaintances–still have primary knowledge of those horrific years.  My own great-uncle was sent to a concentration camp in Austria during the war.  Another relative was sent to the Russian front, never to be seen again. 

My mind returned to those dark times through a recent Daily News article.  Apparently, the Holocaust Memorial Park in Brooklyn is about to get a facelift by the city Parks Department–adding five new markers to commemorate the non-Jewish victims of Nazi Germany, such as Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.  The local Jewish community is in an uproar over this, stating that the city acted unilaterally and that the additions undermine the Jewish nature of the memorial.  The city is defending the addition as a way to “reinforce its educational purpose to remind us of the historical circumstances of the Holocaust.”

What struck me the most was Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s remark.  Hikind (D-Brooklyn) is an orthodox Jew, represents a heavily Jewish district and is descended from Holocaust survivors.  At a news conference to draw attention to the memorial, Hikind mentioned that “The Holocaust is a uniquely Jewish event.”

The fact that the Holocaust is a major, if not the major, even in modern Jewish history is beyond dispute.  Yet to label it as “uniquely” Jewish seemed rather off-putting.  After all, how much should an ethnic group–even one with such a tumultuous history as the Jews–take ownership of a tragedy that imperiled their very existence?

To be fair, in terms of sheer numbers, Jews can easily claim the Holocaust as a tragedy that specifically targeted Jews.  6 million Jews–roughly 60% of the Jewish population of Europe–perished in the slaughter, slashing the worldwide Jewish population by a third. 

Yet other groups also suffered at the hands of the Nazis.  2 million non-Jewish Poles also succumbed to the tragedy.  13.7 million Russians cannot be discounted, either.  There were also 1-1.5 million Gypsies who died, 250,000 physically or mentally challenged people, 50,000 homosexuals, 200,000 Freemasons, 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thousands of Communists, trade unionists, pacifists, dissenters, and Christian clergy of every denomination.

Most of the actual planning of the “Final Solution” had the Jews in mind as a “storage problem,” as borne out in the transcripts of the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Berlin.  Other groups, however, also sustained persecution in a systematic manner.  Homosexuals had been targeted even before the Nazi period, through imperial Germany’s anti-sodomy law, Paragraph 175.   The T-4 euthanasia program, which targeted the mentally and physically handicapped, became the basis for the methods used in the death camps of the east. 

None of this is meant to belittle the experience of Jews in the Holocaust.  Rather, it is meant to place the suffering of the Holocaust in a broader context, especially in showing the universal nature of Nazi hatred.  It wasn’t just Jews that stoked their fire–ANYONE who wasn’t the Aryan ideal had to be out of the picture, else they ruin the facade.  This is probably the rationale of the city in placing the five new markers.

There is also this problem of “owning” the Holocaust, making it strictly a Jewish experience.  The problem with placing ownership–even if it is deserved–is that it sometimes places an implicit value judgement on another person’s experience.  Yet this is not always the case.  Often, I have found that actual Holocaust survivors are the most empathetic to others who have suffered the horrors of genocide, such as Bosnians, Armenians, and Tutsis.  It is those generations that succeed the survivors that sometimes grips to ownership, that often compare every event to the Holocaust such that no other group could have suffered like they did.

It’s amazing that the more removed we become from the experience, the less objective we can become about it.  In most instances, it’s the other way around.  Much the same problem happens with another sticking point–policies toward Israel.  My Israeli friends tend to take a fairly open-minded, balanced approach to the problems of their country.  Yet many who have, at best, a remote connection to Israel are ready to defend it against any real or perceived slight, often while distorting or ignoring factual information.

As bad as genocidal situations can be, we must often take a step back to look at the facts from a different perspective.  Believe me, looking at any lens, the suffering of Jews and other oppressed minorities in the 1930s and 1940s is a catastrophe beyond compare.  It is a shame that we often have to use rhethoric to drown out the loud, clear voice of fact. 

So if I had to counter Assemblyman Hikind, this is what I would say:

“Assemblyman, I understand your pain and ardor at an arbitrary and unilateral change to a monument in your community.  The fact that community leaders were not consulted is truly reprehensible.  However, your claim that the Holocaust is a ‘uniquely Jewish’ event belittles the suffering your ancestors endured, as well as the suffering of so many more.

Let me be clear: your mother was a hero.  I feel all survivors of the Holocaust are heroes.  Yet you speak as if you were there with them.  You were not, nor was I.  Let us not claim a heroism that doesn’t exist.

As much as the pain of the Holocaust still dwells in Jews across the world, we are now at a point where we can–and should–see these events through a different lens.  Those lenses are the eyes and ears of the millions of other victims who were persecuted simply for who they were.  To label the Holocaust as ‘uniquely’ Jewish diminishes their suffering and demeans the memory of Jewish survivors and victims–survivors like your mother.

The Holocaust–by spirit, and by numbers–is a tragedy shared by many people, Jew and non-Jew alike.  Nothing can diminish its evil; the numbers are simply too staggering to even contemplate.  Yet keeping ownership of this catastrophe does diminish the good that the Holocaust can teach to others.  Future generations have to learn that prejudice and bigotry, in ANY form and against ANYONE, is immoral, unjust and against the tenets of every major religion.  Don’t diminish the suffering of others in glorifying your own.”

Mr. Hikind is more than free to post a response on this blog, if he so chooses.  I’m looking forward to his, any other, responses.

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The Jesus Problem: How to teach about “you-know-who”

“Religion is a great force: the only real motive force in the world; but what you fellows don’t understand is that you must get at a man through his own religion and not through yours.” – George Bernard Shaw

I was discussing with another teacher about the projects her students were doing.  For their exit project, her students were doing biographies of people that were a force for changing history–an admirable topic, to be sure.  Many chose typical but important people, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and the like.  Some were less than serious.  I’m still at a loss as to how Chris Brown was a shaper of history–he certainly re-shaped Rihanna’s face, the bum.

Yet one girl strived to outdo all the others, picking the one guy that everyone can either love or hate, the one dude that probably caused both the most joy and the most misery in the Western world.  Yeshua Bin-Yusuf, or to us non-Aramaic speakers, Jesus of Nazareth.  Yeah, that guy.

This girl had recently been taking catechism classes for her confirmation, so I can understand her enthusiasm for Jesus.  The miracles, the stories he told, his way with crowds–how can you not love the guy.  Then came the following: “Did you know that Jesus had a wife?”  Apparently, either Dan Brown was teaching her catechism class or she caught a late viewing of The DaVinci Code on her TV.  In fact, it was a Discovery Channel special that piqued her interest.

She then became confused when she cross-referenced some of the particulars of our cultural tradition with the Bible.  Where do they mention Christmas?  Why is there no date?  What about Easter?  How come it doesn’t say to not eat meat on a Friday?  Granted, this was an 11 year old girl, so she had every right to be confused…and excited.  She couldn’t wait to get started.

I have deep reservations about this.  I don’t want to crush her enthusiasm, but Jesus is a complex guy to cover in a public school.  The line between reporting and prostyletizing is razor thin.  Plus, there’s that pesky First Amendment to worry about…oh, this would all be much easier if we were all Puritans feeling guilty about whistling on the Sabbath.  There are a number of non-Christians in the school, and their parents would be none too pleased about Big J crashing the secular party.

On top of all that, Jesus is both “too big” a topic with “too small” a base of source material.  Can anyone really describe Jesus’ impact on our world in one book, let alone a sheet of paper?  His teachings formed the basis, both good and bad, of Western civilization as we know it.  More people died in his name than anyone else.  His followers number in the billions, and even they can’t agree on who gets the big guy’s seal of approval–the Catholics were first on the block, but the Lutherans and Calvinists thought the Papists “got soft” and claimed they were his true representatives.  This has morphed into denominations too varied and numerous to count.  Even the Mormons claim the guy, although I wonder if they got their dogma from the Bible or from Joseph Smith smoking too many bricks of opium in his hookah.

If we were to study Jesus as a historical figure, which he is, there is a grand total of one, count ’em, one secular research source that is even close to Jesus’ time period. The author wasn’t exactly unbiased, either.  Yosef Ben-Matityahu was a military leader in the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD against the Roman Empire.  He was cornered in a cave, and convinced his fellow rebels they should draw lots to kill each other since suicide was a Jewish no-no.  Somehow, he was the last one standing (surprise, surprise) and nonchalantly bargained for his life with his Roman conquerors, who then took him to Rome and gave him the Emperor’s Package (and not the Ceasers Palace kind, either).  Now re-christened Flavius Josephus, he proceeded to write two of the most important historical texts of the period: The Jewish War (75 AD) and The Antiquities of the Jews (94).  Jesus is mentioned in the first work, as well as his early followers.  However, remember that this is a guy that went to war with the Romans, was captured by the Romans, had his life spared, and was granted Roman citizenship with a pension.  Josephus was not going to crap where he ate, so don’t count on a completely fair view of Jesus (“And so he was crucified, but he probably had it coming.  A guy like that is just asking for it.”)

Historical research in education, particularly for students, has centered more and more on the use of primary source materials.  This is great for U.S. history, for World War II and the civil rights movement, but ancient history is a lot trickier.  The Bible is no help; most of it was written well after the fact, and all the Evangelists had an agenda: some wanted to tell the straight story, some wanted to brown-nose the Man Upstairs (Apostle John, I’m looking in your direction).  Roman records only have a notation that someone named Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem somewhere between 26-33 AD.  And we see how Josephus has his problems.  Furthermore, with the texts of Jesus’ life heavily censored by church authorities to show him in all his awesomeness, the bits about his “failings” (if any…did the thunderbolt come down yet?) were safely discarded.  Nobody needed to know that at the wedding at Cana, Jesus could only create white Zinfandel, which most Jews found pedestrian at the time.  Nor was it helpful to have the eyewitness accounts of the Romans who attended to his death (“He just wouldn’t stop squirming.”).

Finally, I think I would recommend that my student should choose a more modern person with a more limited scope of greatness.  Jesus taught the world that all human beings had value.  It’s a gigantic concept, one that an adult has trouble understanding, let alone an 11 year old.  For all her enthusiasm and drive, I think its best to leave Jesus to the biblical scholars and archaeologists.  Instead, maybe she should pick a person that will incur Jesus’ wrath.  Like Hitler, Stalin, or Bernie Madoff.  That way, at least she’s clear about his message.


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