The Human Spirit: Cousins

As I learned from an exhibition in New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, being a cousin – true or imagined – might have saved your life in the dark days before World War II.

Holocaust candles 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Holocaust candles 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Growing up in America, when we cousins got together – let’s say for Passover – we would examine the definitions of closeness: Who was a first cousin, who a second, and who a third? But we knew there was another concept of cousinhood. When the older generation used the Yiddish “kuzina” for cousin, it simply meant “family.” No one was counting degrees of separation.
As I learned from an exhibition in New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, being a cousin – true or imagined – might have saved your life in the dark days before World War II.
For example, in September 1938, Morris Zeisel in Brooklyn received a letter from celebrated Vienna- born composer Erich Zeisl, who had won an Austrian state prize in 1934 for a Requiem Mass. Zeisel was a plumber earning $75 a week.
He’d never heard of his illustrious almost-namesake.
Facing the Anschluss, Zeisl was desperate to leave Europe, and read through the New York phone books hoping to find either a long-lost cousin or a namesake who might be willing to sponsor him. We don’t know how many others received letters and didn’t answer.
But Zeisel the plumber from Brooklyn sent an affidavit and promised to be responsible for kuzina Erich Zeisl and his wife Gertrud. The two men weren’t related.
You’ll find him heralded in the exhibit called “Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees 1933-1941,” along with Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle and William B. Thalhimer, Sr., who figure among the heroes of the ultimately gloomy story of American reluctance to save European Jewry, cousins or not-cousins. Laemmle brought over many Jews. Thalhimer overcame visa limitations by bringing in permitted agricultural workers for a Virginia farm he opened for the purpose of helping immigrants.
A primary focus of the museum is the story of German-born Jewish fur manufacturers Jacob and David Kestenbaum, who sent for hundreds of “kuzinim,” whether they were blood relatives or not. They even hired a secretary to work fulltime on the applications and files. American diplomatic bureaucrats eventually caught on to the largesse of these righteous Jews and shut down their rescue operation. The State Department ruled that the Kestenbaums simply had too many cousins and couldn’t bring any more to the shores of the United States.
Visa quotas were weighted against Central Europeans and even more Eastern Europeans, says Bonnie Gurewitsch, the curator of the exhibition.
“Had Norwegians wanted to immigrate in large numbers, this would have been easy,” she explains.
From the museum’s Battery Park location, you can see the Statue of Liberty, with its famous poem by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” How hollow the words sound against the bitter history of the US government’s refusal to change immigration policy, or even to fulfill the visa quotas that were in place. Instead, a bureaucratic backlog, backed by public opinion (including a majority of Jewish Americans), blocked the gateways for the masses, and even the elite.
Potential immigrants lined up at American embassies. Most of the applications were tossed aside as unworthy. The paperwork grew and became more daunting and cumbersome. The exhibition’s dominating image is of hundreds of curved paper forms hanging from strings. Paperwork, escalating fees of passage and clerical callousness crushed the hopes and survival chances of those whose lives were hanging by a string.
Gurewitsch spent years reading the documentation and correspondence.
“Even if the existing quotas had been fulfilled, another 300,000 Jews would have been saved,” she says.
While celebrating the efforts of the few who worked against the odds, the exhibition is a scathing indictment of the potential pitilessness of the USA. It should be a compulsory study for diplomats before they are posted.
STILL TASTING the bitterness of the New York exhibit, oddly, two days after visiting Battery Park in New York, I found myself in Whitwell, Tennessee, visiting another remarkable museum related to the Holocaust. No grand statue stands nearby, just a brick public school with a fleet of yellow school buses waiting outside to pick up the 450 pupils who live in this rural area.
Fifteen years ago, school principal Linda Hooper initiated an after-school program on tolerance in the Whitwell Middle School. Nearly all of her students are white Christians. A few blacks and Hispanics. No Jews. When the preteens studied the Holocaust, they found the numbers unfathomable.
They needed to understand what six million meant. And after they learned in teacher Sandra Roberts’s class that Johan Vaalar, a Norwegian (!), designed a loop of metal – a paperclip – and that some Norwegians wore them to protest Nazi occupation, one of the kids suggested that they collect six million paper clips. They set up a website and solicited paper clips from cousins and celebs. German-born journalists Peter and Dagmar Schroeder (not cousins of mine, although my husband is Gerald Schroeder), who were covering the White House, somehow heard about it and took an active hand in the publicity. At first, there was a trickle of clips, but later a great river of clips surged from all over the world to the Tennessee valley. It turns out that different countries have different-style paper clips. They come in many sizes and colors. How appropriate. They reached six million, then reached 11 million.
Today there are more than 30 million, and more than 30,000 documents and letters sharing stories and feelings.
I drove to Whitwell, just a half hour from Chattanooga, with two women acquaintances – soon to become friends. In the back were their home-schooled preteen daughters, first cousins. The clock moved to Central Time along the way, and we gained an hour. School was still in session, and the office secretary welcomed us and directed us to a library room containing shelves lined with ring-binders. A few pupils were there.
The home-schooled girls, M and E, had learned about the Holocaust from their parent- teachers, too. The exhibit, like the one in New York, is minimally interactive. No bells and whistles. The main activity is reading. M and E took down folders and began to read. There are letters from schoolkids, teachers, survivors. The majority are positive, but a few folders hold negative letters, criticizing the project and denying the Holocaust. The girls took special notice of a letter from a boy in Alaska who had learned about the efforts of the Tennessee kids and thought it was great.
Exhibits include a Torah scroll and a fine collection of non-fiction and fiction for children and adults. You also press start on an old-fashioned tape recorder and a southern-accented women’s voice – maybe one of the local teachers – tells the story of the exhibit. The journalist Schroeders helped bring a genuine railway car – the kind that carried gasping Jews to their final destinations – to the schoolyard. The car serves as the Children’s Holocaust Memorial and holds 11 million clips, one for each victim of the Holocaust. A local crane company lifted the car from the truck onto rails set at the school. The rails were made in Tennessee during World War II. Volunteers prepared the site. All this happened out there where the time changes in the state of Tennessee, in a town with fewer than 2,000 residents. The theme of the museum and the school is “Changing the World… One Class at a Time,” and it’s powerful for the setting and the message.
ON THE way back to Chattanooga, the cousins were quiet and thoughtful in the backseat.
Rain was falling, and we passed a middle-aged homeless man on a bicycle. His life’s belongings – including a guitar – were wrapped and hanging from the handlebars. He was a strong biker, and at a traffic light he caught up to us.
One of the girls suggested we help him. And it turns out she had something in the car with her for just such a purpose. In her youth group, they had filled Ziploc plastic bags with what they thought the homeless might need. Hers had crackers and cheese and toiletries. Her Mom stopped the car, and I hopped out with her to call the bike rider. At first, he waved us away, but then he came back and took the package from 12-year-old E.
“Thank you for encouraging me,” he told her, and biked away.
With the right education, goodness can flourish, and the lamp can indeed lift high beside the golden door.
She’ll probably never see the biker again. They aren’t even cousins. ■
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.