When statues come down

I admit to initially being puzzled about how the protests related to the attacks on the Columbus statues.

A CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS statue lies on the ground outside the Minnesota State Capitol, after taking a forced nosedive on June 10. (photo credit: TONY WEBSTER/FLICKR)
A CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS statue lies on the ground outside the Minnesota State Capitol, after taking a forced nosedive on June 10.
(photo credit: TONY WEBSTER/FLICKR)
Knowing the names of the three ships with which Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain in 1492 was a necessity for every student in my elementary school back when I was a kid in Connecticut. In those days, “Christopher Columbus discovered America,” and he was a national hero. Full stop. The explorer from Genoa and his supposed far-sighted patrons Spanish Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were glorified. According to legend – back then considered fact – the Spanish queen pawned her royal jewels to finance the courageous journey that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the United States. My high school history teacher often said that the most beautiful place in the world was the Alhambra in Spain.
Later, as my Jewish education filled in, I learned that 1492 was a catastrophic date in my own people’s story, and that Columbus’s sailing and the expulsion of Jews from Spain were not unconnected. Tomas de Torquemada and the heralded Ferdinand and Isabella took their proper places in the large rogues’ gallery of antisemitic despots. Alhambra ceased to be my history teacher’s glorified palace but the site of Alhambra Decree, banishing the Jews, a ban still in effect when I was in high school.
In 2020, Statues of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, several together with Columbus, are ubiquitous. You’ll see them in Cordova and Grenada, and also Washington and Sacramento.
I thought of this, of course, as angry crowds recently burned and beheaded at least three statues of Christopher Columbus in the United States.
American friends advise that those of us who are following the current protests from afar cannot appreciate the rage that has exploded nor the frustration over the concentrated poverty and bigotry. Anyone watching the filmed murder of George Floyd has to be sickened and enraged.
I ADMIT to being initially puzzled about how the protests were related to the attacks on the Columbus statues. I hadn’t realized that in a more nuanced approach to American history, Columbus’s dark side was now emphasized in history classes. If you look him up today, he’s no longer the explorer Columbus but “the colonizer Columbus” who brought an expansionist Europe to the Americas. You also learn that his cruelty was so widely acknowledged that he was imprisoned because of it when he returned to Spain, soon enough pardoned by King Ferdinand who was interested in him making an additional voyage.
To remove his statue? Not without precedent. As official history changed in the Soviet Union, statues of Lenin and Stalin fell, some to be resurrected. In England this week, the statue of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts is being temporarily removed to protect it from protesters who believe he had homophobic and racist views.
Is this only exaggerated political correctness? I think not.
I remember my own reaction to the statue of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the city square in Kiev. I was in the Ukraine to visit the Holocaust memorial site of Babi Yar. When I was in high school, at a Soviet Jewry protest, I’d recited the English translation of the famous poem that memorialized the site by Soviet era poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko at a Soviet Jewry protest in Connecticut. According to Einsatzgruppe reports to headquarters at the end of September, 1941, they’d murdered 33,771 Jews in two days in the ravine of Babi Yar.
Not far away, stands the Khmelnytsky statue. It’s #22 on Trip Advisor’s Sights and Landmarks of Kiev, only two behind Babi Yar. I felt anger and disgust at the exaltation of this national hero, who in our Jewish history is “Khmiel the Wicked,” the initiator of the terrible 1648-49 massacres of Jewish communities in his attempt to make his newly unified territory Judenrein. Ukrainians famously toppled their Lenin statue in 2014, but Khmelnytsky still stands and presides over the square. Would I like to see it toppled? Yes, I would.
IN HIS 2020 book with Ruta Vanaquite Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust, head of Jerusalem’s Simon Wiesenthal Center Dr. Ephraim Zuroff describes seeing the huge cast bas-relief statue of Juozazas Krikstaponis, a pilgrimage site by the late archbishop of Lithuania. Krikstaponis took part in every massacre of Jews there, especially in Belarus, where he was one of the commanders of the murder of 27,000 Jews. The Nazi hunter treated the statue with enraged execration – in other words, he stood there and cursed.
Speaking with Zuroff about this, he points out that the statues are just a small part of the idealization of former Nazis. There are streets, institutions and plaques honoring their memories.
And yes, I’d like to see all the Nazi and collaborator names blotted out.
So we can understand the desire to re-evaluate the honors bestowed on those with a history of bigotry and brutality.
I don’t know where this will lead. Think of Columbus. Right off the bat, we can name a South American country, 12 cities and an Ivy League university named for him.
Cities can change names. Leningrad is back to St. Petersburg. Bombay became Mumbai when the Shiv Sena party came to power because they saw Bombay as a legacy of British colonialism. Mumbai pays tribute to the Maratha Mumbadev. Once upon a time, Columbia University was called Kings’ College.
There are a lot of good women’s names available for naming. Israeli folksinger Sandy Cash recently wrote a song about astronomer Vera Rubin.
Some have proposed that Christopher Columbus was a converso because of his knowledge of Biblical and Jewish sources in his writing, and his postponing of his first sailing from Tisha Be’Av. The facts indicate that Columbus’s expensive voyage was funded by conversos Louis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez, as well as statesman and Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel. It would have made good sense in 1492 for them to be seeking a new world as theirs collapsed in Spain. But proof of Columbus’ Jewish roots? No. Today, that’s a relief.
And those three ships? Ask any American-educated Israeli and we’ll tell you they were the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. But had we dug a little further back then in elementary school, we could have learned that they were actually named La Santa Clara, La Pinta and La Santa Gallega, probably names of prostitutes. So much for what we once considered the immutable facts of our education.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.