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Exhibits mark heroism abroad, unease at home in Nazi era

By Daniel Sturm

In 1940, American writer Varian Fry went to Marselles, France, for one month as an operative of the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private U.S. relief organization. His goal was to rescue individuals in danger of Nazi persecution.

He ended up staying 13 months until he was expelled. In that time, he helped rescue Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipschitz, Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel and other Jews, artists, writers and scientists.

A new exhibit at the MSU Museum, “Varian Fry – Assignment: Rescue, 1940-1941,” tells the story of Fry’s efforts, which are credited with saving 1,200 people in war-torn France. It is on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Also on exhibit at the museum is “Uneasy Years: Michigan Jewry During Depression and War.”

Daniel Sturm/City Pulse
Visitors at a reception Sunday check out two new exhibits at the MSU Museum: “Varian Fry – Assignment: Rescue, 1940-1941” and “Uneasy Years: Michigan Jewry During Depression and War.”
‘Varian Fry – Assignment: Rescue, 1940-1941’ & ‘Uneasy Years: Michigan Jewry During Depression and War’

At the MSU Museum through June 15, 2003
The museum is open free of charge seven days a week: weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Fry biographer Sheila Isenberg, who spoke at the opening of the exhibit Monday, said Fry was a courageous man who devised an elaborate clandestine escape network until France expelled him 13 months later. Fry, 32, a young editor and writer in New York City, had no training in relief work, but he was unafraid. Fry, who had a degree in classics from Harvard, later commented that he had gone to France because among the refugees “were many writers whose work I had enjoyed. … Now that they were in danger, I felt obliged to help them if I could; just as they, without knowing it, had often in the past helped me.”

Bringing the Varian Fry exhibit to Michigan State University Museum was the idea of the East Lansing Jewish Congregation Shaarey Zedek. “We realized it wouldn’t be possible without the help of museum staff,” said Jeanette Abeles, the congregation’s cultural committee chairwoman and co-director of the exhibit.

When history Professor Ken Waltzer of MSU’s James Madison College first heard that the Fry exhibit was coming to town, he immediately thought about doing a companion exhibit. In the research he’d done together with Kirsten Fermaglich, an MSU assistant professor of Jewish studies, they’d often been confronted by the common belief that Michigan Jews must have been too preoccupied with their own struggles to be concerned about what was going on in Europe. “We found that this is just not so,” said Waltzer, and pointed out that their own exhibit on Michigan Jews, and that of the American hero, Varian Fry, were thus intertwined. “Michigan Jews didn’t turn their heads away.”

By the early 1940s 27 German-Jewish refugees had been quietly relocated to Detroit, avoiding the publicity that might cause anti-Semitism. “Many of the families privately supported the migration of family members and friends from Germany through affidavits,” said Waltzer. By 1940 the amount of money Michigan Jews had raised for the Allied Jewish Campaign had steadily grown, and two thirds was used to support refugees. “I think that’s a clear signal that the community was touched and organized.”

Michigan Jewry also energetically worked to found a state in Palestine, as illustrated in the depiction of a 1934 Detroit support rally, which drew a few thousand people. In 1938 when the British closed off Jewish immigration to Palestine, Michigan Jews protested in front of the British Council. They also boycotted German manufacturers in the 1930s. And after Pearl Harbor, Jewish men would enlist in large numbers in the war effort, and 330 from Michigan would die in battle. Waltzer explained in his opening lecture Sunday that when Michigan Jews learned of the Holocaust in 1942, mourning services occurred across the state.

The “Uneasy Years” exhibit includes newspaper headlines and family photos connecting personal stories with events in Germany. There’s even a rebuilt living room on display, with items on loan from families and other exhibits. Education interpretation curator Kris Morrissey said no films were included because little private footage had been produced in the 1930s on the roughly 30 families in the area. Today, Lansing’s Jewish community is estimated at 600 families.

In addition to complimenting the visiting Varian Fry exhibit, Waltzer noted that the local exhibit served the second purpose of filling a gap in history, since little has been written on the history of Michigan Jewry during the Depression. Ninety percent of the Jewish community was located in Detroit, counting roughly 80,000 people including 20,000 children. But others were thinly spread throughout the state. The exhibit shows pictures of these families’ department stores, clothing stores and warehouses in places like Kalamazoo, Marquette, Grand Rapids, and Muskegon. “It was pretty much a bourgeois community, unlike the more working-class Jewish communities in New York City - that by the 1930s had become somewhat integrated in America,” Waltzer said. “These were not fully integrated. They had a separate Jewish life, and they were clustered in their own neighborhoods, partly because of residential discrimination.” Like other regions in the United States they were hit by the Depression, and were affected by the rise of Nazism abroad and the ideas of anti-Semitism that were spreading with it, worldwide. “Some passed pamphlets around, ran anti-Semitic radio programs, there were also riots, and the strong Black Legion in Detroit — formerly the militant arm of the Ku Klux Klan — became a proto-Nazi organization in the 1930s,” he said.

Julie Avery, the museum’s assistant curator, said two years of work had gone into the local exhibit. She said the work may continue to produce complementary exhibits. Given the current discussion on restricting immigration through the U.S.A. Patriot Act, consider her comment: “During the 1930s the United States did not provide haven to immigrants and refugees. [...] Those who sought to escape Europe and could not come, faced persecution, terror, and finally, mass extermination. [...] These years are beacon to Americans. We are and ought to be an immigration nation. We can and should be a haven from persecution and war.”

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