Amazing artifacts recall 350 years
Museum hosts history of Jews in America
By Benita Heath
Contributing Arts Writer
It looks so innocuous, like any other telegram that used to click across the teletype machines in the 1940s. There are the familiar strips of type pasted across a couple of half-sheets of paper under the famed yellow-and-green logo of an official Western Union Cablegram.
It's what's printed on those strips of type that can still freeze the soul, 63 years after it was sent one night in August 1942.
"PLAN DISCUSSED AND UNDER CONSIDERATION ... ALL JEWS IN COUNTRIES OCCUPIED OR CONTROLLED GERMANY ... AT ONE BLOW EXTERMINATED TO RESOLVE ONCE FOR ALL JEWISH QUESTION IN EUROPE."
That message was a panicked plea for help from British MP Samuel Silverman to prominent New York rabbi and Zionist leader Stephen Wise to stop what history now calls the Holocaust. Silverman had gotten the horrifying news from a well-placed contact in Hitler-controlled Europe who had also telegraphed Wise directly. The rabbi, however, never got the contact's cablegram; it was confiscated by the U.S. Department of State as it came across the wires. Only through Silverman's forwarding of the message did Wise learned of the impending Nazi atrocities.
By the time the rabbi got the Silverman cable, 1 million Jews had already been gassed.
This is just one of an exhaustive collection of documents, memorabilia and artifacts in From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, on display for two more weeks at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The exhibit's goal is to celebrate the events and contributions of American Jews since 23 immigrants came to the United States from Brazil in 1654, seeking freedom.
"Almost all the documents in this exhibition are of this caliber," says Dr. Gary P. Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the repository from which much of the exhibit was drawn.
There's Emma Lazarus' handwritten manuscript of her famed poem, The New Colossus, more familiarly known as Give Me Your Tired and Poor, that is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty; the May 14, 1948, letter from President Harry S. Truman recognizing the state of Israel; and a handwritten copy of the lyrics to God Bless America, by its composer, Irving Berlin, on his own stationery.
"To see the actual manuscript of Emma Lazarus -- 'Give me your tired and your poor' -- that is something known by all Americans, and to see it in her own hand, right before your eyes ...," says Zola, the guiding force behind the exhibit. "It is highly unlikely that there's ever been an assembly of documents of this caliber, of this remarkable historical significance, at one place at one time. I can't imagine it happening in the past. It is not likely to happen soon in the future."
But the multimedia exhibit -- part of Cincinnati's yearlong celebration of the 350th anniversary of the American Jewish experience -- has far more than paper under glass. There's a 17th-century prayer book; Civil War-era hand-painted wine cups; a Bible belonging to Rabbi Samuel Weiss, father of renowned escape artist Harry Houdini; and one of the earliest Medals of Honor, given to David Urbansky of Pickaway, Ohio, a Union soldier who valiantly fought in the battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg.
"The idea of the medal began with the Civil War," Zola says. "Spirits were flagging in the Union. It was a bloody, horrible war, and this was an idea to boost the spirits."
Past the main concourse of displays, in a small theater, visitors can watch a half-hour loop film and see clips of a speech by Albert Einstein at a Zionist fund-raiser, the benediction given by Cincinnati native and celebrated archaeologist Rabbi Nelson Glueck at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, and even an early television video of Berlin singing on the Ed Sullivan show.
The exhibit is set up to be self-guided, although docents are available for group tours. For those who want to go it alone, information panels detailing the historic significance of memorabilia are set up throughout the exhibit. A chronology has been drawn to show events in American Jewish history and how they parallel happenings in the history of the United States overall. In addition, two interactive computer kiosks let visitors do more research on Jewish-American history. The computers are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
"There is no Jewish community that is comparable to the American Jewish community in all Diaspora history," Zola says. (Diaspora refers to Jewish communities living outside the Holy Land.) "The reason can be traced to our founding documents: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That has made it possible for a Jew to play a role in American society that is unlike any other Diaspora community in terms of depth and breadth of impact. The understanding of the American people is advanced through the study of the American Jew."