MILWAUKEE – From the memories of a horrific past, a persecuted people tries to build a foundation for a future without hatred.
That has long been the goal of the Jewish community’s Holocaust education efforts. But it is also the mission of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, an institution that hopes to soon reopen its doors in Milwaukee.
The museum’s reopening could prompt renewed discussion of the similarities and differences between the Shoah and the African-American experience, at the same time that the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center is launching a new Milwaukee Public Schools program to explore those questions. It also comes after the city’s racial tensions exploded into rioting in mid-August.
On its website, the museum says it “builds public awareness of the harmful legacies of slavery in America and promotes racial repair, reconciliation and healing. We envision a society that remembers its past in order to shape a better future – a nation undivided by race, where every person matters equally.”
The black museum operated in Milwaukee’s north side Bronzeville neighborhood from 1984 to 2008, then was reborn online in 2012. Now plans are in progress for the museum to return in brick-and-mortar form as part of The Griot, a mixed-use development to be built on the site of the museum’s former building in the 2200 block of N. 4th St.
In May, The Griot won federal low-income housing tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. Construction is to start in spring 2017 and be completed in early 2018, developer Melissa Goins said.
Museum founder James Cameron, who survived a 1930 lynching, said he was inspired by a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where he saw parallels between the Shoah and the treatment of African-Americans during and after slavery.
Not all Jews saw it that way. In a January 1995 Chronicle article, Robert Corris, then president of the Milwaukee chapter of the American Jewish Committee, wrote: “Some Jews believe the term ‘Holocaust’ can be used only to describe the German Nazis’ war of extermination against the Jews. … ‘Holocaust,’ they believe, must not become generic, lest people forget that the Nazi murder campaign was uniquely aimed at the Jews — the organized murder of an entire people by a highly civilized country.”
Cameron, who died in 2006, understood those feelings and didn’t argue with people who held them, said Reggie Jackson, chairman of the museum’s board.
But the museum also has its Jewish supporters. Philanthropist Daniel Bader underwrote the museum’s early operations with a personal donation, and the late businessman Marty Stein helped raise funds, said Fran Kaplan, coordinator of the virtual museum. In a video posted on the museum’s website, Bader said he was impressed by how Cameron connected with people in telling his story.
“Jews know what it is to be a despised minority,” added Kaplan, who grew up as one of only a few Jews in a small Indiana town.
Corris and current Jewish leaders say it is possible — and necessary — to respect the Shoah’s unique history without diminishing African-American suffering.
“We don’t have to have competing victimhood,” said Elana Kahn, director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “If we keep fighting about the use of the word, that’s just going to keep us apart.”
Both Corris’ article and the museum’s website list similarities between the Jewish and black experiences, including the slavery of Southern plantations and the slave labor of concentration camps; race riots in the U.S. and pogroms in Europe; and dehumanization by oppressors.
“Dehumanization is a precondition to persecution,” said Shay Pilnik, executive director of the Holocaust Education Resource Center. “The African-Americans suffered humiliation. They were treated as less than human beings in order to make society accept discrimination. The Nazis felt comfortable committing their gruesome crimes only after indoctrination that led them to believe Jews were less than human.”
Pilnik said the Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC) will discuss those themes in a new program that it is designing for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students. The program, called Respecting Individual Differences, will consider how the Holocaust resembles and differs from the history of racism, he said.
MPS and HERC officials have not yet identified which schools will participate, Pilnik said.
America’s Black Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Community Relations Council also promote dialogue between racial and ethnic groups as an antidote to discrimination.
The Jewish Community Relations Council participated in the global “Hours Against Hate” program — founded by Milwaukee Jewish Federation President and CEO Hannah Rosenthal when she was a State Department official — encouraging area residents to spend an hour building bridges with people unlike themselves. That’s just one example of the Council’s coalition-building efforts, Kahn said.
And last spring, the museum organized a series of discussion groups for white and black area residents to talk about the history of discrimination. Beverly Colton, who lives in Shorewood, was among the participants.
Colton said “the prejudices, the biases” against blacks are “very similar” to what she experienced growing up Jewish in Milwaukee.
“The racial problem … is more intense than I had realized,” Colton said. “There is so much that needs to be done.”
Those intense problems sparked violence the weekend of Aug. 13-14, when residents turned on police and burned businesses in the west side’s Sherman Park neighborhood, after an officer shot and killed a black man. Even though the officer was black and the suspect was armed — unlike other cases where anger flared after white officers killed unarmed black men — the unrest reflected years of pent-up frustration at some of the nation’s biggest racial disparities in poverty, unemployment, education and incarceration, Jackson said.
“Things don’t get fixed that need to be fixed, so you get this explosion of rage,” Jackson said.
But the morning after the first night of violence, people came from all over the city to help clean up the damage, to pray together and to talk about what had happened. In that crowd, Jackson said he saw a number of white residents who had participated in the museum’s cross-cultural discussion groups. Without the understanding forged in those groups, they may not have been as willing to pitch in, he said.
And at a time when political rhetoric is demonizing immigrants in the United States and Europe, it’s crucial to remember the history of both the Holocaust and racism against African-Americans, Jackson said.
“It’s very easy to repeat things that happened in the past when you don’t know the past,” Jackson said. “If you’re not aware how these things happen … they can very easily happen anywhere on the planet.”