For nearly 40 years, the Jewish House at the Milwaukee Public Museum has been educating visitors about pre-war Jewish life in Europe, thanks to the work of the 1980s Milwaukee Jewish community, and the openness of the non-Jewish museum staff of that era.
Today, it may seem obvious that a tour of old Europe needs Jewish representation. But decades ago, a joint committee of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Milwaukee Jewish Council was on the fence about whether to push for a Jewish presence in the museum’s European Village. Committee member Esther Leah Ritz, who was president of the Federation, is remembered as turning the tide with two sentences that ended the debate.
“We can’t allow Europe to be judenrein,” she reportedly said, using a German word for the exclusion of Jews. “If we do, then Hitler would have won.”
The Jewish House in the museum’s European Village was dedicated on Sept. 14, 1981, according to Chronicle archives. It depicts a pre-Shabbat scene, with challah and Shabbat candles. The house is filled with genuine Jewish artifacts and period pieces from the early 1900s. It’s designed to be the house of a scribe, so it contains tools, books and scrolls.
The Jewish House preserves a way of life in pre-war Europe that was largely destroyed by pogroms and the Holocaust. It was created after a year of close cooperation between the museum and local Jewish volunteers, according to archives.
Eliot Bernstein, who was chair of a Jewish committee that worked with the museum on the project, called it “a most enriching and challenging experience” at the time. The museum’s director of the European Village, Dr. Lazar Brkich, said at the time that the project had been challenging because Jews had lived in many parts of Europe. He had to distill that down to one theme.
According to the 1981 Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, Lazar said he learned from research and interaction with the local Jewish community that “learning and books are probably the most central aspect of Jewish life, as well as the high value placed upon family ties.” He said at the time that these concepts were conveyed in the exhibit. Also, the design showed tzedakah, with a son was placing a coin in a box, his mother encouragingly behind him.
Rabbi Herbert Pantich of Congregation Beth Israel affixed a mezuzah to the doorpost of the house during the dedication ceremony. He declared to a crowd of observers: “Mazel tov!” Dr. Kenneth Starr, the museum director, praised the Federation for its initiative and cooperation at the event.
‘Why isn’t there a Jewish thing?’
The genesis of the idea came when Mordecai Lee, who was then serving in the state Assembly, visited the museum.
“I remember walking through it and really enjoying it and wondering why there wasn’t Jewish participation,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Why isn’t there a Jewish thing?’”
He called someone at the museum and had an honest discussion about whether Judaism is an ethnic group or religion and whether it belongs in an exhibit showcasing national cultures. Today, others represented in the European Village include Dutch, Irish, Latvian, Estonian and Spanish cultures, for a total of 33 in all.
Lee approached the Federation, a committee was formed, and Lee wound up on it. This is where Lee remembers Ritz, the former Federation president, ended a committee debate on whether to proceed with her judenrein reference.
Lee also said that Jewish volunteer Jane Elconin took the lead on what the Jewish House should look like.
“She really worked hard at it. It came out even better than I had hoped for,” Lee said. “It fit so right in with all the other exhibits. Since then, when I’ve gone there, I’ve been so proud that it’s there.”
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How to go
The Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St., and its European Village with the Jewish House, is open. A timed ticket is required for all visitors. Visit Mpm.edu.