Three puppet show musicians walk into a bar…
And: Reflections on a visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
Last week Casey and I were working together at a bar when, thirty minutes before closing time, two Frenchmen and an American whirled in. They sat at the bar and produced a set of harmonicas and tiny flutes, with which they accompanied the jukebox music. They chatted up Casey and filled the room with merriment. At first, from the other side of the bar, I thought they might be turds, because a group of men that comes in that late, that loudly, is often too drunk rude. My suspicion was made worse by the presence of a pencil mustache. But after Casey beckoned me over with excitement I realized something else was going on… They were down-to-earth weirdos being sweet, bringing nothing but joy. Drunk yes, French yes, turd no!
Casey beckoned me over because they had just offered her tickets to the PUPPET SHOW in which they play music, and we needed to decide if we were going to go. I checked my calendar. We had a sidebar. We decided: yes. We’ll go to your world-renowned traveling puppet play.
The next night, Casey and I showed up at the Museum of Contemporary Art. (I’d be lying if I said the prestige of the venue hadn’t offered a sort of assurance we weren’t going to be, I don’t know, set up and held captive by a traveling puppeteer crew.) A person with a dyed green head of short hair and beard introduced the performance, and our Frenchmen were off.
The show was not a traditional puppet show. Or, I should say, it was not what I imagine a traditional puppet show to be, because it was the first puppet show I’ve ever attended. It was more like a play that made use of full-body costumes, a few child-sized marionettes, and beautiful practical effects that were achieved by an elaborate system of silent pulleys and schoolhouse-style overhead projectors. What they accomplished with paper parts and analog tools was incredible.
Also incredible: the live foley by Gilles Marsalet. It was mesmerizing to watch him create sounds with large inflatable bags, spinning spokes and other doohickeys. He performed on stage, in plain view of everybody, and was incorporated into the meta-narrative about fiction. Neat.
Sébastien Cirotteau and Chad McCullough’s accompaniment was beautiful. Brice Berthoud and the whole company are world-class performers. (Also, Sébastien, I’m sorry for the pencil mustache judgement above. You are very handsome with that mustache. Though I doubt you need my stache approval.)
Visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum
And now for a drastic change of topic. There are no detailed graphic words below but if you’re not in the mood for heaviness, feel free to skip it and I’ll see you another time.
I tried to approach the museum with all my prior Holocaust education out of mind, as if I were unaware, maybe even a skeptic. Right-wing denial of the Holocaust is nothing new but I’ve recently also encountered left-wing peers who (rightly) speak about the abuse of Holocaust history by anti-Palestinian racists while (wrongly) objecting to other discussion of what the Holocaust means for Jews and how it affects the world today. I wanted to filter the museum through an extreme version of their perspective, to try to see whether I have been a young American Jew giving outsize importance to the Holocaust my whole life.
The evidence pointed to “no.” Anyone who thinks that the scale and rate of the tragedy is exaggerated is buffeted by image, testimony, and document underscoring the numbers we’ve all heard: 5.8 million Jews, hundreds of thousands of Roma/Sinti, and millions of Poles and others. Likewise, the character of the suffering is not something that can be reduced to “just like all the other violence that has occurred in the world.” Every single genocide is an incomprehensible tragedy. AND the Third Reich’s industrialized genocide is unlike any other. Knowing about the particular ways Nazis chose to kill people helps us understand the dangers of particular economies, laws, and mass communication powers. The crimes deserve their prominence in culture and I don’t think we need to demote them in order to protect subjugated groups. On the contrary. Memory should drive us—Jews and all—to destroy systems of persecution, including the persecution carried out in our (Jews’) name and our concept of defense.
Among the many thoughts and feelings we experienced in the museum, these stick out to me: seeing watercolor drawings created by an artist in the Warsaw ghetto. Being so close to their actual physical handiwork. And learning that at the Wannsee Conference (the 1942 Nazi meeting at which 15 people strategized deadly changes to the Final Solution) more than a third of the meeting participants were in their thirties. The oldest participant was 52. I had thought that top decision-makers must have been older because younger officials would have been less likely to be the worst. There is this idea, perhaps slightly American, that young people are our conscience, and in many cases that’s true. But at the Wannsee Conference it wasn’t.
I also hadn’t known that in early 1942, approximately 80% of the people who would be killed by the regime were still alive.
After the museum we did something small in appreciation of our present (non-guaranteed) safety and perpetuation of our culture: we ate some Jewish-ass food at Max and Benny’s in Northbrook. Rainbow challah sat in the deli cooler.
Warning: more discussion of violence follows below.
Three horrific atrocities were committed days after our visit to the museum.
Israel killed two civilians and wounded 20 others in Jenin, Palestine on Thursday.
A Palestinian person killed seven civilians and wounded three others in Jerusalem on Friday.
A thirteen-year-old Palestinian child wounded two civilians in Jerusalem on Saturday.
I mention these crimes not because discussion of the Holocaust requires it and not because each one of them was committed in equal circumstances. But because they are related to history. Because those people should be alive. And because I think we should talk about them with friends and family. Not talking about them doesn’t make anything better.
This article explains one part of a very big picture of why violence in the region is getting worse.
I’d like to end this letter on this note:
You’re probably aware that Nazis took great pains to conceal their crimes not only from other nations but also from the German public. Their fear of what might have happened if more people knew is assuring to me, even if only lightly. Too many people smelled the smoke and did nothing. But that Nazis knew that if more humans learned of their neighbors’ suffering, it would be harder to make them suffer—is a morsel I savor.
And two links I endorse before we go:
Clint Smith’s reflection on German monuments to the Holocaust, and what they might tell us about memorializing enslaved people in the United States.
This interview with Dr. Jared Ball about the relationship(s) between American Black people and American Jews.
Thank you for being with me through the heaviness in this letter. I hope you have a comfortable, fruitful week. Hugs through the screen.
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At work, we commemorated Holocaust Rememberance Day with a presentation defining antisemitism myths by the local (Mlps) JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council). They began by explaining "who are the Jews." After a brief history, they said to be Jewish is to be in a "family," a community looking out for one another – a people. I thought of your mother Susie immediately. For all those times, she opened her house and gave up her time to create "community", with all of us on the Tweedy show, and getting you kids involved, and your Dad. He was the bait, of course but, by doing what Susie did for us, showing kindness during a difficult period, she was being Jewish to nth degree. I loved hearing her say "Happy Shabatt" on Friday nights. I'll always be grateful.
Hey Spencer ... first of all, thanks for sharing that very difficult but necessary story. Secondly, something you surely already know but which I want to tell you: Man, are you a good writer! I read a lot and wanna tell you that I was impressed by the eloquence of your piece. And that was especially so for the very last part. So true about taking a grain of hope out of the meager conclusion that they took pains to hide their actions (somewhat). Makes me angry all over again at george santos for trivializing the holocaust by using it to embellish his resume. And on that subject, google his name and "the ok sign he gave while voting in Congress." I just cant believe that hasn't gotten more publlicity.
I hope that if you ever get anything published, whether an article somewhere or hopefully one day, a book of some sort about some thing, that you will announce that on the Starship.
Peace and love,