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La Crosse synagogue to host service, program on eve of Holocaust Remembrance day
Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Congregation Sons of Abraham, La Crosse’s only synagogue, and its rabbi, Saul Prombaum, will host "The Banality of Virtue: Midwestern Responses to the Holocaust" with historian Michael Luick Thrams on 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 1.

In cases of tragedy and genocide, well known are the victims and the villains.

It is the stories of the saviors, those who administered aid and refuge in times of chaos, that often go untold.

In recognition of the 25th anniversary of the acclaimed film “Schindler’s List,” which follows the efforts of a German businessman who saves the lives of a thousand Jewish refugees, the Congregation Sons of Abraham has chosen the theme of the rescuer for its annual Holocaust Remembrance service and program.

Maureen Freedland

Robert Freedland

The Maureen and Robert Freedland Community Fund for Studies of the Shoah (Holocaust) of the La Crosse Community Foundation is sponsoring the lecture.

“‘Schindler’s list’ added the new character of the rescuer,” said Congregation Sons of Abraham Rabbi Saul (Simcha) Prombaum. “What we’re trying to do is keep the spirit of Schindler alive: What do you do if someone bangs on your door and says, ‘I need help?’ Do you hide them in your basement? Do you turn them away? The plight of the rescuer is, what do you do when you know something is right, you are taught about it in the Bible, but society is against helping the stranger? To be a rescuer means you have to stand outside the culture and be alone and say this is the right thing to do. The moral imperative needs to be stronger than the negative society around you.”

The program is 7 p.m. Wednesday, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance day in Israel, at Congregation Sons of Abraham synagogue, 1820 Main St.

The program will feature a presentation by historian Michael Luick-Thrams entitled “The Banality of Virtue: Midwestern Responses to the Holocaust,” highlighting the antisemitism in the Midwest during World War II in addition to recognizing efforts of community members to welcome and integrate refugees escaping the Nazi regime in Europe.

Of special focus will be the Scattergood Hostel in Iowa, opened in 1939 by Quaker farmers and college students as a sanctuary to Jews, political dissidents, intellectuals and artists fleeing Nazi-occupied countries.

The program also will serve to honor Maureen and Bob Freedland, who will receive the 14th annual Gregory P. Wegner Recognition for Excellence in Holocaust Education “Wegner Leaf,” which will be added to the Congregation Sons of Abraham Tree of Life plaque.

Named for University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor and historian Wegner, the award has been bestowed on a Belgian eyewitness-resister, a personal historian, an attorney with a passion for teaching about the Shoah, an educational foundation director and a theater company.

“It means a great deal to us to be recognized for our work supporting Holocaust education,” Bob Freedland said. “We hope to grow the fund so that its work confronting hate, intolerance and even genocide will continue well beyond our own lives, as these funds are set up as endowment funds meaning the work continues forever.”

“The interest in the lessons of the Holocaust by educators and students in the La Crosse area reflects the goodness of people of this community, and is noteworthy as the Jewish community here is small in number,” Maureen Freedland said. “I am thankful for their willingness to pursue Holocaust topics. The recipients of this award have contributed to meaningful, lifelong learning that shapes better citizens and neighbors, and we appreciate being added to this long list of recipients.”

The story of Scattergood, the Freedlands say, is a timely one as the nation struggles to reconcile immigration issues and address crisis worldwide.

“(The takeaway is that) each of us are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper,” Bob says. “That we are here for them even if we live in La Crosse and whether the victims happen to be in New Zealand, Sri Lanka or Texas. That each of us are full members of humanity and need to speak up, to act, to organize, to fund-raise when we are called upon to do so. We may be called upon to act by events and not even by other people”

Luick-Thrams, a resident of Iowa and Germany, will touch on how “echoes of antisemitism, hostility toward immigrants, and the xenophobia of the past can still be heard today” in conjunction with his talk on Scattergood, which is itself marking an anniversary: 80 years.

Luick-Thrams conducted interviews with 40 individuals who stayed in the Hostel, which one called a “place of peace in a world of war, a haven amidst a world of hatred.”

Formerly a Quaker boarding school, Scattergood served from 1939 to 1943 as a volunteer-run rural safe haven to 185 European refugees, including those of Jewish and Christian faiths and agnostics, who took part in chores, farming and education in the English language and American culture, helping prepare them for occupations post war.

“They decided with their cohorts in Europe they were going to rescue 185 people and give them shelter,” Prombaum said. “The story is very compelling. This is the anniversary of that momentous time in Iowa when the question was asked, ‘How do you help a fellow human being?’ The Quakers had their own moral standard to live by.”

Other Americans were not so welcoming, concerned about not only the financial impact of accepting refugees while still in the Great Depression but fearful and distrusting of those they perceived as outsiders.

According to a poll published in a 1939 edition of Fortune Magazine, 83% of Americans were opposed to the admission of refugees.

“Jews were turned away when they wanted to enter the country. The world turned against refugees and that is a very painful topic for me,” Prombaum said. “We need to see the problems of the past are actually contemporary problems that never go away. When there is so much concern in this country about immigration, scapegoating and economic fears, we have to revisit this topic and say we have to learn from the past and not do these things that put members of the country in jeopardy.”

Prombaum praises the La Crosse community for having a “zero tolerance for racism,” noting the outpouring support of residents after both the 1995 graffitiing of swastikas on headstones near the synagogue and the recent spray painting of a racial slur on the garage of the Muslim-owned Bullet Cab company.

He encourages community members to extend the same compassion to those new to our country, including those who are undocumented.

“People come here because they need help, not because they want to uproot their lives,” Prombaum said. “You have to develop a sense of what it is to have everything and help the person who has nothing. Don’t just accept what you hear in the media about the ‘other.’ Meet the people who are different than you. Don’t be afraid of them.”

It should be noted that the mission of Scattergood did not extend to the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After strong resistance from the West Branch, Iowa, community, plans to reopen the hostel to Japanese refugees were abandoned. Says Maureen Freedland, “We need to remember that even though so much good work was done at Scattergood, the failure to address the needs of displaced Japanese people when the opportunity arose indicates how we will always need to continue to be vigilant against intolerance and more work will remain to be done.”


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Sunday ceremony marks change in leadership at Fort McCoy

Steve Rundio / STEVE RUNDIO, Tomah Journal 

Sgt. Major Ronnie Farmer, far left, accepts an American flag from Major Gen. Jody J. Daniels during a Change of Responsibility ceremony Sunday at Fort McCoy. Also pictured are Sgt. Major Roderick Hendricks, second from right, and Sgt. Major Jeffrey McGlin.


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Robert Freedland