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.
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.”
Let’s salute the women and men who have served our country in the military.
The La Crosse Tribune’s Stories of Honor program is your opportunity to salute a veteran.
We invite you to nominate a veteran or someone who is now serving in the U.S. Armed Forces or the Reserve.
We want to hear the stories of allegiance, heroism and selfless determination — the stories that set our military personnel apart.
Nominations will close June 16.
“The River Valley Media Group is thrilled to be able to honor the courage, dedication and commitment these men and women make to ensure our freedoms are protected on a daily basis,” Publisher and President Josh Trust said. “Please take a few moments and nominate a worthy individual.”
A blue-ribbon panel will review all nominations and select 10 heroes who deserve a special salute.
Beginning May 26, the Tribune will spotlight one of those heroes each week as part of our Stories of Honor.
And, we’ll profile an 11th hero on June 6, D-Day, with a feature on a World War II veteran.
The Stories of Honor program is sponsored by LHI/Weber Group.
Our coverage will include a half-page story and photo each Sunday, plus a Facebook Live interview with each honoree and a video tribute of each hero.
All of that coverage will be featured at lacrossetribune.com until Veterans Day, when our 2020 Stories of Honor program begins.
In August, the Tribune will bring those heroes together for a special event, and we’ll publish a special section to honor those veterans.