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Holocaust museum exhibit showcases the American Jews who served in World War II

Veterans
1st Lt Meyer J. Birnbaum at his brother’s grave, Blosville, France, June 26, 1944. Albert Birnbaum died in battle after the D-Day invasion at Utah Beach. Collection of Meyer J. Birnbaum

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center's latest special exhibition offers a glimpse into a familiar topic through an unfamiliar perspective: that of American Jewish soldiers who served in World War II.

"Ours to Fight For: American Jewish Voices from the Second World War" (the title is inspired by the Norman Rockwell paintings) shares stories that perhaps the Jewish community itself may not be aware of. The exhibition, originally curated by the Museum of Jewish HeritageA Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, reveals what life was like for those who experienced the second world war as both Jewish people and American service people. It features audio and video clips, along with more than 200 personal items that were either donated or loaned by veterans. Printed quotes (excerpts from interviews) line the walls, adding human voices to the exhibits and giving life to the letters, photographs, clothing, and other belongings.

What would later become an award-winning exhibition (it was awarded the Grand Prize for Excellence in Exhibition in 2004) began as a project to interview veterans about their experiences during World War II. It was in hearing 400 servicemen and women speak candidly about their memories that the idea for the exhibition was born, according to curator Louis D. Levine, founding director of Collections and Exhibition at the museum. The exhibition, Levine realized, should not simply be about these veterans, but should be created through the veterans themselves. "We just knew after we started doing these interviews [that we should create this exhibition]," Levine said, "and that we wanted them to tell the story, because they were so fluent, and so eloquent about it."

And the memories of those experiences, says Levine, had very little to do with the historical events and much to do with visceral and emotional experiences. "And as they told the story," Levine said, "what mattered to them was not, 'I was at the Battle of the Bulge.' "That is why outside of a few pieces which offer contextual information about the political climate at the time, the exhibition is clearly devoid of facts or figures. "We didn't want to do an exhibition about World War II. We wanted to do an exhibition about what it meant to be in World War II…Iwo Jima's not in here, D-Day's not in here, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, all of those things are not in here," Levin said. "What's in here are purely human things."

The items that fill the exhibit have emotional significance to their owners, recreating the narrative of their owners' experiences. One of the most striking items is a prayer bookowned by Staff Sgt. Jacob Eineswhich intercepted a piece of shrapnel that may have killed him had it not been in his pocket. Another exhibit reveals a veteran's Tommy gun, and the clarinet that he kept with him while at war. At the end of the exhibition, there is a Wall of Honor, commemorating local veterans with their official military photographs.

Mort Oman is one of the servicemen featured on the Wall of Honor, in the only photograph of him in uniform. For the veteran, the exhibition shares experiences that he doesn't have the words to explain. "It's unbelievable, that you can think of things that you really haven't thought of for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years, and they just come back like they happened yesterday… This is fantastic," he said. "It's not a lecture, [but a way of] just putting you right where it was." Fellow veteran Walter Reed also values the exhibit for how it shares the stories of Jewish soldiers in the war. "The fact that this is being collected, curated, presented, and assembled is interesting and significantly important," he said. "It instills pride, more so in the Jewish population of America than in anybody else."

For Levine, the exhibition is a powerful way to honor the contributions of Jewish veterans whose stories were essentially unknown for decades. As for the greater significance of the exhibition, Levine says, "Without this exhibition, the Holocaust museum wouldn't have been here. Without these guys winning the war, there would have been no end to the Holocaust."

"Ours to Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War" is on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center until June 17. For more information, visit  www.ilholocaustmuseum.org .

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is a special grantee of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Posted: 5/1/2012 11:52:39 AM
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