Hasan’s Story: Escaping the Bosnian-Serbian War 1994

by Storyteller Sue O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 When former Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s, war broke out across the region. Hasan, a Muslim, was a college student in 1992 when the siege against his city, Sarajevo, began. He joined the Army of Bosnia but would do anything to escape and live in peace and freedom. A few of his many adventures are detailed in this excerpt as well as his victory in studying Islam and rediscovering his identity when he came to the United States.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Hasans-Story-Escaping-the-Bosnian-Serbian-War-1994

Discussion Questions:

  1. What led to the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s?
  2. What would you do to escape a war? Could you leave your friends and family?
  3. What kept Hasan’s and his friend’s hopes alive?
  4. How has hardship helped you define who you are?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Immigration
  • Interfaith
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Sue O’Halloran. I’m going to tell you a story that’s an excerpt of a longer story. A story about the war that broke out in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. This is a story of my neighbor, Hasan. Now I’m going to say it as if Hassan were speaking to you in the first person. I do not do a Bosnian accent, believe me, but I want to get a little flavor of Hassan’s speech and most of all the spirit of my dear neighbor. So here’s a little bit of Hasan’s story.

I remember first day of siege. I was in college back then, 21 year old. It is March 4, 1992 and I wake up and I hear my father’s voice out in the living room. “What is going on?” I have to tell you, my father is the type, never late for work, never miss a day of work. He never call in to say he’s sick. I walk out to living room, sleepy and this is how my father greet me. “The whole city is blacked out. People are running around with machine gun. You can’t go anywhere.”

I sit down. I watch TV. We watch TV together. We watch our neighbors absolutely flipping out. Jus-just the night before, my friend, Christian, he was at our house. We are school friends, right. We are hanging out. And next morning he is in Serbian army whose job is to annihilate us Muslims. We listen to TV anchorperson say now our country, Bosnia, it is part of Greater Serbia and Greater Serbia must be cleansed of Muslims and Croats enemies. What, yesterday we are citizens, coworkers, neighbors, and today we are enemies? What has happened? What has changed? We still look the same. We have same skin, it is white. We have two eyes, we have mouth, we have legs, we have arms. What is different? What has changed?

Well, the shelling, it continued all day long. By us is a hospital for babies and one moment it is a hospital of dead babies. Who could do that? The children, of course, they don’t understand; to them, ah, it is day of school off, right? By us, across the street from our apartment, is a hill. The children are sledding on the hill and we hear screams. And we run to the window and there on our street is…is seven dead children in our street. The shelling, the sniper bullets could come out of nowhere. You’re standing line. Now there are lines for everything! Line to buy water, line to get some food, line to get some wood.  And all of sudden shelling or, or, or bullets come out of nowhere and suddenly the 20 people in front of you are dead. You are next in line but you, you are standing there spared, somehow. You understand, we cannot make sense of this.

It took us a while to understand what was going on. We thought it couldn’t happen to us. Finally, I join army of Bosnia. For three long winters, army of Bosnia, we, we hold our city, Sarajevo. Is mystery to me, how we hold that city. We are exhausted. We are, we are no food. We are, we are, we are hungry. We are, we are just tired.

In other unit, a story circulate. We hear a story of an unbelievable suicide. This other unit, they’re holding strategic mountain by Sarajevo. They, like us, no food, no water for days. They’re trudging up snowy mountain, getting up high in mountain. They’re covering, they’re carrying the little packs of things they have left. When a pack horse walks to the edge of the cliff and jumps. The soldiers stood there stunned. And finally, one of them say, “Even the horses can’t take it anymore.”

This is how I feel. This is what I try to tell my parents one Sunday night. I am 24 years old and I tell them my grand scheme. I am leaving. They have one comment for me. “You are out of your mind! How will you get out of here?” they say. “The whole region is at war and our own people could shoot you for deserting the army!”  “I don’t care,” I say. “I do not care. I have got to get rid of these pictures that are in my mind. These pictures that are driving me crazy. I have to leave!”

Long story, my friend, Dino, who is also in army, he leaves with me. We sneak out of tunnel. We get out of city, which is blocked. No way in, no way out. We find way out through tunnel and when we emerge from that tunnel, there before us like big, dark, black wall in the night is Mount Trebević, where just six years before Olympic athletes are skiing, the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Oh, so much joy on Mount Trebević! So much, much pride we have! The whole world is watching us host the Olympics and now Mount Trebević is surrounded by death.

Later, long in story, I tell you many more adventures. Almost caught, almost turned in, lying, hiding, cheating, whatever we can do to escape. And finally, we are crossing border.  Finally, months later, out of Bosnia into Croatia. We are trying to get to town of Split on the sea side. Maybe we can get out of area from there. We are going there at nightfall. And as we approached the city at nightfall, we see…lights…lights. We are without lights for over three years. We are without electricity. So, so, so long.  How I tell you? Speechless. Is like night stars fallen to the ground. Light exist. Light exist. I keep saying to myself, light exist. You see, it is like we are living in a cage in Sarajevo and you cannot believe. All existence has stopped outside that cage. You cannot think to yourself that out there somebody is going to eat normally in a restaurant or slept in beds or are going to the office or having a picnic in the park. But if light exists, see to me, that means if light exists that means life exists.

But the magic it start to fade, a bit. We get into Split and there are written on the buildings as graffiti, “Kill Muslims. Death to Muslims.” We are not at war anymore with Croatia but it’s still not a very safe place for us to be. But good luck. We find out that Dino, my friend, his cousin lived in Split.

We are able, long story again, to find our way to his apartment. We get there. It is covered with people. Wall to wall refugees, men, women, children. I do not care. I find a little piece of floor; I fall on it. I am going to sleep for days if I can. When this woman come next to me asked me where we been. I do not want to tell her whole story, months of escape, right? So I mumble a few words and then she asked me where we think we’re going. I don’t know where we’re going. Every step of the way, I didn’t know what comes next. I didn’t know where we were going but I say to her, “We go to United States.” Just to get rid of her, you know, so I could go to sleep. She said, “Oh, well that’s what I manage.” And I’m half asleep, now I’m thinking, what this woman manager store or something why is she telling me this? Why won’t she leave me alone? I want to sleep. And then she say, “I manage the office that sends Bosnian refugees to the United States.”

I am awake now. This is first person I meet in Split? The person who can get me legally to the United States?  And that’s how it worked. A Jewish organization sponsor me and Dino to come to America. You know, Jews and Muslims, we have had long history together. Like in 1400’s both of us pushed out of Spain. Well, during this war when the Serbian army set fire to libraries and other buildings, it is Muslims who run into the synagogue to save the sacred and priceless Jewish text. And now it is a Jewish organization sending me and Dino to America.

When I look back on it all now, over three years fighting a war, over three months escaping, I can’t say that good did not come out of it. I am here. My family is safe. We are in America and we are safe. And strangely enough, it is the haters who made me realize who I am. In Bosnia, I, I don’t know much about my village. I’m not that interested. But as the war and coming to the U.S. I start to get curious about my background. Why people hate me? Who are we anyway? And in U.S. I study Islam. And I find a mosque where I can study with other people, which is a good thing because Islam, I tell you, it is a religion of much discipline. It helps to help other people teaching, you practice with. And our mosque, our mosque join with Christian church and Jewish synagogue and we meet every week, six years now, to understand each other. We are becoming friends. And I can tell you it is better to live your life in community.

I…I am one of the lucky ones.

Chinese New Year’s Frogs: A Collision of Culture and Nature

 

Story Summary:

“Ranger Linda” describes her encounter with a group of well-intentioned Chinese Americans bearing bullfrogs. This surprising incident illustrates how cultural differences can have unintended consequences and how cultural awareness can lead to greater understanding and a better outcome for all.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Chinese-New-Years-Frogs-A-Collision-of-Culture-and-Nature

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you do when cultural customs clash?
  2. What is more important – cultural beliefs or environmental protection?
  3. Have you ever encountered a similar situation where a cultural practice clashed with what was best for the environment?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Identity
  • Interfaith
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Linda Yemoto. And for many years I worked as a park naturalist at a nature center in the hills of Berkeley, California. And I want to share with you an incident that happened and that brought home to me how cultural differences and beliefs and practices can have unintended environmental consequences. But first I begin with a very brief folktale.

Long, long ago in China, a Buddhist monk was traveling from temple to temple. One day, his travels took him deep into the forest where he came upon a small, wild pig that had been captured in a hunter’s trap. Now, the pig was squealing and squealing with fear. And the monk felt compassion for the pig and so, he released it. Now, according to the laws of the time, that monk was guilty of theft. Now, when the matter was brought to the attention of the Buddha, the Buddha pondered for a bit and then said, “According to the Dharma, the teachings, the monk is not guilty for he acted out of compassion.” And that simple act of releasing the pig over hundreds and hundreds of years became a Buddhist practice called fang sheng. The releasing into the wild of an animal that would otherwise be eaten.

Now, fast forward about 2,000 years, a Saturday, in February 1994, five minutes until closing time. As the naturalist on duty at the Nature Center that day, it had been pretty busy. Lots of nature walks and snake talks and puppet shows. And we were ready for the day to be over. We were just about ready to lock the glass doors of the nature center, when a visitor came rushing in from outside rather out of breath saying, “There’s a big group of Asian-Americans walking down the road to Jewel Lake.”

“OK,” I thought.

“They’re carrying two big, cardboard boxes.”

“OK,” I thought.

“Full of bullfrogs.”

“Oh, no,” I thought.

“And they’re going to release them into the lake.”

“Oh, no!” So, I asked Lauren, one of our interpretive student aides to lock up the building. Eveline, the other one, and I jumped into the park truck, drove down to the lake as quickly as we could. And all the time I’m thinking, “What the heck do they think they’re doing? Don’t they know bullfrogs are not native to California? Don’t they know what’s going to happen when they release them? Oh, I hope I can get here on time.”

So, we parked the truck and strode up to the lake and sure enough there were probably 20 or more Chinese Americans standing around the edge of the lake. They were chanting; they were singing. They were looking very happy for all these bullfrogs that were hopping around their feet and swimming away across the lake.

“Who’s in charge here?” I asked.

“Ah, I guess, I am,” a middle-aged man approached me. “Ah, why?”

“Ah, well,” I said. “I guess you didn’t realize that bullfrogs are not native to California and when you release them into an environment like this, they can completely decimate our little native Pacific Chorus frog population. You see, bullfrogs can get as big as dinner plates. And they will swallow anything they can get their mouths around. So, there go our frogs, our snake, our fish.”

“Oh, no!” said the man. “We didn’t know! We had no idea. But,” he said, “we didn’t release the turtles that we bought.”

“Oh, good,” I said. “What do you mean, ‘turtles that you bought?’”

“Well, we went down to Oakland, Chinatown, to two different markets.” And they bought as many bullfrogs as they could possibly afford. And then they brought them down to Jewel Lake to release, in celebration of Chinese New Year. They were practicing fang sheng.”

“Oh,” I said. “How many bullfrogs do you think you bought?”

“Oh, maybe two hundred,” he said.

“Oh.”

With much apologies, they said they would take their turtles and they would leave the park. They didn’t look like they wanted to touch the bullfrogs, much less help us recapture them. But Eveline and I looked at each other and looked at all these frogs hopping about and some of them did not look too good. They’re kind of hopping sideways and flipping over. And you can capture some of them pretty easily. So, she and I decided that the best thing to do would be, we had to recapture as many bullfrogs as we could that night before they had a chance to recover.

Now, luckily, Eveline’s family lived close to the park and they owned two kayaks. So, she rushed home to get the kayaks. I went back to the office and called my family, told my husband what had happened. He turned to our two boys, their ages 7 and 4 at the time, and said “Hey, do you want to help your mom catch bullfrogs tonight?”

“Yeah!” they said. So, they came on down.

I think we spent six hours on the lake that night. Eveline and Lauren were in the kayaks. They were each holding a flashlight in their teeth. And they were paddling slowly around the lake When they’d spot a bullfrog they’d shine the light in its eyes, which stuns it. They’d put down the paddle, pick up a long-handled net and scoop the bullfrog out of the water. And then they’d stick it in a garbage bag, which was at their feet inside the kayak.

Now, that worked pretty well until I saw the bullfrogs started getting loose. And I could hear them across the lake, “Ooo, aaah, ooof!” I was in a small flat bottom row boat with my two boys. They had their flashlights. I had the net and their father was very slowly rowing us around the lake. Well, about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, we decided we had to quit. We had recaptured 98 of the 200 bullfrogs. We put them in two large, five-gallon tubs with lids, put the lids into a storage room in the nature center, and we went home for the night.

Now, unfortunately, during the night those bullfrogs were hopping so vigorously against the lids they popped them open. So, when I opened the storage door there were those bullfrogs all over the place. We had to recapture them, put them in their tubs, put on the lids a little more tightly, and we took them down to the East Bay Vivarium, which is a store that raises and sells amphibians and reptiles. Now, they knew they couldn’t sell the bullfrogs but they were thrilled to have them because they were going to freeze them, which is actually a humane way of killing the frogs. And then, over time they were going to feed them to a large South American snake that they owned.

Now, as Chinese New Year’s rolled around again the next year, we knew we had to do something. We couldn’t let this happen again. So, we posted some signs that said, “We honor your practice of fang sheng but releasing of any animals into our regional parks is strictly prohibited. And we appreciate your cooperation.” But we also got in contact with some of the larger Chinese Buddhist churches in the area. And we had a really good discussion with them about their Chinese New Year’s practices and what happens when you release non-native animals into the environment. And I think, in the end, we had a much better understanding of each other’s perspective. However, it did take us over 10 years to get rid of those Chinese New Year’s bullfrogs and all their generations and generations of offspring.

Now, you may wonder, “Well how do you know you got rid of all those frogs?” Well, bullfrogs sound like, Ba-rump! Ba-rump! Ba-rump! And our little native chorus frog, they have that more classic ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribet. So, for years you go down to the lake and you would hear mostly Ba-rump! with a little bit of ribbet. But now if you go down to Jewel Lake on a spring or summer evening, you’ll hear not a single Ba-rump! But just ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet.

Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman

 

Story Summary:

 In 1991 in Lincoln, Nebraska, a Jewish Cantor and his family were threatened and harassed by the Grand Dragon of the state Ku Klux Klan. Here is the remarkable story of how they dealt with the hatred and bigotry, and, in the process, redeemed a life. Based on the book, Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman, by Kathryn Watterson.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Not-By-the-Sword-How-a-Cantor-and-His-Family-Transformed-a-Klansman

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is this a story about religious transformation or about how isolated people need caring relationships?
  2. What does this story say about the power of words and the means of spreading those words? How does anonymity protect the speaker? How do the cantor’s ‘public’ words spread his message?
  3. Would you have considered inviting the former KKK member to live in your home? How was the family able to open their door and their hearts to a man who had hurt so many?

Resource:

  •  Not By the Sword by Kathryn Waterson, Simon & Schuster, 1995; University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Pippa White. The story I have for you is a true story. It’s about an incident that happened in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1991. Actually, it’s a much truncated version of a wonderful book called Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman. That book was written by Kathryn Watterson. And I’m very grateful to Kathryn for letting me tell this story. Actually, there are two people in the story, Michael and Julie, who I know. So I’m grateful to them too. And I’m going to tell the story from Julie’s point of view. I am now going to become Julie.

We had encountered anti-Semitism before. My husband was a Jewish cantor, he had had other appointments in other synagogues in other cities. Anti-semitism was not something we were unfamiliar with but this was different and especially upsetting. We had just moved into a new home in Lincoln, Nebraska after two years of renting. And one afternoon, my husband answered the phone to hear this harsh, hate-filled voice saying, “You’re going to be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy!” Two days later we received a package in the mail. On the outside it said, “The KKK is watching you.” Inside there were all these flyers, dozens of brochures and flyers, with ugly caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, African-Americans-race traitors, all of them being shot or hanged. And another message, “Your time is up and the Holo-hoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you!” This was too much. We called the police.

The police came and said they were 98% sure it was the work of one Larry Trapp, the state leader and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Larry and his Klansmen had terrorized many Jews, blacks, and Vietnamese in Nebraska and Iowa. And said the police, “He’s dangerous. We know he has explosives.” Now they explained that he was in a wheelchair. He had lost both legs to diabetes but they said he had firebombed four or five African-American homes in Lincoln and the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Center in Omaha. And, unbeknownst to us, the police felt Larry Trapp was planning to bomb the very synagogue where my husband was the spiritual leader. Last thing the police said was, “So lock your doors and don’t open any more unlabeled packages.”

Well, we didn’t get any more packages nor did we get any more phone calls. But Larry Trapp had done his work very well. We had been terrorized. We couldn’t open the mailbox without wondering if there was a letter bomb in there. We worried about our three children and every time a car drove slowly by the house, we had a little panic attack. Larry Trapp had done his work very well. Perhaps because of this, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. But it wasn’t just the fear, I was also fascinated. I kept asking myself what makes someone like that? I found out his address and I used to drive by his apartment every afternoon after work and wonder, what makes someone like that? And how lonely he must be isolated in all that hatred?

Not long after this we found out that Larry Trapp was on television. He’d gotten himself on some local cable access channel and he would sit there spewing all these white supremacist hate. It made Michael so mad that he said, “He called us.  I’m calling him.”

So he called this, Vigilante Voices. All he got was an answering machine but he said, “Larry, why do you hate me? You don’t even know me. So how can you hate me?” Next day it was, “Larry, don’t you know that you’re going to have to answer to God someday for all this hatred?” The third day it was, “Larry, why do you love Hitler so much? Don’t you know that in Hitler’s Germany, one of the first laws the Nazis passed was against people like you, people with disabilities? Don’t you know that in Hitler’s Germany, you’d have been one of the first to go?” Every day Michael left a message. One day Michael said to me, “I wonder if he’ll ever pick up?”

I said, “If he does, offer to do something nice for him. You watch, it’ll throw him completely off guard.”

One day in the midst of this message, “Larry, when you can get rid of all the hate, there’s a world of love waiting for ya,” Larry Trapp picked up, “What #@&%* do you want?!”

“I just want to talk to you, Larry.”

“Why #@&%* are you harassing me? You’re harassing me! Stop harassing me!”

“I’m not harassing you, Larry. I just want to talk to you.”

“Are you black? You sound black.”

“No I’m, Jewish.”

“Well, what do you want? Make it quick!”

And then my husband took my advice, “Well, Larry, we know you’re in a wheelchair. We wondered if we could help you in any way? Take you to the grocery store, that kind of thing.”

Long pause. Michael says when Larry spoke again his voice was different. “That’s OK. That’s nice. That’s been covered. Thanks anyway. Don’t call this number again.”

“We’ll be in touch,” was the last thing Michael said. I think it must have been Larry Trapp’s time in life to be bombarded with love.

A nurse wrote him a letter, and because of his very poor health he was in and out of doctors’ offices all the time, and she said, “Larry, if you could embrace God the way you’ve embraced the KKK, He would heal you of all that hurt, anger, hatred, and bitterness in ways you won’t believe.”

And one day when Larry was leaving the eye doctor’s office, he felt his wheelchair being pushed from behind. He turned around and there was a beautiful young woman.  And she said, “I help you. I help you. In elevator.” A Vietnamese woman. And Larry and his followers had been brutal to the Vietnamese community in Lincoln Nebraska.

Michael kept leaving messages and one day, mid message again, Larry picked up. “I’m rethinking a few things.”

“Good,” said Michael, “Good.” Two days later, there he was on television, on the cable access channel, ranting and raving about…well, using every horrible, racial epithet you can think of. Made Michael so mad that he called and say, “You’re not rethinking anything and I want an explanation.”

“I’m sorry,” said Larry. “I’m sorry. I’ve, I’ve, ah, I’ve talked this way all my life. I can’t help it. I’ll, I’ll apologize.”

That night, at the synagogue, Michael asked the congregation to pray for someone who is sick with the illness of hatred and bigotry. “Pray that he can be healed.”

And across town, Lenore Letcher, an African-American woman who had been on the receiving end of Larry’s hatred, prayed, “Dear God, let him find you in his heart.”  And that night, the skin on Larry Trapp’s fingers burned and itched and stung so badly he had to take his Nazi rings off.

The next night, Michael and I were just sitting down to dinner when the phone rang. “I want out and I don’t know how.” Michael suggested we get together and break bread together. Larry hesitated and then he agreed.  We were rushing around, packing up the food, and I thought to myself, we should take him a gift. And I found a ring of Michael’s that he never wore.

It was a silver friendship ring. All the silver strands wound together. Michael said, “That’s a good choice. It’s always reminded me of all the different kinds of people in the world.” To me, it represented something twisted could become something beautiful. The last thing we did before we left the house was to call a neighbor and say if we’re not back in a reasonable amount of time call the police.

We got to Larry Trapp’s apartment knocked on the door, the door swung slowly open. There he sat. In his wheel chair, bearded. On the door handle on his side, hung an automatic weapon, behind him was a huge Nazi flag. Michael reached forward and touched Larry’s hand. He winced as though a jolt of electricity had gone through him. And then he began to cry. “Here!” he said. “Take these! take these! I don’t want ‘em anymore!”  And he put the Nazi rings in Michael’s.

We were speechless but not for long. I remembered my gift. I got down on my knees and slid the ring on his finger saying, “Here Larry, look, we brought you a ring.” He began to sob and sob, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry, for all the things I have done.”

We hugged him and pretty soon there were three people crying. We left Larry Trapp’s apartment four hours later, with the Nazi rings, the Nazi flag, all his KKK paraphernalia including the hood and the beret. And we left with all his guns.

Over the next few weeks, Larry Trapp’s transformation was so complete that the KKK began harassing him. He began to write personal letters of apology to many of the people that he had threatened. He joined the NAACP. He began to go to schools to talk to school children about tolerance. And he and my husband, Michael, were interviewed by Time magazine.

On the very last day of the year, Larry learned from his doctors that he had less than a year to live. We asked him if he wouldn’t like to move in with us. He agreed. Now this was not easy. We had three teenage children, a dog, a cat. I gave up my job to stay home and take care of Larry. But we all chipped in and, and made it work. As Larry grew weaker, he would listen to books on tape. He listened to books about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X, and he began to read and study Judaism.

And one day he surprised Michael and me when he announced that he wanted to convert to Judaism. We said we thought it was wonderful that he wanted to embrace a faith tradition at this time of his life. But if he wanted to embrace a faith tradition closer to his own roots we would understand that. “No. Judaism.” So in June of 1992, in a beautiful ceremony, Larry Trapp converted to Judaism in the very synagogue that a year earlier he had planned to blow up.

In September of 1992, Larry Trapp died in our home. Michael and I were with him, each holding a hand.  Before he got too weak, Larry was asked to speak at a celebration for Martin Luther King Jr. This is what he had to say, “I wasted the first 40 years of my life bringing harm to other people. But I believe that God sent Cantor Weisser to me to show me that I could receive love and I could also give love. I’ve learned now that we’re all the same. White, black, brown, there’s no difference. We’re all one race.”  Larry Trapp, the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan said there is only one race.

Worn Out Blinders: A Soldiers Story After D-day in Normandy, France

 

Story Summary:

Talking about World War ll was hard for Carol’s father.  As a recipient of three Purple Hearts, he shares his story of anti-Semitism at boot camp, his sense of Jewish identity with a stranger in Paris and how he mentally stayed strong and survived the front lines by wearing “blinders.”

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Worn-Out-Blinders-A-Soldiers-Story-After-D-Day-in-Normandy-France

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think Carol’s father, and soldiers today may not want to talk about their experience during war?  Should we respect their silence or encourage them to talk?
  2. Carol’s father talked about wearing “blinders” to get through the hard times.  Have you ever had a time in your life when in order to move ahead, you had to “wear blinders?”
  3. The Red Cross volunteer handed out Mezuzahs and Crosses to the injured soldiers.  What comfort was she hoping to bring them from these objects?
  4. Carol’s father shares that his Sargent asked him to take off his helmet so he could see his horns.  Many commentators say that this myth of Jews having horns started with a mistranslation in the Bible.  Why do you think rumors and anti-Semitic myths are perpetuated today?
  5. St. Lo was flattened in one night and the writer Samuel Becker described it as “The Capital of the Ruins.”  Besides the physical city being destroyed, what other type of ruins exists from war?

  Resources:

 Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name is Carol Kaufman-Kerman. My dad didn’t talk much about being in World War II growing up. I mean, when I was a child I actually thought it was because he was invincible. I just… I saw the scars but I wanted him to be my superhero, my superman. And I felt so protected behind his fortified walls. Now I think, he also enjoyed me adoring him, looking up to him, but at what price. He had this knobby, sunken scar on his left shoulder. He said that that’s where they had removed a lot of the shrapnel. But he told me that they couldn’t get it all until they would be still some left in his body forever and I thought well that’s a heck of a souvenir.

My whole life I remember my dad saying, “Talk to me in my good ear, my good ear, Carol.”

Well, sometime during the war, his first, second or third injury, he had lost the hearing in his ear. Now as far as his emotional scars, those were harder to see. He had gotten three purple medals for being injured three times and he kept these medals in a box, in a drawer, in a room that hardly anybody ever used. I asked him once, “Dad, did you ever encounter anti-Semitism during the war?”

“I don’t know. Not rea… yeah, there was this one time at Fort Benning, Georgia. My commanding sergeant said, ‘Jew boy, take off your helmet. I want to see your horns.’ But, you know, he was from Arkansas and he had never met a Jewish person. It wasn’t really his fault.”

And I said Dad, “What about sensing your Jewish identity, feeling it over in Europe. I mean you were fighting Hitler. He exterminated six million Jews.”

That’s when he told me about his bold escape going AWOL, absence without leave.”

“Wait, Dad. AWOL, isn’t that illegal? Why did you do that?”

He said, “Well, to tell you the truth, Carol, I had been released from a hospital in Paris. They were scheduling me to go back out onto the frontlines. I didn’t know if I’d ever live to see Paris. It was Rosh Hashana and the first place I went was Rothschild’s Synagogue. It was closed but the Shammas was there. The Shammas is the person that takes care of the synagogue and he let me in and you know it felt good. I was missing family and he was there for me.”

Well, many years later, after I’d been married, my father told my husband and I both, he said, “You know, I remember when I was in a bunker. There were shells and fire all around and my buddy was sitting next to me. We were just inches apart. And I looked back over at him and his head was blown off.”

I looked at my father. I mean he said it so nonchalantly. But you know he would have had to have been holding back details and emotions.

He said, “Carol, this is the way I survived World War II. I just had to put on my blinders and keep ’em on. There was a time my captain and I, we were lying next to each other on our bellies and I had the radio strapped on my back. It was my job to radio back to our artillery the captain’s orders of where to aim the fire. And I believed that as long as I had that radio strapped to my back that I would be okay. You had to think like that, Carol, or else you’d crack.”

Well, about two and a half, three years ago, my dad and I were talking and he said, “Carol, I remember when I was in a hospital in France. We were four men and five legs.”

And that image just seared into my mind and I realized how impenetrable his blinders had to have been. I mean it was easier for him to talk about the good times, like the time that he was on a hospital train. There was a Red Cross volunteer. She was a famous actress from England. She was Alfred Hitchcock’s first icy blonde. Her name was Madeleine Carroll. And she was beautiful. Now she had made a radical change in his… in her career. She actually had stopped acting after her sister was killed in the London Blitz. And she just wanted to help the wounded soldiers.

My father said that he had seen all her movies and that he was madly in love with her. So, can you imagine, she’s walking down the aisle. I mean my mom… my father must have thought it was an apparition. It was an angel from heaven or something. She had in one hand crosses and she had in the other hand mezuzahs. A mezuzah is a casing with a Jewish prayer inside. And she came walking down; she stopped where my father was. She took a mezuzah and gave it to him and then she kissed him on the forehead. Oh, my gosh! He must have thought he died and went to heaven. He told me, he said, “I needed family and she was there.”

Well, now my dad fights a different kind of battle. He has prostate cancer. He’s softer now, more gentle. His blinders don’t work anymore and he can’t protect his fortress. His fortress that had kept our family so safe with his belief that if we all stayed inside the fortress, nothing could penetrate and hurt us.

Well, those weren’t on anymore, the blinders or the fortress. and last November my husband and I went to Normandy. We went and we saw all the things that he had lived through.

We would call him every single day and we’d compare the sights we had seen with what he saw. And we said, “Dad, today we went to see the beaches of, of D-Day. We saw the bunkers, the German bunkers. And my husband even called him from the American Cemetery. “Dad, tomorrow we’re going to go to St. Lo, the place where you got injured the second time.”

Now St. Lo was taken over by the Germans and totally destroyed. In fact, the writer Samuel Becker describes it as “The Capital of the Ruins.” It was that decimated and devastated.

When we got to St. Lo, we went right to the information tourist office and we asked, “Are there any World War II memorials?”

She told us that they were all closed for the season. We told her all about my father and how he had been injured in St. Lo. And she said, “Come back at five o’clock. I’m going to take you there myself.”

And so, we did. We came back at five and she introduced us to this small, little, French elderly man. His name was Mr. Letribot. And he introduced himself and said, “I am the curator of the World War II memorial. I would like to take you there myself.”

It was beautiful. It was in a 12th century chapel, La Chapelle de la Madeleine. He told us that it was the first time in his life he had ever had a piece of gum, given to him by an American soldier. It was the first time he ever had an Americ… eh, had a cigarette too. Also given to him by a soldier. And we told him about my father. He told us about the 29th. We had learned a little bit about how the 29th American Military Division had come in and they had liberated St. Lo during that July of 1944. And we told them how my father was in the 28th and they came in afterwards to relieve them. He smiled. He said, “It was your father’s division that had liberated my sister’s village not far from here. What your father did for us.”

And it made me think, “Did my… was my father ever thanked by anybody or soldiers ever thanked?”

And I looked over at my husband and there he was dialing my father in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He said, “Stanley, we’re here in a World War II memorial and there’s someone that would like to talk to you.”

Monsieur Letribot got on the phone and he said, “Thank you so much for what you did for me and for my people. You came all the way over from America and you didn’t even know me. Thank you.”

And my father, oh, my father said, “You’re welcome. It was my pleasure. I did what I thought was right. Nobody has ever thanked me before.”

68 years later this conversation took place, 68 years after my father left France. Inside of a chapel whose walls are adorned with the military… American military flags with American medals with the… with the pictures of photographs of American fallen soldiers. And here was a liberated Frenchman saying, “Thank you” to a Jewish American soldier. And my father, well, he wore no blinders to protect his feelings… and he cried.

DIWALI — From Darkness to Light, Hindus in America—Happy New Year!

 

Story Summary:

 A Goddess inspired story of the adversities faced and overcome by Archana’s family as they move form India to America. This is a story of identity, assimilation and race relations that ultimately honors different paths of healing and different religions. Overcoming health issues and life and death challenges, from Darkness to Light describes the embodiment of the Indian festival of Lights/Diwali that welcomes in the “new” in each and every one of us in a beautiful way.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: DIWALI-From-Darkness-to-Light-Hindus-in-America

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What other cultures include goddesses and talk about embodying the goddess energy? What does that mean?
  2. What is Diwali and what do people do on that day?
  3. What are some ways we can practice religious inclusion: as an individual, as a school or workplace and as a nation?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  Asian Americans/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • Interfaith

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Archana Lal-Tabak. My family is from the Pakistan side of India before the partition in 1947. In fact, my father was born in Burma and my mother was born in Kashmir and yet they had to flee again when they were young children. Burma is right by China on the east side of India, and near Tibet is Kashmir, which is in the northern state of India. They were persecuted there by the Muslims and the Communists and so they had to flee again in their young adolescent years. And they went to central India, north central India, a place called Kanpur. This is where they eventually met.

My father was there teaching medical school and my mother was a student at the medical school. And the patients all around were noticing that this gentleman was following my mom around and they said, “See that doctor who is looking at you?” And she had not noticed that he was looking at her. But, finally, he asked her out for an ice cream, which she could not really, even have because her stomach had been upset for many years and this is what had taken her into medicine. It turned out that later on, my father diagnosed that she had a retrocecal appendix many years later. And it must have been a sign of true love that he kind of knew what was going on and she was struggling. For two people who loved medicine, this was a true love story.

Actually, theirs was a love marriage. Back in those days, people in India did not cross over into different social castes or social hierarchy. They found that they were in north central India, however, and here people of different castes and different social status would, actually talk with each other and there were many faiths present. Finally, in this part of India they were able to practice their Hinduism without oppression and persecution. It turned out that my father, being rather poor in India, moved several times and I, myself, moved ten times by the time I was 13 years old. I was in Vietnam, in India, in America and back in India again.

And it so happens that one of those times when I was in India, I was about nine years old in 1972, staying with my favorite auntie and uncle and it was my favorite festival. This whole oppression of darkness to light, of… that my parents had been through reminded me of this festival Diwali, the Indian New Year, the Festival of Lights. And this festival was going on at the time that I was visiting India with my aunt and uncle. And at this beautiful festival, it turns out everyone decorates all of their houses with little tiny diyas – little tiny lights. They’re little ceramic pots that are decorated and they’re decorated with ghee or clarified butter inside with a little cotton wick coming out. Beautiful, beautiful lights and the whole house is decorated – inside and outside.

I was just totally amazed and intrigued by this beautiful festival. And I was playing with all the diyas, all the candles, all the wax, all the… all the little tiny tea lights and then, all of a sudden unbeknownst to me, I had been lit aflame. My uncle came over and put out my dress. I had, apparently, set myself on fire. And if I had not been careful or mindful and my uncle had not been watching, I would have been a burning girl somewhat like those women in India that used to throw themselves in their husband’s funeral pyre, back in the old days. Something I cannot even imagine. Now it turns out that this beautiful festival of Diwali, with the whole house is decorated, it’s cleaned, you’re wearing new clothes and eating delicious foods – complete multisensory experience – comes after these nine days of darkness. This nine days of the dark goddess Durga. And the goddess Durga is nine days of honoring how we ourselves transform internally from darkness to light. And there’s actually a ceremony where this huge statue that’s wooden and paper mâché of the evil god Raman, it’s burnt. This demon is burnt, publicly, like a huge burning man. And it, it’s amazing to me how many people were involved in all this when I was growing up. Pretty amazing!

Now when I was in India, I went to many different schools. Mostly, I went to the rector convent and different convents like Catholic schools run by nuns, that were English medium. But there was one time that I was in an Indian boarding school and in this school, the matron was a Sikh woman. It turns out that my father’s oldest brother was a Sikh as well. Apparently, in India, the oldest Hindu brother becomes a Sikh to protect the border because Hindus are mostly pacifists. Even though they have four castes and one of them is a warrior caste, they still have more pacifist tendency. So, the Sikhs protect the border. And I would sit with my matron in my boarding school and meditate with her and pray with her, with her Punjabi texts, just the way I used to sit and pray and meditate with my grandmother, Mummy Ji. Ji is a sign of respect in India, so often we’ll have names after a Ji. Mummy Ji and I would meditate and pray and so did I with this beautiful Sikh matron.

I loved looking at different cultures and religions. I went to the synagogues with my Jewish friends. I went to churches with my Christian friends and, of course, beautiful temples that were 5000 years old in India itself.

Now eventually my family moved to the states and we came here when I was 13 in 1977. When we came here, I went to a public school, which was a very interesting experience, culturally, as well. And I dated a few, maybe just a few Christian and Jewish men, you know, because Indian girls were supposed to have arranged marriages and not date. But I did. And I, actually married my first husband, who was Jewish, and then later on I met my current husband Jim. And although Jim was Greek and Slovakian, he had been doing yoga and meditation for several decades and we had a lot in common. We were meant to be together. He, actually, prepared an ayurvedic meal for me on one of our first dates. Now how many American men cook ayurvedic meals? Not many. Ayurveda, actually, is the knowledge or science of life in India. It is 5000 years old and I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.

But, basically, what I found was that through the oppression and the persecution that many, many generations and cultures have gone through, often that is transmitted in the families. And my own family, I found, had suffered a lot of adversity and several had died way too young. In fact, in my 20s, I, myself, suffered from debilitating illnesses including a serious autoimmune illness. And, at that time, I was led to studying Indian medicine and the western field of psycho neuro immunology. My family is all physicians. They’re all trained in western medicine and I found that I was able to completely heal myself through the psycho neuro immunology using some natural lifestyle factors, which I later learned were present in ayurveda.

And when I did workshops and this, my mom would come and say, “Well, that’s how we live. We eat this way, we dress this way, we behave this way, we walk like this.”

And it’s, basically, so much a part of the Indian culture. This knowledge or science of life is a part of the whole Indian culture, part of the Hindu religion so that the people would do it. So, they have fasts for detoxification during Navaratri, which was that… the goddess Ji I told you about. And then they have celebrations like Diwali with the multisensory experience of eating. In fact, my mom always said, “Make sure there’s every color of the rainbow in every meal.”

And it turns out, holistically, that is the best way to eat to get all your anti-oxidants, to get all your nutrition. Now I hope that as I’ve raised my son who is now 17 years old and (his name is Anand, which means bliss) that I can teach him some of these things that I have learned.

And we have raised him with yoga and meditation and some new thoughts, Christian traditions and other traditions. And, in fact, since we are cross-cultural couple and interfaith, we really honor all paths. And at our son’s school, we’ve often tried to take in the Hindu culture and the foods and the multisensory experience but often met resistance, at times, because people didn’t understand that the Indian Diwali, Festival of Lights, the Indian New Year was similar to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, and even similar to Christmas and the winter solstice. It was a winter festival of light.

I imagine that someday, perhaps, people would understand this more and they would be a little tiny stamp just like those other stamps for the New Years and the festivals of light, that there would be a Diwali stamp, as well, a stamp that would have a little tiny diya, beautifully decorated with a little cotton wick in the ghee coming out to celebrate the Indian New Year and the Festival of Light.

I often find that when I need some help, I turn to the goddesses because in India, people have many gods and goddesses. It’s polytheistic, pantheistic. There’s a god and goddess for everyone. And even as I was developing this beautiful story for you, I found that I was stuck at times and I needed some prosperity, abundance, inspiration, creativity. So, I called in the goddesses. I had goddess Durga helping me from the inaction and darkness and paralysis of the trauma that my family went through to the light. I had goddess Lakshmi with prosperity and abundance that is celebrated during Diwali. And I had goddess Saraswati and she was the one with the creativity and the arts, came in to help me with the story. So, in India we embody all these gods and goddesses and thank goodness for Ganesh, the elephant god, who removes the obstacles along the way. And I’m so grateful to be here with these gods and goddesses today, embodying them and honoring the divine in all of us. Thank you.

Who is a Friend? German-Jewish Reconciliation After the Holocaust

 

Story Summary:

 Who is my friend and who is my enemy? Gail Rosen, a Jewish storyteller, goes to Germany and makes a surprising connection to a German man who lived through WWII.

 For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Who-is-a-Friend–German-Jewish-Reconciliation-After-the-Holocaust

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think people make assumptions or judgments about you based on how you look? What might they be? What do people think they know about you by looking at you? How could they be right and how could they be wrong?
  2. Can you tell of a time when you made assumptions or judgments about a person, but learned to think differently of that person later? How did that happen?
  3. How do you choose your friends? What qualities do you value in a friend?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Gail Rosen and I’m a storyteller. One of the most important stories to me, that I tell, is the story of a Jewish-German holocaust survivor. Her name was Hilda Cohen. Now I had learned about the Holocaust in high school. I’d studied about it but hearing a survivor story, that made it much more personal, more real.

In 2002, I came across an organization called Compassionate Listening. Their basic premise is that you can’t hate someone, if you’ve really heard their story. And so, they teach listening –  listening in a way that helps us to hear our common humanity in the hopes that, that kind of listening can help us to resolve conflicts.

I signed up for the Compassionate Listening Project for German-Jewish Reconciliation, and I went to Germany. I’d never thought about… going to Germany, wanted to go to Germany… but I wanted to go and see some of the places where Hilda’s story happened. And I wanted to tell her story to some of the people there, and I wanted to hear their stories.

There were 34 of us. Half of us Jews from the United States and half non-Jewish Germans. And on the first night of the project, we were sitting on a polished, wooden floor on cushions, sitting in a circle in an A- framed, shaped room with glass all around. And we went around the circle. And we each shared our feelings about coming together, to share the wounds that have reverberated through the generations, and into our own hearts, and bodies, and minds, and psyches since that time, since World War II.

One of the Jewish men told about his parents fleeing Germany with him when he was just seven years old. And he told about how they brought him up Episcopalian in northern California. They were too frightened to be Jews, even in the United States. Two other Jewish women talked about their mothers’ experiences in the concentration camps. I spoke about Hilda’s story, about the responsibility of carrying that story, and about wanting to share it there, in that place.

But it was the speaking of the Germans that stunned me.

One woman said, “Hitler ripped the heart out of our country. And now you are back.”

Another said, “We’ve been waiting, longing for our Jewish brothers and sisters to return, and finally you are here. Thank you. Thank you for coming.”

And they wept.

There was one man in the circle who drew my attention. His name is Ulrich. He’s a German man. He’s tall, very blond. He held himself very erect. His jaw was tight. And, and, though he held himself upright, when I looked at Ulrich, I had the distinct impression of someone who was doubled over in pain. And in the first days, hhh, of the project, he, he shared with us that he had always suspected that his father had been a perpetrator. Someone who willingly assisted the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews. He told us how frightened he had always been of his father. Now, Ulrich is just a couple of years older than I am. Neither of us was born when that war ended, but as a little boy he was terrified of his father. And even as a grown man with his own children, family, his own career, he was, he was frightened of his father.

During the project, we traveled together to Bergen-Belsen. It’s the site of a Nazi concentration camp. Now, in Jewish tradition, we’re taught that to attend a funeral is a special mitzvah, a blessing, because you see the dead can never return the favor. And it seemed to me that, that site of Bergen-Belsen is like an eternal funeral.

It’s beautiful there; it’s park-like. There are aspen trees and moss and wild grasses. There’s a large, circular, cobblestone path, and around that path are the burial mounds.

When the Allied Forces liberated Bergen-Belsen, they found tens of thousands, dead and dying. And so, the Army dug huge, rectangular mass graves. And they laid the bodies in, in tight rows, and then stacked them like cords of wood. And covered them over. Some of them are as large as a city block. And they’re about chest high.

And on the front of each one is a, a large cement plaque and they read in German, “Here rest 1000 dead 1945.” “Here rest 800 dead 1945.” “Here rest 2500 dead.” “Here rest 2000 dead.” “Here rest untold numbers dead 1945.” There are many of them.

I walked in that place with Ulrich. And he told me, that after his father died, he and his siblings had found, locked in a safe, hidden away, an old briefcase. And, in that briefcase, were papers that indicated that his father, his father was probably, at least, partly responsible for the deaths of between 10,000 and 45,000 Jewish men, women, and children in small villages in Russia.

He said, “I consider myself my father’s son. I do not carry his guilt. I cannot change the brutal past. But I have to find a way, how to deal with this inheritance.” And then he said, “But it seems wrong. Wrong of me to talk of my pain in this place.”

Before we left Bergen-Belsen, we held a ritual service. We stood in a circle, we lit candles, and we sang prayers. There was, on the edge of the circle, a bowl of wildflower seeds. And after the service, we were each to take a handful of those seeds, and then scatter them among the wild grasses in the fields. The service had ended, and I was standing on the edge of the circle, and I looked across and I saw Ulrich. He was kneeling by the bowl of seeds. He had taken a fistful of them and his head was bowed over his hand. And I looked at him. His father helped to murder innocent people.

I thought, “How can I look at this man and not imagine his father’s crimes. But how can I look at this man, and not see an innocent, frightened little boy.”

I walked over. I knelt down. I took a handful of seeds. With my other hand, I pulled Ulrich to his feet. I pried open his fingers, I poured my seeds into his hand, mixed the seeds together, took half, and we went together, and we scattered the seeds in the field.

I’ve been to Germany five times now. Ulrich and I continue to write. He and his wife came to United States, and they visited; they had dinner at my home. And in January, I’m going back to Germany to tell Hilda’s story at Ulrich’s syna… at Ulrich’s church and a school nearby. And I will stay with him and his wife. We think of each other as friends.

When my father died, Ulrich sent me a card. Now, many of my friends sent cards, and they were lovely. But the one that moved me the most was the one from Ulrich. I want to read you a little of it.

He said, “Dear Gail, your dad has left you. I have never met him, yet, in my mind’s eye, I have the image of a kind and gentle man. A thought comes to my mind. The deaths of our parents, makes us the elders. There is no living generation before us. There is a little candle burning in front of me in honor of a man I never knew. I know his daughter. With great sympathy, Ulrich.”

I am grateful. I am grateful for people who are willing to share their stories. I am grateful for people who are willing to hear the stories of others, and I am grateful for my friend.

Negotiating the Narrows

RaceBridges highlights a short video for
your viewing and inspiration.

.video-of-month-header5

 

Negotiating the Narrows

A short video story by Storyteller Susan Klein

Themes : Religious Differences.  Recognizing the various kinds of “isms”.  Hope for societal change that embraces diversity.

(Please be patient as the video may take a few moments to load.)

…….
As a young child Klein was intrigued by the mysterious practices of her Roman Catholic friends and neighbors. In the 1950s the Roman Catholic Church was still seen as somewhat foreign and was largely unknown or misunderstood by Protestant America. Although she was raised in the Methodist church, Klein was dazzled by Rosary beads, statues of saints, and the very mysterious Sunday Mass she attended with her best friend Debbie.    (more…)

FROM MOON COOKIES TO MARTIN AND ME

By Storyteller LYN FORD

 

Story Summary:

Empathy grows from sharing stories; this story was shared to encourage others to know, to understand, and to remember. This is a personal journey tale from Lyn’s childhood living next door to a Holocaust survivor and, then, her adolescent small but mature steps into the greater Civil Rights Movement.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: From-Moon-Cookies-to-Martin-and-Me

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Ignorance can lead to misinterpretation of a story. As a child, Lyn misunderstood the meaning of numbers printed on skin. Discuss how stereotypes are misinterpretations based on superficial concepts.
  2. Fences aren’t always made of wood; walls aren’t always made of brick or stone. What fences separate your community, your neighborhood, or your heart from others who, superficially, seem “different”? What’s the first step you can take to get beyond those fences?

Resources:

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Lyn Ford.  And when I was a little girl, we lived with my Grandma Cooper in Sharon, Pennsylvania on Mercer Avenue. In those days Grandma Cooper didn’t watch TV because there wasn’t one.  And she didn’t always listen to the radio.  But she spent a lot of time on either side of her yard, gossiping at the fence with her neighbors. One of the neighbors was a little woman, no taller than my Grandma Cooper, who always had a kerchief wrapped around her head, sometimes tied under her chin, and she wore long dark sleeves, which would kind of showed when she leaned on the fence. My grandma Cooper leaned on the fence beside her, she kept those sleeves pulled down. But sometimes in the warm weather she would slide them up.  And her name was Mrs. Rosenberg.

Mrs. Rosenberg would use words that Grandma never used and they sounded like music to me. She would add exclamations to what she was saying, Oy, gevalt!  or Oy, ve is mir! !  She would say things about someone else who is a bit narish, bit narish, and it sounded like music to me. So I would say things to my cousins “Stop being so narish. Oy, gevalt!.”  Sounded kind of funny, I am sure coming from a little African American child and I didn’t even know what it meant. But it seemed to work and I was impressed with that language. Mrs. Rosenberg also made these wonderful crescent shaped cookies that were filled with nuts and sometimes with golden raisins instead of brown ones and sweetness …  and I loved those. Every now and then she would call me to the fence “Darling, come here. I have something for you.” She would hold out her hand and I would get that moon cookie. I loved those moon cookies.

And I know that I got into trouble for something when I was that age, because I always did, and I had to stay in the house and I pouted and I wanted something to make me feel better. And I thought about those moon cookies. So, I thought I would call Mrs. Rosenberg and I picked up that big black receiver on that big black phone and started to dial on that circular dial. And all I got was an operator, a real person compared to what you get these days. He told me that I needed to try again or to hang up the receiver.

Well I know I was permitted to escape from the house the next day and I did something I hadn’t done. I went to Mrs. Rosenberg’s door and I knocked on it and she came to the door and I can’t remember exactly what she said but I told her that I had tried to call her. I wanted more of the moon cookies. I wanted to see if she would give me a moon cookie, but the number didn’t work.

And Mrs. Rosenberg said something like, “You know my number? You called my number? What number did you call?” Then I said, “Well, I dialed the numbers on your arm, but it didn’t work.” I thought the numbers on Mrs. Rosenberg’s arm, the arm that I seldom saw, except when she pushed up the sleeves on her long dark shirts, was her phone number. I thought she’d written it there, maybe she couldn’t remember it. Written it there the way some of the older girls in my family and in the neighborhood would write things on their hands, like boyfriend’s phone numbers, the answers of the questions for a test.

Mrs. Rosenberg became very solemn. She didn’t fuss, she didn’t yell.  She just quietly said, “Those are not my number, that’s not my number.”

I honestly don’t remember if she gave me a moon cookie I just remember going home. And after that she didn’t come to the fence and grandma didn’t talk to her and I didn’t see her in her garden. A garden where I heard her sing many, many times, a song that she would explain to me – [she sings a Hebrew Song].

I didn’t hear her singing and I didn’t see her; and the only way I knew what had happened was that I overheard Grandma Cooper telling someone over the phone, that some of Mrs. Rosenberg’s family had found her.  And then I felt bad because I had never known that Mrs. Rosenberg was lost.

APRIL 4, 1968 Memphis, TN.  Assassination of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr

Well, time passed and I grew and Mrs. Rosenberg was practically forgotten.  And April 4th, 1968 came along.  I was a junior in high school and that Thursday was devastating and we thought that we wouldn’t have school the next day. We thought that schools would be closed and flags would fly at half mast, the way they had for John. F. Kennedy.

But we heard on the news the next morning that we had to go to school. Some of the other schools in other communities were closed, but we had to go to school there in Sharon, Pennsylvania. And our parents sent us off and when we got to school, some of us decided that we were walking out at lunch time. We couldn’t stay.

Everything felt wrong and so we got up our courage and gathered together and started to walk toward the doors where the Principal stood in front of the doors, and he looked at our faces and then he stood near the doors and he said that we, “should be ashamed of ourselves for being so disruptive” and I remember he said specifically to me, “Your mother and father would never do anything like this. I know your family.”  And I said “I’m not my mother or my father,” and the doors were opened by my friends and outdoors we went and a couple of people put the flag at half mast, which I am sure made the maintenance men very angry, and if I had not been on the strong arms of two of my bigger friends, I might not have made it down the stairs because I was shaking so badly.

As we made our way down the street called State Street, heading toward the church that most of us attended, some of us glared at the few African American students who were too afraid to leave. And we ignored those European American students who were jeering and taunting and calling us names and we ignored some of our European American friends who wanted to walk with us to the church and we told them no.

We sang “We Shall Overcome” as we made our way down that street.

Some cars passed with students from another school and they jeered and taunted us and then we heard the sounds of our friends running down the hill behind us, crying red-faced, those European American friends linking arms with us and singing “We Shall Overcome”.

And we marched down that hill, black children, white children, and as we sang, to my left somewhere on a low hill, I heard a song [she sings that same Hebrew Song] and I tried to turn, but I was propelled, held by my friends and moving forward with that song and all of our energies and emotions.

And I knew that Mrs. Rosenberg had been an old woman when I was very small, but there was that song of hers and I couldn’t see who was singing it. When we got to the church… we had not vandalized, we had not fought, we had not cursed, we had not jeered or taunted…and we walked in to the church together black children and white children and sat and cried and prayed and talked and that song kept going through my head blending with the song “We Shall Overcome”.

And I remembered Mrs. Rosenberg’s explanation of her song’s meaning …

“Oh! How wonderful it is, when we can walk together …  come together in unity and peace.”

IN BELFAST

By Storyteller LOREN NIEMI

 

 

Story Summary:

 Loren travels to North Ireland and is continually asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” By the way that question is asked and answered, layers of cultural assumptions are revealed.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: In-Belfast

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is the fundamental assumption contained in asking, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
  2. What is the function of the joke in the context of the story and in relation to the larger issue of identity?
  3. How and why do people need to shed the assumptions of culture to “wage peace” or reconcile after loss?

Resources:

  • Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeley and Chris Thornton
  • Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland: Boundaries of Belonging and Belief by Claire Mitchell and Aldershot Ashgate   – Helping People Forgive, David W. Augsburger

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Interfaith
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

This is Loren Niemi.

In 2005 and 2007, every time I go to Belfast, and I’ve been to Belfast a couple of times, it’s always the same thing. I’m always introduced the same way. I’m introduced as, “This is our American friend.” And the first time it happened, I was kind of curious about why, or why that particular greeting. And they said, “Well, it’s a way of sidestepping the dance.” And I realized that, when upon observation, that in fact, in every conversation in Belfast, the first few minutes, there’s this gentle probing. No one really wants to ask directly. But there’s this little probing about, where do you live or where did you go to school? Or, you know, and it’s all about geography. What they really want to know is, are you Catholic or Protestant? And geography tells you whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, most of the time. And what they really want to know is, not only are you Catholic or Protestant, but, but where you are in relationship to the history and the nuance of the troubles?

Thirty-seven years of war based on religion and, as they say, 10 years of waging peace. And that’s what they call it, “waging peace.” And still no government they trust. And every conversation is about the same thing. It all begins the same way. Are you Catholic or Protestant? Now, me, I’m standing there and I’m looking at the city. And what I’m seeing is a city that pretty much looks the same regardless of where you are. And people who very much look the same, you know. They sound the same. They, they do the same jobs. They, they wear the same clothes. I cannot tell the difference between Protestant and Catholic.

But it’s interesting. I’m looking at a street. And on each side of the street, there are three story brick, row houses. Now, in some neighborhoods, it’s real clear because there are murals on the walls, right. Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers. Well, that’s an IRA, Catholic neighborhood. Or the end of a row of flats, you, you get, um, the Provos with their rifles and their masks. And you go, oh, this is a Protestant neighborhood. But most of the time it’s more subtle. You have to look at things like the curbs. Orange curbs in the Protestant neighborhoods and, and green curbs in the Papist neighborhoods, you know. And what I mean, is one side of the street is orange and the other side of the street is green. And these are not wide streets. So, sometimes when I would be asked, directly, eventually someone would say, “”Well, are you Catholic are or you Protestant?”

You know, I would say, “I’m Buddhist.”

And one guy he looks at me and there’s a pause. And then he says, “Well, would that be a Catholic Buddhist or Protestant Buddhist?” And we would laugh and it would be funny. It would be funny…except for the suffering and the death. Because that’s what I had come to Belfast for was to, you know, work on the reconciliation. To work on hearing the stories of suffering and death. And it made no difference whether you are Catholic or Protestant. There was suffering and death on both sides.

And when you hear the stories, when they all come out, when you’ve got a roomful of people and you get down to, “How did you survive? What did you do?” You know, we find the common humanity. Every story might begin, or every introduction, might begin with, “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” But if there’s any hope for the future, if there’s any hope for reconciliation, it can’t end there.

A TWICE SAVED LIFE

by Storyteller ALTON CHUNG

 

Story Summary:

Solly Ganor, a Lithuanian Jew, was a boy when Germany invaded his country in1940. He was eventually sent to Dachau and was rescued by members of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Japanese American unit. Fifty years later he once again meets the man who saved him.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  A-Twice-Saved-Life-The-Solly-Gaynor-Story

Discussion Questions:

  1. What if an environmental disaster occurred in Canada and forced millions of Canadians south across the border into the US. Would you open your house to take in some refugees who have nothing?  What would you give up to share with them?
  2. What if an environmental disaster occurred in Mexico and forced millions of Mexicans across the border into the US, would you open your house to some refugees who had nothing?  Would your behavior be different than your reaction to the Canadian refugees?  Why?
  3. People who lived through WWII are passing away.  In a few years, there will no longer be any eyewitnesses to the events of recent history. How do we know what happened in Civil War, in Medieval Europe, at the building of the Pyramids in Egypt?  How is history preserved?  How does the past affect our present and future?
  4. If you and your family were sent to an incarceration camp, would you volunteer to fight for the U.S.? Would you serve, if drafted into the Military? Would you remained loyal to the U.S.?

Resources:

  • Light One Candle: A Survivor’s Tale by Solly Ganor
  • Visas and Virtue, Visual Communications, Cedar Grove Production, 26 minutes, 1997, (1997 Academy Award, Best Live Action Short Film)
  • Okage Sama De (I am what I am because of you.) A DVD by Alton Chung

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Interfaith
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello.  My name is Alton Takiyama-Chung.  The story I am going to tell you right now is called, “A Twice Saved Life.”  It’s from a large collection of stories which I created and called, “Okage Sama De.” (“I Am What I Am Because Of You”)  and now, “A Twice Saved Life.”

We, Jews, have a saying, “To save one life, is if to save the entire world.”  Kaunas, Lithuania.  Just a dot on a map for most Americans.  But for me, it is where I grew up. I was 11 years old when Hitler invaded Poland from the West in September of 1939. Two weeks later, Russia invaded Poland from the east.  And over the next several months, Polish Jews began streaming across the border into Lithuania.  In December of that year, like many other Jewish children in Lithuania, I decided to give my Hanukkah gelt, my Hanukkah money, to the refugees who had nothing. And then, ah, wouldn’t you know it, the new Laurel and Hardy film came in town and I just had to see it!

I decided to go see my aunt who ran a gourmet grocery store in downtown Kaunas. When I walked into the store, there was an elegantly dressed man with strange, slanted eyes.  I had never seen a Japanese man before!  Well, I told my aunt what I needed. And the man laughed and reached into his pocket, and said, “Here, here. Take it. Take the money.  Take, take it.”

I said, “Oh no, no, no! You a stranger.  You’re not family.  I cannot take money from you.”

“Well, for the holidays, why don’t you consider me to be your uncle?”

I took the coin. “Uh…Uncle…uh…my name is Solly Ganor.”

“And my name is Chiune Sugihara.”  Chiune Sugihara.  He was the Consul for the Empire of Japan to Kaunas.

Well, time went on.  In June 1941, Germany invaded Lithuania.  Eventually, my family was split up and I was sent to Bavaria, southern Germany, to a little town outside of Munich, called Dachau. I witnessed many…horrible,…terrible things…  But I survived.

In 1945, the SS guards wrestled us out of our barracks and made us march off into the frozen night.  And we marched…And we marched…And we marched.  For six days and nights we marched.  I was weak.  I was exhausted and I collapsed into a snow bank by the side of the road where the guards just left me to die.  I was drifting away and then I felt someone grab hold of me and pull me out of the snow bank. And I opened my eyes and stared into this face with strange, slanted eyes.  And I remembered Sugihara had strange, slanted eyes. There were four of them.  They were dressed in khaki uniforms and they were tired and unshaven and dirty.  And although they were speaking English, I knew that they were Japanese.  I thought to myself, “Oh, these Japanese soldiers are now here to kill me.” By then, I didn’t care.  “Go ahead! Kill me! Just get it over with!”

They looked at me and said, “No! We’re not going to kill you! We are Americans.”

“Oh, no, no, no! You are Japanese! You’re here to kill me!”  We went back and forth.

And finally, this Japanese man, fell down on his knees, weeping.  “You’re free, boy! We are Japanese Americans. You’re free!” I stared into this Japanese man’s eyes. They were kind and gentle like Sugihara’s.  It was only then that I believed.

His name was Clarence Matsumura and he was attached to the 522nd Artillery Battalion, which was part of 442nd Regimental Combat Team.  The all Japanese American unit.  They were amongst the first to discover and begin liberating the complex of camps around Dachau.  I found it ironic that Clarence and his kinsmen had volunteered to fight and die for the United States for many of them had their families locked up in “American Relocation” centers.

Well, after the war, I moved to Israel.  I didn’t talk very much about my experiences except to other people who were survivors of the camps.  Ever since my liberation, I had not been able to cry.  Psychiatrists told me that the trauma of the holocaust had just dried up all my tears. That I was now an emotional amputee; I would never cry again.

In 1992, I received a phone call from a man by the name of Eric Saul.  He was a historian from San Francisco. He said that he was here in Israel with a group of Japanese American men who were there at the liberation of Dachau.  They had come from Hawaii and California to Israel to be honored by the Knesset.  Would I meet them?

Well, I arrived at the hotel and there was this group of old Japanese men. They were all gray haired, in their 70’s.  They asked me to read an account that I had written when I had first met the members of their battalion.  And as I began reading my account, we were joined by another Japanese man – gray hair, glasses.  And when I got to the point where these Japanese men were pulling me out of the snow bank, I looked up at the newcomer.  And there were tears in his eyes.  I stopped reading.  I couldn’t go on.  I couldn’t speak.  After years of suppressing the insuppressible, this tidal wave of emotion is erupted through me.  And I began to weep.  The little boy that I had hidden away all those years had come out of hiding.  And it was he who was weeping.

All these old men gathered around me to comfort me.  “Uh…Don’t be ashamed. You are among friends now.” It was the voice of the newcomer. “Solly, this is Clarence Matsumura.”  I looked at this man, the newcomer, – gray hair, glasses.  How could this be?  I couldn’t tell.  And then he smiled.  Oh… Nothing could change that smile!  We fell into each other’s arms and the years melted away.  I was weak and he held me up…just as he had done 47 years ago on the road to Waakirchen just south of a little town called Dachau.

MEXICANS IN CHURCH

By Storyteller Antonio Sacre

 

Story Summary:

 Occasionally, Antonio brings his friends and family to Catholic mass, not always with the results he hoped for. However, in Los Angeles, he goes to church with Mexican-American families where he finds people who are deeply into the ritual and their passion for their religion makes him proud.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you go to a faith-based service of some kind? Is your church, temple, synagogue or mosque primarily one ethnic group? How do the ethnic cultures and religions in your community mix, influence and play off of one another?
  2. Why does going to a Mexican-American community’s church make Antonio proud to be Catholic?

 

Resources:

  •  Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church by Timothy Matovina
  • Mexican-American Catholics by Eduardo C. Fernandez

 

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Interfaith
  • Latino Americans/Latinos

THE OTHER 9/11 STORY

By Storyteller Susan O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, demonstrations against Muslims arose in different parts of Chicago. One group of Chicagoans on the southwest side of the city decided to support their Muslim neighbors. This support grew into a massive rally and teach-in at Chicago’s Navy Pier. Sue witnessed people willing to learn from and about each other and how much taking a stand could mean.

For print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Other-911

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why don’t we hear the stories of what is working?
  2. The teachers taught the students about other times in history when people were stereotyped and scapegoated. Give an example of what they might have taught.
  3. Were the adults correct in keeping the students away from the (peaceful) demonstration of support? Was their alternative way to involve the students effective?
  4. Why is it important to show support to groups of people who are under attack?

Resource:

  • September 11, 2001: A Record of Tragedy, Herosim and Hope by Editors of New York Magazine

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Interfaith
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Two days after the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, Sister Margaret Zalot, principal of Maria High School, found herself in trouble.  She was driving down east on 95th Street when she unwittingly drove right into an anti-Muslim demonstration.  Crowds were milling about, cars would zip across the intersection at 95th and Harlem.  Then across again and again and shouting, “White power!”  They held signs that said, “Choose what side you’re on.”   “This is the beginning and the end.”  They were just ignoring the police.  They were trying to keep all that traffic going but pretty soon everybody just kind of ran their cars into the middle, just took the intersection over.  There were guys in the back of pickup trucks, huge American flags with long poles, looked like jousters ready to ram somebody.  And she found herself caught in the middle of all this.

Took over an hour and a half to get through that gridlock.  Now just the night before, this angry mob had marched on the mosque at 92nd Street.  Only because the police got there moments ahead and threw up barricades did it keep the windows getting broken or maybe worse.  I’m sure it was fresh in the police people’s minds because just a few years earlier the Federal Building in Oklahoma City had been bombed.  And two days later the mosque in Springfield, Illinois was burned to the ground.  So they saved that mosque but the demonstrations went on and on.  And Sister Margaret Zalot finally got home safely but she remembered that saying, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”  She’s like, “I’ve gotta do something.  What can we do? Oh, what we can do?”

So she went out and she found some other people with the same concern, the same sense of urgency.  She went to swop… S.W.O.P, Southwestern Organizing Project.  This represented 27 community groups on the southwest side of Chicago. And they were also asking what can we do?  It didn’t make sense to meet violence with violence?  What can we do?  They came up with a brilliant plan.  They said, “Lucky the police got to that mosque with the barricade just in time to save it.  We’ll make a human barricade.”  What they decided to do was next day… was Friday, like a Sabbath for Muslims, Friday afternoon prayer, Jumuʿah prayer.  They said, We’ll make a human barricade around the mosques and we’ll protect the people inside.”  And that’s what they did.

Now some people didn’t even know there were mosques in their neighborhood on 63rd Street.  You know, you can just not pay attention to something that doesn’t concern you?  And these are little storefront kind of places of worship.  But the next day, even though it was a workday, Friday workday, 150 people showed up.  And they stood arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder and they had signs from their religion like, “Pax Christi,” Peace and Christ, or “Shalom,” the Jewish tradition word for peace.  And people were so glad that they were there.  In fact, a newspaper accounting talked about the president of one of the mosques saying how much he appreciated the people being there.  How Islam does not teach that kind of violence.  That they were all grieving over the tragedy of 9/11. And certainly, the president of that mosque, Khatam Pharez, was grieving because his cousin was on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center when that first plane hit that first tower.

And the paper also talked about this young man on his way to Friday prayer when he saw all these people demonstrating in front of the mosque. Well, he knew about the threats to his mosque, there were death threats , and should he go?  Was that the smart thing to do?  Should he go just back home?  And all of sudden one of the men turned around.  It was an older man with snowy hair, and on the sign he was carrying, it said, “As-Salāmu Alaykum,” the Arbic blessing; peace be unto you.  The young man knew those people in front of his mosque weren’t there to hurt him but to protect him.

Well, unfortunately, the violence continued that next week after 9/11.  So, the people decided that they were going to have a circle of peace again.  And Sister Margaret Zalot, principal of Maria High School, had gone back to her school that whole week.  And they suspended many classes and worked with the kids.  They told them stories about, through history when people have been turned against each other, when people have been used to hate one another to somebody else’s benefit.  So, maybe if kids heard these stories, they’d think. So they couldn’t be used against anybody or any other group.  And then they told them stories when people had stood together and the kids really learned.  Because when they heard Sister Margaret, they got it! Some of the teachers were going back the second time to make circles of peace.  You can imagine what they said.  “We want to go, too!  Come on, you’re teaching us about justice and standing together and universal diversity.  We’re gonna go too!”

But these really were dangerous times after September 11th.  The teachers couldn’t take the students somewhere there might be violence.  So, they came up with an alternative because they didn’t want to discourage the girls.  They said, “Why don’t you write letters to your Muslim neighbors?  Tell them how you feel.”  So, that next Friday, double, triple the crowd showed up at those mosques to make their human barricade, their circle of peace.  And when those folks came out from prayer that Friday, they were handed letters from the Maria High School girls.  And the letters said things like, “You are our neighbors, we love you.  We stand by you and for you.”  And people read those letters out loud and, I tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye off the street.  People were huggin’ and crying.

Well, through the months of that winter 2001 and 2002, Southwest Organizing Project joined with community groups from all over Chicago and decided to have a Muslim/non-Muslin dialogue.  But, you know how winter can be any who live in the north.  Oh my goodness!  You get a nice day and everybody just wants to be outside.  It was one of those kind of days, a Sunday afternoon.  They wondered would anybody show up to talk perfect strangers on a beautiful day in Chicago?  They had rented Navy Pier Ballroom.  What if there was nobody coming at all and it was empty?  Four thousand people showed up to share, to dialogue and even the high school girls modeled how to talk and dialogue with each other.  They asked each other questions and, I remember, the Maria High School student asking a girl from the Islamic school, “You know, I have to admit, I saw those hijabs, those headscarves you wear, and I thought it was kind of weird but then we girls got talking.  You know, you can have a bad hair day, that hijab would come in handy.”  And the Islamic girl said back to her, right in front of everybody, “You know, you have bad hair days, we have bad hijab days.  Sometimes you just can’t get those scarves to sit on right.”

So they would model or they would have some other people come up from Southwest Organizing Project would model talking to each other.  And then we in our small groups, they’d give us a discussion question.  Well, you can imagine the noise in that room with four thousand people!  You had huddle in close to hear each other.  I had a Muslim man, I had a teenage boy from the northwest side, I had two cab drivers who just heard about it and came driving on in and we huddled real close.  As we shared our lives and our hopes and our dreams, it’s like the energy just emanated out of Navy Pier up and down the lakefront, all across Chicago.  Because after that all, the white power and other demonstrations just stopped.

What does it take for ugly history not to repeat itself?  It takes people who are willing to go and stand in front of places they’ve never been, to protect a religion they’ve never practiced, to listen in their classrooms or in their community groups to different people’s stories so that we can cut through all that ignorance and fear, so that we can speak and we can celebrate the truth.  We are one.

THE NUNS

By Storyteller Gerald Fierst

 

Story Summary:

 Growing up in his New York City Jewish neighborhood was a world of homogeneity for Gerry. But an occasional intrusion of “alien nuns” could be truly scary to a young child unfamiliar with other religions.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Nuns

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Have you ever reacted with the same kind of fear that Gerry and his friends had when they saw nuns? What could the adults have done to help the children understand who the nuns were?
  2. What allows someone to react with curiosity rather than fear to someone or something that is different?
  3. Does every group have prejudices and biases? Does being discriminated or misunderstood yourself lead to your being more open-minded about others?

Resource:

  •  Catholic and Jews in Twentieth-Century America by Egal Feldman

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

History leaves us all with prejudices. For 2000 years, the Jews have been chased from country to country. They’ve always been the “other.”

“Well, my family, they fled Russia about a hundred years ago. The Czar of Russia had encouraged his subjects and his soldiers to kill Jews. One day, the Cossacks, the Czar’s horsemen, were riding into my little village the Zubkova.

My cousin heard the horse’s hooves in the street, and she ran out to get the children inside. But she wasn’t quick enough. There was the Cossack, sword drawn, coming down the street. She threw herself on the baby, and the sharp blade came down, right across her back.

And that night, my grandmother said, “Enough! We’re going to America!”

And so, we came to America, where we could be safe, where we could live with other Jews. But memories like that, they don’t go away. They’re in our culture. They’re inside our genes.

One day, when I was about five years old, I was sitting on the steps. My sister and my cousin were with me. We were playing, when suddenly I saw them. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I, I knew that they were dangerous. I knew it, in my DNA.

They were big, and they were black. And they seemed to be flying down the street, with big white wings that came out of their head. My sister, my cousin, they saw the look on my face. And then they looked, and then we three were all frozen in fear, as the monsters came, closer and closer.

“Where they going to kidnap us? Or maybe even worse?”

They reached us. They started to reach out their hands towards us.

“Good morning, children.”

Aah, aah, aah, aah, aah! And we ran inside. Escaping from the nuns.

MORE ALIKE THAN NOT

Featuring Storytellers Arif Choudhury, Gerald Fierst and Susan O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 Through exploring misconceptions and common threads such as immigration and disagreements within their own religions, these three tellers bring alive their distinct histories and our common humanity to illuminate the experience of being an American in a time of religious tension, change and possibility.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  More-Alike-Than-Not

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What were you taught about other faith traditions? Were you given accurate information or misinformation?
  2. What groups do you identify with? Do you ever feel as though you don’t fit in in your own group?
  3. Why do people condemn, fear or stereotype people from different religions?
  4. Is there a religion you’d like to learn more about? What similarities between the major world religions might surprise you?

Resource:

  • Religious Tolerance and World Religions by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Identity
  • Interfaith
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript: 

More alike than not.  When the three of us started working together, Gerry, Arif and me, Susan, one thing we discovered, over and over again – we are so different. For instance, man, woman, black hair, red hair, less hair, brown skin, white skin, raised Muslim, raised Catholic, raised Jewish, white collar.

My father was a doctor. My father was a doctor too. Now my family, blue collar workers, mostly manual laborers, but we did have one teacher. Big family, small family, medium family. Ah huh, younger. Okay, older. But Gerry and I, we like to exercise every day and we eat healthy. Huh, and I consider potato chips a vegetable. So, you can see, we’re really different.

In fact, sometimes the three of us would look each other and we’d say we’re so different. How could we ever be friends? But then we kept working on our show. We started discovering how similar we were, for instance, how all-American our upbringings really were.

All of our families celebrated the Fourth of July. How more American than that can you be? Yeah. We celebrated Fourth of July and we had a barbecue – tandoori chicken! Ha, ha!

Food seemed to be the common element for all of our holidays. For instance, on Thanksgiving, my grandmother would always make her prized, lime green Jell-O mold with those little miniature marshmallows suspended mid-mold.

Yes. And my family for Thanksgiving, amongst all the other foods, we also had Jell-O mold but we used the recipe from Julia Child with Grand Marnier.

Now see my working class, beer and peanuts family, we would not know what Grand Marnier, I can’t even say it, Grand Marnier liqueur was. Ha, ha, ha! And in my Muslim family, we didn’t even drink alcohol so I don’t even know what a liqueur really is.

And all of our families were baseball fanatics. My teams were the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. And Arif and I, we’re Chicago kids so we are waitin’ for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series. Go Cubs! Oh, and that’s a real definition of faith!

Yeah, but then we kept talking about our faith traditions. We came to one major similarity –  that we all pray to one God. And it’s the same God, the God who spoke to Abraham.

And in all of our religions, at one time or another, the women covered their hair as a sign of respect and dedication, devotion. And in Judaism, the men also wear a skullcap when they pray and when they’re indoors.

Yeah. Muslim men often cover their hair for prayer as well. And in all our faiths, we learned another language to practice our faith tradition. I had to learn Arabic to read the holy book, the Koran, and I learned Latin and I learned Hebrew. And we all have religious leaders. For Muslims, it’s called the imam.

Now Catholicism, there’s the priest, the bishops, the cardinal and then the pope. The Jews have a rabbi. Similarity though, in our religions most of the top leaders are men. Ha, ha, ha. And then sometimes we discover somp’in’ that really surprises. For instance, Catholics, we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and so do Muslims. And, see, we didn’t know that.

But all of our religions have times for prayer and for fasting. I remember when I was a little kid, on Yom Kippur, we’d spend the whole day praying and fasting. Uh, All I wanted to do was to go home and eat.

Ha, ha, ha. For me as a Muslim, as a kid fasting, then sleep deprivation, every day for the 29 or 30 days of the holy month of Ramadan, I’d wake up before sunup to eat an entire medium cheese pizza and half of two liters of Diet Coke. So, I go that day from sunup to sundown with no food or drink.

And say the thing about how you sometimes you get stuck out traveling, you still have to pray when you’re on the road. Right. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day no matter where you are. So, a few years back my uncle and I were driving on a rural highway in Illinois heading up toward Chicago. The sun was coming down, was time for Maghrib prayer. So, my uncle pulled the car into the gas station. We took our shoes and socks off, threw our coats on the grass nearby as prayer rugs and we bowed facing east to the holy city of Mecca. Just a few feet away from the gas pumps and the highway.

Now prayer for us meant all 12,000 of us parishioners of St. Thomas Moore Parish going to one of the many Sunday masses. I used to go with my grandma and she’d always bring her crystal rosary. And sometimes the sun would stream into the stained-glass windows, hit that rosary and spray rainbows up and down the pews. I thought my grandmother’s rosary was made of magic diamonds.

As we were learning about all our faith traditions and the different facets and elements of our faith practices, we were showing all these flip charts and all the categories and the yellow sticky notes were posted with different pieces of each of our faiths. And the more that we looked at all those little slips of paper and the more we told the stories behind all those little yellow slips, the more we realized that really, we were more alike than different even though our families came from very different parts of the world.

My family came from New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn, in a little neighborhood called Borough Park. Borough Park could have been called Sholahova, which was the name of the little shtetl town or Jewish town that my family had come from. The avenue of Borough Park was lined with all the old Jewish merchants – the pickle man, the poultryman, the kosher butcher, the shoemaker, the baker – everybody was Jewish. I didn’t even know that the whole world wasn’t Jewish until I went to public school.

I lived in a house with my great-grandmother, my grandfather, my great aunt Tillie, my great-uncle Sam, my aunt Alice, my uncle Sidney, my cousin Jenny, my mother, my father, my sister and me. Next door were my cousins, down the street were more cousins. The doors were always open. Everybody came in and out all day.

My first crib was a dresser drawer. That way whoever was in the house could take me up and down the stairs and whoever was staying there would watch me. Every month, the whole family came to our house for the family meeting and we discussed whatever problems anybody had. Did they need a job? Did they need a loan to start a business? Do they need to get married? Whatever problem you had, the family would help. And that ethic went out into the big world. When we were very little, my great-grandmother, she would give us a dollar bill and she would say, “Go get milk and butter but I don’t want you to go to the big store. I want you to go to the little man. If we don’t help the little man, who will.”

Nowadays, well, the family still gathers. We celebrate holidays and life passages. And if we ever need help, we turn to each other and we know that there will always be help out there because if we don’t help each other, who will.

Now I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. My neighborhood was only 90 percent Irish when my grandparents came from Ireland to Chicago. They moved to an inner-city neighborhood of Chicago in the early 1900s that was just about 100 percent Irish. And coming from another land, they must have felt some comfort in being in a city that had politicians with names like Kennelly and Kelly and Daley. Now many years later in the 1950s, I was born and when I was 10 months old, my parents took us out of that mostly 100 percent Irish type neighborhood and moved us to a new development on the outskirts of the city.

They felt like pioneers. There were no streets, no sidewalks. We didn’t get mail delivered. And suddenly, they had new neighbors, some of whom had names such as English names or German names or Italian names. Now to my grandparents, this was a very dangerous situation because mixed neighborhoods could lead to… mixed marriages. And, sure enough, in high school didn’t I go and date a boy named Jim Worpinski. A Polish boy. This was interracial dating back then. Now we may have been many different kinds of white ethnic groups but the thing that held us together is that neighborhood was 99 percent Catholic. If someone asked you were… where you were from, you would say your parish on the southwest side of Chicago. I would say, “St. Thomas Moore.” I didn’t know that the official city name for my neighborhood was Wrightwood ‘til I was about 20 years old. Someone asked me where I’s from, I said Tommy Moore because we’re on a nickname basis with our St. And it did feel like ours. It was our St. Our neighborhood, our city.

When I heard Gerry talking about Borough Park, I realized that he and I have something in common. I also grew up in a Jewish neighborhood except I wasn’t Jewish. And when I hear Gerry and Sue talk about growing up in their ethnic and religious enclaves, I realize how different my story really is because I grew up in a suburb of Chicago as the only Muslim boy… as the only Bangladeshi boy.

My parents came to America from a country called Bangladesh, a small country just between India and Myanmar. My father first came to America because he wanted to study medicine. And then he hoped to go back to Bangladesh when it would be safe for him to have economic and educational opportunities there. But his father, my grandfather, told him to stay in America because there might be civil war brewing. At the time, Bangladesh was called East Pakistan and it might be war between East Pakistan and Pakistan for Bengali freedom. So, my father stayed in America, made money, sent it back home to the family where my mother’s family lived through the war. One of her cousins were… disappeared. The Pakistani army came and took him away. They never saw him again.

But later my father returned to marry my mother and they came and settled in Chicago where my dad, my dad got a job as a neurologist at Veterans Hospitals and we lived in this one high-rise, apartment building, because three other Bangladeshi families lived in that building too. So that was kind of our ethnic enclave. My mom and dad wanted to live there because they could share their language and their customs and their shared history and their shared loss from the war with those other families. But then one day, my dad decided to move away and buy a house in Northbrook. Now when I was living in that high-rise apartment, every morning our fathers would go off to work and our Bangladeshi mothers would gather those kids together and they would spend the day and they would trade each other’s specialty, Bengali recipes like chicken korma or roshgulla, a nice dessert. But they also taught each other new American recipes that they were learning from box tops and the sides of ingredients boxes like spaghetti with meatballs or macaroni with cheese or tuna fish sandwiches. And the other kids and I would watch Sesame Street or Electric Company.

But then we moved to Northbrook and then we were isolated from those families. Those families became my surrogate aunties and cousins and… to us. And now I didn’t see them very often, only on Saturdays at parties. And I lived in this… big house with my younger sister and my mom. And my sister and I played out… indoors quite a bit. I didn’t play outside with the other white kids. They all seemed older and they seemed to know each other. They had all gone to preschool together. I didn’t go to preschool with them so I didn’t play with them and I was afraid of being different. There was always constant reminders in our house about how different we were. There was patriotic Bengali music on the record player and each house had a… each room in the house had these woodcuts of balishi vistas, rural fishermen fishing and farmers farming. When I, later, got older and had white friends and I went to their houses, they didn’t have any of that stuff so I didn’t want to be different. But I was and I came to accept it. My parents had always thought that we would eventually go back to Bangladesh once my father was settled and had more opportunity there but that never materialized. And it was a young country with a lot of political turmoil. And then I was born and my sister was born. And my, my younger brother was born and my parents decided that kids are American. Let’s stay in America.

So, we wanted to share some of our stories with you today from our longer piece as long as everybody keeps in mind that nobody can speak for his or her group. I can’t speak for all Catholics, which certainly means I can’t speak for all Christians and I can’t speak for all Jews. And I can’t speak for all Muslims. These stories are just part of who we are.