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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Five

 
Photo: © copyright Carol Bergman 2020  

 

Restorative Justice in One Small Town

 

 

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable…The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chYapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. 

 

                      -Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Between the World and Me"

 

 

You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure, for a poet remembers.

                           

-Czeslaw Milosz

 

We had been in Vienna for several days—my mother, my daughter and I—when we finally found the Monument Against War and Fascism, unveiled by the Austrian government on November 24, 1988. Its German title is somewhat different: Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus. Mahnmal means warning or reminder. Its central image is of an old Jew crouching down on his hands and knees scrubbing stones, a memory my mother held in her sympathetic nervous system every day of her survivor's life. Her mother, my grandmother, Nanette, had been forced onto her hands and knees on her way home from work just days after the German invasion. She had survived that ordeal, only to be murdered in Auschwitz together with most of our family. That death camp is the only monument that means anything to me, but I was curious how the Austrians, who had come late to redress, conceptualized a monument against Faschismus and murder.


A sign, hidden behind some bushes too far away from the sculpture for most people to notice reads, in German: The first to fall victim to the Nazi regime were political opponents and Jews. After 12 March 1938, many Jews were forced out of their homes and into the streets to clean away political slogans. The figure of the kneeling Jew is to remind us of these acts of humiliation.

 

This "act of humiliation," a euphemism, was the first overt violent action by the Nazis in the reign of terror; it escalated quickly to genocide.


Signage is important, and I wondered why this one had not been updated to reflect changes in Austria's moral compass as a member of a socially conscious EU. Perhaps the insular Austrian bureaucrats still imagine that they were victims rather than willing perpetrators.


The front of the square is bordered by the "Gates of Violence," carved from the granite that thousands of prisoners carried over the "stairs of death" at the Mauthausen death camp. And there are other stones here, too, smaller stones visitors have placed on the old Jew's back, an iconic stereotype embedded in European history.


It was summer and there were travelers from all over the world gathering around the monument, but no Austrians. We were outliers, visitors from another dimension. I'd read somewhere that late at night punks and runaways sit on the old Jew's back. I didn't dare return to witness this desecration, but the next morning I called Dr. Bernhard Denscher, at the time Head of the Department of Cultural Affairs in Vienna. "In my opinion this work of art should be more than just a tourist sight," he told me in perfect English. "It should provide food for thought and incite the beholder to pause and linger." My thought exactly.


This story came back to me this morning as I took my walk along Huguenot St. in New Paltz, NY: the sign at the African American burial ground has been repainted. It is now brighter and more noticeable. It sits in front of a "monument" of stone, a bench with a thick iron chain at its base. The bench has been there a while, now the sign stands in high relief, the story of enslavement by the Huguenot, English and Dutch settlers in New Paltz crushed into a small space, there for all to read and ponder, and for the descendants of slaves to visit as a sacred space. My only quibble is that the word "founded" was not changed as the land we live on was inhabited by the Lenape Nation before the settlers arrived, and was stolen from them.


Still, it's an important renewal, one that reflects the national discourse about monuments, Black Lives Matter, and the cultural changes we are navigating amid the horrific pandemic. I wish all my fellow citizens—here in this small town, and throughout the United States—continuing fortitude and an open heart during the painful but essential reckoning with our past.

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When Friends Make Us Proud

 
 
 

In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II.

             --from the Manzanar National Historic Site website

 

I met Carol Shinoda and John Tateishi in a Chaucer class at UC Berkeley. I didn't know their backstory, nor did they know mine. As young, carefree college students the words camps, incarceration, round-ups, detentions and reparations were not mentioned, or even fully known. They were buried deep in our families' histories and in our psyches, only to surface many years later when we were married and about to start our families. We were all living and working in London, simultaneously by design—John & Carol, Jim and I. And once we had our first born children, we all began to think about returning to America.


"I had always thought we'd be expats forever," John told me recently. "I imagined we'd live in France eventually because the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American unit, many of their parents interned in camps during the war, fought with courage and patriotism in the bloodiest and fierecest campaigns in Europe. The French have never forgotten that; their gratitude is still palpable. But we thought it was important for our children to know what had happened to the Japanese-American community inside America after Pearl Harbor. So we returned to America to become a part of that community."


Five years after they returned to California, John and Carol not only found a community, they became active in that community. They joined a civil rights group, the Japanese American Citizens League. John eventually became the Chair of the Regional Redress Program and, in 1978, he became National Chair. He also gathered and edited a book of oral histories called, And Justice for All, and became a lobbyist in Washington for the Redress Campaign.


Now John has published Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations (Heyday Books) about the day to day, week to week, year by year travails and successes of the movement that culminated in reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned. It granted each surviving internee $20,000 in compensation. A total of 82,219 received redress checks.


The United States has a long history of racism, xenophobia, and violence against immigrants and minority groups. The World War II Japanese American chapter is only one chapter in our sordid story, a fault line as shameful as the Native American genocide and enslavement. We must continue to expose these stories, resist false narratives, and write about them with courage. I am proud of my tenacious friend--the book was not easy to write-- and wish him fortitude as he embarks upon his publicity tour. Check out John's website for a schedule of appearances: https://www.johntateishi.com/

 

 

Photo: Out of focus but poignant nonetheless. This is Manzanar where John Tateishi was incarcerated as a toddler. Like most interned families, his family lost everything--or it was stolen-- the day they were shipped out. It was cold in these mountains. Japanese American Californians, accustomed to a warm climate, did not even have the right clothes.

 

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Austrian Citizenship; A Comedy

The Austrian Passport. The Consulate's website says that information about Austrian citizenship is currently only available in German.

I am not sure if this is a tragedy or a comedy, but I think it is a comedy. I have just been informed that I am entitled to Austrian citizenship. In legal lingo it's called "the right of return." This will be another chapter to write, a treasure trove of story.


My family was originally Austrian, most of them slaughtered in the Nazi genocide, and now, as a descendant, I, too, can receive an Austrian passport. All I have to do is apply and prove that my parents and/or grandparents and/or great grandparents were native Austrians. How lucky am I. Bless them. Not only am I entitled to an Austrian passport, I am, by extension, entitled to an EU passport. And I don't have to relinquish my very precious Amerian passport, or reside in Austria, a country I scratched off my list as a vacation destination after my second tumultuous visit there. I've written about my experience of both visits in my memoir, "Searching for Fritzi." (Please read the e-book version as it has a very interesting addendum.)


Why is my tongue in my cheek as I write today? Why am I amused? Or bitterly amused? Well, as all things Austrian, this offer has arrived ein bissel späte. That's German for "a little late." The Germans have done better; they made great efforts immediately after WW II. Not so the Austrians. No great effort for a long time; they considered themselves "victims" of the Nazi war machine. We all know this, definitively, to be untrue; they were happy collaborators, happy perpetrators.


My mother, father and stepfather collected restitution checks until they died, but the checks were from the German government, not the Austrian government. Interesting, nicht?


I wonder what my murdered and displaced relatives might say if they were alive to accept this benevolent offer from their once-loved nation. I try to imagine a return to their favorite haunts—the alps where they skied, the coffee houses where they read the daily newspaper and met their friends, the opera, the university. I can't imagine any of this without feeling a very big sadness and a very big anger. (The definition of sarcasm is tearing flesh. I am tearing flesh.) And so, during this Yom Kippur week, I will say this to Austria: there is no atonement, none at all, for a genocide. Thanks for the gesture but I am not interested.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Slaves

A memorial @ The African Burial Ground on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. 
Photo: © copyright by Carol Bergman 2019

 

 

"Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves."

 

Frederick  Douglass, 1855

 

 

"Such is the story that comes down to me."

 

Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, Pike County Ohio, 1873

 

 


I've been reading American Colonial History, interviewing people, and researching in historic archives non-stop since my arrival in New Paltz just over a year ago in preparation, I thought, for a long narrative nonfiction project about the legacy of slavery in one small Mid-Hudson Valley town. How is it coping with new revelations and interpretations? I arrived in the midst of a dormitory renaming controversy on the SUNY campus--an echo of the discourse we're having about monuments across the country--and published a guest column in the Poughkeepsie Journal in September, 2018. I was excited by the prospect of being a peripheral narrator in this story: both a participant/citizen and a reporter/observer. But I had heard that a prominent historian at the Historic Huguenot Street Archives had been released from her duties after conflict with the Board of Directors some years ago. This did not bode well. I was trying to provide a fresh perspective, ask interesting questions, but it didn't take long for me to become persona non grata, and to receive emails reminding me—a bona fide journalist—that I could not have press tickets to certain events. It was enough to question whether my project was viable.

 

For a while, I worked around resistance, and even drafted an article, but I stopped after I attended a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission to advocate for the landmarking of the Jacob Wynkoop houses—more below. I was no longer an observer/reporter; I had become an activist.


When a profile of me appeared in the local paper about my new murder mystery, "Say Nothing," a two-page spread with a photo, and only those near and dear turned up at the reading at a local independent bookstore, despite a lot of publicity, I knew that the gate had closed, that I was done. What had happened? It would take an investigative reporter with the clout and resources of a major newspaper to get the full story, but I have my hypothesis: I'm an outsider, a newcomer. Who am I, therefore, to remind the settled population here, many descended from the original settlers—to "lecture" them, as one vicious FB post said—that the legacy of slavery is visible, extant and troubling; Dutch, English, and French Huguenots all owned slaves.


One day in the late spring of 2019, surfacing from the dusty archive at Historic Huguenot Street, a tour bus parked in the visitor's lot. I stopped to watch what looked like a high school group and their teacher saunter toward Bevier House. For some reason they began to roam around on their own, without the assistance of a docent. The teacher was talking as I approached, but I didn't hear what he said; he was peering into the cellar window. I had done the same in recent weeks and found it haunting. I imagined the slaves sleeping on pallets on the dirt floor, spinning wool, or cooking, and struggling up and down the steep stairs leading to the outside entrance to the house--more steps--as they carried food, or laundry to their "master," Abraham Bevier, and his family. The 1790 census confirms that Abraham Bevier owned seven slaves. Did they all live in the cellar? And even if there was an interior staircase as an empathetic and charming Huguenot descendant recently explained to me--by way of softening the slaves'travail, perhaps--would that have made any difference?


I went up to the teacher and asked if he knew what he was looking at. "A cellar," he said. "A slave dwelling," I corrected him, wishing there had been a plaque to explain the dwelling and its relationship to the house, but the teacher seemed less than interested and quickly moved away to gather his students around the well, an educational opportunity lost. I was, at least, pleased that I had mentioned something.


Juneteenth, 2019, a holiday commemorating Emancipation after the Civil War. I went on a tour--to which I did get a press pass because it pertained to my project, presumably--of the Jacob Wynkoop houses in New Paltz with Kara Augustine, Director of Public Programming at Historic Huguenot Street. The story of Jacob Wynkoop, a prominent African American citizen of New Paltz, a Union soldier, born free to a slave mother in 1829, one year after New York State emancipated its slaves, has been known since the 1980's. He died in 1912 and is buried in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery in Plot A-74/82. And though he was a member of the New Paltz (interracial) Grand Army of the Republic's fraternal organization, there are no streets named after him, nor did SUNY New Paltz, to my knowledge, consider naming one of their dorms after him. He was a builder, contractor, and carpenter. Several of his compact, well-made houses—with their signature attic windows—are still standing here; one was an investment property. Today we might call him an architect and real estate developer, two occupations revered in this burgeoning valley.


Where are his descendants? Possibly in Poughkeepsie, New York City and points beyond, I have learned. Why did they leave New Paltz? Was the town unwelcoming, or worse? Why haven't his houses been landmarked, or marked with a simple plaque? Why is this ostensibly progressive town so ethnically homogeneous? Apart from the SUNY New Paltz Campus, with its diversity outreach initiatives and faculty from all over the world, the 14,000 plus citizens are mostly white, with a smattering of Latinos.


In this era of transformation, as we reckon with our fraught past and complex political present, the failure of Reconstruction in the South and integration in the North, the redress of African American slave descendants (HR-40) is gaining traction again in Congress. The removal of monuments is one thing, the acknowledgement of contributions by the survivors of enslavement another. Both are important.


https://www.newpaltz.edu/media/diversity/Hasbrouck%20Renaming%20Report-Web.pdf\


http://images.burrellesluce.com/image/6322C/6322C_5605


The author wishes to thank: Carol Johnson, David & Susanna Lent, Jennifer Dubois Bruntil, Kara Augustine, Josephine Bloodgood, Albert Williams-Myers, Susan Stessin-Cohn, Eric Roth, Alan Kraus, and Michael Groth for their scholarship and insights.

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