Old haunts and new museums in New Orleans: WWII, Jewish, Brecht
A photo montage of the victory in World War II at the National WWII Museum

NEW ORLEANS — I recently revisited the city of New Orleans, 45 years after receiving my last academic degree from Tulane University. In my first report, I wrote about the opera Blue that we attended there, as well as a visit to the Laura Plantation a few miles up the Mississippi River.

The Latin American Library

A visit to the uptown Tulane campus paid off richly. Some of my “old haunts” there have been rebuilt post-Katrina, such as the Howard-Tilton Library at 7001 Freret St., a large part of whose collection was damaged or destroyed in the flooding. The Latin American Library, where I spent countless hours as a graduate student, is located in the new building. No librarian was on site at the time I popped in, but what I found, though on a small scale, impressed me: framed artwork, a selection of political posters, and several display cases of magazines and literary reviews with significant cover designs from different countries of Latin America. And I picked up an illustrated brochure issued by the LAL in Spanish about the extensive holdings there concerning art galleries and artists, exhibitions, art sales, marketing, and art patronage in some 26 cities and 17 countries of the region, as well as in other cities worldwide that have shown Latin American artists. Anyone interested in this field would find a rich vein of resources on these topics, a specialization of the library that has emerged apparently only within the last couple of decades.

Bertolt Brecht’s Paper War

Also on the Tulane campus is the Newcomb College building. Newcomb was the women’s college of Tulane, and it still retains a vestigial identity as, practically and academically, the campus has become gender integrated. In that building are the foreign language departments. On the walls outside Germanic & Slavic Studies, a display is up until Dec. 8, Bertolt Brecht’s Paper War: Exile in America 1941-1947. The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Washington—successor to the German Democratic Republic where BB settled after HUAC hounded him out of America—is a co-sponsor of the exhibition.

All throughout the war, living in Los Angeles and feeling alienated from American capitalism, Brecht read newspapers assiduously and kept a journal with clippings, drawings, and writings (in his usual style avoiding capital letters—perhaps that’s how much he hated Capitalism!). Ever-present, ever-prescient, BB saw through much of the bombastic patriotic hoopla to privately express some undiplomatic truths: On Aug. 24, 1943, for example, he wrote: “the great crimes are only possible because they are incredible. ordinary fraud, simple lies, unabashed racketeering, these are things that take many people unawares. (…) they indignantly refuse to ‘confound’ statesmen with horse thieves.” And in early 1944 (Jan. 7), he reacted to news, reported in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, that the Communist Party USA under its General Secretary Earl Browder had disbanded, dissolving itself into a non-party “Political Association” in order to lend full support to FDR in the war effort. BB’s sardonic comment: “the american communist party offers the heroic red army a little compliment in the form of a harakiri.”

Post-war, Brecht recounts his HUAC testimony on Oct. 30, 1947: “morning in washington before the un-american activities committee. after two hollywood writers [LESTER COLE and RING LARDNER JR] had answered the question of whether they belonged to the communist party by saying that the question was unconstitutional, i was called to the witness stand, followed by lawyers for the 19, bob kenny and bartley c crum, who were not permitted to intervene in any way. about 80 pressmen, two radio stations, a newsreel cameraman, photographers, in the public galleries theater people from broadway as friendly observers. as had agreed with the other 18 and their lawyers i, as a foreigner, answered the question with ‘no,’ which also happens to be the truth. (…) the hearing is excessively polite and ends without indictment. (…) I leave washington immediately, along with losey and hambleton, who had come over. -in the evening i listen to parts of my hearing on the radio with helli.”

The following day, Oct. 31, he records: “in the morning i meet LAUGHTON who is already going around in his galileo beard and is pleased that it isn’t going to take any special courage to play galileo, there being, as he says, no headlines about me. – in the afternoon i take off for paris.” And the celebrated dramatist and philosopher of theater will never again set foot in America.

The idea, concept, and design of the display are credited to Grischa Meyer and Holger Teschke, with artwork by Gerhard Oschatz.

The Southern Jewish Experience

One of the most impressive changes in the years since I lived in New Orleans is the emergence of a whole new tranche of museums, many of them within sight of Harmony Circle (formerly known as Lee Circle for the now flat-topped column that once uplifted the figure of Robert E. Lee), in the newly fashionable Warehouse District. These include the National WWII Museum, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Memorial Hall Confederate Civil War Museum, Escape My Room New Orleans, Museum of Trade Finance and the Fed, Contemporary Arts Center, and several private galleries.

My primary interest was the WWII Museum which, on the weekend we visited, was just opening the newest of its seven buildings, and on Nov. 11 we could attend a Veterans Day program.

But in our limited time, we were interested to visit the Jewish museum as well, mainly to see how they handled the prickly issue of race relations. We were not disappointed.

My mother was born in Virginia, and as a child, I visited the state (Norfolk and Virginia Beach, primarily) often. I absorbed a visceral sense of how Jews managed to fend for themselves across the South, sometimes as the lone Jewish family in town and needing to adapt to Southern ways without a larger communal support system. Issues of identity, isolation, assimilation, adaptation, and reinvention consistently crop up in the stories of such settlers.

Only as I grew older did I realize that as I was visiting my relatives in Norfolk in the 1950s, I could well have grazed elbows with individuals born into slavery—or into slaveholding families. That sobering thought vividly illustrated for me how we are not so removed from those times as we might like to think.

An introductory film at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience scratched the surface, highlighting the ways Jews came to identify with their new homelands in the South, cherishing their Jewish values, family, and food. It touched on the maintenance of traditions brought over from the Old Country while dealing with the peculiarly local “darkness”—the institutions of slavery, civil war, later Jim Crow, segregation, and civil rights. For greater depth, the several rooms and many themed exhibits in the museum would expand on such topics, conscientiously making the effort to be inclusive of darker-skinned Jews, some from African-American backgrounds.

A sculpture of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg carried on a Jewish New Orleans Mardi Gras float.

Familiar as the overall narrative was to me, many of the museum’s didactic panels introduced a plethora of facts and ideas that I hadn’t known—that the first Jew to set foot on land that would later become the United States was one Joachim Gans, a metallurgist, who arrived on Roanoke Island in 1585. Or that the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, authored in 1669 by none other than the philosopher John Locke, promised freedom of worship for “Jews, Heathens, and other Dissenters.” It was in Southern cities such as Savannah and Charleston where some of the earliest Jews in America settled, establishing Spanish and Portuguese synagogues following their Sephardic tradition.

Nor had I known about Francis Salvador, an English immigrant, elected to the South Carolina General Assembly, becoming the first professing Jew to hold political office in America. He urged support for American independence and was killed in action months later, likely the first Jew to die in the Revolutionary War.

Anti-Semites sometimes underline that fact that Jews were slave traders, exaggerating their role. According to one panel at the museum—though it’s not definitive on the whole scope of the subject—“Alongside other free people in the Americas, Jews owned and traded enslaved individuals of African origin. Naval records reported that Jewish-owned ships transported 1.23% of a recorded 300,000 enslaved persons into or out of Jamaica between 1719 and 1806.”

A panel specifically addressing “Jews and Slavery” states: “Southern Jews owned enslaved persons throughout the colonial and antebellum American South. A review of Southern Jewish wills during this period reflects that approximately twenty-five percent of Jews owned enslaved persons, roughly the same percentage as the general white Southern population. A small number of Southern Jews operated plantations with enslaved individuals, including Raphael Moses of Columbus, Georgia. A few Jewish Southerners pushed back against slavery. Moses Elias Levy of Florida published an abolitionist pamphlet while Leopold Karpeles in Texas helped numerous enslaved individuals escape to Mexico. Overall, however, Southern Jews conformed to white social norms that supported the institution of slavery.” Newspaper ads show Jewish slave dealers promoting their business.

One better-known Jew is Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Attorney General as well as Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Phoebe Yates Levy Pember served as division director for the Confederacy in the world’s largest military hospital. Though Jews on both sides during the Civil War held every rank from Private to Brigadier General, in the South, the curators tell us, “Most Southern Jews embrace white Southern racial norms.” Post-war, Benjamin Jonas became the first practicing Jewish U.S. Senator, representing Louisiana in 1879.

Self-congratulatory tales are told that Jewish clothing and department store owners in the South employed Blacks, allowed Black customers to try on clothes, lent them credit, and treated them with courtesy. Some of these stories are undoubtedly true. Yet to save their own skins from KKK terror, Jews also joined with reactionary whites to deny Black voting rights and uphold segregation. Anti-Semitism arose famously in the 1913 case of Leo Frank, lynched by a fanatical mob for the unsolved murder of a young white factory worker which he undoubtedly did not commit.

In 1916, Louis Brandeis of Louisville, Ky., was the first Jew appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A map of the South shows dozens of towns, in every Southern state, where Jews were elected as mayor.

“To stand aside or stand alone.” That is the question posed in one poignant panel on the civil rights era. As an anonymous Mississippi Jew put it in 1964, “We don’t want to have our Temple bombed. If we said out loud in the Temple what most of us really think and believe, there just wouldn’t be a Temple here anymore.”

On the way out, I spoke with a museum employee to share some of my impressions. As a former Workers Circle/Arbeter Ring district director, I told him, I noticed there was nothing about organized secular Jews—Judaism was all about temples, rabbis, and holidays. Workmen’s Circle (the historic name) branches existed in many places across the South—no longer, however—that valiantly tried to keep the Yiddish language and a socialist vision alive.

But more important, what about Julius Rosenwald, the Jewish philanthropist who built schools for African-American children all through the South? Funny you should ask, he replied. “Come back next week!” A photo exhibition called “A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America” opened Nov. 17 and will remain on view through April 21, 2024.

The MSJE homepage can be accessed here. For those interested in this subject, a completely separate educational organization, not a museum, is the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), based in Jackson, Miss., whose website can be accessed here.

“The war that changed the world”

World War II was by almost any definition “the war that changed the world,” a phrase the National WWII Museum likes to use. Especially when you consider what led up to it, its overwhelming, ubiquitous global impact, and the immediate aftermath of newly emerging socialist countries, new nations declaring independence from their European colonial masters, and the indisputable political and economic hegemony of the United States, balanced only in part by the countervailing socialist models of the USSR, Eastern Europe, and China.

What we see today began life as the National D-Day Museum, founded here in 2000. Why New Orleans?

“New Orleans,” the brochure “Honor All Who Served” explains, “is where Andrew Higgins designed, built, and tested the landing craft used in the D-Day invasion, and the Higgins boat is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed won the war for the Allies. New Orleans was also the workplace of the Museum’s founder, Stephen E. Ambrose, who spearheaded the effort to build such a Museum.”

It soon became clear that an institution dedicated solely to D-Day was too limited in scope, so in 2004 the U.S. Congress redesignated it as America’s National WWII Museum. Today it’s “the world’s foremost institution for exploring the American experience in World War II.” Its reach, though, extends much further out, to encompass the entire globality of the war, if not so much the home front in other lands.

With its seven battleship-gray buildings, the latest its Liberation Pavilion, the museum’s jam-packed 200,000 square-foot space, including its many open atria, is truly impossible to fully explore even in a whole day’s visit. Every aspect of America’s involvement in the war is deeply probed, with its artifacts of daily and military life, film footage, newsreels, immersive displays and exhibits, installations, panels, photographs, maps, medals, newspapers, Jeeps, planes, tanks, and interactive gimmickry, not to mention its library of books, personal papers and oral histories of interest primarily to scholars.

The overriding theme streaming from the White House down to Rosie the Riveter, from the corporate towers down to the rural farm worker, from the five-star general down to the Army private, was the collective belief that “we’re all in this together.” The rate at which factories transitioned from making consumer automobiles and refrigerators to munitions, tanks, battleships, and planes is nothing short of astounding. More than 16 million Americans served in WWII, and though they complained, the public accepted their ration books for sugar, gasoline, meat, and other essentials.

Perhaps, if you think about it, all the ills that sicken the America of today could likewise be addressed in a five-year plan to create decent housing for all, address global warming with a smooth green transition, make public education the generator of democracy that it once was (at least in many places), provide federal New Deal-type equal opportunity employment in every endeavor to rebuild our infrastructure, etc., etc. But that would require a political will and commitment that are clearly absent in today’s America, and pointedly a new tax structure to pay for it all. The .01% simply would not have it, not even Joe Biden’s relatively modest proposals.

“Great Responsibilities”

Clues to the guiding philosophy of the museum are embedded throughout—the emphasis on the dear price for our liberty and the idea that freedom isn’t free. To maintain our freedom, the museum preaches, in so many words, means maintaining a strong military presence in the world, with our 800 bases scattered over every continent, and intervention abroad when required.

“As a post-war superpower,” a panel titled “Great Responsibilities” states, acknowledging the advantaged position it enjoyed compared to bombed-out Europe, “America wrestled with preserving hard-fought freedoms at home and abroad. The US desegregated its military and offered returning veterans unprecedented opportunities, but social tensions were already simmering, especially in the area of race.

“As the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe and fomented communist revolution in Asia and Africa, America resolved to contain communism under the Truman Doctrine and bolstered war-torn countries with economic aid under the Marshall Plan. While American popular culture spread worldwide and US corporations dominated the global economy, Americans lived in fear that the Cold War might go ‘hot,’ generating a nuclear war that could destroy humanity.”

This “liberal” assessment of the war—after all the poignant personal “war is hell” stories and quotes from war correspondent Ernie Pyle are done—is the end point of the museum: a defense not of “freedom,” however that’s defined, but of the particular kind of more-or-less constitutional democracy here that favors wealth and from time to time is forced to deal with dramatic “social tensions…especially in the area of race.”

Panels and displays do deal with inequality at home—Jim Crow, the Double Victory (for winning the war over Nazism and for overcoming domestic racism), Native Americans in the war effort, second-class citizens, and the incarceration camps for Japanese American citizens. No self-respecting historian would allow such phenomena to go unmentioned.

And the Soviets are given at least part of their wartime due: “On June 22, 1941,” one panel relates, “Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. The German attack destroyed much of the Red Army and advanced rapidly towards the Soviet capital, Moscow. German forces ignored the international law for Soviet prisoners, whom they considered racially inferior. Three million Soviet POWs in German hands died from starvation, disease, and execution. By the end of the war, over 26 million Soviets died, almost half of all European deaths during the war.”

Was the Red Army’s defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad granted recognition as the battle that turned the tide of the war? Maybe; I didn’t see it. In the section on the Holocaust, were the Soviets credited as the country that by far saved more Jews than any other? Again, I didn’t see it.

No mention, however, is made of the “freedom” American hegemony won in the postwar era to militarily, politically, or economically intervene over the years in so many places around the world where it had no business—except, of course, “business” itself, and the shower of profits accruing to the extraction, fossil fuel, and military-industrial sectors. Just off the top of my head, Iran, Korea, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Libya, South Africa, Bolivia, Greece, Honduras, El Salvador, Angola, Indonesia, Grenada, Philippines, Taiwan, and then the new NATO countries formerly in the Soviet Bloc.

In one panel, “What Does WWII Mean Today?” the irony is simply stunning. “Generously funded by Richard C. Adkerson and the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation,”—they made their fortune in copper and gold mining—this panel is “in recognition of the Honorable Henry A. Kissinger” of overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile fame. It reads, “Whether serving on the Home Front or on the frontlines, American citizens fought, sacrificed, and died to preserve a free world during World War II. After the war ended, Americans continued the struggle to uphold opportunity, equality, safety, and liberty across the globe. The sacrifices of the World War II generation provided guidance and inspiration to later generations of Americans. The memory of World War II continues to shape our world, inspiring the American people in their pursuit of peace, justice, and freedom.” Pursuit of copper and gold is left unstated.

Well-known figures in American culture, such as Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, and Tom Brokaw are prominent boosters of the museum, honoring the “Greatest Generation” and the price they paid, in Brokaw’s words, “to secure the liberty we as Americans enjoy today…to achieve a great victory of good over evil.”

Who else is funding the Museum?

A museum of these dimensions is not built out of donation boxes for coins and dollar bills. Big donors, foundations, and corporations are the principal pillars of the institution, without which the museum could not exist, indicated by their named facilities, a few of which are given here. Their public-spirited philanthropy (a federal tax deduction, of course) goes toward educating the upcoming generations as to the necessity of preserving our capitalist system of governance.

The American Spirit Bridge, a skyway linking the main entrance building, the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, to the Solomon Victory Theater building (where the hour-long, seat-rumbling film Beyond All Boundaries is shown) is named for the Horatio Alger Association, founded in 1947 in the “rags to riches” tradition of the 19th-century author of popular dime novels. The Association seeks “to motivate and educate our nation’s young people to the economic and personal opportunities afforded them by the promise of the American free enterprise system.”

The Priddy Foundation, sponsors of the Freedom Theater in the Liberation Pavilion, was founded in 1963 in Wichita Falls, Tex., by the Priddy family. Walter Priddy made his fortune in the oil and gas industry. Louisiana, famous for its “Cancer Alley” between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is a militant defender of oil and gas extraction and refining.

Patriots Circle, the fundraising entity providing sustaining support to the museum, with various levels of membership and benefits, is appropriately named: Memorialization of WWII is essentially about patriotism and American hegemony, not about anti-fascism. Curiously, the Soviets had a similar perspective, perhaps knowing that in some of their Western republics a certain sympathy with fascism—or at the very least a restive nationalism that hoped for greater privilege in alliance with Nazism—existed: The Soviet term for WWII was the Great Patriotic War.

The most recent issue of the Patriots Circle quarterly publication Victory celebrates several of its sustaining donors, including Gayle and former Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson, member of the museum’s Board of Trustees since 2002, and in 2004 the first National Chairman of the newly reconstituted National WWII Museum. Gayle Wilson explains the role of the museum for “future generations, so they will fully comprehend and appreciate the sacrifices of more than 400,000 young American lives—and so they will understand how to best prevent future aggressions through strength and resolve.”

Another donor couple is Polly and Tom Gruber: Their recent $1 million gift bought them naming rights to the Patriots Circle Lounge in the Museum-connected Higgins Hotel & Conference Center. Tom was a U.S. Army Captain from 1962 to 1973, the height of the Vietnam War. “Polly and I are genuinely patriotic and are proud to call ourselves patriots.”

WWII veteran and philanthropist Paul Hilliard, who has just published his memoir, is a major donor. “Exploring the impact of World War II, the importance of postwar social and economic changes, and the development of the oil industry from the 1950s to today, Dauntless is as much a history of the United States in the 20th century, as it is a personal biography of an influential leader in Louisiana and beyond.”

An upcoming International Conference on World War II, Dec. 7-9, is a jointly sponsored event between the WWII Museum and the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago, funded by the Pritzker family, one of the top 10 of Forbes magazine’s “America’s Richest Families,” scions of the Hyatt hotel corporation, among other ventures, one of whose members is the current Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The Museum features the George H.W. Bush Aviation Gallery.

And perhaps the crowning statement of who “owns” the legacy of WWII: The US Freedom Pavilion is called “The Boeing Center.”

The Veterans Day program we attended featured speaker after speaker from banks, corporations, the military. No one thought to mention the U.S.’s latest military commitment—“ironclad” support for Israel’s genocidal war against Palestinians who lived on the land before the modern State of Israel was even a dream.

A modernistic Canopy of Peace overhangs the central plaza, suggesting airplane wings or the hangars the planes were built in, visually asserting that as the world’s “essential nation,” it is the United States that is the guarantor of world peace.

We came away with appreciation and amazement at the enormity of the Museum’s mission. As the son of Pvt. (later Sgt.) Victor M. Gordon, who was fighting the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge at the very moment I was born, I don’t wish to diminish the magnificent WWII effort in any way.

To a certain extent, the didactics do reflect fissures and injustices in our own society. Yet the Museum, perhaps any museum, is also a statement about history and its uses. And I do have serious questions about the way this story is framed as a rah-rah celebration (strike up the band!) of all that is good and pure and disinterested about the can-do American Way. I wonder if, without first-hand memories from wartime family members, future generations, who still struggle with the failures of predatory capitalism almost a century later, will see this history, and this museum, in such a benevolent light.

The National WWII Museum is located at 945 Magazine St., New Orleans 70130. Its homepage can be accessed here.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.