Magnes Museum

19th Century Turkish jacket from the Magnes Museum's collection.

Medallists Gerta Ries Wiener and Jacques Schnier at the Magnes Museum's Jewish-American Hall of Fame exhibit (1981).

Announcement of Purim display at the Magnes Museum, in the Piedmonter-Piedmont Oakland Bulletin (1982).
A Motley Crew

Those first days were days of trial and glory; many furnishings were left behind, and these had to be sold. Doors that open in for private residences had to be reversed for public use. The entire house had to be assessed, upgraded, and painted; we are short of manpower, but we find ourselves very much a part of the surging sweep of the sixties, where optimism and tragic events meld, and we know we can do everything If we have gotten this far.

We connect with the Job Corps and the carpenters' union, and we now have a good-sized, motley crew of street-wise youth and a master craftsman, whose job it will be to train an otherwise inexperienced youngster with his first socially-acceptable skills. And, quite naturally, problems arise. The youth never have been in such a building, they are not truly there by choice, and this is their first exposure to Jews other than depicted In films or on television. Apart from these complications, one thing becomes very, very clear. The youth Identify with Hitler and the Third Reich; they have visual references for a host of attitudes that emanate out of the Nazi past. The carpenter, on the other hand, has never met a Jew, and he has supposed that they came into the world equipped with horns. Their absence baffles him, but he absorbs a tolerable shock; after all, "we are white," and he hates the blacks. The poor man had been thrust into a situation that placed long-held notions to the question; he wasn't young and he wasn't emotionally equipped for much that transpired, but he triumphed, as did the boys, to positions of understanding and a genuine humanism that can only be termed love.

I worked with the boys and I worked with Gus; I was their liaison and their mediator, their interpreter and their teacher. Crises arose at every turn in little acts of sabotage, in petty thefts, in belligerence, and in actual fighting. I took away knives, promising to return them at the end of the day, and all the time, I worked with them on my knees or on a ladder as we stripped, spackled, primed, and painted room after room in all but the library. Gus watched us as we spoke, now in English, now in Spanish, and his position softened; the quivering of suppressed anger that trembled at the corners of his mouth ceased by degrees, until it disappeared altogether. We were beginning to unite, but we had a long way to go.

One day, Janet Grodin telephoned the museum. Did we know there was a swastika on one of the upstairs windows? She was very disturbed. I found it on the inside window of the back staircase leading to the second floor. It dominated the pane, and it was no wonder that she was able to see it all the way up the hill. It had to be one of the boys, and so I gathered then altogether to see it, and then, because we were also moving things from one location to another, I went to where I knew some of the holocaust material was stored. We sat on the floor and I pulled out first one item and then another. I showed them what we had and what it meant, and I didn't spare then too many details. I was, in fact, as graphic as I could be, A certain vehemence entered, for I knew their histories too well to be either saccharin or lachrymose. I had been convinced from the start that they could see parallels, and that they were more than capable of understanding the pernicious effects of intense prejudice, and I was right. We had arrived at the turning point that left its mark on character and united the group into a cohesive whole. Gus, who had missed his staff, found us, and stayed to the very end. He, too, had learned something he hadn't quite believed up until then. As for the swastika? I did not want to know who had done it; I only wanted the one responsible to find a quiet moment to remove it, and that's the way it was. An element of joy entered our work then, and I know that Gus began to take pride in the skills "his boys" were now somehow eager to learn.

The first years on Russell Street were humanly intense times, but they were times in which many of our disaffected Jewish youth began to gravitate towards us with a sense of belonging. They moved away from the drug scene, they straightened themselves out, and in many cases, they became productive. The families, if not the values they had rejected, were, after all, important to them, and when they returned or reconnected, they wanted to do so with their sense of self-respect and achievement Intact. Meanwhile, we were their address and their lifeline. We did not seek this role, but there is no mistaking the fact that this is what we inherited by virtue of our very presence.

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