The first in a three-part series on DiverCity
Walking out of the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, the last thing you expect to see is a monument to your right, perched atop a small hill. Drawing from many Jewish symbols, such as the menorah and six pillars of Judaism, the monument is a serene tribute to those lost during the Holocaust – as well as a place of education.
The half-oval shaped monument is an open learning center bordered by six stone pillars with a single tree planted in the center of a garden of glass and ash. The six stone pillars symbolize both the six days the small memorial took to construct and the 6 million Jewish people who were killed in the Holocaust. Right in front, stands a memorial named Pinat Hatikvah: Corner of Hope. Those who enter feel at peace. The message is of survival.
In the center of the memorial, sprouts a tree that represents the life of those who survived, but at its roots, there are black chips that resemble the ashes of those who perished. The tree has a quote at its roots that says: “For a tree, there is hope that if it be cut down, it will sprout again.”
Alex Kor is a living embodiment of this, but he doesn’t sound bitter. “The idea of forgiveness should be in your heart,” he says.
It’s the morning of Sunday, October 16, and nearly 50 students from four different schools have gathered inside a JCC conference room, not far from the memorial, which is on the JCC property. This was the first stop of three on the DiverCity tour, which explores multi-cultural Milwaukee and emphasizes the importance of a tolerant and diverse society.
The students sat down in chairs forming a big square. The chattering ceased when Alex Kor was introduced. Kor’s mother Eva survived Auschwitz with her twin sister as experiment subjects of the infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele. His father, Michael, escaped from a death march as the war came to a close and was rescued by Americans a few days later while hiding in an abandoned house. Kor’s mother was only 9 when she was sent to the concentration camp with her family.
Yet, Kor spoke on hope and forgiveness.
“I considered having parents who were Holocaust survivors far more of a blessing than a burden,” said Kor. He handed out printed packets of family photos to help illustrate his parents’ story.
Kor said the Holocaust never dominated every conversation he had growing up and even getting his dad to speak any word of his experience was hard. With time, according to Kor, after forgiving a former Nazi doctor who worked alongside Mengele, Kor’s mother believed that if she was given the opportunity to forgive Doctor Mengele himself, she would have.
Both Kor and the members of the JCC believe that hope, unity and forgiveness are going to be the start to a diverse city and having these types of conversations will help correct society.
The students from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Marquette University, UW – Oshkosh and Kettle Moraine High School visited three religious institutions as a part of the DiverCity tour sponsored by the Jewish Federation. The students also visited the Rohoboth Apostolic New Life Center in Milwaukee, and the Islamic Society West mosque in Brookfield.
Understanding and compassion are two traits that help people in their tolerance of those who are different than they are. When one looks at the national landscape, those two traits seem to be lacking in a major way. Those were the two central themes.
“DiverCity will not fix Milwaukee, or any state or country,” said Shay Pilnik, executive director of the Nathan & Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “But it will start conversation.”
A Son’s Story
Kor’s story exemplifies what can happen when a society turns away from tolerance. While growing up, Kor never knew why his family always had Coca Cola around the house. In his later years, as is common with Holocaust survivors, his father began to open up about his experiences. The first thing American soldiers had given his father, when he was freed in 1945, was a Coke to drink. “It was like champagne to him,” said Kor.
Kor’s grandfather was shot and killed for not crossing the street when a couple of Germans walked by, and his uncle was thrown off a ship once they discovered he was a Jew. His grandmother and two aunts were lost to Auschwitz.
“It is incumbent upon us all to fight hatred,” said Kor. “Don’t ignore somebody that’s taking advantage of someone else.”
Alex Kor is a podiatrist, avid tennis player and a cancer survivor, who shares his parents’ stories to enlighten listeners. Kor’s father, Michael, is the youngest of four and was born in Riga, Latvia.
Day 4-Ellie Hersh, Alex & Eva Kor @ the Mengele Twins barrack on a rainy day. pic.twitter.com/NUM4usrDWJ
— Eva Mozes Kor (@EvaMozesKor) July 12, 2016
Eva Kor told her son about perceiving the changes in society. She had been listening to the radio one day when she heard screaming coming through the speakers. The voice she heard happened to be Hitler, and, even as a child, she could tell by his tone he wasn’t a nice man.
In Auschwitz, Kor’s mother and her twin ended up in the clutches of one of the most infamous Nazis of all time. Mengele would inject a fertility drug into one twin while the other would get blood drawn. If one twin died, the other would be killed as well. Baer Aspirin supported Mengele’s experiments.
Kor never glanced down at the sheets of notes he held in front of him, rather speaking with ease as he lay out the past of his father and mother. Michael survived Nazi ghetto camps and death marches, eventually being liberated from slave labor.
Kor said the leader of the American group of soldiers who found his father brought him back to Indiana. This is where Kor’s parents met, and the soldier became a grandfather for Kor because his real grandparents were killed. Kor’s mom eventually became an architect and also joined the Army. It wasn’t until years later that she met and married Kor’s father.
In 1960, Michael and Eva met on a blind date in the United States and married soon after. They gave birth to two children. Alex vividly recalls being the only Jewish family in their neighborhood. It was in the locker room in fifth grade that Alex was first subjected to anti-Semitism.
Kor was the last one to leave the swimming pool. When he got to the locker room, the boys called him a “Jew boy” This was the first time he was discriminated against for being Jewish.
When he was growing up, people would paint swastikas on his house. On Halloween, kids would throw corn at their home and scream “Jews go home.” His mother would chase the kids and even attempted to work things out with their parents. According to Kor, the parents of the children would say that the kids were just being “kids” and left it at that. Kor’s mother was so stressed from this that she decided to leave every October. Still, she persevered.
“Your father was a survivor, I was survivor and you will be a survivor,” Kor recalled his mother saying.
A long history
The JCC has been serving the community for over 100 years, first starting in 1894. Lizzie Kander founded it to aid immigrants. The initial activities included sewing, cooking, manual work and treats.
According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Kander began her volunteer services for the Jewish community through the Ladies Relief Sewing Society. Through this society, she collected used clothes, repaired them, and then gave them to needy immigrant families. When she realized just how much immigrants needed, she started The Mission. The Mission was housed in the Temple Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun.
Kander created a guidebook, “The Settlement” that served as a recipe book and lifestyle guide that would help immigrants transition into American culture. The cookbook sold over 2 million copies. Kander revised the cookbook, which allowed her funding for the community center.
In 1934, the center became a Milwaukee Community Fund beneficiary. The home of the center has moved several times following the shift in the Jewish community moving outside the intercity. The Jewish Community Center owns properties in towns throughout Wisconsin. The organization hosts camp Interlaken in Eagle River during the summer. In Fredonia, they host a day camp.
The Jewish Community Center is still deeply rooted in its history. The organization hosts special events that invite the community to hear Holocaust survivor stories. They also have a weekly Shabbat story that can be found on their website. In order to bring awareness to Judaic education, they have Holocaust programs and special film series for the community to attend.
The JCC is a two-floor complex equipped with a fitness facility, indoor basketball courts, early childhood education center, kosher cafeteria, and convention halls. According to Moshe Katz, the former JCC chair, the JCC was funded by primarily Jewish families however only about 55 percent of its regular members are of Jewish heritage. Katz said that the JCC was like a Jewish answer to an everyday problem, with Jewish foundations inside and outside of the JCC answering calls for action daily.
The Jewish Community Center hosts an annual film festival every fall. The multi-day film festival celebrates Jewish Films and Filming making and has been running for over a decade, according to the JCC’s website. The JCC hosted a “Concert for Peace,” on April 5, 2016. The concert exhibited Jewish and Arab musicians, according to a wuwm.com article by Maayan Silver. The goal of the concert was to understand different cultures through music.
The first Jews settle in Milwaukee between 1842 and 1849, according to jewishmuseummilwaukee.org. By 1900, there were 8,000 Jewish families in Milwaukee. In 1980, the Gold Meir House built on Prospect Avenue was built by the Jewish Federation and provided low income housing for the elderly, according to jewishmuseummilwaukee.org.
Inside the Jewish community center, center leader Moshe Katz explains his favorite piece of artwork. It is hung on the wall just beyond the entrance. It is a painting of 11 Holocaust survivors that he both knew and loved. Katz explained that all but one of them has passed away.
Serving the Community
The second speaker, Katz, highlighted the charitable ventures that the center engages in for the community. The center helps out its home community of Whitefish Bay but also the inner city of Milwaukee by way of a food bank
For most of the students’ visit, Katz stood off to the side, wearing a nude shirt, grey pants, black and orange shoes with shining silver hoop earrings. After Kor’s presentation, Katz gave the class a tour of JCC. He took the class outside, up a slight hill and into another set of doors to see another section of the building. The tour eventually circled back to the starting point: Community Hall B.
Katz provided a walking tour of the JCC. He highlighted the artwork around the Center, the inclusive and family-oriented nature of the institution, and the history of philanthropy in the Jewish community throughout Milwaukee.
“Sometimes we offer a response to Jewish needs in the community,” said Katz. “Other times we offer a Jewish response to the needs of the community.”
Katz explained one example regarding the JCC’s garden, which supplies the Jewish Community Pantry at 2900 W. Center St. with fresh produce. During one growing season, they learned a valuable lesson about supplying the food that its clients prefer to eat. “We found a whole dumpster behind the pantry filled with eggplant, and realized nobody wants to eat eggplant!” Since then, the organization began listening more intently to the needs in the community they serve, which in that location is predominantly African American.
Walking through the Jewish Community Center, a place of education and history, the last thing you expect to see is a room lined with ellipticals and weight machines. When Katz spoke about meeting needs, he meant everything from fitness to kindergarten to the only Kosher restaurant in Milwaukee.
The JCC goes farther than just serving the Jewish. Their kindergarten program is open and encouraging of kids of any descent.
The community center has many areas to sit and relax where you can get food and talk with others. Inside of the gym there is a pick up gaming going on and you can see the diversity within the center. This image showed how the Jewish Community Center is not just for people of Jewish culture, but it is a place where different cultures can mingle.
This is the central message. “The process that led the Nazis can happen anywhere,” says Pilnik.
That is why it is important to understand what led up to the Holocaust. This is why people talk about and remember it.
“Our city is a mosaic of different communities,” he said. So, too, is JCC.
“It’s very important that you don’t ignore someone who is taking advantage of someone because of their race,” Kor said.
This story was written and reported by JAMS 320 students Ed Makowski, Christina Luick, Monica Skipper, Angeline Bergman, Aubryana Bowen, Nicole Frechette, Brandon Anderegg, Kaliice Walker, Keaton Walkowski, Jenna Daroszewski, Jordan Garcia, Jordan Gasiorowski, Sabrina Johnkins, Dylan Jordan, Micaela Martin, Margaret Sponholz, Nyesha Stone, Amanda Watter, and Darien Yeager.