By Mickel Yantz, SMMJA Director of Collections and Exhibitions
The legal definition of refugee is “an individual seeking refuge or asylum; especially an individual who has left his or her native country and is unwilling or unable to return to it because of persecution or fear of persecution as because of race, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
In Jewish history, Jews have experienced numerous mass expulsions or ostracism by various governmental authorities and have sought refuge in other countries. The most famous one was Moses who was twice the refugee. We know that Moses and the Israelites were refugees following the exodus from Egypt, but Moses first fled the Pharaoh’s wrath in his 40s after killing an unusually brutal Egyptian taskmaster he saw beating a Jew and escaped his way to Midian. He returns 40 years later, guided by G-d, to lead the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea.
In 1941, with help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Marc Chagall was saved by having his name added to the list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate. Varian Fry, the American journalist, and Hiram Bingham IV, the American Vice-Consul in Marseilles, ran a rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to America by providing them with forged visas. Chagall was one of over 2,000 who were rescued by this operation. He left France in May 1941 with his wife Bella and arrived in New York on June 23, 1941.
One of the largest collections of the SMMJA is by artist Theodore Fried who was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1902. He lived in Paris in the 1920s and was considered part of the group of painters known as the “Nouvelle Generation,” and his work appeared in shows along with that of Picasso, Chagall and other greats. As the events of World War II affected the Jews of Europe, Fried’s wife and son left France for the USA. Fried, who could not get a visa, left Paris for the south of France, hiding and working for the French Underground. Fried still tried to paint every day until able to make it to the US in 1942.
Throughout our history, the United States has been a haven for those fleeing violence and persecution. The commitment etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty has been the touchstone for our policies: “Give me your tired, your poor…” But now, many want to turn their backs on the refugees of our time. The collection of artwork on display expresses the stories and emotions of Jewish refugees throughout time. Remember that it was not that far back on our own family trees that we knew someone very close to us who needed another to greet them with the words, “All are welcome.”
All Are Welcome Exhibition is on display now through 2017 in the Mildred and Julius Sanditen Gallery featuring work from the museum’s permanent collection.