Archive for the Human Rights Category

Among the Righteous, on the passing of Marian Bereska

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Poland, refugee crisis with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2015 by Louise Steinman

IMG_6326I can’t let 2015 fade into the night without making mention of a remarkable man who passed away in a little town in central Poland on December 20, the day before the winter solstice.

I had the privilege of meeting Marian Bereska first in 2009, when he finally was willing to tell his story of how he and is mother Janina together hid five Jews from the Radomsko ghetto in their little house.

(Below: Janina Bereska with young Marian)

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For seventy years, he’d kept this story to himself. He hadn’t told his wife, his children, or any of his neighbors or friends in the town where he’d lived his entire life. In the postwar years, under Communism, secrecy about the past had become a habit. For a while it appeared that Marian Bereska would carry his secret to the grave.

IMG_6327 I will always remember that remarkable winter day in an empty hotel dining room in Radomsko, with snow falling outside the windows– when Marian met with me, his grandson Szymon (who helped persuade his grandfather that it was safe now to tell his story), my journalist friend Maciej Ziembinski, and my translator Tomasz Cebulski, to tell us his story, even sketching out the dimensions of the bunker in my little black notebook—the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. His mother Janina was a young widow with young children (Marian was eight). They hid five people—Berek Ofman, his schoolmate Regina Epstein, her parents, and her cousin– in their bunker for two years. Young Marian procured food for the hidden guests, trading linens for bread. They came close to disaster more than once. In occupied Poland, the Nazi’s penalty for anyone found hiding Jews was death for the entire family.

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When I asked Marian why he and his mother had assumed the brutal risks of harboring fugitives during the German occupation, he brushed off my query: the question had no meaning. They saw people who needed their help. They responded.

As we move into the New Year, at a time when so many around the globe and in our communities are on the move seeking safety, shelter, sustenance– it’s worth pausing to think about those like Marian and Janina Bereska who said yes to rescuing strangers, even at grave risk to themselves. Rest in peace, Marian.

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photo: Marian Bereska in 2011, Warsaw, with Leo Ofman, son of Berek Ofman, who was rescued with 4 others by Marian and his mother Janina. This was the day of the ceremony in which Marian received the Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations, from Yad Vashem on behalf of his mother and himself.

Syrian Writer-in-Exile, an interview with Yasmine Merei

Posted in Human Rights, refugee crisis, Syria with tags , , , , , on December 22, 2015 by Louise Steinman

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THE IMAGES of the Syrian migrants go from harrowing to devastating: families facing batons of Hungarian police, a drowned three-year-old face-down in the surf of a Turkish beach. Then we try to grasp the reality of people still in Syria, the place that drove these refugees to risk the death of their children on foreign shores — Assad’s thugs; the black flag of ISIS; rogue militias; Russian bombs; US (and now French) air strikes.

Maybe I would feel less powerless, less despairing, if I could understand more, understand better than I do. When I heard that a Syrian journalist and human rights activist named Yasmin Merei was staying at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, I jumped at the chance to talk with a woman recently arrived from the front lines of the turmoil.

No one answered, however, when I rang the buzzer for our appointment at 520 Paseo Miramar on a quiet afternoon in late October. Just the sound of a few leaf blowers and the occasional passing car broke the silence on that winding street high in the hills of the Palisades. I peered through the barred iron gate. No activity at all. I glanced at my watch; I was half an hour late. Perhaps I had the date wrong? 

The Villa Aurora was once home to another writer-in-exile, Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish playwright and novelist who recognized — and wrote about — the Nazi threat as far back as the early 1920s. By the time they assumed power, the Nazis named him “Public Enemy Number One.” Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta moved to the south of France, but once that became occupied territory they barely made it out of Europe in time. Their salvation came at Roosevelt’s bequest and with the canny assistance of diplomat Varian Fry. Once they arrived in the United States in 1941, they moved to California and, in 1943, Marta was able to purchase the rundown villa — built in 1921 and modeled on a “Castillo” in Seville, for $9,000.

The villa became a focal point and a regular salon as Lion and Marta opened their home to European and German artists and intellectuals in exile: among them the writers Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, and composer Ernst Toch. Now the Villa is an international residency program for artists, administered by the nonprofit Friends of Villa Aurora, with partial funding from the German government. Marta donated her husband’s library, now The Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, to USC.

This year, Villa Aurora invited Merei, a founding member of the Syrian Women’s Lobby, to be their “Feuchtwanger Writer in Exile.” She travelled from Turkey, where she had been living since 2012, and where she edits a magazine called Sayyidat Suria (“The Lady of Syria”).

My interview prospects were starting to look dim. No response to texts. The driveway was gated and stairs off the sidewalk lead down to a locked boiler room. I wrote out a note to leave in the mailbox, and tried the buzzer one last time. To my surprise, this attempt summoned a courteous young man, who told me he was an artist from Berlin and welcomed me inside. I followed him through the large tiled kitchen, out the back door onto a brick patio with an expansive view. My guide knocked politely on a closed door, then rapped his knuckles again: “Yasmin, you have a visitor.” 

A woman opened the door a crack. She was in her pajamas, just awakened, and understandably abashed. I countered her string of apologies with reassurances: I was not in a hurry; I knew she keeps difficult hours, editing through the night via Skype with her magazine colleagues in Turkey and Egypt. I know you have to sleep when you can.

I seated myself at a wooden table on the patio and stared out at the Pacific coastline. Fruiting orange trees lined the terrace below. The bougainvillea gleamed translucent scarlet. The blue sky was cloudless.

In a few minutes, Yasmin emerged from her room in a pink embroidered blouse, glossy dark hair brushed back from her the oval of her pale face. She offered a warm smile and more apologies as she joined me at the table. Her eyes, I noticed, looked weary, even haunted. With her permission, I turned on the tape recorder. Her English is “not perfect,” as she says, but understandable. I’ve largely maintained her word choice and syntax, which struck me as lilting, at times poetic. 

I’d never interviewed a Syrian revolutionary before, someone whose family was made to suffer gravely because she decided to fight for a better Syria. How to talk to her about so painful and fresh a period in her life? I took my cues from Yasmin, and, when she needed to, let her cry in peace. Interview (originally published in Los Angeles Review of Books) follows… MORE

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70 Years After

Posted in Human Rights, Life and What about It, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , on August 8, 2015 by Louise Steinman

On August 6, I joined 35-40 others in a mosaic-tiled garden in L.A’s Beachwood Canyon for a service commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. We sat in silence for half an hour and then, at 8:15 AM, the moment the Enola Gay dropped the bomb over Hiroshima, a cellist began to play. We listened to the trancelike drone of his bowing, the occasional plane above our heads in our peacetime city, the rumble of service trucks up the wooded canyon road, a dog barking across the street. A Buddhist priest chanted sutras and rang a bell 10 times, a Zen monk in maroon robes lead a chant of compassion for all beings.

In Los Alamos, NM– where the bomb was conceived and engineered– on this same day a group of citizens walked the streets in a silent march for peace. The organizer, the Rev. John Dear, proclaimed: “All roads lead to Los Alamos.” What is the connection between where the weapons of war are conceived and where the fall? What binds the people of both places together?

In Calais, desperate Somalis and Syrians risk their lives to cross the Chunnel into England, convinced that somewhere, there’s a better life. A life without bombs falling. They float across the Mediterranean in flimsy rafts, to wash ashore on Greek islands. A grey-haired woman sitting on the rocky beach of Lesbos watches for them. She says the flow of desperate people– including women and children– onto her local beach– “has driven me mad.”

When the British Prime Minister David Cameron refers to the “swarms” of people heading for British shores, does he realize he’s speaking of people, not insects? In Susan Southard’s new book on the bombing of Nagasaki, she quotes bombing survivor Yoshida Katsuji who puts it simply: “The basis for peace is for people to understand the pain of others.” Is he right?

One of the speakers at the Los Alamos peace march, the Rev. James Lawson (a civil rights veteran) was quoted in the NYTimes as saying “Today’s weapons of mass destruction are nothing but the evolution of our understanding of violence.” When asked what he meant by that, he replied: “The police officer who shoots an unarmed boy or sees a young man as a demon rushing at him represents the same lost regard for human life we learned with the bomb.”

His statement makes you stop and think. Stop and think. Take a moment. How does it all tie together? Tomorrow is seventy years from the day the United States dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, the last city to have endured an atomic weapon. In this nuclear-armed world this world of desperate people on rafts at sea– we must somehow continue to try to understand the pain of others.

MACIEJ and IDA

Posted in Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Literature, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2014 by Louise Steinman

Maciej and Lulu

My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book, The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.

Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past— the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.

He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu I czemi (For whom and what for?). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite recent film “Ida,” set in b&w provincial Poland in the early sixties– gives you some idea what obstacles Maciej faced under Stalinist rule. (In an interview, Pawlikowski calls his film, “a crooked mirror… so whoever looks can take away different things.”) The film’s young protagonist is a wide-eyed novitiate, an orphan, living an austere life at a convent in the countryside. With her downcast eyes, this young woman is the model of obedience and humility. There is no indication she’s made any inquiries about her origins. Soon she’ll take her final vows. Before she does, however, her Mother Superior orders her to visit her aunt, who’s suddenly requested to see her.

It’s the first time this naïve young woman learns she has living relatives. Within moments of her arrival at her aunt’s flat in Lodz, there is more surprising news. Her dead parents were Jews. Her real name is Ida Lebenstejn. “You’re a Jewish nun,” her aunt informs her with a harsh laugh. Ida’s swift response: “I want to see their graves.” Another hard truth: there are no graves. Most likely her family’s bones are in a pit in the forest.

In Poland, there are hundreds, thousands of adults with stories like that of young Ida in Pawlikowski’s film. They were Jewish children whose frantic parents, during the Occupation, entrusted their precious sons and daughters to Catholic neighbors or clergy. Several of those crooked stories are in my book—one of them is about a survivor named Ania Poniemunska, born in Radomsko in 1937.

In 1941, before they fled to Russia, Ania’s parents left their four year-old daughter in the capable hands of her maternal grandmother, a local midwife. The grandmother escaped the ghetto with Ania, and found shelter with a Polish farmer and his wife. The headman of the village betrayed them. The Germans dispatched the Polish farmer to Auschwitz. They surrounded the village, rounded up all the hidden Jews, marched them to the forest, forced them to dig their own graves. Before she was shot, however, the grandmother handed young Ania into the arms of a farmer’s wife who pretended the child was her own. Of the twenty-three Jews hidden in the village, only Ania survived.

In 2009, when Ania came back to Radomsko with her son for the first time since she’d emigrated to Israel after the war, she was in great conflict. Could she bear to visit the site where her beloved grandmother was murdered? Ania quickly found her way to Maciej; after all, he knew more about the Jewish history of the area than anyone else around.

In Pawlikowski’s film, Ida and her aunt elect to go into the forest, to the place where the unspeakable happened. Ida points to the open pit and asks the man unearthing her family’s remains: “Why am I not here? Why did I survive… not the others?” She needs to know. Maciej advised Ania: “Go to the forest. It is important to your son. It is the big story of your life. It made you who you are.” Maciej understood that. Ania, like Ida, was strong enough to bear the truth. She needed to bear witness.
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[drawing of Ania Poniemunska with her grandmother Chava Borys, by Kasia Kabzinka]

Over the years, Maciej and I spent many afternoons in the Radomsko cemetery—in sun and snow—walking unruly rows of tilting stones. Maciej, between puffs of a harsh Polish cigarette, would tell me stories of the more recent burials– about the few Jews who survived the war and stayed. Over there, he’d say, “that’s the grave of my friend Borkowski; he had an affair with the wife of his friend Andomierski; but they all wanted to be buried near each other anyway.” Maciej was like the narrator in Our Town.

Maciej helped me find the grave of my great-grandmother, Golda Zylberman Wajskopf. That afternoon in the melancholy Radomsko cemetery was magical. Blue butterflies fluttered through yellow gorse. Golda was luckier than most of her relatives—she died fourteen years before the Nazis invaded Radomsko and turned life for all its inhabitants into hell on earth.

“Saviors of Atlantis” is how a Polish friend refers to those non-Jewish Poles who gathered up the shards of Jewish life and history in a post-war Poland, then a broken country living under the strangle-hold of Communism.

Maciej was one of those saviors. He was also a gifted storyteller, a great friend, a good—if sometimes troublesome– man to have in your town. I am among many who will miss him.
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Radomsko cemetery, painting by Natan Spigel, courtesy Natan Spigel Foundation

Photo of Maciej and LS in Radomsko cemetery by Tomasz Cebulski

Ukrainian Egg Cup Woman

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , , on January 1, 2014 by Louise Steinman

Ukrainian egg cup woman
It’s good to have a talisman (or taliswoman, i suppose) when you’re in a dark place, suffering emotional turmoil, or just needing a visage of joy to counter balance suffering, angst. So here’s to the Ukrainian Egg Cup woman, another (inanimate) character who appears in The Crooked Mirror. Cheryl found her in on a dusty shelf in an antique store in the old city of L’vov (L’viv).

“The cup balanced on the woman’s sturdy head was cheerful too; orange and yellow dots, each looped by a delicate broken line. The Eggcup Woman was probably from the 1940s. Russian constructivist in style but authentically Ukrainian, the woman in the shop had informed Cheryl.

I imagine the artisans in that factory in some Ukrainian city, painting stripes on the red harem pants of a cheerful eggcup at the same time agents of the NKVD arrived unannounced in their black police vans (the infamous ‘chernyj voron’, or ‘black crows’) to arrest scores of Ukrainians on nonexistent charges.

Upon entering any bleak hotel room for the rest of our trip, our first act was to set up an Eggcup Woman. She was our Ukrainian Quan Yin, our Constructivist Buddha, our polka-dot Humpty Dumpty, our talisman of good cheer.”

So here’s to good cheer for the beginning of 2014! Here’s a toast to all those fighting for their democratic (and human rights) all over the world, in freezing squares in Kiev, in Minsk, in Cairo, and more. Here’s to brave Pussy Riot who stood up to Putin, to Reverend Billy who fights the Corporate Medusa… the Ukrainian Egg Cup Woman wishes you all a Happy (and more liberated) New Year!
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After “Aftermath”

Posted in Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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Going full out for the distressing double-header, I saw the Polish film “Aftermath” the same weekend as “Twelve Years a Slave.” Both films were an opportunity to view how a filmmaker handled a country’s national shame through the art of storytelling. “Aftermath,” is a fictional film inspired by Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about the 1941 massacre of a Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors. It’s just been released in the U.S. “Twelve Years,” based on the diary of a free Black who was kidnapped and pressed into bondage in the American South, brings to Technicolor luridness the hideous cruelties of the slave trade.

Both films are deeply disturbing and both films necessitate a revising of a national self-image. For Poles, that involves admitting that Poles were not always the victims in WW II; on some occasions, they were perpetrators. Americans must countenance that our country’s literal foundations were built on the blasphemy of human bondage.

In Poland, when Neighbors was first published in Polish in 2000 , discussion of the Jedwabne case became a national obsession. Crucial to note was that the debate about Jedwabne was carried out in full public view. It involved Catholic prelates, former Solidarity leader Adam Michnik (himself of Jewish descent), Polish writers and academicians, and Jewish Poles.

When the stone commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre was dedicated in the town in July 2001 by Poland’s then-President, Aleksander Kwásniewski, the president’s unflinching apology was carried live on Polish TV:

“We express our pain and shame. We express our determination in seeking to learn the truth, our courage in overcoming an evil past. We have an unbending will for understanding and harmony. Because of this crime we should beg the shades of the dead and their families for forgiveness. Therefore, today, as a citizen and as the President of the Polish Republic, I apologize. I apologize in the name of those Poles whose conscience is moved by that crime.”

I’ve never heard an American president apologize for the abomination of the slave trade. And, lest anyone forget, this past spring, The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key provision of the landmark civil rights law.

“Aftermath” has caused outrage in Poland among Polish nationalists who consider the film a slur. It also has passionate defenders, for whom looking squarely at the past is a prerequisite to building a tolerant civil society. As a film, I found Aftermath’s Gothic approach– spooky score, supernatural scares, a cast of Troglodyte villagers with raised pitchforks– a distraction and a disconnect from the sober story the film attempts to tell. “Twelve Years a Slave”— far more artful—so aroused my sense of outrage that I wanted to smash my fist through the screen.

In 2006, before Jan Gross’ next book (Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz) was published in Poland, I expressed my worry to a Polish friend about the possible harm the book might cause to the efforts towards Polish-Jewish reconciliation. This friend, an artist and civic activist who was also Gross’ Polish publisher, replied: “Yes, it will be very painful. But we have to take this relatively peaceful time to look at what is cruel and painful in the past. It is the only way we can build a democracy. We cannot lose this time. We must be honest.”

His response was so obvious; clarifying, and a deep relief. It still is. My friend was neither alarmed nor defensive at the prospect of controversy.

It’s never easy to admit to different points of view about history—look at the broiling controversy over the Smithsonian allowing Japanese responses to Hiroshima in the exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of World War II. (The Smithsonian backed down.) And when will an American filmmaker take on the genocide of the Native Americans? He or she could start with the bounties paid for the scalps and body parts of California Indians, legally sanctioned by our state legislature until 1900. There are plenty of uncomfortable national truths to contemplate; looking at them collectively doesn’t denigrate a nation’s history, nor the acts of bravery of its citizenry. (We must also remember that there are more Poles among the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem than from any other European country.)

This public confrontation with the truths of an uncomfortable past is a crucial aspect—a responsibility really– of living in a democracy, of taking advantage “of this relatively peaceful time.”

This post also appears on Beacon Broadside, a project of Beacon Press, independent publisher of progressive ideas since 1854.

photo: Teatr NN, Misterium, “One World- Two Temples,” 2000

Art and Labor in the Pacific NW

Posted in Art and Culture, history, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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My friend Buster Simpson is an artist/activist who thinks globally and acts locally. His eye-opening career retrospective at the Frye Museum in Seattle opens with a grainy super-8 film of Buster from a few decades earlier. He’s a naked young David with a slingshot, symbolically launching his anti-acid rain purge stones at the Goliaths in the World Trade Towers. Buster is a art and environmental provocateur, a surveyor of lost places, a man who occupied the upper branches of a 100 year-old cherry tree to save it from Seattle condo developers then made a ladder out of the remains of the cherry tree so that he could climb into the next tree and try to save it from developers. Buster was my neighbor in funky downtown Seattle in the early 1980’s; we called him the mayor of Belltown. His intrepid dumpster diving kept our artists’ tenement well-supplied with day-old pastries from the Pike Place Market.

On this trip in August, as we waved goodbye to Buster, heading south from Seattle for Portland, he admonished us not to miss “the Wobbly murals in Centralia.” So we veered off the highway into that modest Lewis County town, its only claim to fame, as far as I knew, as the birthplace of avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham.

What I didn’t know was that Centralia was the site of an anti-labor massacre, where an innocent man was lynched, castrated and hung from the bridge on the Chehalis River. The man’s name was Wesley Everest. He was a veteran and a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World). He was pulled out of jail, handed over to his persecutors and murdered in the dark of night. The next morning, when Centralia schoolchildren crossed the bridge to go to school, his mutilated body still dangled over the river.

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A sleepy teenager in front of a liquor store drew a blank when we asked the location of the Wesley Everest mural but the fireman polishing his hook and ladder gestured toward City Park. There, on the façade of the old Elks Lodge (now an antique mall), is the magnificent 1997 mural by artist Mike Alewitz: “The Resurrection of Wesley Everest.” The mural commemorates the disastrous events of Nov 11, 1919, when members of the town’s business elite enlisted the American Legion, then a new veterans group, to attack the hall of the I.W.W. and lynch its secretary. In Alewitz’ visual narrative, the spirit of Wesley Everest rises out of his pauper’s grave, half-clothed in his veteran’s uniform, half in his logger’s overalls, both hands clenched and arms raised upwards to the sky.

From a well-informed man who worked inside the building, we learned that City Park was the very place where the crowd assembled before the raid on the labor hall. Our informant told us how the Armistice Day Tragedy had been “Centralia’s secret” for over eighty years.

“Anyone who wanted to talk about it would be rudely interrupted, shouted down or ignored. If you wrote a paper about it in school, it meant an immediate ‘F.’” People remembered whose family was with the business interests, whose were aligned with labor. Wesley Everest’s murderers were never brought to trial. But the young I.W.W.loggers who defended their own lives at the union hall (four American Legionnaires were killed) were framed and sent to prison for eleven plus years (one of them served 18 years) by a “special prosecutor” appointed to the task, a local attorney named C.D. Cunningham. “No relation to Merce..?” I asked half in jest. The reply startled me: “he was his father.”

Further study in the Los Angeles Public Library stacks (The Centralia Conspiracy,by Ralph Chapin, 1919) and the viewing today, on Labor Day, of a superb film documentary (“Lewis County Hope and Struggle: A Community Remembers the Wobbly War) by Olympia, WA-based filmmaker Anne Fischel tells labor’s side of the story. Fischel’s film corroborates the conspiracy on the part of the lumber interests to commit murder and violence to drive organized labor out of their domain. The lumber barons had no intention of limiting their profits on virgin timber by providing health care for their workers, by limiting their dangerous long work days, by ameliorating their miserable working conditions in the soggy NW lumber camps.

In a scene in her film, at the mural’s dedication in Centralia, in 1997, Fischel pans the assembled crowd. Lewis County was then in the grip of a terrible economic recession. These are working men and women, their faces creased and worn; the worry shows. Several of these witnesses are descendants of those I.W.W. loggers who went to prison for ten + years for their beliefs that there should be a more just society.

Alewitz reminds them all how the I.W.W. threatened business interests at the time because they dared to ask, “in whose interest should society be run?” It’s a question that Buster Simpson asks in his work, and on this Labor Day, with the spirit of Wesley Everest watching, it is a question we must all continue to ask.

Wesley Everest
[photo by Joe Mabel, used under a Creative Commons license]

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