Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why are Muslims being scapegoated?

What is happening to my country? One of the things that I was proud of after the 9/11 attacks was that Muslims in this country were not targeted by the U.S. government and that despite an increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the following year, there was not generally an upsurge of hatred against Muslims. I am sure that it was uncomfortable for Muslims then - I have certainly heard and read stories that do not shed a good light on the tolerance and acceptance of America for Muslims - but there was nothing like the groundswell of open hatred that has happened this year. No one was threatening to burn Qur'ans in the wake of 9/11. President Bush made a conspicuous point of saying that we should not blame all Muslims for the actions of a few. The Republican Party did not scapegoat Muslims en masse - perhaps because of the President's strongly expressed views.

Now, we have leaders of the Republican Party (for example, Newt Gingrich) openly engaging in anti-Muslim demagoguery that reminds me of the rhetoric historically used against Jews by anti-Semites. The former President Bush has not spoken up to reprove members of his party.

And ordinary Muslims and people from the Middle East are being turned into scapegoats for no reason whatsoever - as if they are to blame for all of the ills in American society.

The New York Times today published a very affecting article about the Muslim prayer room that used to exist at the World Trade Center before the 9/11 attacks: Muslim Prayer Room Was Part of Life at Twin Towers.
Given the vitriolic opposition now to the proposal to build a Muslim community center two blocks from ground zero, one might say something else has been destroyed: the realization that Muslim people and the Muslim religion were part of the life of the World Trade Center.

Opponents of the Park51 project say the presence of a Muslim center dishonors the victims of the Islamic extremists who flew two jets into the towers. Yet not only were Muslims peacefully worshiping in the twin towers long before the attacks, but even after the 1993 bombing of one tower by a Muslim radical, Ramzi Yousef, their religious observance generated no opposition

“We weren’t aliens,” Mr. Abdus-Salaam, 60, said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he moved in retirement. “We had a foothold there. You’d walk into the elevator in the morning and say, ‘Salaam aleikum,’ to one construction worker and five more guys in suits would answer, ‘Aleikum salaam.’ ”

One of those men in suits could have been Zafar Sareshwala, a financial executive for the Parsoli Corporation, who went to the prayer room while on business trips from his London office. He was introduced to it, he recently recalled, by a Manhattan investment banker who happened to be Jewish.

“It was so freeing and so calm,” Mr. Sareshwala, 47, said in a phone conversation from Mumbai, where he is now based. “It had the feel of a real mosque. And the best part is that you are in the epicenter of capitalism — New York City, the World Trade Center — and you had this island of spiritualism. I don’t think you could have that combination anywhere in the world.”

Moreover, the prayer room was not the only example of Muslim religious practice in or near the trade center. About three dozen Muslim staff members of Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the north tower, used a stairwell between the 106th and 107th floors for their daily prayers.

Without enough time to walk to the closest mosque — Masjid Manhattan on Warren Street, about four blocks away — the waiters, chefs, banquet managers and others would lay a tablecloth atop the concrete landing in the stairwell and flatten cardboard boxes from food deliveries to serve as prayer mats.

During Ramadan, the Muslim employees brought their favorite foods from home, and at the end of the daylight fast shared their iftar meal in the restaurant’s employee cafeteria.

Iftar was my best memory,” said Sekou Siby, 45, a chef originally from the Ivory Coast. “It was really special.”

Such memories have been overtaken, though, by others. Mr. Siby’s cousin and roommate, a chef named Abdoul-Karim TraorĂ©, died at Windows on the World on Sept. 11, as did at least one other Muslim staff member, a banquet server named Shabir Ahmed from Bangladesh.

Fekkak Mamdouh, an immigrant from Morocco who was head waiter, attended a worship service just weeks after the attacks that honored the estimated 60 Muslims who died. Far from being viewed as objectionable, the service was conducted with formal support from city, state and federal authorities, who arranged for buses to transport imams and mourners to Warren Street.

There, within sight of the ruins, they chanted salat al-Ghaib, the funeral prayer when there is not an intact corpse.

“It is a shame, shame, shame,” Mr. Mamdouh, 49, said of the Park51 dispute. “Sometimes I wake up and think, this is not what I came to America for. I came here to build this country together. People are using this issue for their own agenda. It’s designed to keep the hate going.”

The people quoted in this article are good, honest people who deserve to live as securely as anyone else of any religion in this country. Why can't they?

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Sima Schlossberg and her family in Jelgava

I just found another resource to research the Jews of Latvia - the Latvian Names Project. It is an attempt to do for all of the Jews of Latvia what Edward Anders and his co-workers were able to do for Liepaja - identify the fates of Jews who lived in Latvia before the Second World War. In 1935 the Latvian census recorded 93,479 Jews living in Latvia.

I looked up the name of my relative from Jelgava, Latvia - Sima Schlossberg. She came up on the list, and so did the names of her family - names that she doesn't refer to in her letters to my grandfather. Her sister's name was Miriam, and she was born on August 5, 1909. Sima herself was born on November 27, 1911. Their parents' names were Itzik Ruben and Esther Raschel. Only the possible fate of Miriam Schlossberg is mentioned - in the Riga Ghetto.

Looking back in correspondence from March and April of 2004 (with Miriam's daughter and with a cousin of Sima's), I discover, however, that I do know the fates of the people in the family. Sima escaped from Riga in 1941 with her parents first to Russia and then to Uzbekistan. Her sister Miriam was already living there because she had fled earlier. Sima's father Itzik died in 1942 from hunger. The two sisters and their mother survived the war. In 1942, Miriam married a man named Mikhail Golod, and her daughter was born in 1943 in Bukhara. They returned to Riga in 1945. Sima worked as a bookkeeper, and in 1955 was married to a man named Nohum Bruk and moved with him to St. Petersburg. She died there in 1988, leaving no children behind. Miriam died in 1980 and her mother Esther Raschel died in 1984 at the age of 100.

I'm going to have to write to the Latvian Names Project and give them information on all of these people.

Websites on journeys to Liepaja

A number of other people have made a similar journey to Liepaja to see where their ancestors lived. I just found a website created by Arturo and Marc Porzecanski about their visit to Liepaja (among other places in eastern Europe) in 2002: Our trip. The direct link to the page on Liepaja is: Our Trip to Liepaja.

Brian Friedman created the Welcome to Avaslan website about his family in eastern Europe, including Liepaja. Like me and the Porzecanskis, he found the house where his relatives in Liepaja had lived. He also has a page on the Killing Fields of Skede and photographs of the memorials there.