February 26, 2018
You’ve probably heard of Andrew Carnegie or the Rockefeller family, but have you heard of Julius Rosenwald? Today’s guest may be able to help with that. Aviva Kempner is a Peabody award winning documentary filmmaker, whose work focuses on unsung heroes from Jewish history. I spoke with Aviva about her most recent work which details the life of Julius Rosenwald, who during the turn of the century both revolutionized the business of Sears and Roebuck, and vastly influenced Black education in the Jim Crow South with his philanthropy. This is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] You’ve probably heard of Andrew Carnegie or the Rockefeller family. But have you heard of Julius Rosenwald? Today’s guest may be able to help with that. Aviva Kempner is a Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on unsung heroes from Jewish history. I spoke with Aviva about her most recent work, which details the life of Julius Rosenwald, who during the turn of the twentieth century both revolutionized the business of Sears and Roebuck and vastly influenced Black education in the Jim Crow South with his philanthropy. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Aviva Kempner who is an award-winning filmmaker, who’s been making independent film since 1979. Inspired by her parents, a Holocaust survivor and a U.S. Army officer, she produced her first documentary Partisans of Vilna in 1986, which focused on a gripping story of Jewish resistance to the Nazis. Kempner has gone on to write, direct, and produce more films including the Peabody award-winning, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. In 2015, Kempner released Rosenwald, an inspiring historical documentary about the businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, which we are going to be talking about here today. She also serves as the founder and executive director of The Ciesla Foundation, a non-profit organization that produces documentaries which investigates non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrates the untold stories of Jewish heroes. She is also a member of the Academy and Motion Pictures Arts and Science, and the founder of the Washington Jewish Film Festival in Washington, D.C. Aviva, it is an absolute pleasure and delight to have you here today with us on PreserveCast.
[Aviva Kempner] Yes. Well, I’m a big defender for preserving myself. One thing you didn’t mention, I have a Master’s in Urban Planning.
[NR] Oh, even better.
[AK] And I’m a big supporter of cities in maintaining those structures or preserving them or redoing them as, actually, I have two stories in terms of the film to talk about. But I’ll just have to mention the other day, I went to the suburbs and I was crazy. Those new buildings, those new ugly buildings [laughter], what were they thinking?
[NR] Well, let’s maybe take a step back and find out what you were thinking about getting involved in filmmaking. How did you end up doing this? I mean, obviously you kind of dropped that hint there that you have this background in urban planning. How does one with that Master’s degree become the sort of the celebrated filmmaker that you are?
[AK] Well, actually, then I came here to go to law school. Here being Washington D.C., and I did very well in law school. I was running the immigration clinic, but I do not test well on multiple choice questions so I flunked the Bars. So I always thank the D.C. Bar for making me a filmmaker.
I wound up going into my roots as the child of a Holocaust survivor, someone like myself. I was born in Berlin; I was the first American war baby. I could be president because I was born in the U.S. Army Hospital. But in any event, I just felt that I had to go make a film about Jews fighting Nazis, which is something a lot of second generation think about often in terms of either not being able to study about the Holocaust or studying about it. So I was lucky enough to find a director and, actually, your taxpayers’ dollars paid for it. It was a N.A.H. funded film and then from there it was sort of the MO about doing under-known Jewish heroes. And I think a lot of it is because my mother’s parents died in Auschwitz as well as her sister. My father’s mother was killed by the Nazis in Lithuania. So there’s a lot of death and destruction in my own family background. And I just have devoted myself for the last thirty-eight years to make films about under-known Jewish heroes.
[NR] And that’s really what your foundation is focused on as well. I mean, that kind of is the supportive arm, I guess, to make all of this a reality. Is that how that works?
[AK] Exactly. So then it turned out to be the Jewish baseball player I grew up with hearing from my father, Hank Greenberg, who sort of broke the stereotypes of the nebbish-y, nerdy Jewish male and who also played at the time when it was so politically incorrect and faced so much anti-Semitism. And also was the one who welcomed Jackie Robinson in ’47 when he was unfairly traded from Detroit to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
And then I wanted very much to do a film that countered the negative stereotype of Jewish women often perpetuated, I will say, by Jewish male writers. And that’s really Gertrude Berg who started the first sitcom and wrote like 6,000 scripts, starred in it but faced the horrible effects of the McCarthy period where her stage husband Philip Lowe was blacklisted and he wound up killing himself because he had to leave the show. And then I was thinking, “Well, what should I do next?”
And I was on Martha’s Vineyard fourteen and a half years ago and went to a talk about Blacks and Jews. And at that talk, I was going to hear the great Civil Rights activist Julian Bond as well as the very strong and active Rabbi David Saperstein and I thought I was going to hear about Civil Rights era. And then Julian Bond started talking about a hundred years ago and Julius Rosenwald and the work he did in terms of working with African-American communities all over the South to build 5,000 schools, which almost generated almost 700,000 students going to these wonderfully, newly-built schools that were sort of a Montessori system. Because even though they were one-room schoolhouses, the younger kids could learn from the older kids. And what was great about Julius Rosenwald, he was the head of Sears and Roebuck, had made millions but he was very influenced by the Jewish principle. It’s called tzedakah, charity and also tikkun olam, that we need to repair the world. And he decided that he would give this money – he had worked with Booker T. Washington already being on the Board of Tuskegee – and that he would give money to pay a third for the schools then the communities oftentimes was labor in terms of building the schools and the state. And these schools made all the difference in the world.
And in the film Rosenwald, people like John Lewis – [I] represented John Lewis the great Civil Rights icon – the poet Maya Angelou, the Broadway award-winning director George Wolfe all talk about what it meant to go to a Rosenwald school. Also, Eugene Robinson who’s on MSNBC and also writes for The Washington Post, they were all products of that school and talk so positively. And it’s all about communities working in a positive way within the states, because back there – during Jim Crow we’re talking in the teens of the 1900s – the schools were not equal. But at least the kids had a better chance of achieving a better education and certainly in an atmosphere. You know, it was interesting because the architect of the schools, which goes to the whole preservation issue, was green architecture. There were tall, big windows facing the best hours the sun would come in and it was just a wonderful movement.
[NR] And so the idea for this film, I guess, came out of attending that lecture and hearing Julian Bond speak about this and then you went on to tell this fantastic and really riveting story. And Julius Rosenwald is involved with a very famous company and really had this massive impact. But why do you think it was that Rosenwald hasn’t been remembered by society like other philanthropists? I mean, this is a film that was done – you purposely look at Jews who are non-stereotypical or perhaps who have been forgotten, and untold stories and that certainly is one. Why did that happen?
[AK] Well, I think the line that is most said when people come out of the film is, “Why have we never heard of him?” Even people who grew up in Chicago, which is where he was based – where he built the Museum of Science and Industry – I think it’s because it’s 100 years ago. I think it’s because he was a very modest man. He wouldn’t put his name on it. And I think unless you’re from Chicago or the South you just don’t know about it. And what’s amazing is the film was finished two and a half years ago and we’re still going around. It’s still being booked by churches, by synagogues, community centers. And the best thing is, what’s happened with the schools, National Trust for Historic Preservation has taken it under their wing to help restore these schools. So there’s at least 100 projects either completed or still in the process of being done all around the country. A lot in Maryland, you can go The Ridgeley School and it’s just wonderful. And it’s again the community, certainly the African-Americans who went to this school getting so involved in raising the money and restoring these schools as community centers, as senior citizens centers, as museums.
And this is part of our history; this is part of our legacy. And I think a great role model for how education should be done. The state gets involved, or the government entity, the community does, and philanthropy. And I think that’s one reason we’re still going around with the film. And I’m happy to say that the film might have been out two and a half years ago, but we’ve just come out with a really rich DVD. There’s four and a half more hours and in it is a bonus feature that goes into more detail on how you could preserve the schools. And there’s some more material specifically on the one in Maryland, The Ridgeley School.
[NR] Wow. So there’s a lot more to be learned, particularly if you pick up this expanded DVD package on this. I’m just curious, did Rosenwald have any descendants who you were able to speak to?
[AK] Yes. What’s good for me is that his grandson, Peter Ascoli, he’s an adviser in the film, wrote an extensive, detailed book on his grandfather; and also is very much in the film and a consultant. There’s also Stephanie Deutsch who wrote a book about the relationship between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, who actually lives in Washington like myself. And she also is in the film and was also a consultant.
[NR] Yeah, so it’s a faraway story in the sense that it happened over 100 years ago. But that’s not that long ago in terms of families so there’s still some connection there.
[AK] The other thing is, he also was living in Chicago and realized that so many African-Americans were coming up because of the Great Migration, but they were in crowded housing and had nowhere to live because there was the Northern example of discrimination and that was that only people could live in certain areas. And he built the Michigan Garden Apartments where people like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis lived in and Marian Anderson visited. And, actually, in the film, I have people that grew up in that including Valerie Jarrett’s mother, Barbara Bowman. But I just came back from Chicago to present the bonus features and the most outstanding restoration I’ve ever seen is how now the Michigan Garden Apartments are called the Rosenwald Courts. By the way, he never wanted his name on anything and this is housing through middle class or subsidized housing that looks magnificent and it only shows you that preservation could also satisfy, especially in the city, really strong housing needs.
[NR] Yeah. Yeah. There are tremendous affordable housing needs, and I know we’re working on that too. Why don’t we take a quick break here and when we come back, we could talk a little bit about how you make these films and the process that goes into it and how much time is involved and then just sort of talk broadly about where you’re headed next with this exciting filmmaking. And we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
[Stephen Israel] Few names conjure up as much respect, admiration or praise as that of Frederick Douglass. In the likely month of his birth, with his true birth date unknown, Douglass chose to celebrate it on February 14th. PreserveCast is proud to remember the contributions of one of the State of Maryland’s most influential citizens.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into a world of slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Talbot County. The probable location of his birth is his grandmother’s cabin on the plantation near Tuckahoe Creek will soon be dedicated at Talbot County Park. Douglass’s own surname, like his chosen birthday, was yet another act of self-determination, a name taken after his escape North. Douglass’s formative years were spent in toil on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In his autobiography’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave and My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass specifically recounts his harrowing years spent on a Wye plantation, a massive plantation with an equally impressive historic home built on the backs of enslaved African laborers like the young Douglass. Unlike some of Wye’s slave laborers, Douglass was not sold South and instead left Wye for Baltimore after being given to another family.
It was there that Douglass secretly learned to read before he was sent back to work for Edward Covey back on the Eastern Shore in his teenage years. Covey, a particularly hateful and cruel farmer, was known as a slave breaker and whipped the teenage Douglass until he fought back. Once Douglass overcame Covey in a physical confrontation, the whipping stopped. In 1838, after twenty years of enslavement, he escaped to freedom in the North. Following his escape, he sent for Anna Murray, a free Black woman from Baltimore whom he would later marry.
From there, Douglass would go on to the celebrated career for which he is remembered – preacher, best-selling author, international speaker, political campaigner, civil rights advocate, and famed orator. Through it all, despite its wickedness, Douglass would never forget his formative years spent in Maryland. Nineteenth century Maryland, good, bad, and truly ugly was a critical part of the complex formula which made the man.
As he neared the end of his life, Douglass would return to the region, living out his final days at his handsome estate in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In the twilight of his life, Douglass also worked with his son Charles to establish Highland Beach, a summer resort in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, built exclusively by and for African-Americans. Douglass designed his summer home there with a high view from which he said, “I, as a free man, could look across the bay to where I was born a slave.”
Douglass passed away on February 20th, 1895. The 77-year-old of unlikely beginnings left the world as perhaps the most influential American citizen of African descent in the nineteenth century, and arguably, the most famous Marylander ever. This is PreserveCast.
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast, you’ve thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll try to answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Aviva Kempner, who is an award-winning filmmaker. And we’ve been talking with her about all things related to Julius Rosenwald and the fantastic schools that he created across the South and her documentary about those schools. And we’ve heard about who he was and how the story came together, and why you think perhaps it’s been forgotten, and why it’s such an important story to tell. But I’m also curious, as a filmmaker who has done many historical documentaries, what would be the most surprising thing to the listener who may not be familiar with the documentary filmmaking process that you could share with them? Is it the amount of time that goes into it? What would surprise us if you were to tell us about filmmaking, do you think?
[AK] And can I just mention one more preservation issue or the building of the Rosenwald schools?
[AK] Rosenwald was the head of Sears, which is back then like the Amazon of today. The catalog was very important. You can get building materials. So naively or logically, Rosenwald said to Booker T. Washington, “With these schools, why don’t we just use a prefab Sears house?” And I think one of the pretty surprises in making the film is how Booker T. Washington said to Rosenwald, “No, we’re going to build them on-site. We’re going to use people in the community.” And they used the design by Robert Taylor, who is a great-great-grandfather of Valerie Jarrett who is in charge of domestic policy for the White House under Obama. Robert Taylor was also the first Black graduate from MIT. And it was really then the community had a sense of those schools. Just like we are in restoration, which I think is a great role model of preservation today. Get the community involved.
But getting back to the question about filmmaking. There is one word that is always the biggest obstacle and that’s money, money, money [laughter]. The Ciesla Foundation is a 501C3. So I always depend, as I say, on the kindness of strangers – which is the last line in Streetcar Named Desire – for fundraising. And you’re always writing grant proposals. Although, of course, she says that at the end of the film when she’s going off to the loony bin. So sometimes making the films can really do that to you. But if you have a really good idea and since it takes to so long to make a film, I say you have to be passionate about the idea.
Now oftentimes people are for hire and maybe they’re not as passionate. I have the luxury or the craziness of doing films of heroes I really would have like to have met or I’m inspired by their lives and what they’ve faced. So that’s what keeps me going. I mean, I also do writing. I started the Washington Jewish Film Festival here and I’m still involved in the volunteer capacity, and I’m a big voting rights advocate in D.C. where all my films are dedicated to. It’s a matter of finding the story.
I think what people don’t realize is how hard it is to do historical documentaries because for me, I don’t like using narration. My first film Partisans [of Vilna] had some narration, but that’s because I didn’t direct it. But very limited. And I think you’ll always have to find either the footage or the sound or the interviewee that’s going to fit, and progress the story. I also feel that documentaries should not be boring. I feel that I make documentaries that are like feature films. They move; there’s a great pace to it. You get engaged and it’s just interesting with all my stories that there was a third act. For Partisans of Vilna is they won the war. For Hank Greenberg it’s meeting Jackie Robinson. For Gertrude Berg, it’s sadly losing the person who worked with her, who played her husband on the set, but also for what she’s remembered for. For Rosenwald, it was the building of the schools and he also had this fund where he supported all these artisans from Marian Anderson to Jacob Lawrence. And the end is – I always get World War II in my films, but I never thought I would with Rosenwald – the Rosenwald Fund, which he established to help Black artisans, especially in their early years, helped build the Tuskegee Airfield where the Tuskegee airmen in World War II were trained.
[NR] It really comes full circle, and I guess that’s something that can, perhaps, even surprise a filmmaker when they find that out. So where are you headed next? I mean, this has been pretty exciting to see the list of really important stories and untold stories, as you say, that should be told, that you’ve brought to the screen. It’s exciting to see where you’ve been but where are you headed next? Are you working on something now?
[AK] So keeping up the theme with under-known Jewish heroes, I am working on a film on Moe Berg, who was a catcher, a Jewish catcher, for fifteen years – five teams, including the Washington Senators, when they were called the Senators. And because he had the knowledge of many languages – although the joke was he knew ten languages but couldn’t hit in any of them – he was recruited by the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, to do espionage spying on if the Nazis knew how to create the nuclear bomb, which was a very big scary issue for us while we were developing the bomb in Manhattan. We were terrified that Hitler was fabricating it in Germany. And he risked his life many instances to do that.
He also – there’s a real folklore, they called him The Professor during World War II. And, actually, for those in the area, I’m, on May 6th, the morning of May 6th, I’m showing a work in progress at the Jewish Film Festival at the DCJCC. And also he made two trips in Japan way before the OSS, in ’32 and ’34 and it was all fitting in with how he was developed as a spy. The OSS liked getting bluebloods in it – and he had gone to Princeton – but they also liked black sheep. They got people who could crack safes and do forgery. He was very mysterious, very bright, and very brave. So clearly he fits into this under-known Jewish hero. Now that we have all these issues about nuclear probability or possibility coming out of North Korea it makes it very relevant today. And I love baseball so I don’t mind going back and doing a second baseball film.
[NR] That’s fantastic. And untold, in the sense, that I’m not familiar with it and excited to see it. Before we depart, first you mentioned it before, but if people want to get the film, they want to find out more about you, and find out about upcoming things, what’s the best place to find you?
[AK] Yeah, RosenwaldFilm.org lists all our upcoming activities. You can ask to be told where they are because we’re all over the country. You can order the DVD. And if you go to MoeBergFilm you can find out where we are with the film. But certainly on May 6th, we’re showing the work in progress. I cannot tell you when the film is done.
[NR] Yeah, it’s a long process certainly. Before we depart, we ask a very difficult question for people that we’re interviewing because, obviously, they all love history in some form or fashion. But we love to find out where people’s favorite historic buildings might be. We just talked a lot about Rosenwald schools. But that said, do you have a favorite historical building or place?
[AK] Yes, I’m looking out into my backyard and I have created the Park Guella of Barcelona. I’m a big Antoni Gaudi fan. If I could figure out how to raise some money, I would make a film about him in a minute. I always wanted to live in Barcelona. So instead, I brought Barcelona here. I had these wonderful artisans from Central America who broke tile, and I showed them pictures and I’ve recreated the great modern miasma movement of Barcelona at the turn of the last century. At one point, I wanted to be this nice Jewish girl who’d help finish the saga familia, but I still think it’s not going to be finished in my lifetime [laugher]. I think though, it’s a great time and place in history where you had the creative energy of an architect like Antoni Gaudi. You had the artisans with the broken tile, the ironwork, that’s what I look out to now. And I just heard there’s a new building in Barcelona that’s been restored, so I think I’m going to have stop there again.
[NR] All right. Well, that is a fantastic place to stop this. Thank you for joining us today, and thank you for all the great work that you’re doing to tell these important stories that otherwise perhaps might be forgotten to history. It’s really an honor to speak with you and we’re looking forward to seeing what’s next. Thanks so much.
[NR] Keep up the good work.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!
Did you know? Julius Rosenwald worked very closely with Booker T. Washington to actualize their shared vision for accessible education. In 1881, Washington founded Tuskegee University in Alabama, one of the first places of higher education available for African American students and teachers. The Tuskgee campus is designated as the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site by the National Park Service.