Monday, April 20, 2015

For Patriots' Day: Marking the Graves of the Revolution

Two examples of the markers used to designate graves of Revolutionary War soldiers in Amherst. (Walking through the cemetery today, I noted at least one mistake: a case in which, judging from the age on the tombstone, the person buried there cannot have served in the Revolution.)

Here, one of the old markers, placed by the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), founded 1889, chartered 1906.

The central figure is like a crude facsimile of the famous Daniel Chester French "Minuteman" statue in Concord.

Below, a modern marker (apparently the version in bronze)

I assume it is one of the replacements put up after a shameful series of thefts, in which artless criminals stole the markers and sold them as antiques or for scrap metal.

For Patriots' Day: Historic Postcards of Lexington and Concord

In honor of Patriots' Day, I'm putting up a series of historical images of Lexington and Concord, where the Revolution began in April, 1775.


From the tumblr:

more old postcards of Lexington

 The Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington

full description

more old postcards of Concord

I may add related images after the anniversary date, but don't hold me to that.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Commemorating the Holocaust in Music

It is a truism--and a typical piece of philistine thinking--to say that it is "impossible" for words, or art, to capture the reality of the Holocaust. On some level, words and art--the only tools at our disposal--are "incapable" of capturing many realities and experiences, and yet we use them to try to approximate that goal. Still, most of us would nonetheless agree that addressing the Holocaust through the arts does pose steep challenges. Just avoiding the maudlin, the hackneyed, and the banal is challenge enough--never mind actually capturing the essence of the tragedy or making an original aesthetic statement.

And what of music commemorating the Holocaust?

At first, it seems hard even to think of pieces that might serve such a debate. Commemoration and depiction have been much more the domain of literature. Still, there are examples.

When I was a kid, I was present in New York at the world premiere of Darius Milhaud's cantata, "Ani M'amin" ("I Believe") to text by Elie Wiesel. In the words of a recent review: "a meditation on the possibility of faith in the presence of unbridled and seemingly unpunished evil." In all honesty, mostly what sticks in my mind is one rather cynical adult saying he had enjoyed the Holocaust more. He was, I suspect, no fan of modern and contemporary music. I am. Still . . .

I hadn't listened to the piece in years. I enjoy much of Milhaud's music, but somehow, this one, and this particular style of choral singing never did much for me. In any case, you can  judge for yourself from this excerpt.

A review of Donald McCullough's more recent "In the Shadow of the Holocaust," made it sound more promising, but I have not heard it yet.

Here, for what it's worth, are some of the compositions that I find most accomplished or most regularly play:

Lukas Foss, Elegy for Anne Frank

I've always been partial to the music of Lukas Foss, the German-born American composer who succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as professor of music at UCLA.

His "Elegy for Anne Frank" is a modest but moving piece. The elegiacal mood, crudely interrupted by variations on the Nazi hymn, the "Horst Wessel Song" (not as the Milken Archive describes it: the "German national anthem"), before returning to the original register, somehow captures both the innocence of the insightful girl and the anxiety of life in the Secret Annex. (It exists in two versions, one with spoken text, and one without, critics generally preferring the latter.)

Sample here

Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor From Warsaw, Op. 46

Speaking of Schoenberg, this treatment of the Holocaust stands out by virtue of its relatively early date (1947) and its power. Although Schoenberg had converted to Catholicism, the rise of Nazism prompted him to return to Judaism. The text is Schoenberg's own, based on the account of a survivor of the Ghetto Uprising and liquidation. In the liner notes, fellow composer Nancy Van de Vate, noting that "many" regard the composition as "Schoenberg's most dramatic and moving work," describes it as follows:
     The narration is in Sprechstimme, a kind of speech-singing which Schoenberg developed, precisely notated for rhythms, more approximately for pitches, Olbrychski's moving narration is uniquely authentic, yet faithful to Schoenberg's notation. The cantata builds to a powerful, dramatic climax when, at "the grandiose moment," the male chorus begins spontaneously to sing the Shema Yisroel ("Hear, O Israel") in Hebrew, the third language of Schoenberg's life. It is "the old prayer" central to Judaism, that its martyrs have sung throughout history in defiance and resignation in their hour of death. It is the dramatic climax of the piece, for which Schoenberg has skillfully prepared the listener from the narrator's first lines when a French horn softly played the opening of the Shema Yisroel melody.
     The music vividly accentuates textual details throughout. A trumpet fanfare first awakens the Jews for transport to death camps. There are suggestions of military drum, unusual string effects from taps or scratches of string with bow sticks, high woodwind trills, muted brass fluttertonguing, snarls of muted horns and trumpets. The music builds to the terrifying counting off, louder and faster to prepare for the choral entry. "They began again, first slowly: One two, three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began to sing the Shema Yisroel." The sung Hebrew dramatically contrasts with the spoken English and brutal Nazi commands, and gives the work a powerful, moving climax in its only extended melody.
Here is a version narrated by the great Maximilian Schell:

I have a couple of recordings of this piece, but the following version, by Polish performers, conveniently combines it with other works commemorating the atrocities of the Second World War.

No list of Holocaust music would be complete without

Krzysztof Penderecki's "Dies Irae," or Auschwitz Oratorio.

Back in the day when I was a high school student, first learning properly about classical music, this piece was issued on a vinyl LP with a bleak black-and-white image of a crematorium chimney.  Popular, too, was his "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima," and these became obligatory items on the record shelves of all right-thinking progressives who prattled on about "man's inhumanity to man" even if they didn't really know any history and could not fully appreciate the jarring, and indeed, terrifying music. They may have bought it, but I really doubt they often listened to it.

Penderecki's piece, composed for the dedication of the international memorial at the Birkenau (Auschwitz II) death camp in 1967, differs from the others here in that it does not focus on the Jewish victims. Although Jews made up the largest number of victims at Auschwitz, the camp served first for the internment of Polish political prisoners, and subversives and resisters from many countries. It is also a site of specifically Polish national mourning. Penderecki is also Catholic (literally and figuratively) in his textual choices. Although he does not use the text of the requiem mass, he draws upon the Psalms, Apocalypse, Revelation, and Corinthians, as well as Greek tragedy and modern poetry.

The piece also reminds us of a very exciting time in the history of avant-garde music and other arts, not least, when artistic experimentation flourished in the countries of the East Bloc between the tyranny of Stalinism and the prosaic repression and philistinism of the post-1967 "normalization" and the following "era of stagnation."

As Nancy Van de Vate says in her liner notes,
     Dies Irae is an atonal, extremely dissonant work employing precise notated pitches, quater-tones, and sounds of indeterminate pitch. As in other works from the composer's early period . . . combinations of many unusual timbres, used both simultaneously and in succession, create unusual textures, neither homophonic nor conventionally polyphonic. Extreme dynamic contrast, from the softest to the loudest imaginable musical sounds, adds further to the music's drama and intensity. The sound of an air raid siren at the end of the second movement intensifies a section of the music which depicts beasts and men being burned alive. The rattling of a chain and shaking of a thunder-sheet (lastra) further evoke feelings of fear and horror appropriate to the subject.
     The chorus sing, speak and chant with an unusual variety of vocal sounds. The imagery of their text is dramatic and terrible, ranging from references to the shorn hair of a little girl's pigtail once tugged by cheeky boys at school to the triumphant "Death is swallowed up by victory" (Absorpta est mors in victoria) of the final movement. Yet the work closes tragically with the phrase Corpora parvulorum (Bodies of the little ones) which has been heard many times earlier.
Part I:

I am a great fan of mid-century modernism in all fields, from architecture to avant-garde music, but more recently, the minimalists have made their contribution, too.

Among more contemporary compositions, one that I find the most compelling is

Steve Reich, Different Trains

Trains, along with chimneys and barbed wire, are among the most common and evocative images of the Holocaust as the epitome of modern industrialized death. (Not coincidentally, a train also figures on the cover art of the final CD that I will mention.)

Using the symbol of the train, Reich's piece offers a brilliant and troubling mediation on the vagaries of chance:
     The concept for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since the arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942 accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.
He says that the work, commissioned for the Kronos Quartet, "begins a new way of composing," "the basic idea" being "that speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments." It features recordings of his governess, an African-American Pullman porter, three Holocaust survivors, and historical train sounds from the era of his childhood journeys. It is divided into three parts:
America--Before the war
Europe--During the war
After the war

Popular music has not often ventured into the territory of the Holocaust, and that's probably a good thing. Still, there are notable exceptions.  One of the truly great albums is

Yehuda Poliker, Efer ve Avak (Ash[es] and Dust)

Poliker is one of the most multi-talented and influential Israeli musicians, a compelling vocalist and a stunning soloist on a wide range of intstruments.  His parents were Greek Holocaust survivors, deported from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz, and at the same time as Reich was writing "Different Trains," Poliker teamed up with son of Polish Auschwitz survivors Yaacov Gilad, who wrote most of the lyrics for "Ashes and Dust." Eight of the twelve songs deal with the Holocaust, and the album became not only a bestseller and reflection of Israeli Holocaust culture, but also a shaper of it: specifically, in the shift from collective to individual commemoration, and in its emphases on the new role of children of survivors in shaping the reception of the events as the focus moved from history to memory.

Like much of the best Holocaust literature (I always think of the works of Aharon Appelfeld), this music succeeds because it is subtle and often indirect, moving around the margins of the topic, confronting it by implication rather than declaration. The result is an overwhelming mood, a persistent sense of loss.

The title song:

When You Grow Up (a subtle meditation on the children of survivors)

A Small Station Called Treblinka (request English lyrics)


Yom HaShoah / Holocaust Memorial Day 2015/5775

Haaretz today ran an article, "A dozen reasons why Israel should do away with Holocaust Remembrance Day." It was no doubt supposed to be provocative, but even if some of the individual points were valid or worth discussing, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Above all, in condemning the holiday "because it has become a tool in the hands of ultranationalist ideologues," the piece simply substitutes one political agenda for another. It's one of those ideas that, as the saying goes (not in fact Orwell's, but close to his thinking) is so absurd that only an intellectual could believe it.

One might as well say that we should end Fourth of July celebrations because American patriotism sometimes degenerates into triumphalist jingoism. The solution is not to do away with the holiday, and rather, to infuse it with new and deeper meaning. The founding of a revolutionary democracy or the commission of genocide are worth commemorating, and far too important to discard on the whims of a self-important op-ed writer.

At the very least, the simple and non-political rituals of commemoration should seem unobjectionable. The traditional ritual of mourning on the anniversary of death involves lighting a candle that burns for a full day.

I have taken to placing mine on top of this immense old candlestick, of hammered iron in the Arts & Crafts or Werkbund style, circa the beginning of the twentieth century.

The dealer I bought it from acquired it from a scrap metal dealer in Dortmund, so it's precise origin is unknown, Clearly, though, given its striking size (77 cm. tall, or just over 30 inches), it came from institutional setting rather than a private home. In fact, it is identical in appearance to a brass one sold at auction over a decade ago. That one came from the destroyed Leipzig synagogue in the Gottschedstraße, destroyed in Kristallnacht. It seems more than likely, then, that what I have here is another relic from the pogrom that began the Holocaust, and as such it seems especially fitting to call it into service for this use.

Many have remarked on the challenge of representing the genocide through conventional monuments. Some do, however, succeed in being both original and powerful.

Still, to me, the most powerful "monument" is actually a ritual used in Israel: On the morning of Holocaust Memorial day, an air raid siren sounds, and the entire country literally comes to a halt for two minutes. People stop where they stand on the sidewalk, cars and buses pull over to the side of the road, and drivers and passengers get out and stand respectfully  in silence. Then life resumes. It is the most eerie and moving ritual I have ever seen.

It is evanescent, yet eternal: lasting only two minutes yet repeated every year. It is a monument in time, of time. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. . . . Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”

And because this ritual so abruptly interrupts daily time itself, it conveys almost better than anything the tear in the fabric of the world and civilization that the Holocaust represented.


I have often thought that the United States should adopt something similar for Memorial Day. I still recall how, as children, we stood and observed a moment of silence at 11:11 a.m. on November 11, in tribute to Veterans' Day's origins as Armistice Day. We have lost that sense of an entire nation united in mourning the tragic costs of war.

Monday, April 13, 2015

April 13, 1943: Nazis Announce Discovery of Mass Grave of Murdered Poles at Katyń

In April-May 1940, the security services of Stalin’s Soviet Union, which had concluded a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939 and then occupied the eastern part of Poland after the Germans invaded from the west in September, murdered some 22,000 Poles--soldiers, intelligentsia, and other suspect classes--at Katyń forest near Smolensk and other locations.

On April 13, 1943, the Nazis, acting on rumors from locals, announced the discovery of one mass grave at Katyń forest near Smolensk. The Soviets emphatically denied the charges. The incident led to a break in relations between the London Polish Government-in-Exile and the Soviet regime.

The incident long remained controversial, as the Soviets insisted that these were the victims of German occupiers. In fact, I recall my father saying that, while he was serving with the US occupation forces in Germany (OMGUS), he found Germans testifying to "terrible crimes" they had committed in that area, which no one was willing to address.

The forensic evidence seemed contradictory, as the victims were killed with German bullets but tied with Russian ropes, but eventually, the weight of the evidence clearly tipped the scales in favor of a Soviet crime. It was only half a century later, in the Gorbachev reform era, that the Russian government acknowledged responsibility for the crime

This illustrated magazine, produced by the Nazi regime, conveyed the news to the occupied Polish population in May, 1943. The cover is a harmless depiction of the lobster harvest in Martinique (which was then under the control of the Vichy French regime).

Without warning, the next page reveals the horror of the Katyń massacre--conveyed through a Nazi propaganda lens.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Palm Sunday Donkey

One of my favorite genres of medieval sculpture is the so-called Palm Sunday Donkey (German: Palmesel), a tradition that thrived in particular in Central Europe from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century, when the rise of the Enlightenment and new ideas of propriety led the Church to suppress the increasingly raucous behavior that accompanied it. Palm Sunday processions commemorating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem are documented beginning in the seventh century. At first, it seems, a priest or villager rode a donkey in these processions, but there were concerns over the vanity of the performer and hubris of imitating Christ. In any case, it eventually proved more practical to substitute a dependable sculpture for a sometimes recalcitrant beast. Both the use of the live donkey and the wooden substitution are documented since the late tenth century. The typical Palm Sunday donkey thus consisted of a figure of Christ seated on a donkey mounted on a wheeled platform. Most such sculptures were large if not life-sized and carved of limewood or oak, decorated with colored paint.

The Cloisters and other sources speak of some 50 surviving examples at the end of the nineteenth century, but modern inventories cite 190 examples in the German-speaking lands alone. The earliest, in Switzerland, dates from circa 1200, and there are a few other examples from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but most are late-medieval.

I honestly forget where I first encountered this phenomenon: I believe it was in college while spending a summer studying German in the Catholic region around Freiburg, with its great museum of medieval art. It was probably only after my return that I discovered we had one in the University of Wisconsin art museum. (My photos are not accessible to me at the moment, but this one shows it nicely.) At any rate, the genre always appealed to me, for it perfectly embodied both the humanity and the majesty of Christ in church doctrine, and the donkey (much like a nativity scene) had a wonderful way of bringing home the nature and naive charm of popular religion in rural medieval society.

Palmesel (15th-century Germany), The Cloisters

Read the rest on the Tumblr.

The biblical entry into Jerusalem had its modern historical resonances, as well: When British General Allenby captured the city in December 1917, he made a point of entering on foot: not only out of humility vis-à-vis Christ--but also as a rebuke to the Kaiser, who on his visit had ridden in on a grand horse.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

    "To build a sustainable, climate-resilient future for all, we must invest in our world's forests. That will take political commitment at the highest levels, smart policies, effective law enforcement, innovative partnerships and funding."

    Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

March 21 is the International Day of Forests.

In celebration of that event, some tree- and forest-themed bookplates over on the book blog, habent sua fata libelli.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

as if she is giving brisk lectures to students with the memory span of goldfish

The art of the harsh review is, well, a real art.

Here's a recent example, from Richard Davenport-Hines's take on:

The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb 
Stanley Plumly
W. W. Norton, pp.336, £18.99, ISBN: 9780393080995

Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal 
Lucy McDiarmid
Oxford University Press, pp.212, £20, ISBN: 9780198722786

. . .
Stanley Plumly, the Poet Laureate of Maryland, has used Haydon and his guests as the launch-pad for his own ruminations on the mainsprings, ambitions and insecurities of poets and painters. It is low-cholesterol fare compared with the delectable, richly buttered concoction published 14 years ago by Penelope Hughes-Hallett on the same subject with an almost identical title. . . .
Similar infelicities spoil Lucy McDiarmid’s book, which bustles with reiterative summaries, as if she is giving brisk lectures to students with the memory span of goldfish. . . .
These two books are assiduous and assertive, but keep striking wrong notes, like a nervous guest at a dinner who tries too hard to impress. Both had a desperate need to be checked in manuscript by English readers, who could have forestalled the blunders of etiquette, nuance and fact. The parties described by Plumly and McDiarmid still sound amusing, but both authors are didactic people, whose opinions on genius, tortoises, the English class system and vaginas are not much cop.

"The table talk of the poets: dining with Keats, Yeats, Blunt and Lamb, Flint, Pound and Moore"
In a review of The Immortal Evening by Stanley Plumly and Poets and the Peacock Dinner by Lucy McDiarmid, Richard Davenport-Hines relives two feasts of literary legend, The Spectator, 3 January 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015

When a Minstrel Show in Amherst "was considered a success"

To be precise, "considered a success both in its performance and numbers, as shown by about 350 in attendance."

The date: 1951. A few years before Brown v. Board of Education but well after supposedly decent and educated people should have known better.

Not even 65 years ago, but the distance between that time and this seems much greater.

ICYMI: Read the full story.

And afterwards, be sure to fill out the Amherst Together survey so that we can "advanc[e] community, collaboration, equity and inclusion."

Update (19 March)
Of course, it could be worse:

Belgium minister sparks scorn by 'blacking up' (CNN, 19 March 2015)

Marking Human Rights Day in Amherst

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,...

As I noted in a recent post, the Massachusetts legislature honored the Amherst Human Rights Commission with a special citation on the occasion of our first official Black History Month ceremony last year.

The charge of the Commission is “to ensure that no power goes unchecked, and that all citizens are afforded equal protection under the law,” specifically: "to insure [sic] that no person, public or private, shall be denied any rights guaranteed pursuant to local, state, and/or federal law on the basis of race or color, gender, physical or mental ability, religion, socio-economic status, ethnic or national origin, affectional or sexual preference, lifestyle, or age."

An earlier version of the statement spoke, rather more ambitiously, of "promot[ing] economic and social justice for all citizens through means of mediation, education, and enforcement of local, state, federal, and international human rights laws”--above all, as embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although the Declaration finds no formal resonance in the official documents, it nonetheless embodies the spirit that moves the Commission. Accordingly, it has become our custom for the Select Board each December to issue a proclamation for the celebration of International Human Rights Day, on the anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By tradition, the Human Rights Commission then marks the occasion with a candlelight vigil and reading of the Declaration on the Town Common in the evening (often followed by a thematic presentation on a subsequent day).

Members of the Amherst Human Rights Commission and supporters who celebrated the Declaration last December included  Department of Human Resources/Rights Director Deborah Radway, Human Rights Commission Chair Gregory Bascom, Bonnie McCracken, Frank Gatti, Eleanor Manire Gatti, and Robert Pam


"Many of the assumptions about who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are wrong. The less known story of the men and women who wrote this foundational, emancipatory and anti-colonial document must be told in today's world."

Even those familiar with the Declaration probably do not know the story behind it. Some years back, Gita Sahgal, founder of the Centre for Secular Space, and the former Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International, took on this educational challenge.

These are challenging times, she observed. On the one hand, modern philosophers reject the whole concept of demonstrable or natural rights as a throwback to an earlier, naïve age (Alasdair MacIntyre: “tantamount to belief in witches and unicorns”), while on the other, some strains of leftism and postmodernism reduce such supposed “rights” to “the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism” that “‘constitutionalise[s]‘ the normative sources of Empire.” (I’m feeling guilty already.) As Sahgal drily observes, those fighting the Bush administration’s practice of torture and the continued existence of the Guantanamo detention facility “would be surprised to see themselves as empire builders,” while the authors of the Declaration, for their part, would have found "absurd" “The idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights,” as exemplified by the attempt to create a specific Declaration of Human Rights in Islam.

Citing the work of Susan Waltz, she explains that the origins and character of this fundamental document are both more varied and more radical than even its admirers realize. For example, it is commonly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt because she chaired the drafting committee, yet she contributed little to the concept or the content. (The idea in fact originated with the President of Panama.) The notion that “western” powers were responsible for the sections on civil and political rights, and the Soviet Union, for those on social and economic ones, is also a gross oversimplification. The desire for emancipation of all, emphasizing that rights applied to everyone everywhere, emerged as a major concern. Significant additions were made by newly de-colonized states regarding, slavery, discrimination, the rights of women, and the right to national self determination.

A host of countries, not least the smaller or emerging ones, saw to it that the document addressed social rights as well as the rights of colonized and other non-self-governing territories. An Indian activist fought for language referring to rights of ”human beings” rather than men, lest it be construed as discriminatory against women. Several Muslim delegates supported the clauses on freedom of religious choice. The final product was truly a collective one

Fifty nations voted in favor of the Declaration. None dared oppose it, but (big surprise), Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the Soviet Union abstained. Still explains a lot (plus ça change).

* * *
The Amherst Human Rights vigil on the occasion of the document's anniversary is at once a sobering (not to say: depressing) and an inspiring occasion: sobering because, in this town of nearly 38,000 residents--and some 27,000 students--where (as the expression goes) "only the 'h' is silent," I don't believe I have ever seen more than a dozen citizens from among our self-proclaimed liberals, progressives, radicals, and revolutionaries ever put on a down coat and show up. To be sure it's cold and dark, and yet . . . it is an important symbolic commitment to a vital cause. Again, it can be a lot to ask for a symbolic 30-minute gesture on a frigid December night. (I freely admit that I myself am at times the laziest person in the world.) Still, . . . . you get the point.

I hope that residents, and above all, my fellow members of Town government--employed, elected, and appointed--will in future consider taking part in what for me is one of the most moving political experiences of the year. When we hold the ceremony, we take turns reading from the Declaration, basically one clause/per person at a time. I have to confess that I often have to suppress a shudder when my turn comes, no matter which paragraph is at issue. The preface is a stirring document:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

How can a chill not run down one's spine when one contrasts the noble goals and innocent hopes of 1948 with--taking all progress into account--the atrocities of the present day?

Scenes from past vigils


On the evening of December 9, one of the first that felt truly cold in what has been a comparatively mild season, a small group gradually assembled under the guidance of tireless Chair Reynolds Winslow.

Everyone received a candle and a copy of the Declaration, in the form of an illustrated “passport,” produced by Amnesty International.

at right: Bonnie McCracken

As we stood in the cold, many of us attempting to hold both a candle and text in gloved hands, a car with a couple of blonde college-age women in it drove by, and the driver leaned out the window and helpfully shouted, “Hey, what the fuck are you doing?!”

That could have been a metaphor for the problem: ignorance and scorn. We knew exactly what we were doing, yet they had no clue. In a way, it’s understandable: at the end of the college semester, if students venture out into the Friday night cold, it is for physical rather than moral pleasures. And what of the rest of the town? In a community that prides itself on its “activism” and can readily generate a crowd with signs and candles for any “cause,” whether epochal or trivial, it was disappointing to see that we could with difficulty muster only about a dozen participants.

the vigil: Amherst Human Rights/Resources Director Eunice Torres, foreground

As we began to read from the Declaration, the sirens of police and fire vehicles, far more loudly, yet much less offensively, also interrupted the event.

The intense dedication of its participants stood in inverse proportion to the size of the gathering. The nominal membership of the Commission is nine, though at the moment only six seats are filled: three of them, notably, by high school students. Human Rights Director Eunice Torres was there representing Town staff, and I was present on behalf of the Select Board.

A few interested residents rounded out the group. Some were just supportive. Others, including Commission member Mohammed Ibrahim Elgadi, were from our Sudanese community, and brought with them a deep commitment to human rights arising from their own suffering. Mr. Ibrahim, who was tortured for his activism, is the founder and chair of Group Against Torture in Sudan (GATS). Sudan was in fact the focus of last year's program. 

An elderly woman from Egypt, wearing a headscarf and speaking in Arabic through a translator, said that she was proud of the changes that her compatriots had accomplished in the past year, and hoped that their example would bring democratic change to the rest of the Africa in the next one. It seemed a fitting way to close.

On Saturday, December 10, the Commission, as is its custom, made a presentation on human rights work to the community, hosted a potluck luncheon, and distributed posters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This year the presentation was devoted to human rights and relief work in Haiti.


Deborah Radway (Director, Amherst Dept. of Human Resources/Human Rights), Judy Brooks

Judy Brooks and Human Rights Commission Chair Reynolds Winslow read from the Preface


As the preceding photos show, holding the vigil on the corner of the Common at the four-way intersection of Town Hall had the advantage of visibility but the disadvantage of an unprepossessing setting and traffic noise that interrupted the reading. Beginning in 2013, the Commission moved the ceremony a few yards to the southeast, beneath the "Merry Maple" tree and closer to Town Hall.


Human Rights Commission Chair Gregory Bascom


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (from the UN)
60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (from the UN)
• Gita Sahgai,”Who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?50.50 Inclusive Democracy, 9 December 2011