The ProsenPeople

How American Fairs Became a Breeding Ground for Nazism

Friday, July 27, 2018 | Permalink

By Dawn Raffel

In the early 20th century, world’s fairs were an enormously popular source of entertainment and education. It was where the public was introduced to new inventions and ideas: from the ice cream cone to the milking machine, to the boob tube itself.

President William McKinley, addressing a crowd at the Buffalo World’s Fair in 1901, called the expositions “timekeepers of progress.” As it happened, McKinley was shot by an anarchist at the fair the following day—and although the X-ray machine was one of the new inventions on display, no one knew how to use it on the President. The bullet that doctors couldn’t find led to McKinley’s death from gangrene a few days later.

Meanwhile, at the Buffalo Fair, a mysterious European showman was introducing the east coast to the infant incubator, having first presented this French invention at the Omaha World’s Fair a few years earlier. “Dr. Coney,” born Michael Cohn in Krotoschin, Prussia, would later legally change his name to Martin Arthur Couney. At first, the reaction to the infant incubators was largely positive; Pediatrics and Scientific American lauded the new invention. But one detractor was chilling. An anonymous article in The Buffalo Medical Journal questioned the wisdom of saving premature infants—“weaklings," as they were called. Whereas any good stock breeder raises only “the most sound, healthy, and perfect animals,” the anonymous author continued, medical science was sentimental in helping inferior humans perpetuate their kind. This nascent strain of eugenic thinking (an offshoot of the new science of genetics) would grow uglier, not only dimming the prospects of premature babies but also fueling a war against the “degenerate” and “unfit.”

Between 1911 and 1913, "Better Baby" contests, often sponsored by local eugenic societies, were held all over the United States. Infants were brought to state fair grounds and awarded prizes based on physical characteristics such as height, weight, quality of skin, and shape of eyes, nose, and jaw—the way you might judge a livestock exhibition. Forty-five states, out of forty-eight then in the union, held such contests. Although the emphasis was allegedly on health, the shadow was "master race." One organizer, a Denver gynecologist named Mary Bates, wrote of the contests in terms of her larger goal: to “speed the day when we can have the scientific elimination of the unfit."

Over time, three prongs of eugenics emerged. So-called positive eugenics focused on better prenatal and infant care (with disturbing undercurrents), while negative eugenics led to the horror of involuntary sterilization for more than sixty thousand "undesirables,” including African Americans, Mexicans, people with intellectual disabilities, and those who'd committed petty crimes. American eugenics was robustly funded, including by the Carnegie Foundation. The U.S. government even adopted eugenics-based, and Nazi-influenced policies: In the most exhaustive and horrifying book about the link between American eugenics and the Nazis, Edwin Black's War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race reveals that many American eugenicists were Nazi sympathizers, and successfully persuaded the State Department to limit the number of Jewish refugees they allowed into the country. 

The third prong of the eugenic trident came close to outright murder. In 1917, Dr. Harry Haiselden at German Hospital in Chicago publicly advocated for allowing severely disabled infants to die, even if they could be saved. He not only withheld treatment but also invited the press to watch these children die, on multiple occasions. Privately, some American eugenicists did discuss murder—but they never went that far. 

In 1933 and 1934, Chicago held a world’s fair called The Century of Progress. This isn’t the famous Chicago World’s Fair most people think about with the ferris wheel, which was held in 1893. This second world’s fair took place at the bottom of the Depression. It opened the year Hitler came to power in Germany. It was also the first American world's fair to host a eugenics exhibition, in the Hall of Science. Described as "the self-direction of human evolution," eugenics was explained in four wall panels showing, for instance, good versus “degenerate” family trees.

Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Couney was still out on the midway, fighting for the lives of premature infants with his incubator show. But while the eugenics exhibit was housed in the Hall of Science, Couney’s incubators were considered entertainment. American doctors had largely abandoned the lifesaving technology, and there was scant interest in saving “weaklings.” Couney not only demonstrated repeatedly that premature babies could be saved but he also argued persuasively that they should be. He liked to say he was making "Propaganda for Preemies."

Couney died broke and largely forgotten, but he provided the unconventional inspiration for American neonatology. He had a profound effect on the physicians who would eventually standardize both hospital care and public health policy for preemies. He also saved the lives of an estimated 7,000 American children.

As for the eugenicists, we know where that led.

Dawn Raffel is the author of  The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Coney Island Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies.

Unknown / Wikimedia Commons

Readers Remember 'The Jewish Catalog'

Wednesday, July 25, 2018 | Permalink

We recently launched a new Friday edition of our e-newsletter, in which our Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter shares her weekly reading picks and invites subscribers to write back. It's been a great way to connect on a more personal level, We've been thrilled to hear back from readers, whether with their own reading recommendations or their thoughts on a book we suggested. If you're not already subscribed, you can sign up for our email list here.

When Richard Siegel, Jewish educator and co-editor of the "Jewish Catalog" (Jewish Publication Society) series of do-it-yourself guides to Judaism, passed away two weeks ago, Naomi asked readers to share their memories of the Jewish Catalog. Here are some of our favorite responses that demonstrate just how impactful these books were:

"I always felt comforted by and had been spiritually committed to Judaism but The Jewish Catalog infused it with the 'cool' factor, activism and a pluralistic observance. The book was a first step for the seriously engaged Jewish life I've lived. Those '60's and '70s Jewish communal movers and shakers no doubt made a huge contribution toward diversity within our community. I do hope, moving forward, we can continue this path without forgetting kindness, legitimacy of feeling and understanding all sub-groups in our Jewish world. There's much lip-service but not much honesty and introspection." —Susan

"I was a young woman when the Catalog was published. Its with-it way drew me to Judaism, and its challah recipe, now famously known as "Janet's Challah" has become one of my dear friend's own famous challah. Amusingly, I practiced baking this challah for our son's bris. It was huge and barely fit in the oven. But delicious it was, and quite a stunner!" —Janet

"The Jewish Catalog was purchased for the reference collection in our local branch of the library. I know this because I was the reference librarian in charge of buying the books for that collection in 1986. I used it occasionally to answer obscure questions in the days before the internet. It was not easy to find answers in books at that time to cultural questions about Judaism, especially in Arizona with a fledgling Jewish community. It served the purpose of introducing many to Jewish practice in a way that was neither stodgy nor inaccessible." —Sue

"It was 1974/75, I had fallen in love with a young man—not an observant Jew but very staunch in his traditions and desire to have Jewish children and a Jewish home. I am Italian and was raised in a strong Catholic family. I too knew a lot about traditions, family dinners, and the need to honor and respect one's parents. In 1975 I was exploring the possibility of converting to Judaism. The Jewish Catalog allowed me to view Judaism from its unique perspective and opened my heart to a world and life I could not have imagined. We were married after my conversion in 1976, started a family in 1980 and I have had the privilege and joy of making a Jewish home and raising a Jewish family. The Jewish Catalogs accompanied me for all those years." —Carol

"I found The Jewish Catalog to be life-changing. Though I grew up in a wonderful Conservative Jewish home, in a great shul in Pittsburgh, PA, I learned so much from the book. I especially learned what kind of questions to ask, and I shared this with my parents. It was also a great equalizer at college! I went to Clark in Worcester, MA, and when we would see someone had the book, it was an instant connection!" —Sandra

New Reviews July 23, 2018

Monday, July 23, 2018 | Permalink

The History Behind a New York City Subway Beauty Pageant

Monday, July 16, 2018 | Permalink

Plastic surgeons. Wireless data plans. Personal injury attorneys. These are some of the advertisements New Yorkers and tourists see while riding the New York City subways.

Starting in the 1940s, however, and lasting until the mid-'70s, next to the ads for shaving cream and savings bonds would have been a photo of a pretty girl.

Welcome to the world of Miss Subways.

I learned about the Miss Subways contest while listening to a story on NPR several years ago, and I was blown away. A beauty pageant on the subway? Really?

I had worked in advertising for years so I thought this slice of New York City history was fascinating. And I knew immediately upon hearing the story that I wanted to write my next novel about it.

But first, I had so many questions: How did the contest come to be? Who were these Miss Subways winners? What compelled them to enter the contest in the first place? What was it like to win? And how did winning affect the rest of their lives?

My first step was research. I started with the book Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-1976 (Seapoint Books, 2012). The authors, Amy Zimmer and Fiona Gardner, painstakingly researched the history of the contest. From this book along with articles I read—from outlets ranging from The New York Times to LIFE—I learned about the history of the contest, how it worked, who was involved, its position in the NYC zeitgeist, and what it meant to a young woman at the time to win.

In the early 1940s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) wanted to increase rider morale and draw attention to the advertisements. So they hired noted advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, which came up with the idea of a monthly beauty contest. The famed John Robert Powers modeling agency judged the women, and the winner’s photo, along with a brief description of her ambitions and hobbies, were printed on thousands of posters that were seen by millions on their subway travels. Over the contest’s 35-year existence, 200 women would hold the title of Miss Subways.

Zimmer and Gardner also investigated the whereabouts of all 200 winners, located 41 of them, and photographed and interviewed the women, uncovering rich details of their lives before, during, and after the contest.

Winning the title of Miss Subways was a celebrated achievement and the winners often became sought after—mostly in their own neighborhoods but, on several occasions, nationally as well. Mona Freeman, the first Miss Subways in May 1941, went on to have a storied Hollywood career. Ruth Ericcson, Miss Subways December 1941, received 278 marriage proposals, and Dorothea Mate Hart, Miss Subways June 1942, received 200 tea bags.

What was revolutionary was that the Miss Subways posters relayed the winners’ ambitions, quite unlike any other beauty pageant of the time. Eileen Henry, March 1944, wanted to be a radio director. Mary Radchuck, August 1944, was studying to be an interpreter. Anne Peregrim, July 1950, hoped to become a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps. Sure, there were just as many winners who sought a career as an elementary school teacher or wanted a large family and a home in the country. But the contest was notable for celebrating women for more—okay, maybe just a little, but still—than just their appearances.

In addition, Miss Subways winners reflected the melting pot of races and religions of the city from whence they came. And though the selection of the first black Miss Subways winner, 1948’s Thelma Porter, didn’t occur without tension and racism, it’s still notable in that the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, wasn’t crowned until 1984, almost four decades later.

And many of the Miss Subways winners were Jewish: Ruth Lippman! Patti Freeman! Enid Berkowitz!

The most fascinating part of my research was interviewing a handful of Miss Subways winners, now in their 80s and 90s, to learn firsthand about their experiences and how winning impacted their lives.

The resulting novel, The Subway Girls (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), follows two story lines: 1949’s Charlotte Friedman (who’s named after my grandmother) competes in Miss Subways. And 2018’s Olivia learns about Miss Subways while doing research for an advertising pitch. The storylines intersect and that’s when the fun begins.

Susie Orman Schnall is the award-winning author of The Subway Girls, The Balance Project, and On Grace. She’s a frequent speaker, and her writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, HuffPost and Harper’s Bazaar. Susie grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and lives with her husband and three teenage sons in New York.

Miss Subways ad at the New York City Transit Museum by Wcnghj via Wikimedia Commons

New Reviews July 16, 2018

Monday, July 16, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews July 9, 2018

Monday, July 09, 2018 | Permalink

Interview: Mark Sarvas

Thursday, July 05, 2018 | Permalink

How would you describe Memento Park in a tweet (280 characters)?

A man tries to recover a looted painting that appears to have belonged to his family but in order to do so he must recover the lost story of his family, reconnect with his own neglected Judaism, and repair his broken relationship with his father.

What do you have on your desk?

An action figure of Bojack Horseman, my spirit animal. A few candles. A chipped bulldog statuette from a Paris hotel. A photo of my daughter. Several to-do lists.

What are your favorite novels that center around a painting?

Top of the list would be John Banville’s “Frames” trilogy – The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena. I also love Peter Carey’s (underrated) Theft and John Berger’s A Painter of Our Time. And one cannot exclude the urtext of art novels: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

What are your favorite art museums?


My god, so many. MOMA in New York City is close to the top, though the crowds can be exhausting. I adore the Musee Marmottan in Paris and the Phillips Collection in DC. I recently got out to Mass MOCA for the first time and was enthralled by the place. But I also love smaller spaces like the Neue Galerie and L.A.’s own Norton Simon Museum (which features in my novel).

What are your favorite cases of artistic fakes and forgeries?

I’m pretty fascinated by the life of Eric Hebborn, a noted art forger who is believed to have made around $30 million in the eighties. He was finally exposed and wrote some remarkable books after that, including a memoir and a veritable how-to manual. I wished I could have used all that material more prominently in my book, and I suspect it’s something I will return to one day. You can watch a documentary about him here.

What is your favorite underappreciated Jewish book?

Not underappreciated, perhaps, but not read anywhere near as widely as it deserves to be is Jenny Erpenbeck’s brilliant The End of Days.

Sarvas headshot: Yanina Gotsulsky; photo of Eric Hebborn via Artnet News

New Reviews July 2, 2018

Monday, July 02, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews June 25, 2018

Monday, June 25, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews June 18, 2018

Monday, June 18, 2018 | Permalink