The War That Changed American Jewry


Christian owners of plantations and large estates had scores of slaves.

Falk pointed out that the country was divided over slavery, and Jews no less than others.

“It was a mindset [about owning slaves] we find hard to understand today,” she said.

And attitudes about slavery and allegiances to North and South caused disruption among families. There was, for instance, the Friedenwald family in Maryland in which one son attempted to join the Confederacy and another became a doctor for the Union cause. A letter in the exhibit also shows how one wife dealt with this controversy. Wrote a Southern Jewish woman who married a non-Jewish Union officer: “I followed my state — the state of matrimony.”

The Exhibit’s History

“Passages Through the Fire” was initially developed and put on public display in New York City in April as a joint project of the American Jewish Historical Society and the Yeshiva University Museum. The exhibit is said to have “the largest and most comprehensive collection of materials relating to Jews and the Civil War assembled in the last 50 years.”

The Jewish Museum of Maryland has been designated as the only other city where “Passages Through the Fire” will be shown, an exclusivity that Pinkert termed “a big deal” for the museum and for Baltimore.

“The exhibit from the Yeshiva University Museum includes items from the exceptional collection of Robert D. Marcus of Fairfax, Va.,” said Pinkert. “These rarely seen artifacts would already make this an important exhibit, but we’ve taken the additional step of researching the Maryland story in greater detail and adding that content to the exhibit.”

The JMM has structured “Passages Through the Fire” into various components, with Maryland materials added, to present a comprehensive look at the war through film, photography, lectures, profiles of Jewish military personnel, stories about key battles, displays of weaponry and rarely seen memorabilia to demonstrate how Jews — especially Maryland’s Jews — were involved in and affected by this searing conflict.

Museum exhibits are divided into sections: Jewish life in the prelude to war; the period of the war itself, with a look at life on the battlefront and the home front; and the postwar environment. Within these sections are four interactive stations: examples of pioneering Civil War photography; materials produced on the home front in support of the troops; an activity tent for children; and an area focusing on the monuments and memorials created after the war. (Moses Ezekiel, the first Jewish graduate of Virginia Military Institute, became a well-known sculptor and was an important designer of monuments for the Civil War dead.)

In the realm of photography, two Jewish brothers, David and Daniel Bendann, became known for their portraits of leading figures in the Civil War by using the latest technology of the day. Lance Bendann, David’s great-grandson, is semiretired but still involved in portrait photography as “the fourth generation to work in this business.”

“My family was originally from Prussia and very involved as Jews,” Bendann said. “After a pogrom in 1840, they wound up in Richmond, where the brothers worked for a photographer using the new popular mediums of daguerreotype and tintype. They moved to Baltimore, where in 1859 they opened Bendann Art Galleries. They became very successful, photographing governors, the mayor of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, President Buchanan and Robert E. Lee.”

During the Civil War, when a soldier received his first uniform, he usually wanted his picture taken. A popular item was carte de visite, or visitor cards, a small photo mounted on cardboard.

“This was my great-grandfather’s bread and butter,” said Bendann. “Union soldiers passing through Baltimore wanted a picture, and Confederate prisoners held at Fort McHenry could get a daily pass to come into the city to get their pictures taken. The Bendanns were one of the few to photograph both Union and Southern soldiers.”

Another section looks at the challenges to maintaining Jewish religious practices and how Jews made a living. Located throughout — one per section — are three mini-documentary videos from the New York exhibition. Visitors can see leading historians discuss the varied attitudes toward slavery, the effort to oppose anti-Semitism during the war and the legacies of the war.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here