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Museum Musings

6.23.17: Unpacking Memories

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By David Acosta

SuitcasesDuring a recent visit to the Museum to see its special exhibition 1917: How One Year Changed the World, I also decided to go through the core exhibition once again. It’s a place I enjoy visiting from time to time as I always discover something new.

This time I was on the third floor and as I turned the corner, I was struck by a pile of suitcases, which created in me a great sense of sadness. The suitcases are part of the exhibition about the great Jewish migration to the United States from other places throughout the world. My sadness at seeing them piled up one on top of the other stemmed from several reasons.

As an immigrant, the suitcases resonated with me as would other suitcases in the exhibition because they are in a sense tied to specific journeys one undertakes in a lifetime: vacations, family visits, and for some a permanent move to a new place. For my family coming to America in 1968 it was a permanent move, one that involved leaving behind all that was familiar to us: language, food, and customs, but most importantly family, which is so central to the identity of Colombians and in many ways defines how we view ourselves and how we move through the world. I remember how difficult those first years were and how we yearned to go home, to return to the familiar and to a large and very close knit extended family.

The other story is one that I revisit often and was told to me by a South African friend. Once as a child she was playing in a room and went to hide underneath the bed in her grandparents’ room (a place she was not allowed to play in) and how she found a suitcase which she dragged from under the bed and when she opened it she found that it was packed with what seemed to her all of the things one would need for a fast journey.

Alarmed at the thought that her grandparents who had lived with her and her parents all of her life were leaving, she ran to her mother crying. To soothe her, her mother reassured her that her grandparents weren’t leaving and she told her that everyone in the house had such a suitcase including her, and how the suitcases were ready just in case they had to take an unexpected trip. She then took her to the closet where she showed the little girl a suitcase packed just for her, which also included some books and toys. It was only years later as a young teenager that she mentioned it to a friend who also said her family had done the same.

Apparently this, she learned, was a common experience among Jews who had escaped the Holocaust and/or whose experience was one of continued movement for a place of safety and or for a place that one could call home, and so the pile of suitcases brought that sad story back to me and reminded me of my own sadness at leaving home and all that was familiar, although unlike me, (in the case of many Jews leaving Europe during the war) it meant the possibility of never seeing their families again, and many never would.


David Acosta is the Artistic Director at Casa de Duende, which is dedicated to presenting socially relevant art that addresses critical social issues and challenges both artists and communities to address through art and art-making, the causes and consequences of cultural, economic, and political realities in the context of advancing progres
sive social change.

I am amazed by your suitcase story. I never knew that families did this - but now that I do, I see the experiences of refugees in a new light. Those experiences can leave deep scars. Thanks to you for helping us to view events from a different perspective, and to NMAJH for providing the exhibits that tell the stories.
Posted by: Dmitri Gheorgheni( Visit ) at 6/23/2017 11:07 AM


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