Searching History, Seeking Justice
Alex Foxwell ’16 went to Paris this summer on a Starr Center fellowship to help UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, commemorate the humanity sacrificed to the holocaust called slavery. But while working to recognize those lost in one human tragedy, his personal research into another revealed the heart-rending answer to a longtime family mystery.
Poring through deportation manifests and German/Vichy arrest records at the French Mémorial de la Shoah, France’s Holocaust museum, Foxwell finally learned the fate of his great-uncle, who had been a fighter in the French Resistance during World War II.
“The documents list his deportation from Lyon, where he was arrested, to Drancy [a concentration camp in a Paris suburb], and then on to Auschwitz,” Foxwell says. “The search for 70 years really came to a head in what was a very emotional day for me and my family.”
Foxwell, a double major in drama and history, believes deeply in the power and purpose of history, in part because of his close relationship to it. “The whole reason I think of history in terms of social justice is from my grandmother, who is a French Holocaust survivor.” Walking the streets of Paris this summer, Foxwell retraced the paths of his forebears, Jews who came to Paris from Poland in 1924. They moved to Reims until 1940. “When the Germans invaded France, the French gendarmerie arrested my family and sent them by cattle car to Drancy, but luckily someone got them out.”
Until this summer, no one knew what had become of his grandmother’s brother, Isaac, alias Jean, the French Resistance fighter who “got false papers for everyone in the family so they could pass wherever they needed to go. In August of 1944, right before liberation, he and my great-grandfather were arrested because they were turned in by the sister of one of my grandmother’s friends.” Foxwell’s great-grandfather survived only long enough to die of kidney cancer six months after liberation; all but one of his 17 siblings were gassed or shot in Poland.
“For me, justice is dialogue,” Foxwell says. “We use the past to further the future. I believe history, presented in any medium—theater, film, literature, academic studies, music—must inform how we view the present and build the future.”
Foxwell’s work with UNESCO marks the first time Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the Comegys Bight Fellowships, has partnered with the organization, says Adam Goodheart, the center’s director. Foxwell earned the $4,000 Comegys Bight Fellowship, as well as an additional grant from the Hodson Trust, to work for six weeks on UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, which in 2014 is marking its 20th anniversary.
“The Slave Route Project is an initiative of truly global scope and importance, not just for our collective knowledge of the past, but for our understanding of the present, and of dynamics that continue to shape our world,” Goodheart says. “We’re thrilled that the Starr Center is participating, and I can imagine no better ambassador for Washington College than Alex Foxwell.”
The Slave Route Project’s goals are to “‘break the silence’ on the slave trade, slavery, and their consequences, to highlight the resulting global transformations and to promote intercultural dialogue and the shared heritage born of this human tragedy,” according to the UNESCO website. The worldwide project combines historic sites, ongoing projects related to the slave trade, scholarship, and multimedia. Foxwell’s work is focused on a September celebration at UNESCO headquarters in Paris marking the project’s 20th anniversary, although events are happening worldwide all year to commemorate the project.
“The idea is that, in recognizing both the scale of African slavery and its underlying causes and effects, we can make the world a better place by promoting intercultural dialogue and understanding,” Foxwell says. His projects at WC have informed much of his summer work, particularly in a course on public history taught by Ted Maris-Wolf, recent deputy director of the Starr Center, whose work focuses on various aspects of slavery. Foxwell researched gentrification in Chestertown: “I looked at the black community in Chestertown, why it got pushed out like it did in the ’80s, and how we can recognize culturally and historically significant sites of memory, like the G.A.R. building on Queen Street, in the former black neighborhood.”
Along with his work at UNESCO, Foxwell is taking some time to visit Amsterdam, the French Alps, and plenty of sites in Paris itself. “I never thought I would have an opportunity like this,” he says. Crediting his WC mentors like Goodheart, Maris-Wolf, and Michele Volansky, chair of the Drama Department, Foxwell says simply, “I am one lucky guy.”
Funded by several private donors, the Comegys Bight Fellowships annually support as many as a dozen outstanding Washington College students in summer positions at several leading cultural institutions. Along with UNESCO, this year’s partners hosting student fellows include the National Constitution Center, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Library of Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Maryland State Archives, Historic Jamestowne, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.