Saved by art: How one man’s skill got him through seven Nazi camps and the difficult years that followed

Kalman Aron is a prolific artist. Even during his internment at seven Nazi camps, he didn’t stop drawing — and his artwork saved his life.

“I probably have in Germany a hundred drawings, drawings of soldiers,” the 92-year-old artist said during a recent interview. “They wouldn’t pay me anything, but I would get a piece of bread, something to eat. Without that, I wouldn’t be here.”

Speaking in the living room of his modest Beverly Hills apartment, Aron was surrounded by his artwork, collected over decades. Paintings are stacked five and six deep against each wall, with more in his bedroom and even more in a basement storeroom.

Aron immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949 and built a life, a career and a circle of friends. They were artists and musicians. Now, apart from his wife and a part-time caretaker, it’s his paintings that keep him company.

“I don’t have anybody to talk with,” he said. “All my friends are gone. I had probably 15 friends. They were much older than me. I was the youngest one. And then suddenly, nobody here. I have drawings of them. A lot of drawings in the back there. Filled that room downstairs, filled up completely.”

Aron was born with a preternatural talent for portraiture. At 3, he was drawing likenesses of family friends in Riga, Latvia. At 7, he had a one-man show at a local gallery. At 13, he won a commission to paint the prime minister of Latvia. He was 16 years old and a student at Riga’s art academy in 1941 when the Germans occupied the country.

Seven camps, four marriages and nearly 80 years later, he’s proven to be a resourceful and dogged survivor. In the long and circuitous course of his life, art and survival have gone hand in hand.

Kalman Aron in his Beverly Hills apartment in June. Photo by Tess Cutler

It began in the ghetto in Riga, when he did a pencil drawing of a guard and showed it to him. The guard liked it enough to spread the word about his talent. The formula repeated itself over and over in the coming years of persecution and hardship.

Still, for a Jew to have writing materials in the camps was considered a risk, so German troops who wanted a likeness would hide him in a locked barrack while he drew them or worked from a photograph to draw their relatives.

“Once I did a portrait and other people liked it, they would do the same thing: lock me in the room, not let me out,” he said.

Aron managed to leverage his skill anywhere he spent a significant amount of time, particularly the Riga ghetto and the labor camps of Poperwahlen in Latvia and Rehmsdorf in Germany. In each place, he attracted a clientele of rank-and-file soldiers and high-ranking officers who rewarded him with scraps of food and pulled him out of hard labor.

What seems like lifetimes later, he believes painting still keeps him alive today.

“Friends of mine, they get old and they don’t know what to do, and they die of boredom,” he said in his dining room, his eyes widening with intensity. “Boredom! And I’ll never die of boredom, as long as I have a piece of paper.”

‘Mother and Child’

Decades before he spoke openly about what he saw during the Holocaust, Aron painted it.

Until 1994, when he was interviewed by the USC Shoah Foundation, he tended not to describe what he had seen. But during those long decades of silence, he produced a number of artworks — in oil, watercolor, pastel and charcoal — depicting his memories of that trying time.

“Mother and Child” (1951), pastel on paper on a board

There was Aron at the head of a line of inmates on a forced march. There was Aron at Buchenwald, sleeping outside with a rock for a pillow. There were haggard portraits of fellow inmates.

But the most well-known of these paintings is “Mother and Child,” which now hangs in the lobby of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Aron moved to Los Angeles in 1949 with a young wife, $4 in his pocket and zero English proficiency after finishing art school in Vienna. In 1951, he had a job illustrating maps in Glendale when one day, he decided to glue two city maps to a board to create an 8-foot-tall canvas.

He brought home the oversized sheet, and after four or five nights of laboring past midnight, he finished a pastel, showing a scene he had witnessed many times in the camps: a mother clutching her child tightly to her face, as if they were one, bound together no matter what abuse they might have to face.

As he worked on the painting, he recalled, “I wasn’t feeling. I saw it happening.”

He went on, “I just said, ‘I’m going to put it on paper.’ I wanted to draw them. That’s why.”

“Mother and Child” sat in his studio for nearly 60 years as he found himself unable to part with it, the glue he used to create the canvas bleeding slowly through the paper to create a brownish tint. Today, it is considered one of his masterpieces.

At the time he painted it, Aron was unable to put his trauma into words. During his later Shoah Foundation interview, as a videographer switched tapes, Aron chatted with the interviewer, a fellow survivor, apparently unaware that audio still was being recorded, and described his difficulty.

“About 30 years ago, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. I would choke up if I did it. I’m fine now.”

Sherri Jacobs, an art therapist outside Kansas City, Mo., told the Journal that art sometimes enables survivors of trauma to express what they otherwise could not. Jacobs has conducted an art therapy workshop at a Jewish retirement home near Kansas City for 15 years, working with many Holocaust survivors. Though they rarely paint explicitly about their Holocaust experience, as Aron has, creative expression nonetheless helps put shape and form to their trauma, she said.

“They can express things in a metaphorical way,” she said, “in a way that it’s leaving their mind, leaving their body and going on paper.”

Painting men and monsters

Drawing in the camps, Aron said he was not thinking of his hatred or fear of his subjects — only of surviving.

In Poperwahlen, for instance, the camp commandant gave Aron a photograph of his parents and ordered him to draw a miniature that could fit in a locket mounted on a ring.

Aron had seen Jews randomly beaten or shot by guards at the camp. More than anything, he was thinking about his own survival  as the commandant locked him in a barrack with a pencil and paper.

“I mean, in my head is, ‘Am I going to be alive tomorrow?’ ” Aron said in his apartment nearly eight decades later. “Watching them killing the Jews was terrible, terrible, terrible. I have very bad nights sleeping here.”

The task could have taken him two days, he said. But he stretched it over more than a week for the exemption it afforded him from back-breaking labor.

It’s difficult for Aron to estimate how many portraits he drew. He knew only that the same interaction repeated itself many times with Nazi troops.

“Wherever I was, I made sure I had a piece of paper and pencil,” he said.

As the months passed, he parlayed his skill into gaining more materials, piecing together a sheaf of drawings that he carried with him. Observing his assured manner and his materials, camp guards mostly left him alone.

“When they saw that, they knew, ‘Don’t touch this guy, he’s doing something for us,’ ” he said.

By the end of the war, his skill accounted for perhaps an extra 5 pounds on his skeletal frame, he told the Shoah Foundation interviewer — a small but critical difference.

“There also were people that were tailors and shoemakers,” he said in 1994. “They would also get fed much better. They were indoors. They would sew, you know. These are the kind of people that had more of a chance of survival than a guy who was digging ditches.”

Reclaiming a world of light and color

Jacobs, the art therapist, said understanding Holocaust survivors as the product of a single experience can be misleading, traumatic though it may have been. And in trying to understand Aron through his art, putting the Holocaust constantly front and center would indeed be a mistake.

Of the hundreds of paintings that line his apartment, relatively few deal with the Holocaust. More often, they are landscapes of the places he’s visited, views from his balcony looking out at downtown L.A. and portraits of the women he’s loved. Prominently displayed is a 2006 oil portrait of Miriam Sandoval Aron, his fourth and current wife, straight-backed, wearing a baseball cap during their honeymoon in Hawaii.

His earliest landscapes in Los Angeles are often devoid of color: A rambling house in Bunker Hill is rendered in shades of gray with no sign of life; a monochromatic landscape of Silver Lake shows not a single inhabitant. But soon enough, he took to painting colorful tableaus of the city at various times of day.

Eventually, he made enough money to rent a West Hollywood studio with high ceilings and northern light, where he hosted parties that lasted until sunrise. Over the years, his art has been exhibited at several museums and galleries, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Art Association and the Seattle Art Museum. He has painted a number of celebrities and public figures, including novelist Henry Miller, pianist and composer André Previn and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California.

For months at a time, he traveled through North America and Western Europe — though never to Germany — stopping whenever he was moved to paint.

His third wife, Tanis Furst, described one such incident to author Susan Beilby Magee for “Into the Light: The Healing Light of Kalman Aron” (2012), a book of Aron’s art, framed by interviews with the artist.

In 1969, driving through Montreal during a trip across Canada, Aron pulled over in a rundown part of town to paint a house where a woman lived with dozens of cats.

“This happened all the time on this trip,” Furst said. “He would drive along and stop: ‘Gotta paint that.’ We had a lot of fun.”

A short while later, Aron’s only son David was born.

“I was a very happy guy when my son was born,” he says in the book. “In fact, it was the happiest day of my life.”

Telling his story

Even in 2003, when Magee first set out to write “Into the Light,” she said she found Aron profoundly ambivalent about telling his story of sorrow and survival.

In an interview with the Journal, Magee said that while part of Aron seemed to be saying “It’s time to tell, the pain of not remembering is greater than the pain of remembering;” another voice was telling him “You survived because you were invisible; do not tell your story; do not be seen; to be seen is to be killed.”

Magee had spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., working in government, before quitting in the late 1980s to pursue hypnotherapy, meditation and energy healing. One thing she was not was a writer.

But that didn’t deter Aron. Sitting down for lunch in Palm Springs in 2003 with Magee and her mother, one of his earliest and most ardent patrons, he suddenly fixed upon Magee with his blue-eyed gaze.

“Completely out of the blue,” she recalled, “he turns to me and says, ‘Susan, will you write my story?’ He is a highly intuitive man, and somehow he knew he could trust me to do it.”

“Self Portrait” (1954); “Self Portrait” (1967), oil on canvas; “Self Portrait” (1994), oil on foam core

Although he had produced numerous paintings dealing with the Holocaust, he had been hesitant to speak about it, even with those closest to him.

“Kalman shared some things about his family and the Holocaust, but not in a great deal of detail,” Furst says in the book.

Nonetheless, after his 2003 encounter with Magee, he consented to 18 hours of interviews with her. Later, she traveled to Europe to retrace his steps. Nine years after she set out, the book was published, with a release party at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Recently, Aron agreed to be featured in an upcoming documentary about his life and art, backed by television producer Norman Lear.

“We’re going for the Oscar on this thing, and you can quote me on that,” said Edward Lozzi, Aron’s longtime publicist who introduced him to the documentary’s director and executive producer, Steven C. Barber.

Aron said he hopes the extra publicity will help him sell paintings and pay rent, which even at his advanced age continues to be a concern. But in general, he’s content to sit at home and paint.

Though Aron sometimes struggles to remember words and names, he remains spirited enough, painting for hours each day and eagerly engaging visitors in conversation. “I can manage six languages,” he said. “But I can’t remember people’s names.”

Magee said she believes that through telling his story, Aron has at long last found peace.

“His willingness to tell his story — to finally remember after suppressing it all those years — gave him that freedom to paint for the joy of it,” Magee said.

These days, his paintings are mainly non-objective rather than representative.

“I used to go to the park,” he said, sitting in an airy corner of his apartment, next to the kitchen, where he keeps his home studio. “I used to meet people. Now, I’m not allowed to drive at my age. So I’m here all the time.”

Lacking subjects for portraiture, Aron paints sheet after sheet of shapes and colors.

“I enjoy the design, the design,” he said, holding up a recent painting, a set of undulating neon waves. “Movement, movement. This moves, it doesn’t stay still.”

Aron considers himself lucky to have a gift and a passion that keeps him occupied into his old age.

“My situation may be a little bit better than some people who came out of the camps,” he told Magee during their interviews. “They may have nothing else to do but watch television and think about those bad days in the camps. I did that in the beginning, but I got away from thinking about it by doing portraits, landscapes, traveling and painting. I think that kept me away from all this agony of ‘How did I survive?’ or ‘Why did I survive?’

“I did, and that’s it.” 

Auschwitz really happened — and this artsy architecture exhibit proves it

It’s been more than 50 years since the Nuremberg trials, yet proving the Holocaust actually happened remains an ongoing project.

Why? For one, the Nazis covered their tracks, deliberately leaving gaps in the historical record. (In the death-camp blueprints that survive, for example, gas chambers were often labeled as morgues or “undressing rooms.”) As the years pass, survivors and eyewitnesses are dying or suffering dementia. Add in social media — including the rise of the “alt-right” — and it creates an ideal environment for neo-Nazis to swiftly disseminate claims that the Shoah is a fiction.

Filling the breach in our understanding of the Holocaust is a relatively new discipline called forensic architecture, which analyzes renderings, documents, videos and photographs of buildings and infrastructure and uses them to re-create atrocities, ranging from drone strikes on apartment buildings in wartime to the gassing of millions of Jews at Auschwitz.

An example of how forensic architecture can be used to set the record straight is on display at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Titled “The Evidence Room,” it runs though Nov. 27.

An exhibit about Auschwitz might seem out of place in an international gathering that typically showcases state-of-the-art architecture and cutting-edge building materials. (The massive show features the work of 88 architects in the main exhibition, plus works by architects representing their counties in 63 national pavilions.) However, this year’s Biennale is titled “Reporting from the Front” and the show’s curator, Alejandro Aravena, indicated that his agenda is to highlight how architecture can be utilized to further humanitarian aims.

Case in point: Robert Jan van Pelt, the curator of “The Evidence Room” and a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo, tells JTA he considers Auschwitz’s crematoria “the most important building of the 20th century.”

But his assessment isn’t based on aesthetic merits. It’s “for the simple reason that it had changed the course of history,” he explains.

“The Evidence Room,” in which van Pelt aims to address the ethical responsibilities of architects, re-creates some of the definitive evidence used in a landmark British court trial 16 years ago that pitted the American Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt against the Holocaust-denying British historian David Irving. The trial — soon to be dramatized in a major motion picture — is viewed as a watershed in the ongoing campaign against Holocaust deniers because it relied on actual physical evidence as opposed to anecdotal accounts.

“The Evidence Room” (Fred Hunsberger)

Some of this evidence is on display in van Pelt’s exhibit, which is located in a 500-square-foot space at the Biennale’s Central Pavilion. The walls are white plaster and adorned with bas reliefs that depict blueprints for the gas chambers, photographs and illustrations based upon eyewitness accounts, including an image of a kneeling naked Jewish woman being shot in the back of the head by a German officer.

What makes the exhibition stand out from familiar Holocaust museum exhibits, however, are three full-scale models of gas chamber apparatus designed by the Nazis. There’s a mechanical gas canister delivery system encased by sturdy metal grillwork; a rough-hewn door with a grill-covered peephole, and a wood ladder propped against a wall with a small, locked hatch. These items, designed and fabricated by University of Waterloo students and faculty based on photos and eyewitness testimony, are also painted white.

The intention is to use this aestheticized architecture exhibit to enable visitors to better visualize subject matter that has been relegated to history books and courtrooms.

“The forensic study of architecture was able to show that Irving had deliberately misrepresented historical evidence,” Aravena writes in his essay on “The Evidence Room” in the Biennale’s catalog.

Van Pelt, who curated “The Evidence Room” with fellow professors Donald McKay and Anne Bordeleau, along with arts producer Sascha Hastings, has spent decades studying the architecture of Auschwitz and gathering physical evidence to show the workings of the Nazis’ systems. Thanks to his research, many myths have been definitively debunked — including that deadly gas emanated from shower heads. (It actually came from gas canister delivery systems like the ones represented in the exhibit.)

Van Pelt, 60, who is Jewish and is named after an uncle who was murdered at Auschwitz, says his initial inspiration to study Auschwitz came in the 1970s, when a line in the film 1955 French documentary “Night and Fog” resonated deeply with him: “The architects calmly plan the gates through which no one will enter more than once.”

A decade later, as a graduate student, he decided that the study of Auschwitz was just as important to the history of architecture as the study of the Chartres Cathedral.

Van Pelt discovered many of the documents and plans for Nazi death camps in archives in Eastern Europe that were opened after the fall of communism in 1989. Later, in 2000, he used some of the materials during testimony he gave as an expert witness in the Irving-Lipstadt trial. Van Pelt’s research subsequently became the basis of his 590-page book titled “The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial,” which Aravena read several years ago and led him to invite van Pelt to the Biennale.

Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor at the University of Waterloo and the curator of “The Evidence Room.” Photo by Siobhan Allman

As it happens, near “The Evidence Room” is another exhibit featuring forensic architecture — this one by Eyal Weizman, an Israel-born professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. Unlike van Pelt’s work, which confirms accounts of events that Jews have long known to be unassailable, Weizman uses tools of the discipline to raise much more controversial questions about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

At the Biennale, Weizman’s exhibit is in part about the impact of Israeli drone strikes on buildings in Gaza and their occupants. His work has been used in investigations by organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International into state-sponsored violence.

Weizman, who coined the term forensic architecture and credits van Pelt as an inspiration, got his start documenting what he calls illegal occupations in Israel. The discipline comes from his efforts to implicate Israeli architects for violations of international law and and human rights.

“Many neighborhoods in the occupied parts of Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank are designed to control Palestinian communities and to generate material harm,” he says.

During a tour of his exhibition at the Biennale’s opening, Weizman explains that forensic architecture has become more critical to documenting contemporary war crimes because modern warfare increasingly involves the targeting of buildings in dense urban environments. As a result, in places like Gaza, “the home has become the most dangerous place for people to be,” he says.

As for van Pelt, his pioneering forensic research on Auschwitz has made him into a world authority on methods of mass murder. Recently he aided Mexican prosecutors investigating the incineration of the bodies of dozens of murdered students. Having studied how corpses were burned in open-air pits at Birkenau — as well as having researched a Nazi unit that was tasked with opening and burning mass graves, with the goal of erasing physical evidence of the Holocaust — van Pelt helped challenge the Mexican authorities’ version of the students’ abduction and murder.

These days, however, aside from assisting in occasional forensic investigations, van Pelt says he’s mostly focused on academic research and educating his students.

He says the history of Auschwitz serves as a warning for architects to be socially conscientious about the impact of the buildings they design. One example: the refugee housing being built in parts of Europe that van Pelt says “is starting to approach concentration camp conditions.”

“Architects should get the equivalent of the oath of Hippocrates,” van Pelt says. “When I teach my class, I tell them the story of Auschwitz — and I say whatever you do with your career, don’t do this.”

Holocaust survivor finds peace in art

Eva Nathanson doesn’t feel the same guilt her parents did for having been spared an anonymous death at the hands of Nazis, when so many others perished.

Instead, she feels a compulsion to never spend a moment wasting time and to treat every minute of life as the miracle it is.

Sitting in her kitchen, just steps from Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, she was surrounded by evidence of that attitude: art projects she led with her two grandchildren, ceramic sculpture of her own fashioning and a cabinet full of handmade Judaica, for starters.

Art, and especially the metalwork at which she excels, is more than just a way for Nathanson, 75, to keep busy. Instead, she called it “occupational therapy” that helps her deal not only with the everyday stressors of life in Los Angeles, but also the lasting impact of a childhood interrupted.

Her privileged upbringing ended unceremoniously one day toward the end of 1942 when a contingent of Hungary’s fascist enforcers barged into her grandfather’s living room in Budapest, and Nathanson, a toddler, went into hiding with her mother. Although almost everybody in her family was killed, including her father, a family friend helped Nathanson and her mother survive until the end of World War II.  

In the years after the war, instead of processing the time she spent in perpetual fear cramped into small, dirty spaces, Nathanson instead encountered a repressive Stalinist society in Budapest where free expression was discouraged. 

As a result, she feels as if the trauma of her earliest years never truly left her: Nathanson tries not to sit with her back to a door and experiences severe claustrophobia, a remnant of time spent in close quarters during the Holocaust years.

“I actually think that everything I do and have done somehow was affected by the first primitive feelings I must have had,” she said. “Especially since after the Holocaust in Hungary, there was no therapist you could go to.”

Although she had long found therapy to be helpful, she still searched for “something to bring out my other energy.” In the freedom and catharsis of sculpture and painting, ranging in theme and style, she found that something.

“It was getting rid of some of the emotions I wasn’t able to express,” she said. “And I found that it was very therapeutic.”

Where Nathanson moves beyond the realm of an inspired amateur is the jewelry she sits down to make two evenings a week. Fetching a box full of rings she crafted in various adult art classes, she picked through them one by one. The styles were as diverse as the methods she uses, but one of her favorites involves encasing a small object in a mold and then burning away the object and replacing it with silver. The box was full of silver molded into the shapes of figurines, flowers, seashells and even succulents she picked from her garden.

“The teachers, they always joke about the fact that there’s nothing sacred to me,” she said, laughing. “I’ll burn anything.”

Nowadays, Nathanson wields serious tools that could easily visit injury on even a much younger person, and although she feels comfortable with them, she nonetheless prefers the controlled environment of a classroom. “It would be very difficult to get insurance when you have boiling metal in the house,” she explained.

She’s come a long way since the younger of her two children was born 50 years ago. Back then, Nathanson — who has a master’s degree in business administration and spent 40 years as a hospital administrator, but took time off when her children were young — found herself isolated and somewhat bored after moving with her small family to the San Fernando Valley after years of living in West Hollywood.

“All the neighbor women were watching television and drinking coffee and gossiping, and that just wasn’t me,” she said. “So I decided I needed to do something for myself.”

Artistic sensibilities ran in her family: Her mother was able to sell needlework for food while in hiding during World War II, and her stepfather’s masterful carpentry made him enough of an asset to the Hungarian communist authorities that they refrained from deporting him after the war, despite his outspoken dissent. (Some of his chairs and tables still sit in her home today.)

So Nathanson wasn’t breaking ranks when she enrolled herself in classes for painting, then sculpting, then ceramics. Soon, she moved on to silversmithing, not least, she said, because “schlepping big pieces of sculpture” was not an option for a mother raising two children in close quarters.

“About 35 years ago, I walked into a jewelry class and I said, ‘Teach me something,’ ” she said.

Nathanson now sells some of her jewelry — which she refers to as “wearable art” — on the crafts website Etsy ( 

“I do sell a little, but I’m not a good salesperson,” she said. “I can’t sell anything. I mean, if people want to buy it, I let them buy it.”

Although she’s sold some art, Nathanson said she was privileged never to have had to rely on her art to support herself. Now retired from her job at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a cancer center in the Valley, she keeps busy as an event coordinator for her Jewish Renewal congregation, B’nai Horin, and volunteering as a lecturer at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and at various theaters and playhouses in Los Angeles. 

In spite of the odds against her even having survived the war, she said she’s grateful to have achieved all she did and doesn’t take anything for granted.

“I feel that I have to make sure that I repay the fact that I’m alive — that I do what I was put on the earth to do.”

Austrian museum reaches settlement over Nazi-looted artwork

Vienna's Leopold Museum said on Thursday it had reached a settlement over five Nazi-looted works of art in its collection that will return two of them to the heir of their original Jewish owner, a victim of the Holocaust.

The five pieces, all by Austrian painter Egon Schiele, had been owned by Viennese businessman Karl Maylaender, who died after being deported to a labour camp during World War Two. The museum will return two watercolours, including a self-portrait of Schiele, to Mayhlaender's 95-year-old heiress.

The remaining three pieces will stay in the museum, which owns the world's largest Schiele collection.

“This is a happy day,” Austria's Culture Minister Josef Ostermayer said at a news conference. The long-running discussion had cast a shadow over the museum and now a “Solomonic solution” had been found, he said.

Under Adolf Hitler, the Nazis forced Jewish artists and collectors to sell or give away their works, and many pieces were confiscated outright. A law Austria introduced in 1998 directed that its museums return the looted art, and major works have been given back to descendants of the former owners.

However, the Leopold Museum – privately funded and therefore not obliged to follow the law – would have preferred to keep all five drawings. In 2011, it sold one Schiele painting so it could pay $19 million to the heirs of a Jewish art dealer and – as part of the deal – keep another painting.

The New York-based heiress with whom the museum reached Thursday's agreement, who officials connected with the case said preferred to remain anonymous, had turned down an offer of money and insisted on getting the artwork back.

The Austrian Jewish Community, which backed her, said the now-found agreement was a good solution. “I am happy that the heiress can still enjoy the drawings,” community representative Erika Jakubovits said.

Elisabeth Leopold, widow of museum's late founder, Rudolf Leopold, who bought the pieces in 1960 from a Maylaender friend, said: “I have made a huge sacrifice in memory of Karl Maylaender.”

Passing an art legacy on to the next generation

During the lengthy visits she would have with her great-uncle and great-aunt, David and Rivka Labkovski, at their home in South Africa, Leora Raikin — who was a young girl at the time — recalls these relatives being a bit eccentric.

David owned one pair of shoes, and Rivka — the sister of Raikin’s grandmother Zlata Spektor — had but two dresses. Husband and wife wanted herring with every meal, a carryover from the frugal ways they lived during the years they spent in a Siberian prison camp during the Holocaust. 

“He used to take my face in his hands and say, ‘Do you want to be smart or do you want to be pretty?’ and I would say, ‘Can’t I be both?’ ” Raikin said. “With Rivka, it was all about knowledge, intellectual ability and learning something new every day. She always wanted to know, ‘What have you learned today?’ ”

David Labkovski had been an artist in his native Vilna, Lithuania, and during eight years in a Siberian prison camp, where he served as a sketch and tattoo artist. After the war, he resumed his artistic career in Israel, where he lived in the artist colony of Safed from 1958 until his death in 1991.

Labkovski would sometimes give Raikin a painting or a sketch as a present. She always hoped the gift would be “one of the happy ones,” such as a picture of flowers. 

Not all of Labkovski’s work was so upbeat. 

His imagery covers a spectrum, from images of his homeland, including scenes of everyday life in Vilna and its Nazi occupation during the war and its destruction during the Holocaust. Labkovski returned to Vilna in 1946 and met with survivors, capturing their memories on canvas. He also produced a series of works portraying the characters of Sholem Aleichem.

Works spanning Labkovski’s career are represented in the exhibition “The Art and Life of David Labkovski,” on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) through June 14. The LAMOTH exhibition marks the first time a comprehensive collection of Labkovski’s work will be seen in the United States. His family regained possession of the collection nearly three years ago, after a lengthy court dispute in Israel over ownership of the works. 

During his lifetime, Labkovski’s views on the placement of his art were as complex and conflicted as the man himself. He wanted the work seen in the Diaspora, but only when the viewers — particularly the next generation — were ready for it. He refused to sell his work, and, after a 1959 exhibition of his work in Israel, he and Rivka concluded that the time was not right, according to Raikin. 

“The audiences in Israel were not ready to confront the horrors of the Holocaust. It was an Old World thing — they wanted to move forward,” Raikin said. “David and Rivka had this absolute belief that one day a generation will come along that will appreciate this life that was lost, the enormity of it.”

According to Raikin, after the deaths of her great-aunt and great-uncle, the artwork was left to the city of Safed. A small museum was badly maintained and eventually fell into disarray, and the art eventually fell under court conservatorship, Raikin said. By the time the court case was settled and the art came to Raikin’s mother and her siblings, more than 20 years had passed. 

An artist herself, Raikin wanted the work to be seen, and she found people of like minds in Connie Marco and Lisa Lainer-Fagan, both of whom are parents of students at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills. Marco, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, also volunteered at LAMOTH and worked closely with the museum’s executive director, Samara Hutman. 

Hutman studied the Labkovski collection — the haunting self-portraits, the vibrant depictions of market scenes and shtetl life — and immediately knew that she would put the paintings on display. 

“There was something incredibly prescient in the mind of the artist,” Hutman said, “to sort of hold his body of work together to keep the integrity of the collection and of the vision and to save it for when the time is right.

“The work is magnificent, and I think there’s something in really incredible alignment for us to exhibit this work,” she added. “It has a lot of symmetry with the narrative of the museum. It is all about finding these little shards and remnants of a world that was blown apart by the Holocaust, and now we’re all in this work of recovery and excavation and redignification.” 

The more people who saw Labkovski’s work and heard Raikin’s story, the more his great-niece was encouraged to get the art displayed, and the more the circle of support grew. A smaller version of the exhibition had an initial stop at the school, where a group of art students co-curated the exhibition under the guidance of art instructor Benny Ferdman.

Labkovski’s work resonated not only with the art students, but with a spectrum of departments across the NCJHS campus. In addition to the eight co-curators — who argued and debated which works should be included — two film students are assembling a documentary about the Labkovski experience. Students have written poetry that accompanies the work at the school and at LAMOTH, and a student sang a song in Yiddish about Vilna at the openings.

This was the first time such a cross-department art display had come together at the school, said Ferdman, arts director and artist-in-residence at NCJHS.

“When you look at an artist’s work over time and place, that kind of turns the work into an artifact as well,” Ferdman said. “Beyond its aesthetic value, it becomes the witness to a time and place. It was like a little time machine from the past coming to us now.”  

Wherever the journey next takes Labkovski’s art after LAMOTH, Raikin feels that by passing through young hands, the work has found its place again.

“I think we all feel it’s our responsibility to make sure this next generation cares,” Raikin said. “That the [NCJHS] students were so involved and vested, that superseded any dream I possibly could have had. It would have made David and Rivka so, so happy to have seen these students so interested. I can walk away and say I feel safe. I feel that these kids get it. They can pass it on.” 

For more information on “The Art and Life of David Labkovski,” visit

Israeli artist depicts pain of rootless Jews in Berlin exhibition

Moshe Gershuni's expressive, historically loaded art, which places symbols of the Holocaust in a religious setting and seeks to polarize opinion about current Israeli society, seems unlikely to reward the casual viewer.

Titled “No Father No Mother”, the retrospective of paintings and ceramics since 1979 in the New National Gallery is the first solo show by an Israeli artist to be opened at Berlin's premier location for modern art.

The focus is especially poignant in Germany, where a Jewish population of over half a million in 1933 was annihilated in the Holocaust, with just 30,000 surviving by 1945.

“His paintings evoke haunting, even oppressive notions of rootlessness and detachment connected with the horrors and atrocities of the 20th century or with the diaspora,” said Udo Kittelman, director of the New National Gallery.

Born into a Polish-Jewish family that emigrated to Tel Aviv in 1936, Gershuni is one of Israel's most renowned artists, with work in New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Britain.

Crawling on paper-covered floors and painting with his hands, he invests physically and emotionally in his art – and unlocking its power often calls for a gaze that is equally intense.

The Jewish star of David, the Nazis' swastika and Islam's star and crescent appear side by side amid colorful flower-like forms, phallic symbols and Hebrew script.

Created using thick glass paint and industrial varnish, the vibrant colors of his political and religious motifs appear almost luminous.

Standing in the center of the exhibition are Gershuni's “Jewish Ceramics”, boldly branded with thick black swastikas. Bright, blood-red fingerprints stain the rim of a serving plate inscribed with Hebrew and a yellow star of David.

A wall installation reading “Who's Zionist and Who Isn't” in Hebrew bears particular significance this year as Israel has faced considerable criticism due to tensions in Gaza.

“The world according to this work is divided between Zionists and anti-Zionists,” said Ory Dessau, the co-curator. “Gershuni in this work is very demanding and categorical. He forces the reader to choose a side.”

Although Gershuni's works are politically charged, Dessau sees the retrospective as an opportunity for the international community to get a different perspective on Israel.

“I believe Gershuni can help people understand Israel, and Tel Aviv, as a source of cultural production, and not just political conflict,” he said.

Lior Wilenzik, one of a growing number of young Israelis flocking to Berlin's vibrant art scene, expressed similar hopes: “Germans and Israelis can now come together in the world of art – not just in politics. Gershuni has opened the gate.”

Hunt for Nazi art shows museum failings, former minister says

A German pensioner's decision to let experts check his art trove for Nazi-looted treasures contrasts sharply with the approach of some museums that may hold works stolen from Holocaust victims, a former minister said on Tuesday.

Over 2,000 German museums hold works created before 1945 and acquired after the Nazis came to power in 1933, according to the Institute for Museum Research in Berlin. Some of them could have been looted or extorted from Jewish owners by the Nazis.

But only 285 museums, or less than five percent, have researched the ownership history of such works.

“It's not as if museums haven't been doing anything, but because of budget issues, they haven't done as much as they could have,” Michael Naumann, a former German culture minister, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Elderly recluse Cornelius Gurlitt, whose hoard of some 1,400 art works was discovered in February 2012 in his Munich flat and confiscated by authorities in a tax probe, agreed on Monday to allow a task force of art experts to study the collection.

In exchange for his cooperation Gurlitt, whose art dealer father took orders from Adolf Hitler to buy and sell so-called 'degenerate art' to fund Nazi activities, will get back those works whose provenance is not in doubt.

Gurlitt also agreed to waive Germany's 30-year statute of limitations, under which he could be considered the legal owner of the paintings.


Gurlitt's move should “inspire those who own looted art to act morally”, Naumann said. But he added there should also be legislative possibilities to accelerate provenance research.

The German government and the state of Bavaria have agreed to pay for research of the works found in Gurlitt's apartment and for any additional works not yet confiscated.

In January, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder accused German museums of neglecting their duty to come clean about works they hold that were looted from Jews by the Nazis.

“They know what's been stolen,” Lauder told Reuters in an interview during a visit to Berlin. “And what they've been doing is turning a blind eye.”

Since 2008, Germany's Bureau for Provenance Research has offered funds to study the ownership of cultural artifacts in public collections. As of January 2013, only 58 applications from museums had been submitted.

In an interview with Spiegel Online last month, Monika Gruetters, Germany's culture minister, said she had doubled the bureau's 2014 budget for such projects to four million euros ($5.52 million), with additional resources and structures planned for 2015.

She said experience gained through the research of Gurlitt's collection would help guide a future national centre she hoped to establish to support public organisations in the search for Nazi-looted art in their collections. ($1 = 0.7249 Euros)

Reporting By Monica Raymunt; Editing by Michael Roddy and Tom Heneghan

Artist displays what’s missing in a ‘Box’

It’s hard to believe that Dwora Fried — a native Austrian with unruly, fiery red hair, a lesbian, world traveler, mother of four and daughter of a Holocaust survivor — is able to create artwork just as complicated, dynamic and vivacious as herself, all within a wooden box that’s only 31 centimeters wide, 21 centimeters high and 8 centimeters deep.

Each box is open on one side, revealing a complex scene within. 

In one, chairs hang from the ceiling and walls, a young boy in a Nazi salute stands in an open door with his pants down, a young girl stands behind a screen, and slippers sit on the floor. 

Fried prefers not to discuss her work because she believes everyone should interpret the art in his or her own way, but every box has a story with meaning to the artist. 

The Hancock Park resident recently had her artwork displayed in the Museo Ebraico di Venezia (the Jewish Museum of Venice) in the New Ghetto of Venice, Italy, as the exhibition “Outsider in a Box.” The show ran from June 2 to Sept. 12. Next, it will move to Vienna, where it will be on display at the Galerie Benedict from Oct. 17 to Dec. 17. 

Born in the Austrian capital, Fried has been creating art for as long as she can remember. After growing up in Vienna, she moved to Israel in 1968, attending Tel Aviv University and Avni Institute of Art and Design, getting married and raising two children. In 1978, Fried moved to Los Angeles and met her current partner. The two celebrated their 32nd anniversary on Aug. 22. 

Fried has always focused on her artwork, but also spent some time working at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Fried said it has taken her 62 years to finally fully dedicate herself to her art. 

Fried said she gains artistic inspiration from her background. Her recently deceased mother was sent to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz at the age of 11, stripped of any real childhood or innocence. She was later liberated in Bergen-Belsen after walking what was known as a “death march.” Then, weighing close to 70 pounds, she was hospitalized with typhus. 

Fried’s mother moved to Israel after the war with her sister and brother-in-law, eventually meeting Fried’s father and moving to Vienna, where she lived until her death in April 2013. 

Dwora Fried

In honor of her mother’s lost youth, Fried searches flea markets around Europe for kids’ toys from the 1940s and ’50s. Old toys, dolls, miniature figures and other children’s paraphernalia often appear in Fried’s work. 

There are specifically Jewish undertones, too. For Fried, Judaism is connected to the Holocaust — a negative connotation to her religion that creates a certain inner struggle. 

“What I’m trying to express is the dichotomy between growing up Jewish and having Judaism really be muffled by all the stuff that was connected to it,” Fried said.

As a result, Fried said she’s never felt any real sense of belonging anywhere during her life.

“I keep re-creating the feeling of what it was like growing up. That’s pretty much it, even when I do stuff that has nothing to do with my childhood per se, I can recognize that feeling of impending doom, not belonging, a kind of anxiety.” 

Fried said as a child she felt she had to tiptoe around her mother, afraid if she asked the wrong question her mother might keel over from a heart attack and die. 

In part, this anxiety explains Fried’s choice of a box as the vehicle for her art. She said the box can portray a lot but also captures the claustrophobic feeling a painting can’t, as it exceeds two-dimensional limits and has a foreground and background someone can touch.

Having lived in Vienna, Tel Aviv and now Los Angeles, Fried said she still searches for the feeling of home. Her art, she said, reflects this inability to handle a part of her identity.

Despite this struggle, she may have found a temporary solution in her work.

“I always used to see my friends being patriotic or religious or having some kind of thing that they belonged to, and I never had that feeling,” Fried said. “Doing art makes you belong to whatever you’re doing at that moment. I belong to my art.”

The Children Who Survived

In her solo show, “Silent Witnesses,” Stephanie Satie portrays four women, all childhood survivors of the Holocaust, who share their stories as a celebration of the human spirit. The idea for the play, which will be staged on Sept. 20 at the South Pasadena Library, came to Satie when she was performing at a fundraiser for Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles.

“It was a parlor performance,” Satie said, “and I was doing ‘Coming to America,’ which is a series of nine monologues of women who came from horrendous circumstances — from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Russia, Serbia and El Salvador — and remade their lives in America.”

During the Q-and-A, Satie commented on how good-looking the child survivors were.

“One person said to me, ‘Well, nobody saves the ugly puppies,’ which is a line in the play. I was blown away, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I have a theme here.’ And they suggested that I use them for new material,” Satie said. “In 2005, I started interviewing women who had been at this event, and they were forthcoming and wonderful.”  

Satie, who plays all four roles, has structured her script as an informal support group consisting of three women and a therapist, Dana, who is also a survivor.

“I don’t know where to begin or end with Dana,” Satie said, “because Dana is absolutely heroic. She was a child who was hidden on the outside, meaning that she was hidden in a rural village in Poland with her mother. Her mother pulled her through, because her mother was an attractive, skillful, resourceful woman who lived creatively.  Dana inherited her resourcefulness, but without the wiliness. Dana is the nexus of this group,” Satie said. 

Another of the witnesses, Paula, is the only one of the group to have been in a concentration camp. 

When life in the ghetto became too dangerous, her family sent her into the woods, where she had to fend for herself. After being sent to a work camp, Paula was moved to Auschwitz. After her liberation, she lived in a German
displaced-persons camp for six years. 

“Her story is extraordinary, because she is so articulate, so tough, also brilliant, and her survival was in her own hands,” Satie said. “She has to bring herself to tell her story. She was never allowed to tell it; she was silent and afraid to tell her story.  When she came to America, she was forced to assimilate, quietly, because no one wanted to know about what she experienced. So her journey is to bring out her voice.”  

Director Anita Khanzadian

The journey that a woman named Amelie has to make, according to Satie, is to go beyond her fear. She is very involved with archives, books and facts, because she can’t seem to access her Holocaust experience.

“She was hidden with families in Belgium, and she was very afraid and very frail, because she had asthma. She was just like a terrified little Chihuahua, just quaking all the time, and yet she survived, through very kind families in Belgium,” Satie said.   

The fourth member of the group, Hannah, has to remember what she can’t face. She was hidden by a family in Holland, but was kept indoors after she was recognized on the street.

“What really is touching to me about her,” director Anita Khanzadian remarked, “is her saying, ‘I was fine. Nothing much happened to me.’ And it’s true — she couldn’t remember anything. And there’s that little section toward the end where she says, ‘Now that I have a granddaughter, 4 years old, and I think of her being taken away, I know something must have happened to me.’ ”

Khanzadian said she relates intensely to themes of genocide and the Holocaust because of her Armenian background.

“I can identify with just being a child in a war zone,” she said. “My mother was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, and she was an orphan. I’ve heard stories from my mother that were so similar to those in the play. She and her younger brother were the only ones from her family to survive.  

“She was in an orphanage, and I used to ask her what she remembers from before that. So she would tell me some stories.  The last time she saw her mother was when her mother put her into the American College with her brother, who was younger. They were taking children but not grownups.”

Khanzadian also said she was particularly struck by the incredible ability to survive that is illuminated through the work, along with the incredible life force that is not easily extinguished.

“Every one of these women had that. And the other thing that makes me like this piece is expressed in the line toward the end that I tell Stephanie is so important: ‘People have to hear about this. They have to know that they didn’t kill all of us. We’re still here.’  That was the attempt — to get rid of all of them.  And they can’t do that.  And they won’t do that.  And I think it’s important.”

Khanzadian would like audiences to come away from the play having learned something they may not have known before meeting these women. 

And Satie wants her audiences to understand that what happened to these women could happen to anyone.

“I would like them to leave with a sense that it really did happen, as there are more and more loud voices of denial, and that these people may not be around to tell their stories that much longer, and we need to hear them. We need to hear everyone’s story so we’re not distanced from catastrophic events, so we realize that they happen to people — they don’t just happen to nebulous countries far away on maps that we don’t even recognize. Catastrophic events happen to people.”

“Silent Witnesses.” 7 p.m.  Sept. 20. Free. South Pasadena Public Library, Community Room, 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena. (626) 403-7340. 

Dr. Seuss and the Holocaust in France

Seventy years ago this week, 15-year-old Annie Kriegel was sitting in her Paris high school classroom, taking an exam, when her mother suddenly burst into the room and warned her not to come home—the Nazis were preparing to round up and deport any Jews they could get their hands on. 

More than 3,000 miles away, the cartoonist known as Dr. Seuss was setting pen to paper to alert America about what was happening to the Jews in France.

Annie found a place to stay that night. The next morning, as she later recalled, she was making her way towards the city’s Jewish quarter when, “at the crossing of the rue de Turenne and the rue de Bretagne, I heard screams rising to the heavens.” They were “not cries and squawks such as you hear in noisy and excited crowds, but screams like you used to hear in hospital delivery rooms. All the human pain that both life and death provide. A garage there was serving as a local assembly point, and they were separating the men and women.”

Stunned, the teenager sat down on a nearby park bench. “It was on that bench that I left my childhood.” (Kriegel’s experience is recounted in Susan Zucotti’s 1993 book, The Holocaust, the French and the Jews.)

Over the course of the next two days, more than 13,000 Jews were rounded up in Paris by the Germans, with the active collaboration of the Vichy French government headed by Nazi supporter Pierre Laval. The majority of those arrested were couples with children. They were held for five excruciating days in the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium, in the summer heat without food or water. Eyewitnesses described it as “a scene from hell.” Then they were deported by train to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

The brutal details of the roundup process were amply reported in the American press. The New York Times described the “scenes of terror and despair” in the streets of Paris, including suicides, Jewish patients dragged violently from hospital beds, and children violently separated from their parents. Unfortunately, the article was relegated to page 16.

Theodor Geisel, who drew editorial cartoons for PM under the pen name “Dr. Seuss,” was outraged by the news from France and decided to use his cartooning skills to help publicize the plight of the Jews.

The future creator of such beloved classics as The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham employed stark and disturbing imagery in his July 20 cartoon. He drew a forest filled with corpses hanging from the trees, with a sign reading “Jew” pinned to each body. Adolf Hitler, with extra rope draped on his arm, and Vichy leader Pierre Laval were shown singing happily.

The first words of the Hitler-Laval song, “Only God can make a tree,” were taken from “Trees,” a famous Alfred Joyce Kilmer poem about the unique and eternal beauty of trees. The killers’ second line, however, “To furnish sport for you and me,” was a lyric concocted by Hitler and Laval to celebrate their “sport” of mass murder.

In one important respect, Seuss’s cartoon was prescient: unlike many of his contemporaries, he correctly perceived that France’s Jews were doomed to be killed. At the time of the roundups, the Germans claimed the Jews were being sent for “work in the East,” and the deportees’ true destination was generally unknown abroad.

One senior U.S. diplomat in France, S. Pinkney Tuck, urged the Roosevelt administration to take in 4,000 Jewish children who had been separated from their parents, on the grounds that they should be regarded as orphans since the Nazis would not let their parents survive. But State Department officials complained that Tuck was exceeding his authority, and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles assured American Jewish Congress leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise that the deportees were just being relocated for “war work.”

Dr. Seuss drew many anti-Nazi cartoons during his years at PM, but for reasons that are unclear, he never returned to the subject of Hitler’s Jewish victims.

The dangers of fascism seem to have haunted Seuss for many years to follow, however. Reworking a scene of a tower of turtles from one of his 1942 cartoons, he used the framework of what was ostensibly a child’s fable to inveigh against totalitarianism in his 1958 best-seller, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. Yertle is the king of a turtle pond who exploits his fellow-turtles in order to increase his power and personal glory. Furious when he realizes the moon is higher than he is, Yertle commands his subjects to form themselves into a tower so that he can stand on them and reach the sky.

Seuss said later that Yertle was meant to symbolize Hitler, and the story was a warning against fascism.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor, with comics historian Craig Yoe, of the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.”

Amid memories, cemetery documentary imparts lesson of Jewish survival

The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery is 130 years old and has survived the kaiser’s imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic, and, astonishingly, the Nazi regime.

It is the largest active Jewish cemetery in Europe and adds daily to the 115,600 graves on its 100-acre grounds in northeast Berlin.

Offhand, such a site seems an unlikely focus for a 90-minute documentary, but German director Britta Wauer has used her subject as a lively historical guide to Berlin’s Jewry from 1880 to the present.

Even more, “In Heaven, Underground” introduces us to the descendants of the cemetery’s inhabitants as they return from Israel and all corners of the Diaspora to pay respects to their recent and distant ancestors.

Harry Kinderman, whose father worked as a bricklayer at Weissensee, remembers the heavily forested site as an enchanted playground. There Harry and his schoolmates played soccer on the Field of Honor, where many of the 12,000 Jewish soldiers who died for their fatherland in World War I are buried.

Most remarkable is the survival of the cemetery during the Nazi regime, when the storm troopers left the gravestones and extensive archives untouched.

Local legend has it that the brownshirts feared the presence of a protective Golem, but a less fanciful explanation is that the Nazis didn’t get around to destroying the place.

Another threat was a long-standing plan to build an expressway through the forested heart of the cemetery, but the plan was put off by one municipal administration after another.

Overseeing the spiritual, and many of the practical, aspects of the place is Rabbi William Wolff. He proves to be real character, confirming again that in dialect and attitude, native Berliners are the German equivalent of Brooklyn homeboys and girls.

The rabbi explains the importance of sliding a coffin smoothly into the grave and observes that a well-conducted funeral is more important than a wedding ceremony, because “you can help the people more.”

Over the decades, business at the cemetery held pretty steady, except during two dark periods. One was in 1942 and 1943, when Berlin Jews facing deportation committed suicide in large numbers.

Another was during the Soviet occupation of postwar eastern Germany, when the Berlin Wall cut off the Weissensee cemetery from the more populous Jewish community in West Berlin.

Also, the cemetery was largely neglected during the communist era; weeds sprouted on the grounds and the facilities fell into disrepair.

As if to compensate for this neglect, after Russia opened its borders to Jewish emigration, Berlin’s Jewish population expanded rapidly, to the point that Russian émigrés now make up more than 70 percent of the capital’s Jewish community.

For Germans wishing to show their remorse for the crimes of their fathers, the cemetery has become a focal point. Groups of German military reservists show up regularly to perform volunteer maintenance, and students from a nearby high school come to make rubbings of the gravestone inscriptions and to learn the meaning of sitting shivah.

There are other visitors, such as two German researchers taking an inventory of the birds of prey, who find the jungle-like enclave in the middle of the city an ideal venue for their pursuit.

But most of the visitors are descendants of Berlin Jews, seeking some reconnection with their forebears.

After living 30 years in New York, Berlin-born Baruch Bernard Epstein returned to discover, amid tears, the grave of his grandmother.

Daniel Hakerem was born in Israel, the son of German-Jewish refugees. Visiting Weissensee, he, too, found the grave of his grandmother.

Also making an appearance is a group of Israeli soldiers, joined by German troops to pay their respects.

And so the tradition continues in the country once destined to be Judenrein, while a film tackling what could have been a rather morbid subject turns into an affirmation of survival and hope.

“In Heaven, Underground” opens Jan. 13 at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.

German casino returns Nazi-looted painting

A German casino has returned a Nazi-looted painting to the heirs of a German-Jewish art gallery owner.

The return of “The Masters of the Goldsmith Guild in Amsterdam in 1701” by Dutch portrait painter Juriaen Pool II (1665-1745), took place Tuesday at the Amsterdam Museum.

The beneficiaries of the estate of Max Stern, who ran a gallery in Germany before he was forced by the Nazis to liquidate his works, are Concordia, McGill and Hebrew universities.

The Pool painting, which depicts some of Amsterdam’s most important citizens, is the ninth Nazi-looted piece of artwork to be returned to the university heirs. It had been with the Stern Gallery in Dusseldorf as late as 1937 when it moved to the Heinemann Gallery in Wiesbaden. In the years after World War II it was acquired by a casino in southern Germany and has been there ever since.

Stern liquidated his gallery’s works of more than 400 pieces after Jews were banned from selling art. In 1943, after recovering a fraction of the works, Stern moved to Canada and purchased the Dominion Gallery of Fine Arts.

Following Stern’s death in 1987, the beneficiary universities in association with the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York founded the Max Stern Art Restitution Project to locate and recover works from Stern’s collection.

The artist Pool lived in the 17th century building that houses the Dutch museum, which once was an orphanage.

How Hollywood’s Hunt ‘Found’ Elinor Lipman’s novel

Elinor Lipman, writer of smart and often hilarious modern-day social satire, considers herself “the luckiest writer.” Her first novel, “Then She Found Me,” well-received when it was published in 1990 and selling steadily ever since, has inspired the film of the same name — starring, co-written and directed by Helen Hunt — that opens in theaters this Friday.

But fans of Lipman’s novel should be forewarned: Don’t judge the movie by its book. Hunt spent nearly 10 years nurturing this project and in the process changed many of the novel’s particulars — adding and deleting characters and sub-plots, altering motivations. Yet the film is faithful to the heart of the story and retains Lipman’s signature balance of wit and pathos.

In the novel, 36-year-old, never-married high school Latin teacher April Epner, adopted daughter of Holocaust survivors Trude and Julius, is a no-nonsense, plain-Jane kind of gal — but one with a sure, quiet sense of self and a quick wit. Out of the blue, shortly after Trude dies (and less than two years after Julius’ death), a mysterious stranger appears with a message from April’s birth mother, employing stealth and melodrama to tell her, “I represent someone from your past … would that be welcome news?”

Thus begin the misadventures of the shy schoolteacher and her overbearing, confessional-talk-show-host birth mother, Bernice Graves. In Lipman’s novel, April struggles for self-definition — and compassion — in the face of Bernice’s glaringly different personality. Her turmoil is buffered by a blossoming love she shares with the equally retiring yet charmingly wry school librarian, Dwight Willamee.

Lipman, though neither adopted nor an adopter of children herself (she and her husband have one son), had nevertheless long been intrigued by the emotional conflict and drama inherent in birth-parent/adoptive-child reunions. When a friend found his birth mother when he was in his 40s, Lipman decided to further explore the subject and make it the focal point of her novel.

In Hunt’s film version, Bernice (Bette Midler, delivering some of the film’s funniest lines) and April (Hunt) similarly navigate the minefield of their budding mother-daughter relationship, but there’s no shy librarian in sight. Instead, April marries, then is summarily dumped by, her man-child fellow teacher (Matthew Broderick) and subsequently falls in love with the also recently dumped, nurturing father (Colin Firth) of one of her kindergarten students. The film’s April, nearing 40, desperately wants a child; this becomes a central theme in the movie.

Hunt explained that she was drawn to the originality of the novel and to “the way Elinor surprised me in the story.” She initially tried to acquire the film rights in the early 1990s, but the book had already been optioned — before it had even hit bookstores — by Sigourney Weaver’s production company, which rebuffed Hunt’s overtures for involvement.

Several years later, after Hunt had won four Emmys for her role in the NBC hit comedy series, “Mad About You,” and the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for her performance opposite Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” she was finally able to secure the rights to Lipman’s book.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, Lipman had been wondering if the film would ever be made.

“I got a call from Helen Hunt’s manager on the day my mother died [in 1998],” Lipman said; the call “was like a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise sad time.”

Despite Hunt’s fondness for the novel (“the novel is perfect,” she said), she wrestled with the screenplay for nearly five years, trying to translate what she considered a “subtle, internal” story into an external, visible story that would work on screen.

One solution was to have April want a baby; Hunt felt that would externalize a longing that remains inchoate in the novel. It was also a deeply personal addition for Hunt, who said she “wanted a baby very much during the time I was working on the script.” She now has a 3 1/2-year-old daughter with television producer and writer Matthew Carnahan.

When Hunt read an essay on betrayal by Jungian psychologist James Hillman, she finally “found her north star about what she wanted to explore in the film,” Lipman said.

The central theme of the film became, “You can’t really love until you’ve made peace with betrayal,” Hunt said.

So, in the film, April becomes both a victim and perpetrator of betrayal, who at times feels betrayed by God.

Hunt, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish, also made April more of a religously observant Jew, in order to give her protagonist “a deep sense of tradition [and] a specific version of faith that doesn’t back away from the difficult questions,” she said.

KCRW’s annual Chanukah show lets the light go out

Ruth Seymour, general manager since 1978 of KCRW-FM 89.9, is best known to many listeners for her annual Chanukah program, “Philosophers, Fiddlers & Fools,” which will have its final airing on Dec. 15. But Seymour is not stepping down.

“I’m not retiring,” she says over the phone in her classic New York accent. “I’m retiring the show.”

The Chanukah show has been a staple in Los Angeles, which, before its first airing in 1978, had been missing this classic blend of Yiddishkeit: folk music, readings of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories, memorials to Holocaust victims, Second Avenue “hit parade” songs.

Much has been made of the humble beginnings of KCRW, a station created after World War II to train veterans for careers in radio, which as late as 1978 was located in a middle school in Santa Monica and famously had the oldest transmitter in the West. Seymour has transformed the station into an institution by creating erudite programs like “Bookworm,” an essential half-hour for any literary Los Angeleno; issues-oriented shows like “Which Way, L.A.?” and political debates, such as “Left, Right & Center.”

Her emphasis on literature and politics is fitting, since Seymour grew up in a home of left-wing Jewish intellectuals in the Bronx. She relates a story in which her mother, upon seeing her tending to the plants outside, asked, “Why are you gardening? You could be reading ‘War & Peace.'”

By now, “Philosophers” fans know the story of how Seymour’s college professor, Max Weinreich, told her that “Yiddish is magic. It will outlive history.”

What many may not know is that some years ago, she received a letter in her mailbox with those words written on the outside of the envelope as a teaser. She opened it and found it was from YIVO, the Yiddish institute that focuses on the study of Jewish culture and literature. Apparently, one of YIVO’s employees had lived in Los Angeles and heard Seymour tell the Weinreich story on the air.

Seymour has always contended that the show should be “ephemeral,” out of deference to the Holocaust victims.

“There wasn’t any way to bring them back,” she says, which is why she has never recorded any of her Chanukah programs.

She has often cited the words of Andre Schwarz-Bart, French author of “The Last of the Just,” who wrote that the Holocaust victims disappeared “like the smoke from the chimneys of Auschwitz.”

Although Holocaust survivors have always wanted to preserve the apparatus of and artwork related to the Holocaust, so as to document the severity of the genocide, Seymour sees radio as being inherently “transitory.”

“There just comes a moment in your life when it’s over. The sources dry up. Do I want to psychoanalyze it?” she asked, “No.”

She adds, “It had a prolonged life, a life of its own.” She said she is astonished that it “touched so many people.”

One person who touched her was Schwarz-Bart, who recently died at 78. He spent time in the concentration camps during the war and wrote “The Last of the Just,” which won France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in the late 1950s.

He “literally seems to have survived to write it,” she says, pointing out that he began writing right after the war, when he was in his twenties, and spent
years working on it in a Paris library, since his home did not have heat.

Not surprisingly, Seymour, who has always paid homage to Schwarz-Bart on her Chanukah show, will do so again in her final segment.

Another author whom she intends to acknowledge in her last show is the late Singer, the only Nobel Prize laureate who wrote primarily in Yiddish. She met Singer many times when she was living in New York.

Seymour’s then-husband, poet Jack Hirschman, who wooed her with a letter from Ernest Hemingway, introduced her to Singer. They would get together in a vegetarian restaurant and discuss astronomy and the kabbalah with Singer and his latest girlfriend, never his wife. Singer fancied concentration camp survivors for dates; interestingly, Seymour says that these young women had “dreams [that] would always be amazingly similar to his stories.”

Seymour says she was never a devotee of radio when she was young, even though she is a contemporary of Woody Allen and was raised in the “Radio Days” era of the late 1930s and 1940s. “I landed totally by accident.”

The accident occurred in 1961, when Hirschman was teaching at UCLA, and KPFK-FM 90.7 came calling, asking for tapes of his work. Seymour provided the Pacifica radio station with the tapes and shortly thereafter, was offered the job of heading up the station’s drama department.

More than a decade later, she joined KCRW.

Although she will stop broadcasting her marquee program, she says she will continue to host programs like “Politics of Culture,” and we will still hear her over the air during fundraising drives. As for “Philosophers,” she says, “It was never something that was conceived to go on for 28 years.”

“Philosophers, Fiddlers & Fools” will air for the final time on Friday, Dec. 15, from noon to 3 p.m. on KCRW, 89.9 FM.

European anti-Semitism spurs controversial comparison

Across Western Europe, thousands cheer neo-Nazi rockers calling for the killing of Jews, synagogues are defaced, Holocaust memorials and cemeteries are desecrated, Jewish schoolchildren are attacked and their parents are afraid to wear yarmulkes or religious jewelry on the streets of major cities.

In “Ever Again,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center, having documented the Holocaust and its aftermath in earlier films, presents a frightening picture of a rising wave of European anti-Semitism, fueled by Islamic fanatics and neo-Nazis.

During 74 minutes of graphic footage and wide-ranging interviews with both victims and perpetrators of abuse and violence, “Ever Again” tracks the new anti-Semitism in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Britain.

The film by the Moriah Films division of the Wiesenthal Center and narrated by actor Kevin Costner opens Dec. 8 at the Landmark’s Westside Pavilion Cinemas.

Some of the most disheartening interviews are with moderate Muslims who are afraid to speak out against extremists, and with public school teachers who won’t mention the Holocaust in class in the face of threats by their Muslim students.

Coming from the opposite ideological end, but aiming at the same target, is a revived neo-Nazi movement, especially among disaffected young people.

Director Richard Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier, producer and founding dean of the Wiesenthal Center, are Academy Award recipients for previous Moriah Films documentaries.”I doubt that many Americans realize the amount of fear the Jewish communities of Western Europe are living under, due to physical violence and terrifying threats from neo-Nazis and Islamic fanatics,” said Trank. “Tragically, young Jews told us that the situation has become so bad that they no longer see a safe future for themselves and their families in their own countries.”

Hier warned that “many American Jews who have recently visited Europe have come to feel it is no longer safe for them there. The world in which a Jew can safely raise his or her children has become greatly diminished in recent years.”

However, noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum said he objected to the film’s title, with its clear allusion to the Holocaust-era battle cry, “Never Again.”

“There is no doubt that the situation in Europe must be taken seriously, but it’s a mistake to link it to the Holocaust,” he said.

Berenbaum, a University of Judaism professor, is currently editing the soon to be published book, “Anti-Semitism: Then and Now,” with contributions by 20 American, European and Israeli experts.

“Today’s anti-Semitism is a different and more complex phenomenon than it was 65 years ago,” he observed. “To a large extent, what we see now is the revolt of an underclass, spurred by anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and anti-globalization.

“A major difference from the 1930s and ’40s is that anti-Semitism is not supported by governments. A country like Poland is Israel’s best friend in Europe, and Germany has the fastest-growing Jewish population anywhere.”

The Landmark’s Westside Pavilion Cinemas are located at Pico Boulevard and Overland Avenue. Call (310) 281-8223 for screening times. For more information about the film, go to

Pick a cause

When I was in eighth grade, I went on a school field trip to the Museum of Tolerance. My grandmother being a holocaust survivor, I had learned much about the Holocaust and took an interest in it. At the Museum of Tolerance, however, I learned about other things as well.

At an exhibit called the Millennium Machine, the last stop, I was in shock at all the horrible things that are still happening to children today. I couldn’t believe that in the world I lived in, kids were being enslaved and starved. I had always been involved with community service, but at the sight of this exhibit I knew I had to do something to help these children.

It was only a couple of weeks later that I was shopping at a jewelry and clothing boutique, when the owner noticed my necklace — which I had made. She offered to sell it at the store. That very day I brought in a tray of my work, and my guitar-pick jewelry was an instant success at the store.

This was right before summer started, and before I knew it I would be spending my summer days making jewelry. When I realized how much money I could make, I remembered that exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance and how much those children needed the money — much more than I did.

So I decided to give all of my proceeds to these unfortunate kids, and I began looking up charities that benefit kids. The first charity I donated to was UNICEF, because I knew that the money I gave would directly help youths in other countries that I had seen in the video at the museum. Ever since, I have given all of my proceeds to various charities, amounting to about $10,000.

In addition to my business, I always take on the opportunity to help in my own community. I believe that it is important to help out whenever you can, whether it’s picking up trash at the beach or working at a charity benefit, as well as taking on new challenges.

I love art and jewelry making, but giving to charity is the heart of my business. I might not be making jewelry forever, but I know I will always be charitable, because I have a love for helping those less fortunate than I am. Since I am a creative person, I’m glad to know I can use my talents to help others.

I also realize how fortunate I am to live in a nice house and to have food to eat, something that is easily taken for granted. I have also learned that we fortunate kids hold the responsibility to help children who are in desperate need for simple things that we have an abundance of. I believe that one person can make a difference, and with my charitable business I would like other young people to see that they, too, can use their talents for a good cause.

Amanda Martin is a junior at Viewpoint School in Calabasas. Her jewelry can be purchased at

The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (

‘Superman’ Director Lives Out His Dream

“Whether you’re an immigrant or you’re born in the heartland, at some point we all feel like an alien.”

Those are not the words of an immigration rights attorney but rather of filmmaker Bryan Singer, whose last three films, the first two editions of “X-Men” and the upcoming “Superman Returns,” which opens on June 28 nationwide, all present parables on the current state of xenophobia pervading this country.

Of the famed Man of Steel, first introduced to comic book readers in the 1930s, Singer said, “He’s kind of the ultimate immigrant. He comes from a foreign place, adapts to the value system and has a special relationship with his heritage.”

Singer sees Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — two Jews who were sons of immigrants — as a Judeo-Christian hero, part Moses, part Jesus. Like Moses, Superman is the boy dispatched down the metaphoric river to be discovered in the cornfields, if not the reeds, of the Midwest. Like Jesus, he has a kind of doubling with his father, voiced in the new film as in the 1978 “Superman” by the late Marlon Brando, who says, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”

If Superman first entered popular culture when the Nazis were beginning to assert their power in Germany, he “never cleared up the problems in Europe,” Singer said. “He handled small problems; he served by example.”

Over the decades, however, through numerous incarnations in comic strips, animated shorts, television shows and films, Superman began tackling worldwide catastrophes, as he does in Singer’s new film, though he does not rescue Jews per se.

That does not mean that Superman lacks a Jewish pedigree.

As Michael Chabon suggested in his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Siegel and Shuster, in conceptualizing Superman, may very well have been inspired by the Golem, a mythic figure in Jewish folklore, who could be built from mud and clay, according to strict rabbinic instructions, and could vanquish all evil.

Yet “Superman Returns” never implies that its protagonist, played by Brandon Routh, is of any ethnicity other than Kryptonian. If he resembles any mythological creatures, they would seem to be Greek ones. Like Atlas, Superman lifts, if not the entire planet, a huge nefarious landmass, which he hurls into space. He also catches the ornamental globe that sits atop the Daily Planet Building, a structure modeled after the art deco former home of the New York Daily News. Of course, Superman’s strength is matched by his speed as he flies through the sky like Hermes, easing a plane carrying Lois Lane, played by Kate Bosworth, into an emergency landing on a ball field.

Superman may have been in drydock for five years, as we are told in the film, but unlike Roger Clemens, he doesn’t get the benefit of a trip to the minors. He must perform at a big league level from the start, although we do see flashbacks to his youth, when he runs through the cornfields and learns how to fly, a nice touch since Superman did not fly in his early comic strips.

The 40-year-old Singer calls “Superman Returns” a “dream project” and said “it was a fantasy of mine to have Kryptonian blood,” not surprising for a man who in the 1970s loved watching reruns of the “Superman” TV show starring George Reeves. But Singer did not read the comics as a child. To this day, he suffers from dyslexia, which still impedes his efforts at reading. He likes to read short stories, but he did not even know about the “X-Men” until he was assigned to direct the first movie of that franchise.

While “X-Men” and “X2,” which came out in 2000 and 2003, respectively, predate the current illegal immigration crisis, they, like all of Singer’s films, deal with the human capacity for evil and for persecuting outsiders, whoever they may be.

Like Superman, the mutants in the “X-Men” movies are not simply stand-ins for illegal immigrants. They are heroic, if in some cases demonic, fantasies of the other — the outsider in all of us.

As a gay, adopted, agnostic Jew, Singer has always been drawn to the otherness of these superheroes, though he chuckles when asked about a recent Los Angeles Times article that highlighted Superman’s gay appeal. “If you look at my career,” he said, “I’ve probably never made a more heterosexual movie before.”

None of his previous studio movies may have had an explicit gay theme to them, but “The Usual Suspects,” his 1995 breakthrough film, which received much buzz for its plot twists, subversion of the noir genre and brilliant ensemble cast, may be best remembered for the Oscar-winning performance of Kevin Spacey, essaying Verbal Kint, a criminal mastermind of dubious sexuality.

Singer followed that with 1998’s “Apt Pupil,” in which Brad Renfro plays a high school student obsessed with the Holocaust and with a former Nazi living in his neighborhood. The film featured some baroque horror touches, such as when Ian McKellen’s Nazi tries to stuff a cat in an oven, and Singer even framed a few longing looks between the 16-year-old boy and his Nazi mentor, cut next to a shot of the boy’s indifferent response to the sexual advances of his girlfriend.

Then came “X-Men” and “X2,” McCarthyite allegories that among other provocations featured McKellen, the Nazi in “Apt Pupil,” as a Holocaust survivor, who like Darth Vader has turned to the dark side.

“X2,” in particular, showed us non-Geneva-friendly torture taking place in prison cells that but for their high-tech gadgetry might remind one of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. There are also congressional and presidential calls for mandatory mutant registration, prescient in the wake of today’s immigration legislation proposals, and, of course, a teenage son coming out to his parents that he is a mutant, prompting the altogether familiar reply from his mother, “Can’t you just not be a mutant?”

While Singer wants as broad an audience as possible to enjoy the film, he particularly wants “older people and women to have an emotional experience,” he said. Unlike his past films, “Superman Returns” is, Singer said, “a romantic picture.”

It is also a film with a long and troubled past. Over the last decade, numerous actors and directors were attached to the film, whose budget, like its superhero, seemed to know no bounds. None of that history worried Singer, who got a chance to reshape the storyline and, indeed, has a story credit on the film. It also helped that he used some of his regular repertory of actors, such as Spacey, playing yet another notable villain: Lex Luthor.

Singer’s first real understanding of evil came when, as a boy of 9 or 10, he dressed up as a Nazi one day while playing a World War II game with his German neighbors in Princeton Junction, N.J. He came home wearing a swastika.

Singer’s mother admonished him, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when his junior high school teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, taught an entire unit in social studies on the Holocaust, that he gained a greater understanding as to why his mother had been so troubled. That class changed Singer’s “whole perception of what people are capable of anywhere,” he said.

“Superman Returns” is not directly about Nazis, and its diabolical antagonist is more over-the-top than menacing, yet Singer does not discount the possibility of future genocides.

“The German culture [at the time of the Holocaust] was extremely artistic, extremely sophisticated and extremely advanced,” he said, proving that “anywhere, any place, any century, it’s possible, and any person is capable of it.”

“Superman Returns” opens nationwide on June 28.


Wiesenthal Larger Than Life on Screen

Simon Wiesenthal, whose dogged persistence led to the capture of approximately 1,100 accused Nazi war criminals, was the quintessential larger-than-life figure filmmakers crave. While there were some less-than-distinguished films made about him over the years, they were outweighed by fine documentaries, such as “The Art of Remembrance,” Oscar-nominated features such as “The Boys From Brazil” and several thoughtful telepics.

For Rick Trank, director of Moriah Films, the in-house documentary division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the first film about Simon Wiesenthal “that comes to mind” is “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” a 1989 HBO picture starring Ben Kingsley as the Nazi hunter.

“It was unusual for HBO to have made the investment without a theatrical release,” said Trank, marveling at the production values and “the care that HBO put into it.” He pointed out that Kingsley “spent time getting to know Simon.”

While some admirers have envisioned Wiesenthal as a Jewish John Wayne or James Bond, the diminutive Kingsley, who has played numerous Jewish characters in his film career, including Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy” and Fagin in the current “Oliver Twist,” depicts him as a much more modest man, frail after the camps, dedicated to his work, not given to swagger or seduction.

Up all night in his dark office surrounded by voluminous files, he almost conjures Bartleby the scrivener. We often see high-angle shots of him, as if we are spying on him.

Told in flashback, the film begins with a closeup of sunflowers in a field on a sunny day, and then we see an image of Wiesenthal, wearing the pinstriped uniform of a prisoner. His back is positioned against the back of a bloodied, bandaged Nazi, and the two men, arms tied to each other, struggle to free themselves. The scene is Wiesenthal’s nightmare, so haunted is he by a memory of visiting a bloodied, bandaged Nazi on his deathbed.

Images of the hospital scene re-surface throughout the film, as Wiesenthal confronts whether he made the right decision in not forgiving a man who gunned down Jews trapped inside a building that had been set on fire. Wiesenthal can never satisfactorily answer the moral dilemma of whether or not he was right in walking away without pardoning a dying, tormented shell of a man.

In Wiesenthal’s troubled dream, the shining sunflowers appear almost grotesque, but they are a reminder that there can still be beauty even in the midst of the Holocaust.

Flowers also play a role in “Max and Helen,” a 1990 TNT production starring Martin Landau as Wiesenthal. Based on Wiesenthal’s memoir, it tells the true story of two young Jews, Max, played by Treat Williams, and Helen, played by Alice Krige, who find each other after 20 years of separation following the Holocaust. The first time we see Helen, she gathers a bouquet of lilies, once again yellow flowers, vibrant and alive, but soon she and Max are taken to the camps, where she remains with her frail sister while Max escapes.

According to Trank, who won an Oscar for “The Long Way Home,” a 1997 documentary about Jewish refugees journeying to Israel after the Holocaust, “Max and Helen” represents the one time that Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to fighting anti-Semitism, chose not to prosecute a war criminal “because it would harm the living more than bring justice to the dead.”

As it turns out, Helen has been raped by the Nazi commandant and has had a child, who is a dead ringer for the father. The disquieting presence of this seeming Nazi doppelganger initially unnerves Max, when he first sees Helen again.

Ultimately, Max realizes the truth of something Wiesenthal has told him, that nations cannot be blamed collectively; each person must be assessed individually. At the end of the film, Max decides to reunite with Helen and embrace his new life with her and his Germanic stepchild, while Wiesenthal backs off from pursuing the former commandant.

Trank said of Landau, “Physically, he didn’t look like Simon,” pointing out that Landau was “6 feet 4 and skinny, while Wiesenthal was 5 feet 10 and portly, but he captured an essence of him.” He plays him as a kind of Dr. Freud, comforting Max as they engage in an all-night therapy session, in which Wiesenthal slowly extracts bits and pieces of the story, which plays out largely through flashbacks.

By contrast, in the 1978 picture, “The Boys From Brazil,” Sir Laurence Olivier, essaying Herr Lieberman, a character based on Wiesenthal, portrayed the Nazi hunter as a “sort of a bumbling guy. That wasn’t Simon. Simon was very focused, had a photographic memory.” Trank noted that Wiesenthal was “doing his work before people had computers. He had a teeny office, no money,” yet successfully traced all those Nazis.

Based on Ira Levin’s novel, “The Boys From Brazil” shows us Wiesenthal as Mr. Magoo, water dripping from the ceiling of his office, his rent unpaid, chaos all around him. Olivier speaks with an authentic German accent, yet it’s so high-pitched and world weary that he almost sounds like a German version of an older Truman Capote, burnt out after all his friends had abandoned him.

Despite his bumbling nature, Olivier’s character does indeed track down Dr. Mengele, played by Gregory Peck. In the fictional film, Mengele has masterminded a scheme, years in the making, to clone and breed a new Hitler. In order to replicate the environmental surroundings of the young Fuhrer, he must murder 94 Nordic men, all aged 65, who have blue-eyed, black-haired sons who are about to turn 14.

After the film’s suspenseful turns, Mengele is finally killed, and Olivier’s Lieberman refuses to give a young Jewish freedom fighter the information that will enable him to find and kill the boys. The Nazi hunter will not allow innocent people of German stock to be killed.

In reality, Mengele was never captured by Wiesenthal or any other Nazi hunter. His remains were found in South America, where he apparently drowned.

Though Wiesenthal was portrayed by Kingsley, Landau and Olivier — all Oscar winners — the performance that may come closest to the actual legend, who did indeed help the Mossad capture SS leader Adolph Eichmann, is that of lesser-known actor Shmuel Rodensky in the 1974 film, “The Odessa File.”

In that picture, Wiesenthal’s character has a small role, appearing in only two scenes, but Rodensky inhabits him in a way that his more famous colleagues did not. First of all, unlike Kingsley, Landau and Olivier, Rodensky physically resembled the bearish Wiesenthal. Both of them bore a girth that recalls Ariel Sharon, a fullness that suggested fortitude and a life well lived.

But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a poise and savvy, the way his smile conveys that he has seen it all, and that nothing will surprise him. This Wiesenthal understands that all men, even an idealist like Jon Voight’s freelance journalist, have motives and allegiances that may not match his own.

That is why he makes a photocopy of a picture of Roschmann, the film’s villain, rather than turning over his lone copy to Voight’s character. He’s too sophisticated to presume that this well-intentioned writer will finish the job.

Wiesenthal served as an adviser to that film, which is set in Germany in 1963, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a metaphor, perhaps a bit too heavy-handed, for the loss of innocence in the world. The plot is propelled into motion with the suicide that same night of a Holocaust survivor who leaves a diary.

That document prompts Voight’s young German writer to hunt down the one-time butcher of Riga, who murdered not only Jews but also Germans who disobeyed him. Along the way, Voight comes into contact with Mossad agents who train him. With their help, he infiltrates the Odessa, a secret society of former SS officers, who are developing a missile-tracking system for the Egyptians, who plan a nuclear attack against Israel.

Like Mengele, in real life, Roschmann was never extradited or killed. Responsible for murdering perhaps as many as 70,000 Jews, Roschmann reportedly died in Paraguay in 1977.

At the end of the film, Wiesenthal pores over the Odessa file provided to him by a German, which calls to mind a line from earlier in the film that “people are not evil; only individuals are evil.” In the film, the line is not spoken by Wiesenthal’s character, but it echoes the famous mantra of the real-life Holocaust survivor.

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, September 17

Jews of the LBC rejoice as they finally get a film fest all their own. The first Long Beach Jewish Film Festival will be held today and tomorrow, thanks to the support of the Alpert JCC and the Cal State Long Beach Jewish studies program. The lineup features “Gloomy Sunday,” about a love triangle set in 1930s Budapest; “Solomon and Gaenor,” a British love story set in 1911 Wales; “Time of Favor,” an Israeli tale about the clashes between Orthodox nationalists and the military; and “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi,” a French comedy about a young boy with unique culinary talents.

$10 (each), $36 (festival pass). University Theater, CSULB campus, Long Beach. (562) 426-7601.


Sunday, September 18

This afternoon, it’s all about sabra women at the first Israel Women’s Festival. Actress Shirley Brener hosts the luncheon that features a fashion show by American-based Israeli designers, boutiques and live entertainment by Maya Haddi, Duende, and DJ Eyal. Proceeds benefit women’s organizations in Israel.

Noon. $65. Eretz-Siamak Cultural Center, 6170 Wilbur Ave., Tarzana. Tickets must be purchased in advance: (818) 980-9848, (818) 702-9272 or (323) 951-0111.

Monday, September 19

The Museum of the Holocaust challenges viewers to compare images of two genocides side-by-side in their new exhibition, “Encountering the Cambodian Genocide,” on display through Nov. 15. Pictures of Pol Pot’s killing fields and camps taken by Chantal Prunier-Grindon make up most of the display, however, a special collage of photographs depicting images from the Shoah and the Cambodian genocide is also hung, forcing the viewer to consider the similarities.

6435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.

Tuesday, September 20

The Simon Wiesenthal’s film division, Moriah, premiers its latest documentary this evening. Titled “Ever Again,” the film examines the resurgence of violent anti-Semitism and terrorism, and is narrated by former baseball movie go-to-guy Kevin Costner.

7:30 p.m. Director’s Guild Theater, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 553-9036.

Wednesday, September 21

Nicknamed after the Ouija board, photojournalist Weegee literally made a name for himself in the Depression era, and in the process, became as famous as the mobsters and detectives he aimed his camera at. More than 60 make up the Getty’s latest exhibit, “Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee,” which runs through Jan. 22.

1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, September 22

The epic story of one Jewish family’s struggles through the last days of the Czarist Russian regime through the Holocaust became the subject of director-producer Dan Spigel’s indie film, “House of the Generals.” It premieres tonight at the Skirball, with a Q-and-A with Spigel to follow.

6 p.m. and 8 p.m. $8-$12. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (877) 700-7133.

Friday, September 23

Snaps for the Skirball’s new exhibition, “Semina,” which features and takes its name from the Beat art and poetry of the underground magazine created by Wallace Berman. Contributors to the publication included William S. Burroughs, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, John Alton and Charles Brittin. Its content reflected Berman’s varied interests, including visual and literary art, Jewish mysticism, pop culture and current events.

2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Annulla Has Her Say


For a one-person show, what you need foremost is a character. Meet Annulla. A warm, spirited older woman with an energy that belies her years and her difficult past, and the eponym of the Eclectic Company’s new production, written by Emily Mann.

“Annulla: An Autobiography” tells the story of Annulla Allen, a woman born in Lvov, Galicia, who survived the Holocaust by passing as Aryan, and eventually immigrated to London. Mann, who received a Tony nomination for “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” met Allen 30 years ago, while working with her college friend on a project collecting oral histories of Holocaust survivors. She first became interested in the project out of a desire to learn her own maternal grandmother’s tale of survival. But, like many immigrants of her generation, Mann’s grandmother spoke Polish, Yiddish and English, but none of them fluently.

Allen, then, was Mann’s friend’s aunt, and unlike Mann’s grandmother, Allen had a language for telling her story. She’d even written a play herself.

We meet Allen in her London flat, much like Mann did herself. Allen (played by Eileen De Felitta) bustles about, preparing chicken soup for her sister and tea for her guests (us), and generally refuses to sit still. As she flits, she talks to us. We learn of her accomplished family, some of whom survived the Holocaust and others of whom perished. We learn how she survived, how she saved her husband who was sent to Dachau and of her heartache at having to send her son to live with friends in Switzerland until the war was over. We hear her philosophies on why women should rule the world (“If there was a global matriarchy there could be no more evil”) and about how she survived cancer, as well.

The play serves as a survivor’s testimony, but more than that, shows us a whole person and a whole life, something survivors are not always able to convey when telling their own stories. “Annulla” speaks for Mann’s grandmother, and for all those who cannot.

“Annulla” plays Thurs.-Sun., through Feb. 26. $12-$18. Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-3003.


Shoah-Era Music ‘Silenced’ No More

The music of a lost generation of Jewish composers will come to life when the Los Angeles Philharmonic presents “Silenced Voices,” a series of concerts, operas and panel discussions, from Oct. 19 to Nov. 9.

While mainly honoring the composers who were persecuted or perished during the Holocaust, the concerts will also feature the works of Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler, whose “degenerate” music was banned by the Nazis.

For conductor James Conlon, bringing the “beautiful and provocative” music of such composers as Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein and Bohuslav Martinu to international audiences has been a 10-year crusade.

“These men represented an enormous piece of the music and culture of the 20th century,” Conlon passionately declared in a phone call from Montreal.

“Rediscovering their music is equivalent to a museum which suddenly finds 200 great paintings in its cellar — of course, the museum would exhibit them for the public,” he added.

“Silenced Voices” will open on Tuesday, Oct. 19, with the satirical opera “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” (The Emperor from Atlantis), which Ullmann composed while imprisoned in the Nazis’ “model” camp of Teresienstadt (Terezin).

The protagonist is Emperor Overall, who brings such pain and misery to the world that Death arrives to take him, and everyone else, away. The SS apparently sensed some similarity between “The Emperor” and a contemporary dictator and shut down the work during rehearsals.

An L.A. Phil ensemble and Juilliard School singers will perform the staged production at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles.

On the following Thursday, Oct. 21, a discussion on the concept and context of “Silenced Voices” will be led by Conlon, Rabbis Steven Z. Leder and Gary Greenebaum and Dr. Gary Schiller of the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust. The event will be held on the Irmas campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in West Los Angeles.

The two temple evenings are sponsored by the Ziegler Family Trust, with additional support from the Jewish Community Foundation. All subsequent events will be at the downtown Disney Concert Hall.

Conlon and the Philharmonic will perform Ullmann’s Symphony No. 2 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 on Oct. 23 and 24.

On Oct. 29, 30 and 31, Conlon will lead the Philharmonic in Schulhoff’s Jazz Suite, Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.

Dvorak is the only non-Jewish composer represented in the series, but as a composer and Czech nationalist he had a profound effect on such composers as Schulhoff, who was Dvorak’s protégé, Conlon noted.

Pianist Jonathan Biss will be the soloist in the Mendelssohn work.

Concluding the series on Nov. 9 will be a chamber music concert by the Phil’s instrumentalists of works by Schulhoff, Martinu, Ullmann, Klein and Mendelssohn.

Conlon was first drawn to “silenced” composers of the early 20th century by rediscovering the works of Alexander Zemlinsky, a brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, and the conductor recorded most of Zemlinsky’s works in Germany. Conlon’s “discovery” of other names and composers followed.

“I have been a practicing musician for 30 years, and until 10 years ago, I knew hardly anything about these composers from Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Budapest, whose works represented much of the musical ferment of their time,” Conlon said.

Conlon made his New York Philharmonic debut in 1974 and has since spent most of his time in Europe, conducting leading orchestras and serving as principal conductor of the Paris National Opera for the past nine years.

The “Silenced Voices” program are part of his three-year project on “Recovering a Musical Heritage,” although he fears that “I won’t live long enough to integrate the major works of the ‘silenced’ composers into the standard concert repertoire.

“People tend to be afraid when they see the names of unfamiliar composers on a program, but I want to turn that around,” he said.

Given Conlon’s preoccupation with Jewish composers, he is often asked, “usually as the first question,” whether he is Jewish himself.

“Actually, I am an Irish-Italian-German Catholic, but growing up in New York, I absorbed and loved everything Jewish,” the conductor said.

“What the Nazis did was a crime not just against the Jews, but against every human being,” he said. “We can never redress the injustice against the Jewish composers, but we can do what meant most to them, and that is to restore and play their music.”

For ticket and other information on all the listed programs, call (323) 850-2000, or visit

Righteous Anger Fuels ‘Auschwitz’

“Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting” by Ruth Linn (Cornell University Press, $20).

There is a fierce anger at the core of Ruth Linn’s work, the anger of a woman who suddenly and irrefutably discovers that the story she has been told by her Israeli teachers, Israeli society and Israeli culture from childhood onward regarding the Holocaust is but a partial narrative. Her teachers selected materials from the events of Holocaust history to fortify Zionist ideology, to reinforce the importance of Israel and to indoctrinate a new generation. This unraveling of her seemingly naïve trust in her elders revolves around one of the truly important and fascinating events of the Holocaust.

On April 7, 1944, two men, Rudolph Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz and made their way to Slovakia. There, with the help of the Jewish Working Group, they wrote a report, complete with maps, detailing what had occurred at Auschwitz over the past two years and the plans — soon to be realized — for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, who were deported en mass only weeks thereafter. Their report made its way from Slovakia to Hungary, where Hungarian Jewish leaders had a clear idea of what indeed was happening at Auschwitz — mass murder — before the deportations. Those leaders chose not to share this information with ordinary Hungarian Jews who reported for the trains not knowing that “resettlement in the East” was deportation to death factories and who didn’t know what Auschwitz was.

As Elie Wiesel wrote in his memoir “Night”: “Auschwitz, we had never heard the name.”

Many Hungarian Jews, young and old, echo his statement. Vrba’s work has been translated into many languages, but not into Hebrew until 1999. Why? Vrba had not been honored by Israel until he received a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Haifa due to Linn’s initiative. Why?

The story of Vrba is well-known in the West. Claude Lanzmann interviewed him at length in his classic film “Shoah.” I personally published the Vrba-Wetzler Report in my collection of Holocaust documents “Witness to the Holocaust,” and his report formed a centerpiece of “Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp” (Indiana University, 1998), which I co-edited with Israel Gutman, and “Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It” (St. Martins, 2000), which I co-edited with Michael Neufeld, based on an international conference held at the Air and Space Museum honoring the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. Vrba was a featured speaker at a 1994 conference on Hungarian Jewry and his words from the Lanzmann interview are permanently inscribed in the Museum’s exhibition at a pivotal point just when one exits the box car. They are nothing less than poetic.

There was a place called the ramp where trains with Jews were coming in.

They were coming day and night,

Sometimes one per day and sometimes five per day

From all sorts of places in the world.

I worked there from August 18, 1942 to June 7, 1943.

I saw those transports rolling one after another,

And I have seen at least 200 of them in this position.

Constantly, people from the heart of Europe were disappearing,

And they were arriving to the same place,

With the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport.

I knew that within a couple of hours after they arrived there 90 percent would be gassed.

Linn’s anger, however justified, seems quite innocent and quite naïve. For decades now, a new generation of Israeli historians have challenged the “preferred narrative” — to use the term developed by Edward Linenthal in his masterful work “Preserving History: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Memorial” — developed by earlier historians who sought to present the past in a manner that is conducive to creating a national future. If anything, the historian that Linn criticizes so intensely, Yehuda Bauer (and to a lesser extent Gutman), has been more open and more willing to stray from the Zionist historiography than the generational that preceded him.

The Psalmist proclaimed: “By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion.”

The place from which we remember an event shapes the manner in which it is recalled.

For the past two decades, the divergence of national historiography relating to the Holocaust has been the subject of intense historical scrutiny in Germany, Austria, the United States, France, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland. In the 15 years since the demise of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the countries of Eastern Europe — Poland and Hungary in particular — have rewritten their history of the Holocaust to better serve a free people and to better comport with the evidence. Even as this review is being written, Romania is going through that agonizing task as an international commission — chaired by Wiesel and featuring the work of Radu Ioanid, a Romanian immigrant to the United States — investigates Romania’s role in killing its Jews.

Anger has its place. Linn shakes up the Israeli status quo. She reminds us — within months of the opening of the new Yad Vashem Museum that will retell the story of the Holocaust to a new generation of Israelis who now are more than a 60 years from the event — that the Israeli perspective, however important, is limited and must be balanced by other presentations of the very same history. Linn points out that the decision not to translate certain books into Hebrew such as Vrba’s memoirs, Hilberg’s masterpiece “The Destruction of the European Jews” (Holmes and Meier, 1985) and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (Penguin, 1994) limits what an Israeli public can understand of the Holocaust. Still, to a younger generation of Israelis whose English is fluent — and to Israeli scholars who want to make their reputation by writing in English for the international community — there is a press to present a broader history.

Her role in understanding the importance of the Vrba report is also limited. She does not seem to know the way in which it changed a June decision of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem not to press for the bombing of Auschwitz since that would result in the death of innocent Jewish non-combatants incarcerated there. Yet one month later in London, Moshe Shertok (later Sharret) and Chaim Weizmann were pressing for the bombing and secured the support of Winston Churchill who told Anthony Eden “get what you can out of the Air Force and invoke my name if necessary.” She also does not seem to know the role that it played in the U.S. War Refugee Board forwarding a request to bomb Auschwitz to the War Department, which led to the famed — infamous — reply by John J. McCloy in August 1944. The full text of the report was not available in the United States until November.

The work is interesting. Her passion is genuine. Her disappointment is apparent throughout. Righteous anger fuels her work, righteous anger, but still limited learning.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and the co-editor of “The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?”

‘Almost’ a Beginning in Paris

Most boy-meets-girl movies end when the happy pair stands under the chuppah. After all, it’s not terribly dramatic what happens when they pick up the routine of daily married life.

It’s a bit like that with Holocaust films: The protagonists are either killed or liberated, but if they survive, we do not see how they get back to "normalcy" and cope anew with everyday life.

The modest, low-key French import "Almost Peaceful" ("Un Monde Presque Paisible") remedies this omission.

The year is 1946 and the setting is the old Jewish quarter of Paris, where Monsieur Albert and his wife Lea have re-established their pre-war ladies tailor shop.

They employ seven men and women, all scarred in one way or another by the war years and the Holocaust, but almost content with their steady jobs and harmonious workplace.

At first, the talk about customers and problems with the kids is quite normal, laced with a few Yiddish expressions. Only occasionally is there an almost inadvertent allusion to past experiences.

Leon, who is studying to become an actor, remembers that on the day Paris was liberated, he heard among the jubilation a few French patriots yelling, "Kill the Jews."

"The fascists are still here," Leon remarks, and young Joseph, the official shlimazel of the shop, confirms the observation when he goes to the police for a residence permit. He recognizes the inspector, as imperious as ever, as the same man who arrested and deported his parents.

The most deeply wounded worker is Charles (superbly portrayed by veteran actor Dennis Podalydes), who is still hoping for the return of his wife and children from concentration camps.

When a woman declares her love for him, Charles can only say, "Love is dead. It can no longer be spoken or experienced."

Director Michel Deville concludes the film with a picnic for all of Albert’s employees and their spouses and children, complete with sack races, laughter and much feasting.

The scene is as rustic and carefree as a Monet painting, but on the side sits a little boy obsessively playing with a vest pocket watch. Explains a guest, "That’s the watch his father left him when he was deported."

"Almost Peaceful" opens Oct. 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (310) 274-6869.

In Search of Scrolls at Auschwitz

"On that day I told Zelinger to prepare two large cases and to coat them in cement and tar. I ordered him to collect all the Torah scrolls and silver religious objects — with the exception of two scrolls for praying — and bury them in a certain place in the ground." — Eliezer Shenker, "The Book of Oshpitzin" (Auschwitz, in Yiddish)

Shenker didn’t want to bury the Great Synagogue’s religious objects, he writes in his 1977 account of his Polish town before the Holocaust, but what choice did he have? "From that moment, the Jews of the town saw me as head of the community," he writes.

It was 1939, and the Nazis had already began their rampages, cutting off men’s beards and sidelocks, and a town delegation — including the aforementioned Zelinger — promised Shenker their help, so he couldn’t refuse.

What was buried in those two containers? Could it have survived 65 years, the decimation of the town, the deportation of 12,000 Jews , the burning of the dozens of synagogues?

This week, two Israeli men may find out.

On May 31, filmmaker Yahaly Gat will document Yariv Nornberg’s one-month excavation for the buried artifacts at Auschwitz, where Nornberg believes the crates were buried. They both sat with The Journal last month in Tel Aviv, as they made final preparations for the excavation this month.

For Nornberg, an energetic and enthusiastic Swiss-born Israeli, the excavation has been six years in the making, he told The Journal from Tel Aviv a few weeks before he prepared to leave for the dig.

Nornberg was just a 23-year-old IDF officer in 1988 when he hurried into his hometown supermarket to buy an Israeli flag. He was going to Poland on the "March of the Living" with his grandparents and he wanted a symbol of his country. But the elderly shopkeeper, whom Nornberg had known for years, was all out, Nornberg recounts:

The shopkeeper, Yeshayahu Yarod, said, "No, come back a few days later."

Nornberg said he couldn’t. "I’m going to Poland."

Yarod got very emotional and asked if he was going to Auschwitz.

"I was born in Auschwitz," the shopkeeper told the soldier. "I was born in Auschwitz," he kept saying.

Nornberg was very confused, because he’d always assumed the old man was an old-time pioneer, a soldier in all of Israel’s wars; but he realized that the man standing before him must have been born before the war.

"Then [Yarod] told me that in a small town where he lived, on the eve of war, he was the witness to the gabai [services director] burying the Torahs. He went to draw a map."&’9;

The old man — who was about the soldier’s age when he’d witnessed the burial — had kept it a secret throughout the war, when his family was deported, he himself surviving several death camps, and immigration to Israel in 1950. The grocer never told, because he promised the gabai he wouldn’t.

But the secret was too great, and the sight of a soldier in uniform about to go to Auschwitz seemed to trigger the outpouring of the whole tale . The young man made a promise to the elder one that he would try to unearth the artifacts.

"I feel that I have a moral obligation for Mr. Yarod, and a moral obligation for the Jewish heritage," Nornberg told The Journal.

"It’s not just Torah scrolls; for 700 years it was a typical Jewish town in Eastern Europe, and now it’s the place that all the world knows as hell. It’s the synonym of hell," he said.

What will they find there this month? When Nornberg made a promise to the survivor, he did not know it would take six years to get the requisite permission, support and funding, some of which came from L.A. commercial producer Rick Fishbein. But along the way he found other witnesses and confirmation to the story, including the "Book of Oshpitzim." He also found survivors of the town, making this more than a story of the buried treasure than the story of the town itself.

That’s what attracted Gat to the project.

"Telling the story is the important thing. Uncovering what happened to this community — we are documenting all the life that has gone by, next to the biggest graveyard of the Jewish people," Gat said.

If they don’t find anything, Gat said, "I think it will be sad for everyone," but "I think for the film it doesn’t matter. Life went on there and still goes on there."

But it’s a different story for Nornberg, who’s had some of his idealism and enthusiasm knocked out of him these last years as he tried to fulfill a promise.

"I would be very disappointed," Nornberg said, shaking his head, not willing to believe that with the old man’s maps, the witnesses, the money and the time he’s put in, his treasure wouldn’t be there.

Nornberg likes to talk about "closing the circle," as in finding resolution, which is why he wanted to go to Auschwitz in 1988, and why he so desperately wants to find the artifcats now.

It’s also why he envisioned the documentary would end with him delivering the buried Torahs to Yarod back in Ramat HaSharon. But the old man who set the story in motion died two months ago.

Nornberg hopes the old man will be there in spirit: "So we can bring it all full circle."

Shoah Book Brings Museum Experience

"A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors," by Michael Berenbaum. (Bulfinch Press. $29.95.)

You don’t find an index or bibliography in a museum. You go there for images, for impressions, to be moved, as well as educated — so, too, with "A Promise to Remember."

Michael Berenbaum, a first-rate scholar and writer, who was founding director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has produced, in effect, a traveling museum, or in barely more than two score pages, a traveling museum exhibit.

More than a catalogue of a museum exhibition, Berenbaum, now director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, presents a total museum experience. Instead of walking down aisles and reading information panels, you hold the artifacts in your hands.

Through words (his own and interviews with a small number of Holocaust survivors), photos (mostly sepia, with some in color), reproduced documents (copies of a wartime rabbi’s sermon from Berlin and a politician’s letter from Bulgaria, etc.) and an accompanying CD (audio to complement the visual), Berenbaum emphasizes, subjectively but accurately, some of the most important elements of the Shoah experience.

These Shoah elements include: the background of the Final Solution, ghetto life, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the participants and bystanders, rescue by sympathetic non-Jews and, finally, liberation.

This book is clearly for the novice, for someone uninitiated in the terror that gripped the world in the mid-20th century — for the individual who isn’t likely to enter an actual Holocaust museum. The book is a tactile, sensual experience. Only the sense of smell is missing.

In the introduction, Berenbaum writes, "Nothing this brief could possibly do justice to an event as vast as the Holocaust, which evolved over 12 years and enveloped the entire continent of Europe; which consumed some 6 million dead; and whose implications are seen in headlines and images that have entered the conscious and unconscious of all humanity."

He offers nothing new in these pages, no new facts or novel interpretations, but the totality of the familiar, presented in an unfamiliar way, is striking and unsettling. The product, part coffee table book, part reference guide, is a beautifully designed masterpiece. You read the chapter on "The Decision to Kill the Jews," and you look on the same page into the austere eyes of Richard Heydrich and his fellow henchmen in genocide and you feel a chill.

He offers no footnotes or bibliography — no scholarly sources beyond the identifications that describe the interviewees. They aren’t needed; anyone affected by the book, whose interest is whetted, can contact the institutions cited in the acknowledgments.

The book isn’t meant to be read in one reading. Each chapter, to be absorbed and understood adequately, should be read separately. It will take the careful reader a few hours to go through "A Promise to Remember."

Just the length of time it takes to walk through a museum.

High Court’s New Territory: Nazi Loot

"I feel that I gave my best performance at the right time and in the right place," said a jubilant E. Randol Schoenberg.

Schoenberg’s performance hadn’t won him an Oscar but something else that he believed was infinitely more important — an appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 37-year-old West Los Angeles attorney, partner in a two-man law firm, was pleading a case he had pursued for nearly six years and against formidable opposition. On the other side was not only a nationally known law firm with 600 lawyers, but also the U.S. Department of Justice, with its huge resources, and the Austrian government.

Schoenberg represented Maria V. Altmann, an 88-year-old Cheviot Hills resident, who is seeking to recover six paintings — now valued at $150 million — by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, including a portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The paintings were confiscated by the Nazis when they took over the Bloch-Bauer mansion in Vienna and the rest of Austria in 1938. They are currently in the hands of the Austrian Gallery, which claims that Bloch-Bauer willed the paintings to the gallery before her death.

Altmann is contesting this claim, but the Supreme Court hearing on Feb. 25, the first art theft case of the Nazi era to reach the highest court, revolved around a more fundamental legal question.

"The basic issue is whether a foreign country can be sued in an American court," said professor Michael Bazyler of the Whittier Law School, whose recent book, "Holocaust Justice," analyzes the Altmann case.

Schoenberg answers yes, and two lower courts agreed with him. But the U.S. government, backing the Austrian claim, fears that if the Supreme Court upholds this position, the United States, in turn, could be sued in foreign courts and this could lead to a flood of World War II property claims.

Scott Cooper of the Proskauer Rose law firm in Century City, representing the Austrian government, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court will not rule on the case until the end of June, but if it favors Altmann’s plea, the case will be returned to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who will decide to whom the paintings belong.

For Schoenberg, the grandson of two world-famous Viennese composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, the David vs. Goliath case goes beyond prestige and money.

"Having grown up in an Austrian Jewish exile family, which had close friendship ties with the Altmann family in Vienna, the case has deep emotional and personal meaning for me," he said.

Two days before the Supreme Court hearing in Washington, another case rooted in the Holocaust era and also centering on federal vs. state jurisdiction unfolded in a Los Angeles court. It pitted survivors Manny Steinberg of West Hills and Dr. Jack Brauns of Covina, both in their late 70s, against the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) and its chairman, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Steinberg, Brauns and their attorney, William Shernoff, had earlier filed suit in a California court, charging ICHEIC with unfair business practices. They accused the commission of being in league with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of Europe’s largest insurance companies, to stonewall, deny or lower 60-year-old, justified insurance policy claims.

The commission countered by filing a motion for dismissal of the case but lost when U.S. District Judge Ronald S. W. Lew denied the motion and ordered the case returned to a California Superior court. Underlying the legal wrangling of which court should try the case was an important fact of litigation, Shernoff said.

"We have found that the judiciary in state courts, particularly in California, are sympathetic to survivors, while federal courts are more disposed toward the insurance companies," he said.

Law professor Bazyler observed that the "threshold question" of which court has jurisdiction in a given case may determine 90 percent of the outcome.

"Once the jurisdiction is decided, the parties usually settle," he said.

Attorney Constantinos Panagopoulos of New York, defending ICHEIC, said in a phone interview that his client had been "diligent" in processing survivor claims and that he would vigorously contest the survivors’ charges in California courts.

On the same day that it heard arguments on the Altmann art theft case, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that states were within their rights to deny scholarships to students studying to be priests, ministers or rabbis. The decision revived some of the contentious issues of church-state separation and also divided national Jewish organizations, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.

The ruling was hailed by the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League but denounced by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America.

Painting Through the Pain

When the Nazis forced artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis into
Terezin, she smuggled in art supplies and taught the concentration camp’s
children to express themselves through art.

“Everyone put us in boxes — the Nazis — and she took us out
of them,” her student, Edna Amit, later said of Dicker-Brandeis, who died in
Auschwitz at age 47.

The Museum of Tolerance is remembering Dicker-Brandies, one
of the founders of art therapy, with a display of her art and that of her
students, as well as a modern-day art therapy project inspired by her

A downstairs gallery displays art by children of Terezin,
which depict harsh camp conditions and life before the war. 

Upstairs, 10 life-size puppets — each created by one of 10
students from inner-city Orville Wright Middle School — sit at a mosaiced
table, with decorated cigar boxes archiving the lives of each child. The
school’s 13- to 15-year-olds face modern-day challenges such as pressure to use
drugs and join gangs.

This is the first time that Virginia Marroquin, a
13-year-old Latina, learned about the Holocaust, and it made her see her own
challenging life in a different way: “[The Holocaust] opened my eyes a lot … it
helped me look at life in a better way. It made me realize how much I have,”
she told The Journal.

Art therapist Dr. Debra Linesch created the project with
Regina Miller, the museum’s project director. This past summer they led a
five-day workshop, using Dicker-Brandeis to inspire the inner-city children.

“No matter how bad things are, give voice to it and you are
re-humanizing a dehumanizing experience,” said Linesch, director of the
graduate department of marital and family therapy at Loyola Marymount
University. “That’s what I learned from Friedl.”

The dual exhibit runs through Jan. 15, at the Museum
of  Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Plaza, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For
information, call (310) 553-8403 or visit

Shoah’s Belorussian Cowboys

The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest," by Peter Duffy. (Harper Collins, $25.95).

"Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. The Story of the Largest Armed Rescue of Jews by Jews During World War II," by Nechama Tec. (Oxford University Press, 1993).

For years, the mythology of Zionism led us to believe that the establishment of the State of Israel represented a bold alternative to the passive victimization of the European Jewish community. Whereas European Jews had "submitted" to their treatment, with fatal consequences, Israeli Jews would never let anyone destroy their homes, culture and lives. That was the line, anyway. The truth, as is so often the case, was more complicated, and no one should know that better than we Americans.

America’s sense of self-definition has been on display more blatantly than ever, it seems. Led by our administration, we have embraced the "cowboy" ethic: seemingly down-home while at the same time unilaterally aggressive. Simultaneously, we’ve had to face how that character is interpreted by others. The Wild West is also a myth, of course, one that captures the ideals of America much more than its infinitely varied reality.

I was reminded of these paradigms while reading Peter Duffy’s new book, "The Bielski Brothers," which chronicles a truly amazing group of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Belorussia by forming a partisan brigade that fought the Nazis and saved as many Jewish lives as possible.

Led by the charismatic Tuvia Bielski and two of his brothers, this partisan unit all but explodes the idea of the passive European Jew. In the end, they saved 1,200 Jews from extinction. Their story is one of heroic bravery: ghetto breaks, disruption of German rail service, even the establishment of a working shtetl deep within the forest. Add to this the inherent danger of being a Jew on the run during World War II, and the narrative can’t help but be thrilling.

Duffy is right to find an extraordinary story in the details of the Bielski partisan unit. He is not, however, the first to do so. Nechama Tec’s study, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans," was published in 1993, and provides an interesting contrast to Duffy’s account.

The books cover primarily the same material, with the same basic goal. Duffy’s is by far the better read, despite his penchant for one-line cliffhangers and the liberal use of exclamation points. His book is organized by chronology, giving the story a natural arc and momentum. Indeed, Duffy has written a fast-paced, exciting book.

The same cannot be said of Tec — a survivor herself — whose writing is more academic, less showy. I suspect, however, that Tec’s is the more thorough of the two, not least because she actually interviewed Tuvia Bielski two weeks before his death.

The fact that the books relay slightly different accounts of events is understandable. Memory, after all, is mutable, and different people will remember events differently. No, the distinction between these tellings lies in how much humanity each author is willing to accord its story’s heroes.

Both writers support Tuvia Bielski, even when his decisions seem questionable. This is understandable, since it was he who had the vision and strength of character to hold together a fractious group of fighters and civilians during that most harrowing of times. He was also human, although Duffy hardly conveys that. His Tuvia Bielski is the John Wayne of the forest, tall, gallant and noble. Indeed, some survivors talk of Bielski in terms that approximate images of heroism gleaned from the movies. Tec, however, does not shy away from his flaws, and so finds the human even inside the leader.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses, and Tuvia Bielski and his brothers, children of a poor mill owner, rose to the challenge. But even during the Nazi years, people are people, as Tec shows. Just because he saved Jews does not mean that Tuvia was a saint. He was tall, and he rode a white horse, but he brought his weaknesses — drinking, womanizing — into the forest with him. Similarly, the partisan unit was driven as much by petty politics as by the more dangerous incidences of treachery that both Duffy and Tec discuss. Favoritism, greed, jealousy: all these were as important in the organizational life of the brigade as the wide-scale anti-Semitism around it.

Overall, non-fighters are given short-shrift in Duffy’s book. Women, for example, had an especially hard time. Deemed unfit for fighting and surveillance, excluded from decision-making and the industries that were eventually established, women were in more danger of rape and murder by both Nazis and partisans and so often entered into "marriages" with fighters in order to ensure their own safety. But Duffy, who is more interested in a story of strength and moral certainty, devotes one sentence to the very different experiences of men and women.

In short, Duffy’s is an extremely American book: it streamlines the story — removes characters, nuance and even episodes in the name of a more exciting tale. It feeds the need for simple heroics that Americans crave, especially during our own uncertain times. Tec’s is knottier and not as well-organized, but, in the end, more truthful for letting all her figures remain human even during a time of brutal, dehumanizing terror.

Staging a Body of Work

What’s a nice Jewish feminist performance artist to do when she’s heavily covered in tattoos? She creates a solo piece, “Jewess Tattoess,” exploring the conflict between her heritage and her body.

In her multimedia show, Marisa Carnesky examines the Jewish tattoo taboo by fusing elements of Yiddish melodrama, Victorian sideshows and Grand Guignol theater. She becomes the night demon Lilith, a possessed preteen and the Whore of Babylon, who in the piece is indisposed and on vacation.

“She’s sick and tired of women’s sexuality being demonized in traditional cultures, so she’s off sunbathing with her friends, Salome and the Queen of Sheba,” the sunny Carnesky, 32, said from her London home.

The character allows her to comment on “the clash between religions like Judaism and the choices we make as modern, feminist women.”

Carnesky noticed the conflict as a girl while sitting in the “ladies’ gallery” of her modern Orthodox synagogue: “It was hot and uncomfortable, and all about the hats and the outfits, and you couldn’t really see what the men were doing,” said the artist, whose pieces include “Carnesky’s Ghost Train.”

By age 15, she’d abandoned her Habonim youth-group friends for “arty-punky” circles at her multicultural public school. While she dyed her hair purple to immerse herself in the horror-rock Gothic scene, she refused to wear the de rigeur crucifix, favoring instead a Star of David.

“I wanted to be a Jewish Goth,” she said.

Jewish concerns were also on her mind when she was 19, as she began acquiring body art based on photographs of Victorian tattooed ladies.

“I was obsessed by Holocaust imagery of bodies piled up, their humanity taken away,” she said. “My macabre thought was that if that ever happened to me, they wouldn’t be able to steal my personality because my body is so tattooed.”

Carnesky was prompted to turn such issues into “Jewess Tattoess” around 1999: “I had met a number of Jews in the theater and felt I had a lot in common with them,” she said. She studied Jewish folk tales, books on the Torah prohibition against tattooing and photographs of shtetls and showgirls; one picture depicted Jewish silent actress Theda Bara covered in jewelry as the biblical temptress Salome.

“The very sexual, decorated woman is reviled in most cultures, and I was looking for characters that societies have created to guide people away from them,” she said.

“Jewess Tattoess” has guided Carnesky back to Judaism by introducing her to alternative subcultures such as Heeb magazine.

So what’s next for this Jewish performance artist?

“Maybe a Star of David tattoo,” she said.

The show runs Oct. 1 and Oct. 3-5 as part of UCLA Live’ssecond annual International Theatre Festival;  or (310) 825-2101.

Rabbis, Scholars OK CBS ‘Hitler’ Pic

There were nights, CBS Television president and CEO Leslie Moonves remembered, “when I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling and asking myself, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Will it open old wounds? Are we creating more anti-Semitism?'”

Moonves had good cause for sleepless introspection. Since announcing last July that CBS would air a prime-time four-hour miniseries on the early life of Adolf Hitler, media critics and Jewish spokesmen have had a field day.

They feared that the early Hitler would be “humanized” into a sympathetic figure as an abused child and misunderstood artist or as a German Rocky who overcame tremendous odds, and even that the film might trigger pogrom-like outbursts. Moonves, much of whose grandparents’ family in Poland perished in the Holocaust, even took flak from his own relatives.

Now, with “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” broadcasting Sunday, May 18 and Tuesday, May 20 at 9 p.m. during the ratings sweeps period, the CBS chief is breathing easier.

After previewing tapes of the film, a half-dozen Holocaust scholars and prominent rabbis have generally given it thumbs up, with most appraisals ranging from the positive to the enthusiastic.

Some of the turnaround can be credited to an entirely new script and complete revision of the original project, starting with the metamorphosis of the title from (a “misspoken”) “Young Hitler” to “Hitler: The Early Years,” “Hitler,” “Hitler: The Origin of Evil” and finally to the present title.

The earlier critical volleys and advice from Jewish leaders consulted by the producers apparently gave a substantial push to the fundamental revisions.

In its final form, the film briefly touches on young Hitler’s brutal and domineering father, his troubled adolescence, his rootless existence in Vienna as a failed artist and his enthusiastic soldiering in World War I.

But the bulk of the film deals with Hitler’s career from a Munich beerhall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his own hands.

In stark statistics and pictures, an epilogue summarizes the utter devastation wrought by the Führer on Europe and the Jewish people.

“I think any fears in the Jewish community that the film would glorify Hitler have been allayed,” said noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. “It successfully narrates Hitler’s rise to power and shows clearly how those who tried to manipulate him were instead manipulated by him.

“Historians may have some trouble with interpretation, as they always do, and with some composite figures, but, in general, the film deals well with a part of Hitler’s life that people need to know,” said Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for the Study of Ethics and the Holocaust at the University of Judaism.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, warmly applauded the film.

“It delivers a very powerful message, especially to young people, how many times Hitler could have been stopped in the early years, how potent evil is and how fragile democracy is,” he said.

A similar theme was emphasized by Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who counts the Moonves family among his congregants. Fields, who had voiced strong objections to the initial script, noted that the final film “raises significant lessons for us today about the dangers to democracy of political and religious fanaticism, from whatever source.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, praised the film and acknowledged that his earlier fears about the project had been unjustified. However, he would have liked to have seen the presence of a more substantial Jewish character and strongly urged a sequel which would take the Hitler story to its end in 1945.

“There are now youngsters who know nothing about World War II and the Holocaust, who didn’t see ‘Schindler’s List,’ and who need to know,” Hier said.

Rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin, an early adviser on the project, described the film as “very powerful, which gives dimension to Hitler but does not soften him. In no way does it downplay the depth of his anti-Semitism.”

All of the cited experts gave much of the credit for the effectiveness of the film to Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, whose portrayal of Hitler, Foxman said, is “frighteningly brilliant.”

One dissenting view came from philosophy professor John K. Roth, director of the newly formed Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College. While acknowledging the complexity of the subject and the overall usefulness of the film, Roth felt that Hitler, perhaps to avoid any sympathy for him, came across as “too histrionic and crazed, and insufficiently nuanced and ambiguous.”

The danger in such a portrayal is that “it plays into the stereotype of Hitler as a crazy man and that viewers will say ‘I now understand who he was.’ It might be better to live with some ambiguity and to admit that we don’t really understand Hitler.”

Elie Wiesel, who has long been disenchanted with “dramatic” interpretations of the Holocaust and the Hitler era, had a lengthy critical exchange with Moonves. Wiesel viewed the tape quite recently but could not be reached for his evaluation.

Two aspects of Hitler that the film does not explain, and which, indeed, may be beyond explanation, are his charisma and almost hypnotic effect on his followers, especially women, and what triggered his murderous hatred of Jews.

On the first point, Berenbaum cites an exemplar, if not an understanding, of Hitler’s magnetism, by quoting from the autobiography of Albert Speer, an urbane and sophisticated architect and later Hitler’s armaments minister.

Out of curiosity, Speer went to hear Hitler speak in 1930 and, on the way, saw some posters of the Führer, which Speer viewed as Chaplinesque caricatures.

But, Speer wrote, “Three hours later [after hearing Hitler speak] I left the beer garden a changed person. I saw the same posters … but I looked at them with different eyes. A blown-up picture of Adolf Hitler in a martial pose, which I had regarded with a touch of amusement on the way in, had suddenly lost all its ridiculousness.”

The roots and launching point of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism continue to baffle the experts. Theories abound — a brighter Jewish classmate in school, a Jewish doctor who performed a mastectomy on Hitler’s beloved mother, the poisonous anti-Semitism of Vienna, or simply the oratorical success of his anti-Jewish tirades — but a definitive answer may never be found.

Almost as interesting as the miniseries itself is the exemplar of “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” on the vagaries of filmmaking, especially when the subject retains its hold on the sensitivities and unhealed wounds of millions.

The project was first presented to Moonves about 18 months ago by Peter Sussman, CEO of the Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis Entertainment Group.

“The Nazi era and the Holocaust have generally been dramatized from the perspective of the victim,” Sussman said. “We thought it would be interesting to approach that evil and horror in another way.”

Moonves greenlighted the project, with CBS putting up around 60 percent of the $20 million plus price tag. “In remembering the Holocaust, as we always must, I thought it important to find out what steps led up to the making of this monster [Hitler]. Not to pay any attention to that would be like sticking our head in the sand,” Moonves said.

The first script, by G. Ross Parker, was, by now-general agreement, pretty much a bust.

“It was a really simplistic treatment,” Fields said, “with different kinds of psychological interpretations and with little feel for the context and climate of the time.”

A new writer, John Pielmeier, was brought in and shooting started in early January in Prague.

Then in early April, with the film almost completed, a mini-disaster struck.

In an interview, co-executive producer Ed Gernon, a key player, pointing to the timeliness of the film, seemed to draw an analogy between the Germans’ fear and acquiescence that led to Hitler’s dictatorship with similar emotions among the American people in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

The interview was published at the height of the war and denounced, among others, by the New York Post, which claimed that Gernon had equated President Bush with Hitler.

Alliance Atlantis and CBS called Gernon’s remarks “insensitive and outright wrong” and fired him instantly. Sussman declined to discuss the incident.

During the broadcast of the film, there will be a number of public service announcements on tolerance, with guidance from the Anti- Defamation League, and CBS said it will make donations to one or more Holocaust education funds. Moonves stated that solicitation of advertisers was proceeding normally. A comprehensive study guide for high school teachers and students has been developed as a companion piece to the film.

Plans also call for the film to be sold across the world, “certainly in Europe and Israel,” Sussman said, and will be available in video and DVD format.

As for all the preceding controversy, Moonves remains unfazed.

“All of that should help the ratings,” he said hopefully. “I think the public will be curious.”

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