Jewish artifacts in glass decanter of valuables found in Polish town

A backhoe operator working on a construction site in Poland dug up a glass decanter filled with valuables, including Jewish artifacts.

Among the objects discovered inside the decanter found June 15 in Minsk Mazowiecki were kiddush cups, silver cutlery, a gold pocket watch and gold coins. The owner of the objects, whose material value was estimated to be about $10,000, was not identified.

The discovery was reported Thursday on the website of the city, which is located about 25 miles east of Warsaw. Minsk Mazowiecki, in central Poland, was the site of a Jewish ghetto that was liquidated in July 1942.

Officials at the Museum of Minsk Mazowiecki said the arrangement of the objects shows that they were buried in a hurry and the owner intended to return for them.

The Provincial Conservator Office will decide where the items will go; the local museum would like to keep them in the town.

Custody battle over rare Iraqi-Jewish historical documents

On May 6, 2003, 16 American soldiers of a special unit searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction entered the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.

While the soldiers found no nuclear or chemical arms, they did discover 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents pertaining to the lives and history of the Iraqi-Jewish community from 1524 to the 1970s.

The historical trove was slowly disintegrating under 4 feet of water, so U.S. authorities in Iraq sent an urgent request to Washington for top conservation experts.

One week later, Doris Hamburg, director of preservation programs at the National Archives, arrived in Baghdad and was taken to the flooded basement. “When we opened the trunks where the documents were stored, we were hit by an overpowering moldy smell,” she recalled in a phone interview.

On Sept. 4, an exhibition including 23 of the recovered items, along with videos of the painstaking restoration effort, will open at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.

The 2,000-square-foot exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” will continue through Nov. 15 at the Orange County site.

Among the show’s highlights are a Hebrew Bible with commentaries published in 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a hand-lettered and decorated haggadah, and a lunar calendar in Hebrew and Arabic.

One section of the exhibition shows how the moldy mass of material was saved by the National Archives experts. “Every page had to be vacuumed, freeze-dried, preserved and digitized,” Hamburg said. On the Sept. 4 opening day, Hamburg will give a free public lecture at 10 a.m. at the Nixon Library.

After restoration: Passover Haggadah from Vienna, 1930. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

The exhibition is of particular significance to the roughly 3,000 Jews of Iraqi descent in Los Angeles, who make up the largest concentration among the estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Iraqi Jews in the United States. Other sizable communities are in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Arizona; Connecticut; Florida; and New Jersey.

The spiritual center of the Los Angeles community is Congregation Kahal Joseph, a Sephardic synagogue on the city’s Westside. It has a membership of some 400 families, about 90 percent of which are of Iraqi descent, with the remainder from Burma, Indonesia, India and Singapore.

After a number of years without a spiritual leader, Kahal Joseph welcomed Rabbi Raif Melhado to its pulpit last month.

The congregation’s former president and current chairman of the board is Joseph Dabby, who said he lobbied intensively to bring the exhibition to Los Angeles after it had been shown in New York;, Washington, D.C.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Asked why the exhibition venue would be located in Yorba Linda rather than at a central Jewish site in Los Angeles, Dabby said he had asked the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to host the show but was turned down by both.

Skirball museum director Robert Kirschner explained, “Of the many exhibitions proposed to us, unfortunately we can present very few. The museum gave this exhibition serious consideration several years ago, and I subsequently went to see it in in New York City. While it is a worthy exhibition, our decision was that it did not resonate closely with the Skirball’s mission, which focuses on the American-Jewish experience.”

At the Museum of Tolerance, director Liebe Geft stated that no one at the museum had been contacted about the exhibition.

She added that potential exhibits are judged on whether the subject matter and content are consistent with the museum’s mission, as well as with the logistics and available space. Currently, she said, the new Anne Frank installation is occupying all available space.

Dabby’s greatest concern, however, is whether the thousands of books, documents and artifacts will remain in the United States or be returned to the government in Baghdad, as was stipulated in the initial agreement allowing the transfers to the U.S. National Archives.

Given the unsettled conditions in Iraq and the presence of the Islamic State, with its penchant for destroying ancient monuments and historical religious artifacts, Dabby asked how anyone could guarantee the survival of the Iraqi-Jewish collection. His question was echoed by Maurice Shohet, the Washington-based president of the World Organization of Jews From Iraq.

“All the books and documents were taken forcibly from the Jewish community by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and they still belong to us,” Shohet said. “I don’t know what the State Department plans to do, but at this time, it seems to be postponing any decision.”

The Journal asked the State Department for its view, and the same day received a lengthy response from spokesman Michael Lavallee, who made the following points:

As agreed to by the Iraqi government, the Iraqi Jewish Archive (IJA) is in the temporary custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for conservation, preservation, digitization and exhibition in the United States.

In May 2014, the Iraqi government extended IJA’s stay in the United States to allow its exhibition in more cities. After its Nixon Library display, the exhibit is due at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in December.

There are no definite plans for subsequent exhibits, but the United States “remains committed to the return of the IJA to Iraq, as per prior agreement,” Lavallee stated.

To the Journal’s question regarding the security of the IJA material should it be returned to Iraq, Lavallee responded diplomatically: “We will continue to partner with the Government of Iraq in countering the threat that [Islamic State] poses to the Iraqi people and heritage. Iraqi forces continue to make progress against [Islamic State] and it is impossible to speculate what the security situation would be at the point in the future when the collection would return to Iraq.”

Admission tickets to the Nixon Library ranges from $11.95 for adults to $4.75 for children. For additional information, visit ” target=”_blank”>

British teens arrested in theft of Auschwitz artifacts

Two British teenagers were arrested in Poland after police found in their backpacks items believed to be stolen from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

On Monday, museum security guards notified Polish police of the suspected theft of buttons, a fragment of a hair clipper and a piece of a spoon that belonged to prisoners of Birkenau. Police questioned the teens, 17 and 18, with the assistance of a translator.

The teens maintained their innocence, according to Deputy Inspector Mariusz Ciarka of the Malopolska police, but remain in police custody. They are charged with “misappropriation of objects that are artifacts of special cultural significance,” the Krakow Gazette reported.

Ciarka told the local media that the teens do not appear to realize the gravity of their alleged crime and are unfamiliar with “the dramatic history associated with Auschwitz. In contrast, museum staff are particularly sensitive to these types of incidents.”

If found guilty, the teens could be jailed for one to 10 years, though a fine and probation are the more likely punishment.

Rare chance to see ancient biblical artifacts, documents

An exhibition of more than 200 of the world’s rarest biblical manuscripts is drawing big crowds to the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. 

The “Book of Books” exhibition will be housed at the museum through October. The museum, which contains a huge collection of artifacts produced in lands mentioned in the Bible, is across the street and just a couple hundred feet from the permanent Dead Sea Scrolls collection at the Israel Museum. Seen together, the two exhibitions provide a once-in-a-lifetime look at the holiest texts of Judaism and Christianity. 

Located on the lower level of the Bible Lands Museum, “Book of Books” explores the development of the Bible and the spread of Judaism and Christianity from the time of the Second Temple some 2,000 years ago through the Middle Ages and the invention of movable type and printing. 

Bible Lands Museum, which is calling the exhibition that opened in October 2013 “historic” and “unprecedented,” features fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible — the Tanakh), the earliest New Testament scriptures, beautiful illuminated manuscripts, rare texts from the Cairo Genizah (a treasury of ancient Jewish texts discovered in an Egyptian synagogue) and original pages from a Gutenberg Bible. 

The artifacts that accompany the texts — ancient coins bearing religious symbols, incantation bowls — are reminders that text was just one way people expressed their religious beliefs and practices.  

The exhibition is being shown in a dimly lit but artfully designed hall to preserve the fragile, light-sensitive texts. Many have brilliantly colored illustrations and are in remarkably good condition. 

For lovers of rare religious books and manuscripts, entering the hall is the closest thing to paradise. Having the chance to see any one of these items would be a treat. Viewing them together is a rare opportunity. 

Most of the items on exhibit belong to a vast, 40,000-piece collection amassed by Steve Green, the devoutly Christian president of Hobby Lobby, the American crafts store chain founded by his father. He began collecting the biblical treasures just a few years ago and is in the process of building a 400,000-square-foot museum and institute in Washington, D.C., to permanently house the collection.  

Speaking at the opening, which was attended by the Green family, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau commented about the relationship between the Bible and the Jewish people. 

“The reason why we are here in this land is a result of the Book of Books, the Bible. The Bible is the identification document of the Jewish people. It is impossible not to feel emotion when viewing this exhibition, and when you read these texts you become connected to them.”

The exhibition traces the evolution of the Bible from its roots in the Judean Desert to Greece, Egypt, the rest of the Middle East and eventually Europe, and it reveals how the texts were adopted, edited and transformed not only by Christians but also Jews. In so doing, it calls attention to the Jewish roots of Christianity, the migration of Jews from the Land of Israel, and how a single “book” could have such a profound influence on the world and its religions — in an age before electricity, printing presses and the Internet.  

Given today’s globalization, it’s easy to forget that translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek, Aramaic, Coptic, Arabic, Latin, German, English and numerous other languages found in the exhibition was a massive undertaking. Canonized some time around the Second Temple period (70 C.E.), all biblical texts were painstakingly handwritten until Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable type printing press in the 1400s.  

The exhibition, which runs more or less chronologically, begins with an ancient inscription of the Shema prayer and ends with an actual demonstration of how books were printed on the Gutenberg printing press (one of the exhibition’s only facsimiles). 

Gutenberg Bible leaf, I Samuel (Latin); print and pigment on paper; Mainz, Germany, circa 1450. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

With a collection this rich, it is difficult to single out just a few of the best items, but it does include the works of two of Israel’s tiniest minorities: a Samaritan Pentateuch from the 12th to 13th centuries, and a Karaite Book of Prophets from the 11th to 12th centuries. 

Arguably the most unusual document is the Compilacion Historiae Totius Bible, a 14th century Latin chronicle of biblical history from Adam to Jesus that unfolds like a giant accordion. The document contains marvelous genealogical trees, and lists popes, emperors and kings.   

One particularly beautiful Jewish text is one of the earliest illuminated Scrolls of Esther. It was created by the Italian artist and scribe Moshe Pescarolo in 1615. All of the characters in the exquisitely illustrated Megillah are depicted in 17th century clothing. 

Other noteworthy items include “The Confessions of the Jews,” an anti-Semitic essay written in Latin in 1508 by a Jew who converted to Christianity; a public debate between a Christian and a Jew from 1529; and incantation bowls: vessels inscribed with spells that Jews in Iraq buried outside their homes to catch demons.  

Rachel Selby, a Jerusalem English teacher originally from England, called the exhibition inspiring. 

“Looking at the ancient parchments of Torah on the scroll from the 14th century, I was thrilled that my Hebrew school education from London in the 1970s allowed me to pick out the Hebrew phrases, read them and even understand what I read. It sent a shiver down my spine, actually.”

Steindorff artifacts to remain at University of Leipzig

A collection of Egyptian artifacts unearthed 96 years ago by Jewish Egyptologist Georg Steindorff and forcibly sold under the Nazis will remain at the University of Leipzig.

The agreement worked out between the university and the Claims Conference was announced Wednesday.

The decision follows public protests against a recent Berlin court order that the objects be handed over to the Claims Conference, which had fought to reclaim them as stolen Jewish property since the unification of former East and West Germany in 1990, Bloomberg reported.

An heir of Steindorff came forward recently to say the objects should remain in Leipzig.

The university has formally agreed that the collection—including a medical papyrus and a limestone head of Queen Nefertiti—was a loss of property due to persecution, according to a statement issued Wednesday by the Claims Conference.

The university will keep the collection and, instead of paying compensation, will devote time and funds toward a documentation of the life and work of Steindorff, who was appointed chair of the Egyptology department in 1893. The collection reportedly will include Steindorff’s explanatory charts and will detail the persecution Steindorff endured before his emigration in 1939. The university also has pledged to create a Holocaust education program.

Steindorff was born in 1861 in Dessau, Germany. As the university’s chief Egyptologist in 1915, he excavated the objects in question in the Giza plateau. Egyptian law then allowed the excavator to keep half of what was found.

Steindorff retired in 1934. Under the Nazi regime, he was forced to sell his private collection at an artificially low price; the university has owned the collection since 1937.

The agreement follows a Berlin Administrative Court ruling on May 26 that the university must return the collection to the Claims Conference as unclaimed Jewish property.

Following local protests, talks between the Claims Conference and the university resulted in an “amicable agreement” satisfactory to all parties, according to the Claims Conference chair Julius Berman.

Though the objects will not leave Leipzig, the Berlin court judgment “sends a special signal to all museums, galleries and auction houses” that they must research the provenance of their collections, said Roman Haller, director of the Claims Conference in Germany.

“The circumstances under which the cultural assets reached the museums must be transparent; we owe this to the victims,” Haller said.

Steindorff’s grandson, Thomas Hemer, 88, traveled from Nevada to his Leipzig birthplace to argue that the objects should remain at the institute that his grandfather had cherished, Bloomberg reported.

Prior to the agreement, Egyptian Minister for Antiquities Zahi Hawass reportedly also contacted the Claims Conference demanding that the objects be returned to Egypt.

Community Rallies for Woman’s Divorce, UCLA Acquires Jewish Artifacts

Community Rallies for Woman’s Jewish Divorce

Chanting “Stop Abuse” and “Free Your Wife,” 200 people rallied on the eve of Purim in front of the Fairfax-area home of a man who refuses to grant his wife a Jewish divorce.

Meir Kin and his wife, Lonna, who have one child, have been separated for four years, and though a civil divorce has already been granted, he has refused to appear before a recognized rabbinic court to grant her a Jewish writ of divorce, or get. Without a get, she cannot remarry and is considered an agunah, Hebrew for chained woman.

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) issued a seiruv, or letter of contempt, against Kin in March 2007 for refusing to appear before the beit din, a rabbinic judicial panel.

The New York-based Organization for the Resolution for Agunot (ORA) organized the rally to apply communal pressure on Kin. Because Jewish law does not allow a beit din to force a man to issue his wife a divorce, communities have historically used religious ostracization and social embarrassment to pressure recalcitrant husbands into giving in.

“We feel it is important for a community to take a stand against this kind of abuse, and say we will not tolerate it,” ORA’s assistant director Jeremy Stern said. “If someone is emotionally abusing his wife, abusing halacha and making a mockery of the rabbinic system, it will not be tolerated.”

ORA works with couples from across the religious spectrum — from fervently Orthodox to loosely traditional — to help resolve tough divorce cases, Stern said. The organization tries to facilitate conversation between the parties to help bring them to an acceptable resolution with a beit din or other mediator. If that fails, ORA uses threats of protest and then actual protests at the home or workplace of a husband who refuses to give a get, or a wife who refuses to accept one. Since it was founded in 2002, ORA has helped resolve 97 cases and still has 60 cases open — just a small percentage of the problem divorce cases out there, Stern says. Several of ORA’s cases are in Los Angeles, including an Israeli man in Tarzana who has refused his wife a get for 31 years.

ORA has been working on the Kin case for three years. The case has a long and complicated history in civil courts in New York and Los Angeles, and several rabbinic courts. Kin said a get is waiting for his wife at the beit din of Rabbi Tzvi Dov Abraham in Monsey, N.Y. But that beit din is universally reviled as extortionist, and divorces from Abraham’s beit din are not recognized by the RCC, the chief rabbinate in Israel or the Beth Din of America, Stern said.

Kin comes from a prominent Los Angeles Orthodox family — both his parents are longtime educators in the Beverly-La Brea area, and his brother, Rabbi Elyahu Kin, is a leader at the outreach organization Torah Ohr. Another brother is president of an Orthodox congregation.

The protest was held outside the parents’ home. Stern has been slowly publicizing the case for two years, sending fliers and information packets to local rabbis, hoping to avoid a rally, he said. While some rabbis showed up to the rally and publicized it among their congregants, many stayed away.

Stern said the group also works on preventative measures. It supports a 10-year-old effort to make prenuptial agreements, which make withholding or refusing a get financially painful, a standard part of Orthodox wedding ceremonies. Stern flew to Los Angeles for the rally, and spent some time in local Orthodox high schools teaching students about the need for prenups.

“We see this as way of making social change from the bottom up, so everyone does it as a matter of course,” Stern said.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

UCLA Acquires Western Jewish History Artifacts

UCLA last week celebrated the acquisition of a treasure trove of Jewish history in the American West, the legacy of four dedicated amateurs turned skilled historians.

The ceremony in the UCLA Library’s special collections department culminated decades of work by the late Dr. Norton Stern and Rabbi William Kramer, both Los Angeles residents.

When they died, they left behind some 400 boxes crammed with documents, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, memoirs, photos and assorted memorabilia.

Much of the hoard was accumulated by Stern, an optometrist, who scoured the small towns of the Western states, looking, as he put it, “through hundreds of haystacks for dozens of needles,” hidden in abandoned cemeteries and faded newspapers.

His and Kramer’s immense accumulation of history in the raw was rescued after their deaths by two Valley residents, David W. Epstein and Gladys Sturman, who went about cataloging, indexing and archiving the material.

They were aided by 11 members of Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, an $18,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation and $10,000 from Sturman’s own pocket.

A major part of the Stern-Kramer legacy was trucked to UCLA last year and, over the months, Caroline Luce, a doctoral candidate in history, has digitized the archive, which is expected to go online in May.

In the process, Luce has become an expert on the arcane history of bagels, and the audience of some 70 invited guests was left to ponder whether the Jewish gustatory icon had originated in Austria, Poland, or China.

Epstein noted that Kramer and Stern had defined rather broad boundaries for the “American West,” claiming all the land west of the Mississippi River, Hawaii and parts of Mexico.

Jews played a disproportionally large role in the development of the West, because they were often the only residents who were literate, knew about business affairs, and were trusted by both gold prospectors and native Indians.

David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, lauded the professional standards and work by Sturman, Epstein and the Shir Ami volunteers as a prime example of collaboration between town and gown.

Additional parts of the original Kramer-Stern collection have been donated to other institutions, such as 1,000 books to the American Jewish University, 2,000 photos to the Autry National Center, and ephemera to the Huntington Research Library, in partnership with USC.

For additional information, call the UCLA department of special collections at (310) 825-4988 or Genie Guerard at (310) 206-0521.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Artifact-rich Sports Museum opens downtown

A T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, one of the rarest in the world. Barry Bonds’ 755th home run ball. A handful of infield dirt, the broken champagne bottle used to christen the stadium and the first ball thrown out at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1913.

These are some of the gems at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles, which opened on Nov. 28. Not surprisingly, the collection, owned by Gary Cypres and housed downtown in a 32,000-square-foot warehouse, has already generated the kind of breathless blurbs usually uttered by radio personalities for movie openings.

“Awesome! Fantastic! Unbelievable! That one person could collect all this memorabilia is incomprehensible,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said of the museum, located a few blocks south of Staples Center.

“The best sports museum in the world!” former Dodger owner Peter O’Malley added.

This is one case where everything that has been said is true. Cypres’ vast sports collection, which fills 30 well-lighted galleries, is extraordinary and reflects its owner’s deep love of sports history.

It is not simply that he knows Yale, not USC, was the school that pioneered football; Cypres also owns a rare Edison film of the 1903 Yale vs. Princeton football game, which runs on a small screen above an exhibit on college football.

And it’s not simply that he knows that the L.A. Times got it wrong when it reported that, after Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak ended, he hit in another 12 games (Joltin’ Joe actually hit in another 16 consecutive games); Cypres also owns the ball that was speared by Cleveland’s Ken Keltner to end DiMaggio’s 56-game skein.

Still, one has to ask, where are the Jewish sports artifacts?

Mark Spitz’ gold medals? Barney Ross’ lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight belts? Hank Greenberg’s 58th home run ball from 1938?

None of these are to be found at the museum, but there is a jersey worn in 1957 by Dodger Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest Jewish athletes of the past century and arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.

Cypres, who slumps over but who once stood about 6-foot-3 1/2-inches when he played forward at Hofstra, says, “You want Jewish?”

He points out a photograph of the Cleveland Rosenblums, a championship basketball squad from the late 1920s and early 1930s. What is striking is how much shorter the players were then. The tallest player, Joe Lapchick, was 6-foot-5, tiny by today’s standards. Dressed in knee pads and tank-tops, sticking out their chests, with their bodies turned to the side, not straight-on, the Rosenblums look more like a college wrestling team than a pro basketball squad.

In one of the basketball rooms, there are also jackets worn by members of the House of David, a barnstorming outfit that played basketball and baseball, and the Philadelphia Sphas, a legendary Jewish hoops team during the early days of basketball. There are also photos and a plaque of Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters.

A modest, unassuming man who has made his money in investment banking and the travel business, Cypres, 65, grew up in the Bronx at a time when Jews were still dominant in basketball, when CCNY, a team coached by Nat Holman and comprised of many Jews, became the only school to win the NIT and NCAA titles in the same year. Cypres played ball on the playgrounds and at summer camp with Larry Brown, the current Charlotte Bobcats coach, who was himself a great player in the ABA.

Yet when asked what it meant to be a Jewish kid back then, when there were many star Jewish athletes, Cypres says that didn’t influence him to play basketball.

His favorite athlete was Mickey Mantle.

Although he roots for the Dodgers now, Cypres still has a love for his boyhood Yankees and has a whole room devoted to Mantle as well as rooms filled with DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth memorabilia.

Unfortunately, despite the wealth and beauty of the resources in this museum, it has attracted few visitors so far. Part of that is due to the economy, which is harming attendance at many museums such as MOCA, on whose board Cypres’ wife, Kathi, sits. Part of it is due to its location, downtown, as opposed to the Westside. And part of it is due to the time of year. Cypres expects greater turnout in the summer when kids are out of school.

But Cypres has gotten many calls from corporations, asking to hold events in his museum. He sees it as a perfect spot to host dinners, seminars and parties.

Meanwhile, his sports memorabilia collection, which he values at roughly $30 million, keeps gaining in value. As he says, “better than the stock market, Imight add.”

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Top: Uniform jerseys that are part of the Los Angeles Dodgers gallery. Bottom: Evolution of the football uniform in one of the football galleries at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles. Photos courtesy of the Sports Museum of Los Angeles

Photos capture numbers and words of Nazis’ Final Solution

Every now and then, a momentous life chapter can be triggered by a seemingly insignificant occurrence. That’s what happened to Dr. Richard Ehrlich on a plane a few years ago. The monotony of the flight was broken by skimming an issue of the International Herald Tribune. A small item mentioned the Holocaust archives at the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany.

For most of the past decade, Ehrlich, a urological surgeon, has enjoyed an avocation as an art photographer. He’s been widely shown and published, preferring nature and travel subjects.

A selection of 52 color digital images from Ehrlich’s documentation of Nazi bureaucracy from Hitler’s Final Solution will be on display in “The Holocaust Archive Revealed” at the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica beginning Tuesday.

Relaxing in a UCLA examining room, Ehrlich — dressed in green scrubs — took time recently to speak about his portfolio of enlarged photographs documenting the assembled archive.

“My interest was piqued,” he confessed. “The idea that all of the data concerning the Holocaust was stored in one place stirred something compelling in me.”

A “60 Minutes” segment on the International Tracing Service (ITS) further inspired Ehrlich to access the archive. He set about petitioning the ITS, but even with the help of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Ehrlich was blocked. He’s quite circumspect about how he gained access, offering obliquely that a friend in the State Department was involved.

A meeting was arranged between Ehrlich and the director of the archive. He filled out the requisite forms and was granted two extended sessions to take pictures. Although the materials he photographed amounted to little more than printed words and numbers, the staggering volume — six buildings (including a former SS barracks) and 16 miles of records — impressed upon Ehrlich the huge effort that went into eradicating European Jewry and other “undesirable” minorities under the Nazi master plan.

Ehrlich came to photography through an evolutionary process. He has a background in painting, and the works of Paul Cézanne were his first important sources. Cézanne, the 19th century post-impressionist painter, took everyday elements and scenes — people, landscapes, objects — and subtly reordered them. Hard edges found their way into figures, fruits and face planes. Multiplicity of viewpoint, a defining element of 20th century modernism in all the arts, first surfaced in Cézanne.

The California abstract expressionists Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn were Ehrlich’s next great influence, and their input can be discerned in his photographs. Through positioning and scale, Bischoff’s figurative work looked abstract, and his abstract paintings looked figurative. Diebenkorn could reorder the space of a picture — thereby abstracting it — simply by the way an open pair of scissors or the head and legs of a figure diagonally touched the plane’s edges.

While his painting satisfied a personal need to make art, Ehrlich first turned to photography as a byproduct of his professional work. Documentation of his surgeries was a practical application of picture taking. At some point, the two merged. Ehrlich’s love of travel fit nicely with his interpretive photographs of far-flung locales. Thus was born Richard Ehrlich, serious photographer.

Longtime observers of Ehrlich’s work know him as a colorist. His landscapes are often imbued with brilliant hues, some of the most intense found in nature. His studies of the Namibian outdoors contain breathtaking vistas and swaths of color. A series of Malibu sky and horizon studies are turned into a homage to the stark format that painter Mark Rothko settled on in his final phase through clever cropping. Graffitied walls in Belmont Park are riots of color and kinetic energy, although they’re held still and silent by Ehrlich’s exposures.

His focus is always sharp, and Ehrlich stays clear of lens trickery. The viewer need never wonder what is being depicted. Angles may be skewed (the legacy of Bischoff and Diebekorn at work) but never to the point of fool-the-eye dynamics. It also seems to be a point of pride that Ehrlich’s light is natural and never manipulated. He clearly has the eye and the patience to mentally frame the photo and to wait for just the right moment.

At the same time, the human element is mostly recessed. People are not out of the question in his picture planes, but most often it’s their handiwork that stands in for the human form. The starkness of handmade houses in Namibia, their floors deep in sand, suggest past lives and actions — ghosts if you will. The same applies to the tagged Belmont walls. History is implied as much as it is notated.

As artist Tony Berlant has said of the photographs: “In Ehrlich’s work, what you see is who you are.”

Those longtime Ehrlich observers may be thrown by his Holocaust archive prints. The manmade spaces are constricted and viewed head-on. Overhead fluorescent lighting gives the materials — shelves, boxes, stacks of files and rows of ledgers — an appropriately institutional pallor. Gray greens, metallic blues, muddy taupes all denote a place far removed from nature’s extravagance.

As he flipped open a large, black box on an examining table, Ehrlich explained some of his prints. He began by saying, “I went to Wannsee, a beautiful little town outside of Berlin. There’s a nice old hotel there, where they held the Wannsee Conference in 1941. That’s where they planned the Holocaust. Here’s a shot of the minutes of the meeting, including a break for lunch. In the middle of the planning of the systematic murder of millions, they had lunch.”

Moving through images of ledgers, official papers that dispassionately note the minutiae of the Final Solution — including Anne Frank’s transfer papers to Bergen-Belsen and the actual Schindler’s List — Ehrlich’s calm demeanor developed an incredulous edge.

“You see this much detail,” he noted with suppressed pique, “and you have to understand that this massive effort wasn’t just carried out by a small group of people. It required an enormous amount of work by tens of thousands, if not millions.”

At the time of the Nazi takeover, Germany had the most educated population in all of Europe. “It’s a chilling thought, and it makes you wonder how that level of evil could flourish in such a place,” Ehrlich said.

Asked what it was that sparked him to the extraordinary effort that produced his Holocaust images, Ehrlich was hesitant.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I’m not particularly religious, and I didn’t lose any relatives. I went to Auschwitz when I was a student at Columbia in 1959, and I was moved, but the Holocaust is not something that I’ve been obsessed with all these years.”

“Look,” Ehrlich said, sitting forward in his chair. “People read about what’s going on in Darfur, and they often can’t relate to it. And at the same time, we’re hearing the voices of Holocaust denial again. This is a concrete record of something that the world is in danger of forgetting about.”

“The Holocaust Archive Revealed: Bad Arolsen Through the Lens of Richard Ehrlich” will run Aug. 26-30 at ” target=”_blank”>Richard Ehrlich Photography

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Schindler’s List

Kershaw Museum Plans Ethiopian Show

Timed to coincide with the Bowers Museum’s “Queen of Sheba” exhibit, the Kershaw Museum at Temple Beth El is organizing its own sampler exhibit of artworks by Jewish Ethiopians and Yemenites, who believe themselves to be the queen’s descendants.

The museum is seeking to borrow examples of Ethiopian and Yemenite art or artifacts from local collectors for possible exhibition, beginning Oct. 14. Descriptions and photos of the items should be submitted before Aug. 1 to Irene Breisacher, a volunteer at the Aliso Viejo synagogue, who is helping organize the exhibit.

“A lot of people went to Israel when the country was new and bought Yemenite art, but they didn’t tell you it was Yemenite,” said the museum’s director and founder, Norma Kershaw. “Ancient or modern, whatever people have” would be welcomed.

Typical works are silver Bible covers with fine filigree work. Ethiopian folk art is evident throughout Israel, produced by resettled Ethiopian Jews, who fled religious persecution and deteriorating economic conditions in their homeland en mass beginning in 1984.

Kershaw, who previously created exhibits on Chanukah and Israeli art with examples borrowed locally, hopes to fill three exhibit cases with at least 100 items. One person has offered Ethiopian costumes.

The exhibit’s logo is likely to be a pillow cover featuring King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which Kershaw obtained recently in Los Angeles from an importer promoting modern folk art by Ethiopian Israelis.

The Bowers’ Sheba exhibit will open Oct. 17 and will feature 100 treasures, some from the first century, chosen from the vast collections of the British Museum.

As part of an archeology trip to Yemen in 1985, Kershaw said she looked without success for scientific evidence to support the biblical legend. According to legend, Sheba ruled an ancient kingdom that prospered as a trading crossroads between Jerusalem and the Roman Empire; she was seduced and married to King Solomon around 950 B.C.E.

Potential lenders should contact Irene Briesacher at
(949) 837-1005 or by e-mail, before Aug. 1.

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.

World Briefs

Hijack Suspect’s Extradition Sought

Israeli officials are planning to seek the extradition from Turkey of an Israeli Arab who tried to hijack an El Al flight Sunday. According to Israel Radio, attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said Wednesday the extradition request is being drawn up for Tawfik Fukara, who allegedly wanted to crash the plane into a Tel Aviv high-rise. Security officials aboard the Tel Aviv-Ankara flight tackled him when he rushed the cockpit and turned him over to Turkish authorities when the flight safely landed. Turkish television reported that Fukara told authorities he wanted to “make the voice of the Palestinian people heard.” Israeli authorities have said Fukara was inspired by the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Poll: Palestinians Divided OverConflict

Palestinians are divided over whether the conflict with Israel is helping achieve their goals, according to a new poll. Conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, the poll showed 39 percent believe the conflict was helping achieve a Palestinian state. Another 36 percent believe it is not helping and 25 percent have no opinion. The poll of more than 1,000 Palestinians has a margin of error of 3 percent.

Second-Century Artifacts Found

Papyrus scrolls dating to the second-century Jewish rebellion against the Romans were discovered in a Judean desert cave. Researchers from the Hebrew University, Bar Ilan University and Stanford University discovered the scrolls after rappelling into the cave in the Ein Gedi reserve. They also found crude arrowheads and coins bearing the Hebrew name “Shimon,” a reference to the leader of the rebellion against the Roman army, Shimon Bar Kochba. A Hebrew University researcher said the items probably belonged to Jews from the Ein Gedi region who hid in the remote cave to escape the Roman army.

Museum of Tolerance Planned forJerusalem

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is slated to unveil plans for a new $150 million tolerance center in Jerusalem. Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s founder and dean, will be joined Sunday in Jerusalem by architect Frank Gehry, where they will discuss the goals and design of the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. As part of Sunday’s events, the architect’s models for the center will be unveiled at the president’s residence.

UJC Debates Birthright Funding

The umbrella group of North American federations is considering a resolution to pay $39 million to Birthright Israel. At the General Assembly in Philadelphia, the United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) board of trustees debated a resolution Wednesday to pay a share of the program to send 18-26 year olds who have never been to Israel on an organized trip. Currently, 20 percent of federations have not paid for the program, according to Stephen Hoffman, UJC president. The proposed resolution would require all federations to increase their donations to Birthright by 33 percent over last year. The resolution will be voted on within 30 days, Hoffman said. The Jewish Agency for Israel would share in the cost. Meanwhile, UJC voted Wednesday to administer a tax-exempt bond pool for member federations.

New Jersey Rabbi Convicted in MurderTrial

A New Jersey rabbi was convicted for arranging the murder of his wife. Rabbi Fred Neulander could receive the death penalty for hiring two hit men to kill his wife, Carol, in 1994. Wednesday’s verdict came nearly a year after the first trial ended in a hung jury.

Senate Passes Terrorism Insurance Bill

The U.S. Senate passed a bill that would shift most of the insurance costs of terrorist attacks onto the federal government. The bill is expected to result in lower insurance premiums for property and casualty insurance. It is a boon for Jewish federations and other groups that have faced skyrocketing premiums since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The bill, which passed the Senate 86-11 on Tuesday after passing the House last week, provides insurance companies with up to $100 billion in government protection against losses from terrorist attacks. President Bush is expected to sign the legislation next week.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

A World Destroyed, to Be Displayed

Not long ago, a group of distinguished academics and government officials from Poland filed into the Santa Monica offices of world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. They came to talk about a Jewish museum.

Gehry is their dream pick to design the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. Slated for completion in 2005 at an estimated cost of $55 million, the 46,000-square-foot Warsaw museum will display an integral part of Poland’s past to future generations.

"The Polish people should be acquainted, and to some degree confronted with the Jewish history of Poland," said historian Jerzy Halbersztadt, project director. "The Holocaust brought Jewish life in Poland to an end. We need this important part of our history, which was amputated in such a brutal way, to be brought again to us so it will not haunt us like a phantom limb."

The museum will rise across from the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on land donated by the city. On the same plot of land in 1944, the Jewish Council, or the Judenrat, organized for the last stages of the ghetto.

Inside the state-of-the-art museum, visitors will see Polish Jewish life in all its glory, as well as in its depths. Using multimedia technology and life-sized re-creation, the museum will allow visitors to enter the homes, streets and villages that nurtured Polish Jewry for almost 1,000 years. Visitors will be able to witness the thriving 16th-century yeshiva world with a visit inside Salomon Szachna’s yeshiva in Lublin, and see a performance of S. Anski’s "The Dybbuk," with the famous actress Ester Rachel Kaminska.

Event Communications, a British design group, will help historians re-create Nalewki Street, a bustling thoroughfare from Warsaw’s prewar Jewish quarter.

The museum will draw on its collection of tens of thousands of artifacts to enhance the displays.

Those displays will include exhibits on the Nazi invasion of Poland, and the subsequent extermination of the majority of the country’s Jews. A model of the Warsaw Ghetto, complete with walls rimmed with barbed wire and glass shards, will also have a prominent place.

The push to finance and build the museum comes as Poland struggles to deal with its Jewish past. Some 3.5 million Polish Jews perished in the Holocaust. The communist regine stifled investigation into the war years, but since communism’s fall there has been national soul-searching regarding the country’s wartime atrocities against Jews.

At the same time, Jewish culture in Poland is undergoing something of a revival. New Jewish theaters, Yiddish and klezmer festivals, Jewish restaurants and bookshops have become widely popular among all Poles, not just the country’s 8,000 Jews.

The impetus behind the museum came as much from Polish Jews as from the government. The founding director was the late Jeshajahu Weinberg, creator and past director of the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv. The project’s chief historian is professor Israel Gutman of the Hebrew University and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres heads the museum’s international committee.

The Holocaust is a blot on Polish Jewish history, say organizers, but it must not obliterate the high points of Jewish life in Poland. Announcing the museum to Jewish leaders in New York earlier this year, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller said, "Jews were not just ordinary guests in Poland. The nations of Poland and the Jewish nation have over a thousand years of common history, and the disappearance of Jews from Poland was a great impoverishment for the country."

The exhibits will feature some of the notable heirs of Polish Jewish culture, from I. B. Singer, Sam Goldwyn and David Ben-Gurion to director Roman Polanski and architect Daniel Libeskind. Gehry, himself, is the descendant of Jews from Lodz, Poland.

Organizers hope the museum will serve to educate not just future generations of Poles, but Jews as well. Over 100,000 Jewish tourists visit Poland each year, many of them from Israel. In addition, numerous Jewish youth groups tour through the country. By some estimates, as many as 80 percent of Jews across the world can claim some Polish roots. Organizers project that 250,000 people a year will visit the completed museum.

The Polish government will provide 25 percent of the museum’s construction cost, with private donations expected to make up the rest. So far, organizers have raised a fraction of that, and they are turning to Jewish Americans of Polish ancestry for financial help. Locally, the Polish Consulate General is helping to establish a Los Angeles-area fundraising group (send e-mail to for more information).

In the meantime, Gehry has done some initial consultation, and organizers are hopeful that they can raise the remaining funds. The museum won’t diminish the Holocaust, Halbersztadt said, adding, "Our museum will be a museum of life."