Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

LAMOTH makes Holocaust personal with ‘Names Instead of Numbers’

In early 1945, when a Russian-Jewish soldier rode in on horseback to help liberate Auschwitz-Birkenau, 21-year-old Renee Firestone was there, barely alive. Her mother and sister, victims of Nazi atrocities, weren’t so lucky. With odds heavily stacked against her, Firestone began life anew.

“Without a penny in my pocket, not even underwear, wooden Dutch clogs on my feet, emaciated and with my shaved head, I re-entered the world, the same world that put me in [Auschwitz] 14 months ago,” Firestone, now 92, said, addressing a crowd of nearly 800 at Pan Pacific Park as part of the 25th annual Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) Yom HaShoah commemoration on April 23.

“How does one become a human again?” Firestone asked, as the audience, which included 50 other Holocaust survivors, sat in silence.

Universal lessons of shared humanity was a prominent theme as survivors, community leaders and special guests honored the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust.

One of the featured survivor artists was 87-year-old Eva Zuckerman-Warner, who spoke to a small group that included her grandson Jerry. As a young girl who designed clothes for her own dolls, Zuckerman-Warner longed to attend art school. Hungarian anti-Jewish laws prevented her from doing so.

“I think I was born without a left brain,” she joked. “I only got the right brain. I’ve always been this way.”

Zuckerman-Warner sat beside one of her 20 sculptures, a life-size clay-molded face with a gaping mouth crying out in agony. She said the work is a tribute to the nameless, faceless Jews who perished in the concentration camps, an example of how the tragedies of her past dominate her work and often help her cope.

“For me, art is a way to reflect on the trauma of the Holocaust, the horrors I experienced,” she said. “This came from my heart. I wear my heart on the outside.”

Guests were invited to visit a new international traveling exhibition, “Names Instead of Numbers.” An in-depth look inside Dachau concentration camp, it features artifacts, letters, photographs and personal testimonies both from LAMOTH’s collection and from the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany.

“What’s really unique about this exhibit is that it shows the personal experiences of people who were persecuted by the Nazis,” Jordanna Gessler, LAMOTH’s director of education, told the Journal. “Each part of the exhibition is curated to highlight these individual stories.”

One of those individual stories is that of a young Polish man identified on a dilapidated, 1948-issue German driver’s license as Idel Aleksander. After his liberation from Dachau, he drove around Germany looking for surviving family members. He found none. Now 94, Joseph Alexander stared at his old driver’s license on display.

“I like that it’s here. I like that people will see it,” Alexander said. “It’s important that we share personal stories like mine in this way. There are still deniers out there in the world. I’m the living proof; so are these documents. People need to know these things happened to me. We have to keep talking about it.”

Paul Nussbaum, president of LAMOTH and a child of Holocaust survivors, opened the ceremony by reading aloud a letter sent by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. He then delivered a fiery speech in which he spoke not just of a need to look back into tragic parts of history like the Holocaust, but also to recognize similar historical patterns forming today.

“We must bear witness now, because as I look across the landscape of Europe, Great Britain and — shamefully, I must admit — our beloved United States, the seeds of otherness have sprouted and are being fertilized by the sowers of hate, fear and intolerance,” he said.

John Emerson, the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2013 until early this year, and his wife, Kimberly Emerson, a lawyer and human rights activist who now sits on the board of Human Rights Watch, served as keynote speakers. Both touched on the importance of Holocaust education to prompt change in future generations and to eradicate genocide in all forms. John Emerson made his point by illustrating the difference between history and memory.

“Historians conduct research, they fix dates and interpret the significance of events,” he said. “But memories are kept alive through storytelling, through teaching, sensitive writing, commemorations, even judicial proceedings, and especially at places such as this that are devoted to preserving survivors’ stories.”

Pairs of survivors and young grandchildren lit commemorative candles. A quartet of teenage classical musicians from Los Angeles County High School for the Arts performed “Tracks,” a melancholic composition written by Noah Daniel, a Milken Community Schools student. Alyssa Jaffe, a Santa Monica High School student, sang the U.S. national anthem and “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. A delegation from the Knesset looked on.

In her speech, Israel’s minister for social equality, Gila Gamliel, said, “The difference between today and some 75 years ago is that today we have a strong State of Israel. This is our pledge. This is our bond. This is our unbreakable link. This is our ‘never again.’ ”

Firestone plays her part by traveling the globe as a public speaker. She told the crowd she felt compelled to take control over the tragedies of her past by sharing her story. A longtime Los Angeles-based fashion designer, she capped her speech by offering advice and hope.

“To parents, I say speak to your children and teach them to respect each other and help each other,” she said. “To the schoolteachers, on the other hand, I tell them to tell their students to put their cellphones in their pockets. This way, they may just find out that most of them want to live in peace, and by learning to respect and care for each other, maybe — maybe — we can make that happen.” n

Betty Cohen: At 95, ‘bionic woman’ still going strong

Betty Cohen, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, is unsure if all the time she spends telling her story has amounted to anything. 

“Is it worth it, or do I make a fool of myself?” Cohen says at the conclusion of a recent interview in the apartment on Beverly Glen Boulevard that she shares with her daughter, Hedy van der Fluit, and their two dogs, Lady and Ace.

A widow, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Cohen was born in the Netherlands, interned at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and lost both of her parents to the crematoria. She said she last saw them on May 22, 1944, and has lots of questions for God.

“I ask Him all the time,” she said. “ ‘Why did it happen?’ ”

Cohen has regular speaking engagements at the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, where her video testimony is featured in the “Tree of Testimony” permanent exhibition.

But that’s not the half of what she’s up to these days. Despite her age, Cohen volunteers every Thursday at the UCLA Medical Center gift shop and has been volunteering at the medical center in some capacity for almost 30 years. It’s one way that she has kept busy, she said, ever since she stopped working for her son’s music retail business 33 years ago at the urging of her children. 

Cohen takes Uber multiple times a day to the various routine destinations in her life, including the medical center and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, where she studies Torah every Saturday morning with her daughter and volunteers every Sunday for the synagogue food bank. 

Her work at the hospital began with spending time with young patients. She recalls bonding with a boy with autism before she left for a visit to Holland. Upon her return, the boy was gone. He had died. 

“He was a sick boy,” she said. Afterward, she decided she did not want to volunteer with child patients anymore, so she started visiting patients just out of surgery. As she grew older, she felt the need to do simpler work, and today she helps in the gift shop. 

Among her responsibilities for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple food bank are picking up day-old bagels from Noah’s Bagels on Larchmont Boulevard — her Uber driver always waits while she retrieves them — and helping to distribute fresh vegetables, potatoes, bread and yogurt to food bank visitors. She said she is grateful to have somewhere to go every Sunday morning and enjoys her relationship with the other volunteers as well as the regular guests at the food bank.

She goes most places by Uber and sits in the front passenger seat, a chance to get to know her drivers. Just back from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where she related her survivor story to a group of 35 law enforcement officials, she said the Uber driver who brought her home was a young Israeli man who wanted to take her to Las Vegas. 

The sprightly Cohen exercises regularly at the senior center in Culver City, despite having a pacemaker, hearing aids and two new hips. She calls herself the “bionic woman” and says she talks to God every night — that she is ready to go as soon as He’ll have her.

Her daughter and roommate, who is a high school teacher, says no one is more deserving than her mother of being recognized for good deeds in the local community.

“She’s one of a kind,” she said.

Pope: I felt the presence of the souls of murdered at Auschwitz

Pope Francis said during his silent visit last week to the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau that he felt the souls of those murdered there.

“The great silence of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was more eloquent than any word spoken could have been,” he said Wednesday during his weekly public audience at the Vatican.

Francis visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, now a memorial museum, on Friday during a four-day trip to Poland to mark the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day. He chose not to make a speech or public statement there, but to visit in silent prayer.

“In that silence I listened: I felt the presence of all the souls who passed through that place; I felt the compassion, the mercy of God, which a few holy souls were been able to bring even into that abyss,” he said. “In that great silence, I prayed for all the victims of violence and war: and there, in that place, I realized more than ever how precious is memory; not only as a record of past events, but as a warning, and a responsibility for today and tomorrow, that the seed of hatred and violence not be allowed to take root in the furrows of history.”

Visiting Auschwitz, the pope said, made him pray to resolve the evils of today’s world.

“Looking upon that cruelty, in that concentration camp,” he said, “I thought immediately of the cruelties of today, which are similar: not as concentrated as in that place, but everywhere in the world; this world that is sick with cruelty, pain, war, hatred, sadness; and this is why I always ask you for the prayer: that the Lord give us peace.”

Pope Francis pays silent but ‘important’ visit to Auschwitz

Pope Francis visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau former Nazi death camp in Poland, in what the World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said was an “important signal to the world.”

On Friday, The Associated Press reported, the pope prayed in silent contemplation before meeting Holocaust survivors in front of the death wall where the Nazis summarily shot thousands of people.

Among the survivors he met were Helena Dunicz Niwinska, a 101-year-old woman who played the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra, as well as survivors who worked at the camp hospital or who were there as children.

Francis lit a candle in front of the death wall, bowing his head in prayer before visiting the cell of Polish priest and saint Maximilian Kolbe who died at Auschwitz after taking the place of a condemned man.

The visit falls on the 75th anniversary of the day Kolbe was condemned to death.

Ahead of his visit Francis said that rather than making a speech, he would stand in silence to reflect on the horrors committed and let his tears flow.

After arriving Wednesday in Poland, the pontiff said the world had been plunged into a piecemeal third world war. He has repeatedly denounced those committing crimes in the name of religion, after Europe suffered a string of deadly jihadist attacks.

In a statement Friday, Lauder praised the pontiff, who has forged ever-closer ties between the Catholic Church and Jews since his election in 2013.

“Pope Francis is one of the closest allies Jews have today in the fight against anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred,” Lauder said. “He is a true friend of the Jewish people, a man who reaches out to others and embraces them. Never over the past 2,000 years have Catholic-Jewish relations been better.”

The pope’s visit “sends an important signal to the world that this dark chapter must never be forgotten and that the truth about what happened seven decades ago must not be obfuscated,” Lauder added.

The late pontiff John Paul II, who was born in Poland, visited Auschwitz in 1979. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, visited in 2006.

“Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people,” Benedictus said. “I come here today as a son of the German people.  For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here.”

Ex-Auschwitz guard, 94, appeals conviction as accessory to murder

A former Nazi SS guard who was sentenced to five years in prison by a German court for his role as an accessory in the murder of at least 170,000 people in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland has appealed his conviction.

Attorneys for Reinhold Hanning, 94, filed appeals of the verdict handed down earlier this month by the district court in Detmold, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, The Associated Press reported.

Lawyers representing nine Auschwitz survivors or their families as co-plaintiffs at the trial also appealed the verdict, according to the AP, which could not provide further details.

Hanning will remain free while he appeals.

He joined the Waffen SS in 1942 and was posted that year to Auschwitz. Hanning had joined Hitler Youth in 1934.

His is likely one of the last trials of Nazis in Germany. Clues leading to about 30 suspects in late 2013 came from the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg, which made a major push to identify former death camp guards after the conviction of John Demjanjuk in 2011 for his role in the murders of nearly 30,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Poland. Demjanjuk died in a German nursing home in 2012 during his appeal.

Auschwitz ex-guard, 94, sentenced to 5 years in Germany

A former SS guard who is now 94 was sentenced to five years in prison for his role as an accessory in the murder of at least 170,000 people in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland.

The verdict and sentence of Reinhold Hanning were handed down Friday afternoon from the district court in Detmold, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Judge Anke Grudda, in her address to the defendant in the courtroom Friday, said, “You were in Auschwitz for almost two and a half years and thus assisted in mass murder.”

The chief prosecutor had recommended six years in prison, and the defending attorneys wanted him released, claiming that there was no proof that their client had committed individual acts of murder. “He did not kill or beat anyone himself,” attorney Johannes Salmen said, according to the Bild newspaper.

The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, said that while the sentence in this case did not make up for decades of foot-dragging by German justice, it was welcome news “for victims and their families. We owe a debt of thanks to the witnesses who spoke during the trial. It was not easy for them,” Schuster told reporters.

“No perpetrator should be able to say: ‘For me, it’s the past,'” he added. “The trial brings to the forefront, once again, what people are capable of doing to one another, and what incitement against minorities can lead to. So the trial made an important contribution to four dealing with German history.”

Hanning joined the Hitler Youth 1934, joined the Waffen SS in 1942 and was posted in 1942 to Auschwitz.

His is likely one of the last trials of Nazis in Germany. Clues leading to about 30 suspects in late 2013 came from the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg, which made a major push to identify former death camp guards after the conviction of John Demjanjuk in 2011 for his role in the murders of nearly 30,000 Jews in the Sobibor death camp in Poland.

Investigations also were helped by tips from the public, after Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office announced a reward for information leading to the conviction of Nazi war criminals in what the center called “Operation Last Chance.”

The Demjanjuk case set a precedent, in that being a guard at a death camp was sufficient to prove complicity in murder.

A painful but important Holocaust remembrance

Two weeks before his bar mitzvah, Henry Oster was deported from his German home and, eventually, taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After surviving the Holocaust, he vowed never to return to his native land — but then something changed his mind.

“When people ask me to give one reason why I would go back … I have to show Germany that 70 years after deporting Jews, it still hasn’t worked … show them that despite the best-laid plans of atrocity, 75 years later, I am still around,” he said, addressing a crowd assembled May 1 at Pan Pacific Park as part of the 24th annual Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) Yom HaShoah commemoration.

Every year, LAMOTH holds a community-wide Holocaust Remembrance Day event with survivors, Jewish community leaders and others coming together for speeches, activities and museum tours. According to museum officials, an estimated 1,200 people attended this year’s ceremony, which occurred a few days before Yom HaShoah officially began the night of May 4.

“We gather here to remember the victims and to honor the survivors,” Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Associate Rabbi Sarah Bassin said. “I pray we do the victims’ memory justice, that we deny Hitler a posthumous victory not by existing despite his memory but by living with joy, by infusing the world with a greater sense of justice and by expelling hatred with the overwhelming power of love.”

Appearing onstage beside an Israeli flag and an American flag, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti described the Holocaust as a “lesson for humanity.” He also spotlighted the importance of a partnership between Los Angeles and Israel.

“The friendship between Los Angeles and Israel means no voices will ever be forgotten, and today we can be strong as a people and as two nations,” Garcetti said.

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel, appearing at his final local Yom HaShoah event before his term expires, evoked the talmudic saying that taking away one life is like taking away an entire world.

“Every person who was murdered was an entire universe lost forever. We honor their memories and their legacies, and we learn the stories of those who perished and those who survived because it is these stories that we can teach ourselves and our children,” Siegel said.

Simon Rubinstein, nephew of survivor, businessman and philanthropist Max Webb, told the Journal before the program began that LAMOTH serves as an important counterpoint to the anti-Semitism college students experience on their respective campuses.

“What the kids get on college campuses — you get Holocaust deniers. Here, you have survivors telling true stories,” he said.

“It’s important for the next generation and the generation thereafter to remember. Otherwise, history repeats itself,” he said in an interview before the program.

Among the survivors in attendance was Max Stodel, 93, who was interned at a labor camp in the Netherlands during the war. He displayed the tattoo on his arm as he walked around the lobby of the museum, where 18 Torah scrolls rescued during the Holocaust were on display as part of an exhibition titled “Rescued Czech Torah Scrolls in Our Community,” running through May 9.

Adult children of survivors were also among the day’s many attendees, including Liz Talpalatsky, a member of Congregation Beth Am in San Diego. She attended the event with her husband and son, Ben, who is about to have a bar mitzvah.

“It’s three weeks before his bar mitzvah. I really don’t have the day to do it, but I thought it was important,” Talpalatsky, whose mother, Edith Palkowitz, is from Budapest and survived Auschwitz, said.

Attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, former LAMOTH president and the subject of its exhibition “The Recovery of the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which focuses on his efforts to help recover artwork stolen by Nazis, said interest in commemorating the Shoah extends beyond the survivor and Jewish community.

“For a while, I think we were too close to it to  realize it belonged in this historical pantheon of events that have to be learned by every human being to be part of the human race and be part of Western civilization, if you want to call it that, and now the Holocaust is like that,” Schoenberg told the Journal. “So, you find the Holocaust is not just something for survivors, it’s not just something for Jews. It’s something that all people want to learn about, want to remember and want to commemorate.”

The official ceremony featured LAMOTH Executive Director Samara Hutman, Memorial Scrolls Trust Chair Jeffrey Ohrenstein and others discussing the importance of commemorating the 6 million Jews who died during the Shoah. Survivor Jack Lewin and Sarah Moskovitz, a psychologist who specializes in child survivors, led a reading of Holocaust-themed Yiddish poetry.

Among the notables who attended were L.A. City Council members Paul Koretz and David Ryu, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, LAMOTH President Beth Kean, and consul generals from the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Italy.

“It is painful to remember this dark period in history but we must continue to teach this lesson to our younger generations to ensure they grow up in a humane and just society where prejudice and racist behavior are not tolerated,” Kean said.

Still, the focus was on the survivors themselves. Today, Oster, now 87, lives in Woodland Hills with his wife, Susie. Oster never ended up having that bar mitzvah, but, his wife said, with “everything that has happened to him, he had his bar mitzvah, but in a different way.”

Jack Lewin: Witness to the liberation of Auschwitz

Newly arrived and, at 17, one of the oldest among the 1,000 boys in Birkenau’s Block 22, Jack Lewin – then Yanek Levin – was incensed as he watched the Polish block leader and his Jewish deputy, a man named Wolkowicz, divvy up the bread rations, cutting the small, hard loaves intended for four prisoners into five portions and pocketing the extras. Jack gathered together a couple of boys and reported the injustice to some higher-ranking Jewish kapos, who entered Block 22, approached the Polish man and Wolkowicz and warned, “It’s not nice to steal from kids. Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?” As soon as they walked out, Wolkowicz glared at Jack and then grabbed him, ripping off the Polish army officer’s belt with its studs and heavy buckle that Jack had somehow acquired and furiously beating him, as blood gushed. After 10 minutes or more, some boys pulled Wolkowicz away and hid Jack in another barracks. “If not, he would have killed me,” Jack recalled. 

Born on April 13, 1927, in Lodz, Poland, Jack was the only child of Dinah and Hershel Levin. The family lived in a one-room apartment, where Dinah worked as a seamstress and Hershel ran his house-painting business. To this day, Jack can recall the sound of his mother’s thimble clinking against her wedding band, as well as the smell of his father’s paintbrushes. 

Jack was brought up with no religion — Dinah and Hershel were the first in their families to reject an observant life. Still, Jack attended the private, secular Medem school, where he acquired a life-long love of the Yiddish language and literature. 

A highlight of Jack’s childhood was attending a summer camp affiliated with the Jewish Labor Bund for a month in July or August 1939 in the nearby village of Zondlowice. He especially remembers the day the campers assisted the Polish peasants in the straw fields. “The sun was baking and the freedom outside was beautiful,” he said.  

A month or two later, on a morning in early September, Jack walked to the newsstand to pick up a copy of the Yiddish newspaper Folkzeitung, which had not been delivered. The headline read: “Hitler’s Hoards Cross the Polish Border.” 

“Little did we know what was awaiting us,” Jack said. 

On Feb. 8, 1940, the Jews were ordered to relocate to the ghetto. Hershel rented a horse and wagon, and Jack sat atop the family’s possessions, his parents walking alongside as they joined a miles-long procession of wagons and people on foot lugging their belongings. 

After initially living with his maternal grandparents in their one-room apartment, Jack and his parents moved into their own quarters. Jack attended school. 

In 1941, with no money and no job, Hershel volunteered for work in a labor camp in Poznan, leaving on May 1, his 15th wedding anniversary. For a few months afterward, Jack and his mother received some letters and checks, then nothing.

Toward the end of 1941, Jack, 14, was hired as an apprentice in a fur factory. There he performed menial tasks and also learned to use a fur machine, stitching together the pelts that would line military coats. “I’m a member of the working class,” he proudly told his mother. He also stole small pieces of fur, which he hand-stitched to make vests and then sold, earning enough to buy a loaf of bread. 

For Jack, the constant hunger was the worst. “I cried myself to sleep from hunger,” he said. 

In August 1944, Jack and his mother were rounded up with thousands of other Jews and crammed into cattle cars. A half day and a night later, the prisoners arrived at Birkenau, where they were lined up for a selection. Jack watched as Dr. Josef Mengele directed his mother to the right. She walked away slowly, hunched over and appearing 100 years old. “I can still see her,” Jack said. 

Soon after his beating by Wolkowicz, in August 1944, Jack was tattooed with the number B10237 and trucked with a group of 14- to 17-year-olds to Trzebinia, a work camp 19 kilometers from Auschwitz.

Jack first worked carrying bricks up scaffolding to build walls around a nearby oil refinery. Then he worked constructing a 35-foot-thick roof for a German bunker. Most problematic, however, was the commandant, SS Unterscharfurher Wilhelm Kowol, who smacked Jack every time he saw him, which was almost daily, sending him flying to the ground. 

On Jan. 17 or 18, Trzebinia was evacuated and Jack and the other 800 or 900 prisoners were marched out, five abreast in deep snow with no food. A day and night later, they reached Auschwitz. 

There, Kowol asked for 100 volunteers who couldn’t walk. Jack volunteered, assuming he would be placed in a wagon. But immediately he was surrounded by muselmanner (living skeletons), and he knew he was headed for the gas chamber. Somehow, he found this comforting. He imagined he would rejoin his family and, most pressing, he could sit down. “That’s all I wanted,” he said, explaining that each step of the march had felt like a knife cutting him. 

But instead, the guards escorted the 100 prisoners into barracks, dropping Jack off at Barracks 28, the surgical hospital, where inside he found bunk beds, copious glasses of milk and other food, and no guards. 

Once he felt better, Jack remained in the hospital, tending to sick people and cleaning toilets. “I just needed food,” he said. 

During this time, he learned that Kowol had marched the rest of the group to Rajsko, a village near Trzebinia, shooting anyone who sat down.

On Jan. 27, around 2 p.m., Jack ran outside to see Russian soldiers on skis, wearing white sheets over their uniforms as snow camouflage. “They were the most beautiful sight in the world,” he said. 

Jack remained in Auschwitz until mid-March when he returned to Lodz, rooming with some friends and working as a runner for a Polish newspaper. 

Soon after arriving, Jack spotted Wolkowicz. He jumped him, and a nearby police officer arrested him. But without a second witness — and no one would testify — the head jailer was forced to release him. 

Around August, Jack traveled to Germany, scouring the country for surviving family members. He found no one from among at least 40 relatives. 

Then, after a brief stint working for the American military in Furth and staying in the Feldafing displaced persons camp, Jack joined a group of people moving to Brussels, arriving on Feb. 6, 1946. He found work as a machinist for a furrier. 

The following November, Jack met Regina Szwarcfeld. “I don’t remember if it was love at first sight, but it was pretty close,” he recalled. They married in a Jewish ceremony on May 8, 1947, and again, after acquiring proper papers, in a civil ceremony on June 24, 1950. 

But Jack wanted to be as far away from Europe as possible, so he and Regina immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, arriving on Nov. 6, 1950. Their daughter Dinah was born in October 1952 and daughter Sylvia in November 1960.  

Jack again worked in the fur trade, spending 10 years with a large firm and five years managing a small fur factory and store. 

One day, Wolkowicz unknowingly walked into the store. “Do you remember me?” Jack asked. Wolkowicz was speechless. Jack followed him across the street to his tailor shop, where Wolkowicz’s wife begged Jack to leave him alone, explaining that he had a heart condition. “I just want him to know that I remember him,” Jack said. “That I’ll never forget.”

In Melbourne, Jack pursued an active Jewish life, performing in the David Herman Yiddish Theatre Group and participating in the Yiddish Cultural Centre. 

But while Australia had — and still has — a big place in Jack’s heart, he and Regina moved to Los Angeles to be near Regina’s aunt. They arrived on Aug. 14, 1965, during the Watts riots. 

Jack initially worked as a shipping clerk for the clothing manufacturer Tots to Teens. Five years later, he started his own business, selling ladies sportswear at swap meets in Colton and Chino and retiring in 1990.

Jack began composing Yiddish poetry seriously in the 1970s. Several of his poems were published in Kheshbn, the literary journal of the Los Angeles Yiddish Cultural Club (available online). Other poems appear on YiddishPoetry.com, under Contemporary Poetry. 

Jack served as a speaker at the Museum of Tolerance for more than 20 years, only stopping two years ago after a surgery. Now 88, he spends his time reading and enjoying his family, which includes a granddaughter and three great-grandchildren. 

Jack credits “sheer coincidence” for his survival. Still, he never gave up hope. “If you lose hope, you’ve lost everything,” he said. 

At his request, Jack Lewin was interviewed by the Shoah Foundation on Jan. 27, 1995, the 50th anniversary of his liberation from Auschwitz. This Jewish Journal profile appears 21 years later, once again commemorating Auschwitz’s liberation.

Thousands march at Auschwitz to remember the Holocaust

Thousands of young people from at least 45 countries participated in the March of the Living in Poland at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of concentration camps.

The 27th International March of the Living took place Thursday on Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Each country’s delegation was accompanied by a survivor to tell his or her personal story.

Yad Vashem chairman Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, led the two-mile march from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the Birkenau extermination camp. Lau told the participants how he survived the Holocaust, and he showed a Torah scroll that had survived and required extensive repair.

Survivor Sigmund Rolat recalled his Polish nanny, Elka, who remained with him in the Czestochowa ghetto in order to protect him.

“We stand here in solidarity, mourning and fear,” he said. “Our unity is rooted not only in our Jewish peoplehood, which we share with those whom we remember today. Their Jewishness was not incidental to their fate; it determined it. But our unity today encompasses all, Jews and non-Jews, who remember, grieve and mourn – and participate in our solidarity.”

Pope Francis sent a message to the march.

“All the efforts for fighting in favor of life are praiseworthy and have to be supported without any kind of discrimination,” he said. “For this reason I am very close to these initiatives, that are not only against death but also against the thousands discriminatory phobias that enslave and kill.”

The participants spend a week in Poland studying the Holocaust before traveling to Israel for another week of study, which includes its national Memorial Day commemoration and Independence Day celebrations.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the silence and the song

Snow brings a strange silence. No more so than in the vastness of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where on Jan. 27 we all began several months of remembering the unfolding of the liberation of the Nazi camps 70 years ago. That day, I walked alongside Los Angeles resident Dario Gabbai in the soft glow of candles and the shuffle of feet in freshly fallen snow. It was night, and the floodlights shined on us as we filed along “The Ramp,” the platform — the final destination — where Jews had arrived from across Europe.

This week, the liberation of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen were also commemorated. Buchenwald was seared into the American collective conscience the day Gen. George Patton’s 6th Armored Division came across its monstrous truth on April 11, 1945. A few days later, on April 15, the British confronted the horrific reality of the Holocaust when they discovered thousands of corpses strewn across the typhus-ridden complex. Virtually every day that month and into the next, Jews were being liberated from the sprawling Nazi system to realize the true extent of their losses, almost the moment the gates were opened. 

No sooner were survivors free than they had an urgent need to commemorate their unfathomable loss. The first memorial services were held a year after the liberation, when survivors gathered in remote cemeteries and lonely forests to pray and mount a memorial on behalf of their murdered community. Remembrance was urgent and painful. But it was not until 1953 that David Ben- Gurion enshrined Yom HaShoah in Israeli law to mark the 10th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a day of remembrance in the Hebrew calendar that also marks the power of resilience. 

I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau many times, and it is never the same place twice. Remembrance is a combination of where you are, when you are there and whom you are with. I have been with family members, and as a graduate student. I have been with survivors, and have taken students and teachers. I traveled to Poland with film crews. Twenty years ago, I attended the 50th anniversary as a member of the media. Each time, I confronted something different about the place, I learned new things about Auschwitz, about how we confront its past and who we are in its long and dark shadow.

For all the times I have been there, I had never been to Birkenau at night, or in the snow, and not with Dario, who at 92 is one of the last living members of the Sonderkommando. He sat by Crematorium III near the crumbling ruins of the gas chamber and spoke quietly of being forced to work there, to haul out the bodies, take them to the crematorium, and clean up the room for the next group of victims. It was the last time that the authentic voice of someone who saw with his own eyes what happened there at the authentic site would ever be at the crematorium. 

His voice trailed away. There was only snow and silence. I wondered what more he could say that could bring closure and allow us to leave. He hummed a melody then sang a song titled “Mama,” which he had learned as a child, in Italian. As his voice floated across the ruins, his final message was not closure. It was one of resilience — I am here. I survived. I sing this song to honor those who were silenced. I sing to remind you to live every day as if it were your last. It was a song to break the silence of death.

Stephen Smith is the executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education.

Survivor: Erika Jacoby

“Los, los. Alle heraus,” the SS soldiers yelled, whips in hand, as the train doors opened onto the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform. It was mid-June 1944. “Go, go. All out.” Sixteen-year-old Erika Jacoby, nee Engel, was shoved out of the car, and she stumbled into line. In the distance, she spied her mother, Malvina, talking to her grandmother, who was leaning on her cane. “I’ll see you later, Grandma,” she yelled, certain the family would be reunited that evening. Suddenly a whip swept across her face. She continued walking, passing inspection by a German officer she later learned was Dr. Josef Mengele. Her mother soon came running, joining her in line. “Grandma insisted that I not leave you alone, unsupervised, with so many soldiers around,” Malvina explained.

Erika was born May 1, 1928, in Miskolc, Hungary, to Jeno and Malvina Salamonovics Engel. Her brother Zoli (Zoltan) was born in 1925, and Moshu (Tibor) in 1929.

The family was middle class and observant and lived in a one-bedroom apartment, attached to the kosher restaurant Jeno and Malvina owned.   

Erika spent summers with her maternal grandparents in Edeleny, a town about 15 miles north of Miskolc and a magical place for her. Her grandfather, the family patriarch, owned a coal mine, and Erika often accompanied him there, which was a special privilege.

By 1935, Erika sensed that “anti-Semitism was in the air.” By 1942, the situation had worsened, and Erika could no longer attend Jewish school. “That was very tragic for me,” she recalled. 

Then, on March 19, 1944, as Erika stood just outside the family restaurant, she saw the German army march into Miskolc. Almost immediately, all Jews were ordered to move into the ghetto, a designated area that included the Engels’ apartment. Four families moved in to live with them.

Jeno was called up to join a labor battalion. Erika remembers how fragile he seemed as he was leaving. “I knew he wouldn’t make it,” she said. 

Zoli, meanwhile, had left for Budapest the day the Germans invaded Hungary. They learned that he had been captured and taken to the Kistarcsa detention camp. 

In early June, the ghetto residents were marched about 10 miles to a brick factory, a covered shelter with no walls, where they were given straw for bedding and had to dig trenches for a bathroom. Erika’s grandparents and other relatives also were transported there from Edeleny.

About 10 days later, Erika and her family, among others, were squeezed into cattle cars and shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

After arriving, Erika and Malvina were marched with other women to a big hall, where they were ordered to undress. They remained there naked all night, under a single, dim light bulb, many crying out for their mothers or their children. In the morning, they were shaved, showered and given shapeless dresses, then moved to unfinished barracks, where they slept on a cement floor. 

After 10 days, they were shipped to Plaszow, a camp south of Krakow. The atmosphere was more accommodating, with bunk beds and a table in the barracks, but they were forced to haul huge rocks and carry armloads of military uniforms across narrow planks spanning a ravine. “The work was unbearable,” Erika said.

After two months, in late August, the group was returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and again they went through selection and processing, and this time they were tattooed. Erika became A-18273, which she hoped meant they would be sent to work.

On their way to the showers one day, they passed a German officer’s home with a swimming pool. Impulsively, Erika sprang out of line, jumped in the pool and swam the length. “I was 16, and I was hot,” she said. Miraculously there were no repercussions.

On Sept. 17, 1944, Erika and her mother, in a group of 500 women, were transported to a labor camp in Wiesau, Germany. The commander, whom Erika described as “a gentle, fatherly man,” welcomed them and even gave them the next day off for Rosh Hashanah. The work, however, was backbreaking, digging trenches and laying sewer pipe seven days a week.  

Erika sometimes scavenged in the garbage heap next to the kitchen until one day a truck dumped a load of trash on her and she nearly suffocated. “That scene stays with me for the rest of my life,” she said.

In mid-December, the women were relocated to Reichenbach, a subcamp of Gross-Rosen. There they slept on the concrete floor of their cement-block barracks, with snow and cold air blowing in through pane-less windows and with only a thin blanket for protection. 

They worked long hours in a Farben aircraft factory in Langenbielau, marching there and back six miles over snow and ice. They ground, sanded and polished parts of airplane instruments.

Erika was later transferred to a group of all males, mostly older Polish men, where they were allowed to converse more freely. Erika often told the men that God would save them. They teased her, but, Erika said, “They needed to have a little hope from an innocent child.”

In early spring, the women were moved to a barracks in Langenbielau, but work ceased after Passover, and food was scarce. Weeks later, the guards led them outside and ordered them to dig their own graves. Despite whippings and cursing, they were too weak to finish and eventually were allowed to return to their barracks. 

The next morning, there was no wake-up call. “I just knew the war was over,” Erika recalled. She, Malvina and a few others dug their way out beneath the locked gate and began walking into town. It was May 8, 1945. 

That afternoon, however, the approaching Soviet army, many of the soldiers drunk, ordered them back to camp. That night, the soldiers broke into their barracks. Amid chaos and shouting, Erika jumped onto a top bunk and hid under a blanket, shaking and praying. When the soldiers left, there were girls in the middle of the room disheveled and crying. 

The next day, Erika, Malvina and 13 other women ran from the camp and broke into an abandoned mansion. Some weeks later, they managed to leave. Erika and Malvina eventually reached Miskolc, where they found Zoli.

They also learned that Jeno had died in the labor battalion and Moshu had been shot one week before liberation.

Erika began attending meetings and summer camp sessions of Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement. In 1947, while a counselor in the summer camp at Lake Balaton, about 85 miles southwest of Budapest, she met Emil (Uzi) Jakubovics, a Bnei Akiva leader. 

Erika and Uzi became engaged on Nov. 29, 1947. The plan was for Erika to accompany her mother to Cuba for two years and then join Uzi in Palestine. 

Instead, Uzi came to New York to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Erika paid a U.S. Air Force pilot $1,000 to smuggle her out of Cuba.

On Oct. 22, 1949, Erika and Uzi reunited in New York. In November, however, the pilot was caught, and Erika became a fugitive, with the FBI searching for her. She sought help from an American cousin who was a lawyer, but she still faced deportation. 

Erika and Uzi married on Sept. 20, 1950. Their first son, Ronald Yakov, was born in November 1952, but died two days later. 

Uzi, meanwhile, gained permanent residency, and Erika, through a complicated process, became a legal resident on Dec. 24, 1952. 

Erika and Uzi moved to North Hollywood in July 1953, when Uzi was offered a job at Valley Jewish Community Center (VJCC), which later became the synagogue Adat Ari El. Their son Jonathan was born in October 1953, Benjamin in April 1956 and Michael in July 1957. 

Erika worked as a Hebrew teacher. She later received a master’s degree in clinical social work from USC and worked at  Family Service of Los Angeles, an independent agency, for five years and then at Kaiser Psychiatry for 17 years, retiring in 1997. Her mother died in 1998.

Erika, now 86, is a grandmother of 10 and great-grandmother of 12.  

Her memoir, “I Held the Sun in My Hands,” was published in 2004 and is available on Amazon. She is also featured in the documentary “Swimming in Auschwitz,” which was released in 2007.

When Erika speaks to groups, students often claim they couldn’t have survived as she did. “You never know what you can do,” she tells them. “You always have a neshamah yetarah, an extra soul.” 

U.S. falters on Auschwitz funds

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp where 1.1 million Jews and other victims were murdered, was not built to last forever. But that’s exactly what the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation is charged with making happen, and the foundation is hoping to collect some $160 million from a group of 28 countries to make that possible.

Germany has pledged $80 million; Poland has committed $12 million; Israel has paid half of its $1 million pledge. The United States joined the group of countries in 2010, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton committed her department to give $15 million to the endowment.

But because of technicalities in the U.S. legislative budgeting process, none of that money has yet been sent to the foundation, making the United States the only country not to have made good on any part of its pledge.

As recently as mid-December, the State Department was reportedly asking Jacek Kastelaniec, the director general of the foundation, if he could be more “flexible,” informing him that despite Clinton’s pledge, it could not release funds except as a grant for particular projects, not as a gift to the endowment.

The State Department did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment, but according to one  congressional staffer, who asked not to be named but who said he had been briefed by a State Department employee, the State Department believes it needs specific congressional authorization to release the funds — above and beyond a vote Congress already took in 2010 to appropriate the money.

The clock is ticking. Payments from 2011 and 2012 — $6 million that has already been appropriated — plus an additional $3 million for 2013 must be explicitly authorized by Congress before the 2013 fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, 2014, according to Kastelaniec. Given the normal progress of budgeting in Washington, that means a legislative fix would need to be found in the first two months of 2014.

“There is a lot of good will in the State Department, but there is a problem in the Congress and in the congressional appropriations,” Kastelaniec said. “Now we have to spend our time on an issue that should not exist.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) persuaded 45 of his colleagues to sign on to his letters to Clinton and President Barack Obama in 2009 urging the United States to join this international effort. Gutierrez has pledged to see that the fix gets done, a spokesperson said in late December.

“Our office was not aware that there was any holdup for the U.S. contribution to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation until the Jewish Journal made an inquiry,” Douglas Rivlin, Gutierrez’s director of communications, said in a statement. “Our office was under the impression that the money was authorized, appropriated and had been spent in the way that Congress intended.”

Because the State Department did not brief Gutierrez on its decision, Rivlin said, “The issue got lost in the shuffle,” but he expressed optimism that the budget deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and unveiled earlier this month would allow Congress to get “back to ‘normal’ ” budgeting.

Gutierrez, Rivlin said, would ensure that the “small adjustment to legislative language” gets made next year, which will allow the money to flow as intended.

For decades, it’s been apparent that Auschwitz-Birkenau, the larger section of the Nazi death camp, would deteriorate without a concerted effort to rehabilitate its buildings. The Nazis demolished the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz in an effort to cover up their crimes; those remains have been further compromised by groundwater seeping into the structures. The freezing and thawing of the ground at Auschwitz — not to mention the winter weather in southern Poland, where temperatures can range between zero and 20 below zero Celsius — has further weakened buildings that were frail to begin with.

The 45 brick barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, constructed by prisoners during the war, are in dangerously unstable condition.

“Ten years ago, three of them were closed because of the bad shape,” Kastelaniec told the Journal from his home in Warsaw via Skype on Dec. 16. “Today, three of them are open and 42 are closed. And we are putting up some temporary wooden installations to make sure the walls don’t fall.”

The foundation’s $160 million endowment fund will be managed by a six-member committee, tasked with preserving the capital while generating a 4 percent annual return, which will help support the $5.5 million worth of restoration work that will be required to keep the structures standing in their current condition.

Pledges from governments around the world add up to about $137 million, almost half of which has already been transferred to the foundation. The foundation has launched a campaign to raise the balance needed from 18 individuals, each of whom will contribute 1 million euros ($1.37 million) to the fund.

Were the United States’ $15 million contribution to fall through, the impact on the foundation could be disastrous, and the Polish embassy in Washington has been in touch with the State Department about the matter.

“We are fully aware of how complicated the appropriations process can be, but we still remain very hopeful,” Maciej Pisarski, deputy chief of mission at the Polish embassy, told the Journal on Dec. 20. “This is a noncontroversial issue.”

Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at American Jewish Committee, remembered the 2009 push to get the United States on board as not being particularly fraught.

“I don’t think it was a hard sell,” said Baker, who served for a time on the International Auschwitz Council. “I think everyone recognized that it was the right thing to do.”

The consensus that Auschwitz must be preserved — as a reminder of the attempted genocide of the Jews of Europe, and as a refutation of those who would deny the facts of that Holocaust — extends far beyond Washington.

“Most countries all recognized the power of this place and felt it was important as a country, as a government, to be supportive of this international effort,” Baker said.

Gifts by federal departments to outside organizations for investment purposes appear to be somewhat unusual, and it’s understandable why a governmental body might be more inclined to make a grant to support a specific project rather than hand money to the endowment of an outside organization.

Still, given the broad base of agreement about the worthiness of the cause, it might seem strange that the U.S. funds to help preserve this site of mass murder have been held up for so long. It might have something to do with the relatively small sum of money in question — $3 million is less than .01 percent of the State Department’s 2013 budget. The department appears to have failed to inform Congress of its concerns about the legislation; Congress itself may have dropped the ball by operating these past two years without a new budget.

Whatever the reason, Rivlin said that in 2014, “Congressman Gutierrez will reach out to his colleagues in both parties as soon as Congress reconvenes to get this matter addressed as soon as possible,” Rivlin said.

U.S. Holocaust museum returns barracks to Auschwitz

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has returned a section of wooden barracks that was given on long-term loan by the Auschwitz museum 24 years ago.

The barracks — half of a wooden building in which Jewish prisoners slept while imprisoned in the death camp — arrived at Poland’s port of Gdynia on Sunday, the Associated Press reported, citing the website of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp museum.

The barracks will undergo conservation and be joined with their other half before going on display, according to AP.

The U.S. museum borrowed the barracks in 1989; the contract was renewed in 1999 for another 10 years. In 2003, Poland enacted a law barring the loan of Polish historical artifacts abroad for more than five years.

The return of the barracks comes after several years of negotiations between Polish officials and Holocaust museum officials.

The barracks, a centerpiece of the Washington museum’s permanent collection, will be replaced by another set from Birkenau to be owned by the museum.

Survivor: Lidia Budgor

The cattle car pulled up to the Auschwitz platform. As the doors opened, German soldiers with guns and barking dogs began pushing out the more than 100 Jews arriving from the Lodz Ghetto. “Raus, raus,” they shouted, “Out, out.” Lidia Budgor — then Lola Gryngras — fell and cut her lip as she exited, but she kept walking. Her two younger brothers were sent with the men. She continued with her mother, two younger sisters and two aunts. As they neared the gate, Lidia’s brother Chaim ran up to them, planted a kiss on his mother’s cheek and ran back to the men’s section. Minutes later, Lidia’s mother and two sisters were directed to the left and Lidia and her two aunts to the right. “Everybody right away was sent to the gas chamber,” Lidia recalled. It was August 1944. Lidia was 19.

Lidia was born on Aug. 23, 1925, in Lodz, Poland, to parents Berl and Mariem Gryngras. She was the oldest of five siblings.

The family was Chasidic and lived in one large room with a small kitchen. The two aunts, Lidia’s mother’s younger sisters, lived with them. Lidia’s father had a successful business selling silk threads and fabrics.

Lidia attended Jewish school until age 14. Her father also hired tutors to augment the children’s Jewish studies. 

In early September 1939, Lidia’s mother and siblings were vacationing at their summer cottage near Lask, Poland, while Lidia was home preparing for school. One day her father unexpectedly returned from work around noontime. “Daughter, the war broke out,” he announced. He left to fetch Lidia’s mother and siblings.

“That was the end of normalcy,” Lidia said. 

Almost immediately Lidia’s father could no longer go outdoors for fear of having his beard cut off or being beaten up. Plus, the Nazis had confiscated everything in his office. He had only some pieces of fabric and thread at home. 

During the day, Lidia’s mother tried to sell fabric or thread. Lidia, who was blond and “looked like a little Polish girl,” stood in long lines to buy bread with whatever money they had. 

In early February 1940, the Germans established a ghetto in Lodz, and the family of nine moved into one room. But Lidia, who had a job assigning ghetto apartments, found her family a bigger room with a kitchen. Lidia also befriended the Jewish police, gaining “protectzia” for her family. 

Lidia then worked in the ghetto’s meat distribution center, cutting ration coupons. Sometimes she managed to procure a piece of meat or a horse bone to bring home for soup. She also smuggled home horse fat in her armpit. 

One day in spring 1944, however, Lidia was denounced by another Jew for stealing a bucket of horse guts. She was fired from her job and given a new job pulling wagons filled with human excrement. 

Lidia complained to ghetto commissioner Aron Jakubowicz at the Central Office of Labor Workshops. He dismissed the new job assignment and gave her a loaf of bread. “I had a lot of chutzpah,” she recalled.

For a long time, Lidia and her family were shielded from deportations. But in August 1944, as the ghetto was being liquidated, the family was taken to a prison on Czarnieckiego Street that also served as a transit station to the death camps. “We knew about Auschwitz. We knew even about the gas chambers,” Lidia said.

One day Lidia glanced across the barbed-wire fence at the men’s quarters and saw her father with a group of men sitting on the ground, all with their hands atop their heads. It was her last look at her father, who was transported to Auschwitz. Soon after, Lidia, her mother, siblings and two aunts were shipped there.

Ten days after arriving at Auschwitz, Lidia was sent by open train car to Stutthof Concentration Camp, 34 kilometers east of Gdansk, Poland.  She was given a job cutting bread. She worked and slept in the back of a women’s barracks, where a big table with a cutting machine was stationed in front of a window. 

One day an ill-looking girl wrapped in a ragged black blanket walked under the window. Lidia pushed out some breadcrumbs, which the girl caught in her blanket. She came back every day, and Lidia continued to give her crumbs and pieces of bread. “I saved her life,” she said.
A couple of months later, Lidia contracted typhus and was thrown back into the barracks where she was very sick.

Soon after, with the Russian army approaching, the Germans sent Lidia and other prisoners on a death march toward the Baltic Sea. It was January 1945, a bitterly cold winter, and Lidia had a blanket full of lice, broken wooden clogs and a high fever. While walking one day, a girl in a white raincoat brought her some bread. Lidia recognized her as the girl in the black blanket. The girl also filled Lidia’s tin cup with snow several times a day, to help lower her fever. Lidia named her “the white angel.”

After six weeks, those who survived the march — about 1,000, Lidia estimates — were taken to a barn on an estate in Kolki, Pomerania. It was cold and miserable. 

“The white angel,” whose name was Mary, was assigned to the kitchen. She brought Lidia with her, giving her a hot bath and food. 

In March, hearing that the Russians were coming, Lidia and Mary, along with two other girls, hid in a pigsty on the estate. A few days later, they heard tanks rumbling by and saw German prison guards running into the woods. It was March 10; they had been liberated.

When Lidia walked out of the pigsty, she thought, “I’m free.” Then she wondered, “What for?” She knew she had no family. 

A few weeks later, Lidia and the other girls were living in a beautiful house that had belonged to Germans in Słupsk, Pomerania. 

A Lithuanian Jew, also a former inmate at Stutthof, brought meat to the girls’ house. His name was Wolf Budgor, and he had his eye on Lidia. The attraction was reciprocal, and the two married at the end of 1945. 

One evening, members of the Haganah, a Jewish military organization, knocked on the door. The Russians were coming for Wolf and Lidia, and the Haganah members smuggled them to Vienna.

Lidia and Wolf arrived at the Bindermichl displaced persons camp in Vienna in winter 1946. About a year later, they moved to the Wegscheide displaced persons camp near Munich. Their son, Aaron, was born there on July 6, 1948. 

Finally, in 1952 they received a visa to the United States, moving to Dallas. In 1956 they relocated to Vineland, N.J., and in 1959 they moved to Los Angeles.

In 1960, Lidia opened her own retail clothing store, called Lidia’s, in West Los Angeles. She closed the business in 2008. 

Lidia was a founding member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. She also established the Lodzer Organization for survivors from Lodz and was a frequent speaker at schools and synagogues.

Wolf died on Jan. 1, 2000. Their son is married with two grown children.

Today Lidia is 87, serves on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and is an active member of Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa. 

“I always had this indestructible spirit. I had chutzpah, and I tried in every shape and form to save my family,” Lidia said.

A Turkish Muslim perspective on Yom HaShoah

When people of reason and conscience look back on the subject of Shoah (otherwise known as the Holocaust) today, it is common to hear questions like: “How could a nation of philosophers, composers of classical music, technology, poets, in this seat of the Enlightenment itself, suddenly give vent to savagery not seen since the Dark Ages? How could such dreadful, inhumane impulses seize every apparatus of a nation and cause it to commit such atrocities?”

In looking at the subject of the Holocaust violence, we can see the obvious influence of pseudo-scientific thought as well as a reversion to a far darker philosophy in human history. Arguably, the roots of anti-Semitism in Europe run quite deep, and found their most lethal expression in the Shoah itself; when some six million innocent Jewish men, women and children were done to death on the edge of mass graves in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia or had their lives systematically snuffed out at factories of mass murder such as Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chelmo and Belzec, names that shall forever be remembered as grim testaments to hatred. While it is not my intention to go too in-depth on the roots of European anti-Semitism, it must be touched upon in order to illustrate how prejudice led to disdain, then to hatred, and finally to genocide.

Anti-Semitism in Europe has a long and tragic history. For many centuries, this dislike of the Jewish people of the Diaspora was confined to the religious and social sphere; indeed, it's all too easy to recall such events as the massacres of the First Crusade in 1096, the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the assorted pogroms in Russia and Ukraine; the list is long and horrific. This awful situation persisted as recently as 1959, when a reference to “… perfidious Jews” was finally dropped from the Good Friday Liturgy of the Catholic Church (it must be said here that the Roman Catholic Church has made enormous strides in its relations with the Jewish people, most notably beginning with Vatican II and the later efforts of Pope John Paul II; and let us not forget the many Catholics – and others – who risked, and in some cases, lost their lives to save innocent Jews from Nazi terror).

Until the 19th century, European anti-Semitism was largely confined to the religious sphere (and to a lesser extent, the socio-economic sphere as well). Then, by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, it began to change in tone and style. Anti-Semitism became no longer a matter of theological difference, but rather a matter of biological differences. This was the introduction of so-called “scientific racism” through the introduction and application of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which had gained widespread acceptance by the end of the Nineteenth Century. And with this, the argument among European anti-Semites changed from, “Let us convert the Jews” to “Let us rid ourselves of this infectious and invasive species” (May God forbid). Simply put, an openly exterminationist sentiment had arisen, based on pseudo-scientific reasoning. The Jewish people had gone from being “the Other” to being “the Subhuman”, “a bacillus”, “a virus”. Surely they are beyond this defamation.

Darwinism, and its false implication that human beings are mere animals, classified as “superior”, “inferior” or “non-human” is the basis for the pseudo-science of racism. When Hitler said, “Take away the Nordic Germans and nothing remains but the dance of apes”, he was referring to the falsehood of Darwinist ideas. (Carl Cohen, Communism, Fascism and Democracy, Random House, New York, 1972, p. 408-409) While certainly, there are differences between people, to suggest that a group of people is inherently superior to another, and therefore has a right or moral imperative to subjugate the other, is a grossly mistaken idea.

As a result of such pseudo-scientific fallacies and and neo-romanticist fantasies, six million Jews, innocent men, women and children over a vast swath of the European continent were dehumanized, corralled into ghettoes and exterminated by the conquering Nazis. According to their racial delusion, the Nazi herrenvolk would rule over a vast empire of slaves, with the conquered peoples being the hewers of wood and drawers of water, and with the Jewish people (not to mention anyone else who failed to measure up to the Nazis exacting Darwinian standards) having been eliminated from the face of the earth itself. The Nazis' crude interpretations of Darwinism – influenced by agricultural practices such as animal husbandry – and their outlandish views of history such as Ariosophy, are all too familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary education, and there is no need to comprehensively explain their overall ideology. There are indeed people alive in Israel today, and many other countries, who survived this darkest period of human history, who can easily attest to the horrors they witnessed and experienced.

As Muslims, we bear a special obligation to confront the anti-Semitism that has infected the Muslim world. We must not traffic in discredited ideas and unbecoming stereotypes or proclaim, as truth, notorious forgeries such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (it has been well known for almost a century now that this tract was a forgery by the Czarist Secret Police in order to justify pogroms in Russia). We must not subscribe to pseudo-scientific notions such as racism, nor allow ourselves to succumb to pseudo-historic nonsense such as Holocaust Denial. When it comes to anti-Semitism, we must confront it. We must educate against it. And most of all, we must repudiate it utterly.

We can also look to the recent past and remember how Turkish diplomats worked to save Jews from persecution and extermination during the Second World War. Although it is neither as emphasized or as well-known as the stories of Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, it is a fact that Turkish diplomats provided official documents such as citizenship cards and passports to thousands of Jews. Just to give one example, the Turkish ambassador Behiç Erkin -in order to save the Jews- gave the Nazis documents certifying that their property, houses and businesses, belonged to Turks. In this way, many lives were saved. Yet another example is that of the Turks who organized boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey. My intention in mentioning this is that Muslim Turks' attitude for centuries has demonstrated that Turks and Jews have continued to help each other in times of great crises and God willing, it will continue to be this way, no matter what happens.

For hundreds of years, Jews have known suffering, pain, and have never been at ease. Since the Diaspora, they have been expelled from almost every place they ever went for centuries. And now there are some who say they want the Jews to leave Israel also. The question arises, “Where are they supposed to go?” The Jews, the people of Israel, have the right to live in the Holy Land, in peace and security; indeed, it is so commanded by God Himself in the Qur'an: “And thereafter We said to the Children of Israel: 'Dwell securely in the Promised Land.'” (Surah Al-Isra, 104) Therefore, no one who professes submission to God and heeds the Word of God can oppose their existence in the Holy Land. And as Turks, as Muslims as much as we want the welfare of humanity, we want Jews to live in peace as well. We will always make our best efforts to ensure this goal. To do otherwise is to stand in defiance to the Will of God Himself.

The author is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV. She is also the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization. She can be reached on http://www.facebook.com/sinemtezyapar and https://twitter.com/SinemTezyapar.

Thessaloniki Jews to mark 70th anniversary of Nazi deportations

The Jewish community of Thessaloniki in northern Greece will hold a series of events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the first deportations of the city’s Jews to Auschwitz.

On March 15, 1943, the Nazis sent the first convoy of some 4,000 Jews from Thessaloniki to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. By August, 49,000 out of the city’s pre-war population of 55,000 Jews had been deported. Fewer than 2,000 survived.

The events will include a march on March 16 from the city’s Liberty Square to the Old Railway Station where a memorial ceremony will be held. That will be followed by the main commemoration ceremony on March 17 at Thessaloniki’s Monastiriotes Synagogue, where Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is expected to speak.

The Jewish community will also inaugurate a photographic exhibit about the deportations and hold a concert at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, which was constructed on the site of a destroyed Jewish cemetery.

The Jewish community of Thessaloniki was one of the most important centers of Sephardic Jewry for 450 years following the expulsion from Spain. Known as the Flower of the Balkans, it was the center of Ladino culture in the region.

Following the deportations, Jewish property was looted, synagogues were destroyed, priceless Ladino libraries were shipped to Germany and Jewish cemetery headstones were used as construction materials.

Also March 17, the World Jewish Congress will hold a special meeting in Thessaloniki, headed by Ronald Lauder, as part of the commemorations. The gathering is part of the organization's efforts to support vulnerable Jewish communities, the World Jewish Congress said in a statement

Today, about 1,000 Jews live in the city and they are “adversely affected by the country’s deep economic problems and by the rise of the extremist Golden Dawn, a movement whose leaders openly deny the Holocaust,” according to the World Jewish Congress.

‘Rescue during the Holocaust’: Honoring courage to resist

You would not suspect anything out of the ordinary was happening  as the silver-haired interviewee describes his day at the office. But Per Anger and his colleagues in Budapest, Hungary, were on a mission. His self-effacing modesty veils the significance of his role in attempting to rescue the Jews of Budapest from certain death in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I had been searching the USC Shoah Foundation database for eyewitness testimony of Raoul Wallenberg and was right to assume that among the 52,000 audio-visual life histories, I would find survivors talking about how Wallenberg rescued them in the summer of 1944. I had not expected to find Per Anger, a lesser-known accomplice of Wallenberg. As the camera rolls, the mission comes to life: It was Anger who was the first to hand out Swedish protective papers to Jews, and it was he who first called for assistance — which Wallenberg answered. Anger describes the difficulty of snatching Jews from under the noses of the Nazis, the day he opened a cattle wagon and took out 100 Jews, and then the problem of housing and feeding 20,000 people they then had in their care.

This year, the theme of the United Nations International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust is called “Rescue During the Holocaust: The Courage to Care.” Wallenberg  would be 100 years old now, and so to celebrate his life, the United Nations and UNESCO — among many other organizations — have been highlighting the actions of rescuers such as Wallenberg and Anger.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the release of “Schindler’s List,” the feature film that depicts the unlikely hero Oskar Schindler. His motivation to run his factory in Poland was far from altruistic. He was knowingly invested in a system that used slave labor. Only when faced with the reality of people on his shop floor did his attitude change to the point of absolute defiance of the Nazi intention to work them to death. Schindler changed from collaborator to resistor.

My USC colleague Wolf Gruner and I have been trying to work out what it is that provides the impetus for resistance, studying those who did engage in acts of defiance, from Anger to Schindler to Wallenberg and everyone in between. Resistance came in many forms during the Holocaust, and overwhelmingly we find that Jews did not go like “lambs to the slaughter,” which is a terrible myth that has to end. Survival was a state of mind, and Jews across Europe did everything possible to survive, in direct defiance of the Nazis.

What Gruner discovered is that Jews were more actively defiant than we have hitherto understood; there were small acts of heroism every day. We also discovered many more non-Jews working in resistance networks. Many were not successful in their attempts to undermine the Nazis, but those acts are important to know about. It remains true that the vast majority of people did nothing to assist, but that should make the actions of those who did try all the more valuable. Their actions are the key to a more secure future.  

I, too, have been watching more testimony of rescuers, of which the USC Shoah Foundation has more than a thousand in its archive. The more I listen and watch the purposefulness of their decisions, the more I realize that rescuers were not primarily performing acts of altruism, although most were altruists at some level. They need to be reclassified as the ultimate resistors. As individual citizens, they chose to take actions in direct contravention of Nazi policy. Their decisions were just as ideologically motivated and personally courageous as the partisans in the forest or the fighters in the ghetto — maybe more so, as they were rarely armed and were often surrounded by collaborators and informers who were more than willing to cash in on their courage.

They may not have been in organized fighting units, but their determination to defy the Nazis, with the likelihood they would die trying, takes courage — not the courage to care (as caring as they were), but the courage to resist.

We often ask why weren’t there more who defied the Nazi’s hell-bent determination to murder every Jew without exception. As I listen to the voices one at a time of those who committed to that ultimate act of defiance, I realize we are asking the wrong question. Even if there were only one person who had such courage, I find I have to ask the question, ‘How were there so many… and how might I be like them?’

Stephen Smith is executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

Antwerp mayor announces new monument naming city’s Shoah victims

The mayor of Antwerp announced plans to build a monument to commemorate every Antwerp Jew murdered in the Holocaust.

“It is unacceptable that unlike other European cities, the municipality of Antwerp has never erected a single monument in memory of the history” of the Holocaust, Mayor Patrick Janssens said on Wednseday.

The city’s only monument to the Holocaust was the initiative of the Forum of Jewish Organizations, which represents Flemish Jews, Janssens said.

Speaking at a commemoration ceremony at city hall, Janssens announced plans to erect a monument and engrave into it the name of every Antwerp Jew known to have been murdered in the Holocaust.

He was speaking to about 100 people at a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the first deportation of Antwerp’s Jews.

In addition, he said, the municipality will soon unveil a memorial plaque at city hall. The proposed text for the plaque acknowledges the complicity of Antwerp’s municipal authorities in the deportation of the city’s Jews.

The transports were “organized by the Nazis in close cooperation with the municipal authorities [which were] in charge of the police. Dozens of policemen were involved. Most cooperated obediently, some exercised violence. A few policemen resisted, and sabotaged the Aug. 27 transport. Others tried to save Jews,” the proposed text reads.

The text also says that more than 10,000 Jews from Antwerp were deported, and that the police was involved in the detention of more than 3,000. “Almost all of the deportees perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau,” it reads.

Eli Ringer, honorary chairman of the Forum of Jewish Organizations, called the ceremony “impressive”.She added: “Complicity of local authorities was a complex issue. On the one hand, there was wide-spread cooperation on the part of Leo Delwaide, who was mayor then. On the other, we have testimonies that he personally helped some Jews save themselves.”

Mahmoud Abbas adviser visits Auschwitz

An adviser to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas visited Auschwitz on Friday.

Ziad al-Bandak, a Christian who advises Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Christian affairs, visited prisoner blocs, gas chambers and a crematorium in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Poland, The Associated Press reported.

He visited at the invitation of a private Polish foundation that promotes tolerance.

In 2007, the Palestinian and Israeli ambassadors to Poland made a joint visit to the memorial, according to the Huffington Post.

Al-Bandak, who came at the invitation of a private Polish foundation promoting tolerance, laid flowers at the Death Wall in Auschwitz, where Polish resistance fighters were summarily executed and placed a light at the monument to the camp’s victims.

‘Incident at Vichy’ probes moral questions of ongoing relevance

In 1964, the New York Herald Tribune asked playwright Arthur Miller to cover the war crimes trial in Germany of the Nazi officials who ran the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

While listening to the testimony of man’s inhumanity to man, Miller started writing “Incident at Vichy,” and the play premiered in December of the same year at New York’s Washington Square Theatre.

“Vichy,” now on stage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, was generally well received in New York, though not with the superlatives that greeted Miller’s earlier “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible” and “All My Sons.” Some critics panned the one-act play as too didactic and moralistic.

Rereading “Vichy” now, it appears that the play has aged well, and the intervening decades have done nothing to lessen the acuity of Miller’s inquiry into the nature, conscience and prejudices of the human animal.

Set in 1942, after the Nazis’ swift defeat of France, and the division of it into Nazi-occupied and “unoccupied” Vichy halves, the play opens in a “place of detention” holding eight men and a 14-year-old boy.

They have been picked up off the streets without charges and are now trying to puzzle out the reason for their confinement and their likely fate at the hands of the French police, who are supervised by a German “professor of racial anthropology.”

After first deluding themselves that the roundup is just a routine ID check, the inmates gradually realize that they have been arrested because, according to Nazi criteria, they appear to be Jews.

As each of the men is called into the adjacent interrogation room, only two qualify as obvious “Aryans,” a French businessman and Prince von Berg, a member of the old Austrian nobility who despises the Nazis.

In the end, only two are left waiting, the prince and Leduc, a French-Jewish psychiatrist who was picked up after leaving a safe hiding place to scout for some pain medicine to ease his wife’s toothache.

The two engage in the play’s most probing dialogue, with the psychiatrist pitilessly stripping the aristocrat of his idealistic “illusions.”

Leduc lectures, “I am angry that I should have been born before the day when man has accepted his own nature; that he is not reasonable, that he is full of murder, that his ideals are only the little tax he pays for the right to hate and kill with a clear conscience.”

Miller ends the play on a somewhat more hopeful note, showing that man’s better angels may occasionally triumph over his bestiality.

I sat down and discussed the upcoming performance of “Vichy” with director Barbara Schofield, who also serves as a resident director for the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Her resume includes a doctorate in theater from Tufts University, further studies in Berlin and London, and some two decades of experience as actor, director, producer and teacher at universities and theaters from New York to Hollywood.

“I’ve been wanting to do this play for a long time, because the issues Miller raises are relevant for every generation and relevant to us today,” Schofield said. “The question is, what does the moral individual do when the norms of society break down; how does he or she act in a world devoid of values?”

In American society today, the individualistic cowboy mentality is getting the upper hand over the community’s collective needs, Schofield believes.

The Sierra Madre Playhouse, once a vaudeville palace and then a movie house, was converted into a 99-seat theater in the 1970s. It maintains a year-round schedule of plays and breaks almost even on ticket sales to a predominantly white, elderly and conservative audience, the director said.

All this in a community of 11,000, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, with a volunteer fire department and the distinction of having been named an “All-America City” by the National Civic League in 2007.

Since joining the Playhouse staff four years ago, Schofield has been trying to attract a younger audience through somewhat edgier plays and has found that the theater’s current patrons will accept a certain level of sexual frankness but are turned off by blasphemy.

“We’re not pushing the envelope,” she said. “For instance, we’re not going to put on a play like David Mamet’s [expletive-laden] ‘Speed-the-Plow.’ “

Schofield describes the small-theater scene in the Los Angeles area as “the most active in the country, with more venues than in New York and Chicago combined. Here, we have a new theater company opening up practically every day.”

“Incident at Vichy” continues through Sept. 8. Performances are on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. For reservations, phone (626) 355-4318, or order tickets online at

Survivor: Miriam Rothstein

“I don’t know where I am.” After three days and nights in a cramped cattle car, Miriam Rothstein — neé Farkas — was thrust onto the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform. Her sister Margaret and Margaret’s three children were sent to one side,  her brother Baruch to another. Where was Rachel? Only a year and half older, Rachel was like her twin. Suddenly a man in a crisp SS uniform, wielding a whip and accompanied by a German shepherd — later she learned he was Dr. Josef Mengele — called, “Here, here, gypsy girl,” pointing her in yet another direction. She heard an orchestra playing and saw prisoners with shaved heads and striped uniforms. “They look like crazy people here,” she thought. At last Rachel caught up as they were pushed into a big hall. It was June 1, 1944; Miriam was 23.

Born in Satu Mare, Romania, Miriam was born ninth of the 11 children of Gershon, a businessman who never laid a hand on any of them, and Gittel, a homemaker who regularly brought food to the poor. The family was educated and observant.

When Miriam was 4, they moved to Yasinya, a village in the Carpathian Mountains, then part of Czechoslovakia, where her mother’s well-respected and wealthy family lived. But life changed after Hungary annexed Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Miriam’s studies were interrupted and the family business was shuttered.

Miriam lived in continual fear. Hungarian soldiers appeared everywhere; one even stalked her. Often, from a distance, she glimpsed other Jews running from the nearby Polish border toward Russia. Then, in August 1941, Jews lacking Hungarian citizenship were apprehended. “We heard that they were shot,” Miriam said.

In March 1944, with the Germans controlling Yasinya, Miriam’s family learned that all able-bodied Jews were to be rounded up. At their mother’s urging, Miriam and Rachel boarded a train for Uzhorod, a city in Transcarpathia, then part of Hungary, where older sister Margaret and brother Baruch lived.

But in April, the Jews in Uzhorod were ordered to report to the ghetto there. Miriam and Rachel instead hid in a shed for three days until Miriam feared they would be discovered and shot. She changed into a two-piece red silk dress, attaching her mother’s diamond ring to an inside button, and the sisters entered the ghetto. It was an old brick factory, overcrowded and unsanitary. “I wished we would leave,” Miriam said. Finally, at the end of May, they were lined up and squeezed into cattle cars, headed to Poland.

In the big hall at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Miriam’s clothes were ripped from her body, the red dress with its concealed diamond tossed into a huge pile. Her head and other areas were shaved, and her vaginal cavity was searched for hidden jewelry. She was handed another dress, with no regard for size.

The group was then moved to Lager (camp) C, a huge bloc that Miriam heard held 1,000 women. That evening they were given “soup,” one pot to be shared among five people. Miriam, however, spotting worms, refused her portion. Everyone slept on the floor. Miriam used her dress to fan Rachel, who was faint from the heat. From outside, they heard people screaming.

There was no work, only “appel,” or roll call, where they had to line up, again by fives. “Every day, people were taken out: one, two, three, four and out. They went straight to the crematorium,” Miriam said. They could see the flames and smell the burning flesh. Miriam was always afraid, but more afraid that she’d lose Rachel than for herself.

In September, Miriam was selected for work and directed to a different bloc. When Rachel was not called, Miriam began screaming. “My throat got infected,” she said. In the evening, however, Rachel sneaked in. The next morning, the group was taken by train to an area near Krakow, where they built a shelter for 50 girls, a bed of branches with a canvas covering. At night, Miriam and Rachel huddled together, with one sweater over the branches and another covering them.

Work consisted of digging anti-tank trenches and later laying cable. Miriam felt lucky to have two kind, high-ranking SS officers overseeing them. The accompanying Latvian guards, however, were harsh, twice gratuitously whacking Miriam with a rifle and constantly threatening to shoot the girls.

By January 1945, with the Russian army approaching, the SS officers dismissed the Latvian guards, gathered up food and escaped with the girls. After days of walking, they reached a large estate. The officers then departed, telling the girls to remain hidden.

But Miriam, Rachel and another girl ran away. In the bitter cold, with a full moon shining, they finally came to a farm where they slept in the barn until Russian soldiers liberated them.

Eventually Miriam and Rachel returned to Uzhorod. There Miriam learned her parents, sister Margaret and youngest brother Yehuda had been killed. Baruch had survived, as had her other siblings, many of whom had previously left for Palestine or America.

Later, living in Podmokly, Czechoslovakia, Miriam met Herman Rothstein, a guard for the Czech president. They married in 1946 and their daughter Vera was born in 1947. In 1949, they immigrated to Israel, where their son, David, was born in 1953. A year later, a challenging form of tuberculosis, which attacked Miriam’s bones, prompted a move to Chicago, where Herman had relatives. Their youngest daughter, Mindy, was born there in 1957.

Miriam and Herman moved to Los Angeles in 1992. Herman died in 2000, and Miriam currently lives at the Jewish Home for the Aging. Because of a bad eye, she can no longer read, which she misses, but she enjoys playing Bingo and attending the rabbi’s talks.

Miriam regrets never telling her story to the Shoah Foundation. She’s also sorry she never learned the names of the kind SS officers. But with three children, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, she says, “I had a wonderful life. All the best for the children.”


When the world was upside down

To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Jan. 27, Mark Rothman was invited by the Krakow Medical Society at Jagiellonian University Medical College in Krakow, Poland, together with the university’s Centre for Holocaust Studies,  and Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to address their commemoration in Poland via videoconference. The following is an edited text of his remarks.

As I address you today, I am both bereft and optimistic. I am bereft for the obvious reasons one feels the deep, unfathomable sense of loss for what the Holocaust represents: the taking away from this world of 6 million innocent Jews; the destruction of the European communities and cultures they represented; the murder of approximately 3 million other victims persecuted by the Nazis; the political assassination of 3 million Poles; the death of the rich history of Jewish life in Poland; the severing or even amputation of Jewish-Polish coexistence; and more. I could easily go on.

But I am also bereft, a word which I use today to emphasize my lack of a certain, specific word to describe the reversal of nature, the turning on its head of a natural order, that existed during the Holocaust. In this reversal, leaders entrusted with the welfare of entire nations pursued paths that brought their people to ruin. In this reversal, children became adults in an instant, and adults became childlike in their impotence to act. In this reversal, religious leaders that had inspired us to act as if we were angels to beat back evil too often chose paths of devilish complicity with it. In this reversal, the innocent people were the prisoners and the bad people built the prisons and threw the innocent in them.

I am bereft because I cannot find a word to describe this upside-down logic. I am bereft because 67 years have not been enough to explain to me how this could happen. I am bereft because I don’t think in 67, 670 or 6,700 more years a satisfactory explanation will emerge. I am bereft because the only way to fully understand the Holocaust is, in fact, to admit that we are bereft, and we always will be bereft of any complete understanding of how and why the Holocaust happened.

I am sure each of you, as people of science and the empirical analysis upon which science relies, can particularly appreciate what it means to confront the truly unknowable. Your work and your lives are dedicated to pushing back the frontiers of what we don’t know, of what we can’t treat, of what we can’t learn to do to improve the lot of our fellow beings. The unknowable is an affront to everything you stand for. And, paradoxically, to truly fathom the Holocaust is to realize this is exactly as it should be when we consider the worst event in human history.

But I am also optimistic. I am optimistic because of what this commemorative conference represents. When I first met representatives from the Jagiellonian University Medical College when they visited the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust I was deeply impressed that a medical college took such a keen interest in this period of history. Usually, visitors have a much closer obvious connection to the work we do at the Museum; they are scholars from departments of history or Jewish studies or genocide studies or specifically Holocaust studies. Or they are artists committed to expressing the emotions brought out by the Holocaust. Or they are direct colleagues, such as your esteemed director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Dr. Piotr Cywinski.

The fact that Kraków Medical Society makes such a commitment, together with the Centre for Holocaust Studies and Auschwitz-Birkenau, to memorialize the events of 67 years ago proves to me that another reversal is taking place. This is a fundamental and necessary reversal of history. The only way we are going to ensure the 21st century is better than the 20th century is for us to acknowledge and embrace the tragedies of our past and, in doing so, rededicate ourselves to the future. Thus, while the cause for the commemoration today leaves me bereft, the fact of the commemoration fills me with optimism, and even a hint of joy. Optimism because I can see a vision for a brighter future; joy because we are taking an actual, concrete step toward it.

To those of you with us today who were at the center of that storm 70 or so years ago, who were the innocent persecuted by the criminal, the witnesses to the great reversal that has no explanation, I ask you to join me as much as you can in my optimism. I ask you to see all of us here today as more than just participants in a conference to commemorate the events of your suffering. I ask you to see us as the witnesses to the witnesses. We will hear your stories and we will carry them forward and we will remember them and we will retell them. You are giving us the gifts of your stories. We cherish them and we will pass them on, the same way my grandfather passed to me stories that I pass on to the great-grandchildren he never had the privilege to meet. He lives on through those stories, and you will live on as well through yours.

There is a phrase in Judaism that a truly righteous act is a Kiddush Hashem. Its literal translation is ‘a holiness to God,’ but I find particularly beautiful the broader translation, that the act is bringing God’s essence of goodness into the world. Whatever your particular understanding of God, that is what you are doing today. You are bringing God’s goodness into the world. You are commemorating the day 67 years ago when the great reversal of the Holocaust was itself reversed and the natural balance was restored. You are noting the moment when a world that had shut out God’s essential goodness for 12 years, finally let it back in. We will always find ourselves bereft, empty and lacking when we consider the Holocaust. But your actions today provide us a spark of goodness to at least illuminate the void. l

Mark Rothman is executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Britain giving $3.4 million to Auschwitz site preservation

Britain will contribute about $3.4 million to help preserve the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp memorial.

The donation to the foundation for the preservation of the former death camp site will be used for restoration and preservation.

“I am determined that the government should take an active approach to preserving the memory of the Holocaust,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is a searing reminder of the horrific consequences of intolerance and hatred. It should never be forgotten.

“I am proud that the UK is able to play a part in commemorating the millions of victims who died there, educating future generations of the evils of that period in history and ensuring its preservation for many years to come.”

More than 3,000 British students visit Auschwitz-Birkenau each year through the British Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.

“Just as we collect and preserve the stories of eyewitnesses, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that Auschwitz-Birkenau stands as a perpetual reminder of the pain and destructive force of hate,” Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said Thursday at the Jewish Museum in London, which he toured with the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and the Polish ambassador, Barbara Tuge-Erecinska. “We must ensure that the lessons from the Holocaust are taught today and to future generations.”

More than 1 million people visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau site each year.