Peter Epstein. Photo by David Miller

Survivor: Peter Epstein: ‘There was misery all around you’

In September 1943, Peter Epstein, along with his mother, brother and grandfather, was awakened in the middle of the night by German soldiers and their Dutch collaborators and transported by rail from Amsterdam to Westerbork, a transit camp in the northeastern Netherlands. There, Peter, then 11, mostly walked around, while his mother cared for his 16-month-old brother, Frank.

A week later, unlike tens of thousands of Amsterdam Jews who had been shipped to Westerbork and then crammed into cattle cars to Auschwitz and Sobibor, Peter, Frank and their mother — though not his grandfather — were sent home.

Peter’s father, Paul, who worked for the Amsterdam Jewish Council and had been working the night they were arrested, had arranged for their release.

Over the years, Peter has felt compelled to defend his father against allegations of collaboration, even though Paul’s job was not organizing deportations but calling the moving company, Abraham Puls & Sons, and giving them addresses of the houses forcefully vacated by Jewish families. The Jewish Council co-leaders, Abraham Asscher and David Cohen, were found guilty of collaboration by a Jewish Council of Honor after the war but were exonerated by the Dutch government in 1950.

“My argument always has been, if you can save your life and that of your family, you do anything,” Peter said in his 1995 interview with what is now the USC Shoah Foundation. “It’s a situation that’s hard to imagine.”

Still, he admitted, “[The Jewish Council] is a questionable organization.”

Peter was born on July 30, 1932, in Breslau, Germany, the son of Paul and Margit Epstein. In October 1933, with Paul struggling as an attorney as Hitler assumed power, they moved to Amsterdam.

Paul sold stationery and trinkets door-to-door for several years before establishing his own business, Epstein Stalenboek Centrale, which sold sample books to textile companies, along with pinking shears he imported from Germany.

The family lived comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment in a predominately Jewish area where, Peter said, he experienced no anti-Semitism before the war.

But life as “a regular child” ended on May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded Holland. As air raid sirens sounded at night, the family huddled in their windowless bathroom, with Peter ensconced in the tub. Five days later Holland surrendered.

By fall 1940, anti-Jewish measures began being imposed. A year later, Peter could attend only a Jewish school. And in July 1942, two months after Frank was born, deportations to Westerbork commenced.

A few weeks after being released from Westerbork, in September 1943, Peter and his family were shipped back to the transit camp. This time Paul accompanied them, which comforted Peter.

Still, Peter said, “There was misery all around you,” especially on Tuesdays when the cattle-car trains were loaded. “I just knew that people were being deported and weren’t returning.”

In January 1944, Peter and his family were jubilant to be listed for the first transport to Bergen-Belsen. They had heard it was a transit camp, where they would be exchanged with prisoners of war and sent to Palestine. But Peter contracted chickenpox, moving their departure to the second transport on Feb. 1.

The prisoners’ high spirits faded, however, when their railcars arrived in Celle, a town in north-central Germany, where they were greeted by German soldiers with rifles and bloodhounds. “At that point we knew the story was fabricated,” Peter said.

They were marched 15 miles to Bergen-Belsen’s “Star Camp,” which primarily housed Jews from Holland, who were required to wear a yellow star.

Peter spent most of his days being counted. “It was an ordeal,” sometimes lasting six hours or more, he said. He also learned the pain of hunger, which prompted him and others to steal.

Peter’s father worked in a factory outside the camp, dismantling army boots, sometimes returning home bloodied and beaten when he couldn’t meet that day’s quota. “This was basically the beginning of his end,” Peter said.

Peter, too, was fighting to stay alive. Each night, lying in his bunk, he fantasized about what he would tell his friends at home about that day. He believed nobody knew what was happening.

On April 9, 1945, with the Allies closing in, the camp was evacuated and the prisoners were loaded into cattle cars on three trains.

The train carrying Peter and his family, later known as the “lost train,” was supposed to be destined for Theresienstadt. Instead, as Allied armies approached from two sides, it zigzagged, stopping every day or two to unload dead bodies.

On the morning of April 23, after traveling two weeks, the prisoners in Peter’s car awoke to see a Soviet soldier standing outside their opened door. They had been liberated. Unable to communicate with the soldier, they watched as he picked up Frank, who was screaming, and began gently singing, quieting him.

They later learned they were in the German farming village of Troebitz, about 60 miles from Leipzig.

Peter’s family, along with three childless couples, found a farmhouse inhabited by several women who raised chickens and pigs and had cupboards filled with food. They remained there for two months.

The Americans then drove the survivors to Leipzig, where they boarded trains to Maastricht, Holland. There, doctors discovered that Peter had tuberculosis and handed him over to a Christian monastery to recuperate.

Finally, in June 1945, the family reached Amsterdam. Peter, still suffering from tuberculosis, was admitted to the Central Israel Ziekenhuis hospital.

Sometime in 1946, Peter was taken to a sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland, where doctors prescribed sleeping outside in the cold air and eating eight meals a day. His parents visited often, but in April 1947 Paul died from surgical complications. Soon after, Peter came home.

Peter returned to school in 1948, leaving in 1952 when he, Frank and their mother immigrated to Los Angeles, sponsored by a paternal cousin in Marshfield, Wis.

Peter and his mother worked assembling televisions at a factory in Van Nuys for 60 cents an hour. “It was a difficult beginning in a strange country,” he said. After a year, Peter began studying accounting at Los Angeles City College and apprenticing for a certified public accountant.

In fall 1954, Peter began working as an accountant. He opened his own practice in the San Fernando Valley in the late 1980s. He retired last year.

Peter has a son, Steven, born in 1963, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1969. He also has a stepdaughter, Natalie, born in 1970, and a daughter, Shira, born in 1975, with his second wife, who died in 1990. He married Polly Davis in November 1997. He now has three grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

Peter said he first gave testimony in 1992 to a Holocaust oral history project. For several years, he spoke at the elementary school where his daughter, Shira, teaches. This past January he began speaking at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Now 85, Peter wants to share his Holocaust experiences as often as possible. “This is a story that should stay alive,” he said. “It’s not made better or worse.” He encourages people to ask questions.

“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “There’s nothing dishonorable to tell.”

At Bergen-Belsen memorial, warnings and worry on Holocaust remembrance

At the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, hundreds of survivors, along with their children and grandchildren, stood together last weekend under gray skies on a ground alive with memories doing their part for the future.

“I ask young people to please take the right decisions in your life,” said Anastasia Gulei, 89, a Ukrainian who was imprisoned at the camp in northern Germany.

“There are people living today who admire [Nazi propaganda chief Joseph] Goebbels, and these people can push the buttons for nuclear weapons,” she added. “And this is terrible.”

“It is not enough to commemorate,” said Ariel Yahalomi, 91, a Polish Jew who now lives in Israel. “We have to warn the younger generation.”

Sunday’s gathering commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, where an estimated 37,000 prisoners died between May 1943 and April 15, 1945. The event was part of a string of major commemorations at former Nazi camps this year. Among those in attendance were Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president; Stephan Weil, prime minister of Lower Saxony, the state where the site is located; Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress; and other dignitaries.

Seven decades after troops liberated Nazi camps across the collapsing Third Reich, such ceremonies have grown heavier with speeches from politicians and religious leaders, and lighter on the contribution from the eyewitnesses themselves.

With most survivors well into their 80s and 90s, some observers worry that Holocaust remembrance, even in Germany, is becoming empty and perfunctory. Some have suggested that German leaders are merely going though the motions, glad when they can go home. In some cases there have been suggestions that survivors are disrespected.

Recently, several young German volunteers complained that dignitaries attending a commemoration at the former Ravensbrueck camp were served meals on fine dishes, while visiting survivors ate from plastic plates. One volunteer told the German newspaper Die Zeit last week that there were no wheelchairs for the infirm, no kosher food available and not enough interpreters.

“We noticed a major difference between what was said in speeches and presented to the world, and the way in which survivors were encountered and treated,” the volunteer was quoted as saying, with another adding, “I was really ashamed.”

Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, told a group of survivors and their children at a weekend gathering prior to the official ceremony that he was worried about the future of remembrance.

“Whatever we are going to do,” Rosensaft said, “we have to do ourselves.”

At the Bergen-Belsen memorial, staff and volunteers appeared to go out of their way to make the hundreds of visitors comfortable, handing out umbrellas, plastic rain ponchos and even thermal blankets.

The commemorations have been given an added urgency by what some perceive as a potential threat against Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran.

The next war could “make World War II look small in comparison,” said Lauder, speaking in the shadow of the giant obelisk memorial erected by the British in 1952. “You cannot leave here and do nothing.”

In private conversations throughout the weekend, children of survivors shared their parents’ testimony second hand – something Aviva Tal, born in the nearby DP camp, called an honor and a duty. Carrying her parents’ memories “has never been a burden,” she told JTA. “It has always been a matter of pride, of identity.”

On Sunday, visitors walked along pathways between mounded mass graves in the former concentration camp, stopping to place tulips or Israeli flags on stone markers. Later they ate lunch in the former German barracks that had housed the postwar DP camp where Tal was born and ever since has been a British military base. The facility is about to be handed back to the German armed forces, so Sunday’s full military ceremony with bagpipes at the base cemetery was the last of its kind. Thunder rumbled in the distance as a final Mourner’s Kaddish was recited.

Yaffa Singer and Isaac Zinger — the first twins born in the DP camp — had come from Israel with several family members, including their grand-niece Lihi Tal, 16.

Tal, an aspiring filmmaker, said she would share video from her visit with schoolmates. Usually this history “seems like a movie, it’s not really felt,” she told JTA. “My job is to wake up my friends.”

Coffee in Amsterdam with Anne Frank’s Best Friend

Next month is the 70th anniversary of the death of Anne Frank. The exact date that she died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945 is not known other than it is in the first few days of March.

Anne Frank is the most famous victim of the holocaust, her very memory conjuring up the innocent dead six million and the 1.5 million murdered children.

I spent the past few days in Amsterdam at the new production of her diary, called simply Anne at a specially-constructed theater in Amsterdam with a gargantuan stage. The ambitious production is moving, exhilarating, informative, superbly acted, and deeply disturbing. At the end people shuffled out without making a sound. All were engrossed in thought.

Few people outside the Jewish community of Holland are aware that some eighty percent of Dutch Jews were murdered in the holocaust representing the highest percentage of any country except Poland, where ninety percent were murdered. The Dutch Jewish community consists mostly of survivors and their children.

To the rest of the world The Netherlands is a symbol of liberal openness, with prostitution visible and legal, marijuana sold in “coffee shops,” and far-left politics flourishing. How any of this squares, however, with Holland allowing eighty percentage of its Jewish population to be annihilated is anyone’s guess.

I say “allowed” because in nearby Denmark ninety-nine percent of all Jews survived because they were ferried to neutral Sweden, were hidden by their non-Jewish neighbors, and their government staunchly protested Jewish deportations. In Holland there were certainly righteous gentiles who saved Jews – like the five non-Jewish employees of Otto Frank who hid his family – but numbers don’t lie. The vast majority of Jews were murdered. 

Strange thing then that the most famous Dutch personality of the 20th century is a young Jewish girl of fifteen who died seventy years ago. In terms of sheer global name recognition Anne Frank would be on a list of the best-known Dutchman along with Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

Yet, aside from the Anne Frank house with its consistently long tourist lines to enter, and the incredible play now being staged, there are no officials plans by the city of Amsterdam or the government of The Netherlands to mark the seventieth year of her death. Indeed, even at the Anne Frank house her Jewishness is not focused on and there is little discussion of the wider events of the holocaust and the wholesale annihiliation of Dutch Jewry.

On Sunday morning I travelled to Anne’s original home where she lived before being forced to move into hiding at the much more famous Annex. More important, I met with Jacqueline van Maarsenwhom Anne describes in her diary as her very best friend and to whom she wrote a letter in the diary. 

“It’s a strange thing when a friend you have known becomes a global icon,” Jacqueline told me. “I remember her simply as Anne, my childhood playmate and best friend. We met at a special school set up after the Nazis ordered that all Jewish children be segregated from the mainstream. Anne invited me to her home on the day we met and then insisted that I stay for dinner. She was like that. Always bubbly. Always warm, friendly, and forward.”

Jacqueline took out her yearbook from school. “Here is the note that Anne wrote for me in my yearbook. She took up a whole page. Look at how she glued in a picture of herself.”

“And here is a postcard which Anne sent to me for 1942. I had told her it was important to me to receive the postcard.” It was signed, “Anne.”

I was fascinated by the conversation. Here I was speaking to someone who had actually known Anne Frank, a girl who would go down as one of history’s famous personalities. Was I reaching across millennia to someone who had know a figure from antiquity? Was I in some sort of weird time machine? How could I be sitting with someone who gossiped, played, and did homework with Anne Frank? 

Wasn’t The Secret Annex some lost historical time capsule that took place in the early mists of history? It could not be that I was speaking to someone who was one of the last people to see Anne free before the family went into hiding without any notice, and who is mentioned in the diary.

“Anne wrote me a letter in her diary because she never said goodbye. I thought her family had gone to Switzerland. I guess it was too dangerous for her to tell me that she was leaving. I only read the letter after the War.”

It then hit me. The reason I was speaking to a friend of Anne Frank who was alive, spoke a near-perfect English, and was, thank God, in good health at 86 was because the events of the holocaust are still so recent. 

It’s easy for us to look at the black-and-white stock footage of the Second World War and the famous personalities of Churchill, Eisenhower, and Roosevelt and imagine this was centuries ago. But no. There are people alive and well who witnessed all these events, went to death camps, survived then death camps, and are still thank God alive to tell the tale.

All of which makes it even more confusing as to how Europe can allow for such a disgusting outbreak of anti-Semitism in our time, something that the Jewish community of Amsterdam wanted to discuss with me above all other subjects. How short can human memory really be?

At a Saturday night lecture that I gave to the community they informed me that they are currently embroiled in an argument with the government about security for Jewish day schools, synagogues, and communal institutions. The government was set to remove all security this past January but extended it in light of the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher market massacres in Paris.

Now the community wonders who they have any future in a country with growing threats and with a government that is not stepping to the plate to protect them long-term. 

It all sounds eerily familiar and more than a bit disconcerting, to use the classic British understatement.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbis,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the Founder of This World: The Values Network, the world’s leading organization defending Israel in world media. He is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and 30 other books, including his most recent, “Kosher Lust.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.    


Survivor: Stella Esformes

It was 1944, and Stella Esformes — then Sterina Haleoua — was looking forward to watching the national Independence Day parade in Larissa, Greece. She had even purchased a new pair of beige and brown shoes for the occasion. But the day before the event, in the early morning of March 24, she was awakened by the sound of boots walking outside her family’s apartment, followed by loud knocking on the door. “Open up,” a voice demanded. It was an interpreter, accompanied by two German soldiers. “Come with me,” he ordered. “Take some clothes, food and your valuables.”

Stella and her parents were put in a large, open truck, which  made multiple stops as the soldiers rounded up more families. “We were crying. Nobody was talking,” Stella recalled.

Stella was born on April 15, 1926, in Salonika, Greece, the only surviving child of Avraham and Rosa Haleoua. The couple’s previous four daughters all died between the ages of 1 and 3, before Stella was born.

The Haleouas, who spoke Ladino, lived in a house they shared with another family. Avraham worked selling horses in Larissa, about 90 miles away. He returned home every weekend or two. Rosa was employed as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family, also coming home on weekends. A neighbor cared for Stella.

Stella lived in a vibrant Jewish community where she had many friends and enjoyed celebrating Shabbat.

At 6, she attended Jewish kindergarten. The following year, however, her mother lost her job and they moved to Larissa.

Stella didn’t speak Greek, and she didn’t attend school immediately. Instead she learned to crochet and embroider from Rosa and picked up some Greek while shopping at a neighborhood market.

At 9, she enrolled in first grade, where the children teased her because of her age and poor command of the language.  After second grade, she left school and apprenticed for a seamstress. While there, she sewed several dresses for herself, replacing the one dress she had been wearing every day.

On Oct. 28, 1940, Italy invaded Greece. With bombs dropping, Stella stopped working. Some months later, a neighbor took her own two sons and Stella to live in a village in the mountains, where Stella felt safer. But on March 1, 1941, an earthquake struck, severely shaking the house. Stella’s father came for her that day.

The Greek army pushed the Italian forces into Albania, winning the war. “We were so happy,” Stella recalled. But then Germany attacked Greece on April 6, 1941, occupying it by April 30.

Not much changed initially for the Jews of Larissa, according to Stella. But by 1943, they were issued identification cards and required to check in with German officials weekly. And on March 24, 1944, they were rounded up.

The truck delivered Larissa’s Jews to a large, empty garage. Additional trucks brought more Jews from Yanina, Volos and other surrounding towns. “We were crying and crying,” Stella said.

The Germans took everyone’s valuables. One woman handed Stella a gold necklace with three diamonds to hide, which she embedded in her coat hem.

A week later, at midnight, the Germans marched the Jews to the train station and loaded them into cattle cars, where they sat on the floor “bumper to bumper,” Stella said.

After seven days, the train pulled up to the Birkenau platform. When the doors of Stella’s car opened, the girls and boys were separated, and the older people were directed to board trucks standing nearby. “Stella, come with us,” Avraham pleaded. “No, Daddy, I’m going with the girls. We’re going to work,” she answered. She assumed they would meet later.

The girls were marched to a large room where female capos tattooed Stella with the number 77137 and cut her long hair. Nazi guards then ordered the girls to undress and shower. Stella carefully folded her coat with the gold necklace, planning to retrieve it after her shower. But they exited through another door, and Stella was handed a thin dress and a pair of wooden shoes.

The girls were next taken to a barracks. The first night, Stella couldn’t stop coughing and couldn’t sleep. “I was nervous,” she said.

The next day, she met a girl from Salonika. “Where are our parents?” Stella asked her. “Your parents went where my parents went, to the crematorium,” she answered. Stella thought the girl was crazy, but she subsequently heard the same story from others.

After being quarantined for 40 days, the girls in Stella’s barracks went to work. Stella was assigned to unload potatoes from a train and then cart them by wheelbarrow to the camp.

One day, Stella stole three potatoes, wrapping them in her headscarf and putting them between her legs. As the group returned from work, a capo saw her walking oddly and ordered her to open her legs. The potatoes fell out, and the capo struck her three times on the head with a heavy baton.

The group then stood at roll call where a German guard called out her number and directed her to the sidelines. “I was crying. All my friends were crying,” Stella remembered. Everyone feared she would be taken to the crematorium. Instead she was reassigned to clean the latrines and the open sewer, where she later found a mezuzah that she hid in a piece of bread.

In January 1945, as the Russians approached, Stella and others were evacuated in cattle cars to Bergen-Belsen, a 17-day trip. They were given a blanket and placed in tents.

Some weeks later, the group was transferred by train to Gellenau, a women’s labor camp in Germany’s Silesia region. Stella worked on a machine, standing on her feet from evening to morning, every night. One morning after work, she fainted; she had contracted typhus. Her friends wanted to bring her to the hospital, but Stella refused, returning to work that evening. “I didn’t want to be taken away,” she said.

In March 1945, Stella was shipped to Mauthausen. The first night, she was assigned a barracks filled with sick people. She climbed into a bunk next to a Hungarian woman, who was dead by morning.

At Mauthausen, Stella traded her mezuzah for additional soup. One day, while fetching her extra portion, a Hungarian woman said, “What do you need soup for? You’re free.”

Stella walked up a hill, where she saw American soldiers tossing chocolates and cigarettes to the newly freed prisoners. “We were very happy,” she said. It was May 5, 1945. Stella was 19 and weighed about 85 pounds.

Stella remained at Mauthausen, which became a displaced persons camp. Then, on July 28, the Americans departed and the Russians took command. That night, when Stella was sleeping in a room with 35 girls, Russian soldiers knocked on their door. The girls took refuge in the barracks with the Jewish men, who protected them, and left the camp the next day.

Stella headed for Salonika, where she lived with her cousin Sinto and a group of young people. There she met Yomtov (Joe) Esformes, who was nine years older and the only survivor in his family. They married on July 14, 1946; Stella wore a rented dress and borrowed shoes.

In April 1947, their son, Elias, was born, followed by daughters Flora in July 1951 and Rose in September 1958.

In October 1951, Stella and Joe received a visa to immigrate to the United States. They settled in Los Angeles, seeking a mild climate for Joe, who had contracted asthma in the camps.

The Jewish community helped the family financially. Then, when Flora was 3, in 1954, Stella began working in a window blinds factory. She took a leave when Rose was born and retired in 1963. Stella then helped Joe in the small produce market he had opened in downtown Los Angeles. He sold it in 1969 and died on Oct. 13, 1989.

Stella, now 88, has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She is active in Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa and UCLA’s Bearing Witness program.

While Stella was in Birkenau, a French prisoner read her palm, telling her she was going to be liberated, marry a red-haired man and have three children.

“Believe it or not, that’s what happened to me,” Stella said.

Amsterdam tram company won’t punish conductor accused of anti-Semitism

Amsterdam’s transport company, GVB, announced it would not punish an employee accused of making an anti-Semitic remark.

Two people told the Jewish Community of Amsterdam, NIHS, that they had heard a tram conductor aboard Line 17 say on Aug. 8 that the Anne Frank House was how “the Jews make money.”

The conductor and the driver deny this. According to reports, the conductor’s remark was made on the tram’s intercom in response to a question from the driver. As the tram neared the Anne Frank House, the driver reportedly said: “What are all these people doing here? That woman is long dead.”

Anne Frank was a Jewish teenage diarist who hid during World War II in a house in Amsterdam before she was deported to Auschwitz. She later died in Bergen-Belsen.

Last year the museum attracted more than one million visitors. The GVB company will, however, teach personnel more about Anne Frank’s history, according to an announcement on the GVB website.

Bas van ‘t Wout, a member of Amsterdam’s city council, called GVB’s decision “a sorry conclusion.” Van ‘t Wout, a former aide to Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has convened a city hall debate next month on the incident.

GVB also announced it had removed the historically loaded digit 8 from the devices that indicate the numbers of tram lines. The decision was made after a tram with the number 8 was seen riding around in Amsterdam on May 4, the Dutch Memorial Day. The deportation of thousands of Amsterdam Jews began on Line 8 streetcars.

The Jews would ride the trams to Central Station where trains transported them to concentration camps. Amsterdam’s municipal transport company scrapped the number 8 from its list of active lines out of consideration for Holocaust survivors’ feelings.

Amsterdam had a Jewish population of some 80,000 people before the start of World War II, according to the 4 and 5 May Committee, the national commemoration authority. The last mass deportation occurred in October 1943. Between 41,000 and 45,000 Jews live in the whole of the Netherlands today, according to the European Jewish Congress.

Yoya’s promise

“You must promise me that you will tell this story, what happened here,” the rabbi said to the bar mitzvah boy, Joachim “Yoya” Joseph. They had just finished the ceremony in a small barrack in Bergen-Belsen, where they covered the windows so the Nazi guards would not see them. The rabbi, Simon Dasberg, a community rabbi from Holland, pressed a little Torah scroll in the young boy’s hands as he spoke to him.

I probably won’t make it out of here alive, the rabbi said to the boy. So take this Torah scroll; it will remind you to tell this story.

Nearly 60 years later, that little Torah scroll was sitting by Joseph’s fireplace when someone asked what it was. The person asking was Col. Ilan Ramon, who would soon become the first Israeli astronaut and a Jewish hero. By some twist of fate, Joseph had become a space scientist and a colleague of Ramon’s. When Ramon heard the story of the Torah scroll, he was “overwhelmed.” He felt an urge to follow the rabbi’s instructions — “you must promise me that you will tell this story.”

The next day, Ramon mustered the strength to ask Joseph if he could take the Torah scroll with him into space. A few days later, in early January 2003, Ramon would take off as part of the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia mission.

And he took with him Rabbi Dasberg’s little Torah scroll from Bergen-Belsen.

On the morning of Feb. 1, as the shuttle was re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, it suffered a horrible malfunction and disintegrated somewhere above Texas. The tragedy stunned the world.

Meanwhile, soon after the tragedy, Dan Cohen, a documentary filmmaker living in Washington, D.C., saw a news clipping about the little Torah scroll and contacted its owner, Yoya Joseph.

When Joseph told him the story of the scroll — how he had smuggled it out of a concentration camp and eventually given it to Ramon — again it was as if Cohen was hearing Rabbi Dasberg’s message directly: “You must promise me that you will tell this story.”

Thus began Cohen’s seven-year adventure to bring the story to the screen. Cohen was fascinated by this “little Torah that could,” by the many twists of fate in the story, and, not least, by the incredible symbolism of an artifact of the Holocaust making it into space — as he describes it, “from the depths of hell to the heights of space.”

Cohen’s own journey culminated in Los Angeles last week, with the screening of his documentary film, “An Article of Hope,” at the gala premiere of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.

The selection of the film was made by Hilary Helstein, the festival’s founder and driving force. It turns out that Helstein herself had been moved by Rabbi Dasberg’s appeal to the bar mitzvah boy in Bergen-Belsen to “tell this story.”

In fact, what I find most remarkable about this whole saga is that beyond the high drama of triumph and tragedy that the story represents, it is a little Dutch rabbi in a Nazi concentration camp who seems to drive the story: It was his idea to have a bar mitzvah ceremony, despite the dangers involved; to give a young Jewish boy secret lessons every morning at 4 a.m.; to smuggle the little Torah scroll into the camp for this very purpose; to figure out a way to smuggle in the boy’s mother from another camp to attend the ceremony; and, finally, to put the Torah scroll into the boy’s hands as a lifelong reminder to “tell the story.”

It is as if the rabbi knew that one day the story of this little Torah scroll might make its way to prominent people, like a Jewish astronaut or professional storytellers in America.

The rabbi didn’t settle for words and memories. He could have asked Joseph simply to “remember to tell this story,” but instead, he added a ritual: Keep this Torah scroll with you at all times.

There’s something very Jewish about backing up an idea with something concrete. We live for ideas and values that we can convey orally, but, ultimately, we’re nothing without the written Book. The Book is our insurance policy, our timeless transmitter. Like President Shimon Peres says in the film, “Ilan Ramon didn’t just carry the scroll into space, the scroll carried him.”

Perhaps the rabbi understood that the scroll itself was the story — a symbol of how the Jewish people have survived despite impossible odds.

The film, which begins slowly, takes off the minute the scroll enters the picture. From then on, the story grabs you and doesn’t let go. At the packed premiere at the Writers Guild Theater, there were very few dry eyes in the house.

I moderated a panel discussion after the screening, and as I listened to Cohen discuss his deep attachment to the making of the film, I felt a similar idea seeping into my own mind.

I imagined myself as the little bar mitzvah boy in Bergen-Belsen, and I could almost hear Rabbi Dasberg say: “You must promise me that you will tell this story.”

As I left the theater, I could not imagine writing about anything else.

An Article of Hope” will screen on Wednesday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. $9-$11. For tickets and more information, visit

David Suissa is a branding consultant and the founder of OLAM magazine. For speaking engagements and other inquiries, he can be reached at {encode=”” title=””} or

Films: Romantic triangle survives in the midst of hell

“I’m a very special Holocaust survivor,” Jack Polak says. “I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend, and, believe me, it wasn’t easy.”

This may sound like a line from the new genre of Holocaust films with humor, but Polak (who is Jacob on his birth certificate, Jack in America, Jaap to his Dutch friends and Jab to his wife) is just stating the facts in the documentary feature, “Steal a Pencil for Me.”

Another shorthand way of summarizing the storyline: Jack, an accountant in Amsterdam in the early 1940s, is married to Manja, but falls in love with Ina. All three are deported to Bergen-Belsen, where Jack and Ina carry on an intensive romantic correspondence.

The three survive, Jack divorces Manja, marries Ina and they move to the United States.

The story doesn’t end there. We caught up by phone with Jack, who will be 95 on Dec. 31, and Ina, 80, at their home in Eastchester, a New York suburb, shortly after they celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.

Not slowed down by some hearing problems, Jack recalled his odd experiences with gusto, though, as with most old married couples, Ina had to correct him occasionally on a few historic points.

Fame has come late to the Polaks, but both obviously enjoy starring in their own life story.

“I’m the oldest-working actor in America,” Jack remarks proudly.

Their story, and the film, begins during the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1940. While many Jews were deported and, like Jack’s parents, subsequently murdered, the young accountant manages to keep going, though locked into an incompatible marriage.

At a birthday party in 1943, he meets Ina, a 20-year-old beauty raised in a wealthy diamond manufacturing family, and it’s love at first sight.

The looming love affair appears aborted when a couple of weeks after Jack meets Ina, he and his wife are deported to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork.

As fate would have it, two months later Ina is deported to the same place, where the rules allow Jack to spend some time with both wife and girlfriend until the 8 p.m. curfew.

Soon the trains started rolling from Westerbork to the concentration camps, and in February 1944, Jack and Manja are sent to Bergen-Belsen. Jack says goodbye to Ina, with the words, “I hope you will soon follow me.”

Three months later, it’s Ina’s turn and she is put in a boxcar headed for Auschwitz. At the last minute, orders are changed, and the train is routed to Bergen-Belsen in northwest Germany.

Though the regime there is much stricter and more brutal than in Westerbork, Jack and Ina manage to see each other occasionally, and, under the circumstances, they are fortunate in other ways.

Jack is assigned to work in the camp kitchen, and Ina, who knows German shorthand, to office work at a diamond plant set up by the Nazis.

At every opportunity, the two write long impassioned letters to each other, to the point that Jack’s one pencil stub is soon worn down to the nub. Since Ina works in an office, Jack begs her in one letter, “steal a pencil for me.”

Manja becomes increasingly suspicious and annoyed with Jack’s liaison, but is generous enough to share some of her scarce bread with Ina when her rival falls ill.

Most concentration camp recollections speak of unbearable filth, degradation and, foremost, the constant hunger that obliterated all other thoughts.

But for Jack and Ina, their love was even stronger.

“It was this love that kept us alive,” they say.

As the British army neared the camp in early April 1945, the lovers’ luck seemed to run out. The Nazis put Jack on a train going east, and Ina on a train going in the opposite direction.

Ina’s train was liberated within a week by American troops, and she remembers marveling at the great teeth of the GIs, wondering “whether they all went to the same dentist.”

Russian soldiers freed Jack’s train a week later, and by summer, husband, wife and girlfriend were back in Amsterdam.

In August 1945, Jack divorced Manja, he and Ina became engaged two months later, and married in January 1946.

“Like any good Dutch Jewish girl, Ina came to her wedding night as a virgin,” Jack said .

They moved to the United States in 1951, and have three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The family maintained friendly relations with Manja, who never remarried and died two years ago in Holland.

A fellow prisoner in Bergen-Belsen was Anne Frank, and although the Polaks never met her, Jack headed the American support group for the Anne Frank Center for many decades. He was knighted for his services by the Dutch government.

Eventually, the Polaks decided to write down their experiences, and their book, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” was published in the United States in 2000. Manja had asked that the original Dutch version of the book not be published in Holland in her lifetime, and Jack and Ina honored her request.

“I never thought our story would be made into a movie,” said Ina, but life had yet another surprise in store for the Polaks.

Their daughter, Margrit Polak, had become an artists’ manager in Los Angeles, and an active member of Temple Israel of Hollywood. Her daughter attended the synagogue’s day school and was in the same class as the daughter of filmmaker Michele Ohayon.

Born in Casablanca and raised in Israel, Ohayon is a noted director of offbeat documentaries, whose 1997 film, “Colors Straight Up,” received an Oscar nomination.

Margrit, who had helped translate her parents’ book into English, mentioned their story to Ohayon. Although she was working on another project, Ohayon put everything aside for the next five years to research and film “Steal a Pencil for Me.”

In directing the film, Ohayon lets her two lively and expressive narrators, Jack and Ina, carry the action, while never stooping to sly winks or cheap humor. Historical footage of the concentration camps and 1940s Holland complement the narration.

The Polaks are among the film’s most ardent fans.

“We have seen the picture six times, and we always have our handkerchiefs ready when we go,” said Ina. Added Jack, “I like it better each time I see it.”

The film opens Nov. 9 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. For additional background information, visit

What Bergen-Belsen Taught Us


On Sunday, April 17, hundreds of Holocaust survivors from around the world, along with their children and grandchildren, gathered on the site of the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen to observe the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. I was privileged to participate in the commemoration beside the Jewish monument my father had inaugurated in the midst of mass graves in April 1946. Because my parents are no longer alive, I spoke in their stead, on their behalf, hearing their voices in my mind.

It is from Bergen-Belsen that the horrors of the Holocaust first permeated the consciousness of humankind. Long before Auschwitz became the defining term of the Shoah, the films and photographs taken by British soldiers and journalists in April 1945 of both the dead and the survivors of Bergen-Belsen — shown in newsreels throughout the world — awakened the international community to the genocide that had been committed against the Jews of Europe.

In her memoir, “Yesterday: My Story,” which she finished writing just before her death, my mother, Dr. Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, described April 15, 1945:

“It was Sunday, a very hot day. It was strange; there was nobody to be seen outside the barracks. The camp seemed to have been abandoned, almost like a cemetery…. Suddenly, we felt the earth tremble; something was moving. We were convinced that the Germans were about to blow up the camp…. We all believed that these were the last moments of our lives. It was 3 p.m. We heard a loud voice repeating the same words in English and in German. ‘Hello, hello. You are free. We are British soldiers and have come to liberate you.’…. We ran out of the barracks and saw a British army vehicle with a loudspeaker on top, driving slowly through the camp.”

But almost immediately, my mother recalled, a new reality set in: “There was joy, yes. We were free, the gates were open — but where were we to go? The liberation had come too late, not only for the dead, but for us, the living, as well. We had lost our families, our friends, our homes. We had no place to go, and nobody was waiting for us anywhere. We were alive, yes. We were liberated from death, from the fear of death, but the fear of life started.”

At Belsen, the British found themselves in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. More than 10,000 bodies lay scattered about the camp, and the 58,000 surviving inmates — the overwhelming majority of whom were Jews — suffered from a combination of typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, extreme malnutrition and other virulent diseases. Confronted with the emaciated, tormented survivors moving, walking, speaking in the midst of corpses, the liberators must have asked themselves not “Can these bones live?” but “How can these bones live?’’

My father, Josef (Yossel) Rosensaft, was also liberated here. For more than five years following the liberation, he headed both the Jewish Committee of the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp and the Central Jewish Committee in the British Zone of Germany. I am one of more than 2,000 children who were born in Bergen-Belsen between 1946 and 1950.

We, the children and grandchildren of the survivors, were proud to be at Belsen on that Sunday alongside our parents and grandparents. We know that we were given life and placed on earth with a solemn obligation. Our parents and grandparents survived to bear witness. We, in turn, must ensure that their memories, which we have absorbed into ours, will remain as a permanent warning to humanity.

Sixty years after the liberation of Belsen, anti-Semitism remains a threat, not just to the Jewish people, but to civilization as a whole, and Holocaust deniers are still allowed to spread their poison.

In France, Great Britain and the United States, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has increased markedly during the past year. The same weekend that we were in Belsen, several American white supremacist groups were scheduled to celebrate Hitler’s birthday with concerts in Michigan and New Jersey. Earlier this year, right-wing members of the state parliament of Saxony in Germany disrupted a tribute to the victims of Nazism; and the mayor of London saw fit to compare a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard.

Sixty years after the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau stopped burning our families, innocent men, women and children are murdered in a horrific genocide in Darfur; and government-sponsored terrorists continue to seek the destruction of the State of Israel, which arose out of the ashes of the Shoah.

Thus, we do not have the right to focus only on the agony and suffering of the past. While the Germans were able to torture, to murder, to destroy, they did not succeed in dehumanizing their victims. The ultimate victory of European Jews over the Nazis and their multinational accomplices was firmly rooted in their human, ethical values.

The critical lesson we have learned from our parents’ and grandparents’ tragic experiences is that indifference to the suffering of others is in itself a crime. Our place must be at the forefront of the struggle against every form of racial, religious or ethnic hatred.

Together with others of the post-Holocaust generations, we must raise our collective voices on behalf of all, Jews and non-Jews alike, who are subjected to discrimination and persecution, or who are threatened by annihilation, anywhere in the world. We may not be passive, or allow others to be passive, in the face of oppression, for we know, only too well, that the ultimate consequence of apathy and silence was embodied forever in the flames of Auschwitz and the mass graves of Bergen-Belsen.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, is the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. This column is courtesy of JTA from a speech Rosensaft gave at Bergen-Belsen.


Anne Frank’s Changing Image

Fifty-six years after Anne Frank perished in Bergen-Belsen, her life and legacy loom larger than ever.

A powerful four-hour miniseries, taking Anne from her happy schooldays, through her two years in hiding in Amsterdam, to her final days in the concentration camp, airs nationally over ABC-TV on May 20 and 21.

The 20th Century Fox studio is developing a feature movie based on “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

A new edition of the diary, including five previously secret pages describing her parents’ difficult marriage, was released in March. Since its initial publication, the diary has sold 25 million copies in 55 languages.

The Helios Dance Theater last month premiered “About Anne: A Diary in Dance” in Los Angeles.

An interactive CD-ROM, titled “Anne Frank House: A House With a Story” was released earlier this year and offers a virtual tour of the warehouse and its secret annex where the Frank family hid.

In Boise, Idaho, ground has been broken for a $1.6-million Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial and Park.

What accounts for the continuing, even escalating, worldwide fascination with Anne Frank and her elevation to, arguably, the foremost icon of the Holocaust?

“The basic story is extraordinarily engrossing. It has suspense, romance, tragedy and potential uplift,” said Prof. Lawrence Graver of Williams College in Massachusetts, who has written extensively on Anne Frank, including the entry in the current Yale Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.

“Reading her diary is a convenient way, a hook, to introduce the Holocaust to, say, eighth-graders in Iowa,” Graver added. “It still has its uses, if you put it in the proper context.”

“Anne wrote with great insight. She was an appealing girl, but one who can be easily exploited,” observed Prof. Marvin Prosono, a sociologist at Southwest Missouri State University and a respected authority on Holocaust literature.

“People read the diary because they think they are learning about the Holocaust. But what they are getting is a safe and sanitized version, without the pain,” noted Prof. Emeritus Lawrence L. Langer of Simmons College in Boston, who has published widely on the literature and testimony of the Holocaust.

“Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” first came out in 1947, when Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the sole survivor of the family, persuaded a Dutch publisher to print 1,500 copies.

The father and the publisher agreed to excise parts they felt unsuitable, mainly those dealing with Anne’s feelings about her identity as a Jew, her sexual awakening, and her ambivalence about her mother and her parents’ loveless marriage.

Thus edited, the book’s attempt to homogenize Anne’s character and universalize her fate was compounded, in the eyes of critics, in the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

The Broadway production, peaking with Anne’s uplifting curtain line, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart,” was a commercial success and won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony.

To Langer, however, “The play was dreadful, and the movie [in 1959] even worse.” He suggests that had Anne survived Bergen-Belsen, she would have repudiated the curtain line and other feel-good homilies contained in her diary.

What upsets serious Holocaust scholars most is that through her commercial popularity, Anne is seen widely as the primary spokesperson for the Holocaust.

“Anne was, excuse me, a pisher,” Langer said. “She was smart, but she was 14 to 15 years old; you couldn’t expect her to be profound.”

Agreeing, Graver said, “The impact [of the diary] is all out of proportion to its part in the Holocaust.”

Cynthia Ozick, in a 1997 New Yorker essay, went so far as to ask whether history might have been better-served if the diary, so easily reduced to kitsch, had been lost or destroyed.

The Anne Frank cult has taken some bizarre forms. Otto Frank’s second wife told Graver of her correspondence with an Anne Frank Protestant Church in Japan that had a picture of Jesus on one wall and a picture of Anne on the other side.

But even as the critics were nagging, the interpretation of the diary and hence the persona of Anne Frank were changing. One factor in the ongoing re-evaluation was the discovery of five pages given by Otto Frank to a friend that contained much of the material Frank had earlier expunged.

In addition, writers and filmmakers started talking to Anne’s classmates and friends, who had either known her during her schooldays, while she was in hiding, or during her last months in the concentration camp.

One result was a 1995 Oscar-winning British documentary, “Anne Frank Remembered.” Then, in 1997, Wendy Kesselman wrote a tougher adaptation of the earlier Broadway play. And one year later, Austrian writer Melissa Muller published a thoroughly researched biography of Anne, which formed much of the basis of the ABC miniseries.

But as the perception of Anne has changed, so has the infighting about who owns the “real” Anne Frank.

From the very beginning of the diary’s initial publication, the late American writer Meyer Levin fought an obsessive and unsuccessful battle to present a more realistic and Jewishly identified picture of Anne to the public.

In recent years, the Anne Frank-Fonds in Basel, which owns the copyright to the diary, and the rival Anne Frank House in Amsterdam have been jealous and litigious guardians of her legacy.

Pressure from the Fonds forced ABC to drop its original plan to film the “Diary” and to draw instead on the Muller biography. Steven Spielberg, who had signed on to produce the ABC project, withdrew to avoid unseemly public controversy.

One of the virtues of the ABC version is to place Anne and her family firmly within a Jewish context. “There have been past attempts to universalize Anne, but the fact is that she died because she was a Jew,” said Kirk Ellis, who wrote the script for the telefilm.

Whatever the revisions by scholars or objections by critics, it is likely that the compelling figure of Anne Frank will continue to live in the minds of millions of schoolchildren and other readers far into the future.


Playwright Arje Shaw’s first memory was crawling across the floor, finding a piece of black, moldy bread and dipping the crust in water in order to chew it. He was 18 months old. “I looked like a Biafran baby,” he says.

The time was World War II, the place Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Shaw’s Polish father had settled after fleeing the Nazis. Before emigrating to America, the family spent three years in a displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen.

Shaw’s acclaimed play, “The Gathering,” which opens tomorrow at the Wadsworth Theatre, is all about displacement, about the lingering effects of the Holocaust and the effect it has on the relationship between fathers and sons.

The father and son in the play are Gabe (Hal Linden), a Holocaust survivor, and Stuart (Sam Guncler), a speechwriter for President Reagan, who bitterly argue during the course of the play. The source of their conflict is Reagan’s controversial 1985 visit to a Nazi cemetery in Bitburg, Germany.

Like the fictional survivor, Shaw’s father, also named Gabe, was forced to leave his mother and sister behind after Nazi soldiers nearly beat him to death. His crime: failing to wash a truck in a way that could pass the officer’s white-glove test. They perished in the Holocaust.

Ultimately, Gabe made it to New York, packed in the hold of a refugee ship on stormy seas with his wife, his son and a baby daughter. But as the family settled in a sixth-floor walkup at Avenue C and East Seventh Street, 8-year-old Arje sensed his father’s sadness.

“He had that far-off look,” Shaw, 59, recalled. “He never truly mourned his loss. He kept it all inside of him. And his frustration of having to cope with a new language and culture made him volatile and angry. He was so preoccupied with surviving and sacrificing for his family that he wasn’t emotionally available.”Though Shaw felt emotionally abandoned by his father, he could not help but repeat the cycle with his own wife and daughters. While obsessed with the theater since appearing in plays at Bergen-Belsen at age 6, he earned a master’s degree in social work and went to work for Jewish communal organizations to support his family. “But I was angry that I couldn’t be an artist,” he conceded. “I felt very unfulfilled, and my reaction was a defensiveness, a lack of patience.”

The turning point came in 1986, when Shaw, then in his mid-40’s and the executive director of a New Jersey YM-YWHA , decided to stay home one weekend to write a comedy about his wife’s kosher catering business. “You can’t do that,” she joked. “You can’t write, and you’re not funny.” Undeterred, Shaw rose at 3 a.m. every morning to write the play before going off to his day job. Five years later, “A Catered Affair,” co-written with producer George W. George, debuted off-Broadway.

Shaw’s third play, “The Gathering,” also began as a comedy — until the author discovered he was weeping while he wrote. “Every time I sat down, I was mourning my father’s losses and my losses as a child,” said the author, a veteran of men’s consciousness-raising groups. “I wasn’t satisfied with who I was as a person, and a lot of it was because I was not happy with my relationship with my father,” he added of the genesis of the play. “I felt I finally needed to understand how his life was cut out from under him. I felt I needed to emotionally connect with him while he was still alive.”

As Shaw prepared for a 1999 run of his play at Manhattan’s Jewish Repertory Theater, largely financed by a second mortgage on his home, he sent Gabe two drafts of the script. But he was too intimidated to ask whether his father had read them. On opening night, he was more nervous about Gabe’s response than that of the newspaper critics. “The minute the curtain closed, I raced out to the street to smoke,” he recalled. At the post-performance reception, the taciturn octogenarian hardly said a word. “But his face was all lit up. I could see the love,” says Shaw, whose play ran for five successful months at the Jewish Rep.

Today, “The Gathering” is Broadway-bound, but Shaw chooses to keep his day job at the Y. He still rises at 3 a.m. to write, averaging just four hours of sleep a night. But he finally feels validated as an artist and as a son. “With ‘The Gathering,’ I’ve been able to come to closure and healing with my father,” he said. “We’re much more connected. I just feel him loving me.”

“The Gathering” runs Feb. 3-28 at the Wadsworth, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. For tickets, call (800) 233-3123 or (818) 986-2908 for group rates.