Why I love Berlin when I was supposed to hate it


The following article was originally published in German in Fluter.de, a German political magazine for young adults ages 18-25.

I was supposed to hate Berlin when I first visited from Tel Aviv in 2014. I came with my American father, who wanted to see the former Displaced Persons camp in Hannover where his Polish parents, Auschwitz survivors, gave birth to him. I may not have come had a good friend from Los Angeles not recently moved to Berlin. My Israeli mother opposed the trip. While her parents are Iraqi, she still swears off German cars.

I admit, when I first walked the Berlin streets, I didn’t see a modern city. I’d imagine Nazi banners strewn across the buildings. I’d wonder from which of these adorable Alt Bau apartments Jews were dragged out. I’d hear German: the language that murdered my grandparents’ families. I’d take a train: to what death camp? This creepy Holocaust awareness must be common for Jews during a Berlin initiation.

That same year, Berlin made headlines in Israel in what became known as the “Milky Controversy.” An Israeli Berliner angered Israeli parliamentarians when he encouraged Israelis to move to Berlin, comparing grocery receipts that put Berlin’s chocolate pudding one third cheaper than Israel’s famous “Milky” brand. By 2015, when I returned to work with my friend on a music project, I started to understand why young Israelis flock to Berlin. (Although I recently learned that the German brand is made with unkosher beef gelatin.)

With the obligatory visit to the Holocaust Memorial and Topography of Terror already out of the way, I could focus on enjoying Berlin as the creative, vanguard, affordable capital it is. My friend and I still made occasional Holocaust jokes (like when we’d behold a stunning blue-eyed, blonde German who looked like an “Aryan” poster boy), but overall, we made music, went out, and socialized with friendly locals, forgetting the city once housed SS headquarters.

As I struggled to like Berlin, I interviewed young Germans living in Tel Aviv, its Israeli “sister-city”, to find out if the attraction was mutual. Naturally, the Holocaust came up, and one woman said that I can’t blame her generation for the sins of the fathers. “I wasn’t born when it happened,” she said, while acknowledging she feels a special responsibility for Jewish safety today.

I realized Germans and Israelis are quite alike – we come from two people struggling to rebuild and make sense of a troubled yet soaring national identity after a great trauma. Even though we come from opposing sides – the persecutor and the victim – we, this third generation, carry a burden that may be best unpacked together.

Still, I shocked fellow Israeli patriots when I told them I planned to spend Summer 2016 in Berlin. They scratched their heads when I started adding heart emoticons around Berlin on my Facebook statuses. Their shock had run out when I announced my decision to stay, indefinitely.

The artistic vibe, the historical richness (and scars), the ease of getting around, and, of course, the insanely cheap groceries and beer all make Berlin loveable to many internationals: Australians, Argentinians, Brits, etc.

But the pleasure I get from just walking the streets is deeper; it’s like a transmutation of the pain Jews must have felt here, once, in fear of deportation, of torture, of death – a fear I don’t have to feel anymore. Now I don’t see Nazi banners, but delightful café signs; I don’t see “Aryanized” Jewish apartments, but apartments I’d like to own; I hear German: a challenge; I take the train: to which party?

While growing up in the US, I learned about Germany through horror stories almost as much as I learned about Israel through heroic legends. Hence, my strange familiarity and connection to this land. And as much as the Jewish state is a modern miracle, so is the re-transformation of Berlin into a force for liberty.

Who Heckled Ivanka Trump at the Berlin W20?


I had an interesting, even disturbing experience covering the W20 Summit in Berlin for The Jerusalem Post, focusing on the “Inspiring Women” panel headlined by “First Daughter” Ivanka Trump.

She made this otherwise academic summit into a paparazzi affair, and it seemed like the press was eager for that click-bait story (like when President Trump apparently refused to shake Chancellor Merkel’s hand last month in Washington). They got their headline when Ivanka mentioned her father’s family advocacy to the “crowd’s” heckles.

“Ivanka Trump Booed….”

Sitting in the back, I didn’t hear “boos.” I certainly heard hissing, a few groans, which weren’t so loud, but audible. The women conference participants sat up front. The headline-hungry media clustered to the side. I heard the hissing from the newly packed media section, not the female participants up front, who overall kept the event classy.

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Did the media heckle Ivanka Trump for headlines?

But with the “hissing” and maybe a boo or two, the media got their sensational headline. “Ivanka Trump Booed!” One outlet started it, perhaps CNN or Reuters, and then the headline went viral, and the story became not the challenges facing women, but the supposed humiliation of “booed” Ivanka.

I’m sorry that people in my profession may have stooped this low. I’m skeptical of tagging “fake news” to stories, but I think I saw it in action. I think members of the media did the heckling. I will always seek to be objective in news coverage. It’s almost impossible for any journalist to be fully clean of bias in reporting, but we must strive for accuracy. We are not tabloids or activists, unless stated.

We are journalists with an important function. Ivanka handled herself, as a guest to Germany, with poise and eloquence, and I think she emerged as a role model promoting female camaraderie. I wish I could say the same for some of my colleagues.

 

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anti-Semitic incidents rise 16 percent in Berlin


With a new report noting a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin, Jewish leaders in the German capital renewed their call for a federal commissioner to deal with the problem.

The Berlin-based Research and Information Office on Anti-Semitism, founded in 2015, reported Monday that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the city has risen by 16 percent in 2016 over the previous year. Most incidents were nonviolent but nonetheless threatening.

According to the report, a total of 470 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in Berlin in 2016, including seven physical attacks.

A permanent federal commissioner would help ensure that the government does not drop the ball on fighting anti-Jewish hate, Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, said in a statement Monday.

She said people tell her they are increasingly fearful to be recognized as Jews in public. In many cases, Berger said, authors of threats hide behind the anonymity of the internet, creating a general atmosphere of angst.

That hate must be countered whatever its source, Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a recent address to the State Parliament in Lower Saxony.

Schuster, who also has called for the establishment of a federal commissioner, said it was more important than ever for civil society and political leaders to oppose anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, especially since the German Supreme Court recently decided it did not have enough evidence to ban a notorious far-right extremist political party.

“Initiatives against the far right need our ideological and financial support,” and anti-Jewish sentiments among Muslims must also be countered with vigor, Schuster told state legislators, while emphasizing that “the Jewish community rejects all forms of anti-Islam hate.”

The report also noted 18 verbal threats and 53 cases of damage to Jewish-owned property or Holocaust memorial sites, as well as 382 cases of harmful behavior. Of the last item, 152 were cases of internet threats against Jews or Jewish institutions. Another 150 cases of anti-Semitic propaganda, graffiti and threatening letters were reported.

There were no cases of extreme violence reported to the anti-Semitism office last year.

Calendar: February 3-9


FRI | FEB 3

“BLESS YOUR HEART” SHABBAT

In honor of American Heart Month, the “Bless Your Heart” Shabbat service welcomes you to “Say Shalom, Save a Life.” There will be a five-minute hands-on CPR lesson to kick off the evening. 7 p.m.; 7:30 p.m. Shabbat service. Free. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891. templeetzchaim.org.

INCLUSION SHABBAT & DINNER

Pray, learn and sing with the community during this service. A young woman on the autism spectrum will read her college entrance essay. 7:30 p.m. $10; $5 for children. Congregation Or Ami, 26115 Mureau Road, Suite B, Calabasas. (818) 497-1281. orami.org.

RACHEL KAUDER NALEBUFF: “THE BUMPS”

Rising playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, creator of The New York Times best-seller “My Little Red Book,” has written “The Bumps,” featuring a cast of three expectant mothers. “The Bumpscombines narrative that follows how the understanding of motherhood has evolved. Directed by Deena Selenow, with an all-female team of designers and cast. A conversation with the creative team of “The Bumps” will follow the performance. 8 p.m. Also 2 p.m. Feb. 4. Child care and art activities offered for a limited number of children (ages 3 and older) at the Saturday performance. $10; $8 members; $5 for students. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

SUN | FEB 5

TU B’SHEVAT COMMUNITY CELEBRATION

Enjoy a hike, picnic, activities and the beautiful outdoors in celebration of Tu B’Shevat. Bring your own food and drinks. Organized by MATI, the Israeli American Council, Tzofim Shevet Harel and Sinai Temple. 9:30 a.m. Free, but RSVP requested. Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Spring Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 351-7021. israeliamerican.org.

TUES | FEB 7

“THE QUEEN HAS NO CROWN”

cal-no-crownDirector Tomer Heymann’s autobiographical documentary “The Queen Has No Crown” is a poignant meditation on belonging, loss and sexuality.

Weaving archival and original footage, the film follows the lives of the five Heymann brothers and their mother. The film examines the difficult decisions the family had to make amid turbulent social and political events. No MPAA rating. In English and Hebrew with English subtitles.

Q-and-A with the director follows the screening. 7:30 p.m. $10 general; $6 full-time students; free to members. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

HOW AND WHY RELIGION MATTERS

In the first of a series of three programs, widely published Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino will speak on the subjects of marriage and family, and will examine how Jewish values help strengthen relationships. 6:30 p.m. Free. RSVP to (310) 474-1518, ext. 3340 or member.sinaitemple.org/events. Sinai Temple Men’s Club, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.

HOW TO WIN AN ARGUMENT

Former World Debate Champion Yoni Cohen-Idov will discuss the tools you need to win any argument during this informative lecture. For Jewish young professionals, ages 21-39. RSVP must be under your name. 7:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.

UNITY 3000

Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ashkenazi and secular Jews and people of other faiths will unite through faith in one God at Unity 3000, presented by Junity. Rabbi and best-selling writer Shalom Arush, author of “The Garden of Emuna” and “The Garden of Peace,” will lead the gathering. 8 p.m. Free. Register online to secure a ticket and seat. (At the door, seats are first come, first served for unregistered guests.) Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Also 8 p.m. Wednesday, Eretz Center, 6170 Wilbur Ave., Tarzana. Junitynow.com. 

WED | FEB 8

LGBTQ & MODERN ORTHODOXY PANEL

Westwood Village Synagogue presents a discussion on how to navigate the relationship between LGBTQ and Modern Orthodoxy.  Rabbi Ari Segal, head of Shalhevet; Micha Thau, a student at Shalhevet; and actor and comedian Elon Gold will participate in the discussion. Part of the Betty Matoff Lecture Series. 7 p.m. Free. Westwood Village Synagogue, 1148 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 824-9987. westwoodvillagesynagogue.org.

THURS | FEB 9

TU B’SHEVAT: WHERE RITUAL AND REALITY MEET

cal-ameliaAmelia Saltsman, award-winning author of “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen,” and Andy Lipkis, founder and president of the nonprofit TreePeople, will discuss Jewish tradition, culinary delights, climate change and how Tu B’Shevat encourages eco-conscious living. Moderated by Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s “Good Food.” Q-and-A, book signing and tasting of seasonal dishes will follow the program. 7:30 p.m. $12; $10 for members and students. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

LEONARD BARKAN: “BERLIN FOR JEWS”

C_Barkan_Berlin_9780226010663_jkt_IFTWhat is it like for a Jew to travel to Berlin today? What happens when an American Jew raised by a secular family falls in love with Berlin? Leonard Barkan’s “Berlin for Jews” is a personal love letter to the city that explores these questions and many more. Discussion with Barkan with a reception to follow the presentation. 7 p.m. Free. Seating is limited. Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, Los Angeles. (323) 525-3388. goethe.de/en.

Main suspect in Berlin Christmas market attack killed in Italy


Italian police shot dead the main suspect in a terrorist attack that killed 12 people in Berlin, including an Israeli tourist.

Police stopped the suspect, 24-year-old Anis Amri of Tunisia, for a random inspection in a Milan suburb in the early hours of Friday morning, Reuters reported. He took out a pistol and opened fire, hitting one of the police officers in the shoulder. The officer is recovering.

Other officers returned fire, killing Amri, who German authorities believe plowed a stolen truck on Monday through a Christmas market in Berlin. Among the dead was Dalia Elyakim, who was buried Friday in Israel.

Rami Elyakim, her husband, was among 50 wounded in the attack, which the Islamic State in a statement claimed was the work of one of its “soldiers.” He did not attend his wife’s funeral in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, as he is undergoing treatment in Germany for serious, though not life-threatening injuries, Army Radio reported.

Amri was caught on camera by police on a regular stakeout at a mosque in Berlin’s Moabit district early Tuesday, a few hours after the attack, Germany’s RBB public broadcaster reported. He was not a suspect at that time, and when police raided the mosque Thursday morning they could not find him, RBB said.

German investigators had said they believed Amri was still lying low in Berlin because he is probably wounded and would not want to attract attention, Der Tagesspiegel reported, citing security sources.

In the early hours of Friday morning, special forces arrested two brothers from Kosovo suspected of planning an attack on a shopping mall in the city of Oberhausen, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, police said in a statement.

The brothers, aged 28 and 31, were arrested in the city of Duisburg on information from security sources, the statement said.

Israeli tourist injured, wife missing in Berlin terror attack


An Israeli tourist was among the injured in Monday’s deadly terror attack in the center of Berlin and his wife was still missing.

The husband was located in a Berlin hospital, where he is undergoing emergency surgery, Elio Adler, a family friend in the German capital, told JTA.

The couple were in the Christmas market near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church when a truck plowed into the crowd, killing 12 and seriously injuring at least 48.

Chabad has planned a Wednesday evening memorial service in Berlin.

Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, a part of Berlin’s official Jewish community, told JTA that he had been to the scene of the attack on Monday night with colleague Rabbi Shmuel Segal to see if they could help. Teichtal told JTA that plans for the annual public menorah lighting ceremony at the landmark Brandenburg Gate would go ahead as planned, albeit with higher security.

Teichtal said he hoped that “more people than ever” would come to the event.

“We have to have zero tolerance for terrorism,” he said, “and at the same time reach our hands out.”

Expressing sorrow for the victims and their families, Berlin Jewish Community head Gideon Joffe said that Berliners are proud of their tolerant and cosmopolitan city and would fight to keep it that way.

“We can’t let terror determine our lives,” he said, adding that he urged all Berliners to attend the Chabad candle-lighting ceremony on Dec. 27, “especially in times like these.”

According to local news reports, the Polish driver of the truck was shot and killed. Police arrested one suspect after he tried to flee on foot. He reportedly came to Germany from Pakistan more than a year ago.

Early Tuesday afternoon, police announced that the arrested man was not the driver in the deadly attack and that he had been released. Police also said there is a possibility that the suspected perpetrator remains armed and running loose in the city and called on residents not to go out.

The truck was driven nearly 90 yards through the Christmas market, which was filled with holiday shoppers. Berlin police said they believe the incident was not an accident.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany in a statement called the attack “disgusting” and added: “Our thoughts and actions must not be overcome by fear and terror … May the messages of our two holidays give us strength in these difficult hours.”

“We are deeply shocked. Especially in the pre-Christmas period, when our society focuses on values like charity, goodness and peace, our country was once again hit by this disgusting attack,” said the statement, which was attributed to its president, Josef Schuster.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement issued Tuesday condemned the attack and sent condolences to the families of the people killed and the government of Germany.

“This attack joins [other] reprehensible attacks; terror is spreading everywhere and can be stopped only if we fight it, and we will defeat it, but we will defeat it much quicker if all free nations under attack unite,” Netanyahu said.

French chief rabbi offers condolences, prayers after deadly Berlin Christmas attack


The chief rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, offered condolences to the people of Germany following an apparent terrorist attack in Berlin.

At least nine people died and dozens were wounded in the incident Monday evening, which police representatives in Berlin said was likely a “deliberate attack.” It involved a truck that hit pedestrians at a Christmas market at the Berlin square of Breitscheidplatz outside Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Associated Press reported.

In July, more than 80 people died and hundreds were wounded in similar circumstances in Nice, France, where an Islamist drove a truck through a crowd of people on a busy promenade.

“With all my heart with the people of Berlin and all the people of Germany,” French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia wrote on Twitter. “My prayers accompany you,” he wrote, adding the hashtags #Berlin, #Breitscheidplatz and  “#ichbineinBerliner” —  a quote which means “I am a Berliner” from  a 1963 speech by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in West Berlin.

Police in Germany said the driver of the truck initially fled the scene, according to the BBC and other European news outlets. A man suspected as the driver was later arrested near the site of the attack. A second man who was in the driver’s cabin died during the incident, according to the Bild newspaper.

After the July 14 incident in Nice, the Islamic State terror group claimed that the attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was one of its “soldiers.”

Footage from the scene of the incident in Berlin showed the black truck with its front end wedged between the market stalls amid upturned boxes and crates.

Last month the U.S. Department of State warned travelers that there is a heightened risk of terrorist attacks throughout Europe during the holiday season.

The Department of State wrote on their website: “U.S. citizens should exercise caution at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets.”

In recent months, Western European intelligence agencies added some churches to list of at-risk locales which for years have included synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

In July, two assailants who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State killed a priest during an attack in a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of Rouen about 65 miles northwest of Paris. They shouted “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic, before slitting the priest’s throat, according to reports.

In 2012, a jihadist killed four Jews, a rabbi and three children, at a Jewish school in Toulouse. In 2014, four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in what Belgian prosecutors said was a terrorist attack perpetrated by the French Islamist Mehdi Nemmouche. He has denied the charges and is standing trial in Belgium. And last year, four Jews were killed in a jihadist’s attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris.

Santa Monica artist part of ‘Golem’ revival in Berlin


Urban legend has it that a golem lived in the Weissensee Cemetery in Berlin during the Nazi era, protecting the Jewish landmark from destruction while Jews successfully hid among its tombstones. Now the golem has returned to Berlin, this time for more auspicious purposes — as part of a celebration and examination of this Jewish mythical creature, traditionally made out of inanimate matter and brought to life through mystical Hebrew incantations and rituals. 

The legend of Weissensee forms one room of the expansive, multimedia “Golem” exhibition running through Jan. 29 at the Jewish Museum Berlin, and is among several thematic explorations of Judaism’s own action figure as it has crept into art, literature, film, pop culture and even video games. The philosophical question running throughout the exhibition is the one that gripped the rabbis who first experimented with its creation: What are the limits of man’s creative power? 

Dominating the chamber exploring the golem’s Jewish origins is a life-size installation by Santa Monica artist Joshua Abarbanel. Looking like a gingerbread man (also a golem figure, according to Abarbanel), it lies on the ground, hands raised — either in impending life or looming death. 

Abarbanel created the golem out of 6,129 carved wooden Hebrew letters, mem and tet, which together spell met (death). The 6,130th word (evoking the 613 mitzvot) is a large aleph that dangles from a chain on his neck, the key to the golem’s heart that will operate it, channeling it from met (death) into emet (truth). Abarbanel likens this aleph to the Arc Reactor set into the chest of the superhero Iron Man. 

“For me, the golem is a universal question or theme for people about power and creation and those sorts of things which aren’t specifically Jewish, really,” Abarbanel told the Journal via Skype from his Santa Monica studio.

Growing up as a Reform Jew, he became fascinated with the Hebrew alphabet thanks to a book lying around the house that anthropomorphized each letter. Today, he is a lay leader at the Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista. This work was commissioned as a large-scale replication of the 18-inch version that appeared as part of the 2013 show “Sacred Words, Sacred Texts,” co-organized by the Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California and shown at American Jewish University. 

“It’s a story that as a folktale is set up to be a metaphor that we could apply to every age, in our own time and experience,” Abarbanel said. “It’s essentially the story of harnessing power with the intention of using it for good, but with the understanding that the power you’re putting into it is so great that you may not be able to control it.” 

This idea is firmly expressed at the exhibition entrance with a display about an Israeli mainframe computer that renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem dubbed “Golem Aleph,” with the hope that computer technology would be used for good. 

Just as artificial intelligence is a popular metaphor for the golem, so are political movements. In that vein, the exhibition displays one of the “Make America Great Again” caps made popular by United States President-elect Donald Trump. Canadian journalist Neil Macdonald is quoted as likening Trump’s campaign slogan to the letters animating the golem. 

Other parts of the exhibition focus on the “Golem of Prague,” the classic myth in which Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal) was said to have created a golem to protect the Jewish ghetto, and  German filmmaker Paul Wegener’s 1920 silent horror classic, “The Golem: How He Came Into the World,” in which Wegener plays the clumsy, robot-like golem. 

The exhibition is the fulfillment of the personal ambition of professor Peter Schafer, who served as director of Princeton University’s program in Judaic studies before becoming director of the Jewish Museum in 2014. It grew out of his interdisciplinary golem course at Princeton, which achieved the sought-after distinction of the “cool course” sunglasses symbol in the college catalog.  

“These courses gave rise not only to scholarship — such as an excellent study of the golem in German Romanticism — but also to poems, music and stories that carried on spinning the thread of the golem legend,” he said in the preface of the exhibition catalog. 

Assistant Curator Anna-Carolin Augustin said the exhibition is a “phenomenal” success, having even introduced the word back into the German vernacular as a metaphor. 

“In the German language, the word ‘golem’ wasn’t so popular, and now, since the exhibition opened, more German newspapers are using the term ‘golem,’ ” she said, speaking with the Journal at the museum.

During Abarbanel’s first visit to the German capital as part of the opening on Sept. 22, he became impressed with the many ways in which the German government and people address Nazi history and the fact that Berlin is one of the few European cities with a growing Jewish population.

“That said,” Abarbanel said, “it still feels good to create a work that has historic implications as a ‘protector’ of Jews and have it on display in Berlin.”

Berlin rabbi: Jewish leaders need to help save the EU


A prominent rabbi in Berlin called on other Jewish community leaders to do everything in their power to prevent additional countries from leaving the European Union after Britain’s vote to exit the bloc.

Yehudah Teichtal, a rabbi of the Jewish community of Berlin, made the call Tuesday in a statement about his meeting with Thomas Oppermann, the head of the German Social Democratic Party’s faction in the German parliament.

Teichtal told Oppermann that in his conversations with European rabbis and Jewish leaders he “encourages them to take action and prevent any further breaking in the EU,” the statement said. “I call upon the leaders of all Jewish communities around Europe to do whatever they can and execute all of their influence” to prevent additional exits, the rabbi was quoted as saying in the statement by his office.

“The establishment of the EU and the multi-cultural approach it symbolizes, contributes to the welfare of Europe’s Jewish communities”, said Teichtal, who is a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi. “Therefore, the possibility of dismantling the EU and reverting back to nation states should worry all Jewish people around Europe.”

Teichtal’s statement follows the June 23 vote in Britain, in which 51 percent of voters supported a British exit, or Brexit, as British media has dubbed the initiative. While this issue has divided British Jewry, several European rabbis issued calls similar to Teichtal’s.

The President of the European Conference of Rabbis, Pinchas Goldschmidt, last week said that, “After Brexit we live in a new Europe. The voices calling for the dismantling of the European Union are getting stronger and our continent is prone to more shakeups and changes.”

Rabbi Mencahem Margolin, another Chabad rabbi and director of the Rabbinical Center of Europe and the European Jewish Association, said following the vote: “We have lost an important voice here in Brussels and across the continent as a whole. Brexit sees a number of threats from these parties who are licking their lips at the prospect of increasing power. It appears that Brexit has given them hope. And that is deeply worrying for Jews across Europe.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Loewenthal, a Chabad British rabbi who lives in Denmark, said following the vote:  “I would’ve preferred that they remain,” but added the European Union “needs to learn” to allow the peoples that make up the bloc to “be diverse, yet remaining connected.”

Only such an attitude, he said, would address the issue that the supporters of leaving the union have with the bloc, namely that “Brussels imposes laws for all its member states, and does not properly take into consideration the individual cultures and needs of the member countries,“ as Loewenthal described this attitude.

Judaism’s own attitude to these issues is reflected in the Menorah, he added, which “has different branches representing different attitudes, different traditions, and different personalities – yet they all face inward to the middle light symbolizing the light of God and the Torah.”

The Middle East washes over Berlin


It is said that art reflects life.  If so, the Middle East seems to be taking over Europe.

The prestigious Berlinale, the annual Berlin International Film Festival that concluded its 11-superstar-packed days this weekend, made a sharp and strife-filled turn towards the Mediterranean.

The urgency of matters may also have been reflected in an historic move: for the first time, the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, was awarded to a documentary film.

“Fire at Sea,” a shattering documentary about the Syrian refugee crisis, took home the Golden Bear, granted by a seven-person jury headed this year by the American actress Meryl Streep.

Directed by the Italian Gianfranco Rosi, the film takes an unflinching look at the lives of refugees stranded on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in an attempt to reach the European Union over the last two decades. Thousands more have died trying.

From the podium, Rosi dedicated his prize to the people of Lampedusa “who open their hearts to other peoples.”

The Berlinale, an extravaganza that claims to be the world’s largest film festival (434 movies were screened this year), is a key event in the run-up to the Oscars.

Rosi was born in Asmara, Eritrea. In 1977, at the age of 13, he was swept away to safety in Italy on a military plane, leaving his parents behind.

“I hope to bring awareness,” he said as he accepted the golden trophy from Streep. “It is not acceptable that people die crossing the sea trying to escape from tragedies.”

A Tunisian movie and two Israeli films also were also recognized with major prizes.

The Tunisian actor Majd Mastoura won the Silver Bear for best actor for his role in “Inhebbek Hedi,” a love story directed by Mohamed Ben Attia about a young man torn between a traditional and a modern way of life in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The movie, Ben Attia’s first feature film, also walked off with the prize for best debut feature. Variety calls it “an  adept and absorbing drama”in which a love trangle and-gasp!- some very tame sex scenes appear.

“I give this gift to the Tunisian people, all the martyrs of the revolution, all of those who contributed to the revolution,” he said, “I hope we will continue being free, being happy, producing good art.”

Nina Menkes, a prizewinning filmmaker whose own first feature documentary premiered at the 2005 Berlinale, winning the FIPRESCI Award (International Federation of Film Critics Award) was nonplussed by the Mideast takeover of Berlin’s film summit. “I think the crisis in the Middle East cannot really be exaggerated in terms of its impact on the global community,” she said, speaking with The Media Line.  “It’s like it was with the cold war— that old story! Russia and the West!—but now it’s really the whole Arab world quote-unquote versus the West— that’s the construction, that is not necessarily the reality, but that is the mainstream perception everybody has at the moment.”

She is joining the stream. Her next project, a feature film called Minotaur, “a radical new way to approach this whole issue,” is contemporary retelling of Greek myth within Old City of Jerusalem, in which Theseus is a Palestinian. “It’s a very topical subject,” she says. “The entire Western world feels deeply affected by events in the Middle East and the Arab world.”

The Panorama Audience award went to Israeli director Udi Aloni for his sixth movie, a feature film called “Junction 48” that tells the story of two Palestinian hip-hop rappers living in the dusty, decidedly unprosperous, mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, dually battling Israeli oppression and their own conservative society.

Samar Qupty, an actress in “Junction 48”, told Reuters she saw the hip-hop film as revolutionary.

“We are representing ourselves by the new generation without trying to prove anything to anyone, with our ‘goods’ and ‘bads’,” she said. “We are trying to present what the real new generation is trying to do without making the reality look any better or any worse.” 

Before knowing he’d won the coveted prize, Aloni was fleetingly caught on camera criticizing the current Israeli government, which he called “fascist.” He urged German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stop supplying Israel with submarines. He later told Israeli Channel 10 television that his comments “were directed against the Israeli government and not against the country, which I love. In contrast to the prime minister who spreads hatred, my movie spreads love and co-existence.”

Aloni’s film, almost entirely in Arabic, benefited from the support of Israel’s Culture Ministry.

Culture Minister Miri Regev responded that Aloni’s statements constituted “clear proof that artists who subvert the state, defame it and hurt its legitimacy should not be funded by the tax payer. A sane country should not assist slanderers and denouncers who malign it, immediately after drinking from its coffers.”

Tomer and Barak Heymann, also Israelis, received the Panorama Documentary prize for their film “Who's Gonna Love Me Now?”

The Heymann brothers' documentary tells the tale of a gay, HIV-positive Israeli man living in London, who was kicked out of the kibbutz he grew up on and whose life feels pointless until he becomes a member of the London Gay Men's Chorus.

German far-right’s language is close to that of Nazis, Gabriel says


Germany's far-right, led by the rising anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, is using language similar to that deployed by Hitler's Nazis, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said on Friday.

Support for the AfD has jumped amid deepening public unease over Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy for refugees from Syria and elsewhere after some 1.1 million migrants came to Germany last year.

“Those who accuse democratically elected politicians of treason, call them 'parties of the system' and menace journalists as 'lying press' – they are very close to the language of the enemies of democracy, the Nazis of the '20s and '30s,” Gabriel said.

He was speaking in Berlin at an event to promote integration – the hot popular issue in Germany. Concern over the refugee influx has hurt support for Merkel and fueled the AfD's rise.

The AfD has grown in tandem with support for other far-right groups, such as the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement, which has held regular rallies in protest at the increase in refugee numbers.

Last year, dozens of protesters shouted at Merkel and waved placards with the slogan “traitor” – adopted by PEGIDA – when she visited an eastern German town where anti-refugee protests had erupted into violence.

Gabriel said on Sunday Germany's domestic intelligence agency (BfV) should monitor the AfD after the party's leader, Frauke Petry, suggested that German police be given powers to use firearms against illegal migrants.

“There is a political force that is trying to develop itself into the parliamentary arm of these racist arguments,” Gabriel said on Friday, with reference to an increased number of attacks on foreigners in Germany.

A poll on Wednesday showed support for the AfD up three points at 12 percent, cementing its position as Germany's third largest party, behind Merkel's conservatives and Gabriel's Social Democrats, who govern in a coalition.

Nazi menace overtakes siblings in different ways in ‘My Sister’


In addition to exterminating millions of Jews, the Nazis also targeted the mentally and physically disabled under their eugenics program, aimed at weeding out people they considered genetically unfit. The precarious position of these so-called “defectives” underlies the play “My Sister,” now onstage at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

The action, which takes place in 1932 and ’33, centers on twin sisters who have moved to Berlin from the countryside to seek their fortune just as Hitler is coming to power. The sisters are played by real-life twins Elizabeth and Emily Hinkler. One sister, Magda (Emily), works during the day as a hospital orderly but dreams of being a performer and gets a job entertaining in a cabaret on weekends. Her twin, Matilde (Elizabeth), who writes the material for Magda’s act, has cerebral palsy and so is confined to their flat. 

Playwright Janet Schlapkohl recalled that a “perfect storm of events and circumstance” led to the development of this work. Her mother is an identical twin, and Schlapkohl runs a theater company for people who are physically and intellectually challenged. In addition, she was researching members of her family who left Germany after World War I. 

“I’m not Jewish and they were not Jewish, but the fears about the type of government that was going to happen were things that I had heard family members discuss as a child,” she said. “That piqued my interest.”

In her play, developed in 2012 and previously produced at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Schlapkohl focuses on how the upheaval that took place in Germany during the early 1930s impacts the two sisters. She has created a conflict between the twins, who hold different perspectives on the rise of the Nazis. Magda isn’t as astute as her sister and initially doesn’t see the danger that lies ahead. 

“On the other hand, her sister, who’s at home with the radio for companionship during the day, is more aware,” Schlapkohl said. “Matilde, who’s putting it together, is a step ahead, only a step ahead. She becomes increasingly aware of the rhetoric against people with disabilities.”

The playwright added that the Nazis “were playing off of things that people were probably already feeling about some of the people that were disabled, about Jews, about the homosexuals who were also ‘other,’ ‘different.’

“I’m trying to root [the story] in the time. What did [the sisters] possibly know? And what could they do with that knowledge, and what should they do with that knowledge? What would I have done with that knowledge?”

Director Ron Sossi pointed out that there is a great deal Magda doesn’t know. In her naiveté, she fails to understand the actual fate of the sickest patients at the hospital. “She talks about how things are evolving, and they’re beginning to send very desperate patients to this clinic, and she thinks it’s a very positive thing that’s going on, that they’re suddenly getting the medical care they need. It turns out it’s not that at all.”

Things come to a head when Magda returns home from the hospital in shock because a nearly blind little boy to whom she was very attached has been transported in a van to the “clinic” she once believed was a place where people got special care. When she tells the nurse that the boy forgot his glasses, the nurse says not to worry, that he won’t need them.

“She then realizes what the vans are [and] where these patients are being taken,” Sossi said. “She comes home devastated. And in the middle of that devastation, suddenly there’s noise outside.”

The sisters look out their window and see the infamous Reichstag fire, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists and used to their advantage, solidifying their power and suspending most civil liberties in Germany.

“So those two things that happen to her definitely put her into reality,” Sossi continued. “She just wants to stay in bed and cover her head with the covers, and never go to the cabaret again.” 

But Matilde persuades her to go, do her act, and behave as if everything is normal. There are Nazis in the audience who are unresponsive to her risqué jokes, and Magda ends by singing a German folk song and raising her hand in a Nazi salute. 

“So in that last cabaret sequence, Magda is terrified and goes along,” Sossi said.  

Meanwhile, Matilde tries to leave the apartment to see Magda perform, but she falls on the stairs. When help is called, the authorities become aware of her disability.

Schlapkohl said the primary issue she explores in the play is how we perceive one another. “What might it take for us to perceive each other as something so horrific that we would go along with extermination?”

She continued, “And how can we change our perception? How do we stay alert to how we view each other? What do we need to do to make ourselves keep asking really difficult questions about the opinions that we hold toward people who are not exactly like us?”

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Germany accuses two Palestinians of planning attack on Israeli embassy


Two young men of Palestinian descent are on trial in Germany for planning to bomb the Israeli embassy in Berlin or other Israeli targets, a criminal court spokesman said on Wednesday.

The two men, both aged 21, were arrested in July and appeared in court on Tuesday, where they were charged with planning a violent act.

One of the two holds German citizenship and the other is stateless, the court spokesman said. Islamist propaganda was found on the mobile phone of one, the spokesman said.

The two stuffed a can with gun powder purchased on the black market and sealed it with toothpaste.

“It is not clear how they planned to detonate it,” the spokesman said. “They had a plan to use it against the Israeli embassy or another Israeli target at some time in the future. There was no concrete plan of action. It was a general plan.”

The two will appear in court again on Dec. 18, one of five remaining hearings in their case before a court decision on January 14.

German politician charged for publicly displaying Auschwitz tattoo


A far-right German politician has been charged with incitement for publicly displaying a large tattoo of the Auschwitz death camp on his back.

Prosecutors announced Wednesday that Marcel Zech, a county council member near Berlin, is accused of violating Germany’s ban on the public display of Nazi symbols, The Associated Press reported.

Zech’s tattoo was visible on November 21 when he visited a swimming pool in Oraneinburg and another visitor took a photo of it. In addition to the image of what appears to be the Auschwitz gate, the tattoo features the words “Jedem das Seine” (to each his own), which appeared on the gate of the Buchenwald death camp.

If convicted, Zech, who is 27 and a member of Germany’s National Democratic Party, could face up to five years in prison. His trial will begin on December 22.

‘They’ll think we are the enemy’: refugees in Germany fear backlash


Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Germany fear that the attacks in Paris could further shift public opinion against the Berlin government's welcoming asylum policy.

About a dozen men, smoking heavily, discussed the deadliest attacks in Europe since 2004 outside Berlin's Tempelhof airport, an imposing structure built by Hitler to showcase Nazi power and now functioning as a shelter for asylum-seekers.

The backdrop to their conversation on Monday was a chorus of demands by right-wing European politicians to halt the flow of migrants into Europe, which some see as providing ideal cover for Islamic State to smuggle in militants — even if there is as yet no proof. 

Nabil, 27, a Syrian from Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, finds it hard to believe a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the Paris gunmen. He believes this was a conspiracy, a common thought in the Arab world.

“And France is known for having extremists. I worry about public opinion,” he added, tucking his hands into the pockets of his red jacket on a cold evening, as two children aged no more than six walked past in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Nizar Basal, a Syrian from a town near Hama, was surprisingly frank.

“There are of course ticking bombs coming in with the refugees,” said the 49-year-old, who worked as a private teacher of computer science in Abu Dhabi before coming to Germany last month.

“But the question is, what will happen to us? What will people think about us? They will think we are the enemy.”

The German government said after the attacks, in which at least 129 people were killed on Friday night, that its security agencies had intensified monitoring of radical right-wing activists, fearing a backlash against refugees.

German media also reported that the government wants to tighten security at refugee shelters. German police have detained an Algerian man at one shelter in connection with the Paris attacks, officials said on Monday. 

There have been more than 690 arson and other attacks on refugee centres so far this year, as Germany expects up to one million asylum seekers. The influx has increased pressure on the government to reverse some of its welcoming policies and strained German Chancellor Angel Merkel's coalition. 

Mohammad, 31, who worked in a sweet shop in Syria before the war there, fears a hardening of German public opinion.

“We fled death, we don't want anyone to die. This is a problem that will affect the refugees,” he said.

Falah, 48, who owned a watch shop in Baghdad before fleeing to Turkey, put things into perspective.

“There is a suicide bombing every 15 minutes in Iraq,” he said. He then pointed to a picture of Merkel on his mobile phone and said: “She is our hope.”

Basal, the teacher, said he would have attended a weekend vigil in Berlin for the Paris attack victims if he had heard about it in advance. 

“We don't have much time to think about it. There are no showers here, we haven't had a shower for two weeks.”

The truth about Jerusalem’s grand mufti, Hitler and the Holocaust


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went too far in recent comments that Nazi collaborator Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem before and during World War II, played a “central role in fomenting the Final Solution” by trying to convince Hitler to destroy the Jews during a 1941 meeting in Berlin. But Netanyahu was right on when he emphasized the Mufti’s Holocaust complicity and activities before, during, and after the war when the Mufti lied about alleged Jewish intentions to expel Muslim and Islam from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—the same lie that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas repeats today in support of the current “knife Intifada.”

Netanyahu was right to remind the world that the Grand Mufti was an enthusiastic supporter of Nazi Germany  but it is not true that the Fuhrer needed the advice of Islam’s leading anti-Jewish fanatic to implement the Final Solution. That was his dream as far back as 1919 as a letter that he authored and signed now on display at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance documents.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been accused of “a dangerous historical distortion” and even “Holocaust Denial” from the predictable political quarters who even dismiss the Grand Mufti as “a lightweight” inconsequential in the history of the Holocaust. This claim wrongly mitigates the Mufti’s mindset and crimes as one of the Hitler era’s leading anti-Jewish haters.

Who was Haj Amin al-Husseini and what was his historical significance? A relative of Yasser Arafat as well as ally of Hassan al-Banna, originator of Hamas’ parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Grand Mufti was a moving force behind Palestinian Jew hatred, from the riots of 1920 and 1929 through the 1936-1939 bloody Arab Uprising against the Holy Land’s Jewish community, long before his WWII support of Nazi Germany.

According to Historian Robert Wistrich’s Hitler and the Holocaust (2001), the Mufti escaped British scrutiny in Jerusalem after the war’s outbreak for the more friendly confines of Berlin, where, in November, 1941, he had tea with Hitler who asked him “to lock in the innermost depths of his heart” that he (Hitler) “would carry on the battle to the total destruction of the Judeo-Communist Empire in Europe.” In 1942, Fred Grobba wrote approvingly of the Mufti’s visit with members of the Nazi elite to “the concentration camp Oranienburg . . . . The visit lasted about two hours with very satisfying results . . . . the Jews aroused particular interest among the Arabs. . . . It [the visit] . . . made a very favorable impression on the Arabs.”

In 1943, the Mufti extended his relations with the German Foreign Office and Abwehr directly to the SS Main Office. Gottlob Berger arranged a meeting between al-Husayni and SS chief Heinrich Himmler on July 3, 1943. Al-Husayni sent Himmler birthday greetings on October 6, and expressed the hope that “the coming year would make our cooperation even closer and bring us closer to our common goals.” The Grand Mufti also helped organize a Muslim Waffen SS Battalion, known as the Hanjars, that slaughtered ninety percent of Bosnia’s Jews, and were dispatched to Croatia and Hungary. The Mufti also made broadcasts to the Middle East urging Arabs and Muslims to honor Allah by implementing their own Final Solution.

After the War, Great Britain, the U.S., and Yugoslavia indicted the Mufti as a war criminal, but Yugoslavia dropped its extradition request to France, and legal proceedings were abandoned so as not to upset the Arab world. Escaping back to the Middle East, Al-Husseini continued his genocidal exhortations and rejectionist demands that the Jewish presence be erased from Palestine continued unabated before and during the 1948 War by five Arab states against Israel. Only then, did his influence gradually decline. He died in 1974, not long after Arab armies almost succeeded in destroying Israel in an attack launched on Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur.
Far from “a light weight,” the Grand Mufti will be remembered as one the twentieth century’s most virulent Jew haters and a key cheerleader for Hitler’s genocidal Final Solution.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

German Holocaust film ‘Phoenix’ examines life after death camps


The phoenix is a mythical firebird that lives for centuries, dies in flames and then rises from its ashes to start life anew.

Phoenix is the name of a nightclub in 1945 Berlin, a city consumed by Allied bombs and Russian canons, trying to rise again after Germany’s crushing defeat in World War II.

And “Phoenix” is the title of a haunting German film, which, like its mythical namesake, can be accepted only on its own terms after a determined suspension of disbelief.

The film opens with American soldiers of the occupation force stopping a car. In the passenger seat sits a woman, her face completely covered by bandages, except for two eye slits.

She is Nelly, a German Jew and former nightclub singer, who has survived Auschwitz but has paid with a disfigured face, scarred by a bullet.

At the hospital, doctors offer to reconstruct her face in the image of anyone she wants, even the Jewish beauty Hedy Lamarr, but Nelly insists she wants her old face back.

After the operation, with Nelly looking almost like her old self, her friend Lene urges her to start a new life in Palestine. Nelly refuses because the only hope that sustained her in the concentration camp — and drives her now — is her burning love for her “Aryan” husband, Johnny.

Her search for him leads through the rubble-strewn streets of Berlin to the Phoenix nightclub, where Johnny now works as a busboy. She calls out to him and though other people recognize the slightly altered Nelly, Johnny views her as a stranger.

Yet he detects some resemblance to his wife, who, he presumes, died in Auschwitz, and he recruits her in a plot he is hatching. It calls for reshaping the assumed refugee into his former wife so he can get his hands on the inheritance left to Nelly by relatives killed in the Holocaust.

Nelly plays along, hoping desperately that at some point Johnny will recognize her as his wife, and much of the rest of the film hangs on that supposed charade.

Is it really possible for a man, married to a woman for years, not to recognize her, even if she has the “deceased’s” handwriting and fits perfectly into her dress and shoes?

We put this question to Christian Petzold, the film’s director, who broke down his analysis into two points.

“There are strong indications that Johnny revealed his Jewish wife’s hiding place to the Nazis and he has now built a wall around his mind to deny this, even to himself,” said Petzold, one of his country’s leading directors.

There is yet another aspect. “I’ve talked to many survivors of the camps and when they came back, old neighbors didn’t recognize them and nobody asked what had happened to them,” Petzold said. “The survivors said they felt like invisible walking ghosts.”

Still, the plotline and Petzold’s explanations may seem far-fetched, but they gain credence through the exceptional performance of Nina Hoss, one of Germany’s finest dramatic actresses, as Nelly. She is ably complemented by Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny and Nina Kunzendorf as Lene.

Running through the film like an elegy is the Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash torch song “Speak Low.”

Among the questions raised by “Phoenix” is why, 70 years after the end of World War II, producers and directors continue to make films on Holocaust themes, and why Petzold chose this particular storyline for his film.

“There are many Holocaust-themed movies but few of them are post-Auschwitz ‘homecoming’ stories,” Petzold said. He cited the German writer Alexander Kluge as observing that in Greek mythology, “It took Odysseus 10 years to reintegrate into society, because, after the battle for Troy, he couldn’t come straight home.”

Additionally, “home” no longer really existed for many Germans and almost all Jewish survivors after the war, Petzold noted.

The director, 54, was born well after the war. It took a new generation of Germans to face reality and, in the 1960s and ’70s, rise against their fathers and hold them accountable for the war and the Holocaust, he said.

In large part, the consciousness of the extent and guilt of the Holocaust came from the impact of documentaries by French-American director Marcel Ophuls (“The Sorrow and the Pity”) and the American TV miniseries “Holocaust,” Petzold noted.

“Phoenix” opens in theaters July 31.

Maccabi Games to play at Olympic venues built by Nazis


They are roaring through Europe, raising dust as they go: Jewish bikers bearing an Olympic-style torch all the way from Israel to Berlin.

On July 27, 11 core riders will pull their steel steeds into the German city’s famous outdoor amphitheater, the Waldbuehne, to help usher in the 14th European Maccabi Games — the first ever in Germany — at a venue built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics. Other competitions will be held at the Olympic stadium here, where Hitler presided over the opening of the games that year.

The riders are following in the treads of the Maccabiah Riders who rode through Europe in the early 1930s to promote the games then held under British mandate in Palestine.

The July 28 opening ceremony, which will feature remarks by German President Joachim Gauck and a concert featuring Matisyahu, Dana International and others, will usher in 10 days of sports, parties, a Limmud Germany learning event and more. Some 2,300 Jewish athletes from 36 countries will take part, cheered on by fans bused in from across the country by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. And the sports venues, including Berlin’s Olympiastadion, will be open to all, free of charge and under heavy security.

Athletes will compete in 19 types of sports, as well as a few exhibition games pitting Jewish athletes against German soccer and basketball stars. On July 31, they will try to break the Guinness World Record for the largest Kiddush ever.

The European Maccabi Games grew out of the Maccabi movement, which traces back more than a century to Turkey, where Jews, then shut out of local sporting clubs, founded the Israel Gymnastic Club in 1895. Jews elsewhere followed suit.

The first European Maccabi Games were held in Prague in 1929, the second held a year later in Antwerp. But with the rise of the Nazis, Jewish sports associations were banned. Germany’s Maccabi Club was reinstated only 50 years ago.

The quadrennial competition resumed in 1969, alternating every two years with the Maccabiah Games in Israel.

Bringing the European Maccabi Games to Germany was a herculean feat, says Alon Meyer, head of Maccabi Germany.

“People told me they never could imagine setting foot in Germany because their parents and grandparents were sent away from there,” said Meyer, 41, a Frankfurt businessman whose father fled Nazi Germany for Palestine. “Now these people are coming back to see the changes [and take part in] the biggest Jewish event ever held on European ground.”

The change to which Meyer referred is the dramatic growth in Germany’s Jewish population. Only a few thousand of Germany’s prewar Jewish population of 500,000 remained in Germany after the Holocaust. Today, there are some 240,000 Jews there, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Membership in Jewish sports clubs has grown, too.

Meyer wanted the competition to be held in the Olympic stadium, within those same stone halls where many Jewish athletes, though not all, were banned in 1936.

“They came all the way to Germany and in the morning they got a call, they were not allowed to run. They found out right before the race,” said Steven Stoller, 64, of New Jersey, a distant cousin of the late Jewish-American sprinter Sam Stoller, who was told he could not compete by Avery Brundage, then president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“I wanted to come to Berlin for my children, my future grandchildren, to have the story live on,” Stoller said.

Jed Margolis, the executive director of Maccabi USA, will fly in from Philadelphia to cheer on some 200 participating American athletes ages 15 to 85.

“At one point in life I would say, ‘I will never go to Germany or buy a German product,’ ” Margolis said. “Yet there is a vibrant and growing Jewish community there. We want to support them and at the same time teach our next generation” about what happened there.

Security will be tight for the event — in the stadium and beyond. Berlin announced the creation of a new digital reporting system for anti-Semitic incidents just in time for the games.

“Security is the No. 1 priority,” said Lena van Hooven, spokeswoman for the games.

But Danny Maron is not worried. He and the other Jewish bikers have been traveling through Eastern Europe with Israeli flags attached to their bikes.

“We have no fear at all,” Maron said. “We are very proud.”

Maron’s father, Yoram, a Holocaust survivor, said he wanted “to show the whole world that after all the death, we are still alive, and we keep moving.”

At each stop, from Athens to Romania to Krakow, more Jewish bikers have woven into the pack. The Maccabi torch itself rides in a specially built case carried by Greek biker Kobi Samuel, 48.

“Two of our riders are descendants of actual Maccabi riders of the 1930s, nine are descendants of Holocaust survivors and two of our bikers are actual survivors, aged 73 and 78,” said filmmaker Catherine Lurie-Alt, who snagged Jewish talk show host Larry King as the narrator for her documentary about the motorcycle rally.

“This is where it all started,” Lurie-Alt said. “We are going through communities where Jewish populations were decimated, on our way to Berlin, where they will enter that stadium with jubilation and joy.” 

Reflections on the Charleston murders from Berlin: A conscience


I was sitting at the lunch tables yesterday here at the language school in Berlin, checking the news, when I read of the massacre at Emanuel AME in Charleston. My heart stopped in grief, thinking of the horror in that church. A very deep sadness came over me, for the victims and their families, for Emanuel AME, for Americans and especially for African Americans. And a wider sadness that I have felt since I arrived here two weeks ago rose again. Evil people abound.

The school organized a field trip to the rather impressive Natural History Museum. The route from our school (we walked), took us along Bernauer Street, where a long stretch of the Berlin Wall stood. When I chose this school, I unwittingly chose a neighborhood, in a corner of Prenzlauer Berg, which was one of the sites where the first breaches in the Wall were made. Memorials to the Wall shape the landscape along Bernauer Strasse. The place where I jog in the morning is the Mauer (Wall) Park, the site where a piece of the Wall was dismantled on November 9, 1989, allowing a flow of East Berliners to flow into the West. The Iron Curtain was crumbling.

That Wall, and now its remains, stands as a memory to the carnage of the 20th century.  It is there because of the evil that Hitler unleashed on the world, especially against the Jews, and especially against Eastern Europeans and other “undesirables”.  Germany was only subdued because of the military might of the Allies. The brunt of the fighting was carried by the Soviet Union – a nation that far exceeded the Nazis in the murder of innocents. The Wall stands for defeat of Germany, and then the imprisonment of millions of people in Communist tyranny.

The Holocaust, the Second World War, the depredations of Communism, haunt the city.

The horror in Charleston is being followed by the voice of grief, outrage and condolences from every level of American government and in every corner of American society, except the most evil, hiding under the rocks. A voice of hatred that wanted to kill because some group is “trying to take over the world” (this is what I read) has been furiously shouted down by a roaring wave of human decency.

I could not stop myself from making the comparison. We Jews were accused of wanting to “take over the world.” Very little human decency stood in the way of the path from that accusation to government led genocide. The outpouring of support for Emanuel AME is a light in the midst of this tragedy. Our nation stands as one in grief and resolve. That racial hatred has no place among decent people. No place. The conscience of the American people has made itself known.

I feel that conscience in Berlin, as well, on big and small levels. Nearly every day here at the school, as new students flow in, I am asked my name. “Ich heisse Mordecai”, I say. Inevitable befuddlement occurs. I clarify, “It is a Hebrew name.”  Still quizzical.  “From the Bible”, I say. “Ich bin Jude” I finally clarify. I watch carefully. No negative reaction. In fact, usually great interest, and often sympathy for the victimization of the Jews.

I truly cannot shake the eeriness of saying, “Ich bin Jude” in Berlin. The memorials for Jews in Berlin are profoundly present in the city. The city refuses to forget, to ignore. We visited a deeply disturbing museum today called “The Topography of Terror”, a history of the SS and the Gestapo, focusing on the war against the Jews. The word “Jude” was in most of the displays. It was gut wrenching.

Earlier today my class took a walk to the Prenzlauer Berg (where I am staying) museum. That museum was filled with memories of Jewish life here, up until the Jews were deported. A short walk from the school is Rykestrasse Synagogue, one of the largest and most beautiful in the world, restored to its former glory but alas – stands mostly empty.

Today, in reading the news of the outpouring of grief, support and resolve in America in response to the shootings in Charleston, I saw profound evidence of American decency and conscience. I see similar evidence here in Berlin, in the dedication to remember the Jews as well as the resolve never to forget the history of the German terror state and the atrocities committed.  I said to myself today: So some big swathes of the world, too small, but big, have developed a conscience. I am very moved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Me, naked at a Berlin spa


When I was in Berlin last year, I decided to go to a spa.

My entire life, I’d read how famous Europeans “took the waters” to restore their health and psyches. Kafka recuperated at Marienbad, Goethe at Franzensbad, Dickens at Harrogate. Herzl summered at Altaussee, as did many Jewish families — until Goebbels did.

I had a free afternoon in Berlin, so I did what Kafka would do if he were alive. I Yelped “spas Berlin.”

That led me to the Thermen am Europa-Center, off a busy street near the massive KaDeWe department store.

Inside, I paid the modest entrance fee to a man at a desk, then guessed at his instructions. If you’ve been to City Spa on Pico, the original L.A. shvitz, or any of the Korean saunas, you already know the routine. Pay, get a locker key, shower, sauna, plunge, repeat. Signs in German and English read, “No Bathing Suits Allowed,” which are also forbidden in K-town.

The door from the locker room opened onto a huge indoor-outdoor spa area, and immediately I noticed that a man who turned to watch me enter — was not a man.

It turns out Thermen am Europa, like many European spas, is coed. I had heard such things exist, but, even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for the shock — picture my face as a bad outtake from “Porky’s,” when the hapless teen opens the door to the wrong locker room.

But, there I was — and I resolved at that moment that I, too, would be a Berliner.

To my right were the showers. I soaped up next to, basically, my bubbe. The elderly, zaftig woman seemed completely unfazed by the tall naked man beside her — in fact, over the next three hours, the only person who ever lost his composure was me.

The spa occupies an entire floor of a building, as well as an outdoor area. It has a massive, warm pool that circulates inside and out. It has two very hot whirlpool plunges and two icy cold plunges. Outside, along with the extended pool, there are small steam rooms that look like Bavarian cottages. There is a women’s-only area that was small and, from what I could tell, unused, as well as a large cafe overlooking the pool.

The dozens of men and women dipping and shmoozing their way around the spotlessly clean facilities ranged from young adult to where-were-you-during-the-war. Wearing just my locker key on a small chain around my wrist, I eventually lost my self-consciousness. A room full of 100 or so nude people of different ages, shapes and sizes is a great equalizer. With nothing to hide, and nothing to hold, I soon felt fully at ease among my fellow homo sapiens

The highlights of Thermen am Europa are two wood-lined saunas, each the size of a small living room. Inside, men and women sit on tiered benches. An attendant occasionally comes in and throws water, scented with some fragrant herbs, over the hot stones. Hot steam billows up, giving everyone a nice, soft-focus sheen.

I sat back and inhaled — taking the mist deep into my lungs. The sauna filled with people. Being Germans, they were hearty and happy — chatting, joking. At one point, a middle-aged couple entered and a group of bathers cheered and rose to greet them, like old friends. They hugged and gave one another two-cheek kisses — and only then it dawned on me — they are all butt-naked. 

More people entered. More happy greetings. It was like an all-nude episode of “Cheers.” Not an inch of space separated our bodies. I closed my eyes and listened to the Germans laugh and talk. Maybe it was the heat, but it all felt otherworldly, dreamy. Strange, inevitable thoughts swirled in my mind: How could these people have been thosepeople? Seventy years ago, who could have imagined this moment? Human beings, for good or ill, are unfathomable to we mere mortals. But naked among Germans, I felt deep in my bones the way things are is never the way they have to be.

Back outside, I showered and walked to my locker. That’s when I reached down and realized — no key.

My hands ran over my nonexistent pockets. My mind reeled at what I had left in my locker: cash, credit cards, cellphone, passport.

Without thinking, I rushed back to the last place I’d been, that sauna. I pushed open the door, and said, loudly, “Has anyone seen a key? Key? KEY!”

And that’s when 40 nude Germans stopped talking, stopped laughing and looked up at me. I was framed in the doorway, naked as the day I was born, staring right back at them. And, yes, it occurred to me in that instant, circumcised.

Now the dream felt like a nightmare. Me. Naked. Yelling at dozens of Germans. Them staring at me.

Finally, thankfully, I heard a heavily accented female voice. “Lost and found,” she said. “In the cafe.” 

Panic trumped modesty — I turned and strode into the cafe. I asked the woman behind the counter if someone had found a key.

Only then did I realize the waitress was fully clothed, and all the cafe patrons were wearing thick white robes. I was basically streaking through their teatime.

The waitress scowled, but she gave me my key. I didn’t care. We are all just human, right? At least, until we're not. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Jewish groups to protest pro-Palestinian gathering in Berlin


A coalition of Jewish and pro-Israel groups is planning to protest a pro-Palestinian event in Berlin that is alleged to have ties to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Fearing a resurgence of the hate speech and violence that marked last summer’s anti-Israel protests in Germany, the coalition named Berlin Against Hamas will protest on Saturday outside the Berlin Arena, where the 13th Conference of Palestinians in Europe is to be held. More than 3,000 people are expected at the conference, which is co-organized by the Palestinian Community of Germany and the British-based Palestinian Return Center.

Politicians from all parties represented in the Berlin legislature have added their support, the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee said in a statement.

According to the Berlin Department for Constitutional Protection, the conference has become “the most important activity of Hamas supporters” in the city.

“If political and legal means are not enough to stop this kind of event, then it’s time for the democratic civil society to show their true colors,” Deidre Berger, AJC’s director in Berlin, said in the statement accompanying the protest call.

Sebastian Mohr, spokesman for the Berlin Against Hamas initiative, applauded the readiness of politicians and NGOs to take a stand “against the hate of the terrorist Islamist group Hamas.”

Volker Beck, a Green Party legislator and chair of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Group in the German Bundestag, said in the joint statement that the conference “does not further either peace in the Mideast or the legitimate interests in peace and security for Palestinians or Israelis. Just the opposite: it’s a place where prejudices are stoked and, even worse, Hamas’ terror and violence is legitimized or even glorified.”

The Berlin Arena’s managing director, Jana Seifert, told the German news agency dpa that government authorities had investigated but did not find any connections between the conference organizers and Hamas.

Nevertheless, Seifert said the venue insisted on contractual assurances from the organizers that the program would not break the law. It is illegal in Germany to incite violence or hatred based on such categories as religion, ethnic or racial origin, or sexual orientation.

It would also be illegal to incite hate against Israel: Earlier this year, a court in Essen set a legal precedent by finding a defendant guilty of incitement to anti-Semitism by calling for “death and hate to Zionists.”

Meanwhile, Berlin police said there also will be a demonstration in central Berlin on April 25, the Day of Palestinian Prisoners. Organizers registered some 3,000 participants.

Suspect arrested in Berlin murder of Israeli man


An Albanian man was arrested in connection with the murder of an Israeli in Berlin.

The suspect was taken into custody late Friday in the Czech Republic near the German border. Germany will seek to extradite him, The Associated Press reported.

The victim, who was identified as Yossi Damari days after his body was found on April 5 amid the rubble of construction being done at a church, reportedly checked into a hostel the day before he was murdered.

Damari, 22, reportedly had visited Israel’s embassy in Berlin in the days prior to his murder requesting financial help in order to return to Israel. He also reportedly had asked the Jewish community for food and a place to sleep.

The Chabad rabbi in Berlin, Yehuda Teichtal, told the NRG news website that Damari was supposed to have attended a seder at the local Chabad house but never showed up.

Damari’s body, discovered with his passport, was so badly beaten that it was difficult to make a positive identification.

Berlin Prosecutor Martin Steltner told the German media that neither robbery nor nationalism appear to be motives in the killing.

Disfigured body with Israeli passport found in Berlin


Police in Berlin found the disfigured body of a man carrying an Israeli passport.

The body was found Sunday amid the rubble of construction being done at a local church, Army Radio reported Wednesday. The body was so badly bruised that it was unrecognizable, raising suspicion that the man was murdered.

The passport was registered to a 22-year-old man, but officials could not immediately determine whether the deceased was its owner. The passport’s owner was not named.

The Chabad rabbi in Berlin, Yehuda Teichtal, told the NRG news site that the Israeli man to whom the passport belonged was supposed to celebrate the Passover seder at the local Chabad house on Friday night but never arrived.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in contact with German authorities about the case, the Army Radio report said.

German Jewish magazine to hide publication’s name in deliveries


A monthly Jewish magazine in Germany said it will deliver copies to subscribers in blank envelopes as a response to recent anti-Semitic attacks across Europe.

Judisches Berlin, or Jewish Berlin, is taking the measure to hide the publication’s name.

“We decided to do so despite the significant additional costs to reduce the likelihood of hostility towards our more than 10,000 community members,” the magazine’s spokesman told Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper.

The Guardian reported that in a foreword to the latest issue of Jewish Berlin, Gideon Joffe, board chairman of the Jewish Community of Berlin, Germany’s largest Jewish communal organization, wrote, “Israelis are beaten up in Berlin solely on the grounds that they are Israeli Jews. We are not yet – I repeat yet – at the stage where Jews are being murdered in Germany just because they are Jews. But measures have to be taken to protect the democratic rule of law.”

Germany is home to nearly 200,000 Jews, and the number of Israelis migrating to Germany has increased in recent years. Earlier this year, a Jewish man was beaten in a Berlin train station after he asked a group of men to stop singing anti-Semitic songs.

After the recent attack on a Copenhagen synagogue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany will do everything in its power to keep the country’s Jewish community safe.

Jewish Berlin, which features articles on Jewish life in Germany, was first published in 1998 and is issued 10 months of the year.

Jewish dealers’ heirs turn to U.S. to recover German art trove


The heirs of Jewish art dealers who say their families were forced to sell the Nazis a trove of medieval church treasure worth some $250 million today have turned to a U.S. court to reclaim it, after failing in their attempts in Germany.

The collection, known as the Guelph Treasure, consists of 44 gold, jewel and pearl encrusted pieces which have belonged to the city of Berlin's art collection since their purchase in 1935, on the orders of leading Nazi Hermann Goering.

Germany says an expert committee established last year that the sale was not forced, following a 2008 claim by the heirs.

The reliquiaries dating from the 11th to 15th centuries were once owned by northern German aristocrats and kept in Brunswick cathedral. Today they are on show in Berlin's Bode Museum.

Lawyers for the heirs of the dealers, who bought the collection from the Duke of Brunswick in 1929, said on Tuesday they filed a civil suit with a district court in Washington DC, appealing to the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).

They say the court has jurisdiction because the FSIA covers violations of international law, such as forced property sales.

A Jewish refugee from Austria, Maria Altmann, used this law in 2000 to recover paintings by Gustav Klimt. She successfully fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was then awarded ownership by an Austrian court of arbitration.

“The fingerprints of Goering and Hitler are on this sale, the dealers had no chance,” restitution lawyer Markus Stoetzel said.

The Jewish dealers sold the works to the state of Prussia for 35 percent of its value, lawyer Nicholas O'Donnell said.

Ingolf Kern, a spokesman for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, said he was surprised by the move, given that the advisory commission had found the price was reasonable.

The consortium of dealers bought 82 pieces in 1929 for 7.5 million Reich marks and then sold 40 for 2.5 million marks. The Prussian state paid 4.25 million marks for the rest in 1934-35.

The commission said the market was depressed in the early 1930s, Prussia was the only interested buyer and the works were stored in Amsterdam at the time, although the dealers were based in Germany.

This month Berlin designated the Guelph Treasure of national cultural value, making it impossible for it to leave the country without the approval of the culture ministry.

“If they were so sure they owned it, they wouldn't need to do this,” said O'Donnell.

Kern argued, however, that this was a logical move for Germany's most precious artefacts.

Germany has faced criticism for its handling of artworks looted by the Nazis, with some museums accused of reluctance to research the provenance of suspect works.

Son’s postcard to Lodz Ghetto resurfaces 72 years later


Almost 73 years ago, on March 21, 1942, Stefan Prager wrote a postcard from Sweden to his parents, who had been deported from their native Berlin to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland.

He wrote about his recently celebrated 18th birthday, adding, “I’m feeling healthy and the winter passed well. How are you doing?”

Prager never got a response or heard from his parents.

Now, as Prager approaches his 91st birthday, the postcard has resurfaced within the extensive digitized archives of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). The postcard’s discovery has led, in turn, to new inquiries and some answers about his parents’ fate.

Stefan Prager was born in Berlin, the son of Ruth Prager and her husband, Ernst Wolfgang Prager, who was wounded three times fighting in the German army during World War I.

The boy attended a Jewish school in Berlin for four years, and in March 1939, the parents sent their 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter on a Kindertransport (children’s transport) to Sweden.

Stefan, a big-city boy, spent the war years with a farmer in a remote forest area, living in a house without electricity, a toilet or running water, feeding the livestock and chopping down large trees in the icy winter. He kept writing to his parents in Berlin until they were deported in October 1941.

This was the time of Hitler’s greatest victories, and as the German armies came closer and closer to Sweden, Stefan wondered, “Where would I go to hide?” he told the Journal in a recent interview.

“In the [Swedish] village where my sister lived, there were several known Nazis who would tell [the Germans that she was Jewish].”

Thus the story — like those of millions of other Holocaust victims — might have ended, but for the resilience of this postcard, which eluded destruction through all the upheavals.

In late 2011, Edward Victor, a retired Los Angeles lawyer, donated to LAMOTH an unusual collection of Nazi-era mementos that he had acquired and organized during a 30-year period. It consisted of some 2,000 stamps, letters, identification cards, visas, school records and currency receipts, which frequently traced the fate of a given Jewish family from the beginning of the Nazi era in 1933 to its bloody end in 1945.

At LAMOTH, Vladimir Melamed, director of Archives, Library and Collections, integrated the material in the Archon Platform-LAMOTH, the museum’s online archive, which now holds close to a million document pages (lamoth.info).

In December, Melamed received an email from Stefan Prager, who was living in Stockholm as a retired manager at SGS, a company that provides inspection, testing and certification services, primarily for international shipping.

“A relative of mine found a postcard at your museum which I sent to my parents from Sweden to the Lodz Ghetto in 1942. … I never heard from them,” Prager wrote.

Melamed and his staff went to work and tracked down the postcard in one of his digitized files labeled “Correspondence to and from Lodz Ghetto.”

No one knows how the card survived, but Prager speculates that “it was found at the Jewish administration office [in Lodz] among lots of similar stuff following the total evacuation of the ghetto to Auschwitz.”

With the recovered postcard as a lead, Melamed contacted the State Archive in Lodz for details on Prager’s parents’ fate. Last month, he received copies of handwritten entries by a Nazi official to the effect that Ernst and Ruth Prager were deported from Berlin Oct. 27-29, 1941, to the Litzmannstadt Ghetto (German for Lodz).

The next paper is an “Announcement” from the ghetto’s “Eldest of the Jews,” dated May 22, 1942, that Ruth Prager, now widowed, was being moved from the one room where she lived with her husband to another room shared with three other persons.

The last notice, dated Oct. 13, 1942, simply stated that Ruth Prager had vacated her room the previous day. Under “Reason for the Move,” an official entered “Death.”

LAMOTH president E. Randol Schoenberg noted that “the recovery of the Prager postcard reinforces the point that even 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, there are still undiscovered documents, still descendants of families searching for the fates of Nazi victims and still large gaps in our knowledge of concentration camps.

“For instance, who has heard of the Maly Trostenets extermination camp near Minsk? Yet, 65,000 Jews were murdered there.

“We owe it to the generosity of collectors like Edward Victor and the dedication of archivists like Dr. Melamed and his staff that large parts of the still unknown history of the Holocaust are coming to light.” 

Herzog brings his female ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to Berlin film contest


Nicole Kidman says she loves the desert, which was lucky for her as veteran German director Werner Herzog expected her to spend a lot of time there for his entry for this year's Berlin film festival competition.

His “Queen of the Desert,” which had its premiere on Friday is based on the life of the British society woman Gertrude Bell.

Known as “the female Lawrence of Arabia”, she trekked the deserts of the Arabian peninsula in the early part of the 20th century, knew T.E. Lawrence, befriended Bedouins, had two failed love affairs, worked as a spy and wound up as Britain's diplomatic expert on the Arab tribes.

Herzog, 72, who directed off-the-wall features such as “Fitzcarraldo” and other films starring the maniacal Klaus Kinski in the 1980s, said he wished he'd made more movies with women.

“I think I should have done films about female protagonists much earlier in my life. I always thought I was a director for men … and I'm glad that finally this discovery came to me, I should have done films about female characters from much, much earlier on,” Herzog told a news conference.

Kidman said she was attracted to the movie in part for the opportunity to bring Bell's life to the screen, but also for the chance to film in the desert. James Franco, Robert Pattinson and Damian Lewis co-star, but as Herzog pointed out, the Australian actress appears in all but one scene.

“I think what's so beautiful about this movie is you just see how exquisite that region is and the desert and the people and being a part of it certainly gives you a strong affinity for that, but I've always felt a pull towards the desert,” she said.

Herzog said he hoped the film would give viewers a better appreciation of the region and its politics, in part complicated by borders Bell helped to draw. He said if the West did not understand the region, it risked falling further into the hands of Islamic State.

“We legitimately have to ask ourselves the question whether the border delineations … have been the best of all worlds, no they have not. But we see the alternative out there, the alternative is materialising and the alternative is no borders — and Islamic State running this as a Caliphate which includes Lebanon and Israel, among others,” he said.

The film got mixed early reviews, with Britain's Independent newspaper saying: “This is the closest Herzog has come to making a conventional Hollywood movie — what it lacks is the perversity, drive and wildness that are usually his hallmark.”

Immigrant nation


When you emerge from the Berlin subway into the Hermannplatz neighborhood, you enter Turkey.  Food stalls offer fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, sesame-encrusted simit and flakey boreks oozing sheep’s milk cheeses.  The language spoken on the street, the signs, the music from storefront boom boxes—all Turkish

I visited Hermannplatz on Nov. 8, as the rest of Berlin was immersed in a weekend of  celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were no signs of that momentous occasion, no posters, no balloons, nothing to mark the historic day that forged a free, modern Germany. I asked a native Berliner, “Why is that?”

“It’s not their Berlin,” she said. “It has nothing to do with them.”

Those words resonated with me again this week, as President Barack Obama wielded his executive authority to prevent the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

With the stroke of a pen, Obama set in motion a process that could ultimately move 5 million people, as he put it, to “come out of the shadows.” 

It was a huge, bold move, and it has generated an equal and opposite reaction.

Some critics say they are more upset at the way Obama made policy than at the policy itself.  Some fear that granting amnesty will reward or increase lawlessness. And some just fear Obama and anything he does.

I like the reaction of the Jewish group Bend the Arc, which tweeted, “Pop the Manischewitz! This is a big deal!”

What Obama did is legal—at least according to the conservative legal group the Federalist Society. It was also, as the Republican Jewish Coalition accused it of being, brazen and destabilizing. But it seems Obama has learned one lesson from the Middle East—things don’t get better on their own; the status quo is nobody’s friend.

So the President acted.  Once the high drama surrounding someone actually doing something in Washington subsides, it will be interesting to see the effect Obama’s decision will have on the ground.  Because, let’s face it, while we may be consumed by the Middle East, the lives of the people we live among, those who watch our children, cook our food, clean our homes and tend our yards have a much more immediate impact on us.   If they are treated with something approaching humanity; if they are given a chance, even a carefully circumscribed chance, of gaining a toehold to a better life, I suspect they will repay society with interest, in hard work, in the lives of their ambitious children, in gratitude.

How can I be sure? Because with the exception of the Native Americans, we’ve all been there. Two generations ago, my great-grandparents, the Eshmans, Peshkins and Vogels, found refuge here from the czar’s army.  Official records list them as cigar rollers and meat cutters—but they were likely padding their resumes. They came with no more skills or promise than the immigrants from Guatemala City or Nuevo Laredo.  Had today’s immigration laws been in effect back then, they’d have been sent back to Pinsk to perish (you can go to entrydenied.org to find out whether your ancestors would have been allowed in, too).  With a wave of his pen, Obama has written a new chapter in this very American story.

It’s strange even to be having this argument during Thanksgiving—a holiday that celebrates the way immigrants to this strange land were embraced by its inhabitants. The reason Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday, marked in almost every home, from Orthodox Jews to Confucian Chinese, is because we are all acknowledging the same thing: our good fortune to have found a place that embraces us, and makes us Americans.

Europe, from Germany to Paris to London, faces a crisis because it has not figured out how to make Germans, French and Englishmen out of swelling, alienated immigrant populations.

That is not just a waste of human potential, it is a security crisis. On Nov. 6, just two days before I visited Hermannplatz, a SWAT team burst into four apartments nearby and arrested four Turkish residents for allegedly supporting the ISIS group.  If you can’t deport millions—and you can’t—then you have to find a way to embrace them and their potential for contributing to society. People who see no chance of becoming part of their host country are more likely to turn on their host country. What could be a cure becomes a cancer.

What Obama did should only be the first step in making hard-working immigrants feel like the American story has everything to do with them. Because it does.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Germany celebrates 25th anniversary of fall of Berlin Wall


More than a million Germans and people from around the world on Sunday celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the event that more than any other marked the end of the Cold War.

A spectacular 15 kilometer-long string of 7,000 illuminated helium balloons traced the course of the barrier that once snaked through the city, slicing across streets, between families and even through graveyards.

They were set free one after another into the night sky, symbolizing the breaching of the Wall by crowds of protesters in 1989. The Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra played Beethoven's 9th Symphony “Ode to Joy” in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

“We're the happiest people in the world and we're thrilled that you brought the Berlin Wall down 25 years ago,” Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit said as the first balloons were sent aloft. “Nothing and no one can stand in the way of freedom.”

Germans, whose national pride was shattered by Nazism, the Second World War and the Holocaust, have proudly focused on the peaceful East German revolution that felled the Wall as a rare and bright shining moment in their modern history.

Festivities to mark the anniversary drew more than one million Berliners and tourists to the heart of the once-divided city. Earlier, Peter Gabriel played a powerful rendition of “Heroes” and several German artists performed on stage as well.

Despite the fog and cold, many wandered along the former “death strip” where the Wall stood and where the illuminated helium balloons forming the “Lichtgrenze”, or Border of Light, were perched 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) high on poles matching the height of the barrier built in 1961 by Communist East Germany.

The crowd also cheered when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, widely admired in Germany for his role in paving the way for the Wall's collapse, stood and waved. He ominously warned in a speech in Berlin on Saturday that a new Cold War was looming over the Ukraine crisis.

WORLD LOOKS TO BERLIN

The anniversary of the Wall's fall was marked around the world. Pope Francis told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square that it should spur people to try to topple other walls. “Where there is a wall, there is a closing of hearts. We need bridges, not walls,” he said.

Earlier on Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the fall of the Wall showed the world that “dreams can come true” and should inspire people trapped in tyranny everywhere.

Merkel, a young physicist in Communist East Berlin when she got her first taste of freedom on Nov. 9, 1989, said in a speech that the Wall's opening in response to mass popular pressure would be eternally remembered as a triumph of the human spirit.

“The fall of the Berlin Wall showed us that dreams can come true and that nothing has to stay the way it is, no matter how high the hurdles might seem to be,” said Merkel.

“It showed that we have the power to shape our destiny and make things better,” she said, noting that people in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere around the world should feel heartened by the example of the Wall's sudden demise.

“It was a victory of freedom over bondage.”

But she added the date Nov. 9 bears historical burdens. It was also the day in 1938 of the anti-Jewish pogrom “Kristallnacht”, or “Night of Broken Glass”, when Nazis carried out attacks on synagogues and Jewish shops across Germany.

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to stop East Germans fleeing to the West. It began as a barbed wire and cinder block wall and was then fortified as a heavily guarded 160 km (100-mile) white concrete barrier that encircled West Berlin.

DIVISIONS REMAIN

At least 138 people were killed trying to escape to West Berlin and many who were captured ended up in jail.

Communist regimes collapsed in the face of popular uprisings across Eastern Europe in 1989, signaling the end of the Cold War, of which the Berlin Wall had become the starkest symbol.

But despite the Wall's fall, German unity a year later and 2 trillion euros pumped into the formerly communist east of the country, there are still lingering east-west political, economic and social divisions in the city and country.

Voting patterns in east Berlin and eastern Germany are different, there is still an east-west income and wealth gap, and unemployment is nearly twice as high in the east.

“Forty years of division left their mark on many,” said Kai Arzheimer, political scientist at the University of Mannheim. “The differences might be diminishing as years pass but only a lot slower than anyone would have dreamt 25 years ago.”

Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Roma; writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Tom Heneghan

Witnesses to Kristallnacht


On a Wednesday evening in late 1938, the sounds of broken glass shattered the quiet streets of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over the next 24 hours, Nov. 9-10, rampaging Nazi mobs would torch more than 1,000 synagogues; vandalize Jewish homes, businesses and cemeteries; and kill nearly 100 Jews. As many as 30,000 Jews were arrested and carted off to concentration camps. These coordinated attacks, which came to be known as Kristallnacht —  the Night of Broken Glass — mark the beginning of the Holocaust.

Survivors who lived to tell the story of the terror of Kristallnacht  — some quite young at the time — remember vividly the horrors of that night. These four, who share their memories on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, are among the lucky ones whose families were able to escape and who, eventually, made their way to Los Angeles. 


Herbert Jellinek, Vienna

Late on the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, Herb and his father, Leo, were walking home from their weekly visit to the public baths,when from a distance they saw the Turner Temple in flames. Only a year and four months earlier, Herb had become a bar mitzvah at this Vienna synagogue, but now Nazi Brownshirts, also called SA or Stormtroopers, were standing around with the local police, watching the building burn, and a crowd of Austrians had gathered and were cheering the sight. Herb and Leo stayed in the shadows. “We were very afraid,” Herb said. “We tried to get home as quickly as possible.”

They arrived at their apartment on Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, around noon to find Herb’s mother, Irma, in tears. Later that afternoon, Herb peeked out of their living room window and saw hordes of Brownshirts going from building to building, breaking the windows of apartments and stores where Jews lived and shopped. He also witnessed the Brownshirts roughing up Jewish men, dragging them out of their apartment buildings. Herb’s family fully expected the Nazis to come to their door to take Leo, and possibly 14-year-old Herb. They sat on the couch, wearing their overcoats because the apartment didn’t have central heat, and waited. 

Suddenly the doorbell rang. Irma opened the door and was surprised to find their electrician standing there, responding to their call from several days earlier to repair a broken radio. “I can’t understand what’s going on,” he told the Jellineks. “It’s ridiculous.”

Herb and his parents waited the rest of the night, listening to their newly repaired radio and staying quiet so as to not draw attention to themselves. They learned later that their concierge had steered the Nazis away, informing them no Jews lived in the building. 

The next day, Herb’s parents resolved to leave Austria. 

The situation had been deteriorating, especially since the Anschluss on March 12, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Three days later, Hitler had entered Vienna, the climax of a triumphant tour of Austria. Despite a warning over loudspeakers that anyone leaning out a window or leaving curtains open would be shot, Herb peered out to see Hitler riding in an open car with his hand raised. He heard people cheering and saw buildings adorned with swastika flags and banners. “It was like everyone all of a sudden became Nazi,” he recalled. 

Shortly after, Herb was forced to transfer from public school to a Jewish school, an hour’s streetcar ride, and at least weekly he found himself fighting members of the Hitler Youth. 

But Kristallnacht was the turning point for the Jellineks, and the following week Herb accompanied his father to the American consulate, where Leo filed an application to immigrate to the United States. But the waiting list was long, as it was at other consulates they visited. Weeks later, they learned that only Shanghai, which the British had established as a treaty port in the 1840s, would take them without a visa. With difficulty, Leo secured second-class tickets on an Italian passenger ship, departing Trieste in the spring.

In June 1939, Herb and his parents left Vienna. As they crossed the border into Italy and an Italian customs official entered their train car, they felt great relief. 

“A lot of people forget. You can’t forget what we went through,” Herb said. 


Rita Feder, Berlin

As evening fell on Nov. 10, 1938, Rita heard a huge crash outside her family’s apartment on Berlin’s Metzer Strasse. She looked out the front window and there, next to the entrance to their building, she saw four or five Brownshirts throwing cement blocks through the windows of the stores that occupied the ground floor. Rita’s mother, Fanny, started screaming. She dragged 10-year-old Rita away from the window and closed the drapes. 

 The Atterman family in Berlin in 1938. From left, mother Fanny, brother Jona (Heinz), Rita, brother Bill (Willy) and father Max

The family gathered in the living room, in the center of the apartment and away from the front windows and the back staircase. Rita sat in the dark with her parents and older brother, Bill (Willy). Her middle brother, Jona (Heinz), had immigrated to Palestine several months earlier. Time moved slowly. “I was so scared. It was the only time I was almost traumatized,” Rita recalled. While Max Atterman, her father, thought the Nazi hysteria would pass, Rita believed this was the end.  

The next day, Rita saw the store windows had been boarded up and the owners were sweeping up shattered glass. “There was not one store that wasn’t hit,” she said. Rita went to school that day, but no one talked about what had happened. 

Life had become increasingly unhappy for Rita as Hitler gained power. A gymnast and a sprinter, she had dreams of participating in the Olympics and desperately wanted to attend the 1936 Berlin Games. But Jews were not allowed. Her father did take her, however, to watch the men’s 50-kilometer walk, which took place along city streets.

About a year later, in 1937, Rita and her mother were walking near Alexanderplatz when the crowd began buzzing that Hitler was approaching. Everything quickly came to a standstill, and Fanny warned her daughter, “You better raise your hand now and scream, ‘Heil, Hitler.’ ” Rita shouted the salute as the Führer rode by in his open car, his arm raised. “I felt terrible,” Rita recalled.

Kristallnacht convinced Fanny that it was time to leave Germany, but Max wanted to stay. He thought again, however, as people around them began making plans to emigrate. Then, after visiting various consulates in Berlin, he discovered the world was blocked off to Jews. 

One day, a family friend came to visit. “We’re getting out of here, and you are, too. We’re going to China,” she told Fanny and Max. Max thought she was crazy.

In December 1938, Max made arrangements to send Rita to live with his niece in Antwerp, Belgium. When the smuggler came for her, Rita was frightened. “You have to go. It’ll save your life,” her mother told her. The man, who was Jewish, delivered Rita to her relatives. “They were wonderful people,” she said. 

In July 1939, the niece’s husband brought Rita back to Berlin, and a week later, Rita, her parents and her brother Bill boarded a train to Italy. “A stone fell off my parents’ hearts. They were getting away,” Rita said. They took a passenger ship to Shanghai, and in 1947, she and Bill immigrated to Los Angeles. 

“I have to give back to God and my country. I’m so fortunate,” Rita said.


Tom Tugend, Berlin

From his family’s second-floor apartment on Berlin’s Greifswalder Strasse, during the late-night hours of Nov. 9 or very early on Nov. 10, 1938, Tom heard the crashing of glass as bricks or rocks were heaved through the windows of the street-level shops. Tom’s mother, Irene Tugendreich, hustled Tom, 13, and his older sister, Brigitte, into her bedroom, and then his usually undemonstrative mother lay down and cuddled her children in the dark room. 

Tom Tugend, 14, and his mother, Irene Tugendreich, in 1939 in Philadelphia, their first year in the United States. 

At one point, the doorbell rang. The owner of the stationery store on the building’s ground level stood in the hallway, deathly pale and shaking. “Can you hide me?” he begged. The gentile landlady, who had answered the door and who also lived on the second floor, was too frightened to take him in; her Jewish husband had been sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp just a few days earlier. But she allowed the man to run through Tom’s apartment and out the back door. Tom didn’t feel particularly frightened at the time, he said, but, “I always remember his face, that absolutely horror-stricken face.”

Tom, his sister and mother returned to the bedroom. Tom continued to hear the shattering glass and the shouting mob. The three of them were grateful that Tom’s father was in the United States, as he undoubtedly would have been arrested.

The following day, Tom went to school. He remembers seeing the shattered glass on the streets and the stores being boarded up. But in a few days, life returned to what was then normal. He was riding his bike to school and playing soccer, the activity that mattered most to him at the time. 

His father, Gustav, a highly respected pediatrician and a World War I medical officer, had believed for a long time that Hitler was an aberration. But by 1937, when Gustav was no longer permitted to treat non-Jewish patients and when the family was forced to move from their upper-middle-class apartment to a smaller one in a working-class neighborhood, Gustav realized it was time to leave. Plus, he was likely influenced by Irene’s more pronounced sense of urgency. But by that time, most countries had closed their borders, and it was impossible to obtain visas.

Gustav, however, had tracked down the American and British Quakers, with whom he had worked in Germany in 1919 feeding hungry children. They found an immigration law exception for academicians and secured Gustav a one-year lectureship at the University of London in 1937-38 and one at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania the following year, thus qualifying him for a non-quota visa. Meanwhile, after the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and again after Kristallnacht, Gustav had been writing the family urgent letters from the United States, begging them to depart as soon as possible.

Finally, on April 20, 1939, with flags bedecking the city to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday, Tom, Brigitte and Irene boarded a plane from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to London. They then traveled to Southampton and sailed by passenger ship to New York. 

Tom cautions that the trouble with writing history is that you see it through the lens of what has happened since. “Nobody could imagine at that time, even after Kristallnacht, that the Holocaust could happen,” he said.

Since 1955, Tom has lived permanently in Los Angeles. He has been writing regularly for the Jewish Journal since 1993 and serves as a contributing editor.


Risa Igelfeld, Vienna

Before Kristallnacht, and even before the Anschluss, when Risa witnessed Nazi soldiers singing and marching along the streets, she saw many Viennese turning to Nazism. “They came up like cockroaches. It was a frightening time,” she said.

Risa Relles Igelfeld, center, in Vienna in 1928 with her older sister, Edith Relles, and half-brother, Paul Knie. The girls were given the maiden name of their mother, who died when Risa was 1. 

Risa was asleep in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 1938, when the sound of boots kicking the front door of their house awakened her abruptly. “Where’s the money?” she heard the intruders shout. Risa, 21, and her older sister, Edith, who shared a bedroom, heard them enter their parents’ bedroom. “You’re coming with us,” they ordered Risa’s father, Ruben. The girls got out of bed and started dressing. “I was shaking like a leaf,” Risa recalled. The Brownshirts burst into their bedroom, searching for money, then left with Ruben. Risa and Edith stood together, holding onto one another. “I was so scared, just so scared,” Risa remembered.

About an hour later, Risa ventured into the living room. Daylight had broken, and she looked out the window onto Favoritenstrasse, one of Vienna’s main streets, to see other Brownshirts pulling away in Ruben’s first-ever new car. She kept pacing back and forth to the window. At one point, she saw SS and Brownshirts marching up and down the street, singing. Another time, she glanced at the window of the house across the street to see a neighbor sticking out her tongue at her. 

The following night, Risa’s half-brother, Paul Knie, managed to cross Austria’s border and head for Belgium. Then on Sunday, Risa was walking alone when she was stopped by the Brownshirts, who forced her to eat grass. She also saw elderly Jews she knew, on their hands and knees cleaning the sidewalks. “That was very upsetting for me,” she recalled.

The family did not learn Ruben’s fate until a month later, when they received a letter from him. He had been taken to Dachau and then Buchenwald. 

In early January 1939, Risa, following in her sister’s footsteps, left for London on a domestic visa sent by an English family looking for a servant. Soon after, she was promoted to the position of nanny for the couple’s two young children. 

Back in Vienna, Risa’s stepmother went to Nazi headquarters and bribed an SS official, who agreed to release Ruben with the stipulation that the couple leave Austria immediately. They boarded a boat to Palestine but were refused entry. Other ports were also closed. They finally landed on the island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, where they were imprisoned for three years. 

Before Kristallnacht, Paul had gone to the American consulate to search its telephone books for people with their surname, Knie, writing letters pleading for help. A couple in Chicago, Max and Tesse Knee, who were not related, responded, offering affidavits for all the family members. “They were just good people,” Risa said. Her parents arrived in New York around 1944. Risa and her husband, Gershom Igelfeld, whom she married in London, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949. 

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