Locals absent at ceremony in Poland marking postwar atrocity

Some 150 people attended a commemoration on the 75th anniversary of a massacre of hundreds of Polish Jews by their neighbors in the country’s northeast.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, also attended Sunday’s ceremony in the town of Jedwabne, whose history is controversial in Poland because it involves complicity in the Holocaust by members of a nation that many perceive primarily as a victim of the German Nazi occupation.

Commemorating the victims in Jedwabne “grounds our work, which is to fight anti-Semitism, bigotry and racism,” Greenblatt said.

At Jedwabne, a few dozen perpetrators burned alive at least 340 Jews.

The mayor of Jedwabne did not attend the event, citing previous engagements. Nor did any of the townspeople, according to Henryk Zandek, 90, a non-Jewish man who lived in Jedwabne for years after World War II.

Ichak Lewin, an 85-year-old survivor who lives in Israel, sobbed when he recalled how the entire Jewish population of his village near Jedwabne was “taken to the barn and burned alive,” he said. Warned by locals, his family escaped the roundup in nearby woods, where a Polish family hid them. Lewin said he later worked in a German army kitchen.

Under Poland’s Communist governments, which blurred sectarian divides and at times displayed anti-Semitic tendencies, Jedwabne’s Holocaust-era record was little known until 15 years ago, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told JTA at the event.

In 2001, the publication of a book on Jedwabne by Princeton historian Jan Gross triggered a public debate on the issue.

In a nation where the Nazis killed 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones, “some found it, and some find it, difficult to accept the very bitter truth” about Jedwabne, Schudrich said. But since then, polls suggest that today approximately half of Poles have come to accept their compatriots’ role at Jedwabne, Schudrich said.

Polish Undersecretary of State Wojciech Kolarski represented Polish President Andrzej Duda at the event, where he laid a wreath at the monument for the victims.

“To be clear about what happened here: Polish citizens killed their own Polish compatriots of Jewish origin in a way that damaged a long tradition of living side-by-side,” Kolarski told JTA. “There can be no justification for that.”

At least 1,500 Jews died at the hands of Poles during the Holocaust or immediately after it, Schudrich said.

Some Polish politicians in the past denied that Poles killed Jews in Jedwabne, including former senator Jadwiga Stolarska, who in 2001 stated in Parliament that Germans were behind the killings and that “there was no way a Pole could kill a Jew.”

In 2011, Poland’s then-president, Bronislaw Komorowski, said of the centrist Civic Platform: “I beg forgiveness” for what happened at Jedwabne. In a nation of victims, he said, “there were perpetrators.”

Duda, the current president of the center-right Law and Justice party, last year attacked Komorowski’s statement in what some observers considered a step backward from acceptance of the role of Poles in the massacre at Jedwabne.

“I believe it is extremely important for us that we did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said at a televised debate last year. “The Lord knows that the Polish people did not take part in the Holocaust.”

Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths commemoration group, said the event “shows us how seriously Polish society takes this matter,” citing Kolarski’s presence and that of the national media. Unlike some of its neighbors, he said, Poland is “standing up to its sometimes difficult past and not shirking from often painful truths.”

Rabin memorial rally draws 100,000, Coulter controversy escalates

Israelis Rally in Memory of Rabin

More than 100,000 people rallied in memory of Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. An unusually large demonstration, marking 12 years since the former Israeli prime minister’s assassination, drew people to Rabin Square last Saturday night for the annual event.

Commentators suggested that public interest in preserving Rabin’s legacy has been boosted by the prospect of a resumption in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that he launched in the early 1990s.

“Rabin’s way will prevail,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the crowd.

Many Israeli left-wingers also want to counteract the spread of sympathy for Rabin’s imprisoned assassin, Yigal Amir. Polls show that a growing number of rightists would seek clemency for Amir who, though sentenced to life in prison, has had conjugal visits and started a family. Amir’s first child, a son, was to be circumcised in a jailhouse ceremony last Sunday. The assassin earlier failed to win Supreme Court permission to conduct the circumcision with relatives outside.

Coulter Escalates War of Words With Jewish Groups

Ann Coulter escalated her war of words with Jewish groups. In a Nov. 1 column, the conservative pundit blasted the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for condemning her earlier remarks suggesting that Jews would be “perfected” by Christianity.

Coulter suggested the ADL was soft on Iran and Islamist extremists.

“The ADL is more concerned with what it calls the ‘neo-Nazis’ and ‘anti-Semites’ in the Minutemen organization,” she wrote, referring to an anti-illegal immigrant group that has drawn support from right-wing extremists, “than with people who behead Jews whenever they get half a chance.” The ADL is at the forefront of lobbying for tougher anti-Iran sanctions and monitoring pro-terrorist activity.

She also blasted the ADL for defending Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim in Congress, for taking his oath on a Quran instead of a Bible.

“Do they have Ellison on the record acknowledging whether the Holocaust happened?” she wrote.

Ellison joined resolutions in the Minnesota Legislature condemning Holocaust denial and attended Holocaust commemorations.

ADL dismissed the column as “little more than a desperate attempt to deflect attention from her own bigoted and hateful views and her mistake in giving vent to anti-Semitism on a national cable broadcast.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) renewed its call on broadcast networks to stop using Coulter, dismissing her claims that she is a true defender of Jewish interests.

“Jews for Coulter?,” Ira Forman, the NJDC’s executive director said in a statement. “You could hold that convention in the backseat of a Volkswagen Bug.”

Interim Steinhardt Foundation Head Named

Robert Aronson has been named the acting president of Michael Steinhardt’s Foundation for Jewish Life.

Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, had become a consultant to Steinhardt in recent years, most recently working on the philanthropist’s Areivim project, a $100 million fund to transform Jewish education. Aronson replaces Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who left the foundation — then called the Jewish Life Network — in the spring amid some acrimony.

Steinhardt, the ex-hedge fund maven, has given away some $125 million to Jewish causes since 1994, most notably helping to found Birthright Israel and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. In an interview with JTA last summer, Steinhardt said that aside from funding for Birthright, he thought that most of the money spent on projects during Greenberg’s tenure had been wasted.

Steinhardt said that going forward he wants to focus the bulk of his energy and resources on follow-up programs for young adults upon their return from Birthright trips, the Areivim fund, and early childhood and informal education initiatives.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rescued Souls and Torahs Meet at Shul

Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air hosted an unusual commemoration of Kristallnacht, the event that is often considered the beginning of the Holocaust. Instead of focusing on mourning, the gathering last weekend was marked by raucous joy and a sense of reunification.

The central symbolism was provided by guest of honor Olga Grilli, who fled Nazi-occupied Europe as an 11-year-old. On Saturday, she saw once more and touched the Torah scroll from the shul of her Czechoslovakian hometown. She had last attended this temple as a child.

Twenty-two California synagogues took part in the event; each now cares for a rescued East European Torah scroll. Participants saw the scrolls up close and also learned the story of the Czechoslovakian Jewish children rescued by Kindertransports, the trains that carried 664 children, without their parents, to England.

“I left on the last children’s transport,” Grilli said.

The links between Kristallnacht, the Kindertransports and the Torah scrolls are not tenuous. Historians frequently mark the start of the Holocaust as Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”), when rampaging Nazis destroyed 101 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses on two November days in 1938, 10 months before World War II. With 91 Jews killed and another 26,000 arrested, Kristallnacht spread a panic among Europe’s Jews and began a race against time for the Britons and Americans organizing Kindertransports.

The Torah scrolls are on permanent loan to local shuls from London’s Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre, where they were collected and rehabilitated after being found over the past 35 years. The scrolls were brought to California by the Sherman Oaks-based Czech Torah Network (

Lubavitch Recall Sept. 11

Lubavitch rabbis from across the United States and 40 countries launched the 100th birthday commemoration of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, by marking the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Standing Monday in the cold wind and bright sunshine across from the crash site at the Pentagon, the rabbis sang "Oseh Shalom" and "God Bless America" at 9:38 a.m., the time that the hijacked passenger plane hit the center of the American defense establishment.

Schneerson, who died in 1994, both supported the armed services of the United States and taught that the response to evil must not be fear, but faith and optimism, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch.

Dov Zakheim, the U.S. undersecretary of defense and reportedly the leading candidate to become the next president of New York’s Yeshiva University, quoted from the Torah and said that to "tie the freedom of the country to the memory of the rebbe is a marvelous thing."

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an internationally renowned talmudic scholar, said the event demonstrates that the Lubavitch movement is connected with the rest of the United States.

"Lubavitch is not cut off," he said. "It is part of the American people." Steinsaltz later lectured on Schneerson’s approaches to learning and the importance of looking to the future and not to the past.

The many testimonials to Schneerson taking place here this week are testament to the power and influence of the Lubavitch movement. The dignitaries who came to talk about "the rebbe," as they called him, included Israel’s ambassador to the United States, David Ivry; Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau; and Hadassah Lieberman, the wife of the Connecticut senator.

Lubavitch emissaries attending the conference traveled from such far-flung reaches as Bangkok, Athens and Beijing.

Rabbi Mendy Chitrik said the sense of unity is what is important to pass on to his community of 25,000 back in Istanbul, Turkey. "It warms us, we are candles and then we can pass the flame," he said.

There were some voices within the movement who believe that the messianic age is approaching but there is tension within Chabad-Lubavitch about the issue of messianism. "It was not the rebbe’s goal to be mashiach [the messiah], but it was his goal to bring Mashiach [by making the world a better place], Shemtov said. That sense of making things better is what conference participants are working on, Shemtov said.

Schneerson’s real legacy has to do with education and Jewish life, said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the former Soviet Union.

Schneerson was born in the village of Nikolaev, Ukraine, where today Jewish life has been rebuilt, Berkowitz said. Berkowitz also stressed how Schneerson affected the whole Jewish world, not just Chabad.

Outreach is one of the cornerstones of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which serves both religious and nonobservant, and affiliated and nonaffiliated Jews. Last week, a student came to see Malka Werde, who represents Chabad at the Rockland, N.Y., Community College. The student said she was reevaluating her life following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and was turning to Judaism.

"Whoever will welcome them in, that is Chabad, that’s who will provide them with the opportunity to return to Judaism," Werde said.

Tisha B’Av Times 4

Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning in commemoration of the destruction of the two Temples, is notable for at least two reasons. For one, it may be the only holiday that Hallmark hasn’t designed a card for. And it seems to be the one holiday that most Jews have heard of, but few seem to know much about. As with quarks and RNA and Rothko, we can drop “Tisha B’Av” into a conversation, hoping all the while that we won’t be asked to actually explain it.

Here’s how to fix that: On Aug. 11, at 5:30 p.m., in the social hall of Congregation Etz Jacob (7659 Beverly Blvd.), you can attend a free meal as part of the observance of the holy day. The meal will be served prior to the beginning of the fast and will include a discussion with Rabbi Rubin Huttler on the laws and customs of the meal, the fast and the day of observance.

The meal will conclude across the street from the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument Amphitheatre in Pan Pacific Park. There, participants will eat the traditional hard-boiled egg dipped in ashes, and hear two speakers discuss another traumatic time in Jewish history: the prisoner uprising in the Treblinka concentration camp. U.S. Immigration Judge Bruce J. Einhorn, Adjunct Professor of International Human Rights Law and War Crime Studies at Pepperdine University School of Law, will speak on the lessons of the Temple destructions and Treblinka, and businessman and philanthropist Fred Kort, one of the few remaining survivors of Treblinka, will offer his recollection of the camp.

After the two addresses, the audience will read from the Book of Lamentations under the stars, using only flashlights for illumination. “It’s a very dramatic atmosphere,” Miriam Huttler told Up Front. “It’s a very moving way to mark Tisha B’Av.”

For reservations for the complementary meal, phone (213) 938-2619.

How To Mark Tisha B’Av, Part II

At the Westwood Kehilla Synagogue, a full day of special presentations will mark the Jewish day of mourning, beginning on Monday evening, Aug. 11, and running through Tuesday. In addition to the traditional services, Rabbi Eli Stern will speak about the “conceptual underpinning of the root causes of the various tragedies marked by Tisha B’Av and offer a paradigm for the bringing about of the Messianic redemption of the Jewish people,” according to synagogue publicity. Yaakov Glasser will discuss the elegies that commemorate the tragic events in Jewish history. This is no lighthearted holy day.

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, the kehilla will join more than 100 synagogues worldwide in sharing a special made-for-Tisha B’Av video featuring Rabbi Yissacher Frand of Baltimore and Paysach Krohn of New York. Both will speak on “Peace Among Jews” and offer practical advice for interpersonal relationships. Why this subject? It was baseless hatred among Jews that brought about the destruction of the Second Temple, writes the Talmud. So why not work to prevent it from happening again?

For more information, call the Westwood Kehilla Synagogue at (310) 441-5288.

How To Mark Tisha B’Av, Part III

One way Up Front chooses to mark the destruction of the Temples is to update readers on the increasingly inevitable destruction of a local one. After The Journal reported last year on efforts to save Boyle Heights’ historic and once-magnificent Breed Street Shul, the Los Angeles Times ran a similar article. A public outcry followed both articles, and the Los Angeles City Council, prompted by the Southern California Jewish Historical Society, enacted a measure to surround the shul with a high fence to keep out the vandals, crack addicts and prostitutes who called it home.

Meanwhile, the parties contesting the future of the shul — the SCJHS, on one side, and Rabbi Mordechai Ganzweig, who claims title to the property, on the other — convened at the behest of an interested community member in an attempt to reach an agreement.

According to a source present at the negotiations — which nearly broke apart in acrimonious debate — the SCJHS agreed to buy the property from the rabbi for a price that the organization would determine. The purchase funds would be put into escrow and distributed to a charity chosen by the widow of Osher Zilberstein, the synagogue’s longtime former rabbi. The SCJHS, in return, signed a covenantal agreement with Ganzweig that the structure would never be used for any religious services other than Jewish. Sources estimate a possible purchase price at around $100,000.

For a while, everybody seemed happy.

But that was August 1996. One year later, the SCJHS has yet to make a firm offer to Ganzweig. One source told Up Front that the historical society is looking into the possibility that the rabbi cannot sell what he doesn’t legally own. Ganzweig’s lawyer claimed during the negotiations that he can produce a clear and unencumbered title to the property. The parties have not been in contact, and none were available for comment as The Journal went to press.

In the meantime, the stately old shul off Cesar Chavez Boulevard — one of the last remaining monuments to that era of Los Angeles Jewish history — continues to decay.

“Tear it down; make it into a social center or a museum — I don’t care what they do with it,” said one of the participants in last year’s meeting. “Whatever they decide, they should have done it already.”

Music, Solemn and Otherwise

To bring you into that Tisha B’Av mood — and to lift you out of it — we can recommend a newly released album available on CD or cassette. In “The Covenant,” keyboardist/producer/arranger Wally Brill combines original recordings of the great cantors of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, lifted from original 78-rpm recordings, with creative vocalizations and new instrumentation. The technique is called sampling, and if it has worked for a generation of great rap artists, why not for a past generation of great cantors.

And it does work. Take the first track, “Kiddush L’Shabbat.” As Cantor Ben Zion Kapov-Kagen sings the traditional blessing over the wine, Ari Langer weaves his lyrical violin work around the cantor’s voice. The same magic is worked in “Rtzeh,” featuring a chilling recording by Cantor Gershon Sirota. And in “A Typical Day,” Brill mixes the descriptions of life in Auschwitz by survivor Helen Lazar with a stunning liturgy sung by Cantor Samuel Malavsky.

Using instruments ranging from the Indian tabla to the Australian didgeridoo, Brill has managed to enrich, not cheapen, these great cantorial recordings. We’ll be listening to it long after this Tisha B’Av, and the next. “The Covenant” is available at most record stores.