Czech minister under fire for questioning existence of Roma concentration camp


Czech Republic Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babis has come under criticism for questioning aspects of the wartime genocide of the Roma people.

Speaking in the northern Czech town of Varnsdorf on Thursday, Babis, who also serves as the country’s finance minister, disputed the existence of a concentration camp where hundreds of Roma, or Gypsies, died during WWII.

“There used to be times when all the Romani people worked. What they now say in the papers that the camp in Lety was a concentration camp, that’s a lie, it was a labor camp. Whoever avoided work was sent there,” Andrej Babiš said during a stop on his campaign trail ahead of October’s regional election.

The camp in Lety, located some 45 miles south of Prague, was set up in 1939 as a labor camp for people deemed to be avoiding work. But in August 1942, the Nazi authorities turned it into a concentration camp for the Roma people where more than 1,300 people were interned, including families with children.

Over 320 people died in the Lety camp. Most of the inmates were deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, and the Lety camp was closed down in 1943. In total, some 5,500 Czech Roma people were deported to Auschwitz, with around 600 them having survived the Holocaust.

Andrej Babis, a billionaire leader of the populist ANO party, has denied intention to question the Roma Holocaust. In a Facebook post, he said he had been quoting someone else’s opinion, and that his words had been taken out of context.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka as well as several other government ministers and opposition leaders have meanwhile denounced Babis’ remarks. “He should be ashamed, and he should apologize and stop spreading such stupid things,” Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told the news website respekt.cz.

The head of the Czech Republic’s federation of Jewish communities, Petr Papoušek, told JTA Babis should apologize for his statements.

“It’s astounding that a government minister would say something like this. It was an ignorant and populist comment. And I don’t think his Facebook comment helped clear things out – it’s phrased in such a way that should still allow him to gain political support,” Petr Papousek said.

Czech parliament rejects labelling goods from Israeli settlements


The Czech parliament's lower house called on the government on Thursday to ignore EU rules on labelling goods from Israeli settlements, joining Hungary in breaking ranks over the divisive regulations.

The Czech Assembly said new EU guidelines which require the labelling of exports from Israeli settlements in the West Bank were “motivated by a political positioning versus the State of Israel”.

The vote reflected a long and strong trade and diplomatic relationship between Israel and the Czech Republic, particularly since its emergence from communist rule in 1989.

Brussels has said the guidelines, published last month, are purely technical. But Israel branded them “discriminatory” and suspended contacts with European Union bodies involved in peace efforts with the Palestinians. 

The EU's position is that the lands Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war – including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – are not part of the internationally recognised borders of Israel.

As such, goods from there cannot be labelled “Made in Israel” and should be labelled as coming from settlements, which the EU considers illegal under international law. 

The Czech parliamentary resolution was supported by all government and opposition parties except for the Communists.

Culture Minister Daniel Hermann stopped short of saying whether the government would now ignore the EU guidelines, but thanked the lower house for the vote.

“It is necessary to reject these attempts that try to discriminate against the only democracy in the Middle East,” he said.

The foreign ministry said in a brief statement sent to Reuters the country respected its EU commitments but also that it considered Israel as a strategic partner and was keen on developing economic relations with the country.

EU member countries that do not follow the bloc's rules can face infringement proceedings by the Commission and eventually be taken to court.

Hungary's foreign minister said last month it would not label the goods, calling the regulations “irrational” according to media reports.

Nicholas Winton, the ‘British Schindler,’ dies aged 106


A man who became known as the “British Schindler” for saving hundreds of Czech children from Nazi persecution in the run-up to World War II, has died at the age of 106.

Nicholas Winton died on Wednesday with his daughter Barbara and two grandchildren at his side, according to a statement from the Rotary Club of Maidenhead in southern England, of which he was a former president.

Winton managed to bring 669 mostly Jewish children on eight trains to Britain through Germany in 1939 but the ninth train with 250 children never left Prague because the war broke out. None of the 250 children on board was ever seen again.

Winton had worked as a stockbroker before heading to Prague in 1938 to help with welfare work for Czech refugees and was 29 when he masterminded the rescue of the children.

His achievements were often compared with those of Oskar Schindler, the ethnic German industrialist who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust and who was the subject of the 1993 film “Schindler's List.”

Winton's wartime exploits, however, remained a secret for years until his wife Greta found a detailed scrapbook in their attic in 1988.

He had not even told her of his role.

“You can't come up to somebody and say: 'by the way do you want to know what I did in '39?' People don't talk about what they did in the war,” Winton told Reuters Television in 2009.

Over the years, Winton's work had been recognized with various awards and with a small planet discovered by Czech astronomers named in his honor.

He had also been commended by the U.S. House of Representatives which said it “urges men and women everywhere to recognize in Winton’s remarkable humanitarian effort the difference that one devoted, principled individual can make in changing and improving the lives of others.”

The Rotary Club quoted from a 1939 letter in which Winton had written: “There is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness, which is, in my opinion, the giving of one's time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering.

“It entails going out, finding and helping those in suffering and danger and not merely in leading an exemplary life in a purely passive way of doing no wrong.”

Prague’s longtime chief rabbi leaves colorful and controversial legacy


When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores this March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.

Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.

“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.

“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago and it will happen sooner or later.”

But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.

His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.

Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. 

The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.

“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”

But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.

The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intracommunal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.

In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined JTA’s interview requests.

Jakub Roth, 41, who served as the Prague Jewish community’s deputy chair between 2005 and 2008 and has been a Sidon supporter, said the rabbi’s resignation had long been anticipated. But he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Sidon’s decision.

Prague Jewish leaders have chosen Rabbi David Peter, 38, to succeed Sidon. A native of Prague, Peter is an Orthodox rabbi who returned to the Czech capital in 2011 after 13 years of studies in Israel.

Sidon also asked for an unpaid six-month leave from his duties in the largely ceremonial position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. The head of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek, told JTA that Sidon would return to the post after his hiatus.

Sidon, who just turned 72, is known for his scholarly demeanor and biting sense of humor. An Orthodox Jew, he focused much of his energy on encouraging greater religious observance among Prague’s largely secular Jews, who are estimated to number some 6,000, though only about 1,800 are officially registered as community members.

Sidon’s tenure has seen the growth of a small but active traditionally observant segment of the city’s Jewish community. But Sidon also has accumulated critics during his more than two decades in office.

Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of a liberal Prague Jewish congregation, Bejt Simcha, who sits on the Prague Jewish community board, believes it would make sense if Sidon retired from his rabbinical duties altogether.

“If he’s embarked on a new life, literary or private, he should pursue it,” she said. “We should thank him for his efforts. He did what he could. But a self-searching, three-times-divorced, egocentric man cannot really be considered a serious figure respected by his community or a good rabbi.”

Sidon became the chief rabbi of both Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1992, less than three years after the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. A respected writer and ally of Czech dissident and future president Vaclav Havel, Sidon had lived in exile in Germany, where he studied at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.

By 1990, Sidon’s fellow dissidents and intellectuals had replaced discredited communist-era officials at the Jewish community and asked him to take over the rabbinate. He agreed, going on to study at the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem and be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before finally returning to Prague.

Sidon’s path to Judaism was not straightforward. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who was murdered in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944, Sidon formally converted to Judaism in 1978. At that time he found himself under immense pressure from the secret police after signing the Czechoslovakian human rights manifesto Charter 77.

“What made me want to convert was my experience with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and with Charter 77,” Sidon told the Terezin Initiative Newsletter in 2005. “To put it short, I realized that I had a soul, and my commitment to God emerged from that.”

Although Sidon only adopted Orthodox Judaism during his rabbinical studies in Israel, his strategy for reviving the Prague Jewish community after four decades of communism consisted of focusing on observance of halachah, or Jewish religious law, and building up religious life.

In the eyes of the public, Sidon soon became the symbol of a new chapter in the life of Czech Jews and of their opposition to communism. But his approach met with opposition from some community members.

“He pushed us into an Orthodox box, which drove many people away,” Michaela Vidlakova, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime community member, told JTA in an email.

Sidon clashed with more religiously liberal Prague Jews who wanted communal recognition of non-Orthodox congregations and of those who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

Eventually the community offered those who traced their Jewish identities only from their fathers what was called “extraordinary” membership in 2003, without the possibility of running for leadership positions. 

By that time, however, controversies over control of the real estate-rich community’s finances and other issues had raised tensions between Sidon and supporters of Tomas Jelinek who was elected community chairman in 2001.

In 2004, Jelinek moved to oust Sidon as Prague chief rabbi, alleging that he had failed to carry out his duties.

“He wasn’t able to groom a successor, there were always problems with kosher food at the community and scores of other things,” Jelinek told JTA.

Jelinek appointed Rabbi Manis Barash, a representative of the U.S.-based Chabad Hasidic movement, to take over Prague’s famed Altneu Synagogue. But in November of that year, Jelinek suffered a staggering defeat in a communal vote that eventually resulted in him being removed as leader.

Emotions continued to run high for several months. In April 2005, members of the Sidon and Barash minyans had a fistfight during Shabbat prayers at the Altneu Synagogue.

A year-and-a-half after his initial ouster, Sidon was reinstated as Prague’s chief rabbi.

Since then, the community has become more pluralistic, with several liberal leaders having been elected to the board. At the same time, a number of people have left to form their own group, the Jewish Liberal Union.

Sidon had been planning to retire in the fall, but on June 23 the Prague Jewish community suddenly announced he would be stepping down, citing his age.

The announcement came a day after a Czech Jewish blog run by Jelinek reported that Sidon had separated from his wife and was in a new relationship.

Sidon’s critics circulated a rumor that the Prague beit din, or rabbinical court, ordered him to step down. 

But the court’s chair, Rabbi Noah Landsberg, who lives in Israel, told JTA that Sidon himself offered to step down.

“He sent me a letter some time ago and said he had some personal problems, and also mentioned his age. The court agreed,” Landsberg said.

Sidon’s successor will be following a rabbi who has left a large mark on the Prague community.

During his term as Prague chief rabbi, Sidon has translated a number of religious texts into Czech, including the Pentateuch, a Haggadah, a siddur, a machzor and others. He also played a major role in establishing the Lauder School of Prague, which combines kindergarten, elementary and high school, enrolling some 150 students.

“Rabbi Sidon has made the community more visible and played an important role in establishing very good relations with the country’s new democratic governments,” said Alena Heitlinger, the Czech-born, Canada-based author of “In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews Since 1945.”

But she added that his focus on Orthodoxy has left those who are not Jewish according to halachah not feeling completely welcome.

“It is still an issue,” Heitlinger said.

Wiener, however, said that Sidon should not be blamed for disappointing some of the more liberal members of the community.

“The problem was on their side rather than his,” he said, “because as an Orthodox rabbi, he could not have really behaved differently.”

 

Czech police find weapons at Palestinian mission


Czech investigators found unregistered weapons at the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Prague, police said on Thursday, a day after the ambassador was killed in a mysterious explosion after opening a safe.

“We have gathered many pieces of evidence, we secured weapons that will be subject to expert evaluation,” Prague police chief Martin Vondrasek said on Czech Radio.

“We can say the weapons have not gone through a registration process in the Czech Republic,” he said, without revealing the quantity and type.

Police reiterated they believed the blast that killed ambassador Jamal al-Jamal on New Year's Day may have been caused by mishandling an explosive that could have been securing the safe. They have said they are not treating it as an attack or a terrorist incident.

Jamal suffered lethal injuries to his head, chest and abdomen. He had been in Prague only since October.

Embassy spokesman Nabil el-Fahel said the safe was being used on a daily basis to store cash for the mission.

The mission is in the process of moving into a new embassy and residence, which share the same compound. Jamal was killed at the new residence.

Fahel's account contradicted Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, who said the safe had not been used for two decades or more, possibly going back to the time when the Palestine Liberation Organisation maintained a mission in Prague.

STAFF UNAWARE

Some safes can be fitted with small charges to destroy secret documents in the event of the lock being tampered with. But Fahel said embassy staff were not aware that any explosive mechanism was attached to the safe that Jamal opened.

He later said on Czech Television he had no information on weapons being seized by police. But a Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the mission's staff in Prague had submitted the weapons to Czech authorities.

He did not elaborate on the type of weapons involved, but said they had been retrieved from an old sack and had been untouched since Cold War times.

The Vienna Convention, which covers diplomatic relations between states, does not set out arrangements for diplomats holding weapons.

The Czech Foreign Ministry said diplomats' weapons were subject to local laws on arms, which require registration and licensing. This suggests that if the weapons were unregistered, they were illegal.

The ministry said it was not changing its position on the Palestinian mission in the country. “We can hardly draw any conclusions from partial results and findings,” spokeswoman Johana Grohova said.

Communist Czechoslovakia maintained friendly relations with the PLO in the 1980s, but the Czech Republic, an EU and NATO member country, has been supportive of Israel.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

On Emil Jacoby’s 90th birthday, a tribute to a life well lived


In late March 1945, a young Czech Jew hiding in Budapest organized a Passover service for escapees from the Nazis and for those working in the rescue efforts. Most of the people who gathered that day had worked and lived together in hiding. When a stranger appeared, the young Czech organizer decided to honor him by asking that he recite the haftarah, a chapter that told the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.

As this young Czech listened to the man chant, he was taken by the sense that the ancient words were speaking directly to him. And it was in that moment that he decided to dedicate his life to making dry bones live again, to ensuring the continuation and renewal of the Jewish people. He promised himself that, if he survived, his job would be to help transmit the tradition, to help his community remain Jewish and to attempt to inspire others also to serve klal Yisra’el.

Thus began the career of Emil Jacoby, a career that lasted well over half a century and that has touched the lives of thousands of children and families in Los Angeles.

Many articles could be written about Emil Jacoby. Between the two of us, one could describe what it is like to be his son and to learn so many life lessons from him. One could write about Emil Jacoby, the mentor, supervisor, colleague and friend. We choose to focus on him as a model and inspiration. 

We will call him by a name that neither of us often use, but by which many of his closest friends and relatives have known him: Uzi. Short for Uziel (God is my strength), it is the name he acquired as a Zionist activist during and immediately after World War II.

Love what you live. Love what you do.

Throughout his career, Uzi was motivated by the experiences of his youth, which instilled in him a love of Judaism and a respect for community. Uzi’s mother lived by the principle of hiddur mitzvah, delighting in each mitzvah; she brought beauty and the joy of living into the family’s home and taught her family to appreciate the value of Jewish life. Indeed, hiddur mitzvah is an apt description of the experience that anyone fortunate enough to grow up in Uzi’s home, to go with him to Camp Ramah or join him at his synagogue, Adat Ari El, would have encountered.

Keep an open mind. Respect differences. Respect the past. Honor the present.

Uzi’s father was the secretary of the entire kehillah (congregation) of his hometown of Cop, in Czechoslovakia, trusted by the entire community — from Chasidim to liberal Jews. This is where Uzi learned the value of the klal, of the totality of the Jewish community, above and beyond any differences among individuals.  

Perhaps more than any other quality, respect for pluralism and diversity characterized Uzi’s tenure as a leader for decades at BJE: Builders of Jewish Education. This respect, in turn, was complemented by an insistence on open-mindedness, a value Uzi internalized in his teen years, when his studies included both classical Jewish texts and the insights of Haskalah (enlightenment). After enrolling first in a traditional yeshiva, Uzi later transferred to the Hebrew Gymnasium, a Jewish school that included secular subjects — Latin and English — alongside Jewish history, Hebrew literature and Tanach. The Gymnasium’s expanded curriculum offered the foundation for the greatest joys of his intellectual life. His teachers there were powerful role models of Jewish commitment, leadership and caring, the model for what Uzi would become for hundreds of his own students in Los Angeles.

Don’t just survive. Rescue. Build.

After the liberation, Uzi used his background and skills to create educational programs needed for the young Jews returning from concentration camps and years of hiding. In the years immediately following the end of the war, he trained counselors and teachers, published books, organized a regional school and conducted summer camps. This experience strengthened his resolve to continue to serve as a Jewish educator.  

In about 1950, Uzi immigrated to New York, where he was a teacher, even as he also studied to advance his own formal education. He was also reunited with his fiancée, Erika, who had come to the United States via Cuba — but that’s another story.

By the time Uzi arrived in Los Angeles, in 1953, he’d had abundant training and experience, and he set out to develop one of the premier Conservative congregational schools in the United States. From 1953 until 1976, under his leadership, the school at Adat Ari El (then known as Valley Jewish Community Center) grew from 200 students to 1,500, and it earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence. At the heart of this success was Uzi’s effectiveness in nurturing other educators and developing an esprit de corps among his staff. Well before the notion of “family education” entered the lexicon of Jewish education, Uzi implemented a vast array of family and intergenerational programs.

Even as he built a model school, Uzi took on two other assignments of critical importance to Jewish education. First, he became director of education at Camp Ramah in California, where he helped build a camp program that nurtured an entire generation of rabbinic and lay leadership. At the same time, he was appointed to the faculty of Jewish education at the University of Judaism (now known as American Jewish University). There, through the 1960s and ’70s, he raised up a cadre of educators who continue to serve with distinction in communities throughout North America.

In 1976, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) turned to Uzi to serve as its associate director. In that capacity, he called upon all of his remarkable skills and experiences in providing educational support to a community network of more than 150 schools serving 30,000 students. By 1982, his vast knowledge and unique background, his ability to work with professional colleagues and lay leaders, and his intimate familiarity with the Los Angeles Jewish community made him the appropriate choice for appointment as executive director of the Los Angeles BJE.

During a decade of service as CEO of the second-largest BJE in the nation, Uzi built a harmonious and productive community of educators, spanning all school types and ideologies. He mentored dozens of emerging Jewish educational leaders. He fostered outstanding inter-agency cooperation, and developed an active and supportive board of directors. 

In 1993, after 40 years of educational leadership in Los Angeles, Uzi turned his prodigious energy to an ambitious BJE initiative: the development and implementation of an accreditation process for all school types — including early childhood centers, day schools/yeshivot and congregational (part-time) religious schools.

Characteristically, Uzi worked skillfully in partnership with school-based educators, consultants from outside school systems, accreditation commissions and colleagues to devise approaches to self-study and external review that would help L.A. schools think about desired outcomes and strategies for getting “from here to there.” BJE’s school accreditation program — which Uzi coordinated for 15 years — became a national model. It helped schools reimagine curriculum and instruction to more effectively meet learners’ needs.

In 2008, Uzi and his wife, Erika, joined 136 L.A. teens, as well as staff and other survivors, on the BJE March of the Living. They shared with the high school seniors their experiences of adolescence and young adulthood — telling them of a very different reality. Erika, a survivor of Auschwitz, marked her 80th birthday by returning to that location, recounting there what it was like to be a 16-year-old in the death camp. Uzi shared the experiences of those outside the camps who were active with rescue efforts.

Uzi continued to serve until he finally retired at age 85 from his professional work at BJE. His leadership continues today to inform BJE’s mission, and to impact the lives of children and families of multiple generations. Uzi has surely helped bring renewed vitality — fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision — to Jewish life worldwide in the generations after the Holocaust. 

As he turns 90 this week, on Nov. 30, his family, friends, admirers, students and younger colleagues join together in saying: Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu — how happy and fortunate are we to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration of Dr. Emil “Uzi” Jacoby, a model Jewish educator.


Jonathan Jacoby is senior vice president of Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Dr. Gil Graff is executive director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

Czech Senate to consider property restitution


Czech Jewish leaders said they hoped their Senate would approve restitution of confiscated religious property.

The Czech Parliament on July 14 voted in favor of distributing $3.7 billion among 17 religious denominations, including the Jewish community. The money is compensation for property nationalized during the communist regime. The Senate is expected to vote on the proposal in the next two months.

“This legislation is a good compromise,” Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, told JTA.

The Jewish community’s share of the lump sum “will not be very high,” he added. The Czech Republic already offered restitution for Jewish property in 1994 and 2000.

The Czech Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party—both in the opposition—object to the compromise. The opposition enjoys a majority in the Senate.

Kraus said he believed the Czech upper house would veto the compromise. Parliament then would vote again on the issue, probably in September.

The compromise offers to end state subsidies for clergymen by 2029. The Czech government spends approximately $70 million on their salaries.

“The compromise allows all parties to win,” Kraus said. “For religious bodies it’s a moral victory, while the state can end funding clergymen. If the compromise is torpedoed, state funding for clergy could increase. The opposition is overlooking this.”

The number of priests in the Czech Republic grew from 3,500 a decade ago ago to 4,755 in 2009.

The current compensation of $3.7 billion is slightly lower than the sum offered in negotiations in 2008 between religious bodies and the government, according to Petr Papousek, vice chairman of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities.

“Ending state subsidies for religious leaders could mean financial uncertainty for the Jewish community, so there is also ambivalence regarding the compromise. Yet a different government could offer even less,” Papousek said.

At Chanukah, Czech Jews marvel at blessings of Havel’s revolution


On the first night of Chanukah, I stood in the splendid reception hall of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague as the ambassador himself lit the first candle in an imposing gilded menorah and chanted the blessings over the flames.

Since it was the first night of the holiday, these included the Shehecheyanu – the thankful blessing recited when reaching a special or long-awaited moment: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this occasion.”

How strangely fitting to recite this, I thought, at this very time and in this very place. Two days earlier Vaclav Havel had died, and many people were still in shock at the loss of the shy dissident playwright who had led the Velvet Revolution that ousted the communist regime in 1989 and gone on to become Czechoslovakia’s – and then the Czech Republic’s – first democratic president and enduring moral compass.

Masses of candles in Havel’s memory were glowing on Wenceslas Square, site of the huge demonstrations that had toppled the regime. And plans were going ahead for the somber state funeral.

Why at this sad moment of mourning did I feel that the Shehecheyanu was fitting?

It was because, in a way, I felt it was a blessing that honored Havel himself, for without him and the impact he had had, this Chanukah evening—and what it represented—could not have taken place.

Joined by his family and a few guests, Ambassador Norman Eisen lit the first candle ahead of his official holiday reception for hundreds of diplomats and political and cultural figures. Throughout the evening, the menorah blazed at one end of the hall, while a huge decorated Christmas tree glittered at the other.

“It’s my first Christmas tree ever,” Eisen, the son of an Auschwitz survivor from the former Czechoslovakia and an observant Jew who had had the residence kitchen koshered, joked to the crowd as waiters threaded through with trays of latkes.

Eisen opened his welcoming remarks by asking for a minute of silence in Havel’s honor. Then he told the story of the residence – a mansion that had been built by a wealthy Jewish family, the Petscheks, in the late 1920s. The family left in 1938, before World War II broke out. During the war it served as the residence of the head of the German army occupying Prague. Afterward, the mansion became Czechoslovak property until 1948, when the United States purchased it.

There were quite a few Jews at the reception, old friends of mine from the Prague Jewish community such as Leo Pavlat, the director of the Prague Jewish Museum, who delightedly told me how he and Eisen had seats next to each other in synagogue. I was there to make a formal presentation of a big website project I am coordinating on Jewish heritage in Europe.

I couldn’t help but think back.

The postwar communist regime had carried out a policy of persecution aimed at stifling Jewish life, and the state-appointed community leadership had followed the party line, routinely issuing statements critical of Israel. In May 1989, Pavlat had spearheaded a group of young Prague Jews who sharply criticized these regime-approved aparatchiks. He and his friends warned that Jewish life in Czechoslovakia was “in danger of extinction.”

The Velvet Revolution, with Havel as its reluctant hero, changed everything.

One of Havel’s first acts as president was to reinstate full religious freedom. And one of his first state trips abroad was to Israel – bringing with him an entourage of 180 Prague Jews. By the end of 1990, Pavlat was serving as a diplomat in the Czechoslovak embassy in Israel. He remained there until 1994, when he returned to Prague and took up the directorship of the Jewish Museum.

At the ambassador’s reception, I reminisced about those heady days, and about Havel’s impact, with Tomas Kraus, who has served as executive director of the Federation of Czech Jewish communities since 1991. Kraus had helped organize Havel’s first trip to Israel and had been part of the Jewish delegation that accompanied him.

“It was exciting,” Kraus recalled. “It was part of the ‘Velvet Europhoria.’ Everything that we had not dared to dream of was immediately possible. The Holy Land had been a philosophical term for us, an image of something that you would never be able to reach – only in a dream. And then, overnight, it was a reality.”

That trip to Israel, he said, was “a very symbolic way to show what Czech foreign policy would be. It was a very important sign of what his priorities would be.”

On the domestic front, too, Kraus recalled, Havel had been extremely important. Not just with his condemnation of anti-Semitism, but with the active role he played in addressing issues such as restitution of Jewish property and in awarding one of the highest state honors to Nicholas Winton, who organized the Czech kindertransport to rescue some 669 main Jewish children on the eve of World War II.

“Today we can look back into history over these past 22 years,” Kraus said. “Sometimes you don’t realize that you are living through history.”

He went on, “Havel’s passing will leave a very big gap. Since he left office, he was in a position without concrete power. But sometimes a moral authority is stronger than armies.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.

For Jews, Vaclav Havel wasn’t just a friend but a champion of freedom


Vaclav Havel was a friend of the Jews and of Israel, but prominent Jews who mourned his passing this week said the Czech leader’s greatest legacy was his universal message of freedom.

“Vaclav Havel was one of the few islands of intellectual freedom in the sea of totalitarian rule,” Natan Sharansky told JTA, speaking of the late 1960s and the 1970s, when both he and Havel were struggling against communist rule—Havel in the former Czechoslovakia and Sharansky in the former Soviet Union.

Havel, a dissident playwright and human rights champion, helped lead Prague’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and was a hero in the Cold War struggle for democracy in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. In 1977 he was a co-author of the human rights manifesto Charter 77, which became the catalyst for the Czech dissident cause.

Just weeks after the collapse of communism, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia, on Dec. 29, 1989.

After the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated into two countries in 1993, he was elected president of the Czech Republic and served until 2003.

Sharansky learned of—and said he was not surprised by—Havel’s Jewish connections later in life. But in 1977, when Sharansky was sent to Siberia, what gave him succor was the universalist message of Charter 77.

“He played an important role in keeping the spark alive,” said Sharansky, who is now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “He launched a counter attack which liberated people intellectually, and then physically.”

Havel demonstrated his commitment to Jewish causes by making one of his first foreign trips after becoming Czechoslovak president a three-day visit to Israel in April 1990. He was accompanied by 180 Czech Jews. In 2010 he was one of the founding members of the Friends of Israel group of international political figures.

Havel’s last public appearance was on Dec. 10, when he met with the Dalai Lama and signed an appeal in support of dissidents around the world. He died Sunday at 75, apparently from respiratory ailments.

Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memorialist and Nobel peace laureate who met frequently with Havel after he became president of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, said Havel was proud of his nation’s Jewish heritage.

“He spoke a lot of Jewish philosophy and study,” Wiesel said Tuesday in a phone interview with JTA.

The European Jewish Congress called Havel a “great friend of the Jews” who “did much to confront anti-Semitism and teach the lessons of the dark chapter of the Holocaust during his two terms in office.”

The American Jewish Committee in a statement recalled how Havel in 1991 expressed of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism his “metaphysical feeling of shame of the human race, of mankind, of man. I feel that this is his crime, his disgrace.”

A statement from the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities said that Jews had respected Havel as a statesman and a world-renowned writer, and felt close to him “as a friend who had an understanding of human concerns and joys.”

Wiesel said he often wondered how a fellow writer dared enter the political sphere.

“I asked him once, why did he want to become president, you are already a great writer and a great playwright,” Wiesel recalled. “As president you have adversaries, as playwright no one was your enemy.”

Havel responded, according to Wiesel, that he was the only one capable of overseeing the peaceful split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“My nation had to split,” Wiesel recalled Havel as saying. “Only I could do that, to split a nation in peace.”

Sharansky said Havel’s courage as a dissident long outlasted Czechoslovakia’s emergence from communism. It was Havel’s reputation that led Sharansky to convene the 2007 Democracy and Security International Conference in Prague in 2007.

Havel, along with Sharansky and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, was a co-chairman of the conference, although Havel was mostly absent—his illness already had hobbled him. But his message pervaded the proceedings.

“His moral clarity, his courage, his charm, his sense of humor really influenced many people at the conference,” Sharansky said. “His experience was their experience whether they came from Egypt, from Iran, from Iraq, from Sudan.”

Havel and Aznar were co-founders of Friends of Israel, a grouping of European leaders who sought to counter the burgeoning anti-Israel rhetoric on the continent.

That’s where his appreciation for Jews and Israel and his deep commitment to human rights converged, said Josh Block, the group’s U.S. director.

“People who have the experience of fighting intolerance and repression understand how important it is to stand for those countries that stand for democracy and freedom,” Block said.

It was a stance that the pro-Israel community appreciated, said Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.

“At a time when many European leaders find the opportunity to upbraid Israel, he would stand his ground, seeing Israel as a strong democracy in the place of nations,” he said.

Ruth Ellen Gruber contributed to this report from Prague.

Czech Jews mourn Vaclav Havel, revolution leader and ex-Czech president


Along with their fellow countrymen, Czech Jews mourned the death of former President Vaclav Havel.

Havel, who as Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism, died Sunday at 75 after a long illness.

A statement from the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities said that Jews had respected Havel as a statesman and a world-renowned writer, and felt close to him “as a friend who had an understanding of human concerns and joys.”

“The Jewish community in the Czech Republic would like to thank him for everything he did for the citizens of this country,.” He will, the statement said, “be gratefully remembered for his crucial contribution to good relations between the Czech Republic and Israel.”

The dissident playwright and human rights champion helped lead Prague’s 1989 “Velvet Revolution” and was a hero in the Cold War struggle for democracy in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.

In 1977 he was a co-author of the human rights manifesto Charter 77, which became the catalyst for the Czech dissident cause. Just weeks after the collapse of communism, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia on Dec. 29, 1989.

After the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated into two countries in 1993, he was elected president of the Czech Republic and served until 2003.

Havel demonstrated his commitment to Jewish causes by making one of his first foreign trips after becoming Czechoslovak president a three-day visit to Israel in April 1990. On the trip he brought with him 180 Czech Jews. In 2010, he was one of the founding members of the Friends of Israel group of international political figures.

His last public appearance was on Dec. 10, when he met with the Dalai Lama and signed an appeal in support of dissidents around the world.

The European Jewish Congress called Havel a “great friend of the Jews” who “did much to confront anti-Semitism and teach the lessons of the dark chapter of the Holocaust during his two terms in office.”

“Having personally worked with him, I can attest to the tremendous moral qualities of President Havel,” said EJC President Moshe Kantor, who served with Havel on the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation. “He was a figure for a new and modern Europe to emulate. President Havel lived through communism and lead the Czech Republic to a new era, helping move his countrymen through a troubled past to a more open, free and tolerant future.

“President Havel was a true and steadfast friend of the Jewish people and will be missed by European Jewry.”

The Conference of European Rabbis in a letter to the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, described Havel as “the emblematic symbol of peaceful change from totalitarianism to democracy” in Eastern and Central Europe.

“The Jewish communities of Europe join with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community of the Czech Republic and its chief rabbi, Karel Sidon, in offering our deep condolences to all the Czech people on the passing of Václav Havel, an indefatigable fighter for freedom of all peoples,” the letter said.

Czech Holocaust memorial is vandalized


Vandals spray-painted graffiti on a Holocaust memorial in the Czech Republic.

The memorial in Ostrava, the republic’s third largest city, was vandalized over the weekend, Ostrava police told the Czech news agency CTK.

“The perpetrators sprayed the memorial with specific symbols,” a police spokeswoman said, without identifying the symbols.

CTK reported that police are looking to charge the as yet unknown perpetrators with hooliganism, vandalism and defamation of a nation, race and an ethnic or other group of persons. If convicted, they would face up to two years in prison.

Czech politician quits over gay, Jewish comments


From WashingtonPost.com:

Derogatory comments by the Czech Republic’s former prime minister about Jews, gays and the Catholic Church led Thursday to his resignation as chairman of his conservative political party.

Mirek Topolanek had been under strong pressure from within his Civic Democratic Party to step down following the comments to the editorial staff of the gay magazine Lui. He announced last week that he would not lead his party’s campaign in a May 28-29 election or run as a candidate.

Topolanek’s were made came during an informal conversation with editorial staff of the magazine and were not meant for publication. A video of the meeting was leaked to other media, however.

Read the full article at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/01/AR2010040102047.html

Czech ODS Party Seeks Revival After Chairman’s Comments on Jews


From BusinessWeek.com:

The Czech Civic Democrat party, which has ruled since 2006, named Deputy Chairman Petr Necas, 45, as number one on its election list yesterday, replacing Chairman and former Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.

Topolanek had been criticized for remarks he made about Jews, Christians and homosexuals. The party’s executive council also called on Topolanek to resign as chairman two months before parliamentary elections.

Read the full story at:  http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-03-26/czech-ods-party-seeks-revival-after-chairman-s-comments-on-jews.html

Czech Republic: Doctors’ Group Apologizes to Jews


From nytimes.com:

A Czech doctors’ organization apologized to Jewish doctors Thursday for the persecution they endured in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia, an official of the organization said. In October 1938, before the Nazis invaded, organizations of Czechoslovak doctors, lawyers and others issued a memorandum urging the government “to take energetic measures” to prevent Jews from practicing. “We apologize for what our predecessors did to you,” stated a document by the Czech Medical Chamber in Prague. Many Jewish doctors lost their jobs when the government banned them from working in state institutions. The Czech bar association issued a similar apology a year ago.

Read the full story at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/world/europe/19briefs-Czech.html

Israel flag flies, a Czech surprise, voter fraud, bridge to understanding


Consul General Dayan

I have been around long enough now to see many Israeli consuls general come and go (“Death to Fanatistan,” Oct. 3).

Some made a big difference; some had almost no discernible impact. But on a warm September day on Wilshire Boulevard, Consul General Yaakov Dayan, with one giant moving gesture, assured his place among the very best.

The blue and white now waves proudly on prestigious Wilshire, along with the Stars and Stripes. And we are all the more enriched for it. Kol hakavod!

Ron Solomon
Executive Director
The West Coast Friends of Bar-Ilan University in Israel

Democrat Ad

My response to David Rintels’ full-page ad (Sept. 19) telling how proud he is to be an FDR Democrat because “FDR defeated monstrous enemies in World War II without stooping to abuse” is: Is he kidding?

FDR had every American of Japanese descent forcibly removed from their homes, rounded up and put into camps where they were kept until the end of the war.

These were not Japanese who were suspected of espionage or even pro-Japan politics. To the contrary, every man, woman and child of Japanese descent lost his or her home, business and, most importantly, their freedom solely because of place of origin — place of origin of ancestors that is.

People of Japanese descent who were born here were rounded up and put in camps, just the same as people who themselves came from Japan. Maybe Rintels should speak with someone who was in Manzanar, which was open for three and a half years, or to someone kept at one of the other 10 camps where Japanese were forced to live.

Their memories of lining up for meals, or to use the latrines, or laundry, or to have no place to return to after three years in a camp might cause them to have a different reaction to FDR.

Dee Dee Quinn
via e-mail

How I Returned

What a wonderful tribute Rob Eshman wrote to his wife and marriage, a beautiful love letter that you invited your readers to share (“How I Returned,” Sept. 12).

Thank you. L’Shana tova umetuka.

Saundra Gass
via e-mail

Clash in Jordan Valley

Clash of ‘Right and Right’ Festers in Jordan Valley” by Daniel Heimpel (Sept. 26) focused mostly on Palestinian complaints, while ignoring the main reason for the Israeli army’s presence in this area of great strategic importance for Israel.

Jordan’s Palestinian majority may one day overthrow the monarchy and scrap the peace treaty with Israel. Then an anti-Israel axis would run from the Jordan Valley through Iraq to Iran. The valley must remain under Israeli control to block any ground attack from the east.

Heimpel made Israeli settlers the problem, while omitting mention of Palestinian terror attacks in the valley, by focusing on Palestinian resentment of the new, small settlement of the Maskiyot — six of whose eight families are Israeli evacuees from Gaza.

The story was illustrated by one photo of Maskiyot and four of Palestinians or their homes. Palestinian resentment is inevitable, given that most Palestinians reject Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

The Palestinian Authority demands that any final peace must allow 4.5 million Palestinians to move to Israel, thus turning Israel into an Arab state. Peace must be based on a Jewish majority in a secure Israel with defensible borders, including the Jordan River.

Bob Kirk
via e-mail

Czech Republic

Kudos to the authors of the articles “Czech Republic Surprises With Jewish Treasures” and “Propaganda Film Disguised Horrors of Terezin” (Oct. 3).

One of my ancestors was involved in the giant synagogue project around 1892.

However, the Catholic church protested against the gothic style planned originally, and the building would exceed the Catholic cathedral in height…. The plans had to be redrawn.

I was imprisoned for almost three years in Terezin and remember the filming. Before the movie was made, a monthlong “beautification” was organized, with 7,500 seniors deported to the East. A bank was shown where useless ghetto currency was used.

Shops were opened where prisoners could “buy” merchandise they had to return afterward. A true documentary type story was filmed in 2002 in the United States, showing fragments of the propaganda movie.

A famous star named Kurt Gerron is the tragic victim of the hoax. You can get the DVD called, “Prisoner of Paradise.”

Fred Klein
Los Angeles

Debates Won’t Matter

Marty Kaplan’s fear of an unfair election at the hands of the GOP ignores the overwhelming evidence that the Democratic Party has also benefited from voter fraud (“The Debates Won’t Matter,” Oct. 3).

Since John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960, thanks in large part to the fraud of the Chicago political machine and the Teamsters Union, the Democratic Party has systematically engaged in watering down the voter pool. The Democrats and their surrogates have opposed ID checks for elections at every opportunity.

The readers of The Jewish Journal deserve fairness and should start soliciting viewpoints from both sides of the political spectrum before all journalistic integrity is lost.

Gillee Sherman
via e-mail

The Pope’s Outreach

Well done article (“Pope John Paul II’s Lifetime Outreach to Jews,” Sept. 19) –very moving and I enjoyed it. Pope John Paul II did a lot to bridge the gap with many faiths. He set an example of compassion, understanding, learning, forgiving and peace. Very good qualities to have. The program at the Skirball Center is an excellent idea.

Elizabeth Kruger
Los Angeles

Books: Czech teen’s words and art put a face on the Holocaust for me


I attended grades one through eight at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles during a time of great unrest in our country — the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., police brutality against war protesters during the Chicano Moratorium. Yet one of my strongest memories is reading excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary.

I remember being moved by the words of that remarkable little Jewish girl with large eyes who hid from the Nazis for two years. I also remember the horror of learning that the Nazis eventually found Anne and her family and that she died in a typhus epidemic that ran through the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s diary spoke to this Los Angeles classroom across the decades, across an ocean, across cultures, across religions.

And that little Chicano boy never could have imagined that someday he would grow up and fall in love with a Jewish woman, marry in a temple, convert to Judaism and send his son to a Jewish day school for eight years.

But what did Anne Frank’s story offer me and my classmates at that time? The nuns who set the curriculum knew. While it is pretty near impossible to comprehend the annihilation of millions, Anne Frank offered us a face, one child to whom we could relate. And of course, the questions came. Who would want to kill this little girl? Will it happen again? Could it happen to us?
Atlantic Monthly Press now brings us the English translation of “The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942,” which, as with Anne Frank’s diary, puts a face on the Holocaust through the words and artwork of a precocious teenager. Simply put, this book should be read by everyone.

Ginz was a Czech Jew, born in 1928, who died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz at the age of 16. His diary had been lost for 60 years but resurfaced in 2003. Ginz’s younger sister, Chava Pressburger, edited her brother’s diary entries, which were translated from the Czech by Elena Lappin. They cover the 11 months before his deportation from Prague to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Also included are poems, an excerpt from one of Ginz’s unfinished novels, articles from Vedem (a weekly magazine Petr started in Theresienstadt), as well as linocuts, sketches and watercolor paintings. There is little doubt that if Ginz had survived, he would have developed into an accomplished writer and artist.

Ginz’s entries recount the daily routine of a teenager attending school and spending time with friends and family. But interspersed among the quotidian details are observations that illustrate the tightening Nazi noose: “In the morning I did my homework. Otherwise nothing special. Actually, a lot is happening, but it is not even visible. What is quite ordinary now would certainly cause upset in a normal time. For example, Jews don’t have fruit, geese, and any poultry, cheese, onions, garlic, and many other things. Tobacco ration cards are forbidden to prisoners, madmen, and Jews.”

And there are poems with lines such as these: “Today it’s clear to everyone / who is a Jew and who’s an Aryan, / because you’ll know Jews near and far / by their black and yellow star.”

Yet, despite all this, Ginz loved to play pranks and possessed a wicked sense of humor, as shown by this observation written on April 20, 1942: “Every building has to hang out a swastika flag, except for the Jews, of course, who are not allowed this pleasure.”

Aside from his writings, Ginz’s artwork is noteworthy for its detail and sophistication. There is an eerie 1943 watercolor titled, “Ghetto Dwellings,” that captures a foreboding atmosphere difficult to replicate in words.

Ginz had a particular love for the linocut, which requires great control over the tools needed to carve images into small pieces of linoleum, a process similar to making woodcuts. In one of his Vedem articles, Ginz describes this art form: “As the entire linocut technique shows, a linocut is the expression of a person who does not make compromises. It is either black or white. There is no grey transition.”

In another Vedem piece, Ginz explains that even in the squalor and deprivation of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, creativity can thrive: “The seed of a creative idea does not die in mud and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in the darkness.” Ginz proved this to be true as he founded a magazine and continued to write and create artwork while in the camp.

Also included in this book are photographs of Ginz and his family. There is one from February 1933 of Petr and Chava holding hands, walking toward the camera, both dressed in thick coats, knitted caps and scarves to protect them from the Prague winter. The 5-year-old Petr has a determined look in his eyes, lips tight with purpose, as he leads his younger sister along the city street. His face is the face of all children whose lives were cut short by the Nazis. And it is a face that implores us to remember two essential words: Never again.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books of fiction including, “Devil Talk: Stories” (Bilingual Press). His book reviews have appeared in the El Paso Times, The Multicultural Review, La Bloga, The Elegant Variation and elsewhere. He makes his home in the San Fernando Valley. His Web site is

Congress OKs bill barring military chaplains from mentioning Jesus in official prayers


Congress OKs bill barring military chaplains from mentioning Jesus in official prayers
 
The U.S. Congress rescinded language in Pentagon orders that allowed military chaplains to mention Jesus in official prayers. Controversy over including similar language in the Defense Authorization Act, a critical spending bill, dogged attempts to pull the bill out of a Senate-House conference committee before Congress recessed for midterm elections.
 
The conferees ultimately decided to strike the language and order the Pentagon to rescind its earlier instructions. Mikey Weinstein, a former U.S. Air Force officer who led the battle to remove the language, applauded the decision.”We welcome the opportunity Congress has afforded to discuss the appropriate role of religion and chaplains in the military,” Weinstein, who is Jewish, said last week in a statement issued by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which he founded. “The passage of this bill will be a victory for those of us who have been fighting so assiduously to protect both the rights of the men and women in our armed forces and the United States Constitution.”
 

Austrian extremists gain in elections
 
Two far-right parties with a history of anti-Jewish rhetoric made gains in Austrian elections. National elections held over the weekend saw a 50 percent rise since 2002 elections in the percentage of votes for the Freedom Party and the Alliance for Austria’s Future. Members of both parties have expressed antipathy toward Israel and are known for their campaigns against Muslims living in Austria.
 
The left-leaning Social Democrats won the election with nearly 36 percent of the vote, followed by the center-right People’s Party with 34 percent. The Freedom Party came in third with 11 percent, and the Alliance for Austria’s Future, run by right-wing extremist Jorg Haider, received 4 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats and People’s Party are expected to form a governing coalition.
 
Federal legislation Includes grant for Federation model elderly care program
 
A Jewish federation model to facilitate care for the elderly in their home communities will be included in federal grant legislation. The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for North American federations, launched the “Aging in Place” initiative in 2002, helping 40 communities in 25 states obtain federal dollars for naturally occurring retirement communities.The model was featured in a U.S. Senate hearing this year to consider re-authorization of the Older Americans Act. As a result, a federal grant program for the retirement communities is included in language agreed to by House-Senate conferees.
 
Swiss stage pro-Israel rally
 
Approximately 3,000 demonstrators held a pro-Israel rally in the Swiss capital. Saturday’s rally in Bern called for the Swiss government to support Israel’s right to exist and show solidarity with the Jewish state’s fight against terrorism. Twenty organizations signed a resolution urging the government to refuse negotiations with terrorist groups that reject the existence of the Israeli state.
 

British House of Lords member faces probe by party over Israel lobby remarks
 
A member of Britain’s House of Lords will be investigated by her party for comments about the “pro-Israel lobby.” Liberal Democrat Party members have announced that Baroness Jenny Tonge’s position in the party will be reviewed in response to her public remarks.
 
In a speech that recently aired on BBC Radio, Tonge said, “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its [financial] grips on the Western world. I think they’ve probably got a certain grip on our party.”
 
More than 20 of her peers in the House of Lords wrote a letter to the Times condemning Tonge’s comments, stating, “Baroness Tonge evoked a classic anti-Jewish conspiracy theory,” and that her language “as a member of the House of Lords, was irresponsible and inappropriate.”
 
In early 2004, she was fired from her position as Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on international development for saying she could understand why a Palestinian would become a suicide bomber and also that she would consider becoming one were she a Palestinian.
 
Remains of Czech Jewish graveyard found
 
Evidence of a medieval Jewish cemetery was discovered in the Czech Republic.Researchers from a preservationist organization in the city of Pilsen say they found documents in the city archive revealing details of what they believe was one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Czech lands in the 14th century.
 
The cemetery’s existence was already known, said archaeologist Radek Siroky of the West Bohemian Institute for Heritage Conservation and Documentation, but the new documents reveal more specifics about its location.
 
He said that only excavations, approved by religious authorities, could provide more details about the cemetery’s size and the nature of the Jewish community there.
 
Briefs courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Community Briefs


Czech President Speaks at Yom HaShoah Service

Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus spoke to about 700 Jewish schoolchildren, diplomats and Holocaust survivors at a Yom HaShoah service at the Museum of Tolerance April 25, at which Gilberto Bosques, a Mexican diplomat who saved thousands of French Jews, was honored.

“We must never forget how it started, who did it,” Klaus said during a California visit, in which he also met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The same fate was being prepared for all the Czechs.”

Bosques’ grandson, Tijuana businessman Gilberto Bosques Tistler, accepted the honor on his late grandfather’s behalf. A museum offical told the story of the Mexican consul serving in Vichy France. The diplomat saved about 40,000 Jews, artists and other refugees by issuing travel visas. The visas allowed thousands of Jews to escape to Mexico.

“I hope someone in Israel will say Kaddish for Gilberto Bosques,” said Ruben Beltran, Mexico’s consul general in Los Angeles. Beltran is a descendant of Spanish “converso” Jews, who were forced to become Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition.

The speech by the Czech president, as well as those by Mexican, Israeli and Austrian diplomats, supported the memorial service’s tribute to survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who recently died in Vienna.

“For many young Austrians, this fragile, stubborn, modest old man has become a hero,” Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss said. “You don’t need many heroes in your life; you just need to choose them carefully.”

YULA High School junior Ariela Gindi, 16, and others noted that they had never heard Bosques’ story before. “You always hear about Schindler, who saved all the Jews, but you never hear of a Mexican consul personally saving Jews,” Gindi said.

After rescuing Nazi victims in World War II, Bosques served as Mexico’s ambassador to Cuba from 1953 to 1964. During that time, he witnessed the Cuban revolution in which strongman Fulgencio Batista was overthrown and communist dictator Fidel Castro rose to power.

Bosques Tistler said his grandfather first protected hunted communist insurgents fighting Batista’s rule, and then, after the 1959 revolution, he hid Batista’s allies fleeing Castro’s regime.

“He arrived into Cuba before the Castro revolution,” Bosques Tistler told The Journal. “Before the revolution, he helped Castro’s people, and he gave asylum at the embassy. Then came the revolution, and he gave asylum to the Batista people.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Iranian Community Honors Memory of Shoah Victims

Nearly 1,000 Iranians of various faiths gathered Sunday, April 23, at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills to honor the memory of the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

The event, broadcast via satellite to Iran by Persian-language television stations in Southern California, was considered especially important this year in the wake of recent comments by Iran’s president denying the existence of the Holocaust. Keynote speakers included Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Dr. Abbas Milani, professor of Iranian studies at Stanford University.

“Many in the world don’t understand why Jews are so obsessed with commemorating the Shoah,” Hier said. “We must remember because we paid a dear price for allowing the world to be silent when it was going on more than 60 years ago.”

Audience members became emotional several times during the event when special prayers were chanted for those killed in the Shoah and when anti-Semitic programming from Iran’s state-sponsored television stations was shown.

Other officials in attendance at the Nessah gathering were Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch, Beverly Hills City Councilman Jimmy Delshad and Michelle Kleinert, deputy director of community affairs for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Holocaust Survivors Take Part in Hospital Memorial Event

Toni Green, 82, and her sister, Selma Konitz, 80, both of West Los Angeles and formerly of Auschwitz, Poland, were the only ones of eight siblings to survive the Holocaust. They were sent to separate concentration camps and found each other the day after liberation.

To commemorate Yom HaShoah and remember the 6 million who died, the sisters joined other local survivors in a recent candlelighting ceremony at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Program chair Dr. Joel Geiderman, the hospital’s co-chairman of emergency medicine, as well as vice chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, told the audience that quite a few survivors come to Cedars, and he urged the residents in attendance, who were from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds, to listen to their stories while there’s still an opportunity.

Keynote speaker for the 22nd annual gathering, Dr. Susan Bachrach, curator for the U.S. Holocaust Museum, spoke on “Nazi Medicine and Eugenics.” Her talk mirrored the Holocaust Museum’s current exhibition — the most successful in its history — “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.”

Through a slide show and video testimonials, Bachrach traced the path of Nazi medicine, stemming from Sir Francis Galton’s philosophy of eugenics, which he defined as the improvement of human hereditary traits through intervention. She noted it was practiced by well-known, respected doctors and moved from forced sterilization and unethical experiments to mass murder to genocide.

“It is inconceivable how that became accepted behavior,” she told the audience, discussing the campaign to cleanse German society of those deemed “biological threats,” to the Nordic (“ideal”) race.

Bachrach concluded that “no straight path led from eugenics to Nazi medicine to the Holocaust. It was a twisted route, with many steps along the way. The cumulative, step-by-step choices of thousands and tens of thousands of persons, added up to genocide.” — Melissa Maroff, Contributing Writer

Youths Stage Rally Against Genocide in Darfur

Young people in Los Angeles are actively engaged in the fight to save Darfur, as witnessed by a recent Sunday afternoon gathering at the Federal Building in Westwood. The rally, organized by Teens Against Genocide (TAG), attracted about 300 supporters, including some bearing signs urging, “Honk if you’re opposed to genocide.”

“It was cool to see it all come together,” said TAG founder Shira Shane, a New Community Jewish High School senior, who started the group earlier this year. “This was a communitywide effort, not just the Jewish community.”

Shane said the event was a collaboration of students from high schools throughout the Los Angeles area. TAG membership “exploded exponentially,” according to Shane, who said more students signed up at the rally.

“This is a spectacular group of kids and the most successful aspect of our organization,” noted Janice Kamenir-Reznik, executive director and co-founder of Jewish World Watch (JWW), who mentored TAG and co-sponsored the rally.

Participants included area rabbis and ministers, representatives from the offices of Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Dr. Bruce Powell, New Community Jewish High School headmaster.

“Even though it’s a cold day, it can’t penetrate our warm hearts,” the Rev. Cecil Murray told the crowd. “These young people are giving up their time and talents, and with so many pulls, are prioritizing something as huge as genocide.”

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) stopped by to say “thanks” when she noticed tents set up by the organization, Camp Darfur. “It was a pleasant surprise to find teens against genocide,” said Waters, who told the rally that she had recently been to Sudan, and it was more horrible than they could imagine.

“They’re not just talking tikkun olam (heal the world); they’re seeing it, and they’re teaching their parents,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Jewish World Watch co-founder. “These kids crave idealism, which reminds me of the spirit of the ’60s. There’s a difference in learning history and making history. They’re making history.” — MM

A Tale of Two Torahs


About this time two years ago, congregants of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel lined their synagogue’s sanctuary, making a human chain as Rabbi Eli Spitz unrolled a 150-year-old Czech Torah that survived the Holocaust. In places, its letters were faded and illegible making it un-kosher, ritually unfit for use.

Even so, as Spitz walked from one end of the unfurled parchment to the other, he occasionally stopped. He pointed to the opening sentence in each of the Five Books of Moses, despite the absence of page numbers or chapter headings.

“To me, it was an education,” said Leslie Kaufman, 43, whose brother and law partner, Jeffrey, 36, also attended the service. More than that, the experience moved the brothers, who manage a private family foundation and prefer to direct its charity towards lasting projects.

“All the buildings this Torah had ever been read in were destroyed,” said Jeffrey, who lives in Aliso Viejo. “Our first inclination was to repair the Czech Torah,” added Leslie, of Irvine. They were disappointed, though, when they learned that the scroll’s historical authenticity would be compromised by the extensive restoration needed. “We would be replacing so much, it would be new anyway,” Leslie said.

After consulting with Spitz about the synagogue’s needs, the brothers instead settled on underwriting a small-sized, “more user-friendly” one that could be more easily carried during the b’nai mitzvah of the typical 13-year-old.

The Conservative synagogue and Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley’s Reform temple, are starting the new year with new Torahs. B’nai Israel intends to put the scroll to official use on Simchat Torah, the fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Five Books. At some synagogues, when the concluding section of Deuteronomy is read, the entire scroll is unfurled across the sanctuary before being rerolled to the opening section of Genesis.

Specially commissioning a sofer (scribe) to write a new scroll is a $40,000 financial commitment. It’s a luxury afforded by few shuls beset by long wish lists even though it fulfills the 613th Commandment, the Torah’s final mitzvah to “write for yourself this song.”

Longevity, a powerful motivator to the Kaufman brothers, also plays a role at B’nai Tzedek. The synagogue, which for seven years held its first services in the living room of its founding rabbi, commissioned a scroll to honor the congregation’s 25th year. Within its blond wood ark are two gift scrolls, one from a defunct shul, another from a former congregant.

Throughout the last year, rabbis of both synagogues have invited their respective scribes to visit and describe their progress, hoping the experience would sharpen interest in Torah and help raise money for temple coffers. Both efforts have succeeded in some measure, though neither synagogue has achieved 100 percent participation.

“At root is wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves,” said Rabbi Stephen Einstein of B’nai Tzedek, whose members individually are sponsoring its Torah. Einstein’s own contribution will be paid over several years.

“It’s a great honor for our temple,” said Sarah Sroka, 40, whose parents were founding B’nai Tzedek members. She wanted to contribute $1,800 toward the project, including purchasing the b’nai mitzvah portions that her son and daughter will read in the near future.

Ted Bach, another B’nai Tzedek member, is making a different contribution. A musician and artist, he created an nontraditional mantle for the new Torah. Using the 25-foot-tall stained-glass window in the synagogue sanctuary as his model, Bach created as the scrolls’ cover a smaller-scale version of the window’s seven Judaic symbols and cobalt blue panels.

“How cool!” said Sroka upon learning of the mantle’s design. “I like that.”

Master sofer Rabbi Shmuel Miller will inscribe the final letter Oct. 6 in a festive dedication service at B’nai Tzedek. This scroll, his 17th, is written in Hebrew in a crisp style associated with Sephardic Jews. Slightly different calligraphy styles are used by Ashkenazic and Chasidic Jews.

Sofers must adhere to nearly 4,000 laws that govern the most minute detail of their ancient craft, from how the Torah is written to the materials used in its construction. Miller once prepared his own inks. “My wife was not happy about the result in the kitchen,” he said.

Most Torah scrolls are written in 245 columns of 42 lines each. They are unsigned and without page numbers. Not a single word must be written from memory or a single letter written incorrectly. Mistakes can be erased unless the error involves the name of God. Then, the entire page must be redone and the page with the error buried. A scribe’s work is double-checked by proofreaders and computers.

B’nai Israel, which celebrated its new Torah under a wedding canopy last month, commissioned its small-sized scroll through New York-based Torah brokers Moshe and Jacob Klein, who rely on scribes in Israel. One impetus for a new one is the clarity of fresh writing, Spitz said. Lack of vowels and punctuation alone make reading Torah a challenge.

“It’s a consideration; 140 different people read Torah last year,” he said of his congregation. “The words are sacred; they have to be read correctly. Whenever the Torah is read, we are to see ourselves at Sinai. It’s read as if it’s given anew. Hence, the present tense.”

A benefit of buying a new Torah from the Kleins is that a book-bound duplicate accompanies it. Sections can be photocopied for a beginning Torah reader who wants to rehearse. “They can see exactly what they’ll be reading from,” Spitz said.

Test of Fear


Millions of civilians faced the ultimate test of character when Nazi armies occupied their countries and started deporting their Jewish neighbors.

Most reacted like normal human beings; that is, they looked the other way, when they did not actively collaborate with the conqueror. A few risked their own and their families’ lives by sheltering Jews. And some gave in to terrible fears and pressures at one point and acted with supreme moral courage at another.

It is the third group that director Jan Hrebejk examines with perception and sympathy in the Czech film “Divided We Fall,” which opens today. Based on a true story, “Divided” was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film.

The film takes place in a small Czech town during the war years of 1943-45, with central characters Josef Cizek and his wife, Marie (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova). They are trying to get along as best they can while facing war, occupation and the private sorrow of Josef’s sterility, which prevents them from having children.

One night, Josef has a chance meeting with David Wiener (Csonger Kassai), the young Jewish son of his former employer, who has bribed an SS guard to escape from a concentration camp. Josef’s first instinct is to get away from David, but he then shelters him for one night, and finally creates a permanent hiding place in his home.

David’s presence tests the true mettle of the rescuer, which lies not so much in the initial decision to hide a Jew but in the hour-by-hour, day-by-day fear of detection by snoopy neighbors, Gestapo agents, unexpected guests and even stray dogs.

Except for the consistently resolute Marie, all the other characters are conflicted. There is Horst, the Nazis’ chief Czech lackey with a Hitlerian mustache, who saves Josef’s and Marie’s lives when the chips are down. Another resident, in a moment of sheer terror, tries to turn David in but later becomes a resistance leader.

“Divided We Fall” is not primarily a war film or a Holocaust film but a masterful study in the complexity of the human mind and spirit.

“Divided We Fall ” opens June 8 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Laemmle Town Center in Encino.

Remembrance Through Art


The Holocaust, impossible to grasp in its entirety, has been depicted, in part, through every conceivable format and medium. Two joint exhibitions, now at The Jewish Federation’s Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, surprise with new and affecting insights into the measureless catastrophe.

“The Holocaust Through Czech Children’s Eyes” is a collection of 26 drawings and paintings by 11- to 17-year-old non-Jewish Czech children, created after a visit to the Ghetto Museum at the former “model” concentration camp at Theresienstadt.

The paintings are remarkable, both for their sensitivity and craftsmanship. They range from a defiant “We Are Alive” by 11-year-old Veronika Machova, showing three girls at play, to an almost surrealistic “What the Future Holds for Us” by 17-year-old Jaromir Slaby.

What is even more impressive is that all the paintings were completed in a single day during the Ghetto Museum visit, after the children had learned about the Holocaust in their schools.

The story behind the annual Czech visual arts competition, which last year drew 2,000 entries, illustrates what can be done by one determined woman.

She is Hana Greenfield, a native of the Czech city of Kolin, who was deported to Theresienstadt as a 16-year-old girl. She survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and came to Israel, where she met and married Murray Greenfield, one of the American volunteers who ferried “illegal” immigrants to Palestine after World War II.

In the early 1990s, struck by the fact that after 40 years of Communism hardly a single Czech child knew anything about the Holocaust and a once-thriving Jewish community, she organized and largely funded an essay competition on the Shoah for Czech students.

The competition drew an unexpectedly heavy response, and the following year she persuaded the Czech education ministry to allow her to organize the painting competition.

Greenfield’s book “Fragment of Memory” (Gefen Publishing House) has recently been translated into English and four other languages.

The second exhibit at the museum, “Recollection: Lost Synagogues of Poland and Russia,” recreates another fragment of the Diaspora at another time.

Susan Cooper, a Los Angeles-born artist now living in Denver, has resurrected the memory of the 16th- to 19th-century wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe through a wall sculpture representing 74 synagogues destroyed during World War II.

Integrating architecture, sculpture and painting, the relief frieze measures seven feet high and 100 feet long. Between the buildings, Cooper has “planted” trees as a metaphor for the tenacity and complexity of humanity and life.

“Each building represents a synagogue, each synagogue symbolizes a community, the spiritual centers of Eastern Europe,” Cooper writes in a catalog of her work.

The two exhibits will continue through Jan. 18 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6006 Wilshire Blvd. Museum hours are Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tuesday evenings until 8 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday, 12 noon-4 p.m. There is no admission charge, but reservations are required. Phone (323) 761-8170.

A Miracle Reawakened


The fading Hebrew inscriptions that adorn the walls of a small storeroom in the town of Terezin can be seen in virtually any synagogue around the globe.But thousands of Jews have been flocking to the recently discovered room because of its unique role in history – as a makeshift synagogue during the former Czech ghetto’s darkest days.

What makes the place of worship even more special is that it is the only remaining example of its kind at the wartime transit camp, also known by its German name of Theresienstadt, in which more than 30,000 Jews died.

The historical significance of the 20-square-yard prayer room is evident to those who have entered it via a courtyard tucked behind an ordinary terraced house in the center of the town.”It is unbelievably valuable,” said the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon. “It shows the ghetto from a different side than usual. When I saw the room for the first time it was extremely moving, because it shows that people were able to believe there, even in the ghetto during the war.”

The walls of the room, which stands near the original railway track used to transport Jews to Auschwitz, feature a selection of Hebrew liturgical inscriptions, along with drawings of Jewish symbols.On the front wall is a verse from the Amidah, the core of Jewish daily prayer services: “May our eyes be able to envision your return to Zion in mercy.”

The words were almost certainly written by a German Jewish ceramic worker, one of a number of craftsmen living in the neighborhood during the ghetto’s existence between 1941 and 1945. Local experts believe the craftsmen, who were permitted to live in relative comfort because the Nazis needed their skills, used the storeroom as a temporary synagogue.

According to Vojtech Blodig, the Terezin Ghetto Museum’s deputy director of education, the Nazis may well have been aware of the synagogue.

“The Germans’ philosophy was very simple,” Blodig said. “Let the Jews pray, let them play theater and perform concerts in the ghetto, because they will all die later.”Although several similar places of prayer were scattered across the town during the war, this is the only example that survives.

“This room was preserved because for years it was in a terrible mess. It was used as a storage area for boxes and hay,” Blodig said.”Other rooms in attics or garages were used as synagogues, but they were destroyed, and no remnants of original inscriptions and drawings on the walls survived.”The existence of the synagogue came to light only after the fall of communism in 1989, when the granddaughter of the property’s original owner finally revealed its story.

“I knew about the synagogue the whole time,” said local teacher Hana Cerna, 63.”But because during communism the Jewish religion was taboo, and no one talked about the ghetto, I didn’t tell anyone. The news only broke after the Velvet Revolution,” as Czechoslovakia’s break from communism is known, “when I told my schoolchildren that I had a synagogue at my home.”

The condition of the prayer room had deteriorated badly by the time the Ghetto Museum learned of its existence. After almost half a century of neglect, inscriptions on the lower half of the walls had faded beyond repair.

The museum reached a deal with Cerna under which they would repair the roof and restore the prayer room in return for regular access. They brought in Prague restorer Dominika Machacova to save what she could of the inscriptions and drawings.

“It was in a very bad state,” she said. “It was very humid. and rain was coming through the roof.”Machacova spent five months conserving the original paint layers, finishing her work in 1997.”Its historical value is greater than its artistic value. It is a wonderful discovery,” she said.The prayer room was kept in its original state as much as possible.

“I didn’t want the room to be repainted,” Sidon said. “It is real this way, and it would have lost the urgency of reality.”

That sense of reality has deeply moved many of the Jews from around the world who have already visited the site. Local guide Jan Netrval explained that some visitors burst into song or said prayers in the room, while others left letters, candles, flags and flowers.

“It is a great piece of history, and some people become very emotional,” he said. “Yesterday there were people whose parents died in Terezin. The ones who were here, or whose parents were here, feel very strongly.”

American rabbi Joshua Hammerstein, writing in New York’s The Jewish Week after a visit to the synagogue, described it as “an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.”

He continued, “We were in tears. Spontaneously we davened the afternoon service, although very few of us had prayer books. It didn’t matter. The prayers were calling out to us from those walls.”Those interested in visiting the site won’t find it easily without arranging an official tour, because the owner has no plans to advertise the synagogue openly.

“I know that some of today’s young people, I mean skinheads, do not like things like that. I wouldn’t put a board outside my house saying that I have a synagogue here.”

Forwarding a Hoax


Heard the one about the father who told his children he was leaving their mother in order to get them to come home for Passover? What about the man who taught his parrot to daven? Read any good Jewish haiku lately?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” there’s probably e-mail involved. Jewish jokes have been circulating on the Internet since e-mail became widely available, and most forwarded e-mail is amusing or harmless.

But there is a breed of not-so-harmless forwarded e-mail infiltrating the online Jewish community – petitions that ask the recipient to take action against some perceived injustice.One of the most widely circulated petitions concerns the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, which was allegedly under threat from developers who wanted to turn it into residential property.

That e-mail was full of errors and inaccuracies, but it did have an effect on the Czech government, according to a representative of the Czech Ministry of Culture.An official in the ministry’s Department of Monument Preservation said her office has been getting an average of 20 to 30 cemetery-related e-mails a day since January. Most of them were from Great Britain or the United States, she said, but responses have come from as far away as Venezuela, South Africa and Israel.

A Prague site, but not the Old Jewish Cemetery, had been the subject of controversy since 1998, when an insurance company excavating to build an underground parking lot at its headquarters uncovered the remains of what is probably the Czech Republic’s oldest Jewish cemetery.

The e-mail chain letter alleges that “pressure is being put on the Jewish Community of Prague by the Czech Government to allow [an] insurance company to build residential properties on the site currently occupied by the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.”

The e-mail claims that the cemetery in question is the one where Rabbi Judah Loew, the legendary creator of the Golem, is buried. It urges readers to e-mail the Czech Minister of Culture, “Mr. Pavel Dorstal,” to protest.

For starters, the culture minister’s name is “Dostal,” with no “R.”And the Ceska Pojistovna insurance company plans to build an underground parking garage, not residences. Perhaps most important, the graveyard that was discovered is not the famous Old Jewish Cemetery – that cemetery is in Josefov, the historic Jewish Quarter.

The graveyard on Vladislavova Street is an even older Jewish cemetery uncovered during excavation two years ago. Likely the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Czech lands, it had been abandoned and all but forgotten centuries ago, said Tomas Kraus, executive secretary of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities.

The Czech government, the insurance company and the local Jewish community have reached a compromise under which construction will continue above the cemetery without further disturbing the graves.

But the inaccuracies in the e-mail have not stopped hundreds of people from writing to Dostal – the chain letter does have the correct e-mail address for the Minister of Culture.New Yorker Helen Bird was one who took action.

“I am not a person who forwards this kind of thing usually,” she told JTA via e-mail. “I did this because I was profoundly touched by the cemetery when I was in Prague. I proceeded to write an impassioned letter of my own, which I forwarded along with the original letter to every Jew or concerned person on my e-mail list. I was therefore incredibly embarrassed to find out that what I had forwarded was misinformation.”And Bird is not alone. Eyal Dulin, who also lives in the United States, did the same. “I am ashamed to say that I reacted in a knee-jerk fashion when I received the mentioned e-mail. I did send an e-mail to the e-mail address provided in the text of the message and forwarded the e-mail on as well.

“It was only after hitting the send button that my common sense suddenly kicked in and I did what I should have done in the first place, question the authenticity of the message,” Dulin concluded.Residents of the Czech Republic were less likely to be fooled.

Graduate student Denisa Kera was amused by the chain letter at first, but then became angry.”The petition I got was organized by someone who does not have any idea of what is happening in Prague,” she said. “I was actually amused by the stupidity of someone who wants to save something that is not in danger. But now I acknowledge that it is a dangerous petition because many people believed it.”There’s no way to know how many people have received the e-mail, but if each person who got it forwarded it to only five people, by the fifth generation there would be 3,125 copies of the message. If those 3,125 people each forwarded it to five people, there would be 15,625 copies.

Some copies have included lists of more than 60 recipients, and Michal Pober, who lives near Prague, said he got the e-mail when it was sent to all the participants in last year’s conference of child survivors of the Holocaust. That conference had literally hundreds of people on its mailing list, so in all probability, hundreds of thousands of people have gotten the chain letter.

Nobody seems to know who is responsible for the original letter, but the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities would like to find out, said Kraus, its executive secretary.”As to the chain letter, I don’t know [where it came from] and that would be of an interest to us as well, as you can imagine,” he said. The Czech Jewish community has been frustrated by what it sees as outside interference in the cemetery issue, with rabbis from Great Britain organizing protests in London and Prague.

The e-mail cites as its source a letter written by Czech Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon to the London Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, of the committee, said his organization was behind the international campaign to find a solution to the cemetery controversy but denied sending the erroneous e-mail.”We don’t publish articles through e-mail,” he said, noting that he doesn’t even have a computer.The Czech Ministry of Culture has posted correct information about the cemetery on its Web site, and Ceska Pojistovna, the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress have all attempted to correct the errors in the e-mail.

But the original copy with its mistakes is still circulating.And it’s not the only online petition. Another one asks recipients to write to online bookseller Amazon.com to protest its “positive review” of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a notorious anti-Semitic forgery concocted more than a century ago.

Amazon was quick to respond, posting a “special note” on its site announcing that “a hoax e-mail has been circulating widely that falsely claims Amazon.com has favorably reviewed this book.”Amazon.com obviously does not endorse ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,’ ” the note continued, adding that it refuses to censor books as well.

Amazon.com has also allowed the Anti-Defamation League to post a comment about the book, explaining that it has been “a major weapon in the arsenals of anti-Semites around the world.”Amid several negative reviews of the book, a reader has posted a positive review of the book.Experts on e-mail chain letters have simple advice on what people should do when they receive electronic petitions.

Don’t Spread That Hoax!, a Web site devoted to fighting the phenomenon, advises, “Don’t send it unless you either know the message is true, you can authenticate [the sender’s identity], or you know the sender personally and know they would have written this message.

“If the message tells you to do something, check with someone knowledgeable that you can trust,” advises the site, at www.nonprofit.net/hoax/hoax/html.Andrew Barrett, of the Forum for Responsible and Ethical E-mail, at www.ybecker.net, said, “I distrust unsolicited information no matter which medium is used to propagate it. When it comes to e-mail, it’s particularly helpful to rem
ember that, since it is so inexpensive to send and can be sent with relative anonymity, the sender risks little or nothing at all by propagating their dubious message.”

Barrett recommends asking a reliable authority before taking any action on e-mail petitions. “Forward them a copy of the message and ask if they’ve seen it before and if they can provide any guidance,” he said.Don’t Spread That Hoax! also recommends keeping the date in mind when e-mail comes your way. “When April 1 comes up, the Net will be awash in phony messages, forged return addresses, pranks and general amusing nonsense. The best thing to do is read them and have a good laugh.”

Art as History’s Witness


Art as History’s Witness

Paintings from Terezin are on exhibit at the Jewish Federation Building

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Left: “Competitors for Potatoes” by Eli Leskley. “Many [paintings] … are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny.”

It was 1942 when 29-year-old Eli Leskley, a Czech-born Jew, was sent to Theresienstadt, a fortified ghetto 50 kilometers from Prague. As a visual artist, he was assigned to the sign workshop, where he had access to paper, paint, ink, pencils and other art supplies. With what must have been a combination of remarkable courage and an overpowering need to document what transpired there, Leskley secretly painted dozens of prison-life scenes, mostly with watercolors and ink on office-sized paper taken from the workshop.

In a world where possession of contraband cigarettes was a fatal offense, the risk of discovery for the artist was great. Leskley folded and hid his paintings — many of which were sharply satirical — in the nooks and crevices of the camp, sometimes first tearing off the incriminating text that accompanied them. Some, such as “The Three Kings of the Ghetto” and “Christian Jews are Arriving,” incorporated symbols and metaphor. Others, such as “Return After Disinfection” and “Trading Soup for Bread” were more journalistic in their approach to describing life in the “model” ghetto.

Nazi propagandists may have touted Terezin as a bucolic resort for cultural elites, even prettying it up with tablecloths, flowers and classical concerts for a Red Cross visit. Of course, Leskley and his fellow prisoners knew better. Immediately prior to and after that infamous visit — an elaborately staged sham depicted by the artist in several drawings — the SS shipped thousands of inmates to Auschwitz. Terezin was a closely guarded, disease-ridden place where death — whether from punishment, starvation or the dreaded transport east — was common.

As chance would have it, both Leskley and much of his work survived. After liberation, he and his wife, Elsa, recovered many of the hidden paintings, which they took with them when they emigrated from Europe to Israel.

Now, more than 50 years later, visitors to an exhibition at the Jewish Federation Building can get a look at these drawings, a bitter, detailed vision of camp life. Most of the pictures were done when Leskley was off duty and able to work unobserved in his third-floor bunk. Many of them are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny. The effect is powerful and immediate.

The exhibition is entitled “Terezin: Then and Now.” The “then” portion includes 70 of the works Leskley produced in Terezin, along with his later re-creations of the same. The latter are companion pieces — larger, more highly colored versions of the ghetto-produced originals, done by the artist during his first decade in Israel. The wall text that accompanies Leskley’s works provides an important context for them through its informative descriptions of the physical and sociological conditions that prevailed at Terezin.

A collection of miscellaneous camp artifacts is also on display. Included are postcards, permits for packages and, most heartbreaking, the “Nesharim flag,” a hand-embroidered pennant that was sewn to mark a soccer-tournament victory for the camp’s team of young boys.

The art in the “Now” portion of the show is the result of something altogether different. In 1993, 13 young painters who were members of a master class at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts spent five days at the former site of the Terezin camp. The art students — none of whom were Jewish — hailed from countries as far-flung as Germany and Singapore. Their trip was made under the auspices of Project Gedenkdienst, which translates as Commemorative Service. The 4-year-old program, run out of the offices of Austria’s Interior Ministry, allows young Austrians to substitute 14 months of work at Holocaust memorials for their obligatory eight months of military service. One such intern, Bernhard Schneider, created the Terezin art project, which centered around the class’s trip to the ghetto memorial.

Judging by the haunted quality in many of these paintings, all of the students seem to have been deeply affected by their visit. Their project is described at greater length in the exhibition catalog, which includes brief commentary from Simon Wiesenthal, Vaclav Havel and the group’s professor, Anton Lehmden.

As for Leskley, his art was forged in far different circumstances. As with any other “Holocaust art,” it is difficult, and perhaps pointless, to judge his work by the rules of art criticism. The strength and importance of this show are not necessarily in its sophistication or subtlety of technique but in its power as visual testimony. This is not only art for art’s sake but art for the sake of history. In this capacity, Leskley is a cleareyed and vivid witness.

“Terezin: Then and Now,” at the Jewish Federation Building, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. The exhibition is on display in the Pauline Hirsh Gallery, Museum Gallery, Boardroom and select corridors. For more information, call (213) 852-3242. The Federation will also host a performance of music and poetry from Terezin on June 29 at 4 p.m.

A modern impression of Terezin by Judith Exel (1993).

More About Terezin

Film Several short films about the Theresienstadt Ghetto have been made over the years, ranging from four-minute shorts to hour-long productions. They include a film of interviews conducted with survivors at an Israeli kibbutz and the infamous Nazi propaganda film “The Führer Grants the Jews a City.” The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles has gathered videotapes of all the Terezin-themed films known to date and is screening them for visitors in its Museum Gallery on Sundays, at 2 p.m., and Thursdays, at 3 p.m. Call (213) 852-3242 for a complete program and confirmed schedule.

Books Here is a short list of recommended books about Terezin. While some are widely available elsewhere, all of them may be found in the Federation’s Martyrs’ Memorial Library and Jewish Community Library, or may be purchased from the museum book store. Call the number above for a more extensive bibliography.

* Bor, Josef, “The Terezin Requiem.” New York, Borzoi Books, Knopf, 1963. Translated from the Czech.

* De Silva, Cara, ed., “In Memory’s Kitchen.” New Jersey, Jason Aronson, 1996. Translated by Bianca Steiner Brown, forward by Michael Berenbaum.

* Karas, Joza, “Music in Terezin, 1941-1945.” Paperback edition, Stuyvesant, N.Y., Pendragon Press, 1990.

* Schwertfeger, Ruth, “Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp.” Oxford, England, Berg, 1989.

* Volavkova, Hana, ed., “I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944.” New York, Shocken Books and U.S. National Holocaust Museum, 1993. Expanded second edition with a forward by Chaim Potok and afterword by Vaclav Havel.

D.A.Z.

Art as History’s Witness


Left: “Competitors for Potatoes” by Eli Leskley. “Many [paintings] … are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny.'”

Art as History’s Witness

Paintings from Terezin are on exhibit at the Jewish Federation Building

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

It was 1942 when 29-year-old Eli Leskley, a Czech-born Jew, was sent to Theresienstadt, a fortified ghetto 50 kilometers from Prague. As a visual artist, he was assigned to the sign workshop, where he had access to paper, paint, ink, pencils and other art supplies. With what must have been a combination of remarkable courage and an overpowering need to document what transpired there, Leskley secretly painted dozens of prison-life scenes, mostly with watercolors and ink on office-sized paper taken from the workshop.

In a world where possession of contraband cigarettes was a fatal offense, the risk of discovery for the artist was great. Leskley folded and hid his paintings — many of which were sharply satirical — in the nooks and crevices of the camp, sometimes first tearing off the incriminating text that accompanied them. Some, such as “The Three Kings of the Ghetto” and “Christian Jews are Arriving,” incorporated symbols and metaphor. Others, such as “Return After Disinfection” and “Trading Soup for Bread” were more journalistic in their approach to describing life in the “model” ghetto.

Nazi propagandists may have touted Terezin as a bucolic resort for cultural elites, even prettying it up with tablecloths, flowers and classical concerts for a Red Cross visit. Of course, Leskley and his fellow prisoners knew better. Immediately prior to and after that infamous visit — an elaborately staged sham depicted by the artist in several drawings — the SS shipped thousands of inmates to Auschwitz. Terezin was a closely guarded, disease-ridden place where death — whether from punishment, starvation or the dreaded transport east — was common.

As chance would have it, both Leskley and much of his work survived. After liberation, he and his wife, Elsa, recovered many of the hidden paintings, which they took with them when they emigrated from Europe to Israel.

Now, more than 50 years later, visitors to an exhibition at the Jewish Federation Building can get a look at these drawings, a bitter, detailed vision of camp life. Most of the pictures were done when Leskley was off duty and able to work unobserved in his third-floor bunk. Many of them are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny. The effect is powerful and immediate.

The exhibition is entitled “Terezin: Then and Now.” The “then” portion includes 70 of the works Leskley produced in Terezin, along with his later re-creations of the same. The latter are companion pieces — larger, more highly colored versions of the ghetto-produced originals, done by the artist during his first decade in Israel. The wall text that accompanies Leskley’s works provides an important context for them through its informative descriptions of the physical and sociological conditions that prevailed at Terezin.

A collection of miscellaneous camp artifacts is also on display. Included are postcards, permits for packages and, most heartbreaking, the “Nesharim flag,” a hand-embroidered pennant that was sewn to mark a soccer-tournament victory for the camp’s team of young boys.

The art in the “Now” portion of the show is the result of something altogether different. In 1993, 13 young painters who were members of a master class at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts spent five days at the former site of the Terezin camp. The art students — none of whom were Jewish — hailed from countries as far-flung as Germany and Singapore. Their trip was made under the auspices of Project Gedenkdienst, which translates as Commemorative Service. The 4-year-old program, run out of the offices of Austria’s Interior Ministry, allows young Austrians to substitute 14 months of work at Holocaust memorials for their obligatory eight months of military service. One such intern, Bernhard Schneider, created the Terezin art project, which centered around the class’s trip to the ghetto memorial.

Judging by the haunted quality in many of these paintings, all of the students seem to have been deeply affected by their visit. Their project is described at greater length in the exhibition catalog, which includes brief commentary from Simon Wiesenthal, Vaclav Havel and the group’s professor, Anton Lehmden.

As for Leskley, his art was forged in far different circumstances. As with any other “Holocaust art,” it is difficult, and perhaps pointless, to judge his work by the rules of art criticism. The strength and importance of this show are not necessarily in its sophistication or subtlety of technique but in its power as visual testimony. This is not only art for art’s sake but art for the sake of history. In this capacity, Leskley is a cleareyed and vivid witness.

“Terezin: Then and Now,” at the Jewish Federation Building, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. The exhibition is on display in the Pauline Hirsh Gallery, Museum Gallery, Boardroom and select corridors. For more information, call (213) 852-3242. The Federation will also host a performance of music and poetry from Terezin on June 29 at 4 p.m.

More About Terezin

Film

Several short films about the Theresienstadt Ghetto have been made over the years, ranging from four-minute shorts to hour-long productions. They include a film of interviews conducted with survivors at an Israeli kibbutz and the infamous Nazi propaganda film “The Führer Grants the Jews a City.” The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles has gathered videotapes of all the Terezin-themed films known to date and is screening them for visitors in its Museum Gallery on Sundays, at 2 p.m., and Thursdays, at 3 p.m. Call (213) 852-3242 for a complete program and confirmed schedule.

Books

Here is a short list of recommended books about Terezin. While some are widely available elsewhere, all of them may be found in the Federation’s Martyrs’ Memorial Library and Jewish Community Library, or may be purchased from the museum book store. Call the number above for a more extensive bibliography.

* Bor, Josef, “The Terezin Requiem.” New York, Borzoi Books, Knopf, 1963. Translated from the Czech.

* De Silva, Cara, ed., “In Memory’s Kitchen.” New Jersey, Jason Aronson, 1996. Translated by Bianca Steiner Brown, forward by Michael Berenbaum.

* Karas, Joza, “Music in Terezin, 1941-1945.” Paperback edition, Stuyvesant, N.Y., Pendragon Press, 1990.

* Schwertfeger, Ruth, “Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp.” Oxford, England, Berg, 1989.

* Volavkova, Hana, ed., “I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944.” New York, Shocken Books and U.S. National Holocaust Museum, 1993. Expanded second edition with a forward by Chaim Potok and afterword by Vaclav Havel. — D.A.Z.