Thanks to viral video, Holocaust survivor gets wish to sing at Detroit Tigers game


An 89-year-old Holocaust survivor will sing the American national anthem at a Detroit Tigers baseball game, after her granddaughter circulated a video of her that went viral.

Amid a flood of requests on her behalf, the Tigers invited Hermina Hirsch to fulfill her bucket list wish by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at their May 21 game, Fox Sports reported.

“At my age, I figure that this would do it,” Hirsch, of Southfield, Michigan, told Detroit’s CBS Local. “I don’t want to die before I sing at a baseball game.”

Hirsch survived multiple concentration camps, including the Auschwitz death camp, and lost her parents, three brothers and other relatives in the Holocaust.

Asked by CBS Local if the prospect of singing before thousands of fans at Detroit’s Comerica Park made her nervous, Hirsch said, with a smile on her face: “If I lived through the concentration camp, it couldn’t be that bad.”

Born in 1927 in a town in what was then Czechoslovakia, Hirsch was deported to a ghetto in 1944, and then moved among five different concentration camps, including Auschwitz

“She was liberated from a concentration camp (she doesn’t remember the name) in either Germany or Poland on Jan. 21, 1945,” her granddaughter Andrea Hirsch wrote in an email to CBS Local. “She walked and hitched rides with strangers to get back to where she was born.”

Hirsch married Bernard Hirsch in 1947. The couple moved first to New York and then to Detroit. Hirsch sings the national anthem at weekly Holocaust survivor meetings at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit and also sings in her synagogue choir.

“At first when I told her that her video went viral and there’s so many people that caught wind of her story, she didn’t really understand,” Andrea Hirsch told CBS Detroit. “You know, she didn’t really understand how or why, how something like this could happen through social media. She just couldn’t believe how it progressed. … I didn’t even believe this could happen. We’re so excited.”

Survivor: Josef Kreitenberg


As the transport from Tacova, Czechoslovakia (then called Tecso, Hungary), pulled up to the Birkenau platform in late May 1944, the doors of the cattle cars slammed open. “Raus, raus,” the SS shouted, directing those fit for work into separate men’s and women’s lines. The others, mostly children and the elderly, were steered to another line. Josef Kreitenberg, 14, followed his mother and twin sister, Sura, to the group of nonworkers. Then he abruptly switched lines, joining his father, two brothers and other male workers. He stood on a stone he found nearby to make himself look taller. Josef doesn’t know what prompted him to move. “I guess I wanted to be with my father and brothers,” he said. 

Josef was born on Oct. 31, 1929, in Tacova, Czechoslovakia (now Tyachiv, Ukraine), to Elias and Chaya Kreitenberg. He had three older brothers — Sam, Yitzhak and Mendy — as well as his twin. 

The family struggled financially, living in two rooms in half of a house that had no electricity, sharing space with Elias’ shoe repair business and Chaya’s dressmaking shop. Josef’s maternal grandparents and three aunts, his mother’s younger sisters, lived in the other half of the house. “Life was not easy,” Josef said.

The family was traditional Orthodox, as were the thousand or so other Jews in their small town. Josef spent mornings in the Czech public school and afternoons and evenings in cheder, where he studied Torah. 

Anti-Semitism was always present, and Josef remembers running from boys calling out “dirty Jew.” But the Kreitenbergs also coexisted peacefully with the town’s Christians, people who patronized his parents’ businesses. 

In March 1939, Hungary occupied Tacova and Josef’s school became Hungarian.

Around 1943, Josef’s oldest brother, Sam, was taken to a Hungarian forced labor battalion. And Elias, because he was Romanian-born, was imprisoned for six months, until Chaya succeeded in securing his release.

On March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. And although it was Hungarian, rather than German, soldiers who entered Tacova, “Life quickly changed,” Josef said. The Kreitenbergs feared even to step outside of their house, because soldiers were beating up Jews. 

Then in mid-April, Tacova’s Jews were relocated to a ghetto at the end of town. Josef, his parents, Yitzhak, Mendy and Sura, along with two of his aunts, moved into a barn. His grandparents, meanwhile, had died, one aunt had moved to Budapest, and Sam remained in the forced labor battalion. 

In late May, the ghetto residents were marched to the train station and crammed into waiting boxcars. 

After arriving at Birkenau, Josef and the other men were taken to a barracks. The next day, they were processed, including being tattooed. Josef became 10192. 

They were then marched to Auschwitz and lined up as Germans called out for volunteers to work as muhlfahrer. Because muhl sounded like mel, the Yiddish word for flour, Josef, Elias and Mendy volunteered, thinking they would be working in a flour mill. Instead, they found themselves toiling in a garbage dump, and discovering that muhlfahrer meant garbage men. 

Yitzhak worked elsewhere with his friends. “We never saw him again,” Josef said. He later learned that Yitzhak, always fussy about his food, had refused to eat and died of starvation. 

In the garbage dump, which was located outside the camp, Josef, Mendy and Elias, along with 35 or so other inmates, sorted wagonloads of trash as well as debris from arriving transports. But the work had its benefits. “Sometimes we could find things to eat,” Josef said.

After a transport from Lodz, Poland, arrived in August 1944, Josef came across a large cookie with a gold bracelet hidden inside. Through a connection in the camp bakery, he traded the bracelet for seven loaves of bread and some sugar. He hid the food in the barracks and also filled a canteen he found with a mixture of breadcrumbs and sugar. 

Then, in a selection that took place in late December 1944, his father, Elias, was taken away. “I never saw him again,” Josef said. 

Around the same time, as the prisoners were returning from work one day, a Gestapo guard gratuitously smacked Josef across his face. “I saw fire in front of my eyes,” he said. 

In the very early morning of Jan. 17, 1945, the prisoners were ordered outside and evacuated, walking all day and all night. “Anyone who couldn’t make it was shot,” Josef said.

They arrived at Gleiwitz, Poland, the next morning and were loaded onto open boxcars, so crammed they had to stand almost motionless. “I was lucky to have my brother. He watched over me,” Josef said of Mendy. They traveled for several days with no food or water, trying to catch the falling snowflakes. Josef, however, still had the canteen with breadcrumbs and sugar, which he shared with Mendy. “That’s what kept us alive,” he said.

Finally they arrived at Dora-Nordhausen in Germany. Thirsty after exiting the train, Mendy drank some water that made him ill. After a week or two in the barracks, he couldn’t even stand, and Josef was forced to leave him.

In early April 1945, as the war was winding down, the prisoners were loaded into closed boxcars and transported to Bergen-Belsen. There, they found no food or water, just hundreds of prisoners sick and dying from a typhus outbreak. 

On April 15 the prisoners were summoned to roll call and informed that the British had liberated the camp. That was a relief to Josef. But, he said, “Mainly what went through my mind was, ‘Where and what do I get to eat?’ ”

The prisoners were transferred to a former German army barracks in the nearby town of Celle, which became the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp. 

Josef was later trucked to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, where he caught a train to Budapest. There, in a refugee center, he unexpectedly encountered Mendy. 

The brothers headed for Tacova, where they found their three aunts and Sam, who had spent the war in a labor battalion. Eventually they all made their way to the Gabersee displaced persons camp near Wasserburg, Germany.

In Gabersee, Josef and Mendy, who were both 18 or younger at the time, qualified to receive special orphan visas to immigrate to the United States, arriving in January 1947. They were sent to Los Angeles, where they rented a room, paid for by Vista del Mar. 

In 1949, Josef and Mendy (now Mike) brought Sam to Los Angeles. Their three aunts, by then married, also joined them.

Josef attended Roosevelt High School, graduating in January 1951. After high school, he attended Los Angeles City College, hoping to become a teacher. But the Korean War had broken out, and he was drafted, assigned to a heavy-weapons company in Metz, France, where, from 1953 through ’54, he taught English and arithmetic to soldiers.

In 1954, Josef visited Israel while on furlough. During his return to France by ship, he met Marlene Laufer, who was joining her sister in South America. Josef and Marlene corresponded for three years while Josef returned to the U.S. and earned a degree in accounting at Los Angeles State College.

Marlene came to Los Angeles in 1957, and they married on Aug. 31 of that year. Josef worked as an accountant for several electronics companies and then, in the 1960s, he and Marlene’s brother formed K & L Construction, building apartments and condominiums. 

Josef and Marlene have three sons: Irv, born in December 1959; Steve in April 1962; and Mordechai in May 1967. 

Sam died in 2008. Mike is alive, but has Alzheimer’s.

Josef retired in the late 1990s, but, now 85 and the grandfather of 18, he continues to manage some properties. He also occasionally speaks to school groups. 

The tall young man on the right is Yitzhak Kreitenberg. On his right is Mendy Kreitenberg and next to him, in the hat, Elias Kreitenberg. The child in the center, partially seen, is Josef.

Around 1979, Josef learned that a trove of photographs from Auschwitz had been discovered and compiled into a book called “The Auschwitz Album.” Josef ordered it, discovering that the photographs specifically chronicled the arrival of his transport. “When I opened the book and I saw the pictures of my family, I cried. I cried very hard,” he said. These are his only photographs of Sura and his parents.

The girl in the top left is Suri Kreitenberg, Josef’s twin sister. On her right is their mother, Chaya Kreitenberg.

Josef doesn’t know how or why he survived. “Even when I was in Auschwitz, when I was going to work, I used to pray, whatever prayers I knew by heart,” he said.

Survivor: Jean Greenstein


At 5 o’clock one morning in April 1944, Jean Greenstein — ne Egon Grünstein — heard the bell ringing at the front gate of his family’s home in Velky Sevlus, Czechoslovakia. Soon, two or three SS troopers, along with a couple of local youth, burst into Jean’s bedroom, then bound his hands and feet with rope. They dragged him outside and forced him to run alongside two SS troopers on bicycles, continually clubbing him on his shoulder with their rifle butts as they made their way to the Great Synagogue, about a mile away. There, outside the synagogue, stood the town’s SS commanding officer, Johann (Hans) Friedrich Schleier. Jean watched as one of the troopers whispered something into Schleier’s ear. “I’ll take care of it,” Schleier replied, leading Jean inside.

Schleier, who was a childhood friend of Jean’s, told him that the SS had requested permission to execute him. Jean figured out that one of the local men, who had a crush on Jean’s German girlfriend, had devised the scheme. Schleier also confided Germany’s plan to round up Sevlus’ Jews  and, with no other option, sent Jean to the ghetto.

Jean was born in Velky Sevlus (now Vynohradiv, Ukraine) on July 9, 1924, to Peter and Sari Grünstein. He was the second oldest of six children, two girls and four boys. 

Peter was a successful dentist, though he acquired most of his money in currency trading, and the family, which was secular, lived in a large house, part of a compound they owned. 

Jean attended public school and enjoyed playing with his friends, who were mostly ethnic Germans. “We got along so well,” he said. 

The Hungarians occupied Sevlus in March 1939, changing the town’s name to Nagyszollos. For the first few years, according to Jean, not much changed.

In June 1942, Jean graduated from engineering high school and, as one of three top students, was selected to work at the Manfred Weiss factory in Budapest, where he drew blueprints for German tank parts and other equipment. But as anti-Semitic measures were enacted, he was demoted to slave laborer, sweeping up and performing other menial tasks. 

Soon after Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, Jean’s father arranged to bring him home. By April, he was interned in the Sevlus ghetto, where his family joined him some weeks later. 

As Jews were being shipped out, Jean made plans to go into hiding with a small group of young people in a wine cellar beneath a house. Meanwhile, Schleier, the SS officer, sent his uncle to smuggle food to the Grünstein family, some of which was used to stock the cellar. The uncle also brought Jean the birth and baptismal certificates of Hans Karl Schleier, the officer’s deceased cousin, which Jean’s mother sewed into his jacket lining. 

Jean wanted to bring his brothers and sister Sidi (also profiled in this series) into hiding with him, but his father thought he should keep the rest of the family together. “Either you survive or they’ll survive,” he told Jean.

On June 2, Jean and three others entered the cellar, a small room with mud floors and three small air vents. They had three lamps, two 80-liter kegs of water, some smoked pork and some wine. A Jewish mason bricked them in, building a false wall.

The next day, the last transport left the Sevlus ghetto for Auschwitz. Jean’s entire family was deported.

By late August, with their water supply contaminated, the group was forced to leave. As they were exiting, however, an elderly Hungarian gendarme saw them, took aim with his rifle and escorted them to the local jail. 

They soon found themselves guarded by Hungarian gendarmes, on a passenger train headed for Auschwitz, but the train was eventually diverted to Budapest. 

As it approached Budapest’s Keleti station, Jean asked to use the bathroom. A guard stood outside the door while Jean slipped out the small window. But he was quickly recaptured by the train yard police and taken to Tolonchaz prison.

While there, Jean volunteered for a work detail, moving boxes of valuable books for the Hungarian government. After helping load them onto a flatbed truck with a canvas top, he hid behind a stack of boxes. At a traffic light, he escaped.

Jean found his way to the Jewish ghetto, where Adonyahu Bilitzer, a member of the Zionist underground, asked him to impersonate a Levente, a member of a Hungarian paramilitary group, and work as an underground messenger. 

In late September, at Bilitzer’s suggestion, Jean, who still had Hans Karl Schleier’s birth and baptismal certificates and who spoke fluent German, enlisted in the German Waffen SS. He explained that he was an ethnic German who had fled his hometown. 

After two weeks’ training, Jean was assigned a barracks, given a motorcycle and instructed to patrol for German deserters. With little supervision, he was free to continue working with the underground. 

Jean teamed up with a man named Hershi Reich, who was posing as an Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazi) soldier. Together they searched for and intercepted groups of Jews being marched toward the Danube River, carted away in trucks or dispatched on death marches. Jean and Hershi confronted the soldiers, accusing them of misconduct or informing them the Jews were protected or had been reassigned and demanding their release. “If they didn’t let them go, we shot them,” Jean said. 

He and Hershi then returned the Jews to the ghetto or escorted them to the Glass House, a former glass factory under the protection of the Swiss Embassy, where, due to the work of Swiss Vice Consul Carl Lutz, more than 3,000 Jews were given refuge. 

Jean doesn’t know how many Jews he saved or helped save. “Hundreds and hundreds,” he estimates.

During this time, Jean met Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman then under the protection of Spain’s Charge d’Affaires Angel Sanz Briz. Perlasca was helping Sanz Briz provide Jews with Schutzpasses (protective passports) and shelter in Spanish safe houses; Jean assisted them.

In late November, the Spanish government ordered Sanz Briz to Switzerland, and Perlasca, using the first name Jorge, appointed himself temporary charge d’affaires for Spain, continuing the rescue work. 

Sometime in December, Jean accompanied Perlasca to Budapest’s Jozsefvaros Railway Station. There he witnessed Raoul Wallenberg arguing with Adolf Eichmann over the fate of Jews headed to death camps, claiming they were protected Swiss citizens. Perlasca offered the same argument for Spain. During this encounter, Jean shook hands with Eichmann, who pinched his cheek and likened him to “a typical German.”

Another time, Jean, Hershi and two other underground members were sent to intercept a German military car carrying a high-ranking officer assigned to replace Eichmann. When the open cabriolet appeared, Jean held up a “Halt” sign and requested their papers. As the officer, who was sitting in the back seat, reached for the documents, Hershi shot him and the other soldiers in the head. They disposed of the bodies and the car.

In mid-January 1945, as the Russian assault on Budapest continued, Jean himself sought refuge in the Glass House; he was liberated on Jan. 18.

Jean made his way back to Sevlus, where he found his home vandalized and family absent. He later learned his sister Sidi had survived (she is also profiled in this series), and he reunited with her in Romania in late April. 

Jean eventually sailed to Palestine on an Aliyah Bet ship, ending up in Tel Aviv, where he studied dentistry. In late 1947, he was called up to the Haganah, fighting in the Jerusalem battles. He then transferred to the Israeli navy (Palyam) and was second in command of the Jaffa port until October 1949. 

Jean immigrated to New York two months later, working as a dental technician while studying to earn his certification.

In August 1951, Jean met Ruth Blumer, and they married on June 1, 1952. Their son Paul was born in July 1954; son Lawrence in December 1955; and daughter Sharon in July 1957. 

In 1961, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Jean opened Cerama-Dent, a dental laboratory. He sold it in 1972 and opened Creative Dental Ceramics, retiring in 1982. 

Now 90 and the grandfather of two, Jean has been a speaker at the Museum of Tolerance for the past five years. Every time he tells his story, he finds it surreal.

“You know,” he recently said, “I’m sitting here thinking how did I get away with this? Luck. Sheer luck.” 

At 105, ‘British Schindler’ celebrated in Prague


A 105-year-old man known as the “British Oskar Schindler” — having saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis — received the Czech Republic’s highest honor Tuesday.

Sir Nicholas Winton was flown on a Czech military plane to Prague, where Czech President Miloš Zeman awarded him the Order of the White Lion. Seven of the 669 children he rescued were present at Tuesday’s ceremony, which coincided with the Czechoslovak Independence Day.

“I want to thank you all for this tremendous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago,” Winton said after receiving the award.

Winton was 29 when he first arrived in Prague in December of 1938. He was planning to go on a skiing holiday in Switzerland but changed his plans when he heard about the refugee crisis in Czechoslovakia. In the following months, he organized eight trains that carried children, the vast majority of them Jewish, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to safety in the United Kingdom.

“I’m delighted that so many of the children are still about, and they are here to thank me,” Winton said.

Winton, a baptized son of German Jewish parents who settled in the United Kingdom in the early 1900s, worked as a stockbroker before World War II. In Prague, he joined efforts by several other Britons trying to help the refugees.

“These people were the guilty conscience some in Britain had over their country’s role in the Munich Agreement, and came to help,” historian Michal Frankl from Prague’s Jewish Museum told JTA.

Signed in 1938, the Munich Agreement permitted the Nazis to annex parts of Czechoslovokia.

“Winton’s crucial role was in negotiating permits for the children with the British authorities. He also found families willing to take care of them,” Frankl said.

Ruth Halova, now 86, left Prague on one of the trains, known as Kindertransports, in June of 1939, less than four months after the Nazi occupation of the country. “It was a very emotional and joyful moment,” Halova said of the ceremony. “I’m happy I could shake [Winton’s] hand for all those who could not be here.”

Also in attendance was Asaf Auerbach, another child Winton rescued. Auerbach was 11 in July of 1939, when he boarded the London-bound train along with his brother. “It was very moving for me when I sat there today,” he said. “I noticed that even the president shed some tears.”

The final Kinderstransport left Prague on Sept. 1, 1939. However, it was forced to return because of the outbreak of the war, and none of the 250 children it carried survived the Holocaust.

Winton’s story only came to light in the 1980s, when his wife discovered lists of names of the children he rescued from Prague. In 1988 he met around 80 of those children for the first time since the war in an emotional encounter captured in a BBC documentary.

In 1998,  Czech President Vaclav Havel decorated Winton; Queen Elizabeth knighted him five year later.

Matěj Mináč, a Slovak-born director, made three films about Winton and his war time efforts including the 2002 documentary “The Power of Good,”  which won an Emmy Award.

Mináč told JTA that Winton, at first, “did not want to talk about himself at all. “It took us several months to convince him that those nine months he spent in Prague was probably the most important time in his life” the filmmaker said. “His story is amazing because he was no James Bond. He just did what any decent person should have done but didn’t.”

Survivor: Frank Schiller


In October 1941, Frank Schiller, his parents, brother and grandmother were ordered to report to Prague’s Exhibition Hall. There, Frank’s parents spent their days filling out documents while Frank and his brother wandered around. At night, they slept on straw mattresses. To Frank, who was 15, it was mostly an adventure. Still, he recalled, “I never saw my mother cry, but I saw her crying then. She knew our days of comfort were over.” 

A few days later, on Oct. 26, Frank, his parents and brother, along with approximately 1,000 Jews, were transported to the Lodz ghetto. He never saw his grandmother again.

Frank — originally named Harry — was born in Prague on March 13, 1926, to Viktor and Lily Schiller. His brother, Gustav, was three years older. 

The family identified as Jewish but secular. Frank attended Czech public school and then, at age 10, a private British school where he learned English.

Viktor was an attorney, and the family was well-to-do, owning an apartment building near Wenceslas Square. Viktor’s law office occupied the same floor as their apartment.

The Schillers also owned a three-story villa in Zelizy, 30 miles outside Prague, where they spent summers. And every winter they went skiing. “Life was very pleasant,” Frank said.

But things changed in October 1938 when Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia that bordered Germany. At that time, Frank explained, “Father made the fatal mistake of calling us back from Zurich,” where he had sent the family for protection. Viktor believed peace would prevail.

Then on March 15, 1939, German troops occupied the Czech regions of Moravia and Bohemia, with Hitler declaring them a German Protectorate. 

Viktor immediately arranged for Frank and Gustav to live with their uncle, Viktor’s older brother, in Antibes, France. Two steamer trunks were shipped ahead while they awaited documentation. 

The visas arrived in late August, and the exit permits followed on Sept. 1, 1939, the same day Germany attacked Poland, effectively closing the borders. The boys remained in Prague.

Soon Jews were no longer allowed to attend school, and Frank’s parents, along with other Jewish parents, arranged for their children to be taught privately.

More and more restrictions ensued until the Prague Jews were deported, to Lodz and then to Theresienstadt.

In October 1941, when Frank’s family arrived in the Lodz ghetto, they were housed in a converted school. Months later, according to Frank, they were given “a horrible room,” where cold and wind blew through large gaps in the planked walls. They shared the room with three families, and by June 1942, the fathers of all the families had died of illnesses.

Frank was assigned to a tailor shop that produced sleeveless fur jackets for German soldiers. His job was feeding coal into the iron. 

Frank’s mother was hospitalized with typhus and later recovered. She then contracted tuberculosis and died in her sons’ arms in June 1943.

After his mother’s death, Frank moved into a warmer room. He also obtained a job at the ghetto’s vegetable distribution center, where he could eat raw potatoes. 

Then, in early 1944, Frank was put in a compound, waiting to be shipped out to a labor camp. He was joined by one of his best friends from Prague: Hanus Adler Orlicky. (His other close friends, Yehuda Bauer and Hanus Spitzer, escaped as soon as the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia.)

In March, the group of 1,000 men was transported to Skarzysko-Kamienna in Poland. There, Frank polished bullet molds in a large ammunition factory run by Hasag, a German company. 

In August 1944, as the camp was liquidated, the prisoners were ordered to manually load all the machinery onto railroad flatcars. They were then transferred to Czestochowa, another Hasag company, where Frank worked the night shift, again polishing molds. 

In mid-January 1945, the camp was evacuated and the prisoners shipped to Buchenwald. A few days later, Frank and Hanus Adler, among others, were transferred to Dora-Mittelbau and then to Rottelberode, where they were housed in an old mill and worked in an underground factory constructing V-2 rocket bombs. 

Frank spoke fluent German, and the German factory manager gave him a menial administrative job. He worked in a warm office and had access to extra bread.

In April 1945, the Germans evacuated the camp, loading the prisoners into open cattle cars in broad daylight. American planes fired at the prisoners, thinking they were German troops. One bullet flew directly under Frank’s chin and through his coat, killing the Russian prisoner next to him. The Americans then blew up the engine, halting the train. As the prisoners jumped out, Frank injured his ankle but kept running. The Americans ceased shooting.

Nevertheless, most of the escaping prisoners were rounded up and marched along a highway through a deep forest. When they exited the forest, they were confined in a cattle enclosure.

Then, the guards disappeared, and the prisoners began escaping into a smaller forest nearby. Frank was nursing his injured ankle and wanted to stay, but his friend Hanus was eager to leave. Frank acquiesced, but insisted on heading back into the deep forest. There, after an hour’s walk, they found two discarded German uniforms, which they donned, and a tube of toothpaste, which they ate. 

The next day, Frank and Hanus walked into a village — Frank doesn’t recall the name — wearing their German uniforms. Frank, speaking German, asked where he could find the German troops. “Go to the center of town and turn right,” a townsman said, adding that American troops were to the left. 

Frank and Hanus took the left turn and half an hour later encountered two American tanks. Frank, who spoke English, became an interpreter for the American Army.

Frank learned that the other prisoners who had escaped the bombed train were captured in the small forest and barricaded inside a barn near the city of Gardelegen. The Germans had set fire to the barn, machine-gunning those who tried to escape. Two days later, on April 15, 1945, American soldiers discovered the massacre of approximately 1,000 prisoners. 

“Hanus saved my life, and I saved his,” Frank said. “Those bastards came back in civilian clothes with weaponry and finished their job.”

On May 23, Frank and Hanus left for Prague, where Frank learned that his brother, Gustav, had died on an Auschwitz death march in January 1945. Frank studied chemistry in Prague, and in June 1948 he left for London. He continued studying chemistry at the University of London and then worked as a food chemist.

In March 1951, having established contact with his Aunt Helen, his mother’s sister, he immigrated to New York, finding a job as a food chemist with Nedicks. He moved to Los Angeles in November 1953 to set up a soft-drink factory for the company. 

In 1958, Frank was working at White Rock Beverages when the firm was acquired by Coca-Cola Los Angeles. Frank’s boss, Arthur McDonald, became president and named Frank vice president of manufacturing, making him, as far as Frank knows, the first Jew in a Coca-Cola managerial position. In 1984, Frank moved to the Arrowhead Drinking Water Co., retiring in 1989.

Frank met Liesa Beck in 1956, and they married on July 21, 1957. Son Gary was born in March 1959; daughter Vicki in January 1961. 

Now 88, Frank volunteers one day a week as a SCORE mentor for the Small Business Administration, as he’s done for 25 years. He also plays golf and bridge, serves on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and enjoys spending time with his family, including his two grandsons.

He also continues to fight for ownership of his family’s apartment building in Prague. The property was returned to him after the war but was nationalized by the communists in 1948. It is now owned by the city of Prague.

Frank said the events of the Holocaust never stray far from his thoughts. 

“Unfortunately, one thinks about it every day, particularly when you’re retired,” he said.

Survivors to mark 75th anniversary of Kindertransport


On the evening of Dec. 2, a small group of elderly men and women, some with their children and grandchildren, will gather at a Burbank mall to mark the 75th anniversary of a heartbreaking, yet uplifting, episode of the Nazi era, known as the Kindertransport (in English, Children’s Transport).

Susanne Goldsmith, 82, will be there, and so will Abraham (Abe) Sommer, 89, to recall the events of 1938 and 1939, when nearly 10,000 young Jews from Nazi-dominated Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia climbed aboard trains to find refuge in Great Britain.

In a world that generally closed its borders to Jews fleeing Hitler, the British offer to admit the children, following the mass pogrom of Kristallnacht, was a rare humanitarian gesture, but it carried a wrenching price.

The offer allowed for the admission of children only between ages 2 and 16, but not their parents or older siblings. Each family had to decide whether to send young children to be cared for by absolute strangers in a foreign land, with no assurance that parents and children would ever be reunited.

The first Kindertransport carried 200 children from a Jewish orphanage in Berlin that was destroyed by Nazi mobs during the Nov. 9-10 Kristallnacht. The group arrived in England on Dec. 2, 1938, less than a month after the night of arson and murder.

On Dec. 10, at the main train station in Vienna, 7-year-old Susanne Weiss (later Goldsmith) and her 9-year-old brother, Peter, bid their parents goodbye, in the first Kindertransport from Vienna, which was organized by British Quakers.

Goldsmith, now a resident of Burbank, recalled, “I cried all the way” — or at least until the train crossed the border into Holland, where a group of Dutch women distributed a then luxurious repast of thick slices of rye bread slathered with butter and sprinkled with chocolate.

Abe Sommer, who now lives in West Los Angeles, came aboard on the last Kindertransport to leave Vienna on Aug. 24, 1939. It arrived in London on Sept. 1, as newspaper boys were shouting that Germany had invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and Germany were at war, spelling the end of the Kindertransport.

Even given the innumerable victories, defeats and catastrophes in the ongoing commemorations of World War II, the Kindertransport events still retain their hold on the imagination, particularly among writers and artists.

One who could not forget was TV producer Deborah Oppenheimer. When her mother was 11, she boarded a Kindertransport train in Germany, amid tearful assurances that the family would soon be reunited. Along with 90 percent of the evacuated children, Oppenheimer’s mother never saw her parents again.

Whenever Deborah tried to ask her mother about that part of her life, the mother broke into tears, so the child stopped asking. But after her mother’s death, Oppenheimer decided to find out all she could about the Kindertransport.

Viennese children on their arrival in London. Photo courtesy of the Austrian National Library

The result was the film “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” which won the 2000 Academy Award for best documentary feature.

“At first, the kinder (shorthand for the Kindertransport evacuees) didn’t want to talk about their wartime experiences, feeling that these were insignificant compared to the suffering during the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of 1.5 million children,” Oppenheimer said in an interview last week. “Many didn’t start opening up until they reached their 70s or 80s.”

Oppenheimer, now executive vice president of Carnival Films and appointed last year by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, explained the appeal of their story today:

“It is difficult to grasp the idea of 6 million murdered in the Holocaust,” she said, “but everyone can understand the suffering of a child suddenly ostracized by all her classmates or abruptly separated from her parents.”

Once the kinder arrived in England, their fate was decided by the luck of the draw.

Some found loving foster parents who scrimped to feed an extra mouth; others were exploited as servants. Some were housed in baronial estates, others in freezing holding camps waiting to be adopted at weekly “cattle market” inspections.

Goldsmith and her brother were among the lucky ones. Their new foster parents turned out to be a wealthy Jewish couple who picked up their new charges in a Rolls-Royce and housed them on a large estate along with eight other evacuated children.

“Our parents made it to England after the war started; we never asked how,” Goldsmith recalled. “They looked haggard, like refugees, and neither Peter nor I wanted to live with them.”

The family ties were eventually restored, and parents and children arrived in New York in early 1940. The Big Apple didn’t appeal to the family, but they couldn’t decide where else to relocate.

At that point, young Peter reminded his father that he had always enjoyed Giacomo Puccini’s opera “The Girl of the Golden West,” set in an imaginary mining camp during the California Gold Rush.

In short order, the family crossed the continent and settled in San Francisco.

Abe Sommer was less fortunate. On arrival, he was housed on a large farm in central England in one of many tents for refugees — shelters that did nothing to keep out the cold in the winter.

In 1943, Sommer joined the Pioneer Corps, an engineering auxiliary attached to the British army. For two years after the war ended, his assignment, ironically, was to supervise German prisoners of war.

He moved to Palestine in late 1947, worked on a kibbutz, and 10 years later moved to Los Angeles and established an automotive electrical shop in Beverly Hills. In 1994, he retired to his home in Beverlywood.

Sommer married a fellow Kindertransporter and after her death married another women with a similar background.

These days, the one-time refugee children try to keep in contact through the loosely organized Kindertransport Association (kindertransport.org), with small membership clusters in major cities in England, the United States, Australia and Germany.

There are no figures available on how many of the original kinder are still living.

In the Los Angeles area, one of the main activists is David Meyerhof, a retired teacher living in Burbank, whose 92-year-old mother is a Kindertransport alumna from Germany.

He and Goldsmith organized the local 75th anniversary commemoration, which will include a program of music, poetry and oral history, Meyerhof said.

The Dec. 2 event, part of the Temple Beth Emet Chanukah program, will start at 7:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Burbank Media Center Mall, in front of the Burlington Coat Factory store at 245 E. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. The public is invited.

For additional information, contact David Meyerhof by e-mail at dmeyerhof@yahoo.com or by phone at (818) 261-2060.

German trade union leader opposes West Bank boycott


German trade union leader Michael Sommer vowed to stand up to unionists who want to boycott goods made in West Bank Jewish settlements.

“As long as I am head of this organization, there will never be a resolution that says ‘Don’t buy from Jews,’ ” said Sommer, 61, chair of the Federation of German Trade Unions, accepting the Arno Lustiger Award at the third annual German-Israel Congress on Sunday.

The federation, which was founded in Munich in 1949, is an umbrella organization for eight German trade unions, in total representing more than 6 million people.

The pro-Israel event, which drew more a crowd of more than 1,500 to a congress center in the former East Berlin, took place on the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom, when synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed and looted across Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia.

Co-organized by German Jewish activists Sacha Stawski and Melody Sucharewicz, the event, which in previous years was held in Frankfurt, featured a market of pro-Israel organizations and businesses, guest speakers and “labs” on Israeli culture and business, Judaism and politics.

It concluded with a concert featuring German soul singer Mic Donet and Kathleen Reiter, a Canadian-Israeli singer and the winner of the Israeli version of “The Voice.”

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said he wished there was no need for such a major pro-Israel event in Germany. But with “Israeli bashing in fashion” these days, he said the congress convinced him that “we friends of Israel are not so alone as we sometimes feel.”

“Today we are strong as an ox,” he said.

A small pro-Palestinian demonstration was held across the street from the venue.

In his remarks, Sommer said some unions are especially critical of Israel’s settlement policy, which is the target of the boycott movement. He tells them “that an honest peace means that no one should be threatened. And as long as Israeli is threatened, I stay on the side of Israel.”

Songs of hope at Auschwitz


When Judith Schneiderman was 14, she was taken from Hungary and sent to Auschwitz. It seemed that all hope was lost — that is, until she opened her mouth.

A naturally talented vocalist who was never formally trained, she began to sing, and it probably saved her life. The wife of an SS commander overheard her, then taught her German songs and how to entertain Nazi soldiers, who would give her food. 

Her story was self-published in the book “I Sang to Survive.” Co-authored by Jennifer Schulz, Schneiderman’s granddaughter, the German version was presented in May by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located in Berlin. 

Schulz, an acting teacher in Los Angeles who is credited in the book by her maiden name, Jennifer Schneiderman, said that although there are many Holocaust books out there, her grandmother’s is unique because it’s “about hope and human kindness and that there is more good than evil in the world. Even though there are a lot of terrible things in the book, it’s a small aspect of what the story is about. It’s a love story more than anything else.”

Instead of placing emphasis on the tragedies that befell Schneiderman — who turns 85 this month and now lives in Columbus, Ohio — the book aims to be uplifting. It takes a look at her life before the war, her time in America, her family and her 66-year romance with Paul, a fellow survivor she met at a displaced persons camp who died earlier this year. They settled in New Jersey and had four children together.

Schulz said that the theme of “I Sang to Survive” is how “we really can survive anything if we believe in our hearts that there is goodness in the world.”

In her book, Schneiderman wrote that her time in the camp taught her about human nature and changed her perspective forever. 

“During the Holocaust, I learned the most important lesson of my life: that nothing is purely good or evil, and that both reside in the best and worst of us and our intentions.”

The book begins in Rachov (part of Czechoslovakia at the time), where Schneiderman was born in 1928. She was one of eight children in a very religious family. They lived in the back of the grocery store that they owned on the main street of their town. However, Rachov was economically depressed and, despite her vocal talents, she was never able to afford lessons.

“We were not poor, but we didn’t have enough money for such luxuries,” she said via a phone interview. “My father had a beautiful voice, and that’s where I got it. But I was the star in the house.” 

One of her daughters, Helene, was more fortunate in taking the next step in musical training. When she turned 18, Helene Schneiderman started taking voice lessons at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey. There, she excelled, and eventually got into the renowned Stuttgart State Opera in Germany. When the mezzo-soprano told her parents, however, both had mixed feelings, Schneiderman said. 

“We decided for her future that she would go,” she said. “It was a little difficult visiting the first time [in Germany], but the second visit was much easier. We supported her 100 percent. She is very special girl not only as a singer, but she’s an unusual human being.”

Although Helene Schneiderman also had her hesitations about going to Germany, she knew it was the best decision for her future. 

“There is a very good system for young opera singers, where you get paid by the month and you perform often, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be in one place for years at a time,” she said. “My parents struggled with the thought of my coming over, but they love me more than they could hate anyone, and so things went smoothly.”

Recently, Helene Schneiderman, who has performed in Austria, France and Italy, put out a CD of Yiddish songs, “Makh Tsu Di Eygelekh” (“Close Your Little Eyes”). It includes four tracks of her parents singing together.

“I always enjoyed singing Yiddish songs because my mother taught them to me as a child,” Helene Schneiderman said. “The lullabies were especially beautiful.”

Although Judith Schneiderman never got the chance to sing professionally, to this day, she still does it for fun, especially with her family. Her favorite tunes are, of course, in Yiddish. 

“Sometimes when I’m alone and I’m in a fairly good mood, I feel like singing them in my room,” she said. “My daughter Helene and I sing duets. I still have a voice. I’m very surprised at my age, 85, I’m not wobbly, not yet.”

Schindler factory plans up for sale


A New Hampshire company is auctioning off a set of documents related to Oskar Schindler.

RR Auction company, which specializes in historic documents, has made the items available for bidding until Aug. 14. Prospective buyers can big on the documents on the company’s website.

Among the documents up for sale a letter Schindler wrote asking for permission to move his factory from Poland to the city of Bunnlitz, in Czechoslovakia, according to Fox News. The relocation allowed Schindler to save his Jewish employees from certain death in Nazi concentration camps.

Also for sale are detailed blueprints of Schindler’s factory, including the living quarters of over 1,000 Jewish workers saved by Schindler during World War II.

Recently, a typewritten copy of Schindler’s list of 801 employees failed to sell on the auction site eBay.

Ghosts of Communism


Two weeks ago, my wife, Ann, and I completed our first trip to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Everywhere we went, our local guides proudly pointed out the progress that has been made since the fall of communism, and we could readily see for ourselves the affluence, elegance and style that are on display in the places that the tourists like to visit.

But we also saw the bullet holes and shell damage that have been left unrepaired to memorialize the ravages of World War II, and we were reminded of the price that the Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians paid when they defied the will of their Soviet masters in the 1950s and ’60s. In Bratislava, for example, we saw one heroic monument that honored the Red Army as the liberator of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and another monument that honored three Slovak victims of Soviet gunfire during the uprising known as the Prague Spring in 1968. Indeed, we always detected a certain kind of emotional scar tissue in the guides themselves, many of whom are survivors of one or both of these world-historical eras.

It is this same layered complexity that Yale historian Marci Shore has succeeded in bringing to life in the pages of “The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe” (Crown, $27), a courageous and imaginative effort to measure how the Nazi and Soviet regimes impacted the private lives of real men and women.

“All historical drama is acted through the lives of individuals,” she announces. “The eclipsing of private space was among totalitarianism’s deepest violations. In this way the totalitarian state was unlikely its merely authoritarian or monarchical predecessors: it distinguished itself — it made itself — by caring what lovers said in bed.”

Here is a surprising and even revolutionary way to write history. To be sure, historians have debated in what ways Nazi and Soviet atrocities were qualitatively different from both earlier and later outrages, but the conversation has usually focused upon the origins, mechanics and goals of mass deportation, mass imprisonment and mass murder. Shore, by contrast, focuses on the intimate emotions and inner emotions of the human beings who are the raw material of history.

Consider, for example, the fate of a young Czech woman named Jarmila. She was the youngest person to sign Charter 77, the manifesto of the liberation movement in Czechoslovakia, but she did so against the will of her parents, who were fearful that it would attract the ungentle attention of the secret police to the rest of the family. “Eventually they denounced her to the secret police,” Shore reports, “and so began a long series of arrests, detentions, interrogations, beatings.” She was forced to go into hiding at her grandmother’s home: “I love her,” the grandmother later told Shore, “she’s my sunshine.” But the whole family understood and accepted that denunciation of a child was a survival strategy under the communist regime.

When Shore sees anti-Semitic graffiti and evidence of criminal violence in Warsaw, she is offered an explanation by a Polish graduate student called Mikolaj: “Envy, insanity, racism and hooliganism,” he muses, “the pillars of Polish reality.” Yet she also allows us to understand the contemporary Poles are put off by Jewish tourists who come only to see the death camps: “They didn’t know about the heroic Polish underground,” Shore explains. “They didn’t know that Poles had also died in Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”

Not many Jews remain in Poland, of course, but the precious remnant is marked in strange ways. A woman named Tamara weeps over the fact that she was condemned to grow up under communism because her grandfather refused to make aliyah after the war ended. “She could not escape from this moment of her grandfather’s refusal to cross the border, this moment of decision, the moment when her life might have been a different one,” Shore writes. “She could not forgive her grandfather for having misunderstood History, for having made the wrong choice — and so, having thrown Tamar from the current of History.” 

“A Taste of Ashes” is rich with incident, recollection and conversation, a memoir of the author’s long endeavor to understand in human terms the ideas and events that are the raw material of intellectual history. Every page is alive with face-to-face encounters between Shore and her friends and colleagues. Ultimately, however, a dark fatalism suffuses the whole effort, and the hard truth is captured in a conundrum that she hears from a man who once edited a prominent Yiddish newspaper in Warsaw: “You already know too much,” Chaim Finkelstein told her, “too much and not enough, and nothing.”

I carried a copy of “The Double Eagle” by Stephen Brooks on my recent travels in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, a travel memoir that was written shortly before the fall of communism and has something in common with “The Taste of Ashes.” Next time, however, it will be Shore’s book in my carry-on, a masterpiece that will enrich the experience of being there precisely because the author looks both forward and backward in time, and because she offers a glimpse of history as seen through the eyes of the people who lived it.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Slovak court moves toward imprisoning war criminal in Hungary


A Slovak court has commuted a death sentence against Laszlo Csatary, a war criminal whom Slovakia wants extradited from Hungary for his complicity in murdering thousands of Jews.

A Czechoslovakian court in 1948 sentenced Csatary in absentia to death for torturing Jews and helping to deport them to Auschwitz when he served as police commander in the eastern Slovak city of Kosice. For decades, Csatary, now 98, escaped the sentence until Hungarian authorities detained him and put him under house arrest in Budapest last July. He has denied any guilt.

The sentence was changed this week to be in line with modern Slovak law, Reuters reported on Friday. Czechoslovakia abolished the death penalty in 1990, three years before its division into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Kosice prosecutor's office spokesman Milan Filicko said.

“Once the decision takes effect, the court will decide whether it will issue an arrest warrant or how it will get him to serve the sentence,” he said.

Filicko said Csatary could appeal the decision, which would send the case to the Slovak High Court. Slovakia's Jewish community has called for Csatary to be extradited.

Propaganda film disguised horrors of Terezin


The film is grainy and in black-and-white. It jumps about, slowing down at odd moments and growing dim occasionally. But it’s the people that hold your attention.

They walk about, wearing fashionable clothes, nodding a stiff hello when they spot a friend. They watch a soccer match, sit briefly outside a small cafe, listen to a concert.

It’s all a sham, of course, part of a bogus documentary produced by the Nazis during World War II at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp an hour north of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. And it’s one of the reasons you should visit.

The Holocaust continues to sound a melancholy note in the major cities of the region. Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest and Prague are remarkable, warm and charming, filled with cobblestone streets and intimate cafes, grand boulevards and monuments, fine art and fine food.

But in each of these cities is a reminder of the Jews who were murdered during World War II, initially forced into ghettos, eventually transported to death camps across the region.

In Prague, it’s Josefov, the Jewish quarter, where the Holocaust waits. It’s remembered in one of the six synagogues there, the Pinkas shul. Its walls are inscribed with the names of the 77,297 victims of the Nazis from Bohemia and Moravia. Tourists shuffle through the structure in silence, many taken with the artistic merits of the memorial, most horrified by the sheer numbers that fill the space.

But it’s in the nearby city of Terezin that one of the most unique, if bizarre stories of the period can be found. And it’s all captured in the grainy film produced by the Nazis.

The city — created in the 18th century and named for Maria Theresa of Austria — was taken over by the Gestapo in 1940, renamed Theresienstadt, and quickly turned into a ghetto. Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and Holland were transported to the site and its population soared. The city that had been home for 7,000 residents before the war would at one point hold 60,000 inmates.

Men and women were separated, housed in barracks packed with bunks that were three-tiers high. There was little food, and even less medicine. Sanitation was poor. Rats, lice, flies and fleas were part of daily life. So, too, death.

Nearly 150,000 Jews spent time at Theresienstadt. Only 17,247 survived the war. The large number of dead became such a problem that a crematorium was built in 1942 to deal with the corpses. Yet, the Nazis portrayed the ghetto as a model Jewish settlement.

The charade was tested — and refined — in the summer of 1944 when a commission of Red Cross officials were allowed to visit the camp to make sure that inmates at Theresienstadt were living under humane conditions. The ruse became necessary after Jews from Denmark were sent to the camp the previous winter and Red Cross officials in Denmark and Sweden began making inquiries about their whereabouts and health.

Over the next several months, the camp was gussied-up in certain key areas. Some living space was enlarged and painted. Drapes were hung and furniture added. Grass and flowers were planted. A playground and sports field were built. And a month before the orchestrated visit, 7,500 inmates — mostly orphans and the sick — were sent to Auschwitz and their deaths so Theresienstadt would appear less crowded.

An elaborate script was created that would have groups of inmates strolling along a central street, window-shopping; others would be taking part in a soccer match, while yet others would be chatting and singing as they headed off to work.

On June 23, 1944, the Nazis had everything in place as the commission was escorted through the camp. The inmates played their parts to perfection, knowing they had little choice but to cooperate. Camp officials were so happy with the result, they decided to put it all down on film and use the movie for propaganda purposes.

What remains today is a series of black-and-white vignettes — inmates at a concert; inmates sitting outside a cafe; inmates cheering a soccer match. The actors smile occasionally for the camera, hiding the hideous truth of the Holocaust from view. But look closely enough and you can see the future in their faces.

And it’s bleak.

Only a few months after the commission reported that inmates at Theresienstadt were being treated fairly, transports to Auschwitz picked up speed. Over the last weeks of September and early October, the camp was nearly emptied. Only 400 inmates remained at the beginning of 1945.

By the time the International Red Cross took charge of the camp the following May, the damage had already been done. More than 30,000 inmates had died in the camp of disease, starvation and abuse. Nearly three times that number had been shipped off to the Nazi killing factories in the east.

Documenting Identity


In 1990, Oren Rudavsky and Yale Strom co-directed “At the Crossroads: Jews in Eastern Europe Today,” a wonderfully poignant and hopeful documentary about a rather complicated subject. It followed Strom, a klezmer musician, speaking Yiddish to elderly Jews in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and English to young Jews trying to shape a new identity there. Rudavsky’s curious and sympathetic camera captured a range of emotions, from the loneliness of an aging Jew to the exhilaration engendered by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s concert in 1989 Warsaw.

Fourteen years later, Rudavsky and Strom continue to make films that raise piercing questions about Jewish identity — separately. If either Rudavsky’s “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust” or Strom’s “Klezmer on Fish Street” were receiving theatrical distribution this season, Los Angeles’ filmgoers would be enriched. The fact that both of these fine documentaries are opening at the Laemmle Theatres is cause for celebration.

“Hiding and Seeking” is the latest documentary by Rudavsky and Menachem Daum, whose previous collaborative gem was “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.” The upcoming Los Angeles release of “Hiding and Seeking” follows its world premiere in mid-January as the opening-night selection of the New York Jewish Film Festival. “Klezmer on Fish Street,” opening today, is Strom’s latest contribution to a rich career blending musical and cinematic achievements. A fine example is “The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music,” Strom’s moving 1994 portrait of the Polish musician and composer, for which Rudavsky was the director of photography.

On the surface, “Hiding and Seeking ” and “Klezmer on Fish Street” have much in common, from their subject and locale — Americans visiting Poland — to their concern with Jewish identity. But they ultimately diverge in style, message and vision. “Klezmer on Fish Street” is a kaleidoscopic exploration of a new and paradoxical development – the resurgence of Yiddish culture in a country where the Jewish community was decimated. Strom chronicles what he has termed “cultural philo-Semitism” by and for non-Jews. “Hiding and Seeking” is more central to a growing sub-genre of Holocaust cinema in which a Jewish individual travels back to the European scene of the crime, where a parent was either murdered or rescued during World War II.

In “Hiding and Seeking,” Daum takes his two sons to Poland, the locale of their grandfather’s rescue by Christian farmers. Daum proves to be a rich subject for cinematic treatment. Born in a displaced persons camp in Germany to Holocaust survivors, he came to the United States in 1951, where he became a Brooklyn resident and a skeptical Orthodox humanist. In the beginning of the film, viewers see him traveling to Israel to visit his sons, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva. He is concerned that they are shunning non-Jews. Both sons are full-time Torah students in Jerusalem with children of their own. They say they want nothing to do with the “goyim” who have been destroying Jews for centuries, and express little appreciation for how their grandfather was saved.

On a journey to overcome his sons’ insularity, Daum and his wife, Rifke, travel to Poland with Tzvi Dovid and Akiva, who are dismissive of the whole enterprise. It is thus even more moving when they meet the Mucha family, who risked their lives to shelter Rifke’s father for more than two years. Tzvi Dovid and Akiva cry and pray at the place where their grandfather (and his two brothers) were saved.

With three generations of both Jews and Poles reunited, the film creates a dramatic opportunity for closure. The saviors express bewilderment — rightfully — that the rescued Jews never even wrote to them after the war, to which Daum replies, “We’re here to correct that.” By the end of the film, one year later, Daum obviously has succeeded in his aims: Not only are the rescuers honored by Yad Vashem — through a moving ceremony in Poland that brings both families together again — but his sons have learned about decent non-Jews. In a speech at a town hall, Tzvi Dovid acknowledges that his own grandfather’s silence was due to “an overwhelming sense of insurmountable debt.”

If “Hiding and Seeking” takes on the insularity of the Orthodox world — inviting tolerance as well as gratitude vis-a-vis “the Other” — “Klezmer on Fish Street” embraces the new expansiveness of Poland vis-a-vis Judaism. Strom shot much of the film during the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, where klezmer musicians have large and enthusiastic audiences (with hardly any Jews on either side of the stage). The film raises the question of whether Jewish culture can exist without Jews — or, more precisely, without Jewish faith.

One of the narrative frames is a confrontation in Krakow’s square on a Saturday night between the young Jewish American visitors singing and dancing, and a few Poles who complain because it’s past the time that loud public gatherings are permitted. The nice policemen are stuck — confused and restrained — as the youngsters refuse to disperse.

An intermediary is found in Alta, a Holocaust survivor who is the Klezmaniacs lead singer’s grandmother. Strom follows her own return to Bedzin, whose Fish Street informs the film’s title. Thanks to visitors like Alta and the Klezmaniacs, Klezmer music is heard there once again. Musically speaking, the flame of Judaism has not died in Poland, a country where so much of Jewish culture — including chasidic melodies and Yiddish poetry — was born. We see, for example, a concert of the enthralling Polish klezmer group “Kroke” in the rain: A high-angle shot shows their audience as a vast sea of umbrellas, visually invoking giant yarmulkes. (Coincidentally, “Hiding and Seeking” also contains related footage of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s l989 concert: In Warsaw, he entertains a rapt and predominantly Christian audience with his religious music.)

Strom keeps returning to two images: the silhouette of a man playing a violin in a field, suggesting that Yiddish music is merely a shadow of its pre-Holocaust vitality, and the nighttime Krakow confrontation, where cries of “Stop shooting” take on double resonance. “Why don’t you go back to Israel?” one Polish non-Jew asks a Polish Jewish woman who left her native land in 1968 because of government-instigated anti-Semitism. In addition, interviews, concert footage and Alta’s rueful ruminations make the film jump, in a sense, from Holocaust shadows to the light of present-day celebration.

“Klezmer on Fish Street” is an effective film that — while chronicling and contributing to the return of Jewish life in Poland — questions whether anti-Semitism has really disappeared there. “Hiding and Seeking,” on the other hand, is a film of transformation in which a mensch seeks out and celebrates the decency of others.

“The Last Klezmer” opens today; “Hiding and Seeking” opens June 4. For information, call (310) 478-1041. Also, Strom will perform a Mother’s Day klezmer concert May 9, 3 p.m., with vocalist Elizabeth Schwartz and accordionist David Kasap at The Workman’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles; for tickets and information, call (310) 552-2007. Strom’s new play, “Yiske Labushnik: Tales of a Wandering Klezmer” runs May 10, 7:30 p.m., at Emmanuel Center of Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills; for tickets and information, call (323) 658-5824.


Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, is the author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” an updated third edition of which was published by Cambridge University Press. This article is reprinted courtesy of The Forward.

Touching the Past


It was, on the surface, a fairly typical sight: children greeting their grandmother, perhaps their great aunt, with flowers and hugs as she emerged from the plane at LAX. But Hana Gruna’s connection to these children was not one of blood, but of a Torah scroll. And the coincidences — some would say bits of fate — that brought them together weave a tragic and ultimately hopeful tale that traverses the time and distance between Susice, Czechoslovakia, 1945, and Santa Monica, 1999.

Every Shabbat and holiday for the last 16 years, Sha’arei Am: The Santa Monica Synagogue has chanted the 3,000-year-old words from a Torah scroll salvaged from Susice. The congregation’s quest to find a survivor from the town led them to Gruna, which led Gruna to physically touch a past once thought long demolished which led Sha’arei Am members to a connection to Jewish history more tangible than most are privileged to feel.

Sha’arei Am flew Gruna, 82, from her home in New Jersey to Los Angeles to participate in a rededication ceremony in May.