Jewish-Muslim family escapes Syrian civil war for Israel


A Jewish-Muslim family from Syria escaped from the country’s civil war to Israel.

The family, made up of three generations, traveled for weeks through conflict areas before crossing the border to a neighboring state and then flying to Israel. The family is now living in an absorption center near Tel Aviv, according to The Jerusalem Post, which first reported the escape after a gag order was lifted on the news.

The escape and rescue was arranged by Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who has been involved in humanitarian efforts for Syrian refugees during the three-year civil war. Kahana reportedly used his connections with leaders of the Syrian opposition to help the family escape.

The Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Absorption and the Israel Flying Aid NGO assisted in the rescue.

About 20 Jews remain in Syria, all in Damascus, according to the Post.

Hundreds of Syrian victims of the civil war have been treated at hospitals and field hospitals in Israel.

 

A Jew who fought the Nazis


“Amidah,” as the term is used by historian Yehuda Bauer, refers to any act by which Jews “stood up” to Nazi persecution.  By that definition, smuggling food or conducting a Torah class in the confines of a ghetto were acts of resistance. But some resisters actually picked up a weapon, and their exploits exert a certain visceral appeal to the generations who struggle to make sense of the tragic carnage that we call the Holocaust. 

One such hero was a remarkable man named Peter Stevens.  Like hundreds of thousands of other Jews, he was afforded an opportunity to fight Nazism by joining the armed forces of the Allied nations. When, in 1941, Stevens was shot down on an RAF bombing raid over Berlin and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, he faced a unique peril — Stevens was not only Jewish but also a native of Hanover and thus, in the eyes of Nazi Germany, worthy of death twice over. If these facts had been discovered by his captors, Stevens would have been taken out and shot.

His story is told in fascinating detail in “Escape, Evasion and Revenge: The True Story of a German-Jewish RAF Pilot Who Bombed Berlin and Became a POW” by Marc H. Stevens (Pen & Sword: $39.95). The author is the son of Peter Stevens, and his biography is based on a shattering personal revelation.  As far as Marc Stevens knew, his father had been a Christian child who was adopted by an English couple in the 1930s. In fact, his father was Georg Franz Hein, a Jewish refugee whose family had the opportunity to send their children out of Germany and the good luck to find a safe refuge in England.  At the outbreak of World War II, Georg Hein — who now called himself Peter Stevens — enlisted in the RAF.

“To a twenty-year-old, war may seem nothing but glorious,” writes Marc Stevens. “Peter Stevens would come to know at first hand that it is anything but.”

In fact, the story of Peter’s war service offers a full measure of glory, and the author manages to evoke his father’s exploits with all the color and action of a good war novel.  And yet it is also a non-fiction account of combat and escape that allows us to see what Allied pilots and POWS really experienced and endured. Working with archival documents — and the accounts of a few survivors who knew his father — Marc Stevens packs his book with the kind of technical detail and close observation that is even more thrilling than fiction to those of us who are avid readers of history.

Thus, for example, we are shown that the tracers fired by attacking Nazi fighters actually helped Stevens to steer his damaged aircraft away from peril, and the co-pilot hastily jettisoned all of the machine guns to lighten the damaged bomber. We learn that the crew’s first duty in the event of a crash landing in enemy territory was to grab the fire axe and destroy the top-secret bombsight.  Yet some details are familiar because we’ve seen them in countless war movies: “For you, the war is over!” said the German officer who captured Peter Stevens.

For Stevens, however, the struggle against Nazi Germany was really just beginning. From the moment of his capture, he was determined to escape. His mastery of German, which he dared not speak while in custody, allowed him to eavesdrop on his captors and assist in the forgery of identity papers. Although he did not manage to reach England until after the war, Stevens participated in the planning for the heroic effort known to movie-goers as “The Great Escape.”  Later, he earned the right to carry a British passport after one of his brothers-in-arms attested that “he worked extremely hard in various activities against the Hun.”

Peter Stevens is not presented as an unalloyed hero.  The author discloses that his father was “a man with a brilliant mind but misplaced priorities,” a tortured soul who “was incapable of love, for he had seen too little of it.”  Yet Marc Stevens richly honors his father by revealing how he managed “to fight back and take some measure of personal revenue.”  At the same time, Marc Stevens enriches the ever-growing archive of historical evidence in the form of memoir and biography that is essential to retrieving and preserving the memory of men like Peter Stevens who put themselves on the front lines in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at {encode=”books@jewishjournal.com” title=”books@jewishjournal.com”}.  His next book is a biography of an early figure in the Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany.

Boy proves key in getting grandparents into U.S.


Tears ran down my face as my grandmother told an interviewer in Persian the story of her miraculous escape from Iran 25 years ago.

I had heard portions of her story many times before, but this time, I was serving as her translator for an on-camera interview, and for the first time, I discovered the important role I played as a young child in making her immigration to America a reality.

“It’s been years since I left Iran,” my grandmother told the interviewer, “and I have tried to forget that very special life I had and what happened when I was forced to leave it all behind, because those are very painful memories.”

Up until that moment, her story had seemed remote to me, something that took place long ago in a faraway land.

My grandfather, Esmaeil Khorramian, who was in his 50s at the time, and my grandmother, Pari, who was in her early 40s, saw their seemingly peaceful and very affluent lives in Tehran overturned in 1983 on Tu b’Shevat at services in their synagogue. That night, friends urged them to leave the country, because some of their tenants were Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and word had leaked out that they were planning to arrest my grandfather in order to seize his assets.

“After 26 years of building my near-perfect life, one day I realized that I had to dismantle that life and leave Iran forever,” my grandmother related. “My home in a high-end neighborhood of Tehran was like a small castle, and everyone who saw it would say it was incredible.”

Escape would not be easy. My grandparents faced the problem of fleeing Iran, which had closed its borders during the Iran-Iraq War. However, a greater challenge was how to bring along my grandfather’s 92-year-old mother, Sara. She insisted that she would not leave Iran under any circumstances.

With few options, my grandparents turned to smugglers, who agreed get them out of Iran and into Pakistan for a fee. However, they demanded an extra 2 million in Iranian currency to also smuggle out my great-grandmother.

“One night I went to sleep, and the next day, Feb. 8, 1983, I left my house, my belongings, my entire life behind, and left with only a handbag in my hand,” my grandmother said in tears as she recalled the departure.

My grandparents had to lie to my great-grandmother to get her to leave the house, telling her that they were all going on a vacation.

The smugglers were also taking a Baha’i woman and her young daughter. The Baha’i woman was a doctor, and she had been released from prison by a guard who recognized her as the doctor who had treated his child.

The five got into a van and were driven to a tent in the middle of the desert, near the Pakistani border. By this time, my great-grandmother had realized that they were not headed for a vacation but instead were fleeing Iran, and she began loudly protesting.

The smugglers became upset with her and wanted to leave her behind. However, the Baha’i woman suggested slipping Valium into her food to put her to sleep.

“We were simply terrified at this point,” my grandmother said. “The smugglers told us that in the morning, we would cross the Iranian border into Pakistan at noon, when there were noon prayers, and also told us, ‘We’re glad you’re Muslims and not Jews, because if you were, we would kill you immediately.'”

The next day, they crossed undetected into Pakistan during prayers.

“It was dangerous, because not only were we illegally leaving the country, but we were also sitting on large containers of heroin that were also being smuggled into Pakistan by the smugglers,” my grandmother explained.

The group entered the notoriously dangerous Pakistani border town of Queta via a very narrow and winding road, where only one vehicle at a time could pass.

“When we arrived at the checkpoint, the guard asked us all where we were coming from and what we were doing in Pakistan; we just looked at him and said nothing,” my grandmother said, explaining that they were following instructions of the smugglers to pretend that they couldn’t speak. “He then asked my mother-in-law, Sara, the same question, and she shouted at him, ‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know we just escaped from Tehran?'”

Everyone was furious with Sara, and the smugglers said they were going to kill her for betraying them, the interviewer was told. One of the guards demanded a bribe of 400 rupees.

“The angry smugglers told us that they would not pay the bribe, and that we had to pay the bribe ourselves or be arrested,” my grandmother recounted. “We had no other choice, so we and the Baha’i woman each paid a share of the bribe from money we had hidden in our belongings, and they let us go.”

Not knowing anyone in Queta, my grandparents and great-grandmother took a plane to Karachi, Pakistan, where they stayed for a few days with the help of a Jewish family. Then they were able to bribe a Pakistani officer to help them get a flight to Switzerland and to Lisbon, Portugal.

My grandparents spoke neither Portuguese nor English, and they were taken to a hotel in a bad area of the city. They knew no one in Portugal, had little money left and little food, so they called my mother, who was in Los Angeles. My parents had only been in the United States for three years, and we had no contacts in Portugal and knew no one who could help my grandparents.

At the time in 1983, I was a 5-year-old kindergarten student at Temple Beth Am’s day school. My grandmother told the interviewer that at school, I told my teachers, “Mama is in Portugal” several times, because that is what I had heard my own mother saying many times at home.

My teacher asked my mother what I was talking about. She told them about my grandparents and great-grandmother who were stranded in Portugal with no contacts and little money.

“Then Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi [Jacob] Pressman got involved and told my daughter he would help find a Jewish contact in Portugal that would help us,” my grandmother said. “Thereafter, my son called the rabbi’s Jewish contact in Portugal, and the man took us to a better hotel and helped us find a lawyer.”

I honestly didn’t remember what I told my teacher at school until my grandmother told the interviewer about my part in her story — that as such a young boy, I was directly responsible for helping her in her time of need.

My grandparents and great-grandmother remained in Portugal for two months before being sent to Italy, where they sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy. Months later, they finally arrived in Los Angeles.

My grandmother wept as she told her story. She told me it was a miracle that she was able to escape from Iran with a 92-year-old woman who had jeopardized her life.

My grandmother’s story, along with the many stories from the older generation of Iranian Jews who had to flee, are particularly heart-breaking, because of how they were forced to forfeit everything.

In the 1930s and ’40s, they had worked hard to escape the poverty of the Jewish ghettos in Iran by educating themselves and working hard in business, only to have it confiscated by Iran’s totalitarian fundamentalist regime.

While I may never be able to help my grandparents fully regain what they were forced to leave behind in Iran, I am nevertheless proud to have helped them safely reunite with the rest of our family in America.

Terrifying journey marks escape of widow and children


“When I think of the frightening journey I had to take to illegally flee Iran, chills still run down my spine,” said Fahrokh Askari, a 60-something Iranian Jewish grandmother now living in Tarzana.

Her escape from Iran by foot and van through the deserts and mountains into Pakistan is similar to the experiences many local Iranian Jews endured when they fled Iran during the 1980s and 1990s. However, Askari’s stands out for the fact that she was a widow accompanied by three of her children and two other Jewish children when she made her escape, which was dependent on smugglers who left her terrified throughout the entire journey.

The motivation for the escape was triggered at the start of the Iranian revolution, when her husband, Manuchair, a civil engineer specializing in highway construction, was fired from his Ministry of Transportation job because he was Jewish. The leaders of the radical Islamic government in Iran accused him of aiding the shah’s regime by helping to build massive highways and bridges in the country and prosecuted him for two to three years in the newly formed revolutionary courts.

“They tried to imprison him or execute him by searching for some infraction of his, but because he had a clean record of excellent performance, they couldn’t do anything,” Fahrokh Askari said in a recent interview.

Her husband was later asked to return to his post because no one else was qualified to fill it. Manuchair Askari returned temporarily, but as a result of being mistreated by his superiors, he was forced to accept early retirement at age 45. Government officials then prohibited the private sector from employing him in his professional capacity because he was Jewish.

The entire Askari family also was placed on the official government list of people who could not leave the country or even the city of Shiraz, where they resided.

“My husband eventually went into a deep depression because he couldn’t work as a civil engineer, and his private business ventures also failed,” Askari said. “He developed a severe form of diabetes, then later developed cancer and, at the age of 53, died in 1989.”

One year after her husband’s death, Fahrokh Askari found herself a widow with only limited funds, no other family members to help her and no means of supporting herself. She decided to flee Iran and sought the help of smugglers who had helped her brother escape a year before.

In October 1991, she paid the equivalent of $6,000 to a smuggler, and with her three children — two daughters, 10 and 16, and a son 15 — as well as her cousin’s 15-year-old son, she left their home and traveled to the Iranian city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. The smugglers had with them a another Jewish boy who was also to be taken across the border.

“We were supposed to meet our smuggler in the middle of the desert road, and all the while the cab driver was telling us horror stories of how the local smugglers in the area were brutal.” Askari said. “This made us even more terrified.”

While they were in the cab, her son saw the smugglers on the side of the road and demanded the cab driver stop immediately, but he refused because he was frightened himself. Eventually, the smugglers arrived with their van, into which they loaded Ashkari and the children. They drove off into the rocky desert to avoid police checkpoints on the main road.

“We finally stopped. We got out and all held hands as we walked on foot,” the widow said. “I can still remember the chattering noise of my children’s teeth during that walk. I also remember our guide telling us every so often to lay down on the ground.”

Askari and the five children were taken to a poorly lit house with two rooms and told to sleep on the floor for the night, before their border crossing the next day into Pakistan.

She said she and the children were surrounded by an all-male group of smugglers that night, and she feared that one of them would harm her children.

“It was one of the longest nights in my life. They kept telling me to go to sleep, but I just could not, because I had young girls with me. Then one of the smugglers came into the room and fell asleep at the entrance,” Askari said.

At daybreak, the lead guide left to obtain a van on the Pakistani side of the border. He left Askari and the children with his relatives, who loaded the group into another van.

They traveled through the wilderness and across dry riverbeds to avoid police checkpoints on the main road. Their van stopped periodically, and the guides gave the driver directions on where to go until they finally crossed a deserted portion of the border into Pakistan.

When the van finally stopped in a desert area inside Pakistan, the smugglers left Askari and the children there alone, promising that their main guide would pick them up later in the day.

“They left us all alone in the middle of the desert with only some fruit and a little water — it was a very hot day, and there was no shade,” she remembered, still feeling the terror.

“I just didn’t know what was going to happen, and the kids were getting restless and fighting with one another — we were all alone for seven to eight hours in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

Finally, their original guide picked them up, and they were taken to a series of safe houses in the small, lawless villages along the Pakistani border, which were populated by smugglers and criminals. At every home, she said her heart sank with mind-numbing fear that one of the criminals in the homes might at anytime harm her or the children.

“In one home, one large and tall man, the height of an NBA basketball player, entered the room drunk with a bottle of whiskey in one hand, a cigarette in the other one hand, and he sat next to me,” she said. “He was drinking the whiskey like it was water, offering it to me, and I was terrified that this drunk ogre would try to do something crazy to me or my kids.”

The smugglers were having difficulty transporting the family, because fighting had broken out between the tribal groups in the city of Queta, making travel very dangerous. Nevertheless, her guides managed to get the family to Queta and then onto a train to Karachi, where she was to meet members of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for help.

Since the mid-1980s HIAS had been stationed in Pakistan, helping Jewish refugees who escaped Iran. After three months in Pakistan and several months in Vienna, Askari immigrated with her children to the United States, where she received asylum.

She said she still considers her escape from Iran a miracle.

“It was a horrible, horrible experience. Every moment was full of fear that I just cannot describe to you, and I had young children with me, too,” Askari said. “We had no clue where we were going. We sat in a van in the middle of the desert for long hours, and they could have done anything they wanted to do us — but fortunately nothing bad happened to us.”

Books: Part history, part mystery — the passengers of the S. S. St. Louis


“Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust” by Sarah A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller set a difficult task for themselves. Writing their book was easy. So, too, was researching what happened on the voyage of the St. Louis, the Hamburg-American line ship that traveled from Germany to Cuba in May 1939, carrying 937 passengers who were escaping Nazi Germany. The authors’ greater challenge was to uncover the fate of the passengers after the ship had been turned away from numerous ports. Their dogged pursuit of all leads yielded some surprising results.

Some of the passengers had come from concentration camps to the ship’s dock, because in 1939 if Jews could provide evidence that they would leave Germany, they could be freed from the camps.

They were men, women and children of privilege and initiative. Some traveled first class; others had used their last marks to escape. They had secured passage on a luxury liner that would transport them to freedom. When they departed from Germany, they carried what they assumed were valid visas to enter Cuba. Their departure was without melancholy; they knew they had to leave, and they must have felt privileged to escape. Their voyage was actually joyous: For the first time in years they were treated by the German staff — under the leadership of a most decent captain — as guests, not as Jews.

After Kristallnacht, in November 1938, no Jew could feel secure in Germany. None could imagine that things would get better under the current regime, and it took little foresight to leave Germany then. But opportunity was scarce. The British had limited immigration to Palestine because of the White Paper; the United States had instituted quotas, based on the census of 1890, designed to preserve the original racial stock; and immigration from Central and Eastern Europe was tightly restricted, inadequate for the number of German Jews fleeing for their life. Money could buy entry into Cuba; thus, for the well-heeled, Cuba presented an opportunity — or so it seemed.

As many readers know before they even begin the book, the visas were declared invalid before they passengers departed. This fact was known to the shipping company, but not to the passengers, who arrived in Havana and only then learned that they could not disembark. Then the diplomatic game began. Cuban officials were notoriously corrupt, so the question was not whether they would accept a bribe, but what price would be appropriate. The greater the attention paid to the ship’s passengers and the more prominent the voyage, the higher the price.

Would Jewish organizations, most specifically the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), consent to offer a bribe? If so, what precedent would this set regarding Jews who were fleeing by the tens of thousands, not just by the hundreds? Could illicit means accomplish the goal? Would Jewish organizations then be held hostage by corrupt and corruptible regimes? Could they afford the sums requested? Would the American government succumb to public pressure and accept these refugees rather than force the ship to return to Germany?

As anyone who has studied the American response to the Holocaust knows, the ship saw the lights of Miami, but was not permitted to enter its harbor. The U.S. Coast Guard patrolled the waters of the Atlantic — some say to prevent the ship from entering, others say merely to make sure that its whereabouts were known. The German captain Gustav Shroder was a quiet hero, doing all within his power to bring the passengers to safety and to pervert their descent into the abyss. Hopelessness was their companion; each rumor gave them a moment of respite and then was crushed by reality.

In the end, the ship was unable to find a place to discharge its passengers in the New World, but passengers did not have to return to Germany. The “great diplomatic triumph” was that the passengers would disembark in other European countries. France, Belgium and Holland accepted 628 of the passengers. More than 280 were sent to England, 21 had valid entry permits to Cuba, one attempted suicide and was hospitalized in Havana. Within a year, only those passengers who found haven in England were safe, as Nazi Germany invaded the other countries of refuge.

Almost everyone who has written about this sad chapter in history assumed that the fate of the passengers who disembarked in Europe was similar to that of the Jews of Europe — deportation to death, to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec or Sobibor. Ogilvie and Miller painstakingly traced each of the 937 passengers. The fate of some was found in records of the death camps; others in the National Archives, for they had emigrated after the war. The archives of the JDC also yielded important results, since they kept track of the passengers even in the lands of their haven. The authors then began the hard task of tracking the remaining passengers, person by person, story by story.

They received anonymous tips and unsolicited calls, each of which they tracked down. Important conversations followed. The authors divided the work: Ogilvie was the researcher, Miller was the networker. She worked in archives, he by telephone or e-mail.

(Here the reader should know that I mentored the careers of the book’s authors for almost a decade, more than a decade ago. Had they written a bad book, I would have been reticent to criticize them, for we must assume responsibility for those whose careers we have influenced. But since they have written a fascinating book, permit me to reveal my subjective prejudices and let the reader compensate accordingly.)

Visits to people yielded further contacts with other people. The authors employed the vast resources of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and its worldwide reaches. The list of unknown passengers grew shorter month by month.

Recent releases: Forget escape — these films tugs at the conscience


While Hollywood has always concentrated on escapist entertainment, many filmmakers yearn to go against the grain and make movies that address urgent social and political issues. They have to fight the industry’s perennial fear of alienating audiences with stories that hit too close to home. Yet during periods of national turmoil, politically charged movies have shared the spotlight with comic book fantasies and screwball comedies. In the ’30s, and again in the late ’60s and ’70s, films caught the country’s mood of disillusionment and protest. We seem to be in the midst of another wave of socially conscious movies, which undoubtedly reflect the stark polarization of the country and the deep-seated frustration with Bush administration policies both in Iraq and on the domestic front.

Among the current or upcoming movies with an unmistakable political agenda are Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” a critique of how the American government merchandised heroism during World War II; “Catch a Fire,” a powerful drama about the apartheid era in South Africa; “Babel,” a panoramic look at misery and injustice around the world; “Home of the Brave,” a story of three Iraq war veterans who have trouble adjusting to life at home; “Blood Diamond,” Edward Zwick’s drama about a mercenary whose consciousness is raised during the civil war in Sierra Leone; and “The Good Shepherd,” an epic history of the CIA, written by Eric Roth and directed by Robert De Niro.

In the past, Jewish filmmakers made major contributions to socially conscious movies, and they sometimes suffered for their principles. During the blacklist era, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings had an ugly anti-Semitic tinge, as committee members frequently focused on the Jewish-sounding names of actors and writers accused of inserting communist propaganda into movies. Although they didn’t like the attention they received during these hearings, the Warner brothers were among the prime purveyors of socially conscious films of the ’30s. Warner films such as “I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” “Black Legion” and “Angels with Dirty Faces” exposed social problems of the Depression era. In the filmmaking renaissance of the ’60s and ’70s, Italian American artists like Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese played a central role. But Jewish directors like Sidney Lumet (“Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network”), Arthur Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Catch-22”) also created archetypal movies of this rebellious era.

Jewish filmmakers are involved in many of today’s socially conscious movies, though of course they aren’t the only ones at the barricades. Documentaries have gained popularity in recent years, following the success of Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Some of the latest entries include Amy Berg’s scathing documentary about child molestation within the Catholic Church, “Deliver Us From Evil,” and a disturbingly timely film about the FBI’s harassment of John Lennon, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.” One of the strongest documentaries, made by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, is “Shut Up & Sing,” the impassioned film about the furor that greeted the Dixie Chicks’ anti-Bush comments on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

The first important dramatic movie to focus on the Iraq War is “Home of the Brave,” written by Mark Friedman and directed by Irwin Winkler. It’s unusual for a film about a controversial conflagration to be made while the war is still raging fiercely. Hollywood ignored the Vietnam War until years after the conflict ended. But Friedman and Winkler have plunged right into the fray, opening their film with startlingly effective scenes dramatizing the chaos and savagery that confront American soldiers in Baghdad. The film tries to avoid overt political sloganeering. But in showing the monumental difficulties that these vets face on their return to America, “Home of the Brave” makes an unmistakably mournful comment on the war.

At first glance, “Catch a Fire” would seem to be a safer political drama in that it condemns the brutal South African regime that was overthrown 15 years ago. But the film has more universal implications. Screenwriter Shawn Slovo and her mother, the film’s producer Robyn Slovo, actually lived through the tumultuous events depicted here. It seems that they were inspired not simply by the atrocities of the past but by a desire to comment on current events. The film’s hero, Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), is an innocent, apolitical man unjustly arrested and tortured. His mistreatment drives him straight into the arms of the terrorist group he was falsely accused of abetting. Is the same thing happening today to prisoners abused in Iraq and Guantanamo? The film raises timely questions about a repressive government’s role in aggravating the very problems it claims to be solving. Director Phillip Noyce has commented pointedly that “Catch a Fire” is as much about events of 2006 as it is about the 1980s.

(For a Jewish journal profile of screenwriter

Spectator – A ‘Return’ With Echoes


Sonia Levitin’s musical, “The Return,” based on her novel of that name, revolves around Operation Moses, the mid-1980s airlift that brought most of Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews to Israel. But in many ways, this tale of escape echoes the Holocaust in its descriptions of prejudice and massacres in a region of the world that has since endured a genocide in nearby Rwanda, the scourge of AIDS and, more recently, a humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

If these Jews had remained in Ethiopia, there might have been a second Holocaust, a point implied in “The Return,” which will be presented as a work in progress in previews this weekend at the MET Theatre before a planned run in the fall.

The Holocaust allusion resonates for Levitin, who was 3 years old when her mother escaped Berlin with her three children in 1938. Her mother is the inspiration for the wise older woman of the play, Weizero Channa, who vows to see Jerusalem despite her failing health.

While Levitin’s novel, “The Return,” won the PEN Award and National Jewish Book Award, one might ask if this is apt material for a musical.

Levitin had never written a play or even lyrics before, but calls the musical the “most wonderful, creative form,” an egalitarian template that can depict and appeal to anyone.

The subject matter is especially topical at a time of national debate over immigration. The Falashas, of course, were immigrants, as well, and became Israeli citizens roughly 20 years ago.

The origin of the Falasha Jews is “shrouded in mystery,” Levitin says. Her score includes a song about the Queen of Sheba, said to be the matriarch of the Falashas, who likely gave birth to some of King Solomon’s children some 3,000 years ago.

Although the show — directed by Bo Crowell, with choreography by Donald McKayle and music by William Kevin Anderson — contains a fledgling romance, with Channa acting as matchmaker, the musical is mostly about the pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Israel. Along the way, some are beaten; others are killed. But the immigrants’ spirit, embodied in the play’s title, cannot be extinguished or denied.

“The Return,” will be presented May 20, 3 p.m., and May 21, 7 p.m., at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave, Hollywood, (323) 957-1152.

Spectator – Lessing’s Shots of Liberty


Erich Lessing received his first camera when he exited the synagogue from his bar mitzvah in Vienna in 1936.

“There was no idea of taking up photography as a profession,” said Lessing, 82, from his house in Austria. “In a good Jewish family in Vienna you would only be a lawyer or a doctor.”

But the camera stayed with Lessing when he left Austria for Israel in 1939 to escape the Nazis. There he took photographs for the British army. When he returned to Austria in 1947, he started working as a photojournalist. His interest was the newly communist Eastern Europe, and the photographs he took in Austria and in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 have become Cold War icons.

For one week, starting Sept. 25, a selection of Lessing’s photographs of Austria will go on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club in conjunction with Austrian American Day. The exhibition, titled “From Liberation to Liberty” includes images famously emblematic of the period, such as “Four in a Jeep” — a photograph of four military policeman, one each from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, a symbol of the post-war occupation in Austria.

Lessing did not stay with this reportage: “After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, all the photographers who had been there saw that it was not our documents that were changing political decisions. I do not want to downgrade the influence of photography — the photography at the end of the Vietnam War was very influential. But it took another 50 years for the end of communism in Europe.”

In 1960, Lessing started taking photographic “evocations” of the lives of great poets, musicians and scientists, often taking still photographs of their work in museums. The result was more than 30,000 photographs of art, history and archeology that have filled 40 books. But his seminal work remains the photographs of the 1940s and ’50s.

“I found it a very strange title, being dubbed the photographer of the Cold War,” he said. “But I think it is true.”

“From Liberation to Liberty,” will be on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club, 3084 Motor Ave., as part of the Austrian-American Day Celebration. For more information, call (310) 444-9310.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Divine Protection


 

As the train pulled into the Iraqi border police station, the lanky Jewish boy at the window became more and more nervous. The bulging

package under his robes felt heavy like lead. As the train came to a full stop and the passengers were ordered to line up on the platform, he moved automatically with them, dragging his feet. His fingers wanted to touch his precious and dangerous cargo, but he knew he should not make any suspicious move.

He worried the officers might find out that he was running away from Baghdad and the Iraqi army in order to go to Israel; the mere thought of the consequences of being discovered sent a shudder down his spine.

His friends and relatives warned him not to take his tefillin. “So you’ll skip a couple of days. You’ll find tefillin in Israel,” they said. They kept reminding him that he had to blend in.

He looked just like any other native Iraqi, except for the incriminating tefillin hidden in his garments. The familiar soothing words of the ancient psalms sprang to his lips and he chanted them in a silent prayer.

He thought back to a time in Baghdad when he managed to outwit a group of Muslim teenagers, shabbab, who challenged him to recite the shuhadda, the Muslim declaration of faith, to prove he was a Muslim. A smile passed his lips as he recalled how he slightly altered the Arabic words so as not to denounce his faith.

He knew he might not be so lucky next time, so he left for Israel to escape the persecution and discrimination.

His line of thought returned to the platform when he noticed an officer, who was frisking the passengers, getting closer and closer. Four more people, three, two….

“Mustafa, telephone,” a yell came from within the station.

“Wait here and do not move until I come back,” Mustafa ordered as he hurried to answer his call.

Moments later he returned from the station and resumed his inspection, skipping three people and starting one passenger after the tense boy who could not believe his luck.

“I have no doubt,” my father said, “that the Divine providence was there with me because I was faithful to my Judaism and Zionism.”

The personal exodus story of my father, who after spending several months in transition camp in Tehran, came to Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces with pride for many decades, is for me a story that is closely connected to this week’s parsha.

The Israelites’ ultimate test of faith, the test that will determine their eligibility for redemption, was the Pesach sacrifice.

According to the Bible, the lamb was an Egyptian idol. Slaughtering and roasting it was enough of a provocative act, but the Israelites were asked to go one step further. They were asked to mark their doorposts and their thresholds with the lamb’s blood as if declaring, “Here lives an Israelite. I do not believe in your idols, come and get me.”

There was a great danger that the grief-stricken and frustrated Egyptians would turn their rage against the Israelites instead of addressing the real source of the problem: their own ruthless dictator. However, the Israelites did not shy away from fulfilling the commandment and, as was promised, God protected and did not let anyone take revenge on them. This is the real meaning of the word Pesach — protection (Isaiah 31:5).

God promised the Hebrew slaves that if they would trust him as their redeemer and protector and proudly display that faith, they would be saved from the wrath of human beings.

Although this kind of direct connection is less evident today, it is still our duty that when we remember the national and personal exodus and its message, we inculcate in our children the love and pride of their values and faith, and teach them to strive for a world of peace and harmony.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.

 

Death Camp Uprising


In the history of the Holocaust, the Sobibor death camp in Eastern Poland has remained something of a footnote, a place where 260,000 Jews were murdered, as opposed to at least 1.1 million in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Having operated for just 18 months and closed long before the Allied victory in May 1945, Sobibor, like its victims, disappeared almost without a trace.

But Sobibor was also where Jews organized the only successful uprising in any Nazi death camp, a revolt that enabled some 365 prisoners to escape. It is this heroism that has inspired the French director Claude Lanzmann to make "Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.," a 95-minute documentary built around a firsthand account of the uprising by Yehuda Lerner, one of the prisoners who killed Gestapo guards.

"We knew if we didn’t act, we’d be taken, like all the Jews before us, and killed," Lerner, who was born in Warsaw and now lives in Israel, noted quietly. "So it was simple reality that forced us to act like this. For me, it was a great honor to be chosen as one of the men who would kill the Germans."

"Sobibor," opening Sept. 21 at Laemmle Theatres, is, in a sense, a footnote to "Shoah," Lanzmann’s masterful 1985 documentary consisting of interviews with Holocaust survivors. The Lerner interview was even shot in 1979 during the filming of "Shoah," but the director decided not to use it in the first film, which was nine and a half hours long.

"Rebellion was not the theme of ‘Shoah,’" Lanzmann, 75, who himself joined the French Resistance as a teenager, explained in an interview at his home in Montparnasse. "I also saw that Yehuda Lerner was a story unto himself and could not be reduced to a passing moment. I regretted leaving him out. I had no choice."

In 2000, Lanzmann finally worked out how to use the Lerner material. To film additional scenes, he also traveled to what is now Belarus, where Lerner was first deported, and again to Sobibor, which he had visited while making "Shoah."

With Lerner speaking in Hebrew and an interpreter translating into French (the film will have English subtitles in the United States), "Sobibor" starts with Lerner recounting how in July 1942, when he was just 16, he was rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and deported to a labor camp beside an airport in Belarus.

After escaping eight times from a variety of Nazi work camps over six months, Lerner wound up in the Jewish ghetto of Minsk, the Belarus capital.

In early September 1943, 1,200 prisoners, as well as many more from the ghetto, were placed on a train heading west to Sobibor.

Lerner’s good fortune was that many fellow members of his work force were experienced Red Army soldiers who, led by one Alexander Petchersky, soon decided to organize a rebellion.

The operation was to begin on Oct. 14, 1943, at 4 p.m., with Germans scheduled to enter the huts at five-minute intervals. "We knew the Germans were punctual," Lerner said. "We only succeeded because Germans are punctual. If they hadn’t been punctual that day, everything would have failed."

Lerner and another prisoner were assigned to the tailors’ hut. When the first German entered, they cracked his skull with an ax smuggled in from the carpenter’s hut, then hid his body. Five minutes later, a second German officer arrived and he, too, was killed. Twelve Germans were slain. After seizing weapons, the rebellion escalated.

Lerner described escaping through the camp’s fence and hearing shots fired by Ukrainian guards and mines exploding in the surrounding fields.

"It starts to rain," he recalled. "Not heavy rain, just drops. It was winter in Poland. In October at 5 p.m., it is already dark. I ran into the forest and at that point, I think, maybe the emotion of everything that had happened, the exhaustion, the night, my legs could no longer carry me, and I collapsed. I fell, and I fell asleep."

At that point, Lanzmann ended the interview. “The rest is an adventure of freedom,” he commented.

Lighten Up


With the demise of the former Soviet Union and the fall of communism in the early ’90s, the story of Soviet Jewry’s battle for survival appears to be ancient history. Yet one of the truly remarkable books of our time is the autobiography of one of the famous refuseniks, Yosef Mendelevitch, who struggled valiantly for his right to be Jewish in Communist Russia. Mendelevitch titled his autobiography "Mevzah Hatunah," which translates from Hebrew as "Operation Wedding."

Mendelevitch, together with a group of refusenik friends, tried to escape from the USSR in the early ’70s on a plane they had hoped to fly to Israel. But the KGB uncovered their plan, and they were arrested. At the trial they said that they were planning to go to a wedding. That story served as the basis for the book’s title.

Mendelevitch records how, during his prison sentence, he was often sent to solitary confinement in a 3-foot by 5-foot room with no heat or blanket, with a light that never turned off and a slop pail that was only emptied every 10 days. One stint in solitary lasted 90 days, but he sneaked in a Bible. He was caught reading his Bible a few days later, and the interrogator offered him the following deal: "If you give up the Bible, I will reduce your solitary confinement by 30 days. But if you keep it, I will add 30 days." He answered, "With my Bible there is no solitary confinement; without it, solitary confinement is unbearable."

This very thought is found in this week’s Torah portion. At the very start of the reading, the Torah records the commandment about which oil should be used for the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle. After telling us that pure olive oil was needed, the Torah states that it was used "to lift the perpetual light." This expression is most unusual, for we would have expected the word to be "to kindle." The rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 45b) suggest that "to lift" teaches us that the fire for the menorah came from an already existing fire that was continually burning. The Talmud remarks, "A fire about which continually has been stated: It is the one with which they light the lamps of the menorah … from the fire which is on the altar." It was, if you will, lifted from that source and transferred to the menorah, in order to ignite the flames of the candelabrum.

In this piece of ritual information lies a great insight that has profound moral value. Light, in all literature, is a metaphor for gladness, which uplifts the heart of man. Indeed, in all universal languages, every form of fulfillment is compared to light. What the Torah teaches us via this law of the menorah’s lighting is that the source of our happiness is crucial. If there is to be light-happiness in our lives, then it must come from a source of holiness. When this occurs and one’s light-happiness is grounded in the correct source, that person then is "uplifted," and the fire burns eternally.

Mendelevitch found his source of light-happiness in the Bible, and it illuminated the darkness of his prison cell. Our challenge is to find our holy source of light and illuminate our lives accordingly.