Israel welcomes 200 young Germans


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

On the 68th anniversary of the day that the United Nations first recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state in Palestine, two hundred young German leaders are landing in Israel for a five-day tour of the country. The German visitors have never been to Israel, and are leaders in business, music, art and diplomacy.

UN Resolution 181 called for the partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arab. In his remarks to the cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called it “a decision that advanced the establishment of the State of Israel. The next day, Jewish communities were under increasingly murderous attacks. As it was then, so it is today; we continue to fight terrorism. This terrorism has been with us for almost 100 years and we have defeated it time and again; we will defeat it this time as well.”

Israeli foreign minister spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon said the timing of the visit was purely coincidental, but the fact that both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin will meet the group shows the importance that Israel attaches to its relationship with Germany.

“The relations between Israel and Germany are a cornerstone of Israel’s diplomacy,” Nachshon told The Media Line. “Bringing young Germans here is an important step to preserve those unique relations for the future. They are the young elite of Germany who will influence their future of their country, and we want them to understand Israel.”

The relationship between Germany and Israel has been especially close in the shadow of the Holocaust, when six million Jews were killed. German children all study the Holocaust, and Germany has given Israel billions of dollars in reparations. The two countries have held numerous celebrations this year marking 50 years of diplomatic relations.

Thousands of German students volunteer in Israel, and Berlin has become something of a mecca for Israelis. Israel has intensive security, business and cultural ties with Germany and German President Angela Merkel has a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Earlier this month, four days after the attacks in Paris, Israel forwarded intelligence that a terrorist attack was planned at a friendly soccer match between Israel and the Netherlands in Hanover, during a game that Merkel was supposed to attend, according to the German magazine Stern. The game was called off just before it began.

Also this month, large German department store KaDeWe removed Israeli products produced in areas that Israeli acquired in 1967, after the European Union passed a resolution to remove these products. After an uproar in Israel, officials at the store apologized and returned the products.

Yet some Israeli analysts say that cracks are appearing in the Israeli-German relationship.

“Israeli sympathy for Germany is on the rise while German sympathy for Israel is declining,” Moshe Zimmerman, the Director of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at Hebrew University told The Media Line. “Germany has become the nice guy and Israeli has become the bad guy.”

He said that Germany has intentionally kept its army small and avoided getting involved in war, and has rejected racism. Israel, on the other hand, is seen as being militaristic, and using its army for political purposes.

So far, Zimmerman said, these ideas have not affected Germany’s close political ties with Israel. But they are being heard more and more on the street in Germany, and he said they could eventually affect these ties.

“Politicians are politicians everywhere,” Zimmerman said. “You can’t have the political strata working in a void if the public is against Israel.”

What Syria’s refugees think about Israel might surprise you


Israel’s government is in cahoots with Syrian President Bashar Assad. America wants to keep the Syrian civil war going for as long as possible. Russia is outmaneuvering the United States on the global stage.

Those are some of the viewpoints you’re likely to hear if you talk politics with Syrians pouring out of their war-torn country and into Europe.

When I went to Berlin recently to write about the wave of migrants arriving in Germany, one of the questions I was most curious about was something that had nagged at me since the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad began bombing its own people back in 2011: Now that you see the true face of your government, do you look at its longtime adversary, Israel, any differently? Could the enemy of your enemy be your friend?

But when it came to their views on Israel, there seemed to be more conspiracy theory than political theory. And I was surprised (though I probably shouldn’t have been) that for many Syrians, the defining element of their identity is sectarian rather than national, and therefore they’re more concerned with the divides among Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds than the divide between Arab and Jew.

“Israel and Bashar [Assad] – same-same,” said Khalid el-Hassan, a 17-year-old from the Syrian coastal city of Tartus who recently made his way to Berlin.

El-Hassan cited the quietude that for years prevailed along the Syria-Israel border and Assad’s repeated failure to respond to Israeli airstrikes in Syria both during the civil war and before it.

Emad Khalil, a 22-year-old law student from Aleppo, repeated a myth that is widely accepted as fact across the Arab Middle East: that the two stripes on the Israeli flag represent the Nile and the Euphrates rivers, and the Star of David is a sign that the Jews seek to control all the land in between, from Egypt to Iraq.

“You come to visit Syria, OK. You come to take our land, not OK,” he said.

Some of the Syrian refugees interviewed in Berlin insisted on taking selfies with JTA's Uriel Heilman, in Yankees cap. (Uriel Heilman)

Some of the Syrian refugees interviewed in Berlin insisted on taking selfies with JTA’s Uriel Heilman, in Yankees cap. 

When I told Khalil the myth about the flag had no truth to it, he shrugged.

“I saw it on a documentary,” he said.

To be sure, I heard a range of viewpoints expressed, from the Syrian Kurd who was curious about teachers’ salaries in Tel Aviv to the bereaved Syrian mother who asked me why, if we’re all children of Adam and Eve, can’t we just get along?

To my Western ear, many of the Syrians’ convictions sounded outlandish, incoherent or ignorant. I mostly suppressed the urge to argue, however. My aim wasn’t to convince them why they were wrong, but to get a sense of how they see the world.

Given their experiences over the past four-plus years of civil war, the Syrians I met were less interested in talking about Israel than what they said was the West’s failure to help them.

Hadiya Suleiman, 45, a native of Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria whose 18-year-old son was killed by a roadside bomb she said was rigged by ISIS, said she and other Syrians were happy when President Barack Obama was elected. But his inaction following the Syrian revolution changed her mind.

“I think what’s happening now is Obama’s responsibility; if Obama wanted he could stop the war,” said Suleiman, who has five surviving children.

Suleiman accused the “Jewish lobby” in America of thwarting any action on Syria, saying that U.S. policy favors seeing the civil war drag on so that the Syrians continue killing each other. She also blamed the rise of ISIS on America’s mismanagement of its invasion of Iraq.

Idris Abdulah, 30, an unemployed Syrian Kurd who came to Germany a year ago, said it wasn’t fair to blame America for ISIS; he fingered Assad for creating the ISIS problem by releasing Islamic militants from Syrian prisons shortly after the outbreak of the civil war. But Abdulah said America’s failure to act decisively in Syria shows American weakness, especially in contrast to Russia.

Noting Russia’s success at wresting Crimea from Western-backed Ukraine, Abdulah declared, “America is losing. Russia is winning.”

He added, “We all hate the American government because it’s not doing anything for the Syrian people even though it can. We don’t hate American people.”

Then he offered me the hot cup of tea a friend had just thrust into his hand.

El-Hassan said he was disappointed by the shoddy welcome Syrian refugees have received in Europe — especially given Syria’s “magnanimous” welcome of refugees in decades past from Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Until he reached Germany, el-Hassan said, he encountered mostly hostility, from the Hungarian guards who beat and detained him to the Serbians who refused to provide lodging and other assistance.

“In Serbia, in Macedonia, we sleep in the street, but nobody cared,” el-Hassan said. “Here in Germany, we sleep in the street, but people come to bring us food, sleeping bags. Here they are very good men.”

When I asked why Persian Gulf states weren’t taking in Syrian refugees, the answer was straightforward: “The Arabs don’t love us,” el-Hassan said.

Idris Abdulah, a Syrian Kurd who arrived in Germany in 2014 and still hasn't found a job, says he hopes one day to work helping refugees like himself. (Uriel Heilman)

Idris Abdulah, a Syrian Kurd who arrived in Germany in 2014 and still hasn’t found a job, says he hopes one day to work helping refugees like himself. 

Abdulah said he believes Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia are afraid that incoming Syrian refugees could destabilize their tightly controlled societies by pushing for more freedoms.

So far, Syria’s Muslim neighbors have borne the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis. Approximately half of Syria’s 17 million citizens have been displaced by the civil war. Aside from the millions who have been internally displaced, some 2 million have gone to Turkey, more than 1 million have fled to Lebanon, over 600,000 have found shelter in Jordan and about 250,000 have gone to Iraq.

Many of those countries have balked at taking in more Syrians due to dwindling international funding for Syrian refugees and concerns about the destabilizing effect of an even greater influx.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany announced six weeks ago that her nation would take in 800,000 asylum seekers, it prompted a fresh wave of Syrians to risk the perilous journey to Europe. (By contrast, the United States has accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees over the past four years. The Obama administration announced in September that by 2017 it would increase the number of asylum seekers it accepts annually to 100,000 from 70,000. That figure includes not just Syrians but refugees from all over the world.)

Syrians aren’t the only ones heading to Germany. The refugee camps I visited in Berlin are full of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Eritreans and citizens of too many other countries to count – including Russian speakers from Central Asia. Some are fleeing war, violence or repression, but many are economic migrants seeking better opportunities. It’s a point of consternation for many of the Syrians, who accuse others of misrepresenting the dangers they face back home – and even acquiring fake Syrian identity papers – in an effort to be granted asylum in Germany.

Despite her hopes for a new life in Germany free of war and peril, Suleiman said she’d go back to Syria in a heartbeat if the war ended. But there may not be much to go back to.

“For 10 years I worked to build a house, and now it’s all crushed by Assad’s bombs,” she said. “I tried living under ISIS control, but anybody who said anything that disagreed with ISIS was beheaded.”

Suleiman said she tried to gain admission to Kuwait, where her husband has worked for the past 13 years, but she was denied entry. The same thing happened when she tried Saudi Arabia. Now she has one child in Austria and four with her in Germany, where she arrived in late September.

“But Syria,” she said, “is still my home.”

Survivor: Robert Geminder


In the early morning of Oct. 12, 1941, German authorities ordered the Jews of Stanislawow, Poland, to report to the town square. Six-year-old Robert (Bob) Geminder huddled there with his mother, grandmother and brother, George. The group of approximately 20,000 Jews was then marched to the nearby cemetery. Bob and his family, among the early arrivals, were shoved toward the cemetery’s back wall, where they crouched down. “If you stood up, they would shoot you,” Bob remembered. Meanwhile, people in the front were marched forward toward large pits in the ground, then shot. As they fell into the gaping earth, more Jews were ordered forward. This systematic killing continued all day, until falling snow and darkness halted the massacre of 12,000 or more.

When the Germans released the remaining Jews, pandemonium broke out. In the melee, Bob and his brother were separated from their mother and grandmother and knocked to the ground, where they lay unconscious. As their grandmother exited, she too was pushed down. Searching for her scarf, she recognized Bob lying nearby and then found George. The trio returned to the apartment. “My mother was in total unbelievable disarray when she saw us alive,” Bob remembered. 

Bob Geminder was born on Aug. 3, 1935, in Wroclaw, Poland, to Mano and Bertl. George, his older brother, was born May 31, 1933. The family owned five apartment buildings and lived very comfortably. 

But soon after Germany invaded Poland in early September 1939, the Gestapo knocked on the Geminders’ door. They were given half an hour to pack and depart by train for the eastern half of Poland that was then under Soviet control, a result of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact signed on Aug. 23, 1939. 

Bob and his family traveled from town to town, eventually settling in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) in early 1940. They rented an apartment, supporting themselves with the jewelry and cash they had brought and living relatively normally. 

But on June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and by fall 1941 the Germans were bombing Stanislawow, which was under Soviet control. One day, as the family protected themselves from broken glass by stacking mattresses against the windows, Bob’s father suffered a heart attack and died. 

Bob’s family returned to an empty apartment after the Oct. 12 massacre; the place had already been cleaned out by local Poles. All that remained was a bucket of water with a false bottom that Bob’s grandfather had made, inside of which Bob’s mother had hidden her valuables. “It was a key point in my survival,” Bob said. 

In December 1941, the Jews were forced into the ghetto. Bob, George, his mother and grandmother lived in one room in a small apartment they shared with two other families. During this time, Bob witnessed babies thrown against walls and people hanging from telephone wires.

In the ghetto, Bob’s widowed mother became friendly — and later romantically involved — with Emil Brotfeld, a single man living in the building. He had been born in Stanislawow and “was a fantastically brave guy,” Bob said. He helped her obtain a job outside the ghetto, where she cleaned houses and managed to trade jewelry for bread.

One day, Bob’s grandmother peered out the window to see German soldiers with dogs. Knowing they randomly killed children, she quickly hid Bob and George in a closet and stacked wood against the door to mask the boys’ scent. The Germans entered the room, but soon left. “It was the second time our dear grandmother saved our lives,” Bob said. 

In March 1942, Brotfeld learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto. Escape was their only hope, but he worried that Bob’s mother would not leave her mother and other family in the ghetto. They consulted a rabbi, who told them to save the children. Bob’s mother listened, but, according to Bob, “she felt guilty until the day she died.” 

A few days later, Bob’s mother and her best friend, Lola, left the ghetto for work, walking out among hundreds of workers, each of them hiding a boy under her skirt. Bob’s mother hid the boys in a closet, then took them to the train station at night. 

They traveled to Warsaw, where they stayed with Brotfeld’s sister and her non-Jewish husband. In midsummer 1942, however, once the family obtained false papers, they left Warsaw, moving around in various farm areas. “We were always hungry,” Bob said. 

Seeking a better chance for survival, Bob’s mother found a farmer near Krakow who agreed to hide the boys in exchange for one of the family’s apartment buildings.

But some months later, when George put on his hat in church, rather than removing it, there was an immediate buzz in the pews, and the farmer’s wife panicked. She got word to Bob’s mother to pick George up.

Bob stayed, but the couple hid him in a tiny attic, and mostly ignored him. At night, Bob often sneaked out a window to eat the pigs’ leftover food or raw eggs from a single prolific hen. When his mother arrived 10 weeks later, she found him filthy and lice-infested, talking to his shadow. 

The family kept moving. But in early 1944, with the Russians approaching, they returned to Warsaw, to the apartment of Brotfeld’s sister and brother-in-law.

On Aug. 1, 1944, the Warsaw uprising began. But on Oct. 2, when the Germans defeated the Polish resistance, the family was rounded up, along with thousands of civilian Poles and marched to the train station, where cattle cars awaited them. Bob’s mother spied an open boxcar, which the family managed to board. 

A short distance outside Auschwitz, the train stopped suddenly. Brotfeld lifted Bob over the side to unlatch the door, allowing the four of them to escape. “Run, run,” Brotfeld yelled. 

The family hid one night in a farmhouse, and the next day found an apartment, where they remained until January 1945, when Russian troops liberated the area.

They then traveled to Bielsko, the hometown of Bob’s mother, who hoped to find surviving relatives. Only one cousin returned. 

One day, several months later, Bob and his brother saw the movie “Gunga Din.” Afterward, several Polish boys chased them, yelling and throwing stones. When they arrived home, their mother announced they were leaving immediately.

They traveled through Czechoslovakia to a displaced persons camp in Aglasterhausen, Germany, where Bob was introduced to bananas, bubble gum and English swear words, and where his mother married Brotfeld. 

In February 1947, they left for the United States, settling in Pittsburgh. Bob graduated Carnegie Mellon University in 1957 with a degree in electrical engineering. He then joined the U.S. Army, serving in the Army Reserves for seven years. In the spring of 1958, he moved to Los Angeles and worked for an aerospace company. 

Bob married Judy Strauss on Aug. 23, 1959. They have three children: Mindy born in 1964, Ellen in 1965 and Shia in 1969. 

Judy died in August 2011. 

Bob left engineering to work on a teaching credential, which he earned from Loyola Marymount in 2005, at age 70. He took a break from teaching math for an engineering project, but hopes to return to the classroom. 

Bob has spoken about his experiences during the Holocaust at schools and synagogues for the past 30 years. He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and maintains a Web site (geminder.us) to teach others about what occurred. 

“I attribute my survival first to luck and second to my mother’s smart decisions and bravery, and later my stepfather’s,” he said. 

Three generations will march, witness, remember


As the Germans marched toward the tiny French hamlet of Autrans, 10-year-old Eva Perlman (nee Gutmann) watched as an obviously frightened 17-year-old boy fled from a sawmill into the woods. The Germans shot him on sight.
It was 1942, and the boy wasn’t even Jewish, Perlman says.

“To this day, I’m afraid to go in the woods,” she said. “It makes me think of dead bodies.”

It’s one of several stories the Holocaust survivor recounted to wide-eyed teens as she participated in last year’s March of the Living in Poland for the first time.

Perlman, now 79, is attending again next month, but this time she plans to bring her daughter and granddaughter. And once the April 16-30 event ends, Perlman and her family will take a detour to France to retrace her Holocaust-era experience.

“It’s an incredible opportunity, said Ilana Meskin, Perlman’s daughter. “An entire generation alive during the war is not going to be here very much longer, and to hear their story is a privilege. I’m very honored.”

While in France, they will visit the house in Autrans where Perlman and her family hid in plain sight from the Nazis from 1942 to 1944. There, Perlman will meet with people she knew as a child as well as descendants of those non-Jews who aided her family.

Before reaching Autrans, however, Perlman will visit family in Paris and travel to a town near Nice, where she plans to reunite with her girlhood crush — and meet his wife.

Perlman first heard about March of the Living two years ago, when two students spoke about it at Temple Adat Ari El in Valley Village. The annual educational program takes students and survivors from around the world to Poland, where they explore remnants of the Holocaust and march out of Auschwitz on Yom HaShoah. From there, participants travel to Israel, where they observe Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.

“The girl was unemotional, but the boy broke me up,” Perlman said. “I was so moved by his experience, and the thoughts, and the feelings, and the emotions of the trip.”

Perlman said she turned to her daughter and told her that she never had wanted to visit a concentration camp, but now she did. A friend arranged for Perlman to interview with a March of the Living official, who invited her to participate as a survivor.

Unlike many Holocaust survivors, Perlman carries no personal scars in the form of tattooed numbers on an arm; nor did she have to hide in a secret annex like Anne Frank. Yet she carries vivid memories of the time she and her family rented the upstairs rooms in a yellow house in Autrans, nine miles from Grenoble, in the French Alps.

Some of these memories hurt; Perlman to this day refuses to speak German, and if someone hears her German accent and tries speaking German to her, she will reply in English that she does not wish to speak or hear German.

She is considering documenting her life experiences in a book, which she would title, “A String of Miracles.”

One of these episodes was the time her mother, Charlotte, suffered a bicycle accident, preventing her from reaching her husband, Rodolfe, who had joined the French Resistance. Without the accident, Perlman says, she would have ridden right into the Nazis’ hands.

Another time, her mother carried a trunk loaded with silver and nearly missed her train. As it pulled out of the station, Charlotte saw that Nazis had set up a checkpoint on a bridge she would have had to walk across had she missed the train.

“How about that?” Perlman said recently. “So many times we could have been captured, and some invisible force kept us safe.”

Another stroke of good fortune was their genetics. Eva and her two brothers had blond hair and blue eyes, causing a Nazi to remark, “[They remind] me of our lovely German children.”

He wasn’t far off. Perlman was born in Berlin in May 1932, followed by her brothers Ernest and Raymond, who were born in France. The family had moved in 1933 partly because Rodolfe could get work as a patent attorney.

Her parents sought French citizenship and falsified papers. They wanted to change their last name, because Gutmann sounded too Jewish, but French authorities wouldn’t allow French identification cards to be reissued unless they were illegible. So her mother dropped them in the wash.

The family became the Gallians.

After the Germans marched through France and arrived at Autrans, Perlman said there came the time when a Nazi officer and his aide stayed in their house for two weeks. Her mother had to give up her bedroom and move to the attic.

“It was like letting the lion into the lamb’s cage,” Perlman said.

To avoid suspicion, German-born Charlotte spoke French with smatterings of broken German, mangling syntax and grasping for the right words.

“I cannot, for my part, imagine how I could have done what she did,” Perlman said.

In many ways, Perlman and her family were lucky. French non-Jews betrayed thousands of Jews. The Nazis deported 76,000 Jews, of which about 2,500 survived the death camps. All told, the Nazis wiped out almost one quarter of the Jewish population in France.

When she arrives in Autrans, Perlman said, she expects the yellow house will seem smaller than she remembered, but it won’t dampen her excitement.

Because she was so young at that time, she said she failed to understand the magnitude of the Holocaust. Perlman said she did not feel the mortal terror of the Germans or the Vichy government that her mother felt at that time. As a result, she says, her detailed recollections and her writing about that time lack emotion.

As an adult, however, she said she recognizes the importance of all survivors telling their stories, which is why she attends events such as March of the Living and why she’s bringing her daughter on this trip.

“My daughter will be the eyewitness,” she said. “Saying the story makes it more believable. Pictures are not as graphic as a number on an arm. It’s important.”

Lessons From Nuremberg


Their faces stare out in black and white: the defendants of Nuremberg. Today, the rain-spattered images hang outdoors at the Topography of Terror Exhibition and Documentation Center in Berlin.

Sixty years ago, the men behind these pallid masks were tried for crimes against humanity. Many were executed. Some committed suicide in their cells.

The Nuremberg Trials, which opened with the reading of charges against 24 defendants in Berlin on Oct. 18, 1945, and reconvened in Nuremberg on Nov. 20, confronted Germans with the reality of what had been done in their name. It was the beginning of a process of reckoning and repentance that continues to this day.

How do the stories of those men, and the judges who tried them, resonate for Germans now?

The anniversary of the Trials, coming as Germany inaugurates Angela Merkel as its first chancellor born after World War II, has spawned a flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, with interviews, timelines and considerations of the meaning of international courts today.

“At Nuremberg it came out that they planned to kill all the Jews once they took over,” said Ernest Michel, 82, a Holocaust survivor who covered the Trials for a newly reconstituted German press agency and went on to become a pre-eminent Jewish activist with the UJA-Federation of New York. (See sidebar for more on Michel’s experience.)

“It was the most memorable, satisfying day of my life when I was in Nuremberg,” Michel said, “sitting there as a survivor and watching the last German high leaders being brought to justice.”

The public did not always accept the results of the Trials, seeing them as “victors’ justice.” But Nuremberg nevertheless marked “the end of the period of terror and the beginning of a new democracy,” said historian Claudia Steur, curator of the exhibit at the Topography of Terror documentation center.

“The International Court [in the Hague] was born out of the Nuremberg Trials,” she said. “It was the first great trial on German soil against National Socialism, and the first carried out by the four occupying powers. It also was the first time in history” that such a trial was conducted against a state.

Nuremberg also marked “the first time they used the word genocide,” coined in 1944, said Eckard Dietzfelbinger, historian at the Documentation Center of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg.

“Since the Nuremberg Trials, governments or leaders know that their deeds could also be considered in a courtroom,” said Rabbi Andreas Nachama, historian and director of the Topography of Terror center.

Today’s politicians understand these messages, said Michael Wolffsohn, a historian at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich — but the general public barely pays any attention.

Despite the media coverage of the Nuremberg anniversary, “Nobody really cares, frankly speaking,” Wolffsohn said. “[Germans] have practiced democracy successfully. The problem is not overcoming the past of National Socialism,” but facing “the challenges of the present.”

Juliane Wetzel, who is on the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said many young Germans turn away from the subject of the Holocaust.

Particularly this year, with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and of the German surrender, “youngsters say they don’t want hear any more about it,” said Wetzel, who helped create a task force subcommittee on “resistance against Holocaust education.”

The Nuremberg Trials were one of the first lessons for many Germans: In daily news dispatches, they read about atrocities committed on a vast scale. It would take many decades and many more trials before the general German public would understand that not only the top Nazis were guilty.

“The Nuremberg Trials really were instrumental in setting precedents,” said Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But it was clear that the Nuremberg Trials can only relate to the very, very tip of the iceberg of the criminality of Nazi Germany and those who assisted Nazi Germany.”

Zuroff estimates there were 90,000 indictments in West Germany after 1949, and 7,000 people were convicted. East Germany also conducted war crimes trials.

All in all, “a very small percentage of those who participated in the crimes of the Holocaust were indicted,” Zuroff said, because once the allies were no longer in charge of postwar German courts, the will to prosecute was weak.

After the first trial, there was pressure from the U.S. State Department to ease up, said Lawrence Raful, dean of the Touro Law School in New York, which held a conference in Nuremberg’s courtroom last summer.

The U.S. administration’s message was, “We have punished the Germans, and the Cold War has started. We need to win the hearts and minds of the German people, because as bad as the Nazis were, the Communists are worse,” Raful said.

That was a tough message for Holocaust survivors, like his parents, to accept, Raful said.

Meanwhile, the voices of the Trials’ judges and lawyers, and even some of the defendants declaring themselves not guilty, can be heard in Berlin from small loudspeakers at the outdoor photographic exhibit at the Topography of Terror.

“One can hear the original sound,” said curator Steur, who recently accompanied Ernest Michel on a visit to the exhibit. “I have seen parents or grandparents with their children, standing in front of the map of the zones of Allied occupation [of Germany].”

For some, it’s the start of a long-overdue conversation.

“We’re proud that we had the Trials,” Steur said. But “when you know how many of the old Nazis in the German Democratic Republic went back to their old positions — doctors, judges and police — it’s sad.”

 

Germany Deals With Dark Past on Screen


Sixty-seven years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi-organized mobs burned and looted thousands of German synagogues and Jewish stores during Kristallnacht, the opening salvo of the coming extermination of European Jewry.

How are the grandchildren of the perpetrators dealing with this legacy? Four new German movies show that far from forgetting its nation’s past, today’s generation is still wrestling with it, at times obsessively.

The Germans have a word, of course multisyllabic, for this internal struggle: vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, literally mastering the past, but better understood as “coming to terms with the past.”

One film focuses on documenting the evil of the past. Two of the movies celebrate “good” Germans, who resisted. And one idiosyncratic comedy carries the hope that Germans and Jews are beginning to see each other as just normal neighbors, who can laugh with each other, without guilt or rancor.

“The Goebbels Experiment” is the least artful and most depressing of the lot, but casts a spell as hypnotic as an Indian snake dance.

Joseph Goebbels was, of course, the brilliant propaganda minister — Reich Liar-General — of the Nazi regime, the granddaddy of all spinmeisters, and he kept voluminous diaries throughout his life.

What the film does is to let Goebbels speak for 107 minutes, via the English narration of Kenneth Branagh, while illustrating the words with appropriate news clips.

Goebbels was a man of unprepossessing appearance, small, sallow-faced and born with a clubfoot. (A popular Berlin joke of the 1930s asked, “What does the perfect Aryan look like?” The answer was, “As blond as Hitler, as thin as Goering and as tall as Goebbels.”)

To the outside, the Nazi leadership presented a solid front, united in devotion to the Führer, but the diaries present a picture of bitter rivalries and palace intrigues.

Goering is described by Goebbels as a “morphine addict and megalomaniac” and SS chief Heinrich Himmler as one “who hates me and spies on me.”

The documentary, which played in Los Angeles recently, reveals Goebbels, through his own words, as vain, ambitious, a womanizer — and an artful and ruthless propagandist who deluded his people until the final moment possible.

In the end, he proved his loyalty to Hitler by having his wife, Magda, poison their five children in the Führer’s bunker, before carrying out a mutual death pact with his wife.

“Before the Fall” helps answer why Nazi youngsters fought fanatically to the end when it was clear that the war was lost — and what happened to the few who dissented.

The setting is an elite Napola, one of 40 national political institutes where teenagers are trained to become the future Nazi governors of Moscow and London. Their strictly regimented program is set out to fulfill Hitler’s promise: “In my fortress, we shall raise a young generation that will make the world tremble with fear. I want a ruthless, commanding, fearless, savage youth. There should be nothing weak or fragile about it…. I want my youths to be strong and handsome…. This is how I can give birth to something new.”

Graduation from a Napola promised a bright future and this prospect lures 16-year-old Friedrich. Although he comes from a communist-leaning working-class family, Friedrich, who has boxing talent, looks like the ideal Aryan.

He fits right in until he befriends Albrecht, a sensitive, book-reading nonathlete who is obviously out of place. Albrecht is there because his father, the regional Nazi governor, has the pull and the parental authority to force his son into the elite school.

But when Albrecht protests the massacre of unarmed Soviet prisoners of war in the nearby woods, he reaps the tragic consequences. Friedrich stands up for his disgraced friend and is expelled.

Director Dennis Gansel, only 31, said in a phone interview that he made the powerful film of youthful friendship and rebellion to appeal to today’s German teenagers.

“They are bored with films about terrible Nazis and noble victims,” Gansel said. “They need characters with whom they can identify.”

Gansel got an inside picture of life in a Napola through his grandfather, who served as an instructor at one such institution.

Another film, based on actual events, more directly evokes the sacrifice and rarity of Germans who refused to fall into line.

“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” tells the story of the real-life Scholl, a 21-year-old university student in Munich who became a belated heroine in post-war Germany.

Scholl, her brother and some friends organized the resistance group called The White Rose. In 1943, while surreptitiously stashing anti-Nazi leaflets at the university, she was caught, put through a show trial, and beheaded by guillotine.

The film is carried by the shattering performance of Julia Jentsch as Sophie, who stands up under Gestapo interrogation and chooses to die rather than to recant her beliefs.

In a category of its own stands “Go for Zucker: An Unorthodox Comedy,” which swept Germany’s top cinema awards this year as a surprise hit.

This film shows what happens when a completely secular and assimilated Jew has to host a rigidly Orthodox Jew. A similar plot line drives the current Israeli hit, “Ushpizin,” with the difference that while “Ushpizin” is set in Jerusalem, “Zucker” takes place in contemporary Berlin.

There, middle-aged Jaeckie Zucker (formerly Jacob Zuckerman) ekes out a precarious existence as a pool shark and gambler. Raised in communist East Berlin after his mother and brother fled to the West, Jaeckie left the Jewish “club” a long time ago. He’s used to living on his wits, such as they are.

His fortunes look up when he hears that his mother has died, leaving a sizable estate. The catch is that as a condition of the inheritance he must reconcile with his long- estranged brother, Samuel, an ultra-Orthodox real estate tycoon from Frankfurt.

When Samuel announces that he is coming with his family to Berlin to sit shiva at Jaeckie’s house, the gambler and his non-Jewish wife panic. They take an instant crash course in Judaism and load up on mezuzahs, menorahs and kosher food.

The encounter between the disparate brothers is good for just about every joke on the themes of communist vs. capitalist, East Germany vs. West Germany and religious Jew vs. agnostic Jew, with Chasid vs. lesbian and mama’s boy vs. sex bomb thrown in for good measure.

To understand the popularity of “Zucker” among Germans, one must understand the artificial and insecure relationship between Germans and the country’s Jews, with each side nervous about offending the other.

Director Dani Levy, a Swiss-born Jew whose parents had fled Berlin, thinks that “Zucker” has helped defuse some of the tensions.

“Jews have always been able to laugh at themselves and here is a movie in which Germans can laugh with the Jews, not at them,” he told an American reporter in Berlin. “If we laugh with other people, that’s a sign that you like them. That’s the best way to win people over and cross borders.”

“Before the Fall” opens Nov. 18 at Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood (check www.laemmle.com for more information). Both “Go for Zucker” and “Sophie Scholl” are scheduled for release in Los Angeles early next year at the Laemmle Theatres. For more information on “The Goebbels Experiment,” visit www.firstrunfeatures.com.

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.

Twenty Hours in Munich


The Germans, desperate to erase memories of the Nazi-tainted 1936 Olympics in Berlin, billed the 1972 Games as "The Happy Olympics." By the time the international sportsfest ended, it went down in the history books as "The Munich Massacre."

The turning point came in the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 1972, when eight Arab terrorists of the PLO’s Black September faction slipped into the Olympic Village and attacked the quarters of the sleeping Israeli men’s team.

By the end of that long Tuesday, 11 Israeli sportsmen, five terrorists and one German policeman had met a violent end.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the events, as traumatic, in its way, for a largely innocent Europe as Sept. 11, 2001, was for America, Showtime will air "The 1972 Munich Olympic Games: Bud Greenspan Remembers."

Greenspan, then an NBC radio reporter and now the dean of sports documentarians, features some of the athletic highlights and personalities, foremost, swimmer Mark Spitz and runner Dave Wottle of the United States, as well as gymnast Olga Korbut and runner Valeriy Borzov of the Soviet Union.

But most of the film centers on the tense 20 hours of Sept. 5, from 4 a.m., when the terrorists slipped into the Olympic Village, to midnight and the final minutes of the tragic climax.

Some of the players and bystanders recall the emotional roller coaster of these hours.

Ankie Spitzer, the Dutch wife of Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, tells of her desperate attempts to sort out the conflicting reports and rumors of the day.

Israeli wrestler Gad Tsobari relates how he escaped from the terrorists.

Walther Troeger, the chief negotiator with the terrorist leader, allows that "In a way, I had sympathetic feelings for the terrorists’ viewpoint," if not their tactics.

German General Ulrich Wegener roundly scores the incompetence of the German rescue effort. British television reporter Gerald Seymour vividly describes the jubilation when German officials announced, erroneously, that the Israeli hostages had been freed.

Some Norwegian, Dutch and Filipino athletes had the moral courage to protest resumption of the athletic events by going home. By contrast, Avery Brundage, the American head of the International Olympic Committee, shocked even the most uninvolved by considering the massacre and the barring of the Rhodesian team, following boycott threats by African nations, as crimes of equal magnitude.

The most emotional part of the film comes toward the end, when Greenspan alternates scenes of winners’ jubilation at the resumed Olympic Games with shots of somber and tear-streaked Israelis as the bodies of the victims arrive home.

Greenspan, who wrote, produced and directed the documentary, takes off some of the edge by delivering his narrative in a curiously flat, uninvolved monotone.

Though the Showtime special certainly holds the viewer’s attention, it does not match the intensity or depth of "One Day in September," a documentary on the same event by Arthur Cohn and Kevin MacDonald, which won an Oscar two years ago.

Almost Olympian


Although Salt Lake City hosted several Jewish Olympians this year, including figure skater Sasha Cohen, the Olympic games haven’t always been so welcoming to Jewish athletes.

Bernd Stevens said he might have competed in skiing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, "if it hadn’t been for being Jewish." Stevens, now 82 and living in Torrance, had qualified as an alternate for the German Olympic ski team in 1935. But for the Nazis, it wasn’t enough that Stevens — who had skied competitively from the age of 5 — was ranked as one of the most talented skiers in the country. The blond, blue-eyed, 16-year-old was Jewish.

Now, 66 years later, all Stevens has to show for his near-Olympic experience is a bronze medallion, given to him by the Germans as a consolation prize. Engraved on the front is the Olympic bell with the words, "This is given in honor of sports" and "to serve in honor of the Fatherland." The back reads: "The Olympic games of 1936." Below it is a swastika.

There is slight regret written upon Stevens’ face as he tells his story, but this octogenarian doesn’t need an Olympic medal to make him a hero. "I felt left out, but it became minor compared to surviving," Stevens told The Journal.

The real trial began after the 1936 Olympics, when his father lost his business and income as a result of Kristallnacht. "It was a question of whether the Holocaust would destroy the whole family," he said. It nearly did, taking the lives of his father and brother on their way to the concentration camps. With false papers, Stevens left Germany and proceeded to Austria, Italy and North Africa. He arrived in the United States on the last ship to leave Italy.

Upon his arrival in the United States, Stevens joined the Army. "I wanted to fight for my new country and help eradicate the Nazis and save whatever Jews could still be saved." At the end of his basic training he was asked to join the Office of Strategic Strategy, the predecessor to the CIA. He became a parachutist, dropping at night behind enemy lines, all the while keeping his job a secret even from his family. Stevens has recorded his experiences in a 300-page novel tentatively titled "The Silver Circle," which he hopes will be published shortly.

After the war, Stevens went back to school in the United States and became a CPA, opening a successful accounting firm together with his longtime best friend, a fellow Holocaust survivor. Stevens recently retired at the age of 81.

"If you take a cold shower every morning, you will live to be 70," advised Stevens, who still exercises twice a week. He was still skiing competitively in giant slalom events until he was 74.

From a man with such a challenging life, Stevens’ advice to Jewish Olympians comes as somewhat of an understatement: "Keep working at it. It never comes easy."