Bjorn Hoecke, a top AfD leader

German Jews Shaken By Election Results


The recent German national elections that saw the nationalistic AfD  (Alternative for Germany) Party gain nearly 13 percent of the vote — placing it third with 94 seats in the Bundestag, up from none in the last elections — stunned many in the establishment, not least the Jewish community.

A non-Jewish German friend of mine shocked me by suggesting that Germany got the government it deserved, and that German Jews should consider leaving.

The Shoah was supposed to be the “never again” watershed tragedy heralding a genuine enlightenment that included contrition and remorse. Yet, this new post-unification Germany that held the promise of a modern dynamic and diverse society based on liberal values has stumbled with growing populism and xenophobia.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was bitterly opposed to German reunification, fearing a resurgence of unbridled nationalism. At the time, Chancellor Helmut Kohl (current German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mentor) assured Thatcher that a united Germany was now “a good Germany,” though acknowledging that it had a longer history of dictatorships than democracy.

Despite misgivings about a future new pan-Germanism from other European leaders, such as Italy’s Giulio Andreotti — who joked that he “loved Germany so much, he preferred to see two of them” — German reunification formally occurred in 1990. The year before, Jewish-American conductor Leonard Bernstein led a passionate performance at Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt of “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which he renamed  “Ode to Freedom” for that occasion.

Twenty-seven years later, the joy has turned to anger, angst and divisiveness.

From the right, there are neo-Nazi sentiments expressing vulgar hatred of “outsiders,” and from the left, there is support for groups that endorse Israel’s demise in different ways through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), misleading anti-Israel propaganda in the media, Holocaust distortion and inversion, and annual Al-Quds marches.  According to a German federal government study, modern anti-Semitism rose sharply between 2014 and 2016.

And so Germany’s Jews are uneasy. They no longer enjoy the confidence and optimism they had in the early 1990s.

Indeed, Bjorn Hoecke, a top AfD leader, questioned how Germany could shame itself by having a Holocaust memorial in the center of its capital, something that no other self-respecting country would do.

Germany’s mirror seems cracked.

On the one hand, a Nazi salute is against the law, yet on the other hand, the annual Iranian-sponsored Al-Quds marches calling for Israel’s annihilation are permitted.

On the one hand, the government says that Israel’s existence is linked to modern Germany’s raison d’etre (questioned by AfD co-founder Alexander Gauland), but on the other, Germany funds radical NGOs such as B’Tselem, Zochrot and Al-Haq that promote the demise of Israel as a Jewish state through BDS, lawfare and violence.

On the one hand, Germany guarantees the security of its Jews, but on the other hand, the Wuppertal Court of Appeals ruled that the firebombing of a synagogue was a form of protest against Israel’s policies.

On the one hand, Germany strongly rejects anti-Semitism, yet Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany’s second largest party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), not only accused Israel of stealing Palestinian water but also applauded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’  European Union (EU) parliament speech accusing Israeli rabbis of plotting to poison Arab water, reminiscent of medieval canards.

Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democratic Party.

 

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, condemns anti-Semitism but embraces an  Iran that sponsors a Holocaust cartoon contest and forgoes diplomatic norms by choosing to meet with a radical anti-Israel NGO rather than the Israeli prime minister. He also told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper in April that “the current government is not Israel,” and he previously called Israel an “apartheid regime.”

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister.

 

Germany’s Jews have fallen into the cracks between right and left, preferring not to observe the observable.

Jewish life has become largely security-centered, fighting anti-Semitism as an end itself, to the point where German authorities advised the Jewish community to send official mail in plain envelopes without logos. Most German Jews do not put up a mezuzah, and those who do place them concealed inside their front doors.

Jewish leadership needs to ask itself whether Jewish cultural life in the broadest sense has been reduced to armed police at synagogues, the Holocaust and combatting BDS. Several times when looking for a particular synagogue, smiling pedestrians directed me to “where you see a group of police guards.”

German Jews still are arguing yesterday’s issues. Not too long ago, I heard a sermon in which the rabbi asked, “Are we Germans of the Mosaic [Jewish] faith or Jews living in Germany?”

German Jews debate whether the stolpersteine (small brass memorials to murdered Jews inlaid on the pavements outside their former homes) are disrespectful or not, given that people and dogs walk on them.

Are post-war German Jews today equipped to sustain Jewish life?

A community program called Rent-a-Jew was started in Berlin whereby people “could engage with Jews, rather than about Jews.” Spokeswoman Mascha Schmerling told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that “we want them to see that we’re completely normal people.”

Some 70 years after the Shoah? Really?

A few years ago, a German politician told me that Germany could not indefinitely commit to a foreign policy that considered Israel’s interests. With Holocaust survivors and perpetrators dying out, Germany would align more with the EU. This is clear already.

Germany was the first EU country to recommend the labelling of Israeli products over the Green Line in addition to voting with such countries as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and China against Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

On the other hand, some cities such as Munich and Berlin finally are making an effort to block BDS activities.

While German Jews focus on anti-Semitism, Holocaust memorials and adequate security, Germany is drifting from the United States and Israel, and embracing a guilt-free nationalism. If the British and French can honor their soldiers, “we Germans should also honor our soldiers from both world wars,” according to Gauland, ignoring the fact that thousands of these “soldiers” were savage murderers of men, women and children, as happened at Babi Yar.

As Germans break taboos and return to populist nationalism and speak with forked tongues about Jews and Israel — increasingly discarding historical guilt — German Jews need to adapt to reality and focus on strengthening Jewish youth, particularly with education and identity. I have come across young Jews who confused Passover and Purim and had no idea who Chaim Weizmann was. Assimilation rates are high.

Germany’s challenge is to rethink the direction in which it is going.

The challenge for the Jewish community is not only to know what it is fighting against, but to understand what it is actually fighting for.


Ron Jontof-Hutter is a fellow at the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and author of the satire “The Trombone Man: Tales of a Misogynist.”

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Germany to Investigate Kuwait Airways for Israeli Discrimination


Germany is going to be investigating Kuwait Airways for their discrimination of Israeli passengers.

Alexander Dobrindt, the German Federal Transport minister, has ordered the ministry to determine if Kuwait Airways’ denial of services to Israelis breaks any of Germany’s laws.

Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project, told the Journal that she wanted to “congratulate” Germany for initiating the investigation.

“I’m very hopeful that they will come to the conclusion, as we have, that Kuwait Airways is in blatant violation of the anti-discrimination laws and that there’s absolutely no excuse for that type of bigoted animus, especially given the history of Europe and Germany,” said Goldstein. “…The government should not tolerate commercial discrimination against people because of their race, religion or national origin.”

The Lawfare Project is involved in another case in which an Israeli is claiming that Kuwait Airways blocked him from purchasing a ticket from Frankfurt to Thailand simply because he was Israeli. Goldstein described the case as “pretty much open and shut.”

“Kuwait Airways has admitted that they are refusing to carry Israeli national, so there’s no excuse,” said Goldstein. “They’re in violation of the law.”

Kuwait Airways is forbidden by their government from providing services to Israelis as part of the Arab League’s 1945 boycott of Israel. Other Arab countries, like Jordan and Egypt, engage in such business with Israel despite the boycott.

In December 2015, the United States found Kuwait Airways to be in violation of the law for refusing allow Israelis to fly between New York City and London. Instead of complying with the law, Kuwait Airways decided to cease all flights between the two cities altogether.

In June 2017, the airline was reportedly facing mounting losses.

“The irony ​is ​that the Arab League boycott was instituted to bankrupt Israel and​,​ instead,​ these companies are ​willing ​t​o bankrupt themselves just to prove the ferocity of their animus,” Amanda Berman, the Lawfare Project’s director of legal affairs, told Forbes.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 9, 2015. Photo by Alexey Kudenko/Getty Images

Iran attempted to buy illegal nuclear technology several times last year


Iran reportedly attempted to purchase illegal technology for its missile and nuclear programs numerous times in 2016, according to German intelligence.

The Jerusalem Post reports that German intelligence found that Iran tried 32 times to procure such technology in the German North Rhine-Westphalia state, most of which involved their missile program. Iran uses various “front companies in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and China” to get around restrictions, according the Post.

According to German intelligence, Iran’s missile program has developed to the point where it will “be able to threaten not only Europe.”

Prior German intelligence reports found that Iran hasn’t completely changed their nuclear activity since the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and that they are seeking “products and scientific knowhow for the field of developing weapons of mass destruction as well missile technology,” according to the Post.

The latest findings on Iran come at a time when President Trump will soon decide if the United States will re-certify the Iran deal. Should Trump go that route, Congress would have 60 days to decide if they will re-impose sanctions on Iran.

America’s European allies are urging Trump to remain in the nuclear deal, arguing that the deal is a necessary enforcement mechanism against Iran’s nuclear program. German diplomats argued to the Post that Iran’s efforts to ramp up its missile program are outside of the scope of the Iran deal and should be handled outside of the deal.

Critics of the Iran deal argue that Iran is in violation of the deal and that it paves the way for Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal. Trump has previously called the deal “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Alice Weidel, a co-head of the far right Alternative for Germany party, seen in Berlin after Germany’s elections on Sept. 25. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

What you need to know about the far-right Alternative for Germany party


Chancellor Angela Merkel clinched her fourth term and her center-right Christian Democratic Union party maintained its parliamentary majority in the German national elections on Sunday.

The victory, however, was hardly a landslide: With some 6 million votes, the populist, far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, finished in third place, securing 94 seats in the national parliament, the Bundestag, which now has 709 seats in all.

With a platform focused on Islam and migration, and rhetoric tinged with Nazi tropes, the AfD garnered 12.6 percent of the vote — nearly three times better than in 2013.

The unprecedented showing for a far-right party in postwar Germany alarmed Jewish and Muslim leaders.

“A party that tolerates right-wing extremist ideas in its ranks has managed not only to win seats in almost all our state parliaments, but also in the Bundestag,” Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement.

Schuster expressed the urgent wish that German democratic leaders “reveal the true face of the AfD, and expose its empty, populist promises.”

Here is a look at the AfD: its history, its leaders and backers, and where the party stands on key issues.

When was the AfD founded, and why?

Riding a wave of popular resentment against German bailouts of bankrupt European Union member states, the party was launched in April 2013. The AfD has since developed into an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and euro-skeptical party.

The party gained popularity primarily for its attacks on Merkel’s liberal policy toward refugees — since 2015, Germany has opened its doors to more than 1.5 million, mostly Muslims — and xenophobic and nationalistic campaign platforms. Akin to President Donald Trump’s “America First” position and the U.K.’s rejection of the European Union, the AfD promotes a “pro-Germany” stance, even going so far as to urge citizens to have more babies “made in Germany.”

Who are the party’s leaders?

The party has a moderate and a far-right fraction. Heading the latter is Alexander Gauland, a 76-year-old attorney and journalist who left the conservative Christian Democrats after 40 years to co-found the AfD. His “moderate” counterpart is Alice Weidel, a 38-year-old economist.

Gauland recently said Germans “don’t have to be held accountable anymore for those 12 years [of the Nazi regime]. They don’t affect our identity today any longer. And we’re not afraid to say so.”

Germans, he added, “have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.”

Are AfD politicians anti-Semitic?

Right-extremist parties in Germany have learned over the years how to avoid pitfalls: They don’t deny the Holocaust, which is illegal. But they might say it wasn’t as bad as Jews make it out to be, or that the firebombing of Dresden was worse.

Recently, Bjorn Hocke, the AfD party leader in the eastern German state of Thuringia, caused a stir when he said that too much attention to the Holocaust was making German history “appalling and laughable.” He called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame” and has recommended a radical departure from “these stupid politics of coming to grips with the past.”

Hocke said “we need nothing other than a 180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance.”

A party candidate in the western state of Saarland, Rudolf Muller, is under investigation for allegedly selling Nazi paraphernalia in his antiques store.

Concerning their attitudes toward Jews, “many AfD members do share anti-Semitic ideas,” Jan Riebe, who has researched anti-Semitism within AfD for the Berlin-based Amadeu Antonio Foundation, said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

While the party itself may not be anti-Semitic, many members “believe that Jews are the masterminds of all evil,” Riebe said. “So, in that sense, anti-Semitism does play an essential role in the AfD.”

Riebe added that a former member of the AfD in the Weserbergland region, Gunnar Baumgart, once wrote that Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers, “was used to protect lives and that not a single Jew was killed by it.”

Dirk Hoffmann, a party executive in Saxony-Anhalt, equated Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories with the Holocaust.

Wolfgang Gedeon, an AfD legislator in Baden-Württemberg, has been accused of spreading anti-Jewish propaganda, among other things by reviving debate about the infamous anti-Semitic hoax “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

“The AfD instrumentalizes Judaism and Jewish people, but has no interest in a real Jewish life in Germany,” Sigmount Konigsberg, who handles issues related to anti-Semitism for Berlin’s Jewish community, wrote in a commentary for Germany’s Jewish weekly, the Juedische Allgemeine.

AfD also wants to ban kosher slaughter in Germany, as well as the import and sale of kosher meat, in line with its opposition to halal, or Islamic ritual  slaughter.

“This puts them squarely in the camp of [Hitler’s] National Socialist party, which banned kosher slaughter as early as April 1933,” Konigsberg wrote.

Furthermore, he wrote, “if Holocaust remembrance is termed a ‘Cult of Guilt’ and AfD chairman Gauland is proud of the Wehrmacht, then we can all put two and two together and understand the consequences.”

Some observers have noted that other parties have their share of anti-Semites as well and should be scrutinized in that area as much if not more than the AfD. In particular, they say, left-leaning parties are far more likely to be anti-Zionist and supportive of boycott movements against Israel than are parties on the right.

An AfD poster in Berlin, Sept. 26, 2017. (Steffi Loos/AFP/Getty Images)

Who are some of the party’s legislators? 

Among those expected to take seats in the Bundestag are:

* Martin Hohmann, former member of the Christian Democratic Union, who in 2003 referred to Jews as a “nation of perpetrators.”

* Siegbert Droese, a nationalist who last year raised eyebrows when it turned out that one of his cars bore the license number AH 1818 – the initials of Adolf Hitler in letters and numerals.

* Wilhelm von Gottberg, who in a 2001 essay quoted Italian Holocaust deniers and commented, “We have nothing to add here.”

* Detlev Spangenberg, a former informant for the East German state security apparatus, is a German nationalist who reportedly wants to see the country’s 1937 borders restored.

What about the AfD’s views on Israel?

Though the AfD decided not to include a discussion about Israel in its party platform, reportedly because of concern by some party leaders about Israeli “war crimes,” there has been a generally supportive attitude toward the Jewish state.

Observers say there are two reasons for this: Israel is seen as a bulwark against radical Islam, and support for Israel is used as an alibi against charges of anti-Semitism.

But only one day after Sunday’s elections, Gauland triggered a debate about whether Israel’s right to exist should really be a German “reason of state” – referring to Merkel’s 2008 declaration of solidarity in the Knesset.

“Of course we stand with Israel,” the co-party leader emphasized at a news conference, while questioning whether the viability of the Jewish state should be high on Germany’s agenda. But if that would mean “that we are really prepared to sacrifice our lives for the State of Israel,” he said, “I don’t feel that way.”

Meanwhile, the AfD head in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, Marcus Pretzell, told the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that he would not support any change in the status of Germany’s support for Israel, which he termed Germany’s only reliable partner in the Middle East.

In Israel, reactions to the AfD’s success were mixed: While some Israeli politicians look to Europe’s populist parties for support in fighting radical Islam, others have called the AfD’s evident appeal to right-wing extremists and racists a warning signal for Israel and Jews.

Who supports the party?

The largest base of support comes from Germany’s eastern states, where it received more than 20 percent of the vote. Nationwide, the AfD has some 23,000 members. By contrast, Merkel’s Christian Democrats have more than 400,000.

Jewish supporters of the AfD may not be many or vociferous, but some — like the Berlin-based artist Pavel Feinstein — have openly declared that the AfD is “the only party that will stop this invasion” of Islamist extremists.

“You don’t have to marry” the AfD, Feinstein told JTA in an interview last year.

Some observers say the AfD has drawn voters from across the political spectrum — including those who never voted — and liken its success to the approval for Brexit in the U.K. and the election of Trump in the United States. This phenomenon has been described as a “radicalization of the center,” though it remains to be seen whether the AfD’s strong showing will lead Germany’s mainstream parties to whistle a more populist tune.

Alexander Gauland, left, and Alice Weidel, co-leaders of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, speaking at a news conference in Berlin on Sept. 25. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Alternative for Germany leader says Jews have nothing to fear


Jews should not fear the strong election showing by the Alternative for Germany, a leader of the populist far-right party said.

“There is nothing in our party, in our program, that could disturb the Jewish people who live here in Germany,” co-party head Alexander Gauland told reporters Monday, a day after AfD garnered more than 13 percent of the vote to finish third in German national elections.

Gauland also said that he was ready to meet with German Jewish leaders “at any time.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected to a fourth term and reportedly has rejected the idea of including AfD in a coalition government.

“Unfortunately, our worst fears have come true: A party that tolerates far-right views in its ranks and incites hate against minorities in our country is today not only in almost all state parliaments but also represented in the Bundestag,” the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dr. Josef Schuster, said in a statement issued late Sunday.

“I expect all our democratic forces to unveil the real face of the AfD and to expose the party’s empty, populist promises. The goal that should unite all democratic parties: to make it clear to the voters that the AfD is not an alternative, so that it can land where it belongs — under the 5 percent hurdle! ”

The council called on the parliament to “fight for democracy and to defend its values ​​vehemently” in the face of the AfD successes.

The Anti-Defamation League called AfD’s entrance into the national parliament “a disturbing milestone in modern German politics,” saying the party is “proudly extremist, anti-immigrant, and anti-minority.” The party leaders have made anti-Semitic statements and played down the evil of the Nazi regime, the ADL also said in its statement.

“Chancellor Merkel has a strong track record of protecting the Jewish community and other minorities,” CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. “We appreciate that she has excluded the possibility of AfD joining her coalition, and we count on her strong leadership going forward to diminish the appeal of AfD among German voters.”

Hundreds of protesters gathered in cities throughout Germany on Sunday evening to protest the AfD’s election successes. In the Alexanderplatz public square in central Berlin, protesters chanted “Racism is not an alternative,” “AfD is a bunch of racists” and “Nazis out!”

Demonstrators protest against the anti-immigration party Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) after German general election (Bundestagswahl) in Berlin, Germany, on Sept. 24. Photo by Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

The rise of Germany’s far right: The unwelcome result of Willkommenspolitik


There are many word combinations that justify a pause, and of these “Germany” and “rise of the far right” is at the top of the list. On Sept. 24, German Chancellor Angela Merkel won her fourth term as leader of the country. But her victory — according to most reports— was “dimmed by the entry of a far-right party into parliament for the first time in more than 60 years.”

What is the “far right”? For the left, the far right is often everything right of center. For the right, the far right is everything to the right of where I stand. In Europe, this means parties that support xenophobic policies, oppose immigration and use populist messages and blunt, often ugly language to gain the votes of citizens who feel that their country has been stolen away from them by forces beyond their control. In the specific case of Germany, this includes references to the second World War that should make anyone, especially the (mostly) Jewish readers of the Jewish Journal, cringe. It also includes the curious yet common phenomenon of far right, allegedly anti-Semitic European parties supportive of Israel.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will enter the Bundestag, the German parliament, as the third biggest party. It will be an opposition party that promises to make Merkel’s life as miserable as it can. In a parliamentary system such as Germany’s, the exclusion of a large party complicates the political landscape and essentially forces on Merkel a certain coalition. Namely, it makes the other smaller parties — the ones that Merkel must appease to have a functioning coalition — more powerful.

There is no mystery surrounding the AfD’s achievement. This is, as Cas Mudde writes in the Guardian, “an anti-Merkel vote, reflecting opposition to her controversial Willkommenspolitik [the welcome policy] toward refugees, which not only pushed some voters of mainstream parties to switch but also mobilized previous non-voters.” Merkel decided to pursue an open door refugee policy. A controversial policy. Personally, she proved strong enough to pursue it and keep her seat. But it will be a less comfortable seat, next to a less appealing political neighbor.

Condemning the AfD is easy, and possibly necessary. Condemning AfD voters is also easy, and to a certain point, also necessary. Society should let voters of such parties know that some political deeds are beyond the pale of tolerable political choices. Still, understanding the rise of the AfD and its implications is much more important than condemnation. It is the natural result, the unintended yet to be expected consequences, of Merkel’s immigration policies.

Oftentimes, as possible implications of policies are weighed, the political backlash is not taken into account. Had Merkel known that her immigration policies would bring about the success of the far right, would she have still pursued them with such vigor? Would she have moderated them to mitigate such possible impact? If you feel detached from this question, try a local version of it: Had Barack Obama known that his immigration policies would bring about the victory and four-year term of Donald Trump as President (and no comparison of Trump to the AfD is intended), would he have made the same choices?

Policies have direct consequences, and they often have indirect consequences that are much more important. Some Israeli experts believe that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the way it was done made the second Palestinian Intifada more likely. Of course, such a link is not easy to prove, but assuming it is proved, would it not completely alter our assessment of the decision to withdraw?

Back to Germany, the question of weighing the benefit of a policy and its possible unintended outcome is not an easy one to answer. Opening the doors to refugees is noble. The backlash, and we know this from history, can be dangerous. A leader is tasked with taking both these considerations into account. It ought not to burden his or her country with something that the country would not tolerate. It ought not to test his or her country with a policy whose result could be devastating.

Is it a devastating result to have AfD representatives sitting in the Bundestag? Much of it depends on whether this was a one-time show of protest or a beginning of a new trend. If it’s a one-time incident, Merkel could say that saving hundreds of thousands of refugees was worth the price. If this is the beginning of a new trend, Merkel could be remembered as the leader who recklessly pursued a policy that put Germany on a new unappealing path.

 

Karen Ulric, who traveled to Germany on a tour of Jewish heritage sites in July, observes a Holocaust memorial in Frankfurt. Photos by Eitan Arom

Seven decades after the Holocaust, can a Jew enjoy a German vacation?


Our gaggle of mostly Jewish, mostly American travelers stepped off a tour bus on the outskirts of Nuremberg, Germany, pointing cameras this way and that and ambling onto a seemingly unremarkable, wide-open expanse of pavement surrounded by parkland.

It was a glorious Sunday in July, and the Nurembergers were soaking it in, gliding by on bicycles and rollerblades, for the most part ignoring the monolithic concrete structure looming over a set of bleachers. Nobody seemed particularly bothered by the fact of what brought us there: About 80 years earlier, Adolf Hitler stood high atop the structure to review a parade of goose-stepping Nazi troops.

As we fanned out across the former parade ground, snapping photos, I thought to myself: This is an odd way to spend a vacation.

I had my reservations about traveling to Germany. I had been to Ukraine and Poland, seen killing fields and the ruins of ancient synagogues, but venturing into the heartland of the Holocaust seemed a daunting prospect. It wasn’t a trip I likely would have taken had I not been invited to go without paying a dime.

In June, I hadn’t given a second thought to accepting an invitation from the Encino-based travel company Uniworld to join a river cruise down the Rhine and Main Rivers on one of its inaugural tours of Jewish heritage sites in Germany.

After all, who says no to a free cruise?

But as my July departure date drew near, my hesitation mounted. I grew up in a home where German cars were strictly verboten. My current bedroom is home to piles of books about the Holocaust, with names such as Elie Wiesel and Hannah Arendt staring at  me from their spines. And as a reporter on the Jewish world at a time when racist ideologies are on the rise, Hitler’s handiwork is never far from my mind.

I decided my trip would be a test. Germany is a modern, beautiful country abounding with history and culture. I would be sailing in style down two scenic and storied rivers. I intended to find out, more than 70 years after the gas chambers were shut down, whether a Jew like me could enjoy a luxurious German vacation.

At first, things looked promising. Our group of writers and reporters met our ship, the River Ambassador, while it was docked near Frankfurt. It was an elegant, elongated vessel, designed to fit precisely through the locks on the rivers. As soon as I stepped on board, a glass of white wine materialized in my hand, proffered by the hyperattentive cruise staff. I then retired to my stateroom to lie back and watch the rolling hills and quaint river towns glide by my window.

Nurembergers cycle past a podium where, about 80 years ago, Adolf Hitler reviewed goose-stepping Nazi troops on parade.

 

The next day, I awoke from this pleasant dream into a crueler reality.

We disembarked and took a bus to Frankfurt, where Uniworld had arranged for us to meet a member of the local Jewish community, a graduate student active in Hillel International and the Jewish Student Union Germany. Despite his attempt to paint a rosy picture of Germany’s future, he seemed to return constantly to its grim past and uncertain present.

“We have a functioning community,” he reassured us. (Tepid praise if ever I’ve heard it.)

“There is a future in Germany. There’s a young movement coming that wants to change things, that doesn’t want to be afraid to be a Jew in Germany,” he said.

Later, we stood outside the aging hulk of a synagogue used by all three major denominations of Frankfurt Jews, a magnificent edifice that had seen better days. It was closed to the public and looked abandoned but for a few Orthodox men hurrying in and out via side entrances. As we stood shifting our feet, I wrote a sad little poem about the massive shul. It was only Day One of the cruise and Germany already was throwing me for a loop.

The author took a river cruise down the Rhine and Main Rivers on a tour of Jewish heritage sites in Germany. Photo from Wikimedia

 

After that, it was back to the ship for an evening of sailing, fine dining and drinking at the open bar. Before dinner each evening, the ship’s bartender and sommelier addressed the passengers in the spacious lounge to apprise us of the evening’s fermented offerings.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman, it is wine o’clock,” she said, psyching us up for her nightly pun. “Remember, everything happens for a Riesling.”

The cruise continued in much the same way: Day trips focused on Germany’s painful Jewish past and diminished Jewish presence, followed by evenings of merriment and luxury.

Even in seemingly innocuous locales such as Rothenberg, a walled town of nearly pristine medieval architecture, our tour guides told stories of unthinkable terror visited upon generations of unfortunate Jews.

Emerging from one of the cobblestone alleys into a square, we caught site of what seemed to be a Jewish star hanging at the site of Rothenberg’s first Jewish quarter. But our guide quickly disabused us of any such hope. In Germany, that particular six-pointed star symbolizes beer: An upside-down triangle for water, plus an upright triangle representing fire — in a truly German feat of addition —  means beer. Here in Rothenberg, it signaled the presence of a pub.

The disappointment in our ranks was palpable.

We did learn, however, that the synagogue that once stood in the square was demolished after all 450 Jews who lived in Rothenberg in 1298 were flayed or burned alive.

For the great majority of the 2.2 million tourists who visit Rothenberg every year, the place is a medieval playground of gift shops and sidewalk cafes. For my fellow travelers and me, it was a graveyard.

The trip continued in much the same way, with the members of our little group keeping our chins up as we ambled through centuries of persecution.

The next day, I sat in Nuremberg’s historic main square with a belly full of pork sausage, drinking a shandy beneath a glorious blue sky as a reggae band tuned up for a free concert. Sipping my beer-and-lemonade mixture, I tried — perhaps too hard — to prove to myself that I could have a good time immersed in secular pleasures, Jewish history be damned. 

The author enjoys a shandy in front of the Church of Our Lady in Nuremberg, built on
the site of a synagogue destroyed during a 14th-century pogrom.

Opposite me, a looming Gothic church scowled across the throngs that choked the square. Our guide had informed us as that the Church of Our Lady was built on the site of a Jewish synagogue destroyed in 1349, when Nuremberg’s Jews were burned alive as scapegoats for the Black Plague.

No marker indicated the Jewish significance of the church. But the fact of its origins darkened my mood. I felt doomed to walk like a ghost through a landscape of long-forgotten horrors.

Had I not known about the 1349 pogrom, I wondered, would I have enjoyed my sausage and shandy in peace?

The emotional climax of the trip was a visit to Dachau, the labor camp-turned memorial complex. The morning of our visit, on the second-to-last day of the trip, my stomach tied itself into knots as we stepped off our ship and boarded a bus. The Jewish heritage sites on the trip’s itinerary were optional, with other day-trip options on offer, but nearly our entire group chose to visit the camp.

I moved with practiced stoicism through Dachau’s gravel-strewn complex until we reached the area of the camp’s crematory, a lustrous green clearing in the woods that stood in stark contrast to the hot, barren expanse where the prisoners’ barracks were once located.

In a corner of the clearing was a landscaped patch with bushes and ferns, and a stone monument with a Jewish star bearing an inscription in German, English and Hebrew: “Do not forget.” A footstone read: “Grave of Thousands Unknown.”

The words of the Mourner’s Kaddish jumped into my mind and tears into my eyes.

To visit Germany as a Jew without paying heed to our painful saga there is to miss an opportunity to mourn a deep and staggering loss.

You can ignore history or drown it with a bottle of wine, but like all of life’s challenges, that doesn’t make the horror go away.

Perhaps without the grim reminders from our tour guides, I might have seen Germany’s fairy-tale villages and ancient castles as the quaint locales and proud landmarks that beguile millions of tourists — rather than elements of a multigenerational crime scene.

But I doubt I could ever take it all in without being haunted by the pain and suffering that took place there. I’ve had too much Elie Wiesel in my life, too many visits to Holocaust museums and too many family stories from the grim years of 1939 and 1942 for me to uncritically sip beer and scarf sausages like the average tourist.

If you’ll forgive the pun, that ship has already sailed.

Ursula Martens in her Baldwin Hills home. Photo by Tess Cutler

A Nazi then, remorseful now


A former Hitler Youth reflects on the guilt of her past as she seeks understanding and redemption

Ursula Martens is a dainty 88-year-old with blue eyes, snow-white hair and a healthy, active lifestyle. She could easily pass for anybody’s grandma.

She lives independently in a large, two-story home in Baldwin Hills, where she runs a successful building maintenance business. She has friends, children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. She likes to garden. Every morning, she feeds hundreds of wild birds that gather on the electrical lines surrounding her property.

By these accounts, Martens appears to be living a good, if not ordinary life. Her biography seems typical of octogenarians these days — she’s industrious, social, in possession of adequate resources, and a sense of purpose. She appears altogether normal.

With one exception: Ursula Martens was a Nazi.

Born on March 28, 1929, in Kropelin, Germany, a 2 1/2-hour drive northwest of Berlin, Martens grew up in the shadow of the Third Reich. Like most Germans of her generation, she joined the Hitler Youth by the time she was 10. Even among believers, she distinguished herself as one of the more fervent champions of Hitler and his ideas. She was so enamored of the Fuhrer that she developed a crush. “How handsome he was … the best-looking man I had ever seen,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir, “Stations Along the Way,” co-authored with Mark Shaw. And woe to anyone who disagreed with her: “He seemed like sort of a God to me.”

Instead of fantasizing about the cute boy in class like other girls her age, Martens spent the formative years of her youth obsessed with modern history’s most brutal mass murderer. She claims that at the time, she did not know the extent of Hitler’s crimes. But she was every bit the willing participant in his homicidal campaign to eliminate offenders of his Aryan ideal.

“I was trained to hate before I was 10 years old,” she wrote.

And so she hated. She hated the Romani. She hated the disabled. And most of all, she hated Jews.

Reflecting on the advent of the discriminatory Nuremberg Laws, which demoted Jews to second-class citizens, Martens wrote: “I understood that these laws put the Jews where they belonged, at the bottom of society.”

Instead of fantasizing about the cute boy in class like other girls her age, Martens spent the formative years of her youth obsessed with modern history’s most brutal mass murderer

Today, despite her comfortable life in Los Angeles, the hateful views Martens adopted as a girl continue to dominate her psyche — but now as sources of shame, self-recrimination and guilt. For the past 60 years, Martens has tried everything imaginable — confession, education and religion, even a love affair with a Jew — to exorcise the evils that poisoned her young mind. Her memoir is only part of her mea culpa; whatever opportunities she has to accept responsibility, apologize and seek forgiveness — including cooperation with this story — she has undertaken with gusto.

But whether absolution exists for her is beside the point. She was on the wrong side of history and has no choice but to atone again and again and again for the crime of losing her innocence.

“I don’t think you can ever forgive yourself for something that you were part of,” Martens says, sitting stone-faced at her glass dining room table. Her hair is down, shaped in a bob, and her large eyeglasses magnify the lines of her wrinkled face. Adjacent to where she sits is a small, overstuffed bookcase dominated by the works of Deepak Chopra.

Although Martens was not a Nazi in the conventional sense — she never held a weapon or committed any crime — she feels her mental complicity in Hitler’s race war laid the intellectual foundation for violence.

“I feel like I was part of it,” she says, “even though I didn’t have whatever it takes to open the gas.”

But she cannot be sure.

Martens doesn’t really know if she would have killed, she says, because she never had the opportunity. In her book, it is a question she asks herself over and over, and on occasion, she describes feeling bloodlust. During the British bombing of Germany in the later years of the war, the Hitler Youth were given instructions to wound or kill any survivor of a downed British plane. “They told us that if you ever see [a plane’s crew members parachute down], take whatever tool you have and go and try and kill them. And I thought ‘Yeah!’ That’s what I was looking for, when I saw planes, to be able to do that.

“I don’t think you ever get over that.”

Martens is one of tens of thousands of Nazi war criminals and collaborators who gained passage to the United States after World War II. According to U.S. census data, 226,000 Germans immigrated to the United States from 1941 and 1950. Some were engineers and scientists, like Wernher von Braun, recruited by the U.S. government for their technological expertise. Others were senior Nazi party officials who were offered asylum in exchange for serving as spies against Soviet Russia in the early years of the Cold War. Most, however, were like Martens, ordinary German citizens who quietly slipped in, melding into the American panorama with no desire to continue Nazi activity or call attention to themselves. Many succeeded. Others, like Martens, could escape everything but their conscience.

Martens was 4 years old when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, setting the country and the rest of the world on a course to war. He won support as a democratically elected populist leader who promised a struggling country, which a generation before had lost World War I, that he would make Germany great again. The excitement he aroused around the nation was palpable. Martens still recalls the first time she heard his voice.

“I remember the decorations they put up,” she says of an early, local rally in support of Hitler. “It was like a movie I saw that I never forgot.”

Martens’ father was a railroad stationmaster, so she and her family moved a lot, often living in apartments above the station. Since most stations were located in the center of town, the family had front-row seats to public gatherings and rallies. The first time she saw a crowd gather to listen to one of Hitler’s radio speeches, she was instantly awed. “[I]t gave me the shivers,” she wrote. “[His voice] was so clear and distinct … I felt that that voice had power, and I noticed others, including my parents, felt the same way.”

As stewards of the train station, Martens remembers the day men in uniform entered her family home to unfurl a banner of Hitler that reached from the balcony of their apartment to the station floor. Soon after, her father began wearing what the young Martens perceived as “a red armband with a symbol on it.”

The political metastasis of the Third Reich became the landmarks of her childhood. When Martens and her older sister first heard the word “Nazi,” they asked their mother what it meant. She says they were told, “Communists are bad people, and Nazis are good people.” They were children, after all. Simple explanations worked.

Growing up at that time, religion was frowned upon, so politics — in the form of nationalism — ruled the day. Prejudice was common. According to Martens, German superiority had been a feature of the national character well before Hitler arrived. By the time the Nuremberg Laws were passed at the end of 1935, when Martens was 6, Jews had become the symbol of everything undesirable. “When we did not like a kid at school or wanted to make fun of them, we called them a Jew,” she wrote.

Jews weren’t the only hated ones. When Martens befriended a young boy called Heine, whom she describes as “different” and “slow,” her mother objected. One day, she and a friend ditched Heine on the walk home from school to the station. Hours later, he was found dead, sandwiched between two boxcars. Martens was devastated. But when she sought comfort from her parents, none was offered.

“There was a lack of affection,” Martens tells me about her relationship with her parents. “That’s kind of typical German. Emotions meant you were weak.”

The emotional isolation she felt at home intensified as she grew into adolescence. Her mother refused to discuss subjects of interest, like boys and sex, warning the young Martens that she could become pregnant from kissing. The recollections in her memoir give the impression of an adolescent girl desperate for an emotional outlet, and Martens found hers in Hitler.

In the Jungmadel, “young girls” of the Hitler Youth movement, she found community and purpose. She attended weekly meetings and rallies where indoctrination techniques took hold: A local political leader “reported” the news; Hitler’s radio addresses were played and replayed, his speeches memorized. The young people sang nationalistic songs glorifying the Third Reich. And everyone was expected to play sports and attend camping trips.

It was at these meetings that the Hitler Youth were exposed to “race education.” In her book, Martens recalls a demonstration in which she was asked to aid the teacher by having her skull measured. “This was a means of knowing what the lecturer called the cranial index of the ideal Aryan,” she wrote. “How proud I was when my head size was perfect. And of course, I was blond-haired and blue-eyed — perfect, too. I smiled all the way home.”

Reading Martens’ memoir is a bizarre experience. It is extremely detailed, reflecting Hitler’s ideology on many of its pages, and since Martens is recalling the indoctrination of her youth, the views expressed are relayed uncritically. The tone is matter-of-fact. And even though the work is the product of a wiser, older woman, it is filtered through the prism of a child. Unlike Anne Frank, however, young Martens lacked the personal insight and moral judgment to comprehend what was happening within and around her.

Martens concedes that the driving force behind her enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth was that she wanted to outperform her older sister, Evie. “My sister was five years older and she was the learned one, the intelligent one,” Martens says. “At least that’s how I thought she was treated by my father. They would have intelligent conversations at the dinner table, so I kind of envied her. I didn’t like it. I was a little jealous.”

Sibling rivalry, at least as much as Hitler’s demagoguery, propelled her radicalism.

“I wanted to show her I could do something,” Martens says, pointing her finger to her chest. “You know, like, ‘I’ll show you …’ ”

Martens concedes that the driving force behind her enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth was that she wanted to outperform her older sister, Evie.

Plus, being in the Hitler Youth came with perks. Once the Nazis had taken over the country, German cultural life was at their disposal. “We could go to movies, we could go to the theater, the opera — everything was free,” Martens says.

Life, in short, was fun. “Ohhh, yeah,” she says with emphasis.

With Germany on the brink war, things turned sinister. Signs were posted everywhere informing Germans not to speak too loudly, lest an enemy — the Jew — eavesdrop. The day after Kristallnacht in 1938, Martens was startled to discover a beloved local shop had been destroyed. In one telling passage, she sees the destruction, but laments only the broken crystals shattered on the sidewalk.

“I felt sorry for all the beautiful crystals,” she wrote. “It seemed like such waste to me. I knew that because the owners were Jewish, they weren’t supposed to have a store, and so I didn’t question what had been done to it.”

She also remembers the raging flames from a book burning that night. “I had heard people talk about the list of authors that weren’t suitable for Germans to read. I knew they were Jews, Communists and other writers that wrote anything against the Nazis.

“Books did not mean as much to me as the beautiful crystal and porcelain broken into millions of pieces that Crystal Night,” she wrote.

By age 11 or 12, Martens was the first to salute “Heil, Hitler” when encountering passersby on the street. She believed in “blitzkrieg” and Hitler’s vow to turn Germany into a world power. When neighbors mysteriously disappeared, she told herself there was good reason for it. And she bought into the anti-Semitic propaganda that Jews were “bloodsuckers” and “parasites,” that her family shouldn’t patronize their shops. She turned her head from signs declaring “Jewish filth” without ever questioning it. Today, however, she admits she barely knew any Jews while growing up.

Ursula Martens as she was photographed at her grandparents’ house in Germany after World War II. Photo courtesy of Ursula Martens

 

“I think people are easy to brainwash,” she says. “I can see that now. Because whatever you question, there’s an excuse for everything. When [the propaganda] started, [Germans] were saying ‘Jews are the ones that make it hard for us.’ And I always remember Jews working in banks or being lawyers or doctors. And I still say that now. Jewish families don’t say, ‘What do you want to be, a hairdresser?’ They say, ‘Be a lawyer or a doctor.’ You have no other choice.”

Martens pauses, wondering if maybe she has said something offensive. Perhaps the stereotypes she’s spent years trying to shed are still there, lingering just beneath the surface.

“I think that’s good,” she adds. She wants to be clear she means this as a compliment.

For someone who hated Jews, Martens now seems oddly admiring of them. It’s as if the Jew, after being hated, became an object of mystification. Since she was young, the truth of what was happening to Jews during the Holocaust was hidden from her. There were rumors. There were signs. But the darkest secret of what Nazi Germany was perpetrating upon millions of innocent people was a forbidden subject.

One afternoon, when her parents weren’t home, she entered her father’s “forbidden room” and rummaged through some drawers. She found a hidden envelope containing images she now presumes were from the camps: an SS soldier holding a pistol, people lying on the ground, shot dead. She was horrified but says she “blocked it out,” never bringing it up with her father. Even after the war up until his death, she never questioned him. His role in the deportation of countless innocents is answerable only by her imagination.

In 1945, when Martens was 16, the family was stationed at Malchow, which she later discovered had a munitions factory where rocket parts were made, probably by Jewish prisoners. The town included part of the Ravensbrück concentration camp. One winter night, while walking home, she saw people in striped uniforms with yellow stars on them being herded onto a train. ,“Jews!” she wrote. “ “I couldn“ t even make out if they were women or men.” They were emaciated and their heads shorn. “They looked cold. …
I had a strange feeling watching them.”
It was a confusing scene, which turned violent. According to Martens, the SS soldiers unleashed their dogs, which pounced on the feeble prisoners. “They could not fight back and fell to the ground with the dogs biting them. The sound of this, of the dogs tearing into the helpless Jews was like a nightmare,” she wrote. But after this, once again, she remained silent.

When asked why, time and again, Martens suppressed feelings that “were scarring her soul,” she has a hard time offering an answer. If she was so upset by these events, why did she not speak or act in accordance with her instincts?

“I tried to put it out of my mind,” she says.

If she heard anything that upset her, she says, she denied it or rationalized it. For the duration of the war, she continued to believe that concentration camps were internment camps “where you could live with your family,” such as the camps in the United States where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the war.

Martens chose denial until the final moments of the war, when it was clear the country that she was told was invincible was, in fact, losing. Her infallible “god” had lied. Suddenly, her family’s foremost concern was fleeing to the American-controlled part of Germany to avoid confrontation with the Soviet Army; she heard rumors that the Red Army was raping German women.

What followed were the hardships that come in the aftermath of war — her father lost his job, they had no money and many days were on the verge of starvation. “We traded every piece of porcelain, everything we had, we traded for food,” she tells me. “But then I felt like, that’s what we deserve. When you lost. You knew you were guilty, all the people around you, they were all guilty. And I kind of started hating the Germans a little bit.”

When Martens stood in line with her mother to get ration cards, she saw for the first time the arrival of a truck filled with liberated Jews from the camps. Martens was overcome: “My eyes met those of a Jewish girl about my age ahead of me in line who had a yellow star stitched to her sweater. We just stared at each other … she had the saddest look on her face.”

From that moment, Martens says she was determined to “cleanse herself of Nazism.” In Berlin, she had love affairs with two Mexican-American soldiers, the second of whom she married, convinced that falling in love with a minority not only would cleanse her of racism and bigotry but prove to the world she was no longer prejudiced. The marriage did not last, but it earned her passage to the United States and produced two children. It was in an effort to save her marriage that Martens, by then in her 30s, moved with her family from El Paso, Texas, to Los Angeles.

Ursula Martens (top row, right) poses with her family in a photo taken in Germany. Photo courtesy of Ursula Martens

 

The past was never far enough behind. One of the first things she did in her new city was visit the Museum of Tolerance. “I walked out so weak I nearly fainted,” she wrote of the experience.

But she was determined to confront what she’d done. Little by little, she began reading books about the Holocaust, studying what had really happened. She hated herself even more. Then she got a job in a clothing factory, working for a man named Aaron Gold — a Holocaust survivor. And she fell madly in love with him even though he was married.

At first, Martens was terrified to tell her Jewish employer she was German, but Gold introduced her to other Germans employed at the factory, which put her at ease. Before long, Martens and Gold were staying late at the factory together, so they could sit in Gold’s office and talk. Martens was impressed by his intelligence and success. She felt connected to him as they discussed their lives in Europe and where they had been during the war.

According to Martens, Gold was Czech and went into hiding with his sisters before joining the resistance. In her memoir, she describes Gold getting captured and tortured by the Gestapo, and how she felt when she first saw his scars. “I was so ashamed,” she wrote. “How had I been so crazy? How had a whole nation of Germans been so crazy?”

As their friendship deepened, Martens was forced to re-evaluate the choices and beliefs of her youth. Gold was the first Jew she ever got to know, and rather than discover any of the labels she attributed to Jews in her youth, she discovered instead that she admired and respected him.

They began a passionate affair, which she described in the book with drama and fatalism, the way a teenager might — no two people had ever loved each other more. They eventually broke things off when Gold’s wife became pregnant. But the experience of being loved by a Jew was life altering. “Perhaps clean is the best word,” Martens wrote. “The dirt had finally been washed away.”

But her words belie the struggle that remained. Even if some part of her was healed, she still sought redemption before God. Martens turned to the Founders Church of Religious Science, which exposed her to spirituality for the first time. Its teachings drew on the works of religious figures and thinkers as diverse as Moses, Augustine and Einstein. Excited by the intellectual possibilities the church provided, she became a devotee of the Agape Church. She shared her story with others. She consumed volumes of self-help literature and started to believe in God. “I had finally traded in ‘Mein Kampf’ as a bible for a real bible,” she wrote.

The most significant event of her later life, however, occurred when she befriended a Polish-born Jewish woman named Judith, whose daughter, Ruth, was born after the war in a displaced persons camp. One day, Ruth invited Martens to read a prayer at her son’s bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am. Martens was overwhelmed by the opportunity, not only to enter a Jewish house of prayer but to contribute to a sacred Jewish ritual. “I could not believe that a former Jew hater like me was going to be part of this age-old ceremony,” she wrote.

It was the first time Martens had ever entered a synagogue, and she says she felt a whirlwind of emotions. Martens was grateful that Ruth and her family had shown her kindness and mercy, despite her past, but she feared others would look at her and see only a Nazi. She was mesmerized by the beauty and stateliness of the synagogue. But she couldn’t avoid flashbacks to the war, “when synagogues had been burned by my fellow members of the Hitler Youth.” She said she felt joy at making this small repair — teshuvah — but she also felt shame.

For all the intellectual and spiritual renaissance she experienced, Martens continues to live with profound regret. She regrets the foolishness of her youth and her inability to think for herself; she regrets enabling a murderous tyrant in his domination scheme; she regrets the way she treated family members, especially her grandfather, who challenged her radicalism to no avail; and she regrets never confronting her father, whom she now thinks of as a war criminal.

Most of all, she says, she regrets that millions of Jews, a people she would later learn to esteem, were annihilated because of Nazis just like her.

“I will never get over the guilt,” she says.

Each day, when she lies down and when she rises, she says she feels 6 million souls gather around her like the wild birds on the wires, haunting her. Martens often uses the word “nightmare” to describe scenes in her life, but she does not speak in metaphor, she speaks in truth. Given the time she lived through, one can only imagine the terror of her dreams.

“I sit in the morning and eat my breakfast, and then I try to meditate, but it’s never meditating. It’s always going back and thinking, what could you do? Where did you fail? That’s always, always there.”

After several hours of talking, Martens grows quiet. She leans back in her chair, staring out past the darkened living room. The silence is palpable, as if she is wrestling with voices in her head. So much has changed. And so much hasn’t.

Finally, she asks, “Do you think a Holocaust survivor can ever get over what they’ve been through?”

A flower is placed by next to the name of a former concentration camp inside the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem on April 24. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

The German and the Israeli


I’m not sure how to view what happened at lunch today. Coincidence? Serendipity? Or “bashert”, the Yiddish word that means “meant to be”.

I know several now-middle-aged Germans who never met a Jew until, as adults, they traveled outside their country. Nearly twenty years ago, one such German was my seatmate on a long, delayed trans-Atlantic flight. Andreas, from Cologne, was happy when I mentioned that my mother was born in Germany; his expression, however, turned somber when I explained that we’re Jewish, and she and most of the rest of her family managed to escape their “heimat”, or homeland, in the years after Hitler came to power. Other relatives, of course, were not so lucky.

Whenever I meet young Germans, here or during my four trips to that country, I do my best to make relevant and real what seems like ancient history to them. We ended up speaking for hours about my family’s experience in the Holocaust and his family’s actions during the Third Reich. Although he knew neither Jews nor Shoah survivors, he was surprisingly sensitive to my stories and clearly moved by them.

Andreas and I became friends on that flight, and have stayed in touch since then. I visited him once in Cologne, and he’s visited me at my home in New York, where he travels every year for business.

He was in town this week, and we went to lunch at a pleasant Long Island restaurant overlooking a pond. The conversation inevitably turned to politics and history, and we discussed whether there is any basis for comparing America’s current leader to Germany’s long-dead Fuehrer. We spoke about his two sons, ages 14 and 11, and what they know of Germany’s history.

After we finished eating, we went outside to the restaurant’s balcony to take some pictures with the spring scenery. We were alone for a couple of minutes until an elderly white-haired woman stepped outside and asked us if it was OK to smoke there. I said I had no idea, and she apologized, saying she’d mistakenly thought we were restaurant employees. By that time I’d recognized her accent, and asked in Hebrew, “You’re Israeli, right?”

She was surprised, but laughed and confirmed my hunch. Continuing in Hebrew, I asked if she’d been born there. Again, laughter, and the response “What, you want to know my whole complicated life story?”

Well, I answered, I’m a reporter, and yes. Go right ahead! After she spoke for two minutes in Hebrew, I stopped her and said (in Hebrew), please repeat that in English, as I want my friend, a non-Jewish German, to hear this.

So Maya told us how she was born in Tel Aviv in 1938, but the following year, her parents inexplicably decided to return to Europe, where they’d been born, with her and her eight-year-old brother. To their horror, they soon were entangled in the Nazi web, fleeing from place to place, country to country, hiding in forests, being caught and escaping detention… all in all, a typical Holocaust survivor’s story (if it can even be said that there is such a thing). Maya only remembered the last, frantic years of the saga clearly, from ages four to six; she discovered the rest of the details years later from her parents and brother.

“And then”, she concluded, “we finally returned to Tel Aviv from Europe after the war ended, and we were all almost killed in a huge explosion. We made it into the shelter in the nick of time”.

With that, Maya said she had to get back to her friends, having decided to forego her smoking break for our entirely unexpected chat.

She went inside, and I turned to Andreas. He looked stunned, his eyes wide with astonishment at what he had seen and heard over the previous five minutes. I had to smile. “This is not exactly the kind of unplanned conversation you might have with a stranger in Deutschland, is it?”, I said. “In fact, I guess this is the first time you’ve actually met someone who survived the Holocaust”.

Andreas nodded. “You know”, he said slowly, shaking his head in disbelief, “I was thinking the most interesting thing I would tell my kids next week was about the 35-mile bike tour I took from Jersey City. But now I have a very different story to share with them.”

Nirit Bialer, an Israeli expat, speaks with seventh-graders in Berlin as part of the “Rent A Jew” program. Photo by Gregor Zielke

For questions about Jews, just ‘rent’ one for answers


The subject sat there, surrounded by 23 nursing students from the School of Health and Healthcare at the Alexianer St. Hedwig Hospital in the former Jewish quarter of eastern Berlin. They examined her as if she were an endangered species, ready to be dissected. Some had never encountered such an organism before. After all, in Germany, her type had been endangered for some time.

The center of curiosity was Juna Grossman, a 40-year-old Jewish woman born in the former East Berlin. Her grandparents survived the Holocaust, saved by a German family who hid them in southern Germany. With her long, dirty-blond braids and hazel eyes, she sat there, smiling and patient, ready to take questions, as a Jew “rented out” through a German-Jewish program called Rent a Jew.

With its controversial name, Rent a Jew both objectifies and at the same time humanizes what for many young Germans is a novelty: a living, modern Jewish person.

“It’s a bit ironic, but we thought we would embrace the irony in the situation,” said Alexander Rasumny, coordinator of Rent a Jew.

The name, he said, is a provocative description of a speaking bureau of Jews from all walks of German life who are available to German schools and institutions to educate non-Jews about Judaism and to dispel stereotypes and prejudices that have been linked to Jews for centuries.

“We were thinking how to try to change the image of Jews in Germany for the better, and we thought direct contact is the best way to do that,” Rasumny said.

Rasumny co-founded Rent a Jew in 2015 while working as a project manager for the European Janusz Korczak Academy, a Munich-based partner of the Jewish Agency for Israel that seeks to reinforce Jewish identity in German-speaking countries. Rent a Jew has conducted more than 30 sessions across Germany. The 50 to 60 Jewish participants represent a cross section of the German-Jewish population and undergo a screening and training process.

The Rent a Jew website explains its rationale this way: “Talk to us, not about us. We don’t give lectures on Jewish history or religion as experts but talk about what it’s like for us to be a Jew in Germany. Above all, we encourage people to ask questions and yes, voice those stereotypes like: Are all Jews rich? Do they control the media? Or are they really the chosen people? Most importantly, people can talk with Jews instead of only talking about them.”

Rent-A-Jew

Photo by Orit Arfa

Rent a Jew is not the first effort to market Jews playfully as a product. A 2013 exhibition on Judaism at the Jewish Museum in Berlin drew criticism when it exhibited “Jew in a Box,” in which alternating Jews sat in a display case to field questions from the public.

Dani Kranz, a Cologne-based anthropologist and expert in Israeli migration to Germany, applauds such tongue-in-cheek attempts to educate Germans about contemporary Jews and Judaism.

“I would say the mere attempt to represent oneself, to take charge, and to communicate as an individual Jew and individual human being is direly needed because Jews are exoticized,” Kranz said. “In some respects, it’s painful to see because it makes the assumed difference between Jews and non-Jews blatantly clear, but it should be addressed.”

And not only for Jews. Kranz, a German-born Jew, said the Arabs and Muslims in her social circle also encounter prejudices and misconceptions.

“There should also be a program for Rent a Muslim or Rent a Palestinian,” she said, although she conceded that the Shoah makes some Germans believe they must handle Jews with special gloves.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, half a million Jews lived in Germany, more than 150,000 of them in Berlin. While the 500,000 accounted for less than 1 percent of the country’s population at the time, many stood out as leaders in academia, banking, media, industry and business. Early 20th-century Berlin was home to some of Jewry’s leading minds, including Albert Einstein, philosopher Martin Buber and scholar Gershom Scholem. They built on a Jewish-German intellectual tradition started in the 18th century by celebrated philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

After the Nazi atrocities of World War II, fewer than 20,000 Jews remained in Germany, about 8,000 in Berlin. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the country’s Jewish population had grown to nearly 30,000.

After Germany’s official reunification in 1990, the new government welcomed Jews from the former Soviet Union to re-establish the community Hitler had decimated. Russian immigrants and their children, such as Rasumny, form the bulk of Germany’s Jewish population, which today stands at more than 100,000 — maybe as many as 200,000. (Precise numbers are elusive because the German government does not require citizens to reveal their religious affiliation, and the dogged question of “Who is a Jew?” further complicates an accurate count.)

According to Grossman, the Jew who visited the nursing students at Alexianer last month, most German students today do not learn the full history of Jewish life in Germany and, instead, focus on the attempted Nazi genocide.

“When you ask Germans what they think when they think of ‘Jews,’ you always have the Holocaust or the typical ‘black-hat Jew,’ ” Grossman told the Journal before her talk at the hospital. “That’s not the reality, is it?”

She said she believes Holocaust education is diminishing in some German curricula as instruction about this time period competes with that of the Cold War era.

Born under communism, which suppressed religious practice, Grossman “returned” to Judaism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, studying at the historic Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in the former East Berlin, led by a female rabbi and best known for its restored golden dome.

As a program speaker and blogger on Jewish life in Germany, Grossman invites questions from German students that don’t dwell on the Holocaust. In fact, she said, she looks forward to when the Holocaust plays less of a role in Jewish identity and perceptions in Germany so she can feel the ease and normalcy she felt as a Jew living in Boston for several years.

“Here, when you meet somebody not Jewish and you ‘out’ yourself as being Jewish, you get reactions like: ‘Oops, how do I behave now?’ ” she said. “It’s a strange glaze in the eyes, and sometimes they say something about their grandparents.”

Julia Engelhardt, a nursing instructor at Alexianer, heard about Rent a Jew on German television and immediately decided to try it for a class on world religions.

“We thought it would be good for them to know things they should or shouldn’t do if they have Jewish patients,” Engelhardt said before the class with Grossman.

Grossman began her session with an introduction about her German-Jewish background. Across from her on the wall was a statuette of Jesus on the cross; to her left, a model skeleton.

Students slowly raised their hands to ask questions about Jewish life and death, unrelated to the actual life and death of Jewry in the neighborhood of the hospital — a former Jewish quarter, something most students did not know.

Just a few blocks away, on Grosse Hamburger Street, is the memorial site for the Jewish Home for the Aging that the Nazis converted to an assembly camp for deporting 55,000 Berlin Jews. Behind it is the Jewish cemetery that dates back to 1672, where Mendelssohn was buried.

The class included some foreign students, including one from Poland who asked: “What do Jews do when someone dies?” Grossman explained burial and shivah mourning rituals.

“Why do Jews step on a glass cup at a Jewish wedding?” asked an African student. Grossman explained it commemorates the destruction of the Temple.

Grossman’s favorite question came from a German man to her left: “Do Jews believe in an afterlife?” She explained that Judaism differs from Christianity in its lack of emphasis on heaven and hell, although the student said he is comforted by the idea of a paradise in the next world.

“I liked it the most, as he was very respectful and just accepting my other view on things,” Grossman told the Journal. “That’s not really common for Christians, I mean for real active ones. Usually, they seek to convince you of their belief.”

Not all Rent a Jew sessions run so smoothly.

Nirit Bialer, founder of Habait (The Home), a Berlin-based organization that seeks to expose Germans to Israeli culture, was taken aback by some of the stereotypes and misconceptions she encountered from a seventh-grade class at a school in Neukölln, a Berlin district with a large immigrant population.

“There were a lot of kids there with Muslim backgrounds, kids with parents coming in from the Middle East,” Bialer said. “That was a different experience. A lot of politics involved; people confused ideas about Judaism, Israel. Everything was intermingled together. There were many facts they were not sure about.”

She recalled how one student asked if Hitler and the Zionists worked together, while another asked what the Palestinians did so wrong to the Jews.

“It was not an easy situation for me personally, since you are being pulled into the Middle East conflict when trying to talk to a class about Judaism,” Bialer said.

Her previous Rent a Jew appearance had occurred at an adult education class in which participants — curiously and courteously, she said — asked about her experience living in Berlin as an Israeli. Bialer represents a relatively new but significant component of Jewish life in Germany: Israeli expats, although the number of them living in Berlin is difficult to determine. Estimates range from 7,000 to 20,000.

The turning point during the Neukölln session came when her fellow “rented” Jew, a Russian-born woman named Esther Knochenhauer, told the class that she works as a booking agent for German rappers.

“Some of the kids that were talking to her were like, ‘Wow. That’s a cool Jewish girl.’ ”

That’s when the ice broke and the class’ Jewish visitors truly were humanized.

Esther Knochenhauer, a Russian-born Jew who accompanied Nirit Bialer on her school visit in Berlin, writes on the classroom chalkboard. Photo by Gregor Zielke

Increasingly, the Rent a Jew program is bringing knowledge of Judaism to a population generally untouched by the Shoah: first generation and nonnative Germans.

“The students in Neukölln, now, demonstrated a pattern of seeing Jews only through the lens of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is not uncommon in migrant communities, particularly with an Arabic, but also Turkish, background,” Rent a Jew coordinator Rasumny said.

These communities initially encounter anti-Jewish and anti-Israel propaganda at home, through Arab-language television or Islamic and Turkish nationalist youth organizations.

“So we have to reach them while they’re in the school and at least somewhat open to arguments,” Rasumny said. “The same goes for students who grow up in households with parents holding populist or far-right views. The number of such households should not be underestimated. And, of course, there also is a very distinct left-wing anti-Semitism, which is mostly Israel-related.”

A recent report from the German parliament found that 40 percent of Germans hold anti-Semitic views expressed by hostility toward the Jewish state. Most program participants, however, as with the Alexianer students, were apolitical and limited in knowledge.

Nursing students Elise Senst and Kate Kalhol, both 21, said they came out of the Alexianer session feeling intellectually enriched.

Both grew up in Brandenburg, one of Germany’s 16 federal states, on the outskirts of Berlin, and neither has Jewish friends. At first, they were confused by the program’s name, Rent a Jew. Kalhol had been to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, while Senst received general knowledge of Judaism as a youth. As third-generation Germans from the Nazi era, the Holocaust is not necessarily their immediate association with Jews.

“In my circle of friends, it [the Holocaust] is not even there,” Senst said, although her grandmother lived through the Nazi period and told her stories of Jews fleeing. “I have a couple of friends who did social work in Israel, but they didn’t go because of the Holocaust and that part of German history, but for the country itself. It’s there. We can’t forget about it, but it’s not on top anymore.”

Senst was most surprised to learn that Jewish identity is not dependent on belief in God, as Christianity is.

“I really enjoyed the communication, but the strange thing to me is that if you decided to believe in the Jewish religion, that all the following generations will be Jewish even if they don’t believe in it,” Senst said.

Kalhol said she is inclined to separate Judaism from Israel, while Senst associates Israel with the Jewish people. By showcasing both Israeli and Diaspora Jews, Rent a Jew seeks to discuss the distinction between Judaism as a religious identity and a national one.

“If I meet an Israeli, I’m going to ask what the country’s like, what life is like there, maybe I would also ask if he’s Jewish or what kind of religion he belongs to, but that’s another stereotype,” Kalhol said.

At Alexianer, Engelhardt, the nursing instructor, said she was pleased with the program, especially for clarifying differences between Jewish rituals and practices and those of other religions.

“For example, Juna [Grossman] said that if a Jew dies, don’t lay their hands like a cross the way Christians do, and this is a kind of sensitivity you could have also with other religions,” she said.

Engelhardt said Alexianer will be a repeat customer. She already has booked Grossman again, proving that the name of the program can succeed in challenging another stereotype: Jewish greed.

Rent a Jew Jews are “rented” for free.

Josef Hader (right) plays the title character in “Stefan Zweig: “Farewell to Europe.” Photo courtesy of First Run Pictures

In exile, writer Stefan Zweig bids ‘Farewell to Europe’


In the early decades of the 20th century, Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig was one of the world’s most popular, prolific and translated authors.

In 1934, discerning the dark political clouds drifting across the border form Nazi Germany, Zweig left his beloved Vienna and went into permanent exile — first in England, then in the United States before finally settling in Brazil.

In the film “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,” German writer-director Maria Schrader follows the geographic and psychological route of Zweig’s exile, from initial celebrity status to his despairing end.

Although he traveled widely, Zweig chose to move to Brazil, a nation he visualized as the country of the future. The film opens with a lavish reception for Zweig at which members of Rio de Janeiro’s elite vie for a word with the world-famous author and even, for the lucky ones, his autograph.

In 1936, Zweig attended the PEN Congress in Buenos Aires, at which the literary and human rights organization for poets, essayists and novelists welcomed him as a literary star. However, one incident there, depicted in the film, made him the object of lifelong controversy and criticism.

After one conference speaker after another denounced the Hitler regime in Germany for its persecution of dissenting writers and forcing Jewish ones into exile, Zweig is asked at a press conference for his comment. The writer responds by declaring, “I would never speak out against any country. And I’ll make no exceptions. … I cannot write out of hatred. … And if my silence is a sign of weakness, I am afraid I must live with that stigma.”

Schrader analyzed Zweig’s pronounce-ment in a phone interview with the Journal. “Zweig was a radical pacifist and he refused to use language to condemn any country,” the director said. “He felt it was the duty of the intellectual to achieve an understanding of any opponent.”

Zweig considered himself mainly as a universal humanist but never renounced his Jewish heritage. He spent considerable effort and money to help Jewish writers reach the U.S. and a number of his short stories focused on Jewish themes and characters.

Schrader, who is not Jewish, has had a successful career as an actress, screenwriter and director, with strong artistic ties to Israel and Jewish life in Germany. Her debut film, “Love Life,” was based on the novel of Israeli author Zeruya Shalev and was shot in Israel. She directed an episode in the documentary “24h Jerusalem” as well as the film “Meshugge.” In “Rosenstrasse,” she played a German woman who stands up against the Nazis after they arrest her Jewish husband.

Dominating “Farewell to Europe” is veteran actor Josef Hader as Zweig, with Barbara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz as his first and second wives, respectively.

The movie is not entirely without humor. In one scene, as Zweig and his spouse tour the Brazilian hinterland, they are met in one small town by a flustered mayor and welcoming musical ensemble, consisting of a trumpet and an off-key tuba, playing “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”

Overall, this is a thought-provoking, somber film, culminating in the 1942 double suicide of Zweig and his second wife, Charlotte Altmann, in the Brazilian town of Petropolis. Zweig left a farewell note explaining that at the age of 60, he lacked the strength to build a new life “now that the world of my language has disappeared for me and that my spiritual land, Europe, is destroying itself.”

He concluded by writing, “I greet all my friends. May they still see the dawn after the long night. I am too impatient, I go before them.”

Schrader said she sees some parallels between Zweig’s era in the 1930s and ’40s and the present time.

“Hitler came to power by promising to drastically change Germany,” she said. “Today, many people in Europe and the United States seem to feel again that any change is better than staying with the status quo. In Europe, countries are turning to the right politically and the American president wants to build a wall between countries.”

At Zweig’s memorial service in Los Angeles, not depicted in the movie, fellow author and exile Franz Werfel eulogized Zweig by saying, “His heart, spoiled by humanist optimism, suddenly realized the entire, piercing, unsolvable tragedy of the human being on Earth.”

“Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” opens June 16 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Why I love Berlin when I was supposed to hate it


The following article was originally published in German in Fluter.de, a German political magazine for young adults ages 18-25.

I was supposed to hate Berlin when I first visited from Tel Aviv in 2014. I came with my American father, who wanted to see the former Displaced Persons camp in Hannover where his Polish parents, Auschwitz survivors, gave birth to him. I may not have come had a good friend from Los Angeles not recently moved to Berlin. My Israeli mother opposed the trip. While her parents are Iraqi, she still swears off German cars.

I admit, when I first walked the Berlin streets, I didn’t see a modern city. I’d imagine Nazi banners strewn across the buildings. I’d wonder from which of these adorable Alt Bau apartments Jews were dragged out. I’d hear German: the language that murdered my grandparents’ families. I’d take a train: to what death camp? This creepy Holocaust awareness must be common for Jews during a Berlin initiation.

That same year, Berlin made headlines in Israel in what became known as the “Milky Controversy.” An Israeli Berliner angered Israeli parliamentarians when he encouraged Israelis to move to Berlin, comparing grocery receipts that put Berlin’s chocolate pudding one third cheaper than Israel’s famous “Milky” brand. By 2015, when I returned to work with my friend on a music project, I started to understand why young Israelis flock to Berlin. (Although I recently learned that the German brand is made with unkosher beef gelatin.)

With the obligatory visit to the Holocaust Memorial and Topography of Terror already out of the way, I could focus on enjoying Berlin as the creative, vanguard, affordable capital it is. My friend and I still made occasional Holocaust jokes (like when we’d behold a stunning blue-eyed, blonde German who looked like an “Aryan” poster boy), but overall, we made music, went out, and socialized with friendly locals, forgetting the city once housed SS headquarters.

As I struggled to like Berlin, I interviewed young Germans living in Tel Aviv, its Israeli “sister-city”, to find out if the attraction was mutual. Naturally, the Holocaust came up, and one woman said that I can’t blame her generation for the sins of the fathers. “I wasn’t born when it happened,” she said, while acknowledging she feels a special responsibility for Jewish safety today.

I realized Germans and Israelis are quite alike – we come from two people struggling to rebuild and make sense of a troubled yet soaring national identity after a great trauma. Even though we come from opposing sides – the persecutor and the victim – we, this third generation, carry a burden that may be best unpacked together.

Still, I shocked fellow Israeli patriots when I told them I planned to spend Summer 2016 in Berlin. They scratched their heads when I started adding heart emoticons around Berlin on my Facebook statuses. Their shock had run out when I announced my decision to stay, indefinitely.

The artistic vibe, the historical richness (and scars), the ease of getting around, and, of course, the insanely cheap groceries and beer all make Berlin loveable to many internationals: Australians, Argentinians, Brits, etc.

But the pleasure I get from just walking the streets is deeper; it’s like a transmutation of the pain Jews must have felt here, once, in fear of deportation, of torture, of death – a fear I don’t have to feel anymore. Now I don’t see Nazi banners, but delightful café signs; I don’t see “Aryanized” Jewish apartments, but apartments I’d like to own; I hear German: a challenge; I take the train: to which party?

While growing up in the US, I learned about Germany through horror stories almost as much as I learned about Israel through heroic legends. Hence, my strange familiarity and connection to this land. And as much as the Jewish state is a modern miracle, so is the re-transformation of Berlin into a force for liberty.

Photo by Carla Acevedo-Blumenkrantz

Survivor Av Perlmutter: ‘Angel’ watched over him


“Where’s Adolf Perlmutter?” one of the German soldiers shouted, bursting into Suzanne Cohen’s house in Amsterdam in March 1943, rushing past a 15-year-old boy living there who was known as Avraham or Av.

Upstairs they found one of the Cohens’ sons, in his early 20s, and ordered, “You come with us.” On their way out, they grabbed Av, realizing he was the one they were looking for — his official name was Adolf — and led both young men into a police van. They headed to the Jewish Theatre, which had been converted to a detention center from where Jews were deported to camps.

“The moment I came in, I was thinking how to get out,” Av recalled. He noticed that pairs of German soldiers at the exits changed shifts regularly. At one door in particular, they actually abandoned their post to fetch their replacements. He mentioned this to the Cohen son, who deemed it too dangerous to try escaping. “They’ll shoot us,” he told Av.

Av was undeterred. In the middle of the night, when the exit was left unguarded, he calmly walked out and ran.

Avraham Abba Perlmutter, who was given the name Adolf by the Austrian government, was born on Aug. 28, 1927, in Vienna, to Chaim and Malka Perlmutter. His sister, Thea, was three years older.

Chaim owned a textile store, providing the family with a middle-class, very observant life. Every morning, Av prayed with his father in the small shul located on their apartment building’s first floor.

Av was a self-described “wild child.” At 6, he was asked not to return for a second year in Jewish school because of his misbehavior. He attended public school and played soccer with neighborhood boys.

Av’s life changed on March 12, 1938, with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Two days later, Av followed the crowds to one of Vienna’s main streets, where he witnessed Hitler riding by in an open car.

Av’s non-Jewish friends began beating him, and he no longer attended school. The following fall he enrolled in a Jewish middle school.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht began. The Perlmutter family’s store was plundered.

Two months later, Av’s parents arranged for him and Thea to leave for the Netherlands on a Kindertransport — a rescue operation for children — to join Av’s aunt and uncle, Anni and Aby Bachrach. “It was like an adventure,” Av said.

They arrived in Wijk aan Zee, a village on the North Sea coast, where they spent two months at a Catholic campsite run by nuns before being transferred to a series of refugee camps. Then, in December 1939, after a bout with diphtheria, Av was released to Sientje and Joop Van Straten, relatives by marriage, who lived in The Hague, 40 miles south.

Thea, meanwhile, was transferred to a Youth Aliyah camp east of Amsterdam in Loosdrecht, with a plan to join her parents in Palestine, where they had immigrated illegally in June 1939.

Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. And while Av continued attending school, playing soccer and celebrating his bar mitzvah, anti-Jewish measures were enacted gradually.

On Oct. 7, 1942, after non-Dutch Jews were ordered to move from coastal areas, Av was sent to Amsterdam, where he was placed with Suzanne Cohen and her adult sons, within 2 miles of where Anne Frank and her family were already hiding. His relatives in The Hague were all murdered later in Auschwitz and Sobibor.

After Av escaped from the Jewish Theatre in March 1943, he ran back to the Cohens’ house, where he hid in the backyard.

The next morning, Ellie Waterman, a member of an underground organization founded by Dutch Christian Joop Westerweel, coincidentally showed up. “It was a pure miracle,” Av said. Thea had asked the group to find a hiding place for him.

“I was very Orthodox Jewish and I strongly believed that an angel of God was guarding me,” Av said.

Waterman told Av to meet him at the train station. After a series of stops and train changes, Av exited at what he believes was Zutphen, a city in the east-central Netherlands, where Waterman led him to the house of an elderly couple.

After dinner, as German soldiers approached, Av hid in a bedroom closet. As one of the soldiers approached, Av began hiccuping out of fear and nearly choked, smothering the noise. The German opened the closet door and slammed it, cursing. “Fortunately for me, he didn’t look very much,” Av said.

The couple then hid him in a backyard coal bin. But after the Germans returned a second time, Av left, not wanting to endanger the couple.

Despite the late hour, Av knocked on a nearby door. “I’m Jewish. Can you hide me?” he asked the young man who opened it. The man, who had a wife and small child, concealed him behind some boxes in the basement.

“I was very Orthodox Jewish and I strongly believed that an angel of God was guarding me”

“These Christians who were hiding Jews were extremely courageous, because if they were caught hiding a Jew, they were treated like a Jew,” Av said.

The next morning, Waterman found Av and arranged for Dutch Christians in several cities to hide him. Then, sometime during the summer, Av was placed in a boarding house in Rotterdam, where two boys were staying, as well as a teacher, who taught Av English and French.

One day in September 1943, the boys heard the familiar pounding of German boots and quickly hid in a prearranged spot. After the Germans left, they split up, believing they would be safer.

Av wandered for about 20 minutes before a German soldier stopped him, asking for identification and summoning a police van. He placed Av in the partitioned back, guarded by two Dutch police officers. Thinking the policemen might be anti-Nazi, Av slid toward the rear doors of the van as the police officers talked. Av partially opened one door and when the van slowed, he jumped out.

After running several blocks, he stopped a man on the street who took him home and contacted Joop Westerweel. An aide to Westerweel arranged for Av’s last placement.

Av traveled to Venlo, in the southeastern Netherlands, where a pastor, Henricus Vullinghs, met him at the train station and transported him on the back of his bicycle 5 miles north to the home in Grubbenvorst, a town within 3 miles of the German border where Peter and Gertrude Beijers lived with three of their six adult children.

Forty-two of the village’s 240 families, all Catholic, were hiding Jews. Pastor Vullinghs told his parishioners that they were assured a place in heaven if they saved a Jew.

As Av grew close to the Beijers family — he called the parents Mom and Pap — he began helping on the farm, becoming expert in growing asparagus.

After the Allies invaded Normandy in June 1944, they advanced toward Germany and by September were approaching Grubbenvorst.

When several German soldiers moved into the Beijers’ house, Av hid in the stable. Pap then built him a more secure hiding place, a concealed hole in the hill behind the barn. Av lay on his back all day, with red ants for companions, venturing out only in the evenings.

On Nov. 22, 1944, the Allies liberated the village of Sevenum, about 5 miles west of Grubbenvorst, launching a heavy barrage eastward toward the Germans’ defense line.

That night as Av joined the Beijers in their neighbors’ basement, the Germans forced everyone out, planning to evacuate all town residents across the Maas River to Germany.

Afraid of entering Germany, Av remained in Grubbenvorst, hiding once again in the stable. With British artillery shells exploding ever closer, he left, reaching the street just as a shell landed on the stable, demolishing it. Again, Av said, “I knew at the time that the angel of God was with me.”

As the pounding continued, Av crawled along toward the British line, feeling for mines. Suddenly someone shouted, “Halt,” as Nazi soldiers jumped out from the roadside. “Where are you going?” one demanded. Av pointed to a nearby house. Just then the British began firing, and Av pushed himself free and ran, despite the mines and the bullets flying past him.

He reached a farmhouse where he found the entire Beijers family. The bridge over the river had been destroyed, thwarting the Germans’ evacuation plans.

Two days later, Av persuaded one of Beijers’ sons to accompany him to Sevenum, now in Allied hands. They arrived on Nov. 26, 1944, which Av considers his liberation date. “I felt fantastic,” he said.

Wanting to help the British army, Av worked as an interpreter for a month as soldiers directed the locals in rebuilding the bridge. At Av’s request, one soldier sent a letter to his parents in Palestine. In January, the Jewish Brigade came for Av, to reunite him with his parents. Av said goodbye to the Beijers.

Years later, he submitted their names and that of Pastor Vullinghs to Yad Vashem, which recognized them in 1994 as “Righteous Among the Nations.” The Perlmutter and Beijers families have remained very close.

Av arrived in Haifa on July 16, 1945. Soon after his father picked him up, his aunt told him that his mother had died of an adverse penicillin reaction the previous January, two weeks before his letter arrived.

Weeks later, Av was living in Tel Aviv with his father and assisting in his small jam factory when they learned that Thea, who had been captured and sent to Auschwitz, had survived.

In 1947, Av joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground, but was badly injured in a motorcycle-truck collision. He was discharged as a wounded war veteran on Nov. 8, 1949, and made his way to the United States.

He entered the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1951 to study aeronautical engineering, graduating in June 1954. After earning  a master’s degree at Princeton in 1956, he accepted a job at Kellett Aircraft Corp. in Philadelphia.

A year later, Av met Ruth Gitberg at a synagogue social. They married on Aug. 31, 1958, and had four children. He later earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

Av and two colleagues at Kellett formed their own company, Dynasciences, in 1961. When Dynasciences merged with Whitaker Corp. in 1969, Av moved his family to Los Angeles and worked in engineering and other ventures until he retired in 2015.

Av is now 89 and the grandfather of five. He wrote an autobiography, “Determined,” which was published in 2014, and a Dutch version, in collaboration with the Beijers family, will be released this spring.

For 20 years, Av has been speaking about his experiences — at museums, schools and synagogues.

“I always like to tell my story in hopes that it helps others, especially children.” he said. “I tell them that regardless of difficulties, don’t give up.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a press briefing at the White House on April 11. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Spicer and his critics are historically off


My Passover holidays were interrupted by the news, shared by friends in the synagogue, that the press secretary to the president of the United States had just said that Syrian President Bashar Assad was worse than Adolf Hitler because Assad gassed his own people.

I was astounded and saddened by the comment referring to an event in the village of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s remark was not, as my distinguished colleague professor Deborah Lipstadt said in The New York Times, “anti-Semitism,” masked or real, but ignorance pure and simple, an ignorance that should disqualify one from so exalted a position.

My mood didn’t lighten as I read critique after critique discussing the murder of German Jews by gas in such “extermination camps,” to use the Nazi term for killing centers, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Their critique overlooked the origin of Germans gassing their own population, which had nothing to do with Jews.

Forgive the history lesson, but permit me to explain.

Mass murder began with the death of a few individuals. In October 1939, Hitler signed an authorization permitting his personal physician and the chief of the Führer Chancellery to put to death those considered unsuited to live. He backdated it to Sept. 1, 1939, the day World War II began, to give it the appearance of a wartime measure. In the directive:

Reich leader Philip Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy killing.

What followed was the so-called euthanasia program, in which men, women and children who were physically disabled, mentally deficient or emotionally disturbed were systematically killed. They were termed “useless eaters” and “life unworthy of living.”

Within a few months, the T-4 program (named for Berlin Chancellery Tiergarten 4, which directed it) involved virtually the entire German psychiatric community. A new bureaucracy, headed by physicians, was established with a mandate to “take executive measures against those defined as ‘life unworthy of living.’ ”

A statistical survey of all psychiatric institutions, hospitals and homes for chronically ill patients was ordered. At Tiergarten 4, three medical experts reviewed the forms returned by institutions throughout Germany but did not examine any patients or read their medical records. Nevertheless, they had the power to decide life or death.

Patients who doctors decided should be killed were transported to six main killing sites: Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Grafeneck, Bernburg, Hadama and Brandenburg. SS members and other health care personnel in charge of the transports donned white coats to keep up the charade of a medical procedure.

The first killings were by starvation: starvation is passive, simple and natural. Then injections of lethal doses of sedatives were used. Children were easily “put to sleep.” But gassing soon became the preferred method of killing; 15 to 20 people were killed in a chamber disguised as a shower. The lethal gas was provided by chemists, and the process was supervised by physicians. Afterward, black smoke billowed from the chimneys as the bodies were burned in adjacent crematoria. Communities adjacent to these facilities could see that smoke even in the heat of summer and they could smell the burning flesh.

Families of those killed were informed of the transfer. They were assured that their loved ones were being moved in order to receive the best and most modern treatment available. Visits, however, were not permitted. The relatives then received condolence letters, falsified death certificates signed by physicians, and urns containing ashes. There were occasional lapses in bureaucratic efficiency, and some families received more than one urn. They soon realized something was amiss.

A few doctors protested. Karl Bonhoeffer, a leading psychiatrist, worked with his son Dietrich, a pastor who actively opposed the regime, to contact church groups, urging them not to turn patients in church-run institutions over to the SS. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the SS just before the end of the war.) A few physicians refused to fill out the requisite forms. Only one psychiatrist, professor Gottfried Ewald of the University of Göttingen, openly opposed the killing.

Doctors didn’t become killers overnight. The transformation took time and required a veneer of scientific justification. As early as 1895, a widely used German medical textbook made a claim for “the right to death.” In 1920, a physician and a prominent jurist argued that destroying “life unworthy of life” is a therapeutic treatment and a compassionate act completely consistent with medical ethics.

Soon after the Nazis came to power, the Bavarian minister of health proposed that psychopaths, the mentally deficient and other “insane” people be isolated and killed. “This policy has already been initiated at our concentration camps,” he noted. A year later, mental institutions throughout the Reich were instructed to “neglect” their patients by withholding food and medical treatment.

Pseudoscientific rationalizations for the killing of the “unworthy” were bolstered by economic considerations. According to bureaucratic calculations, state funds that went to the care of criminals and physically and mentally disabled persons living in institutions could be put to better use, for example by loans to newly married couples. Incurably sick children were seen as a burden for the healthy body of the Volk, the German people. In a time of war, it was not difficult to lose sight of the absolute value of human life. Hitler understood this. Wartime, he said, “was the best time for the elimination of the incurably ill.”

Historian and Auschwitz survivor Henry Friedlander traces the origins of the Final Solution to the “euthanasia” program. The murder of handicapped people was a prefiguration of the Holocaust. The killing centers to which the disabled were transported were the antecedents of the death camps. The organized transportation of the disabled foreshadowed mass deportation. Some of the physicians and other health care workers and hospital personnel as well as ordinary guards and mechanics who became specialists in the technology of cold-blooded murder in the late 1930s later staffed the death camps. All their moral, professional and ethical inhibitions had long been lost.

Psychiatrists, voluntary participants in the German “euthanasia” program, were able to save patients, at least temporarily, but only if they cooperated by sending others to their death.

Gas chambers were first developed at the “euthanasia” killing centers. The perpetrators cremated the dead bodies. In the death camps, the technology was taken to a new level: Thousands could be killed at one time and their bodies burned within hours.

The Roman Catholic Church, which had not taken a stand on the “Jewish question,” protested the “mercy killing.” Count von Galen, the Bishop of Münster, openly challenged the regime, arguing that it was the duty of Christians to oppose the taking of human life even if this were to cost them their own lives. It seemed to have an effect.

On Aug. 24, 1941, almost two years after the “euthanasia” program was initiated, it appeared to cease. In fact, it had gone underground. The total number of people killed in the Nazi “euthanasia” program is estimated to have been between 200,000 and 250,000. The majority were Germans, but Poles and Soviet citizens of various nationalities were also among the victims.

The killing did not end; mass murder was just beginning. Physicians trained in the medical killing centers went on to grander tasks. Irmfried Eberl, a doctor whose career began in the T-4 program, became the commandant of Treblinka, where killing of a magnitude as yet unimagined would take place.

Again, gassing did not begin with the Jews; it began with Germans who found the presence of fellow Germans of special needs an embarrassment to the myth of the “master race” and an economic hardship. Hitler initiated the process but the participation of German society and even its elite psychiatric community was as widespread as is was essential.


MICHAEL BERENBAUM is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University.

Episode 33 – Israel and Germany: An unsettled past with Eldad Beck


The words ‘Germany’ and ‘Israel’ probably raise many differing connotations in various people’s minds but one probably stands out among them all: the Holocaust.

Germany-Israel diplomatic ties began in 1952 when Germany finally offered to pay reparations to the survivors of the Holocaust. For obvious reasons, this relationship was not without its fair share of trials and tribulations. Over the years the challenges have persisted, often exacerbated by events such as the massacre of the Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.

As the chief correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth in Germany, Eldad Beck has become well acquainted with German internal politics, diplomatic affairs and public opinion. He has written two books on the subject of Germany: “Germany, at Odds” and his most recent “The Chancellor”. Beck joins 2NJB to talk about the two countries’ strained relations and his career as a journalist.

Eldad Beck’s Facebook and Twitter

‘Germany, at Odds’ on Amazon

Direct Download

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anti-Semitic incidents rise 16 percent in Berlin


With a new report noting a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin, Jewish leaders in the German capital renewed their call for a federal commissioner to deal with the problem.

The Berlin-based Research and Information Office on Anti-Semitism, founded in 2015, reported Monday that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the city has risen by 16 percent in 2016 over the previous year. Most incidents were nonviolent but nonetheless threatening.

According to the report, a total of 470 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in Berlin in 2016, including seven physical attacks.

A permanent federal commissioner would help ensure that the government does not drop the ball on fighting anti-Jewish hate, Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, said in a statement Monday.

She said people tell her they are increasingly fearful to be recognized as Jews in public. In many cases, Berger said, authors of threats hide behind the anonymity of the internet, creating a general atmosphere of angst.

That hate must be countered whatever its source, Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a recent address to the State Parliament in Lower Saxony.

Schuster, who also has called for the establishment of a federal commissioner, said it was more important than ever for civil society and political leaders to oppose anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, especially since the German Supreme Court recently decided it did not have enough evidence to ban a notorious far-right extremist political party.

“Initiatives against the far right need our ideological and financial support,” and anti-Jewish sentiments among Muslims must also be countered with vigor, Schuster told state legislators, while emphasizing that “the Jewish community rejects all forms of anti-Islam hate.”

The report also noted 18 verbal threats and 53 cases of damage to Jewish-owned property or Holocaust memorial sites, as well as 382 cases of harmful behavior. Of the last item, 152 were cases of internet threats against Jews or Jewish institutions. Another 150 cases of anti-Semitic propaganda, graffiti and threatening letters were reported.

There were no cases of extreme violence reported to the anti-Semitism office last year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking to the media in Berlin, Germany on June 29, 2015. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Germany says trust in Israel ‘shaken’ by legalization of West Bank settlements on Palestinian land


Germany condemned a controversial new Israeli law that retroactively legalizes settler homes built on private Palestinian land.

Berlin said Wednesday that the “regulations law” undermines trust in Israel’s seriousness about reaching a compromise with the Palestinians.

“Many in Germany who stand by Israel and feel great commitment toward it find themselves deeply disappointed by this move,” a German Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement. “Our trust in the Israeli government’s commitment to the two-state solution has been fundamentally shaken.”

The law, which the Knesset passed in a raucous late-night session Monday, allows the state to seize private Palestinian land on which settlements or outposts were built, as long as the settlers were not aware of the status of the land. In cases where the landowners are known, they are entitled to compensation.

Censure of the law has come from governments around the world, including the United Nations, the European Union, France, Britain, Turkey, Jordan and the Palestinians. The United States has refused to comment. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that it “will be obviously a topic of discussion” when President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet later this month.

Most of Israel’s political opposition and even members of the governing coalition oppose the legislation. Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said he would not defend it before the Supreme Court. It was the first time that an Israeli attorney general has made such a refusal, legal experts told JTA.

“In view of the many reservations which the Israeli attorney general, among others, has affirmed once more, it would be good if the bill could soon undergo a critical legal review,” the German statement said. “We hope and expect that the Israeli government will renew its commitment to a negotiated two-state solution and underpin this with practical steps.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose Jewish Home party was the law’s staunchest supporter, is meeting Wednesday with her German counterpart, Heiko Maas.

‘Yolocaust’ satire sparks debate in Germany


Pass by Germany’s vast national memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe and you will see young visitors hopping from stone to stone, playing hide and seek, stopping for a smoke, taking selfies for Tinder, catching rays.

Israeli-German writer and satirist Shahak Shapira had enough of it.

Shapira, 28, copied a dozen selfies posted online that were taken at the 12-year-old memorial and imposed them over actual photos documenting Nazi crimes. He put the resulting montages on line last week on a website he dubbed Yolocaust — tacking on the acronym for “you only live once” for an extra jolt.

It went viral quickly, as shocking images tend to do.

If you run your cursor over the original photo, the happy, leaping tourists suddenly appear against a much different background.

In one photo, a gleeful girl balanced atop the memorial is suddenly teetering among corpses at the Kaufering slave labor camp in Bavaria as the local population stands staring, forced by liberating American troops to view the scene in April 1945. (Shapira does not identify the historical images, but some are quite famous.)

In another, two fellows who posted themselves as “Jumping on dead Jews” are suddenly seen leaping smilingly over contorted corpses.

And there’s the guy juggling pink balls in a photo he titled “what an incredible place.” Presto, he’s performing his act inside a pit filled with freshly shot victims, seemingly oblivious.

Released the week before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops on Jan. 27, 1945, Shapira’s satire has triggered a public debate, much of it carried out on social media. At issue is just how far one can go in using images of suffering to make your point.

Among those chiming in is the memorial’s designer, New York-based architect Peter Eisenman.

“[P]utting those bodies there, in the pictures, that’s a little much if you ask me,” Eisenman told the BBC. “[T]here are no dead people under my memorial. My idea was to allow as many people of different generations, in their own ways, to deal or not to deal with being in that place. And if they want to lark around, I think that’s fine.”

But the director of the nearby Topography of Terror documentation center, at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, thinks Shapira “puts his finger on a crucial point.”

“I pass by there very often,” Andreas Nachama, who is also the former head of Berlin’s Jewish community, told JTA. “And whenever I walk by I see something which doesn’t make me happy, let’s put it that way.”

It’s not the first time critics have pointed out that visitors are using the memorial, as well as authentic sites of Holocaust history, as backdrops for smiling selfies.

“Instagram seems to work like a Polaroid filter for some people’s brains, turning off the #commonsense function,” blogger Hektor Brehl wrote in the German edition of Vice magazine in 2013.

On his Yolocaust website, Shapira noted that “About 10,000 people visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

every day. Many of them take goofy pictures, jump, skate or bike on the 2,711 concrete slabs” of the structure.

He offers to remove a photo if its author contacts him at an email address provided. Two have, and Shapira deleted their pictures, he told the Tagesschau TV news program on Saturday.

“Just imagine, your grandfather – or you – lost your entire family in the Holocaust, or half of them,” Shapira told Tagesschau. “And then you go to Berlin to this memorial, and then you see how someone hops around here on their bicycle, or mountain bike. I don’t know if you’d find it cool.

“And I find it dangerous, that this is becoming normal. It kinds of suggests that people are not dealing with the real purpose of this memorial.”

Survivor Michele Rodri: Shuttled from place to place until danger passed


On a Thursday afternoon in April 1942, Michele Rodri (née Rosenberg) was playing hopscotch with three non-Jewish girlfriends outside her family’s home in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine when two SS officers approached them. 

“That’s a beautiful child,” one of them said, lifting Michele’s chin. 

Danke schoen,” answered the 7-year-old, who was fluent in German, French and Yiddish, which was her first language — and who also was wearing a yellow star.

The officer then blew a whistle, summoning a German military truck with a canvas-covered cargo bed that pulled up beside them. As the soldier hoisted Michele over the truck’s tall tailgate, she glimpsed the silhouette of her mother in their living room window being steered away from the partially opened drape. 

The truck was packed with adults and some children, crowded together on benches lining the sides or on the floor, many of them crying. “They were making a roundup, a razzia,” Michele said. A woman came over and held her. “Don’t cry,” she told her in Yiddish. But Michele did not feel reassured. “I was very scared,” she said.

Michele was born on March 26, 1935, to Chaim and Hana Rosenberg, who had moved to Paris from Krakow, Poland, around 1920. She had three older brothers: Abel, born in 1922, David in 1923 and Maurice in 1925. 

Chaim owned a business manufacturing threads. “He was very kind and generous but very strict in terms of behavior,” Michele said. Hana cared for the family. “She was an angel,” Michele said. “She could do anything.” 

The family, who was comfortably middle class and religiously observant, lived in a two-story house in a quiet, residential neighborhood, with a garden in back. The neighbors, who were mostly Christian, knew the Rosenbergs were Jewish, but, Michele said, “Everybody lived very harmoniously.” Her family was well-respected, and her father and brothers were especially friendly with the town’s police commissar, Monsieur Sigean.

Everything changed, however, when Germany attacked France on May 10, 1940, eventually entering Paris on June 14. 

Soon after, Michele’s older brothers, Abel and David, joined the Maquis, the French resistance. “They were very patriotic,” Michele said of her brothers, though she didn’t know their destination at the time. Her youngest brother, Maurice, remained at home to help the family. 

The few Jewish students who attended Michele’s public school began being harassed. Other children refused to sit with them or accused them of killing Jesus. Michele, however, was never physically harmed. 

In 1942, when the German military truck transporting Michele pulled up to Drancy, an internment camp in a northeast Parisian suburb of the same name, she and the others were led into a large hall, with the children clustered in one area. They were fed coffee and a piece of worm-infested bread in the morning — “I picked [the worms] out,” Michele said. “I had to eat the bread” — and in the evening, “horrible” soup with rutabaga or potato peelings. During the day, they were allowed outside in the yard, where they played ball. 

Michele talked only to a 5 1/2-year-old girl named Nicole, the daughter of a non-Jewish political prisoner, whose mat lay next to hers. The girl constantly wept, but, Michele said, “I felt a little humanity.” 

One day in July 1942, after Michele had been at Drancy for three months, she saw her oldest brother, Abel, walk in, wearing an SS uniform. “He looked at me — he had these beautiful green eyes — and I knew I was not supposed to move,” Michele recalled. “Schnell, machen,” Abel said in perfect German to the SS soldier following him, one who worked at the internment camp. “Let’s do this quickly.” Abel pointed to Michele and Nicole. “I want these two children,” he said.

Michele and Nicole followed Abel and the SS soldier outside, where what looked like an official German car awaited. “Get in,” the driver ordered, pushing them a bit roughly into the back seat. Abel sat in the front, silent. Finally, after they had driven several kilometers, he turned to face the girls. “I’m going to take you to safety,” he said. 

They drove to a convent, which Michele believes was near Grenoble. There, she and Nicole lived with the nuns, attending public school in the town, though Michele didn’t talk to other girls, afraid she would divulge her identity. At the convent, Michele sang in the choir, which she loved. But she refused to kneel, as she had heard her father say, “Jews don’t kneel,” and she feared something terrible would happen. Meanwhile, the nuns, who were otherwise mostly kind, punished her for each transgression, lashing her lightly with a martinet, a leather whip, which she found embarrassing. 

One day her youngest brother, Maurice, visited her. “It was really dangerous,” Michele said. He had come without wearing his yellow star or telling their parents. But he brought her a pair of roller skates, something she had long coveted, that he had purchased on the black market. “They were so beautiful,” Michele recalled. 

Then, after 13 months at the convent, Michele and Nicole were picked up by a man who drove them to a small villa in Épinay-sur-Orge, a village about 20 miles south of Paris, where they lived with Monsieur and Madame Godignon, an older couple who had agreed to take the girls in exchange for money from Chaim, Michele’s father. 

Madame Godignon was very strict, slapping the girls if they broke a glass and feeding them meager portions, even though Chaim had paid handsomely for their room and board. “I was always hungry,” Michele said. And while Michele found extra pieces of bread at the bakery when she was sent there on errands, she also suffered stomachaches from eating unripe fruit from the backyard trees. “You dirty Jews have all the money,” Madame Godignon taunted her on a daily basis.

Monsieur Godignon, however, showed the girls kindness, such as tucking them into their beds every night. “He had a heart,” Michele said. And one day in fall 1943 or spring 1944, he took Michele to the train station to see her mother, who had undertaken the dangerous journey to visit with her daughter for only the few minutes the train was stopped. Hana hugged and kissed her — “My whole neck was full of tears,” Michele said — and also brought her a meatloaf sandwich, Michele’s favorite. 

In late August 1944, Michele was listening to the radio when she heard Winston Churchill announce that Hitler had capitulated and American troops had reached the outskirts of Paris. Soon after, her parents and two older brothers came to fetch her.  

Once home, Michele looked everywhere for Maurice, thinking he was playing hide-and-seek. She then learned that he had been picked up while riding the train to school in May 1943. A non-Jewish friend who had been riding with him reported to Chaim and Hana that the Germans had boarded the train, ordering all the males to drop their pants. Maurice and the other Jewish men were rounded up and taken to Drancy. 

After Maurice’s capture, Monsieur Sigean, the police commissar, protected Chaim and Hana, who hid in their house behind blacked-out windows. He also brought them food that he bought on the black market with money Chaim gave him. 

After the war, the Rosenbergs, who had changed their name to Lambert, learned that Maurice had been murdered in Auschwitz. Michele’s parents never recovered from that news. Hana lit a yahrzeit candle for Maurice every day for the rest of her life. And, Michele said, “There isn’t a day that I don’t think about him.”

In addition to Maurice, Michele lost 207 relatives in the Holocaust, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and first and second cousins. Her two grandfathers, who lived in Krakow, were hanged, separately, by the Nazis because they were Orthodox. 

In 1956, Michele traveled to Los Angeles to visit her brother David, who was living there at the time, and stayed. The following year, she married Robert Lazaruk, and their son, Kirk, was born in December 1958. The couple divorced in 1960. 

On July 4, 1962, Michele married Jack Cohen-Rodriguez (aka Rodri), a survivor from Holland who had been imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen. She helped Jack in his various businesses, including representing sports figures and running a medical oxygen company. 

Jack died in 2004, preceded by Chaim in 1972, Hana in 1984 and David in 1996. Abel died in 2014. For Michele, now 81, her family members, including her son, daughter-in-law and grandson, are most precious to her.

Around 2009, Michele began talking about her Holocaust experiences, first at the Stephen Wise Religious School and later at various public and private schools as well as the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “I want to speak as long as I’m here,” she said. 

Michele encourages the young people she addresses to speak up, as citizens of the world, if they see something that is not right.

“Being silent,” she said, “is the most terrible thing.”

Israeli tourist injured, wife missing in Berlin terror attack


An Israeli tourist was among the injured in Monday’s deadly terror attack in the center of Berlin and his wife was still missing.

The husband was located in a Berlin hospital, where he is undergoing emergency surgery, Elio Adler, a family friend in the German capital, told JTA.

The couple were in the Christmas market near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church when a truck plowed into the crowd, killing 12 and seriously injuring at least 48.

Chabad has planned a Wednesday evening memorial service in Berlin.

Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, a part of Berlin’s official Jewish community, told JTA that he had been to the scene of the attack on Monday night with colleague Rabbi Shmuel Segal to see if they could help. Teichtal told JTA that plans for the annual public menorah lighting ceremony at the landmark Brandenburg Gate would go ahead as planned, albeit with higher security.

Teichtal said he hoped that “more people than ever” would come to the event.

“We have to have zero tolerance for terrorism,” he said, “and at the same time reach our hands out.”

Expressing sorrow for the victims and their families, Berlin Jewish Community head Gideon Joffe said that Berliners are proud of their tolerant and cosmopolitan city and would fight to keep it that way.

“We can’t let terror determine our lives,” he said, adding that he urged all Berliners to attend the Chabad candle-lighting ceremony on Dec. 27, “especially in times like these.”

According to local news reports, the Polish driver of the truck was shot and killed. Police arrested one suspect after he tried to flee on foot. He reportedly came to Germany from Pakistan more than a year ago.

Early Tuesday afternoon, police announced that the arrested man was not the driver in the deadly attack and that he had been released. Police also said there is a possibility that the suspected perpetrator remains armed and running loose in the city and called on residents not to go out.

The truck was driven nearly 90 yards through the Christmas market, which was filled with holiday shoppers. Berlin police said they believe the incident was not an accident.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany in a statement called the attack “disgusting” and added: “Our thoughts and actions must not be overcome by fear and terror … May the messages of our two holidays give us strength in these difficult hours.”

“We are deeply shocked. Especially in the pre-Christmas period, when our society focuses on values like charity, goodness and peace, our country was once again hit by this disgusting attack,” said the statement, which was attributed to its president, Josef Schuster.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement issued Tuesday condemned the attack and sent condolences to the families of the people killed and the government of Germany.

“This attack joins [other] reprehensible attacks; terror is spreading everywhere and can be stopped only if we fight it, and we will defeat it, but we will defeat it much quicker if all free nations under attack unite,” Netanyahu said.

German court upholds conviction, prison sentence of former Auschwitz guard, 95


Germany’s highest federal court upheld the conviction and prison term of a 95-year-old former Auschwitz guard for being an accessory to murder.

The Federal Court rejected the appeal by Oskar Groening,  his attorneys said Monday, according to the German news agency dpa. Groening, an SS member during World War II, was sentenced in July 2015 to four years in prison for his role in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews at the camp in Poland.

Reuters reported that the court had made the decision in September but only publicized it Monday. It is not known if Groening is well enough to be put in jail.

Groening had admitted to being tasked with gathering the money and valuables found in the baggage of murdered Jews and handing it over to his superiors for transfer to Berlin. He said he had guarded luggage on the Auschwitz arrival and selection ramp two or three times in the summer of 1944.

During the trial, Groening asked for forgiveness while acknowledging that only the courts could decide when it came to criminal guilt.

Groening was held in a British prison until 1948. He eventually found work as a payroll clerk in a factory.

The first investigations of Groening took place in 1977, but it was only after the successful trial against convicted Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk in 2011 that the courts were emboldened to try camp guards on charges of complicity in murder.

Refugee promise, immigrant fear


Many European countries characterize the refugee crisis as a “German problem.” This is absurd — it should concern all member states, many of which have a dismissive attitude toward refugees. In stark contrast stands German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with her now famous expression, “We can do it!”  She has emphasized the human duty to receive men, women and children in need. 

Merkel has been firmly in power for 11 years. Now, thanks to her pro-immigrant stand, she’s being challenged for the first time as opposition to the asylum law increases. 

I am proud to know Angela Merkel personally. I admire her, because she always keeps her dignity and is true to herself. Among all of Europe’s rulers, she is, without a doubt, a true friend of the State of Israel. On her, one can rely 100 percent. It was Merkel, after all, who pointed out the danger toward Israel’s existence from the Iranian nuclear threat. 

In East Germany, where she grew up, Merkel openly witnessed anti-Zionism. The murder of 6 million Jews under the Nazi regime and Germany’s resulting responsibility for the safety of the Jewish state made a deep impression on her. She often had problems understanding why many of her fellow German citizens did not see the misdeeds of the Holocaust as an enormous burden for Germany’s worldwide reputation. It was important to her to correct that reputation, which suffered greatly from World War II, with an especially warm, generous refugee policy of open frontiers.

Anyone who appreciates Merkel for her generous humanity no doubt hopes she will not remain a “lonesome chancellor,” but that she can regain the confidence of her people and remain in power. It is important to take into account that no German citizen is doing worse due to the refugees. Social benefits have not been reduced, governmental institutions are still strong. Hence, one can and should see the influx of refugees as an opportunity, not a danger. 

Of course, the opportunities do not come without concerns. For Natan Sharansky, president of the Jewish Agency since 2009, the main concern is that Europe does not lose its identity. Many refugees do not share European values and have great difficulty respecting the norms of democracy. More important is whether European citizens have the inner strength to stand up for essential European norms and to appreciate and protect the value of freedom. “If refugees are received as new citizens,” Sharansky said, “without requesting them to accept the common rules, Europe is in danger.”

 “Within five years, the State of Israel has mastered a population increase of 20 percent,” he said, referring to the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. “When we attempt to integrate people that are not willing to share our values and norms, our most important plan won’t succeed. Integration can only succeed if they want to be part of the country’s history, culture and political traditions, and deeply connect with the society. Only then.”

Continued acts of anti-Semitic violence underscore those concerns. In 2015, there were 108 serious physical attacks on Jews in France — an increase of 30 percent. Additional statistics illustrate the feeling of fear among Jews living in France. 

“Today, even small children in France know not to let themselves be recognized as Jews in public,” said Meyer Habib, the Jewish representative of the French parliament. “The immigration of Muslims in France and the new type of anti-Semitism only have one clear meaning: There is no future for Jews in France!”

In Switzerland, where I live, Islam is the strongest growing religious community. After every assassination by Islamists, Europe’s (and Switzerland’s) Muslims are asked to distance themselves from the terror. 

But perhaps more is needed. 

“Ashamed dissociation from terror is not enough,” secular Moroccan writer Kacem El Ghazzali said. “It is more important to fight the movements that lead to terrorism. Islamic terror has indeed something to do with Islam. And whoever criticizes Islam is still far from being [an] Islamophobe.” 

Each and every moderate Muslim has a responsibility to act and to publically compete with the prevailing fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran, El Ghazzali said.  

It remains to be hoped for that more moderate Muslims take on this responsibility.


ARTHUR COHN is a multiple Academy Award-winning producer based in Switzerland.

German court drops case against woman, 92, who worked at Auschwitz


A state court in northern Germany said it is dropping a criminal case against a 92-year-old woman who worked as a radio operator at Auschwitz.

The woman, identified by the Kiel state court as Helma M., is almost completely blind and deaf and was unfit to stand trial because she was weakened by an unnamed illness, the court said in a statement issued on Friday, according to news reports.

She was charged with 260,000 counts of accessory to murder connected to her work at the Nazi concentration camp as the radio operator of the commandant there.

In March, a former Auschwitz medic, 95, was found unfit to stand trial for his role in the murder of more than 3,600 people at the Nazi death camp. A court-appointed physician determined that Hubert Zafke’s health was too poor to go on trial in Neubrandenburg state court. Prosecutors said the medic’s unit in which he served placed the Zyklon-B pesticide crystals into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Zafke did not deny he served at Auschwitz, but said he did not see or participate in any of the murders.

In June, Waffen SS member Reinhold Hanning, 94, was sentenced to five years in prison by the district court in Detmold, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, for his role as an accessory in the murder of at least 170,000 people at Auschwitz. He remains free as he appeals the verdict.

With gratitude toward Donald Trump


No one compares to Adolf Hitler. He was incomparably evil.  Nothing in American politics compares to Nazism. Nothing, not now – and hopefully never!

And yet, I am grateful to Donald Trump because he has made my job of explaining the rise of Nazism and political support for Hitler so much easier.

Permit me to explain: 

When I would tell my students that many of Hitler’s supporters did not regard themselves as antisemites or racists, they would look at me quizzically. “How could they not?” they ask. After all, Hitler made secret of his anti-Semitism. He spoke of it openly, directly and repeatedly. He did not use dog whistles but said what he meant and meant what he said.

When I would mention that many did not believe that he would carry out what he had been saying, they were skeptical. After all, he had repeated his threats against the Jews time and again, how could they believe that once in office he would not follow through?

When we would learn that some of his voters were put off by his antisemitism but liked other parts of his platform such as his strong nationalism, his return to national pride, his attacks on the ineffective Weimar Republic and their leaders, his anger at German humiliation with the defeat of World War I and the foreign imposition of the Versailles Treaty. They craved his projection of strength and decisiveness after what many had viewed as ineffective leadership from the German political class, My students would protest. But he was antisemitic and racist. And you are telling me that his supporters did not regard that as disqualifying? They roll their eyes when I tell them that had he not been an antisemite he might have gotten even more support.

When I would mention that Hitler came to power with a minority of seats in a coalition Cabinet and his political partners assured one another and the President that once in office he would be forced to moderate and move toward the center. They would whisper: “he knows nothing and we are men of experience, seasoned, reasoned, disciplined and informed, we can control the man and force him to bend to our will. They would look skeptically at me. Given what they know happened shortly after Hitler took office, they wondered: how could they be so sure, how could they be misguided?

When I would describe the reasoning of Germany’s Conservative political leadership: better to bring this angry man and his angry hordes inside the tent looking outward that outside the tent continually raging, they would throw up their hands in frustration: how could they be so naïve as to imagine that the rage would not continue and once in power become institutionalized, bureaucratized, legalized? Couldn’t they understand that power would only embolden them and that such power would only entice them to use it effectively and cruelly?

And finally, when I would say that no one in his inner circle could stand up to Hitler, could tell him to stop and cut it out, change direction or that Germany did not have, at least not after the Emergency Decrees of March 1933 have the checks and balances and the separation of powers that restrained the exercise of power. I would show them two pictures, one of Hitler receiving a briefing from his Generals in 1939 — when the wars were proceeding well for Germany he listened attentively to what they were telling him — and another in 1942 when Hitler was making decision after decision that would bring them to defeat, the Generals listened obediently to what he was instructing them. My students would ask timidly, did the man have no friends, could no one tell him the truth?

Again Hitler was Hitler and Trump is Trump. No equivalence is possible. Trump does not have a coherent vision positive or negative to implement. He only has himself and his sense of self-aggrandizement.

And yet now my students now will have much easier time understanding that while everyone hears Trumps tirades against Muslims and Hispanics, Mexicans in particular, his promises of exclusion and deportation, for many that simply is not disqualifying. 

They do not regard themselves as racists and could not imagine themselves to be and are uncomfortable if not distraught by his racism but other aspects of his program appeals to them: America First, the “lousy” trade deals, the reversal of globalization, the restoration of American greatness, the hatred of the political class – Washington that evil, awful place – and the promise of American jobs.

My students will now be able to see first-hand how the wise men of Germany could be so mistaken. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan condemned the Republican nominee’s statements about an Indiana born Federal Judge as racist and speaks with rightful respect about Gold Star mothers and fathers who children died in the service of our nation. He is not in favor of excluding Muslims or deporting Mexicans and yet supports his party’s nominee because Trump will advance Conservative causes and appoint a Conservative Supreme Court. I do not know what he is feeling in his heart of hearts but if I judge by his actions, I presume that he believes he and not Trump can set the agenda, the Republican controlled House of Representatives and the Senate can moderate Trump and negate the racist and un-American aspects of his agenda.

I have no such confidence. I suspect that the Presidential nominee of the Republican Party believes that he will bend the Ryans and McConnells to his will just as he broke 15 other candidates for President and made the toughest of them Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey appear like a lap dog, taking scraps off the master’s table.

While I have no confidence in Republican leadership who are deluding themselves and the nation with the notion that they will triumph in a contest of ideas; and while I am appalled by the so-called  “religious leaders” who want to make the nation more Christian – Jesus preached a gospel of compassion and human dignity, gratitude and grace, he reached out to the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the dispossessed — while they support a man who is the embodiment of values antithetical to religiosity. , 

I do have confidence in the American people who, no matter how angry, will reject the politics of exclusion and bigotry and vote for inclusion and decency. I pray that I am not deceiving myself,

Let me conclude with a story: many years ago Steven Spielberg and I met with a man who spent the meeting telling Spielberg how important he was. When the meeting concluded and we stepped outside Spielberg turned to me and said:

 “What was that about?”

“He wanted to tell you how important he was,” I answered. 

He said: “I know he was important, otherwise I could not have met with him.” 

I said: “he has a big ego.” 

Steven corrected me immediately. “No, he has a small ego in need of enlargement. I have a big ego and need not enlarge it at another’s expense.”

I keep remembering that story whenever I hear Trump speak of size of hands, of private parts, of height and or fortune. Only a man with a small ego in need of enlargement would become obsessed by size. 

Beware of such man and most especially so such man preaching such a philosophy.

The rise of Germany’s new right-wing party


Germans are following the Trump-Clinton showdown in the United States with interest, especially as Donald Trump has denigrated Hillary Clinton as “America’s Merkel,” saying Clinton would open U.S. borders to scores of Syrian refugees, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did last September.

Yet Germans also have their own elections to follow, also charged by the immigration issue. The party known as Alternative for Germany (AfD), the only German party categorically challenging Merkel’s asylum policy, could see a meteoric rise in three regional parliamentary elections to be held in September. If it does, that could ultimately threaten the steady rule of Merkel’s party — the Christian Democrats (CDU) — whose support has plummeted since a group of migrants committed numerous sexual assaults last New Year’s Eve, and, more recently, after individual migrants committed a string of terrorist attacks on German soil.

In the run-up to the Berlin state elections on Sept.18, posters for the CDU, Social Democrats (SPD), Die Linke (The Left) and even the Pirates parties line the streets of Berlin, but while AfD is polling at about 10 percent in the German capital, its posters have only just begun to appear, high up and out of reach. According to party officials, they get torn down. Mention AfD in casual conversation in the traditionally left-wing Berlin, and someone will invariably throw out the words: Nazis. Racists. Anti-Semites.

One incident has given validation to the last of those labels. In July, a debate rose within the party over Wolfgang Gedeon, an AfD parliamentarian in Baden-Wuerttemberg who has written books filled with anti-Semitic tropes. He and his supporters were eventually forced to resign. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Berlin flagged the affair.  

“It hasn’t taken long for the hidden anti-Semitism in the AfD to flare up,” Deidre Berger, director of AJC Berlin, told the Jewish Journal. “The list of alleged isolated incidents is getting even longer, which point to an endemic problem in the party. Partly leaders have also dragged their feet confronting the ever more evident anti-Semitism in their own ranks.”

But Michael Klonovsky, an author, poet and veteran journalist who recently came on board as the party’s self-described “spin doctor” to assist with AfD branding and messaging, told the Journal in an interview in Berlin that the AfD has and will continue to own up to, reject and, in the case of Gedeon, eject anti-Semitism from within its party. 

 “There are half as many anti-Semites in the AfD than you would find in the Left party,” he said via a translator, speaking only basic English due to having grown up in East Germany. Himself married to an Israeli-Russian pianist, he said he would not have worked for a party that was anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. “The Green Party in Germany is always stigmatizing Israel. but the AfD does not. The AfD is careful to exclude anti-Semites. Never has a party in Germany brought so many anti-Semites to its ranks than the CDU.”

By CDU’s “anti-Semites,” he is referring to the 1 million refugees and alleged opportunists from Muslim Arab countries who have poured into Germany since last year. Israel does not officially figure into AfD’s platform; its target is Islam, a religion the party views as at odds with German values, law and society. While the AfD emerged in 2013 as a Euro-skeptic party opposing Merkel’s bailout of Greece, it has since evolved and grown as the only party strongly opposing Muslim immigration.

“Islam cannot belong to Germany, because only people can belong to Germany,” Klonovsky said. “Any individual can freely decide if they want to belong to Germany, and many do this, and many don’t. And those who decide not to belong to Germany, we’d like them to return to their homelands.”

Do Jews belong to Germany? 

“Absolutely,” he said. “In 1933, we had 500,000 Jewish Germans in Germany, and now we have 5 million Islamic people, and now we have to make a bill. How many Nobel prizes, and how many doctors, professors and artists were from those 500,000 Jews compared to the 5 million Muslims?”

Sacha Stawski, a pro-Israel community organizer and head of Honestly Concerned, the German media watchdog organization, expressed fear at the rise of the AfD but said he understands its appeal. He has observed small German villages where native Germans have been outnumbered by Muslim refugees who resist cultural integration. 

The AfD’s outspoken stance against Islamic terrorism, the kind that has plagued Israel, has led some of Stawski’s pro-Israel friends and acquaintances to forgive the party of its perceived faults. 

“But I think it’s not enough to have one common enemy and forget about all the other issues and everything else that the party stands for,” Stawski said. “That thinking’s way too shallow.”

Nor does it comfort him that Israeli flags occasionally pop up at AfD rallies.

“I would not trust the AfD on any issues relating to Judaism or Israel,” Stawski said, remarking that the AfD has attracted people who align with the National Democrats (NPD) — the closest Germany gets to a modern Nazi party — although, according to Klonovsky, the party denies membership to anyone affiliated with the NPD.

The AJC is also wary. 

“The AfD instrumentalizes the debate about anti-Semitism amongst refugees to underscore their rejection of immigrants and Muslims in general,” Berger said. “It is for good reason that the Central Council of Germany warns that a party that foments hatred of Muslims and Jews is a danger to democracy.”

The AfD has dropped early proposals that alarmed the Jewish community, such as the banning of religious head coverings, ritual slaughter and circumcision. 

 “The target of that was never the Jewish population,” Klonovsky said, noting that Muslims circumcise boys at the onset of puberty, unlike in Judaism. “The Jews are collateral damage.”

Henryk Broder, a prominent pro-Israel, German-Jewish columnist for Die Welt, believes the organized Jewish community’s concern with the AfD is imbalanced, symptomatic of a “ghetto mentality.” Echoing Klonovsky, a personal friend, he thinks Jewish groups should be far more concerned with the anti-Semitism, expressed in anti-Israel sentiment, of ruling left-wing parties.

“They have one yardstick about politics: Good for us or bad for us,” Broder  said in an interview at a Berlin cafe. “They still don’t consider themselves as part of German society. They still consider themselves a special-interest group. So do the Arabs.”

With AfD having suffered from public infighting and clumsy campaigning, Broder likens AfD to a lottery winner who blew the winnings. But Jews need not fret.

“The Jewish community is fighting ghosts, demons. ‘Excuse me? Do you have a dybbuk for me?’ Yes, it’s the AfD,” he said in his signature satirical style.

Klonovsky was hesitant to draw parallels between the rise of the AfD and the rise of Trump or to comment on American elections, but he said Germans disenchanted with Merkel and frustrated with stifled debate around the refugee crisis are drawn to Trump’s style.

“Let’s make our problems public,” Klonovsky said. “To hell with political correctness. That’s the message.”

Keeping alive the pre-war golden age of Jewish music


Even as life for German Jews grew ever more constrictive in the early 1930s, a Berlin bookseller named Hirsch Lewin started his Semer record label, beginning the audio documentation of a little-known golden age of Jewish music. 

That the archive should be lost in the ensuing decades would surprise no one, especially after his store was attacked and 4,500 recordings were destroyed. By some tiny miracle, though, most of the Semer catalog has been collected, and a present-day band — based in Berlin — performs that repertory to great acclaim.

A selection of the Semer songs made for a well-received 2012 concert at the Berlin Jewish Museum, and its success begat a 2015 performance, now available as a CD, “Rescued Treasure” (Piranha). The sounds and genres of the music represented, though varied, punch into a collective trove of memory like a swallow of sweet Manischewitz.

Keeping that musical legacy alive is 61-year-old Alan Bern, an American living in Berlin who heads the Semer Ensemble octet. He’s best known for Brave Old World, the klezmer band he co-founded in the early ’90s after his tenure in Hankus Netsky’s Klezmer Conservatory band. Bern, who plays accordion and piano, has found a renewed sense of mission in his Semer Ensemble and its music. 

“I’m bringing back to life a nearly forgotten body of recorded work by Jewish artists in the 1930s,” he said by phone from Berlin. “The instrumental level of the performances on these records is so high that its absence would be like a decade of classical music history had been lost.”

Operating out of the Scheunenviertel, Berlin’s Boyle Heights, Lewin sold all manner of Jewish-themed books at his Hebräische Buchhandlung store on the old Grenadierstrasse. In 1933, it was decreed that German Jews could only perform for Jewish audiences and record for Jewish-owned record companies, and for five years he worked at a fever pitch, recording as many artists as he was able.

“Most of those musicians,” Bern points out, “were trained symphony and chamber music players. They had to do something with their talents. Some of the recordings are of Jewish music, some of international music, like chanson, theater and cabaret. There are even a couple of straight German beer-drinking songs.”

“Rescued Treasure” is made up of a dozen pieces from the Semer catalog, performed somewhere between scrupulous reproduction and modern individual interpretation. 

“I try to be faithful to the purity of any music,” Bern stressed, “whether it’s Hungarian Gypsy music or bebop. Then I ask, what part of me can I bring to this? I’m of the post-Coltrane, post-Hendrix generation; when we have material that requires wailing — like ‘Das Kind Liegt in Wigele,’ where a child’s mother dies — we felt we had to really push it.” 

A native of Bloomington, Ind., Bern’s parents were of Eastern European stock and Yiddish was spoken at home. “I was raised to be a true-blue American,” Bern said grinning. 

At Indiana University, he recalls a culture where cello icon János Starker (1924-2013), a Distinguished Professor of Music, would unwind at post-recital parties by playing klezmer tunes with his friends. “People my age were calling into question the idea of our identity — like, what was Ashkenazi culture before it was dissolved into America?”

The klezmer revival of the ’80s coincided with interest in ethnic and cultural identity. “We discovered,” Bern said, “that our own ancestral sound is the music of our grandfathers. But we didn’t have the entire spectrum of Ashkenazi culture available to us — we only had fragments. It was a fascinating mystery to try and piece that puzzle together; I compare it to archaeology.” 

Bern prevailed upon singer, keyboardist and Klezmatics founder Lorin Sklamberg to be a featured performer for the 2015 concert. As sound archivist at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Sklamberg was aware of the Semer recordings. 

“I knew Rainer Lotz, who reassembled almost all of the Semer catalog,” Sklamberg said from his New York home. “The music was interesting to me because I realized the huge variety of the material; it was extremely diverse. The performers who made these recordings were quite phenomenal singers and instrumentalists. They weren’t field recordings.”  

The recordings remain a source of inspiration for the likes of Bern.

“Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s was a terrible place to be a Jewish musician,” Bern said. “But the music of Semer shows that even as things got worse and worse, there were still good things to be done — and therefore hope.”

The EU, Terror and the Transparency Bill


On the 7 December 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt solemnly before the Warsaw Ghetto in contrition. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel faced annihilation, the same Willy Brandt denied German landing rights to US planes carrying emergency supplies to Israel. 

Chancellor Merkel occasionally says that Israel’s “right to exist” is Germany’s raison d’etre.

Like Willy Brandt, Germany appears to be two tongued when it comes to antisemitism. Like the EU,  Germany makes a distinction between antisemitism and objecting to Israel’s policies, which on paper seems to be fair. Thus, giving the Hitler salute and denying the Holocaust are illegal. On the other hand, the annual Iran sponsored Al Quds March through downtown Berlin, calling for the destruction of Israel is legal. Berlin constantly turns a deaf ear to appeals to ban that march.

The JCPOA (Iran Deal) was enthusiastically supported by Germany enabling Iran to fully develop its nuclear program after a decade, whilst currently testing “Death to Israel” marked missiles. However, the same Germany decided that nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes were too risky for Germans. They are to be phased out by 2022.

Germany maintains it has a “special relationship” with Israel while the EU ambassador to Israel explained that Israel is singled out because “you are one of us.”

The EU countries support various NGOs despite being termed “non-government.” Germany’s Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) provides funding to NGOs as part of its foreign aid programs. Recently Prof Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor exposed the doublespeak of Germany yet further. The German government annually pays 4 million Euros to NGOs in Israel, of which 42% goes to organizations that support BDS and worse, like The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee which advocates violent riots in Judea/Samaria. The German Embassy in Tel Aviv does not deny the funding, but blandly states that Germany does not support boycotts of Israel. They donate to “organizations supporting peace.”

Some of the NGOs funded by the EU are Zochrot, Grassroots Jerusalem and Baladna Arab Youth Association, all of which are committed to getting  Palestinian refugees and their third and fourth generation descendants to “return” even though most have never been to Israel.  I have met some of these “refugees” who lead comfortable middle class lives, in Australia. They certainly do not fit the image of a refugee we see on TV. In my recent satire, “The trombone man: tales of a misogynist,” the story depicts one such comfortable refugee who, like his parents, has never been to Israel. Despite these anomalies, the EU generously funds these organizations that are dedicated to Israel’s disappearance as the Jewish State.

The EU therefore supports some organizations dedicated to Israel’s demise, while paying lip service to its “right to exist,” whatever that means. The EU, led by countries such as Germany, also supports labelling people and products from beyond the Green Line or “Auschwitz Lines” as former dovish foreign minister Abba Eban called it. Thus, while officially declining to support BDS, the same EU countries fund NGOs that do—all with a straight face.

Unlike the vicious murder of Hallel Ariel (z”l) and countless others before and after her, the EU, committed to democracy and human rights, has been “deeply concerned” about the recent transparency law passed by the Knesset, even though there is no suggestion these NGOs would be banned from practising their dubious activities. The State Department termed it “chilling,” despite its funds being surreptitiously used to help influence the outcome of Israel’s last election. In the meantime, Europe is reeling with regular terror attacks, for which Europeans cannot find an answer—except to insultingly compare Israel to Putin’s Russia and be “deeply concerned” with their fellow democracy that struggles to maintain some balance in civil rights while upholding its citizens right to life.

Israel remains a vibrant democracy despite the underhand tactics of the EU. As Europe grapples with increasing terror, their exaggerated concern with an ally threatened daily by internal and external terror is misplaced and misguided.

NGO Monitor has shown in great detail the doublespeak of the EU countries which mouth unconvincing platitudes regarding Israel’s “right to exist,” but simultaneously fund many NGOs that promote exactly the opposite.

At the end of the day, it should be remembered that the hidden agendas of many of these NGOs have little to do with “human rights” per se but more to do with providing conditions that would end  the State of Israel, by stressing the Nakba, hope, resilience and the “right of return” of refugees and their descendants.

That is why it is always worth remembering Willy Brandt 1970 and Willy Brandt 1973. It sums up Europe perfectly.

Ron Jontof-Hutter is Fellow at the Berlin International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism. He recently authored of the satire “The trombone man: Tales of a misogynist.”

Pokemon Go played at German Holocaust sites, UK Jewish cemetery


The Pokemon Go craze has hit Holocaust memorials in Germany and a Jewish cemetery in Britain, in what some Jewish community representatives said was a show of insensitivity that the game’s developer should help prevent.

According to news reports, players have been gleefully seeking Pokemon creatures using their cell phones at a memorial for the 320 murdered Jews of Aurich, a town in Lower Saxony. Pokemon Go is a game that superimposes animated figures onto the video feed of smartphone cameras. Players can “catch” the animated figures if they stand near enough to the geographical area designated by the program as a PokeStop.

Gunther Siebels-Michel, on the board of the German-Israel Society in East Frisia, told the NWZ online newspaper he was outraged, calling the behavior “completely inappropriate.” He said that the society would likely lodge a complaint with the U.S. developer of the game, Niantic.

This is just one of many memorial sites in Germany where players of Pokemon Go have turned up in recent weeks.

Pokemon Go players have been spotted at the national Holocaust memorial in Berlin, where visitors can have a feeling of being overwhelmed and even lost among the grid of more than 2,000 concrete slabs. A memorial spokesperson told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that officials were trying to get the Pokemon app barred from the site. Meanwhile, she said she expected visitors “to behave in an appropriate and respectful manner” and not to play the game in the memorial.

In London, Pokemon-playing youngsters were found walking over graves in a Jewish cemetery in Edmonton search of the game’s virtual monsters. Stanley Kaye, a local historian, asked the teens to refrain from doing so at Federation Cemetery on Monday, The Jewish News of London reported.

Meanwhile, in Sandhorst, near Aurich, players have turned up at a memorial to slave laborers who were forced to dig anti-tank ditches in 1944.

And in southern Germany, Karl Freller, director of the Foundation for Bavarian Memorials, has written to Niantic asking them to keep the memorials at the former Dachau and Flossenburg concentration camps off the app.

According to the Evangelical Press Service, agency, the Foundation for Memorials in Lower Saxony has not spotted any Pokemon Go players at the Bergen-Belsen camp memorial, but attributed this to the fact that school is out for the summer, and there are fewer pupils visiting the site.

In Poland, the administration of the memorial at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau already has asked Niantic to take the site off its app.

While memorials are trying to keep Pokemon fans at more than an arm’s length, museums reportedly are enjoying the extra attention they’re getting, even if players are looking at their phones rather than at the art.

But in Russia, the main Jewish religious group, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia said on Tuesday it does not mind people playing the hit smartphone game “Pokemon Go” around synagogues and other cultural buildings.

The group, which is a Chabad-affiliated umbrella, said on Tuesday that it is not against the game as long as it is not disturbing the congregation. “We don’t see any problem,” the Jewish federation’s spokesman Andrei Glotser told the Tass news agency. “Let them come and search (for the Pokemon), maybe even something useful will come out of this!”

In St. Petersburg, the Grand Choral Synagogue even offered a prize – a kosher wine bottle – for anyone who catches a Pokemon on the premises.

Multiple deaths reported at shooting in Munich shopping mall


Gunmen went on a shooting rampage in a shopping mall in the southern German city of Munich on Friday, killing and wounding many people, police said.

It was the third major act of violence against civilian targets to take place in Western Europe in eight days. Previous attacks in France and Germany were claimed by the Islamic State militant group.

Munich police said they suspected it was a terrorist attack.

Authorities were evacuating people from the Olympia mall but many others were hiding inside. Munich's main railway station was also being evacuated.

A Munich police spokeswoman said multiple people were killed or wounded. No suspects had been arrested yet, she said.

“We believe we are dealing with a shooting rampage,” the spokeswoman said.

Bavarian broadcaster BR said six people were dead and many wounded in the shopping mall.

NTV television had reported the Bavarian Interior Ministry as saying three people were dead, but the ministry said later it would not confirm this.

More than one gunman was believed to be involved, the police spokeswoman said.

“We believe there was more than one perpetrator. The first reports came at 6 p.m., the shooting apparently began at a McDonald's in the shopping centre. There are still people in the shopping centre. We are trying to get the people out and take care of them,” she said.

Police special forces had arrived at the scene, NTV said.

Munich police said on Facebook that witnesses reported three different people with weapons. Shooting was also reported on Hanauer Street and Ries Streetet, near the mall.

The police told people to stay in their homes or take cover in buildings. Authorities were evacuating people from the Olympia mall. But many others were hiding inside, an employee told Reuters by telephone.

“Many shots were fired, I can't say how many but it's been a lot,” the employee, who declined to be identified, said from the mall.

“All the people from outside came streaming into the store and I only saw one person on the ground who was so severely injured that he definitely didn't survive,”

“We have no further information, we're just staying in the back in the storage rooms. No police have approached us yet.”

Munich transport authorities said they had halted several bus, train and tram lines.

The shopping center is next to the Munich Olympic stadium, where the Palestinian militant group Black September took 11 Israeli athletes hostage and eventually killed them during the 1972 Olympic Games.

IS SUPPORTERS CELEBRATE

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but supporters of Islamic State celebrated the rampage on social media.

“Thank God, may God bring prosperity to our Islamic State men,” read one tweet.

“The Islamic state is expanding in Europe,” read another.

Friday's attack took place a week after a 17-year-old asylum-seeker wounded passengers on a German train in an axe rampage. Bavarian police shot dead the teenager after he wounded four people from Hong Kong on the train and injured a local resident while fleeing.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas told Bild newspaper's Friday edition before the mall attack that there was “no reason to panic but it's clear that Germany remains a possible target”.

The incidents in Germany follow an attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day in which a Tunisian drove a truck into crowds, killing 84. Islamic State also claimed responsibility for that attack.

Friday is also the five-year anniversary of the massacre by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. Breivik is a hero for far-right extremists in Europe and America.

The Munich assault was also reminiscent of Islamist militant attacks in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013 and on a hotel in Mumbai, India, in November 2008.

Islamic State supporters hail deadly Munich shooting on social media


Supporters of the Islamic State militant group celebrated on social media a shooting rampage in a shopping mall in the southern German city of Munich on Friday that killed and wounded many people.

“Thank God, may God bring prosperity to our Islamic State men,” read one tweet in Arabic on an account that regularly favors the radical Islamist movement.

“The Islamic state is expanding in Europe,” read an Arabic-language tweet on another account also known to support Islamic State.

The attack was the third major act of violence against civilian targets in Western Europe in eight days. Previous attacks in France and Germany were claimed by Islamic State and Munich police said they suspected the latest assault was a terrorist attack.

Authorities were evacuating people from the Olympia mall in the Bavarian capital but many others were hiding inside.

A Munich police spokeswoman said multiple people were killed or wounded. “We believe we are dealing with a shooting rampage,” the spokeswoman said.

Bavarian broadcaster BR said six people were dead and many wounded in the shopping mall. NTV television reported the state's interior ministry as saying three people were dead, but the ministry said later it would not confirm this.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack, which took place a week after an axe-wielding teenager went on a rampage on a German train, wounding four people before he was shot dead. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack.

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