Germany expands Holocaust survivors’ pensions


Recent changes to Germany’s ghetto pension law will expand the number of Holocaust survivors worldwide who are eligible for payments for labor they completed in ghettos and retroactively extend significantly the time period covered.

The amendments adopted in June affect what are known as ZRBG pensions, which are for survivors who completed non-forced work such as railroad construction and sewing uniforms in a ghetto. The acronym in the pension’s title refers to the German name of the law. 

“This change will potentially benefit a large number of survivors,” explained Lisa Hoffman, the Holocaust services program director at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a local nonprofit that trains and advises volunteer attorneys who provide free assistance to survivors (bettzedek.org, 323-549-5883). 

Over the last several years, the organization and outside attorneys working pro bono have assisted more than 700 local survivors with applying for this pension, she said. According to reporting by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, some 40,000 survivors worldwide may be affected by the change, which takes effect Aug. 1.

The ZRBG pension can provide up to $10,000 in annual income for a recipient, Hoffman said, an especially significant sum given the prevalence of poverty among survivors. Amounts awarded vary from recipient to recipient, sometimes in extreme fashion.

“In terms of monthly pensions, we have some people who are getting as much as $500 per month and some who get as little as $5 per month,” she said. “That’s how variable it is.” 

The recent change to the law marks the culmination of years of effort toward liberalizing the eligibility criteria for the ZRBG pension. It was introduced in 1997 and expanded in 2002. Between 2002 and 2007, however, the German government rejected the majority of applicants, deeming them ineligible, according to Hoffman. 

“Between 2002 and 2007, about 70,000 applications were filed worldwide, and about 90 percent of those applications were rejected,” she said. “Sixty-one thousand out of 70,000 applications were rejected, and that’s because the pension office — once the law was passed and the pension office had to start implementing it — applied narrow interpretation to the law.”

In part, a lack of clarity over what constitutes non-forced labor in a situation where, one could argue, there is no such thing as non-forced anything, caused the rejections. As Michael Berenbaum, professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University, told the Journal, any work that one did in a ghetto was done in the belief that it would be lifesaving for the person or for his or her family. Whether the person was under direct immediate threat is inconsequential. 

“There’s voluntary and [there’s] voluntary,” Berenbaum said in reference to the kinds of labor addressed by the pension. “That [labor in ghettos, such as railroad construction] doesn’t sound particularly voluntary.”

In 2009, when the issue over the ZRBG pensions went to court, a ruling that came down in favor of survivors resulted in the liberalization of the eligibility criteria and the awarding of retroactive back payments to pensioners. A four-year statute of limitations that is the norm under German law in such matters restricted the back payments to recognizing the 2005-2009 period only, according to a draft of the law obtained by the Journal. 

The new law lifts the cap, allowing eligible people to be paid the pension retroactively — regardless of what year their application was granted — from the original 1997 date. Payments will be offered in the form of a lump sum.

“Retroactivity applies both to people who were already getting a pension and to those awarded a pension in the future,” Hoffman said.

The amendments also increase the number of ghettos covered by this pension. For the first time, survivors of ghettos in places such as Romania and Slovakia will be eligible. The new version of the law replaces the words “that was in an area occupied by the German Reich or incorporated in it” with “that was in an area within the national socialist sphere of influence.”

Those eligible can opt in or opt out of the back-payment plan; however, recipients who accept the lump sum will receive smaller monthly payments once the changes go into effect. 

“When calculating the pension as of an earlier commencement date, the applicable lower age factor has to be taken into account,” the law states. 

Berenbaum, who served as project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, overseeing its creation, praised the German government’s move in expanding the ghetto labor pension. 

“It is proper. One could even say it’s long overdue,” Berenbaum said. 

Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), an organization that coordinates reparations for survivors, welcomed the changes to the law.

“This amendment of the existing legislation brings a long-delayed measure of justice to elderly survivors of ghettos who have been waiting for seven decades for their labor to be recognized by Germany,” Schneider said in a statement. “These ‘ghetto pensions’ are of great interest to survivors who may be in great need of the funds and for whom they can bring additional comfort and support in their final years.”

After the new law goes into effect, the German government will be sending ZRBG recipients information about what their choices under the new law will be. Hoffman said survivors who need help understanding their choices or communicating their wishes to the German pension authority can contact Bet Tzedek for free assistance.

Germany commits to additional $800 million for home care for Holocaust survivors


The German government agreed to significantly expand its funding of home care for infirm Holocaust survivors and relax eligibility criteria for restitution programs to include Jews who spent time in so-called open ghettos.

The agreement, reached after negotiations in Israel with the Claims Conference, will result in approximately $800 million in new funding for home care for Holocaust survivors from 2014 to 2017. This is in addition to $182 million for 2014 that already has been committed.

In 2015, the amount will rise by 45 percent, to approximately $266 million, and then to $273 million in 2016 and $280 million in 2017. Because the sums are set in euro, the actual amounts may change depending on currency fluctuations.

The $84 million increase in funding between 2014 and 2015 will represent the largest year-over-year increase since the program began with 30 million euro (approximately $36.6 million) in 2004, though a bigger percentage increase took place in 2010, when funding doubled from 55 million euro ($68 million) to 110 million euro ($136 million).

“With this new agreement, the Claims Conference will be able to both increase the number of beneficiaries, thus eliminating waiting lists of survivors for home care, as well as increase the number of hours per person to a minimum level of dignity,” Claims Conference board chairman Julius Berman wrote in a letter to the board.

Some 56,000 survivors are now receiving home care through the Claims Conference.

The announcement of new funding comes amid controversy for the Claims Conference over revelations related to bungled investigations in 2001 that failed to detect a broad fraud at the Holocaust restitution organization. A document obtained last week by JTA showed that top Claims Conference officials were involved in the botched probes, including then-executive vice president Gideon Taylor and Berman, who in 2001 served as outside counsel to the Claims Conference.

Claims Conference employee Semen Domnitser, a director of two restitution funds who was at the center of the 2001 inquiries, was found guilty earlier this month in federal court of masterminding the scheme, which ran up more than $57 million in fraudulent claims from 1993 until 2009. The cost of the fraud was borne entirely by Germany.

In his letter to the Claims Conference’s board announcing the result of the latest negotiations, former U.S. ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who leads negotiations with Germany for the Claims Conference, hailed the work of executive vice president Greg Schneider, who along with a senior Claims Conference staffer discovered and stopped the fraud scheme in 2009.

“The lives of tens of thousands of Holocaust victims will be made easier in their old age due to Greg’s skill and vision,” Eizenstat wrote in his message to the board.

“This unprecedented amount of funding means that we can give Nazi victims around the world the aid that they desperately need as they grow more frail,” he said. “That the agreement encompasses funding through 2017 underscores the German government’s ongoing commitment to Holocaust survivors. It is all the more impressive because it comes at a time of budget austerity in Germany.”

In last week’s negotiations, which took place in Israel, Germany also agreed to relax eligibility criteria for the Central and Eastern European Fund and Article 2 Fund, through which the German government gives pension payments of approximately $411 per month to needy Nazi victims who spent significant time in a concentration camp, in a Jewish ghetto in hiding or living under a false identity to avoid the Nazis.

Until now, only those who were interned in closed-off ghettos were eligible for pensions. As of Jan. 1, 2014, pensions will be available also to those forced to live in any of 300 specific open ghettos, such as those in Czernowitz, Romania, where Jews lived under curfew, lost their jobs and were subject to persecution.

Germany in negotiations to take place this fall also agreed to discuss possible special aid for child survivors.

The session that just concluded was the first time since restitution negotiations with Germany began in Luxembourg in 1951 that talks were held in Israel. For decades, the negotiations were held only in the German capital. In recent years, sessions also were held in New York and Washington.

Before they began negotiating last week, German representatives met with survivors in Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, visiting private homes where survivors are receiving home care, a senior day center and a soup kitchen. They also took a guided tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. The negotiations were held in a classroom at Yad Vashem.

How the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum changed my life


My daughter, Ilana, then a young college student, asked if she could go with me to the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on April 22, 1993 (the date was tied to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’s 50th anniversary). I said: “I will be leaving very early.” She responded: “I’ll be up.”

I couldn’t wait to get to the museum that morning. First of all, my home was in chaos. My sister and brother-in-law were in from Israel for the occasion. My mother came up from Florida. A couple of days before, they’d had an automobile accident, and, as a result, my mother was in a wheelchair. More importantly, the opening of the museum, which once seemed so far away, had finally arrived. I felt like a bridegroom on his wedding day or an expectant father after 14 years of gestation, filled with joy and anticipation, anxiety and excitement, even a bit of fear.

Ilana, for her part, was normally allergic to mornings. In those days, the only way she would be up at 6 a.m. was if she had pulled an all-nighter. But true to her word, she was ready to go. Then, no sooner had she gotten into the car, she turned to me and said: “It is time to quit.”

I was stunned. “Give me time to enjoy the opening,” I replied lamely.

Shoes confiscated from prisoners at Majdanek, on loan from the State Museum of Majdanek, Lublin, Poland. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

I had been involved with the creation of the museum on and off for some 14 years. I began my professional life as a young academic teaching at Wesleyan University and serving as university Jewish chaplain when something rather unexpected happened. I was invited by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg to head Zachor, the Holocaust Remembrance Institute of the National Jewish Conference Center, which he had founded. Then, just after I began my work there, President Jimmy Carter turned to Elie Wiesel to chair the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. Wiesel, in turn, asked Greenberg to be its director. Greenberg had just left City College to direct the Conference Center and was deeply committed there, so he accepted this unprecedented challenge with the understanding that he would not have to move to Washington and would serve only in a part-time capacity. He turned to me to move with my family to Washington, in January 1979, to serve as deputy director for the commission, which in reality meant leading a two-, then later, a three-person staff. We had just moved into a new home in Connecticut, my son, Lev, had been born the spring before, and Ilana had just started kindergarten, but opportunities like that do not come along often, so off we went to Washington. 

The commission made three basic decisions in the first nine months of its work. President Carter had charged it with recommending an “appropriate national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.” And the commission decided upon a “living memorial,” a museum to tell the story of the Holocaust, an educational institution but also an academic research institute, library and archives to teach the Holocaust and its lessons, to enhance scholarship and learning as well as a “Committee on Conscience” to warn of any impending genocide and arouse the conscience of the nation and of world leadership to combat genocide.

Banners commemorating the 20th anniversary hang on the 14th Street entrance to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Second, the museum also would be built in Washington, where it would have to address the American experience as well as the national ethos. Some had argued for New York, then as now, the city with the largest Jewish population in the country. But since museums are always in dialogue with their visitors, the choice of Washington was to prove defining. 

Third, the museum would be a public private-partnership, built on public land with private funds and gifted to the American people. At the time, we were in the middle of an energy crisis, a period of high inflation and high debt — or what seemed high at the time — and President Carter, in particular, was not anxious to undertake new expenditures. Working from January to September 1979 we submitted a report to the president, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Council was launched early the next year, first as a presidential initiative and later by a unanimous act of Congress, but not before there was a major struggle between the chairman and the president over the definition of the Holocaust. 

At issue was whether the term Holocaust applied only to the 6 million Jews who were murdered, or to the 6 million Jews and the non-Jews who were victimized by the Nazis. President Carter wanted a broad definition, and Wiesel, who had dedicated his distinguished career to preserving the Jewishness of the Holocaust, would not work under the Carter definition. Wiesel had solved the problem of how to deal with non-Jewish victims of Nazism, with language: “While not all the victims were Jews, all Jews were victims.” and. “The uniqueness of the Holocaust is its universality.” 

I was caught in the middle, between the president and the chairman, and was summarily fired. Disappointed, I thought that I would never have the opportunity to help build the museum that had just been conceived. I taught, I wrote, I directed the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.

I began to write about several of the issues that had been central to the commission’s concerns on the Americanization and later the nativization of the Holocaust — the clash between the stories retold on American soil and those which predominate in Israel and elsewhere, and the authentic and inappropriate ways in which past recollections are used to justify the present and to construct a future. And I continue focus much of my writing on this very same issue today, more than three decades later. I also wrote on commemorating the Holocaust and on the issue of the uniqueness and universality of the Holocaust, contending that only by including non-Jewish victims of Nazism could we understand the singularity of Jewish victimization during the Holocaust. 

Many people falsely presume that to compare two events — genocides, in this case — is to equate them. In reality, only in comparison can we understand what is distinct about each. We must compare and contrast in order to understand.

Detail of the museum’s Children’s Tile Wall. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Seven years elapsed, and Wiesel resigned as chairman on the eve of his departure to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In the interim, the council had been through several directors and several plans — none successful. I had remained close to the survivors with whom I had always had a special affinity — none more so than Miles Lerman and Benjamin Meed, and I was invited to rejoin the project to preserve its neshama (spirit), first as a consultant and later as project director. 

My writings served me well, because I had been struggling with the question central to the museum’s mission: How do you move the audience of that time back 50 years and introduce them to a European event in the heart of the U.S. capital, the locus of the American national experience? How do you transmit an understanding of the Holocaust to the American people so that it resonates with the American narrative while still doing justice to the event? Would Jews — the prime creators of the museum — be courageous enough to bring a Judeo-centric story to the center of American life, and would the American people be interested or dismiss the museum as parochial? 

I drew upon everything in my own life experience as a postwar child, born to American parents but taught by refugees and survivors, and attending an Orthodox synagogue established by people who had fled Frankfurt and Antwerp just after Kristallnacht, rebuilding their lives and re-creating the world they had left behind in Europe on American soil in the freedom of the new world.

The museum had been given prime land adjacent to the United States Mint — indeed, a crematorium had once been on the site, where dollars going out of circulation had been burned — and adjacent to the National Mall. Situated at the intersection between the museums of Washington, and the monuments of Washington, the site is also within blocks of the White House and Capitol Hill. 

“By the Waters of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion,” the Psalmist said.

The place from which you remember an event shapes how the event is remembered. 

By its very nature, however, the museum would have to stand in contrast to its surroundings. Everywhere else, Washington’s museums celebrate human achievements in art, science, history, technology, scholarship and learning. The monuments pay homage to the great men (and, soon, women) of history — Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. And governmental Washington is power personified. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum would demonstrate what could happen when human genius and technology, when men of history and the power of government are let loose without the restraints of “checks and balances,” without an appreciation for the “inalienable rights” of all, without separation of powers, without appreciating that all men are created equal.

After several false starts, we had a building replete with symbolism, created by master architect James Ingo Freed. The design included three floors of exhibition space, so the story of the Holocaust would have to be told in three chapters, leading to the question: Does one rise and then descend, or does one climb stairs from floor to floor? As we decided on descent, it became clear that the transition between the National Mall and the Holocaust experience would need to begin in the elevator. Three floors meant three acts to the drama: the World Before and the Rise of Nazism 1933-1939; the Holocaust 1940-1945; and then Resistance and Rescue, Liberation, the Nuremberg Trials and the survivors rebuilding their lives, first in the displaced-person camps and then in the United States and Israel. There were large exhibition spaces and bridges leading to four square rooms, followed by stairs. To fit an exhibition inside such a building, the bridges would serve as transition spaces, the sequential exhibition spaces that followed would lead to a story in four segments. The stairs would mark a descent deeper into the story, more engrossed in the Holocaust narrative. 

Still, there was no exhibition.

We created a team. No single individual can create a museum; it takes a village of lay people, donors and professionals, historians and curators, fundraisers and institutional builders working together, despite differences, toward one unified goal. Jeshajahu “Shaike” Weinberg, who had created Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, came in first as a consultant and later as director to build the museum’s infrastructure to give us the benefit of his wisdom and of his experience. Martin Smith, a distinguished documentary filmmaker, also came on board and was joined by Ralph Appelbaum as the museum’s brilliant designer. I was the scholar of the team and most often the public face to the community, scholars, educators and donors, and we worked so closely that our ideas became enmeshed and often we cannot recall who first advanced the concept.

We knew the museum must become a storytelling institution. The two most powerful means of contemporary storytelling are novels and movies. But while film has a captive audience and moving imagery, a museum is just the opposite; its audience moves, its imagery is captive. (Those who have been to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles can see a hybrid of the two, as that museum uses light and sound to keep its audience walking through its exhibits.) We believed that if we got the narrative right, if we made the story compelling, we could encourage the audience to walk through the exhibition at their own pace and still get the story.

But the story had to be personalized. Six million is a statistic. One person’s experience is a story. We decided that visitors would get an identification card so the events they were to see would be encountered through the lens of the victim whose story they carried with them.

Still, however smart you may think yourself to be, you are much better off if you are also lucky, and the museum has a piece of unbelievable luck. Communism was falling, the Soviet Union was in a steep and inexorable decline, and communist officialdom was looking to turn toward the West and away from Moscow. The museum project came along seeking to obtain artifacts just at a time when contact with Washington was welcomed — and here was a U.S. government project on a Jewish theme. Due to the political skill of Miles Lerman, then chair of the museum’s International Relations Committee, who spoke the native languages and could navigate his way about Eastern Europe — a former partisan, he could drink with the best of them, and that was so necessary in Eastern Europe — we were able to obtain on loan or as a gift many of the thousands of artifacts that comprise the museum, including the railcar of the type that was used to transport Jews from ghettos to death camps and the authentic barracks from Birkenau in which we depict the experience of the death camps. We also obtained one of the two milk cans that Emanuel Ringelblum used to bury the Oneg Shabbes archives in Warsaw; and 5,000 shoes, a dissecting table and a crematorium door from Majdanek, which shape the visitors’ understanding of gassing. Because of the plethora of artifacts, we were able to give the visitors a sense that a story lies behind each artifact.

And even Weinberg, who had pioneered the idea of an artifactless museum, had to change his ideology and help create an evidentiary-based, artifact-grounded exhibition.

We integrated films into the museum experience; 70 audio programs and three major films — one on anti-Semitism and one on the Nazi rise to power. Because the museum is situated in Washington, it had to tell the governmental story: What did America and the West know?  When did it know it? And, most importantly, what did it do with such knowledge? So the visitor pauses in the middle of telling a European story to tell the American story. Twice, the visitor has the choice of seeing any one or all of five short films on pre-World War II American policy on the top floor, and on the bottom floor of the exhibition, the wartime record of the American government. There was no pressure of museum staff or officials to soften the story and make the U.S. government look good. We felt compelled to tell the truth as we knew it, the whole truth as best we could.

We wrestled with the question of how to end the museum; our initial thoughts were trite, and an important story must have a significant ending. We came to the realization that the only ones who could bridge that world with our world would be those who have actually lived in both worlds. The museum could only end with the voices of survivors telling us their stories, brief glimpses into the concentration camp universe, specific understandings of the choiceless choices they were forced to make, moments where they felt some dignity and times when they felt the full measure of their defeat, of their loss. Those who were there were allowed to speak, and they reminded us that for every story that we heard there were 6 million stories that could not be told. 

Some wanted an uplifting ending. After all, Americans like it when people live happily after. But although there are many uplifting stories told, in those 90 minutes we experience the whole of humanity — evil incarnate, goodness personified, courage without end, and the most craven of cowardice and everything in between.

The day the museum opened was the coldest April day in the history of Washington. The field beyond the museum, which would hold the massive crowds attending the opening — the survivors and their children and grandchildren, liberators and their families, donors and their descendants who were so very proud of what they had enabled to rise, as well as ordinary Americans who would form the core of the museum’s visitors — held knee-deep mud. The heads of state were there — presidents and prime ministers from many of the countries occupied by the Germans. The invitation to Franjo Tuđjman, the Holocaust-denying president of Croatia, had caused the museum considerable embarrassment. We had followed the advice of the State Department not to create an international incident. We should have remembered that we answered to a higher authority. 

More than one survivor said that this was not ordinary rain: “The heavens were crying.” Perhaps they were. The Museum of Tolerance and New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust opened in rainstorms; Yad Vashem opened on a frigidly cold evening, so rare in May.

Menachem Rosensaft, child of Holocaust survivors, put it ever so wisely: “Every once in a while you learn that there is a God. No one should have enjoyed this event, and they couldn’t. And the presidents of Romania and Hungary, France and Germany —and even the president of the United States — were chilled to their bones at this ceremony, as they damn well should be.”

We had a dream that if we built it, they would come. 

The farmer from Iowa and the factory worker from Detroit, schoolchildren from Maine to Florida, from Oregon to Texas, teachers and scholars, soldiers and policemen, heads of states and ordinary citizens — in the days and years that followed, the number of visitors exceeded even our most exalted of dreams in quantity — we dreamed of 1 million; we averaged almost twice that number — and, more importantly, in quality. Jews and non-Jews, Americans of all races and creeds, ages and educational backgrounds. Museums in Washington tend to be white institutions — not so the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I turned to my daughter that morning with tears in my eyes. I understood that we had all paid a price, a steep price for the creation of this institution. I had worked on it 24/6 for many long years while raising my children, and having them in my sole custody. I had gone from youth to middle age. I had lost my father. I had divorced. My children had endured my absence and at times my distracted presence. They had grown up surrounded by ongoing discussions of death and destruction. Ilana had written her college essay on growing up with Zyklon B in the garage, just behind her tennis racket and skis. This was my life, and I chose it, but because of that choice it became theirs. I asked her indulgence: “Allow me to enjoy the opening,” I pleaded. And so she did.

Was it worth it? Surely it was.

Was the price to be paid steep? Yes. Would I do it again? In a minute; yet, hopefully, differently. 

Still, my daughter intuited something I did not then know. I was soon to face an existential problem: What do you do after you have done everything you wanted to do? I was in my mid-40s, too young and too poor to retire. And stuck in the notion that for some of us, there is more challenge in creating something than in managing it.

Ilana and I spoke deeply that day. I told her that I could now die. Now she was stunned. I reassured her, seeing the look on her face: “Don’t worry, hopefully I won’t; and I have much, so much, to live for — but I could die and face my Maker saying that what I had done with the talents and the opportunities that I was given was worthy of a life. That feeling has never left me.

What do you do with the rest of your life? I now answer that day by day through new challenges, and wonderful and important opportunities to serve, grow, learn and contribute. 

Survivor: Harry Magid


“The Jews are going to be taken from the ghetto and killed.” Harry Magid — known then as Herschel — urged his mother to escape with his younger brother, Alex. Harry had learned from a Ukrainian friend of his father that 300 horse-drawn wagons had been ordered to transport the approximately 2,500 Jews in the Stepan ghetto to the forests outside Kostopol, where large pits had been dug. Harry’s mother disguised herself as a Ukrainian and slipped out with Alex through a few loose boards in the ghetto wall. “I’ll come later,” 12-year-old Harry promised. But Ukrainian police began shooting at escapees, and Harry retreated to their ghetto house.

The next day, as the roundup began, Harry hid in a large hole in the ground that served as an outhouse, covering himself with branches. But the smell forced him back inside, to the attic. A Ukrainian policeman later discovered him, demanding a gold watch for not reporting him. Harry complied. The next day, however, a German soldier appeared with a gun. “Raus, schweinehund” (Out, bastard), he shouted. Harry jumped into a wagon headed for the Killing Field, as it was later called.

Herschel “Harry” Magid was born on July 17, 1930, in Stepan, a village in the Wolyn province of Poland (now Ukraine) to Joseph and Frieda Magid. His brother, Alex, was born in 1935. Joseph owned a flourmill, and the observant family enjoyed a comfortable existence.

Harry attended the Hebrew-language Tarbut school from 1936 until September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and Eastern Ukraine, including the Wolyn province, was handed over to the Soviet Union. Jews were forbidden to attend school, and Jewish businesses were confiscated, though Joseph continued to work at the flourmill as an employee. 

In June 1941, Germany broke its Nonaggression Pact with the Soviet Union, and German soldiers entered Stepan. In August 1941, they ordered the Jews into a ghetto, allowing them to take only what they could carry. Harry shared a room with 10 relatives, sleeping on the floor and eating a small portion of bread and “soup that was mostly water” each day. A few skilled workers were allowed to live and work outside the ghetto, including Harry’s father.

Harry worked from sunup to sundown, carrying buckets of sand from the Horyn River to a work site where a road was being constructed with sand, water and broken gravestones from the Jewish cemetery. “I often got whipped for not working fast enough,” Harry recalls. Harry also often slipped out of the ghetto to visit his father at the flourmill. That’s where he heard about the impending roundup.

As Harry’s wagon headed to the Killing Field, the sand from the road swirled heavily, clouding the air and obstructing visibility. Harry saw his chance to escape when the wagon passed two barns on the side of the road. He jumped and hid in a potato field between the barns, waiting until all was quiet.

Harry made his way to the flourmill and hid with his father under the floorboards. They then walked to the farm of a Ukrainian friend, who hid them in a haystack in the cold and rain. A few weeks later, learning of Frieda and Alex’s whereabouts, they joined them in Komarivka, a village 30 kilometers away. Together, the family hid in a forest by day and slept in a barn at night. 

One day, three Ukrainian policemen with rifles and dogs discovered them in the forest. Harry quickly ran and ducked under some bushes. Harry’s father offered them three 10-ruble gold coins that had been sewn into Harry’s pants. “Herschko, come out,” his mother called. Harry stayed put, but his mother found him and took the gold pieces to the policemen. As they left, Harry, still hidden in the bushes, heard one say, “We’ll come back tomorrow and pick them up.” 

Harry and his family immediately left, walking 20 kilometers to Kamariske, where another Ukrainian farmer agreed to hide them for money. He put them in a barn with hay and pigs. But it was very cold — 20 below zero, Harry estimates — and they dug a 6-foot square pit in the dirt floor, covering it with wood and straw, for some warmth.

They lived in the barn for six months, with little food and water. They made drinking water by melting icicles and stole the raw potatoes that the farmer fed to the pigs. The farmer was paid by a Ukrainian family friend with money and other valuables that Harry’s father had buried. 

One night, in June 1943, the farmer ordered them to leave. The next day, they later learned, Germans burned down the barn. But Harry’s family had found lodging with another Ukrainian, Gordey Kondratuk, who hid them in his barn, feeding them as best he could and trying to convert them to the Baptist religion.

In late 1943, the Ukrainians, determined to establish an independent country, evicted the Germans and invited the remaining Jews to return to Stepan, especially professionals and skilled workers. Joseph returned to the factory. Harry remained in hiding with his mother and brother.

Some weeks later, with the Russian Army advancing, the Ukrainians rounded up the 50 Jews who had returned to Stepan, including Joseph. They shot them and threw them into the Horyn River, destroying witnesses to the atrocities they had committed. 

The Russian Army liberated Stepan in March 1944. Harry had been in hiding 19 months, wearing essentially the same clothes the whole time, rags that now hung on him, and using flour sacks tied with string for shoes. He had typhus, weighed 70 pounds and almost died. 

Harry, his mother and brother stayed in Stepan until 1945. From there, they eventually made their way to Ulm, Germany, where they stayed in several displaced persons camps, including Donabastion, for three years. Then, sponsored by relatives in the United States, the three arrived in Detroit on July 17, 1949, Harry’s 19th birthday.

Harry worked selling ice cream from a truck. In March 1958, he met Eva Lung, a Hungarian survivor, and they married on Oct. 26, 1958. They moved to Chicago in 1962, and then to Los Angeles a year later. Harry sold ice cream, worked in construction, and, in 1972, he and Eva bought a small grocery, Stan’s Market, on Third Street and Witmer, near downtown Los Angeles, retiring 10 years later.

Harry and Eva have three children: Joseph, born in 1959; Vera, born in 1962; and Benjamin, born in 1972.

Harry was active in the Wolliner Society of Los Angeles, composed of “landsmen” from the Wolyn province who raised more than $1 million for Israel and, in addition, purchased three ambulances for the Jewish state. Although the organization disbanded in 2000, “We had 400 members at one time,” Harry said.

Harry is now 82 and still manages some real estate properties he owns. He is a member of B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson and enjoys playing cards once a week. 

“There’s nothing but luck,” Harry says of his survival. Then, he adds, “I was never afraid for anything.”

Warsaw Jews want to trade historic building for new offices


The Jewish community of Warsaw is advancing plans to demolish one of its historic ghetto-era buildings in favor of new offices.

Under the plan, the White House on Twarda Street would be replaced with a 20-story building where the community, which has tripled in size since the fall of communism, could accommodate more members during celebrations and on weekends, according to the Associated Press.

But the Association of Protectors of Warsaw's Cultural Heritage has filed a petition to the Cultural Ministry asking that the building — one of the few that survived the German onslaught on the old Warsaw Ghetto — be declared a historical site. The ministry is expected to decide on the issue in the coming months.

“An opinion that I can't agree with is that the building is more important than the future of the community,” Andrzej Zozula, vice president of the Jewish community, told AP.

Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich reportedly is backing the plan to replace the building with a modern structure.

The white building reportedly is in a state of decay. Though it has a cellar that dates back more than two centuries, most of the building is about 130 years old and has undergone major transformations.

Germany adds payments for ghetto survivors


Following negotiations with the Claims Conference, Germany has agreed to loosen the criteria for payment to certain survivors of ghettos.

Under the new rules, which go into effect Jan. 1, any Jew who spent at least 12 months in a ghetto, in hiding or living under a false identity will be eligible for a monthly pension ranging from $350 to approximately $400. Until now, the minimum time requirement was 18 months. The change will add an estimated 8,000 survivors to the pensions, which come from the Article 2 Fund and the Central and Eastern European Fund.

Germany also has agreed to provide special pension payments to those who spent three to 12 months in a ghetto and are older than 74. The change is aimed at survivors of the Budapest ghetto, which operated from November 1944 to January 1945, and is expected to affect about 4,500 survivors next year and another 3,500 survivors once they hit age 75. The payments will amount to about $325 per month for survivors in the United States and $270 per month for those living in Eastern Europe.

“This momentous agreement reached is the result of many months of intense negotiations and effectively closes the chapter on gaps in compensation for ghetto survivors,” Stuart Eizenstat, special negotiator for the Claims Conference, said in a statement. “We will continue to press for greater liberalizations to ensure that no Holocaust survivor is deprived of the recognition that each deserves.”

In all, the Claims Conference estimates that the changes will result in an additional $650 million in payments to survivors.

“We have long emphasized to the German government that they cannot quantify the suffering of a Holocaust survivor who lived in the hell of a ghetto,” Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, said in a statement.

Last week, Germany had announced additional one-time payments from its Ghetto Fund for “non-forced” laborers.

Ghetto survivors eligible for payment


For the first time, some survivors of Nazi-era ghettos are eligible for a one-time payment from the so-called Ghetto Fund in addition to the pensions they receive from the German government.

Following negotiations with Germany, the Claims Conference announced that those who meet certain criteria will receive a one-time payment of 2,000 euros, or about $2,600. Germany also has canceled the Dec. 31 deadline for submitting applications for Ghetto Fund payments. In addition, the government is examining 56,000 rejected claims for so-called ghetto pensions, German Social Security payments for work in ghettos.

The government decided to approve both Social Security payments and the one-time reparations payment for ghetto survivors who worked as “non-forced” laborers, in effect broadening the eligibility for payments.

Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, said in a news release that the organization wanted to ensure that every eligible survivor who was in a ghetto could apply for both payments.

“The decision represents recognition of the suffering and hardship experienced by Jews working in Nazi-era ghettos under unimaginable conditions,” he said.

Since 2002, survivors who worked in Nazi ghettos during the war have been eligible for the ghetto pension even if they received payment for their work in the ghetto. The Claims Conference, which is not involved in the implementation of the payments, nevertheless does provides information on its Web site about eligibility and the application process.

In related news, a judge in the city of Essen who has spent years interviewing rejected claimants in Israel in an effort to help in their appeal has formally claimed he is being bullied as part of efforts to block payment of ghetto pensions.

According to the Bild online newspaper, Social Court Judge Jan-Robert von Renesse, who reportedly has fought for ghetto pensions for thousands of survivors, says the forms that claimants must fill out are too complicated for many of them; he said thousands of applicants were rejected for “lack of cooperation” for failing to send back the forms.

Renesse also alleged that the court administration regularly destroys documents that could help applicants. Bild confirmed that the president of the Social Court of North-Rhine Westphalia is being investigated for “suppression of documents.”

Letters to the Editor: Muslims, Warsaw Ghetto, electric cars


Suspicion of Muslim World Is Warranted

Another word for “out of control” is anarchy (“The Muslim World Is Out of Control,” Nov. 4).

Anarchy is breaking out in Yemen, where the embattled president insists on holding his grip over raging tribal factions and youth resistance. Al-Qaeda has attempted to capitalize on this unrest, to some effect, despite the demise of key leaders.

The voluntary reforms of the kings of Morocco and Jordan are a welcome diversion from the generally violent trends sweeping the rest of the Arab world. Unfortunately, unless revolution bleeds, very few leads will report peaceful transitions of power.

Despite the more wily and youthful elements refusing to be dictated to by older counterparts in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and despite the moderate stance of the “Enhada” party that has risen to power in Tunisia, I agree with the skeptics that these transitions of power will be short-lived.

Contrary to the writer’s contention, I see very little evidence that the rising Islamists are honoring the other monotheistic religions of the Book. The world cannot ignore the persecution of the Coptic Christians in Egypt, nor can we turn a blind eye to the recent and rapid expulsion of Libyan Jew David Gerbi, who attempted to reopen the Tripoli synagogue after the death of Muammar Gadhafi.

In closing, I submit that to remain suspicious of the growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world is not a dysfunction of simplistic thinking, but a reasoned conclusion based on the developments of well-organized yet latent forces which have been waiting to seize power and impose Sharia law in the Middle East.

Arthur Christopher Schaper
Torrance


Ghetto Fighter Deserves Benefit of Doubt

I found the piece on “Tracking a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter” (Nov. 4) quite disturbing — not because of Leon Weinstein’s remarkable story of Holocaust survival, but because the article discredits this extraordinary 101-year-old man.

Tom Tugend lays out Weinstein’s heroic story and the loss of 90 family members who perished. Somehow, Weinstein endures to fight with the Partisans in the forest and later in the Warsaw Ghetto. After the war, Weinstein is able to reunite with the only family member to survive, his daughter Natalie, abandoned as a baby but found later, alive and well, in the care of nuns.

The story should have ended here as a glowing tribute. It doesn’t. Tugend states that he was “was intrigued and impressed by Weinstein’s story and had no reason to question it.” So why does he? He states, “We all tend to romanticize our pasts as the years pass.” I believe that the opposite is true. Holocaust survivors romanticize nothing. They repress and get depressed. They suffer nightmares and flashbacks. Exactly what about the Holocaust is there to romanticize?

Tugend then goes on to detail his extensive research into the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and is disappointed with the lack of archival material. He discredits Weinstein by “his seemingly contradictory recollections.” Tugend quotes experts who believe that only 12 to 20 escaped or survived the uprising; the implication being that Weinstein probably wasn’t one of them. It appears that Weinstein never kept a diary, never personally kept a suitcase full of uprising memorabilia and has nothing to prove his involvement other than “a romanticized recollection” of his participation.

It is not as if Weinstein has published a book, the veracity of which is being challenged. If Weinstein said that he smuggled guns into the ghetto, used rifles and grenades to fight the Germans and escaped through the sewers of Warsaw, or something less, he has earned the right to be believed. Tugend has no reason to dismantle the story under the guise of investigative journalism.

Douglas M. Neistat
Encino


Don’t Pull Plug on Electric Cars

Rob Eshman should be applauded for his valiant effort to incorporate an electric car into the driving-dependent L.A. lifestyle (“My 2011 Nissan Solyndra,” Oct. 28). Reducing reliance on oil clearly benefits the environment, thus actualizing the traditional Jewish value of tikkun olam. Moving away from petroleum also helps Israel by undercutting the economic base of extremist forces in the Middle East. The fact that right now there are few practical alternatives to gasoline simply indicates the mismatch between the current economy and our basic needs. Already the demand for hybrids shows that we are moving in the right direction; Eshman is just a little ahead of the wave on which we will all be surfing in the future.

Peter L. Reich
Costa Mesa


I, too, own a Nissan Leaf. I did homework on the car and did not just listen to sales people (“My 2011 Nissan Solyndra,” Oct. 28). I do get about 100 miles on a charge and that is because I try not to use the air conditioning, I use it in eco mode and I don’t need to drive on freeways. If Rob Eshman had done his homework, he would have easily seen that the car will get about 70 miles on a charge in normal conditions, and more or less based on driving conditions.  I am not sure why someone would get a car like this without seeing if it is a fit.  This is the first generation of electric cars and it certainly is a success to everyone I have spoken to. I think Rob should stop writing articles about his cars and continue to write how we should sit here in our beautiful homes in Los Angeles and tell Israel what they should do in order to make peace with their wonderful neighbors because we are so much more knowledgeable than them.

Scott Howard
via e-mail


I have a Nissan Leaf and am very happy with it. I drive on average 20 miles a day and believe the car is not a good fit for you because you drive longer distances.  I enjoy not having to buy gas and service the car due to its lack of an engine.  The melodic sound emitted when the car turns on and the lack of noise while driving it makes it feel like a spa on wheels.

Sylvia Lowe
via e-mail


Where Anti-Semitism Takes Root

For nearly 30 years, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has taught secondary-school teachers about the Holocaust (“ADL Successfully Expands Holocaust Education Workshop,” Nov. 4). The program includes a workshop on “The History of Anti-Semitism.” All well and good. But what if I told you that anti-Semitism is being taught today in our junior-high schools — even without realizing it.

When my granddaughter was in seventh grade, she came home all upset. Her class was learning about the formation of the State of Israel and the subsequent Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Her homework assignment (in part) was to explain how the Jews took away the homes of the Palestinians when Israel was formed in 1948. Note that this statement presumes a priori that the Jews forced the Palestinians living in Israel (actually Arabs, since the PLO had not yet been formed) to leave their homes. 
[We] discussed this with her teacher. She explained that she was simply using material taught in the textbook. I carefully examined the book (published by Prentice Hall, with a long list of reviewers). There were two sections devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. All of the information was factual. But, having done considerable research in preparation for leading a discussion on the Conflict at our senior center, it was quite apparent that the textbook omitted considerable information that would have shed a much different light on the issue. Reading the textbook as published, I could understand how a teacher/student would get the impression that the Jews had taken away the homes of the Palestinians (Arabs) when the State of Israel was formed. (This is analagous to the researcher who uses only the data that proves his hypothesis, while discarding the rest of the data.)


That also made me understand why a teenage boy at the school had produced a collage consisting of a series of anti-Semitic photographs as his entry into a school-sponsored art exhibit/competition. Perhaps this explains why so many college kids are anti-Israel.


I submit that the ADL ought address this issue at its earliest convenience.

George Epstein
Los Angeles


Occupy L.A.

Nothing displays the devotion of The Jewish Journal to leftist politics over Jewish interests better than your cover story on Occupy L.A., by Jonah Lowenfeld (“Go Figure … Occupy L.A. Raises More Questions Than It Answers,” Nov. 4).  Poor Mr. Lowenfeld could find only one borderline anti-Semite?  If he and The Jewish Journal bother to Google Patricia McAllister and LAUSD you will find dozens of media stories in outlets ranging from KTLA to the Huffington Post about this open anti-Semite fired from her job because of remarks made at Occupy L.A.  Shame on The Jewish Journal for not reporting THAT story. The Journal should also Google “adbusters anti-Semitism.” Adbusters started the Occupy movement, and even The New York Times reported on its anti-Semitism.  Note to Johah Lowenfeld:  Terms like “Rothschilds, international bankers, Zionists, etc., are actually cover terms for anti-Semitism.  As for the presence of Jews there —a lot of Jews thought the Bolsheviks were their friends in 1917.  Go and study.

Jules Levin

Tracking a Warsaw ghetto fighter


I met Leon Weinstein, hale and hearty at 101, three months ago and listened to his dramatic recollections as a fighter and survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the bravest chapters in modern Jewish history.

By normal journalistic practice, the article should have been written within a week. It took me much longer to verify the story, to discover, in the process, how controversial the battles of 1943 are to this day and to gain new respect for the complexities of historical research. The unplanned delay may have been fortuitous, putting publication of this article over to the week commemorating Kristallnacht. Many experts consider the Nov. 9 Nazi rampage against German Jews to be the overture to the Holocaust and to the horror to come, from the Warsaw Ghetto to Auschwitz.

It is no longer considered a miracle to pass the century mark, but few manage to do so with the humor and retentiveness of Weinstein.  Sitting in his daughter’s comfortable home in Hancock Park, Weinstein talked of growing up in the village of Radzymin, 12 miles from Warsaw, with seven siblings and an extended family of 90, most of whom perished in Treblinka.

Weinstein was always the wild one of the clan and was such a talented soccer player that he was asked to join the resident Polish Catholic team, a rare “honor” for a Jew.

He also became an ardent member of Betar, the Zionist youth group of the right-wing Revisionist movement, founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky.

At 15, he walked to Warsaw, became a tailor’s apprentice, by 18 he was foreman at a clothing factory and in the same year joined the Polish army.

Soon after his marriage to Sima, the Nazis invaded Poland, in September 1939, and the young couple was confined to the Jewish enclave in his hometown. One year later, their daughter, Natasha Leya, was born.

When Weinstein learned inadvertently from a German guard that all of his hometown’s Jews were to be deported in a few days, he took his wife and daughter to Warsaw, hoping to survive in the big city.

This proved impossible with a baby in tow, and, in a desperate move, the parents bundled up the blond, blue-eyed, 18-month-old girl on a cold December day and left her on the doorsteps of a childless Christian lawyer and his wife.

“I put a crucifix on a necklace around her neck,” Weinstein recounted, “and pinned a note on her saying, ‘I’m a war widow and can no longer take care of her. I beg you, good people, please take care of her, in the name of Jesus Christ, and he will take care of you for this deed.’”

From a distance he watched as the lawyer picked up the baby, read the note, and then walked half a block to a police station to leave Natasha there.

Sima then went into hiding, and Weinstein, after fighting with partisans in the forest, thought he would find shelter in the Warsaw ghetto.

When the ghetto resistance groups rose in April 1943, the first urban revolt in Nazi-

occupied Europe, Weinstein said he alternated between smuggling guns into the ghetto, and then using the rifles and grenades to fight the Germans.

When the ghetto fell after 27 days of murderous fighting, Weinstein and six comrades escaped through the Warsaw sewers to the “Aryan” side and hid with a Polish family until the city was liberated, he recounted.

Not wasting any time on celebrations, Weinstein got a bicycle and started a six-month search for the daughter he had left behind.

Warsaw was a sea of rubble, but, amazingly, the police station where Natasha had been left was still standing. An officer remembered that the baby had been taken to a convent. There, the nuns recalled that most of their charges had died during a typhus epidemic, but that Natasha had survived and been transferred to another convent.

The story was the same at other convents, and after visiting 10 of them, Weinstein was ready to give up. He decided to try one more, near the site of the destroyed ghetto, and there he found the now 4-year-old girl, identifiable by a birthmark on her hip.

However, his search for her mother, Sima, was fruitless. She had disappeared, but no one knew when or where.

Weinstein remarried after meeting Sophie, a Holocaust survivor. Their son, Michael, would die in a car crash in 1993. Sophie lived until 2005, when she succumbed to heart disease.

After seven postwar years, with stays in Poland, Germany and France, Weinstein decided he’d had enough of Europe; in 1953, the family traveled by ship to the United States and joined an aunt living in Los Angeles.

Weinstein established a factory in Hollywood designing and manufacturing sweaters. Natasha, now Natalie, was 13 when she arrived in Los Angeles, and one of her first jobs was to babysit a boy named Zev Yaroslavsky, today a Los Angeles County supervisor.

Natalie grew up to become a clinical social worker, after earning degrees at California State University, Long Beach, and USC. She has two adult children from her first marriage, to Alan Gold. She subsequently married Jack Lumar, who died in 1999.

Now 71, but looking at least a decade younger, Natalie is her father’s caretaker and closest companion; she accompanies him to services at Congregation Etz Chaim, and to the numerous events honoring his life and courage.

I was intrigued and impressed by Weinstein’s story and had no reason to question it. Yet, I felt a professional urge to check out his main wartime recollections. I figured that we all tend to romanticize our pasts as the years pass, and was I was wary because a number of celebrated Holocaust memoirs had proved to be fakes.

It would be simple, I thought, to establish, at a minimum, that Weinstein had been a ghetto fighter and to obtain authoritative background material on the number of fighters, how many survived and how many were still living.

My initial list of likely sources included, locally, noted Holocaust scholars Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University and Aaron Breitbart of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. While both provided helpful background material, neither had any actual data on Weinstein.

The same held true for researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

If not in the United States, I assumed that surely there would be complete archives in Israel. Fortunately, there exists a Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum (Beit Lohamei Haghetaot) in northern Israel, dedicated specifically to commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

In addition, there were the vast archives of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, so I e-mailed and phoned both institutions.

As I waited day after day for answers and continued to repeat my requests, I began to worry that the Israeli aversion to returning phone or written inquiries had not changed much since I lived in the country in 1948 and again in the early 1960s.

However, I did find out that two key outside advisers to the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum were prominent Holocaust experts: professor Israel Gutman of Yad Vashem and professor Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University.

I tried to reach them directly, and through contacts at their institutions, but all inquiries disappeared into a black hole.

Fortunately, thanks to my wife’s vast Israeli mishpachah, and through personal newspaper colleagues, I had some well-placed contacts in Israel, who, being there and speaking fluent Hebrew, might succeed where I failed.

So I reached out to my wife’s brother-in-law, professor David Gaatone of Tel Aviv University, and then another relative, professor Tuvia Friling, Israel’s former state archivist, and finally an old Jerusalem Post buddy, Abraham Rabinovich, author of the definitive book on the Yom Kippur War.

Thanks to their efforts, I started to get a trickle of responses, complemented by a lucky break.

Moshe Arens, Israel’s former defense and foreign affairs minister, is a veteran leader of the Revisionist movement and its Herut and Likud successor parties in Israel. I learned that he had studied the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising closely, but I didn’t know how to reach him.

However, I knew that he wrote a regular column for the Haaretz newspaper, so I e-mailed the paper’s opinion-page editor, who passed on my request to Arens. The latter replied within a day that he was coming out with a book on the ghetto revolt and would like to pose some specific questions to Weinstein.

Around the same time, thanks to Rabinovich’s persistence, Yossi Shavit, the archive director of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, got in touch with me. All along, I was poring over books and Googling documents, so after two months, some of the pieces were beginning to fall into place.

One early revelation (to me) was that there were two main, separate Jewish organizations — and a couple of minor ones — fighting the Nazis in the ghetto, based on the left- and right-wing loyalties of the Zionist youth organizations of the time. Apparently, to this day, adherents of these ideologies are loath to credit the “other” side with its contributions to the battle.

Shavit, the archivist, provided some important data backing Weinstein’s main claim.

One was a picture of a decorative teapot in the Ghetto Fighters Museum collection, which was given by Weinstein to Helena Burchacka, a Polish woman, to sell and, with the money, buy food for Weinstein.

Burchacka, who after the war was designated a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, is also cited in a Hebrew-language book, “Memory Calls,” by Benjamin Anolik.

In the book, Burchacka states that when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started, Weinstein hid in a bunker for several weeks and then escaped through the sewers to the “Aryan” side.

Shavit added as a personal note, “I do not discount the possibility that Mr. Weinstein was a fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It must be remembered that many fighters fell and that those who survived reorganized along the lines of the youth movements to which they had belonged before the uprising. The preexisting arguments and old rivalries continued for many years after the war, and it is possible that Mr. Weinstein was omitted or forgotten by those who wrote the histories.

“I myself have been privileged to meet some of the fighters who didn’t belong to the mainstream of Jewish resistance and all their lives they have claimed that the mainstream youth movements (Dror and Hashomer Hatzair) ‘forgot’ to write about them due to considerations of ideological rivalry that accompanied the fighters who survived all the rest of their lives.”

That the rivalry and ill feeling persists to this day was confirmed by Arens, whose new book, “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” (Gefen Publishing House) seeks to document his statement to me that “the major part of the fighting was done by the Revisionist-led Jewish Military Union (ZZW).”

This view goes counter to the thesis of most other historians, who cite the larger Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), a coalition of predominantly liberal and socialist Zionist groups, as carrying the brunt of the battle.

With neither side listing the other side’s fighters, Weinstein probably made the task more difficult by his seemingly contradictory recollections.

He said, on one hand, that he was an ardent member of Betar, the Revisionist youth group, and a fervent admirer of Revisionist founder Jabotinsky, which would logically put him in the ranks of the Jewish Military Union.

On the other hand, Weinstein cited as his commander during the fighting Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, who was one of the main leaders of the rival Jewish Fighting Organization.

Even the figures on the number of ghetto fighters and survivors are in dispute, which might well be explained by the chaotic conditions during the battles and their aftermath.

Figures range from 300 to 1,000 active fighters, with most experts settling on around 750. Of these, perhaps no more than 12 to 20 escaped or survived the slaughter.

My own experience in a different context backs up the notion that those hoping for precise figures and conclusions of wartime battles generally underestimate the confusion and uncertainty of warfare.

Speaking of another war, during Israel’s 1948-49 War of Independence, I was a member of the 4th Anti-Tank unit, an “Anglo-Saxon” outfit composed of some 100 volunteers from Great Britain, United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia.

After the war ended, three of us sat down and typed out a history of the unit’s actions. The only copy of the manuscript was lost for 50 years, until our former unit commander in San Francisco discovered it while cleaning his basement.

He sent the yellowing pages to me, and I forwarded a photocopy to the history branch of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), suggesting that the information might be of interest.

In return, I received a letter expressing the IDF’s gratitude, especially in light of the fact that no one in the IDF could find any record that our unit had fought, or even existed.

In July of this year, Israel’s Knesset held a formal ceremony honoring the fallen and survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first since the establishment of the state.

From the ceremony, two notable remarks are pertinent to my quest. One was by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, who noted that “we do not know who all the [Warsaw Ghetto] fighters were, and we never will.”

The other remark was by Reuven Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset: “I had the privilege of serving in the IDF as an officer and a fighter, but I am not a hero,” Rivlin said. “I never stopped a tank with a Molotov cocktail, and I did not fight empty-handed in alleys and the sewage pipes.

“Those with the courage to fight the evil Nazi empire are the real heroes. From the time of the State of Israel’s establishment, our fighters have been inspired by those who dared to rebel in the heart of the Nazi empire at the height of its power.”

Survivor: Violet Raymond


“We got married with a yellow star on his jacket and on my dress.”

Violet Raymond, then Ibolya Friedmann, and her new husband, George Singer, stood under a chuppah at Nagyfuvaros Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, on May 27, 1944. She was 17, and he was 19. Three days later, George was ordered to report to Bethlen Ter 2, a labor camp housed in another of Budapest’s 22 synagogues.

Violet had grown up comfortably. Her parents operated linens and menswear kiosks in the Teleki Square marketplace. But after the anti-Jewish laws were enacted in 1938, things changed. Violet worked as an unpaid dressmaking apprentice, her dream of becoming a librarian quashed. Then, soon after the Nazis marched into Hungary on March 19, 1944, the family was forced to relocate to a smaller “yellow star” apartment. Later, her father was sent to a labor camp outside Budapest.

George was assigned a truck-driving job in the labor camp, allowing him to occasionally visit Violet. He persuaded the family to move to a large building adjoining the camp, which had been converted into a hospital and became a self-contained ghetto. He helped Violet’s mother secure a job as a cleaning lady there. That was August 1944.

Two weeks later, Violet awoke to discover that George, along with all the men at Bethlen Ter 2, had been taken to a forced labor camp in the Hungarian countryside. A few months later, she realized she was pregnant.

During the day, Violet volunteered as a nurse, attending to German and Hungarian soldiers and corralling the Jewish children to the basement when bombs fell. There was little to eat. At one point, the baby was not moving inside her. A doctor went person to person, his hat in his outstretched hand, requesting food.

After the war, Violet learned that George died in the camp. “He starved to death,” she was told.

After the Russians liberated Budapest in January 1945, Violet, her mother and brother returned to their “yellow star” apartment. On April 14, she gave birth to her daughter Judy. Weak and malnourished, Violet had no milk. Her mother found a Jewish woman whose baby had died and paid her to nurse Judy for three months.

That August, Violet’s father returned home from Mauthausen. “We saw a walking skeleton,” she said. He was too weak to hold his 4-month-old granddaughter.

Soon after that, Violet met a childhood friend, Tibor Radai. On June 17, 1946, they were married. But in 1948, their happiness was marred by the death of Violet’s mother. “My mother was the one who saved us, because she was with us all the time,” Violet said.

Danger erupted again in 1956, when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest on Nov. 4 to quell the anti-government uprising. Tibor was then a newspaper editor and had written several revolutionary commentaries. As tanks fired at their apartment building, they crawled to the staircase to escape the flames, eventually reaching the street. “Don’t cry,” Tibor told Violet. “I will take you to Miami,” reminding her of the sunny skies and palm trees they had seen in movies.

They managed a harrowing escape to Austria, meeting up with Violet’s father. Eventually they made their way to Montreal, where Violet gave birth to their son, George, in 1960. They lived there until 1969, later moving to Irvington, N.J., and finally, in 1976,  to Los Angeles, where Violet’s brother, Robert, had settled. But in 1983, Tibor suffered his third heart attack and died. He was 56.

A few years later, Violet met Andrew Raymond. They married in 1985 and lived in Long Beach. But when Andrew died in 2008, their house was sold, forcing Violet to move to a one-bedroom apartment in Encino.

Now 84, Violet suffers from many health problems, including an open heart valve, a painful facial nerve condition and arthritis. She wears hearing aids, her ears having been damaged by the noise of exploding bombs.

She manages on little money, receiving about $1,400 a month in Social Security benefits and paying $1,200 in rent. She received a one-time reparations payment of $2,250 and has two applications pending for her ghetto work, which she filed with assistance from Bet Tzedek.

She receives food from Meals on Wheels daily. Jewish Family Service provides a caregiver eight hours a week.

During the day, she walks outside with her walker, watches television and uses the computer her son gave her. “I cannot socialize; I have no transportation,” she said. Her daughter, son and brother are local, but three of her four grandchildren and all seven great-grandchildren live far away.

Violet’s one wish is to reconnect with any surviving friends from the Jewish school she attended on Dugonics Street. They would know her as Ibolya Friedmann. She returned to Budapest once, to visit the graves of her first husband and mother.

“I never want to go back there,” she said. “I am an American girl.”

A Righteous Role


Anna Paquin was 11 when she won an Oscar for her performance in “The Piano” and in her mid-20s when she took the 2009 Golden Globe for her leading role in HBO’s vampire series, “True Blood,” but as she locked up her bicycle on a funky stretch of Abbot Kinney Boulevard the other day, she looked like just another young woman from the neighborhood. “Thanks for schlepping down to Venice,” she said as a greeting.

In person, the 26-year-old Paquin is as cheery and down-to-earth — and at the same time as direct and determined — as her “True Blood” character, a telepathic waitress with a penchant for short shorts and the 173-year-old vampire Bill played by Stephen Moyer, who is also Paquin’s real-life boyfriend. On this day, the New Zealand native wore bicycle shorts, her blonde hair was in a ponytail and her face had no sign of makeup. She was both accessible and upbeat, despite the fact that she had gotten off work from the second season of “True Blood” at 4 a.m., slept a few hours, then had to bike to the interview, since she does not know how to drive.

“No worries,” she said of her schedule. “The rest of the world doesn’t run on vampire hours just because I do.”

Paquin came to discuss her upcoming Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” in which she plays the titular Catholic Polish social worker who organized the rescue of some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. The movie airs April 19 on CBS.

For 16 months, starting in 1942, Sendler — who was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — organized fellow volunteers in the Polish underground to smuggle children out of the ghetto in sacks and suitcases, in packages and body bags, through sewers and subterranean passages. When the Gestapo arrested and tortured Sendler in 1943, she refused to divulge details of her operation, so they broke her legs and feet, leaving her permanently disabled.

The Hallmark film is not a sweeping saga of the Holocaust in the style of “The Pianist” or “Schindler’s List,” but rather a more intimate drama focused on what must have been Sendler’s most excruciating task: convincing terrified parents to relinquish their children to an uncertain fate.

Paquin says she was drawn to the project not only for the chance to play an inspiring heroine, but also because the part marks a milestone in her own career. “I feel like this is the first time I have ever really played an adult in a film, not just as far as the age indicated in the character description, but in terms of the world in which Irena was living, her interactions with others and the decisions she makes,” the actress said. “I loved not being allowed to act in any way like a child.’”

The movie’s writer and director, John Kent Harrison, said Paquin was his first choice to play Sendler. “Irena was matter-of-fact, almost cold-hearted in her approach to asking parents to give up their children, because in those dire times there was no room for sentimentality,” he said by telephone. “And Anna has a toughness at her center, having started in the business so young. She’s been making movies since she was 9, and, at 26, she’s a veteran.”

Irena Sendler

The third and youngest child of school teachers, Paquin had no acting experience when, on a lark, she accompanied her older sister, Katya, to an audition for “The Piano.” Jane Campion’s lyrical screenplay revolved around a mute piano virtuoso, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), who arrives in rural New Zealand as a mail-order bride in the 1850s with her daughter, Flora (Paquin), in tow.  Initially, Paquin caught Campion’s attention because she resembled Hunter, but she won the part over some 5,000 other girls by delivering an intense reading from the script and proved mesmerizing as the precocious, ferocious Flora, who spins fanciful yarns about her dead father, spies on her mother’s illicit trysts and ultimately betrays Ada to her husband.

At the Oscars two years later, Paquin looked adorable in her blue dress and matching cap — as well as stunned — when Gene Hackman called her name as the winner of the best supporting actress category. The saucer-eyed little girl walked to the podium, which she barely was able to peer over, gulping and gasping for a full half minute before gaining her composure to thank Campion, et al. She literally stole the show from her category’s more seasoned competitors, including Winona Ryder (“The Age of Innocence”) and Emma Thompson (“In the Name of the Father”).

It was during that Oscar season that Paquin says she received her first introduction to the subject of the Holocaust, since 1993 was also the year that “Schindler’s List” swept the awards and won for best picture. “We hadn’t studied that period in history yet,” Paquin said of her elementary school in Wellington, New Zealand. “My parents did not allow me to see the movie, but they did explain what it was about.”

After Paquin became the second-youngest Academy Award-winner in history, the actress went on to work with Spielberg, playing the young Queen Isabella II in 1997’s “Amistad.” She has also portrayed troubled sirens in independent films such as “25th Hour” and “The Squid and the Whale” as well as, famously, Rogue in the three “X-Men” films. “True Blood” features similar themes of bias toward the “other,” and Paquin campaigned hard to convince series creator Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”) to cast her as the telepathic Sookie Stackhouse. The frothy, sexy series operates in part as an allegory for gay rights, featuring vampires as creatures fighting to obtain the right to marry and to live among humans. Paquin has once again proven herself, playing Sookie’s emotions straight, without camping up the Southern or gothic aspects of the story.

Irena Sendler

Anna Paquin and Rebecca Windheim in “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.”
Photo by Erik Heinila

In the pilot, Paquin’s character used a heavy chain as a weapon to save vampire Bill Compton from becoming a hate-crime statistic: “The show is fun and fluffy,” the actress said, “but there is also the idea of how we as a society assign a stricter and non-equitable set of rules to particular groups. It is also about how the process of trying to integrate into society as an outside group is messy and ugly, and many people aren’t as open-minded as they should be. In our show, these ideas are presented in this very amusing and fantasy level, but they are completely grounded in our world and how people really behave.

“I’m generally not drawn to projects that work only on a surface level,” she added. “And a topic that unfortunately always seems timely is prejudice. As a species we haven’t overcome it, obviously. It keeps on needing to be addressed, in different ways — in everything from light fantasy to serious drama.”

When her agent sent her Harrison’s screenplay of “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” she was on vacation with Moyer in London last October: “I read it in about an hour on his iPhone, just staring at the screen with my mouth open,” she recalled. “I couldn’t quite believe she was actually a real person. I was just absolutely fascinated and in awe at how someone so young could be so strong in such a terrifying period of time. And I said, ‘OK, where do I sign up?’”

The Piano

“The Piano”

Harrison sent Paquin a rough translation of Anna Mieszkowska’s “Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Story of Irena Sendler,” a biography that had been published only in Polish, German and Hebrew, but has not yet come out in English. She “rapidly tore through” it and spent the following two weeks watching movies and reading books on the period: “What I found most powerful and helpful was a book titled ‘Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts From the Warsaw Ghetto,’ which is composed of journal and diary entries,” Paquin recalled. “I read about how guards would torture prisoners in front of others to scare them — really horrendous things like tying people up and letting dogs half-eat them; or the sort of ease with which people would be randomly shot. Those eyewitness accounts were as close as I could get to Irena’s world — and what came through strongly was just how absolutely terrified and out of control people felt.”

Sendler’s sympathy for the Jewish plight began when she was growing up in and around Warsaw. Her father was the only physician in their town of Otwock willing to treat Jewish patients during a typhoid epidemic; he himself caught the disease and died in 1917, when Irena was 7.

Sendler followed his heroic example after Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were sealed off from the rest of the city by 10-foot-high walls. In 1942, she gathered a network of fellow social workers and volunteers — all sympathetic Polish Catholics — and began her operation to save children under the auspices of Zegota, a code name for the Council for Aid to Jews, a program of the Polish government in exile. The social workers were mostly female, which proved helpful because a woman could more easily walk past officials holding the hand of a Jewish child as if he or she were her own, often through corridors of a courthouse leading out of the ghetto to the Aryan side of the city.

After the children were ensconced in temporary housing, they were drilled in Catholic songs and prayers, their black hair was bleached blond and some boys were dressed as girls to trick the Gestapo out of checking to see whether they had been circumcised. The lucky ones received Catholic papers and were placed in a convent, an orphanage or with other rescuers for the duration of the war.

One mother tearfully handed over her infant, Elzbieta Ficowska, who was drugged, placed in a box with a silver spoon and hidden in a truck hauling bricks out of the ghetto; the scene is recreated in the film.

Because Sendler hoped to eventually reunite the children with their parents, she scribbled each one’s name and location on scraps of paper and placed the notes in jars which she buried under an apple tree in an associate’s yard in Warsaw.

True Blood

“True Blood” Photo by John P Johnson

In 1943, the owner of a laundry that served as a safe house betrayed Sendler under torture. On Oct. 20 of that year, Gestapo agents arrested Sendler, tortured her for three months in the infamous Pawiak Prison and then sentenced her to death. Just before her execution, however, an officer bribed by Zegota arranged for her name to appear on a list of prisoners who had already been executed. Sendler escaped, and until the end of the war she continued to help children while living in hiding. Twenty years later, she became one of the first “Righteous Gentiles” to be honored by Yad Vashem. She saved twice the number of Jews as Oskar Schindler, the inspiration for “Schindler’s List.”

In Poland, however, the anti-Semitic communist regime was unimpressed by Sendler’s wartime deeds. She remained in obscurity until 1999, when a group of Kansas high school students came across a short article on her in a 1994 issue of U.S. News & World Report and decided to turn her story into a history project. Because they assumed Sendler had died, the students contacted the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to locate her grave. Instead they learned she was still living in Warsaw, though ailing and in a wheelchair. The students promptly wrote her a letter, and thus began a friendship that would lead to an interactive play “Life in a Jar,” which the students performed all over the world, making international headlines. They also eventually visited the elderly rescuer.

Harrison wasn’t so lucky; while writing his script in Warsaw last year, he had set up an interview with the 98-year-old social worker, but their meeting was canceled when Sendler was hospitalized with pneumonia; she died on May 12, 2008. Harrison attended the funeral at the Powazki cemetery and watched as Jewish community leaders, survivors, Polish ministers and the Israeli ambassador to Poland turned out to pay their last respects. A rabbi recited the Kaddish, Catholics chanted Christian prayers and Chopin’s “Funeral March” was played during the burial.

Back at the Venice café, Paquin put down her cup of coffee and looked shocked when asked whether actors seek roles in Holocaust-themed films in order to win awards, as charged by The New York Times last year. “That’s not what I find interesting about this kind of work. What is interesting is the chance to portray a strong, powerful woman, because there is such a dearth of such roles. Actresses often end up playing ‘the girlfriend’ or the sex object; I love getting to be a part of a story that has nothing to do with that,” she said.

Even so, when Paquin set off for the three-week shoot in Riga, Latvia, last winter, she did so with trepidation. “I spent the first week terrified that I wasn’t doing a good enough job, because how could you possibly feel [the pain and fear] enough,” she said. “But after a while you have to forgive yourself for not knowing what it’s like to be tortured, and just do the best you can.”

To play Sendler, Paquin at times accessed some of her own feelings about her sister’s recent surgery; the 30-year-old Katya has had three operations so far for a brain tumor.

“It’s that feeling of powerlessness, but at the same time having to buck up and be strong for somebody, because if you’re scared, it doesn’t even compare to how scared they are,” the actress said.

“To play Irena you don’t get to cry, you don’t get to show that you’re frightened. You have to be strong for the children and their parents, and I found that very empowering,” she said.

“For Irena, being frightened of her own death was not the worst thing in the world. Far worse was the dilemma of the parents trying to decide whether to stay with their children or let them go — an almost impossible choice.”

“The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” airs April 19 on CBS.

Not your average ‘schlub’ — a memoir


“From Schlub to Stud: How To Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City” by Max Gross (Skyhorse Publishing, $12.95).

Max Gross, by his own admission, used to be your average schlub: He sported an unkempt Jewfro, the bottoms of his jeans were tattered and he’d gamely put a good burger before a diet. In Gross’s first book, “From Schlub to Stud: How To Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City”, he tells the tale of how some of this has changed: Now the burger and the diet are in a dead heat.

“The title is slightly misleading in that it’s about reveling in your schlubbiness, not purging it from you,” Gross said in a recent interview.

Indeed, the book is rife with advice on how to become a more functional schlub, rather than a former one. For instance, Gross advises his protégés, become a writer: “Dress code is flexible. As are working hours. And all the time you spend goofing off reading anything from Dostoevsky to Maxim magazine can legitimately be called research.”

Before Gross joined the staff of the New York Post, where he is currently a reporter, he authored a column called “The Hapless Jewish Writer” for The Forward in Manhattan, while fielding phone calls from subscribers. Max discusses here the nuances of schlubbism.

Marissa Brostoff: Is there a paradox inherent in being a schlub with a book contract?

Max Gross: Maybe. There was something in ‘The Hapless Jewish Writer’ where I was supposed to fail horribly, and I succeeded — it was either a horse race or a poker game — and [an editor] said to me, ‘We’re going to have to change the name of the column.’ But I don’t think that schlubs are necessarily failures in life. They’re a little disorganized, but that doesn’t necessarily mean living at home with their parents.

MB: Who are some schlubs who have made it big?

MG: I think you can find them all throughout history. My father thinks that Kaiser Wilhelm II was a big schlub. When you think about it, here was a guy who had this incredible empire — I mean, maybe it wasn’t as great as the British or French empires, but he had a country that was going good, and he screwed it up forever.

My father also thinks Marion Barry is a schlub, because he got caught on film smoking crack. I’m convinced that makes him more of a schlemiel.

Golda Meir [was] a schlub. She’s a successful schlub. And very unique in the sense that she’s a badass schlub. She might be the only schlub that has ever had codes to nuclear weapons.

MB: Is there a schlub-Jewish connection beyond the fact that ‘schlub’ is a Yiddish word?

MG: I think most schlubs are Jews, but there are plenty of non-Jewish schlubs, just like I think most schlubs are male but there are certainly female schlubs. In a way, Judaism really values certain schlub characteristics. We were people that for centuries just sat around the prayer house and read. We weren’t out, like, building…. And we all looked like the Satmars in [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg.

MB: Maybe being a schlub has something to do with not being assimilated.

MG: Actually, I think that I’m probably more of a schlub than my ancestors. My parents are extremely unschlubby. My mother is a fashion editor and my father is just a cool guy. They have no idea where I came from.

MB: You write that in ‘a world of schlubby newspapers, the Forward is amongst the schlubbiest.’ What makes you say that?

MG: Well, [the Forward] cover[s] a lot of schlubs. I think that, to a large extent, everybody that the Forward covers is a little bit schlubby. They’re these organizations that are obsessed with one little thing that almost nobody else in the world is obsessed with.

MB: The cover of your book features an attractive, blond, un-schlubby-looking woman with her arms around you. Do you feel like you’re more oriented toward women who are themselves schlubby, or women like the girl on the cover?

MG: A lot of shiksa-type women I’m not as into. I like talking about Jews and Jewish topics, and it just doesn’t go over as well with non-Jewish people. Like if you want to talk about Israel all the time, and Saul Bellow, it’s hard to find a shiksa who looks like that to be your soul mate.

Article courtesy the Forward, where this originally appeared.

Timeline: Jewish life in Poland from 1098



Recently released color footage of the Warsaw Ghetto.WARNING GRAPHIC IMAGES

1098: Information on Jews in Poland begins to appear in Polish chronicles

1241: A new era of colonization in Poland begins and Jewish immigrants are sought

1264: Polish Prince Boleslaus issues the Statute of Kalisz, the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland

Early 1300s: Fewer than 1,000 Jews in Poland

1407: Jews in Krakow are attacked by mobs

Late 1400s: More than 60 Jewish communities are known in Poland; population is thought to be 20,000 to 30,000

1515: Rabbi Shalom Shachna founds Poland’s first yeshiva in Lublin

1525-1572: Rabbi Moses Ben Israel Isserles lives in Krakow, where he founds a yeshiva and writes a commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law

1573: Confederation of Warsaw of 1573 guarantees religious tolerance in Poland

1500s and early 1600s: Some Jews expelled from Spain move to Poland; Jewish social, cultural and economic life flourishes; population estimated at 80,000 to 100,000

1648-49: Chmielnicki revolt and massacre brings 30 years of bloodshed and suffering to Jews in Poland; golden age in Poland ends

1700-1760: Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, founds modern Chasidism

1764: Jewish population about 750,000; worldwide Jewish population estimated at 1.2 million

1772: Partitions of Poland begin between Russia, Prussia and Austria

1791 -Russian government restricts Jews to the Settlement of Pale, which includes lands formerly in Poland

1800s: Tremendous growth of Jewish population (in 1781, 3,600 Jews in Warsaw or 4.5 percent of population; in 1897, 219,000 Jews in Warsaw or 33.9 percent of population)

1862: Jews are given equal rights

1897: 1.3 million Jews in Poland

Early 1900s: On eve of World War I, strained relations between Poles and Jews, with decline of influence of Jewish assimilationists and rise in Jewish nationalism

1918: Major pogrom in Lvov, part of general reign of terror against the Jews

Post-World War I: Poland becomes sovereign state

1921: Jewish population 2,989,000, making up 10.5 percent or more of Polish population

1930: Rabbi Meir Shapiro founds Hachmei Yeshiva in Lublin; it is destroyed by the Nazis and its synagogue reopens in 2007

Late 1930s: Rise of Hitler in Germany and new round of pogroms in Poland

1939: Jewish population more than 3.3 million, with almost 400,000 in Warsaw, or one-third of the city’s total population

Sept. 1, 1939: Invasion of Poland and outbreak of World War II

April-May 1943: Warsaw Ghetto uprising

June 1945: About 50,000 Jews survive in Poland, an additional 100,000 return from the camps and another 200,000 return from the Soviet Union

1944-1950: Mass emigration of Jews from Poland continues to deplete population, leaving about 57,000

1946: Post-war pogrom in Kilce, killing 37 and injuring more than 80

By 1950: Stalinization of Poland instigates anti-Semitism

1956: Wladyslaw Gromulka comes to power; new wave of anti-Semitism results in some 30,000 to 40,000 Jews leaving country

1968: After Six-Day War, a major outburst of anti-Semitism ensues, with more Jews allowed to immigrate to Israel

1970s and 1980s: About 6,000 Jews live in Poland

2007: Jewish population 5,000 according to official counts but estimated at 30,000 or more by Jewish leaders


Dancing to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut at the Izzak Synagogue in Krakow


Texas rabbi Neil Katz talks about his second tour of Poland

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 16. Steinlauf, Michael C., “Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust,” Syracuse University Press, 1997. Maciej Kozlowski, a historian and ambassador-at-large for Polish-Jewish relations for Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. http://www.diapozytyw.pl/en/site/slownik_terminow/demografia/.

A Tale of Two Cities Divided


On one side there is no escaping the wall: hulking, concrete and towering almost 28 feet into the sky.

Where it’s not a wall, the barrier is a mesh fence topped with barbed wire and cameras, looping around the entire Palestinian city of Kalkilya.

Just across the boundary and only a little over a mile away, in the Israeli city of Kfar Saba, the barrier is welcomed.

But has anyone in Kfar Saba actually seen the barrier? Shrugs, shakes of the head — no.

Kalkilya is surrounded on all sides by what Israel calls the separation fence, a barrier the government says it must build to protect its citizens from suicide bombers, snipers and other Palestinian terrorists.

Residents of Kalkilya say it has turned their city into a ghetto.

But Kfar Saba residents are solidly behind the wall.

"I think we need it. It’s for our security," said Dafna Subai, walking down Kfar Saba’s main shopping street with her family. "If the worst is that they have to live behind a wall and the worst for us is that we are blown up, then I say let them live behind a wall for now."

The differing views of the security fence are coming to a head as Israel and the Palestinians prepare for a Feb. 23 hearing on the barrier’s legality at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

Palestinians argue that the fence is a land grab, taking territory they want for a future state. Israel claims the fence is necessary for security — and is perhaps the least invasive step the Jewish state can take after three years of Palestinian terrorism have left nearly 1,000 Israelis dead and thousands more wounded.

In most places the fence hews roughly to the Green Line, the armistice line from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, which served as a de facto boundary until the 1967 Six-Day War. But parts of the fence are projected to bow into the West Bank, causing tension between Israel and its main ally, the United States.

The fence also is altering the delicate fabric of life that has emerged between Israelis and Palestinians over nearly four decades.

According to the Israeli army spokesman’s office, five suicide bombers from Kalkilya have carried out attacks in Israel. Among them was the bomber who exploded himself outside Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco in June 2001, killing 21 young Israelis.

Last year, a sniper circumvented the wall by crawling through a drainage pipe, shooting at an Israeli car traveling on the nearby Trans-Israel Highway and killing a baby girl.

A portion of the concrete barrier that is now part of the greater fence project was built in late 2001 to protect Israeli vehicles on the highway from snipers in Kalkilya. Several road workers had been fired upon during the highway’s construction.

The decision to build the wall almost 28-feet high was calculated to ensure that buses would not be hit by sniper fire, said Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

The main problem in Kalkilya is that it is adjacent to the Trans-Israel Highway, "and therefore Israel had no choice but to build a concrete wall, which is very different from most of the rest of the fence," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"It’s also important to recall that throughout the world you have acoustic walls next to a highway, and they don’t look much different" than the wall near Kalkilya, he added.

In Kalkilya, the fence looms large as both a physical and a practical nuisance. Opposition to it is unanimous and locals dismiss Israel’s security argument, saying attacks will continue with or without the barrier.

"Peace has to come from within. Peace cannot be established through fences and walls," said Abdullah Shreem, a Kalkilya farmer who is among those whose land is located on the Israeli side of the fence. "If a tiger is kept in a closed room, you can imagine how it will act when it is out of its cage. This apartheid wall only shows Israel thinks of us as animals — another reason for Palestinians to resist."

Before the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, the residents of Kfar Saba, a palm tree-lined suburb of Tel Aviv, thronged to neighboring Kalkilya on weekends for humus lunches, bargain shopping and cheap automobile repair.

But those days are barely a memory at the Israeli military checkpoint where, until the fence was built, soldiers guarded the only way into and out of the Kalkilya.

Now the checkpoint is dominated by cement blocs topped with sandbags. A nearby watchtower is draped in camouflage netting, and army trucks and jeeps whiz in and out.

In an effort to improve the quality of life in Kalkilya, the Israeli army downgraded its presence at the checkpoint in recent weeks.

Soldiers now visit only sporadically and Palestinians pass the checkpoint freely in donkey carts, trucks and on foot.

Jessica Montrell, who heads the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, says that by opening up the entrance to Kalkilya, Israel is disproving its own argument about security risks.

"I think it only strengthens the argument that most of the suffering of the Palestinian population is needless and not necessarily for security," she said.

With a population of 40,000, Kalkilya serves as a center for surrounding Palestinian towns and villages. It has the main hospital in the area, and many of the teachers for area schools live in Kalkilya.

Many of the Palestinians in Kalkilya work as shopkeepers or in agriculture. Unemployment has soared, partly because of Israeli limits on the number of Palestinian workers allowed into Israel since the intifada began.

Kalkilya is a Palestinian hub for citrus fruit, boasting vast groves of orange and lemon trees, as Kfar Saba did before its rapid development in recent decades. Nicknamed the "City of Orange Gold," Kalkilya’s fortunes have suffered because of intifada violence, which has limited the transport of produce to Israel and abroad.

In August 2002, Israel’s Cabinet approved the first stage of the security fence, including the area around Kalkilya near Israel’s narrow waist. The plans made Kalkilya and neighboring Palestinian villages of Habla and Ras Atiya into enclaves enclosed by the fence.

According to B’Tselem, the decision to enclose the three Palestinian towns was made in part to appease pressure from nearby Jewish towns in the West Bank to be included on the Israeli side of the fence.

Although Habla, for example, is only 218 yards from Kalkilya, the fence construction means that residents of one area will have to drive about seven miles to reach the other.

There is a gate between Kalkilya and Habla for farmers to use, but residents say it is opened only sporadically. Construction reportedly is under way on an underground passage between Kalkilya and Habla to ease the fence’s impact on Palestinians.

Farmers like Shreem who have land beyond the Kalkilya fence must receive special permits to visit their property. Shreem also has land in Habla, and he pulls out a green, folded document from the Israeli army stating that he is a farmer with produce in the area and has permission to travel there.

But for the past three days he has not been able to go to Habla, he said, because the army closed the Kalkilya exit for what he heard were security reasons.

Shreem surveys the flock of Damascus sheep that, in pre-intifada days, he would export to Israel and the Persian Gulf states for a hefty profit. He also has rows of cedar, kumquat and olive tree saplings bordering his greenhouses.

Shreem’s property rests along the edges of the concrete wall that stretches for 1.8 miles on the western side of the city.

He said army officials told him he can no longer use the six acres closest to the fence. If he does not remove them, he said he was told, the army will demolish the greenhouses because they are too close to the wall.

Israeli officials did not relate specifically to Shreem’s claim, but Israel has said it will compensate Palestinians whose property is destroyed or expropriated because of the fence project. Some Palestinians have sought and received compensation, while others have resisted, Israeli officials say.

Shreem, for example, has refused to request compensation because receiving it would mean signing away his right to the land.

"That is something I will never do," he said.

In Kfar Saba, a city of about 80,000 where the first Jewish settlers planted citrus groves and harvested almonds and peanuts, most residents today work in high-tech or commerce. Many commute to jobs in nearby Tel Aviv.

About 10 percent of the city’s population consists of immigrants from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia. It’s a homey city with ice cream shops and a city hall of white stucco and dark wood that dates back over 100 years, when it was a Turkish inn.

Residents are fond of their city, praising the culture and good schools.

Kfar Saba has not been attacked as much as other Israeli cities that border the West Bank, such as Netanya or Jerusalem.

But intifada violence indeed has reached Kfar Saba’s streets. On March 17, 2002, a Palestinian gunman opened fire across from a Kfar Saba high school, critically wounding an 18-year-old student and wounding 16 others.

On Nov. 4, 2002, a suicide bomber came to the city’s main mall but was stymied by a security guard who asked to check his bag. The bomber detonated his explosives, killing himself and the guard.

Miri Horvitz, a cosmetics saleswoman at the mall, was there the day of the attack.

"If the fence brings us quiet then I think it’s the best thing," she said. "I feel freer now, more relaxed."

Horvitz becomes subdued when she talks about the aftermath of the mall attack. "I was scared to leave the house for a long time," she said.

Her daughter, Hila, 24, shared her mother’s fear of attacks. Only now, after a two-year hiatus, has Hila returned to riding city buses. She also is in favor of the fence.

"I saw the fence on television," she said at the trendy boutique where she and her mother shopped. "It’s not a ghetto; it’s a security fence. I don’t think it’s as drastic as people say, suggesting it’s a ghetto and we are the Nazis."

At the open-air mall where the attack took place, there are balconies and a stone plaza with fountains where children roll with in-line skates, skateboard and ride bicycles. Trampolines are set up and children in harnesses strapped to bungee chords jump up and down.

"We feel more secure, although we know it doesn’t totally take away the risk," said Ruhama Sarussi, a teacher who visited the mall with her two sons, both on in-line skates. "We don’t want to put anyone in a ghetto, including them, but when will they let us feel secure so we don’t have to fear them?"

Inside the mall, Shlomo Shabo, a salesman at the electronics store a few feet from where the suicide bomber exploded, recalls the attack — the flesh that clung to his shirt, the thick, choking smoke and the crashing sound as television sets and appliances exploded.

"People are ripped into pieces because of these bombers. I saw it right here," Shabo said. The Palestinians "are paying the price for those wreaking havoc here. If there was no terrorism, there would be total freedom."

But the only long-term solution, Shabo said, is not a fence but a peace agreement.

In the Kalkilya neighborhood that faces the concrete wall, Nuhaila A’Wainat, a Palestinian homemaker and mother of five sons, sits in her spacious new home. It has high ceilings, a staircase with wooden railings, stone pillars and overstuffed red velvet couches. But she laments the view.

"My dream was to have a house like this. This is what we worked for all our lives," she said.

A’Wainat has a smooth oval face and her hair is covered by a beige scarf. She and her husband, a wealthy automobile parts salesman, built the house with money saved during several years of work in Kuwait.

They moved in 18 months ago, and enjoyed being so close to Kfar Saba.

"I enjoyed seeing the lights," she said. "It is Israel, but it is Palestine to me."

Now, however, she can hardly bring herself to look at the wall, which is some 15 yards from her house.

Her family feels alienated, she said, because relatives and friends fear visiting a home so close to the wall. Soldiers patrol along the wall, and people fear being shot accidentally.

"We are constantly on edge," she said. "Every little noise or movement makes us worry."

She places the blame entirely on Israel, however, rather than on Palestinians whose attacks precipitated the construction.

In Kfar Saba, the closest neighborhood to Kalkilya is on the city’s far eastern side. It consists mostly of immigrants who live in apartment blocks where the paint peels off the walls and gardens lie untended.

Their view is of white squat houses on Kalkilya’s sloping hillside. A verdant green field separates the two cities. From here, the wall can’t be seen.

Hussia, an immigrant from Moldova, wears a flowered house dress as she walks her small dog. The Arabs do not want peace, she said, and only a fence that climbs to the heavens would be high enough.

As for the security fence, she said, "Where is it? I have not seen it."

The Other Venice


Venice is the famous city of romance, where boatmen serenade visitors with operatic arias in gondolas that glide through canals under charming bridges. Old buildings reflect in the water like an impressionist canvas of shimmering colors. Pink, red and orange blossoms hang from flower boxes on apartment windowsills, reflected in the water as exotic water lilies.

But for the Jews of the world, Venice is distinguished for much more than its celebrated beauty. Venice is also a historical marker of a painful past. This city is the home of the first and oldest Jewish ghetto in the world.

From 1516, Jews in Venice were forced to live literally and symbolically walled off from the rest of the population. Until very recently, few tourists to Venice were aware of il ghetto di Venezia. But all that has changed now, since the phenomenal popularity of the Oscar-winning Italian film "Life Is Beautiful."

"Since … ‘Life is Beautiful’ appeared in theaters, it seems that everyone is curious about Jews in Italy," said Sanislao Pugliese, assistant professor of history at New York’s Hofstra University. Suddenly, Italian Jewish history is a hot topic and both Jews and non-Jews are including the Jewish ghetto as part of their visit to Venice.

It’s a warm day with the sun beating down as I get off the vaporetto (water bus), which has navigated the waterways to San Marcuola. From here I make my way by foot to the ghetto, in an area called Cannaregio. I pass bakeries, gelato stands and fruit stalls. Clothes dry in the bright sunshine on ropes hanging over the canals. Then I arrive at a heavy iron gate and a sign that tells me I’ve reached the ghetto. As I step inside, it is suddenly dark and chilly. The buildings are too tall, too close together to let the sun’s warming rays pass through.

A group of meowing cats follow two women in colorful dresses who are carrying bowls of milk and scraps of food from one building. Nearby, little boys kick around a soccer ball.

The word ghetto is a corruption of the Venetian getto (the g is pronounced as in jet), which means foundry, after the iron foundry that was here before the ghetto walls went up. All signs are in Italian and Hebrew, and Hebrew words are carved into wooden and stone monuments, synagogues and walls. In the square, memorials are inscribed to the 204 Venetian Jews deported by the Nazis; about 8,000 Italian Jews perished in the Holocaust — despite the attempts of many Italian citizens to protect them against deportation orders.

As I wind my way down the narrow streets, I pass a few Orthodox Jewish men in black robes and yarmulkes. The wives, their entire bodies covered as befits Orthodox women, sit on benches feeding their children.

Today, few Italian Jews live in the ghetto. However, you can still hear Hebrew and Yiddish spoken in Jewish shops and inside the Jewish Museum and synagogues. Jews had lived in Venice long before the Venetian Republic locked them behind gates; as early as 1386, Jews were granted land on the Lido for use as a cemetery. The official segregation of the Jews, which was imposed by the pope in 1516, was decreed to restrict Jewish influence and success in business and commerce. Many Italian citizens vociferously deplored segregation. Jewish merchants, traders and moneylenders conducted business outside ghetto walls, and Jewish physicians went outside to treat and heal the sick and dying. But they had to wear badges identifying them as Jews; and at sunset, they, like all Jews, had to obey a strict curfew and return inside. Jews were not permitted to own real estate and could not pursue professions in the arts and architecture; Christian architects designed Jewish synagogues. Yet, il ghetto was alive with music, poetry and drama as Jews celebrated religious holidays and traditions and entertained themselves. Christian musicians, scholars and friends were invited inside to celebrate Jewish holidays.

Forceful segregation of Jews was not unique to Italy. Poland segregated Jews in the mid-1200s, France had the Carriere des Juifs, Germany and Austria the Judeviertel or Judengasse and England had its Jews’ Street.

But it is Venice, which gave the world the name ghetto and it is the Venetian Jewish ghetto — its synagogues intact, its Hebrew signs and Jewish shopkeepers — that echoes history and transports tourists back in time. A wave of Jews had arrived in Italy after Spain expelled its Jewish population in 1492. Many of these Sephardic Jews found work in moneylending and related economic activities forbidden to Catholics. Italy’s Jewish population grew as these Jews were joined by others fleeing Mediterranean and European countries. As the population in the increasingly cramped ghetto expanded, the buildings they lived in grew upward, "toward the sky."

Today, these five-, six- and seven-story buildings are affectionately referred to as "skyscrapers" and historians believe that these ghetto buildings were the model for skyscrapers around the world.

In 1797, Napoleon decreed an end to the ghetto, and Venice’s Jews were free to roam as they pleased.

The Jewish Museum, close to the ghetto’s entryway, has exhibitions that tell the story of Italy’s Jews throughout the centuries. There are stunning silver cups and Torah pointers, tapestries and delicately embroidered silk and velvet textiles from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and Europe. There are wedding certificates, marital contracts and books hand-lettered by Hebrew scribes.

The Museum offers regular tours of the ghetto and its synagogues. German Jews worshipped in the Canton synagogue, Sephardic Jews in the others. Venetian Jews still attend services in the ghetto’s synagogues, especially during the High Holidays.

Touring the synagogues, restored in the 17th and 18th centuries, I am immediately struck by the different architectural styles. The ornate hall of one Sephardic synagogue is early Venetian baroque, with two-toned marble floors and overwhelming brass candelabras hanging from decorated ceilings. Wood-carved lions’-feet benches and decorative panels on the walls bear the mark of fine Italian craftsmanship.

The Canton synagogue is far less ornate. Here, focus was placed on the ark housing the Torah — which is carved and adorned with gold designs and letters. In Orthodox Judaism, women sit together, separate from men; in the Canton synagogue, women sat in the balcony while in Sephardic synagogues, women were separated from men by long, velvet curtains.

"All the Venetian synagogues are little jewels," said my guide, who describes the artwork and the monuments dedicated to Italian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Under a symbolic strand of barbed wire, she talks about the seven bas-reliefs by the recently deceased sculptor Arbit Blatas, depicting the brutality and death of more recent times.

I walk through the inner, winding streets of the ghetto, conversing with shopkeepers in English, Spanish and spotty Italian. Here Venice is relatively uncrowded with tourists, so shopkeepers have time to talk. They seem to enjoy exchanging stories. They also argue religion and politics in various languages, including the famous Italian body language — shaking heads vigorously, shrugging shoulders, hitting the table and, sometimes, finally, throwing up their hands.


For more information, contact the Italian Government Tourist Board at (310) 820-1898.

Come to the Cabaret


On Sept. 6, 1941, the Nazis crammed 20,000 Lithuanian Jews into the Vilna ghetto. On Sept. 9, 1943, the ghetto was liquidated and its remaining 12,000 Jews were marked for extermination.

Remarkably, during the two years of its existence, the ghetto supported a thriving theater, orchestra and cabaret, where patrons in their best finery laughed, wept and applauded, though they might be deported the next day.

So much is historical fact. From it, Israeli playwright Joshua Sobel fashioned the play "Ghetto," using the real names and characters of the German and Jewish principals, which played to mixed reviews at the Mark Taper Forum in 1986.

The Los Angeles Jewish Theatre has now taken on the formidable task of reviving the play under the title "Ghetto Cabaret," though necessarily in an abridged format and fitted to the stage of a 50-seat auditorium.

To the company’s credit, it has retained the essence of Sobol’s work, which may be taken as a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, or, less charitably, to the power of human self-delusion in the face of death and destruction.

There are capable performances by Edward Padilla as the Nazi- appointed ghetto chief Jacob Gens, Andy Brendle as jazz-loving SS officer Kittel, Lisa Fishman as singer Khaele and Sam Feuer as librarian Kruk, with particularly fine acting by puppeteer Moe Gans-Pomerantz and Gary Bullock as Weisskopf, the entrepreneur.

An almost eerie footnote was added to the play when Beba Leventhal, a survivor of the Vilna ghetto, rose from the audience after the play to describe the real-life prototypes of the characters who had just finished their turns on the stage.

"Ghetto Cabaret" was adapted by director Letitzia Schwartz and producer Jorge Albertella. The latter, who also functions as the Jewish Theatre’s founder, set designer, choreographer, ticket taker and resident playwright (his play, "Cooking," will open July 19), deserves a separate article.

"Ghetto Cabaret" is presented Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through June 23 at 1528 Gordon St. in Hollywood. Tickets are $18 (general), $16 (seniors) and $10 (students). For information, call (310) 967-1352.

A Miracle Reawakened


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anne Frank” for Teens


Contemporary Holocaust literature for young adults seems to favor a theme: transport unaware teenagers to German-occupied Europe and, together with the characters, the readers will emerge as more sensitive, aware young adults.

The book, and recent Showtime drama, The Devil’s Arithmetic, takes Hannah, a Jewish teenager apathetic to Judaism, on a journey through a ghetto and concentration camp. “Anne Frank and Me,” a contemporary one-act play performed this past week by participants of the Teenage Drama Workshop at Cal State Northridge (CSUN), follows the protagonist, Nicole, through a similar experience.

Unlike Hannah, however, Nicole is not a spoiled Jewish teen. Her non-Jewish parents are Holocaust deniers, and they attempt to teach their daughter that the Holocaust was a lie. Before she can fully accept their theory, Nicole is knocked unconscious in a car accident and wakes up as a Jew in war-torn Europe. By trying to make sense of her surroundings, and eventually meeting Anne Frank, Nicole comes to recognize the horrific truths of the Holocaust and gains an appreciation of the Jewish people.

Written by Cherie Bennett for teen-age actors of all faiths, “Anne Frank and Me” is an effective educational tool against Holocaust denial because it targets two audiences: young viewers and actors themselves.

“I thought is was a terrific play, first and foremost, and an important play for our community, given the strong Jewish presence here, and the fact that we are experiencing more hate crimes,” said Doug Kaback, Executive Director of the full-time Teenage Drama Workshop, now in its 42nd year. “Anne Frank and Me” was one of the three productions put on by the young workshop crews.

In addition to rehearsing — a lesson in both drama and Jewish history in itself — the acting crew visited the Museum of Tolerance. For many of them, the experience boosted awareness and knowledge they had already begun to cultivate.

Fifteen year-old Stephanie Blaze, the Christian-Catholic who played the lead, is nothing like pre-transformation Nicole. She keeps clear of racist company. “I have no friends like that,” she said. “I don’t know if I’d want to have any friends like that.”

Thirteen year-old Rachel Garcia, a Mexican American, was enamored with Anne Frank even before she heard of the play. Since playing the part of her newfound role model, she recommends “The Diary of Anne Frank” to her friends.

“To me she was a hero,” she enthused.

Over 50 percent of the young actors happen to be Jews of various backgrounds. For them, the play reinforced their Jewish identity and taught them more facts about the war.

“It made me a little more proud of my Jewish heritage,” said 14 year-old Jesse Reiss, who admits to being “not very Jewish.”

The play moves adults as well. After a successful performance, Director Irene Silbert could be found with tears in her eyes. A child of a survivor, directing and watching the play has aroused heartfelt emotions, a sign that the actors played and understood their roles with maturity and grace.

“I feel we have an obligation to make sure the truth is always known,” she said. “Especially when there are so many deniers out there.”

For more information on the Teenage Drama Workshop at CSUN call (818) 677-3086.

Art as History’s Witness


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


Art as History’s Witness

Paintings from Terezin are on exhibit at the Jewish Federation Building

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More About Terezin

Film

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

Books

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

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

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

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

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

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