Former Nazi Guard John Demjanjuk dies at 91


John Demjanjuk, the Cleveland auto worker convicted as a death camp guard, died in a German nursing home.

Demjanjuk, 91, died Saturday at an old-age home in southern Germany, where he was free while he appealed his conviction last year in the murder of 28,060 people at the Sobibor death camp in Poland, NPR reported.

Demjanjuk, born and raised in Ukraine, was first identified as “Ivan the Terrible,” a notoriously sadistic guard at the Treblinka death camp, in the 1970s.

In 1986, U.S. authorities deported him to Israel.

A court there sentenced him to death, but during bhis appeal process, the Israeli prosecution uncovered evidence suggesting that another man who had died in the Soviet Gulag in the 1950s was “Ivan.”

The Israeli Supreme Court ordered him released, noting however that substantive evidence emerged during the trial identifying him as a guard at Sobibor.

He returned to Cleveland in 1993, and resisted multiple attempts to strip him of his citizenship and deport him again until U.S. authorities deported him to Germany in 2009.

There he was convicted in May 2010 for his crimes in Sobibor, and was sentence to five years in prison.

Museum launches fund to honor slain guard


The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has established an endowment fund in memory of a security guard slain there.

Stephen Tyrone Johns was gunned down last June 10 by 88-year-old white supremacist James Wenneker von Brunn of Maryland during an attempted raid on the museum. Johns died from his injuries shortly after the attack.

To pay tribute to the officer, the museum has established the Stephen Tyrone Johns Summer Youth Leadership Program Endowment Fund. Under the program, 50 Washington-area teens will participate in a summer program to learn about the lessons of the Holocaust.

A fund established to assist the Johns family was closed last October.

Von Brunn was shot and critically wounded in the exchange of gunfire at the museum. He died Jan. 6 while awaiting trial in the case.

Demjanjuk arrives in Germany


John Demjanjuk must be put on trial “as quickly as possible,” a German Jewish leader said.

Demjanjuk, 89, arrived Tuesday in Germany to stand trial for war crimes committed during World War II. His trial is likely to be one of the last such cases stemming from the Nazi era.

Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the courts were now in a “race against time.”

“All possible legal measures must be taken to bring [him] to court as quickly as possible,” she said Tuesday in a statement from her office in Munich.

Police in Munich confirmed Tuesday that Demjanjuk, deported from the United States Monday night on a medically equipped charter flight, arrived in the city at about 9:20 a.m. He was to be formally arraigned and taken to the hospital wing of Stadelheim Prison to await trial.

Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker, was removed from his suburban Cleveland home on Monday by ambulance and taken to the airport, accompanied by a doctor and nurse. Family members held up a floral bed sheet to block onlookers from witnessing his departure.

In March, Munich prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Demjanjuk, accusing him of serving as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland in 1943 and being involved in the murder of at least 29,000 Jews.

Demjanjuk, who contests the charges, has lived since 1952 in suburban Cleveland. His later years have been spent fighting accusations of involvement in
wartime crimes against humanity.

In the early 1980s, he was accused of being the notorious guard “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka death camp, but was released from jail in Israel after seven years when another Ukrainian was identified as “Ivan.”

The U.S. Justice Department charged Demjanjuk with being a guard at Sobibor and revoked his citizenship in 2002 for lying about his Nazi past to gain entrance to the United States His deportation was approved in 2005. Germany requested his extradition in March.

Demjanjuk fought the deportation to Germany, finally losing an appeal last week in the U.S. Supreme Court. His lawyers said he was too ill to make the trip and withstand trial.

Knobloch thanked the prosecutors in her home city for their persistence in pursuing the Demjanjuk case.

“This is not about revenge,” she said, “but about justice for a crime with which this alleged Nazi war criminal has been charged by the Munich prosecutors.”

Keep our shuls safe but still friendly


“Open for us the gates at the time of their closing.”

Worshippers conclude their Yom Kippur prayers every year with this refrain — a final supplication to be sealed in the Book of Life — during the Neilah Shearim service that closes the holiday.

Neilah Shearim, more commonly known as Neilah, literally means, “locking the gates.” As we pray for the metaphorical heavenly gates of forgiveness to remain open this Yom Kippur, how can we ensure that the physical gates of our Jewish institutions do the same?

Security measures at Jewish institutions, and for that matter all religious institutions, are an unfortunate priority these days. On the High Holy Days, we must protect ourselves with a security detail and sometimes even metal detectors and bag checks so that we may devote our time in synagogue to prayer instead of worry.

In the presence of heightened security at our religious institutions, it is essential that our synagogues still feel like warm and welcoming houses of worship, not like airports.

We can demonstrate hospitality by viewing our security professionals as not only the safe-keepers of our institutions, but as the individuals who create a welcoming atmosphere. They are the men and women that newcomers first encounter when entering our institutions. Let’s remind security personnel of the importance of a smile and friendly greeting even while they do the essential work of protecting our institutions.

If possible, volunteer greeters or staff members should be stationed at the entrance with the security professionals. They can help welcome worshippers and answer any questions about the synagogue, holidays and security process. A simple note of apology posted on the entrance to the building also helps mitigate any ill feelings that might emerge from the encounter with security.

Even for those on the inside of the Jewish community, security is an unwelcome challenge. On our way to pray in a building that we may visit regularly with no questioning at all, suddenly we are given the third degree on a few days of the year. But we accept the security because we understand its importance and already are comfortable within the walls of our Jewish institutions.

For newcomers at High Holy Day services, particularly the many friends and family of diverse religious backgrounds who may accompany us, the experience of approaching a Jewish institution may be intimidating on its own. Add in the metal detectors, security detail and questioning, and the experience of entering High Holy Days services becomes a deterrent from engaging with the Jewish community.

The movement for a “Big Tent Judaism” now gaining currency among hundreds of Jewish organizations encourages us to welcome all newcomers and lower barriers to participation. While security presence on the High Holy Days is non-negotiable for most Jewish institutions, there are ways we can open our gates even with the presence of security.

Each institution must evaluate with their security professionals how they can best welcome worshippers while maintaining their safety. We encourage Jewish organizations to meet with their staffs and boards in these crucial days before the High Holy Days to implement simple measures to ensure that our physical gates reflect the metaphorical heavenly gates, the very gates that open on Rosh Hashanah to provide all worshippers with the opportunity to seek repentance and renewal.

This year, use the High Holy Days to reflect on the physical and perceptual gates that act as barriers to the Jewish community. For one institution the gates may be security, and for another the gates may be language, literacy or cost.

This year — and for years to come — let’s take a cue from the High Holy Days liturgy and really open our gates to the many newcomers to our Jewish institutions. Let’s not miss this opportunity to demonstrate to newcomers and those returning to the Jewish community the Jewish value of hachnasat orechim, hospitality.

With sensitivity and action, we can work together to make sure that opening the gates at the time of their closing only exists as an element of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, the coordinating partner of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition (www.bigtentjudaism.org). Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Op-ed courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Boy proves key in getting grandparents into U.S.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Beijing: Security, it’s not just for airports anymore


BEIJING (JTA)—Security checks no longer just for airports in Beijing

Olympic security is no easy task. It’s not just about the sports venues — attention must be paid to the entire city’s infrastructure, hot spots and transportation systems.

One of the transitions that I think Beijing residents have done with few complaints is adjust to bag x-ray security checks at the entrance of every subway station. This measure was added at the end of June as part of a three-month campaign to secure the city for the Olympics and Paralympics, yet even now, there are still a few stray stations where a guard manually looks in your bag for lack of a scanning machine.

Want to ride the subway? Let’s see what you’re packing.

This is the kind of treatment one might be used to in Israel, but not in freewheeling China.

When I ate at Dini’s kosher restaurant two nights before the Opening Ceremony, I was greeted by a 20-year-old Chinese guard in a reflective security vest with the Hebrew word “Bitachon” (security) on the front and a scanner wand in hand. My Israeli security check flashbacks returned — although I never spoke in Mandarin to the guys who checked my bag at the entrance to Jerusalem bars.

I don’t think China has quite reached the “chefetz chashud,” or suspicious object, level of alertness that one might find in Israel (and lately in the United States as well), where seeing an abandoned bag or anything out of the ordinary would merit a call to the authorities.

Maybe they are more vigilant out in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where Muslim separatist sentiment is strong and there have been both thwarted and actualized attacks in recent months. This story shows how the Chinese decided to rely on a low-tech approach to sounding the alarm – with a whistle.

All jokes about whistles aside, many Chinese people I have talked to in Beijing have insisted how Chinese terrorists, usually referring to Xinjiang or sometimes Tibetans, are “really fierce.” I wonder whether this is based on fear-mongering by the domestic media or not. On the one hand, 16 officers were killed and another 16 were injured in the western capital Kashgar this week when two men rammed a dump truck and hurled explosives at a group of jogging policemen. But of course, this kind of incident is used to crack down on individual freedoms and the rights of the press, who are not being afforded all the openness that was promised for the duration of the Olympics as evidenced by the recent beating of two Japanese journalists suffered while covering the most recent Xinjiang incident

The Israeli Embassy will have an event on Monday, Aug. 18 to commemorate the most fatal breach of Olympic security, the 1972 Munich Games where 11 Israeli athletes were killed after a terrorist infiltration of their Olympic Village accommodations. This tragedy was commemorated even earlier this year in Beijing, at the Chabad Purim party, which was Olympics-themed but included several placards and handouts about the athletes who died in ‘72.

With such a sobering legacy of Israeli Olympic participation, you would think that security would be more intense for the Jewish state’s athletes as compared to other delegations in the village. Yet Ephraim Zinger, the secretary-general of the Israeli Olympic Committee and chief of misson, says the Israelis are on the list of countries with the most sensitive security issues, but “we aren’t the only ones, and we aren’t at the top of the list either.”