New book prompts soul-searching in Lithuania about Holocaust-era complicity

As the author of a best-seller that deals with female sexuality after 50, the Lithuanian novelist Ruta Vanagaite is used to embarrassing questions from journalists about her private life.

But even she was astonished when a reporter for a popular television station demanded to see her birth certificate to ascertain the veracity of claims that she is Jewish.

The question came during an interview about Vanagaite’s latest book, “Musiskiai” (“Our People”), a travelogue about the Holocaust consisting of interviews with witnesses to the atrocities perpetrated by Lithuanians against their Jewish neighbors.

The book’s publication last month has triggered the first major public debate in Lithuania about local Lithuanians’ complicity in the genocide of the Jews. It currently tops the best-seller list of the Pegasas chain of bookstores and has prompted officials to promise to publish this year the names of 1,000 Holocaust perpetrators they have been keeping under wraps for years.

Vanagaite, who is 61 and not Jewish, visited killing fields in Lithuania and Belarus to research the book, which she co-authored with Efraim Zuroff, the renowned Nazi hunter and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office. Though she found the journalist’s request to see her birth certificate unsettling, she complied anyway.

“I know where it’s coming from,” Vanagaite told JTA. “Lithuanian involvement in the Holocaust is such a taboo that being a Jew or a Russian spy are the only explanations for wanting to talk about it.”

But that is beginning to change thanks to Vanagaite’s book.

“In one fell swoop, the book has brought a wave of truth telling about the Holocaust to the mainstream of society who follow the large media outlets,” said Dovid Katz, a Yiddish scholar in Vilnius who has campaigned for historical accuracy on the Lithuanians’ Holocaust-era role in the near annihilation of the Lithuanian Jewish community of 220,000. “It is of notable importance that a born and bred Lithuanian author tells the simple truth as it has never been told in a trade book not intended for scholars and specialists.”

Geoff Vasil, a spokesman for the Jewish Community of Lithuania, said “the turning of the tide within Lithuanian society” on this issue “now appears to be taking place like never before.”

The 304-page volume has prompted not just the official Jewish Community of Lithuania but also local media outlets to demand the government publish its list of suspected war criminals. The government received the names in 2012 from its own Genocide and Resistance Research Center but failed to publish them or issue any indictments. The center’s director now has promised to publish the names by 2017.

Vanagaite’s book also has highlighted the fact that despite ample evidence and testimonies of widespread complicity, not a single person has been imprisoned in Lithuania for killing Jews during the Holocaust.

“Germany, Austria, even Hungary and Poland have had this reckoning a decade ago, but there’s a strong resistance in Lithuanian society to follow suit and confront this stain in our history,” Vanagaite said. Yet failing to do so, she said, “will mean we will be branded as a whole nation of murderers, and rightly so, because we refuse to acknowledge and condemn a murderous fringe.”

Vanagaite experienced this reluctance personally last year when she made an unwelcome discovery that served as her motivation to write the book in the first place.

In researching the life story of her grandfather — a well-known activist against communist Russia’s occupation of Lithuania until 1991 — she found documents that showed he helped German authorities compile a list of 10 Jewish communists during World War II. The German authorities then gave him some Jews to work on his farm as slave laborers before they were murdered.

“It was devastating,” Vanagaite recalls. “This was a man who was a hero to me and my family.”

In Lithuania, locals who fought with the Germans against the Red Army are widely revered as patriotic freedom fighters — including Juozas Ambrazevicius, the leader of the Nazi collaborationist government. In a funeral organized by the central government, Ambrazevicius was reburied in 2012 with full national honors in the city of Kaunas. Four years earlier, Lithuanian prosecutors investigated for alleged war crimes four Jews who fought against the Nazis with the Russians. The investigation was dropped amid an international outcry.

Lithuania is the only country whose government officially branded Soviet occupation as a form of genocide. That “Soviet-sponsored genocide” is commemorated in Lithuania far more prominently than the Holocaust. And even any mention of the Jewish genocide had been absent from Vilnius’ state Museum of Genocide Victims until 2011.

“Exposing that some Lithuanians who are considered patriotic heroes are really war criminals would undermine the good-versus-evil narrative,” Katz noted.

It is precisely Vanagaite’s credentials as a good Lithuanian from a good Lithuanian family that has made her message so piercing to fellow Lithuanians, said Zuroff, the co-author of “Our People” and longtime critic of Lithuanian governments.

“My voice [about Lithuania] was loud in international media, but I was not getting heard inside Lithuania, where I was pretty much portrayed as an enemy of the people,” Zuroff told JTA. “It took someone like Ruta to achieve that.”

The second part of Vanagaite’s book is about her travels with Zuroff, where they spoke to octogenarians who witnessed mass executions. Referencing Zuroff – a reviled figure by many Lithuanians, including well-known cartoonists and nationalist columnists – Vanagaite titled that part of the book “Journey with an Enemy.”

But Vanagaite and Zuroff are not in full accord. She believes that in lieu of Lithuanian introspection, the extent and cruelty of Lithuanian complicity has been vastly exaggerated – including in survivors’ testimonies. She cast doubt on testimonies about a man who was boiled alive in Panevezys and an account that locals, after slaughtering dozens of Jews in Kaunas, sang the Lithuanian anthem. Zuroff says he has no reason to doubt these accounts.

“But these details are less significant in light of the movement that this book started,” he said.

Meanwhile, Vanagaite is experiencing the public denunciation that for years has been directed at Zuroff, Katz and other critics of Lithuania’s refusal to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators.

Cast as a Kremlin agent in some publications and as a closeted Jew in others, Vanagaite says some of her friends no longer wish to speak to her.

At a book fair next month, Vanagaite says she will hand out stones to visitors of her booth with the following instruction: “Any Lithuanian who’s certain that their family wasn’t involved in the Holocaust should throw one right at me.”

A child’s life in the Warsaw Ghetto

Polish-Jewish doctor and educator Janusz Korczak was famous throughout Europe as director of the Warsaw Ghetto orphanage and an advocate for children’s rights. Despite offers of sanctuary, he chose to accompany his orphans to the gas chambers of Treblinka. This long-heralded hero is brought to life in Jim Shepard’s new novel, “The Book of Aron” (Alfred A. Knopf). Shepard, a National Book Award finalist, presents Korczak as an all-too-human figure who wrestled with his own demons and fought to retain his morality.

The protagonist is the precocious Aron, a sickly boy, a poor student and a troublemaker. “I was like something that had been raised in the wild,” the boy says in the book. His uncle gave him the nickname Sh’maya “because I did so many things that made him put his finger to his nose as a warning and say, ‘God has heard.’ ”

Aron lives with his parents and two brothers in a country home near the Lithuanian border, until his father gets a job at a factory and moves the family to Warsaw. Aron spends the summer working at the factory, too. He also discovers Korczak’s radio show, “The Old Doctor.” “I liked it because, even though he complained about how alone he was, he always wanted to know more about other people, especially kids,” Aron says in the book.

When the Germans invaded and the Jews of Warsaw were forced into the ghetto, things quickly deteriorated. Typhus, tuberculosis, bedbugs and lice plagued the residents, rations of food and basic essentials became scarce, and the police crackdowns became more common. Aron bands together with two girls, Zofia and Adina, and two boys, Boris and Lutek, and they devise a system of smuggling bags of turnips and potatoes into the ghetto through a hole dug into a wall, while skirting Jewish, Polish and German police.

Shepard’s highly detailed account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto comes from extensive readings of first-person accounts of Polish and Jewish childhood before and during World War II. In a six-page acknowledgements section, he lists more than 40 diaries, articles and other historical texts. “So I was able to channel some of those voices as well,” Shepard said in a phone interview.

Aron and his friends speak candidly with one another, teasing and cajoling with a begrudging affection that accompanies the fight for survival. Shepard said his ability to vividly capture the language of children comes from his own childhood.

“As a child, I was enough of an outsider that I was in the mode of observing the main group, but not such an outsider that I was banished from observing the main group,” Shepard said. Aron is similar, part of a loose gang, but hardly the ringleader.

Shepard also captures the dark humor of Yiddish life. When Aron’s father read aloud newspaper proclamations of new streets that are to be cleansed of Jews, he announced, “And under the heading of Things Get Worse. … ” When Aron’s parents fought about whether to spend money on bread or soap, his mother said that “once we got the typhus we wouldn’t need money for soap,” and his father replied that “once we got the typhus he’d never have to hear her complain again.”

Satire is the only weapon left for the ghetto’s inhabitants. In another example of his parents’ morbid humor, “a German truck went by with a loudspeaker and its only message in Polish was that it was now forbidden to speak of ‘the Jewish ghetto,’ and the proper term was now ‘the Jewish quarter.’ ‘How do you like it here in the Jewish quarter?’ my father asked my mother. ‘I find it confining,’ she told him.”

The children are the most aware of what’s going on in the Warsaw Ghetto. By eavesdropping on police conversations and learning about impending Nazi actions, they become a lifeline for the desperate ghetto dwellers. But Aron is also forced by a Jewish police officer, Lejkin, into the position of an informant for the Jewish Order Service, with devastating consequences.

Aron eventually finds himself living in Korczak’s orphanage. “Pan Doctor,” as the children called Korczak, takes the boy along as he knocks on doors to scrape up some money for food for the children. Aron helps Korczak produce theatrical plays for the community, to keep the famished children engaged and the financial support trickling in. Korczak becomes a father to Aron as well as a friend.

In the decades after the Holocaust, it was daunting to dramatize what had happened because of the challenge of accurately depicting the enormity of the tragedy, or the problem of using beautiful language to depict something so ugly. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Theodor Adorno famously wrote (though he later came to renounce that position).

Shepard credits the release of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” with opening up the dialogue about the Holocaust. Now, he said, the challenge is finding something unique to say about the war. Shepard has done this by recounting the war through the eyes of a child who lived in morally challenging times, when the struggle for survival trumped questions of right and wrong.

“One of the lovely things about Anne Frank is that you just admire her so much,” Shepard said. “And what that does is it puts you in an odd moral position, of sort of going, ‘The Holocaust was terrible because it killed these extraordinary children like Anne Frank.’ And you know, that’s obviously true, but I also find myself wanting to say, ‘You know, the little snot-nosed kid who nobody likes, it was pretty terrible because it killed him too, you know?’ ”

Shepard’s children lie, cheat, steal and betray in order to stay alive. When Zofia tells her friends, “There’s not one good Jew among us,” Boris replies, “The good Jews buy what we bring in.” It’s a cynical sentiment, but cynicism can be a tool for survival as well.

‘Paper Love’: Paving the way for post-survivor storytelling

As the last generation of Holocaust survivors ages and dies, efforts to capture their final, untold stories have abounded. But in her new book “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind,” Sarah Wildman has turned instead to the future, asking what it means bear witness in a world without Holocaust survivors.

“Paper Love” chronicles the author’s long and labyrinthine search for the fate of the woman whose black-and-white photos she finds amid her late grandfather Karl’s belongings. Wildman knew only the woman’s name, Valy, scrawled across the back of the photos, and that her grandmother bitterly called the mysterious dark-haired woman “your grandfather’s true love.”

It is only after her grandmother dies that Wildman discovers a trove of letters that her grandfather, a dashing physician who fled Vienna in 1938 for the United States, kept hidden and mislabeled.

“Correspondence: Patients A-G” reads the carton containing Valy’s letters, written in German from war-torn Berlin, as well as angry correspondences from extended family members who would never make it out of Hitler’s Europe.

Wildman’s hunt for Valy’s story takes her to far-flung cities, tiny villages and concentration camps throughout Europe, as well as to Ann Arbor, Mich., searching for people who may have known Valy, for documents that might refer to her, for experts who might shed light on her fate. She combs the archives for information and walks the streets of Vienna and Berlin in search of scraps of information about Valy’s life.

But “Paper Love” branches out at every turn — enfolding into its net more historical details, more stories, more locations, more human lives that vanished into World War II, never to be heard of again until now.

The book weaves together the historical with the intensely personal, redefining what counts as appropriate archival material and elevating intimate aspects from Valy’s life, and Wildman’s own, to new importance.

In the six years it took to complete “Paper Love,” Wildman, a journalist, gave birth to two daughters. The transition into new motherhood accompanied the one from consumer of Holocaust history to producer of it.

It’s a transition that took place in the shadow of loss — specifically the death of her grandparents, and also the gradual loss of the last generation of survivors.

“It’s been a very poignant thing for me that my kids won’t know them,” Wildman told JTA over the phone, her breast pump whirring in the background. “I am very much thinking of what comes next, in part because my children won’t have the opportunity of that visceral connection of listening to the story from the source.”

But “Paper Love” is revolutionary precisely because it could not have been written during the lifetime of Wildman’s grandfather.

“He never told us about the letters,” Wildman said, by way of explanation, “and my grandmother wouldn’t have been too pleased.”

Faced with the lack of stories “from the source” that her daughters’ generation encounters, Wildman chose to create something that could exist only in a world without Karl. It’s the kind of art bound to grow in the coming, post-survivor era — now that Wildman is paving the way.

Equal parts history, detective story, memoir and romance, Wildman’s book provides an absorbing account of what it was like to live in (and write from) Berlin as the Nazi grip tightened and conditions for Jews became increasingly worse — city by city, day by day.

Valy’s letters smolder with desperation, both to see her lover again and to survive the horrors that have befallen her city, country and continent. Most of the letters are reproduced in the text, alongside which Wildman decodes the writer’s attempts to fool the censors who were reading trans-Atlantic correspondences.

But they are also magical, magnetic and playful. Indeed, Wildman saw something of herself in the letter writer.

“She’s obsessed with her career, she’s not so super certain about kids, she’s incredibly well educated,” Wildman said. “She sounds like someone you might want to be with or hang out with. She doesn’t sound like someone far away. And she doesn’t sound perfect either. I think that’s important, too.”

Valy writes to Karl from Berlin in April of 1940, “I lead my life the way I’ve been doing for the past 2 years: in a spirit of waiting, without much joy or hope. But, my darling, don’t feel sad for me; I want you to know that I have people around me — women, — you know that only women are left here?!, who still have something to say, who like me, who help me and who want to make life pleasant for me. But I do not succeed very often, and they never will be able to replace you, my boy! You are and remain far, far away, out of my reach, you exist only in my memories, wonderful, beautiful ‘sunny past.’ … You are no longer even a letter, such as tiny, modest piece of the present. Why don’t you write?”

Why didn’t he write?

Among the things Wildman discovers is how sanitized the story she had been told of her grandfather’s miraculous escape and instantaneous success in America. And “Paper Love” is also its author’s attempt to come to terms with her grandfather’s actions and the guilt that she suspects plagued him for the rest of his life.

And although her grandfather never spoke to his granddaughter about Valy, he unwittingly created an archive for her to plunder, turning himself into a partner in the creation of “Paper Love.”

As Wildman asked herself, “If the Nazi project was to erase these people, to render them unmemorable, to be wiped away from the rolls of history, was there some way that my grandfather had thwarted that by saving these letters, and was there some way I, with the privilege of having stumbled on them, could give this woman back her voice?”

Indeed, Valy comes to life on the page, and her story will haunt those who read “Paper Love” for a long time to come.

When asked what her grandfather would make of her book, Wildman answered, “I think he would be pleased to still be talked about. … Of course it exposes a vulnerable side of him that I don’t think he’d be thrilled with, but I do think ultimately he would be happy to be thought of.”

Iranian-Jewish doctor spreads Holocaust truth in Farsi

As Jews worldwide remembered and honored the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust in recent weeks, Dr. Ari Babaknia, a renowned Newport Beach Iranian-Jewish obstetrician and gynecologist, was crisscrossing the country — touring Southern California and New York City — and making his own unique contribution to the cause.

The 60-something Babaknia is not a formally trained Holocaust scholar, nor a professional historian, yet he found himself educating Iranians of various religions about the Nazis’ Final Solution and other 20th-century genocides. His undying passion to learn about the Shoah in the last two decades has made him the sole voice of Holocaust awareness to millions of Iranians in the United States and overseas.

“Many years ago, I realized that there was no book about the Holocaust in Farsi, even though there are more than 150 million people in the world who are fluent in Farsi,” said Babaknia, who attended medical school in Iran but underwent his specialty training at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “My goal and the goal of my organization, the Memorah Foundation, is to spread the truth about the Holocaust in the Middle East because people in the region and Iran have been hearing rhetoric about the Holocaust, and now they want to know the truth about the Holocaust.”

In 2012, his efforts culminated in the publication of the first and only original Farsi-language history of the Shoah, a four-volume, 2,400-page book called “Holocaust.” (There have been some works related to the topic translated into Farsi, but none nearly as comprehensive.) Then, earlier this year, he published “Humanity, Not,” a 300-page English-language book that juxtaposes the words of scholars, survivors, Holocaust victims and others with impressionistic sketches about the Shoah from the late Iranian-Muslim artist Ardeshir Mohasses. 

“Mr. Mohasses was like the Iranian Norman Rockwell — perhaps more famous than Rockwell because he was internationally renowned,” Babaknia said. “He did 300 amazing paintings, capturing almost every aspect of the Holocaust, capturing both the emotions and ethics of the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust in a very graphic manner.”

Babaknia’s earlier work, “Holocaust,” is more of a straightforward history. It details the events of the Shoah from the rise of Nazism in Germany to the final days of World War II. The book is also filled with graphic photographs from the era as well as countless official U.S. and European government documents from the time period. The final volume chronicles other genocides that occurred in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan.

He wrote out the book by hand, which required 13,000 pages, and spent $2.5 million over the years on the research, assistants and other elements necessary to put it together. 

More than 3,000 copies of the book have been sold through a select few bookstores in Southern California and online. All proceeds have gone to the Memorah Foundation to educate individuals of Middle Eastern background about the Holocaust and the need for tolerance. 

“Believe it or not, 90 percent of the buyers of the Holocaust book in Farsi have been Iranian-Muslims because they have real interests and curiosity to learn more about it,” Babaknia said. “There has never been a definitive book about this subject matter in their mother language until now, which is drawing their attention.”

Its success has led to speaking invitations from many Iranian community and social groups, including mosques. 

Ali Massoudi, a 77-year-old retired Iranian-Muslim journalist based in Irvine, said the book has wide appeal.

“I’ve received feedback myself that people in Iran who have seen Dr. Babaknia on Iranian television broadcasting from the U.S. have been encouraged to learn more about the Holocaust and are trying to find out how to get their hands on copies of the book,” he said. “Dr. Babaknia’s book presents the Holocaust as a tragedy for all of humanity and not just the Jews — this has really resonated with Iranians of different faiths.”

Babaknia’s books come at an important time for his target population. In March, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei questioned if the Holocaust took place, and the country’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a longtime Holocaust denier. The Iranian regime also has  hosted several conferences over the years, featuring American neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists. 

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-American human rights activist who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said there will be lasting, positive impacts among average non-Jewish Iranians living in Iran and elsewhere as a result of Babaknia’s work.

“After more than three decades of censorship of the Holocaust in Iran, Dr. Babaknia’s documentation of this historical event in Farsi and its potential of becoming a credible source for future generations of Iranian-Muslims is indeed a major landmark whose importance will increase with time,” he said.

Babaknia said he has plans in the near future to make “Holocaust” available online for anyone to download for free from his foundation’s website, This online resource provides visitors with information about the Holocaust and other genocides in Farsi and English, with translations in Turkish and Arabic expected to come.

Despite the positive reception Babaknia’s book has received from non-Jewish Iranian-Americans, the author said he’s been surprised by the amount of indifference he’s encountered from many Iranian Jews.

“I am honestly amazed that people in the Iranian-Jewish community tell me in front of my face, ‘Thank you for what you have done, but I’m not going to read your book because it will make me sad.’ 

“Our emotions about the Holocaust should be more than anger, more than sadness and more than a revolting feeling. We have to read and learn about the Holocaust  so we can become better human beings and become more sensitized to others’ suffering.”

Tabby Davoodi is among the young leaders in the local Iranian-Jewish community who have been drawn to Babaknia’s message and efforts to educate Iranians about the Holocaust.

“The Talmud teaches us that ‘in a place where there is no leader, strive to be a leader.’ Dr. Babaknia embodies this wisdom and call to action,” said Davoodi, executive director of 30 Years After, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish organization. “In the end, the Shoah belongs to all Jews, including Iranian Jews, because it is forever tragically sealed in the fabric of the Jewish people,” Davoodi said. “As Iranian-American Jews, we are but one thread in this unbreakable fabric, and any loss of Jewish life anywhere around the world is ours to mourn.”

For more information about Dr. Ari Babaknia’s new book and Shoah commemoration events in the Iranian-Jewish community, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: 

Six million reasons I don’t like the new Holocaust book

I admit it. I dropped the ball on the story about the new remember-the-Holocaust-by-printing-the-word-Jew-six-million-times book. I saw it sitting in a veteran Jewish journalist’s office a week ago, but forgot to bring it up to my fellow JTA editors.

And then I look at the front page of the Times on Sunday and there it is.

The truth is, when I first looked through it, I couldn’t get past wondering about the copy editor. Did he/she have the easiest or hardest job in the world?

But thinking about it more later, the project rubbed me the wrong way. And my uneasiness only increased after reading the author — maybe creator is the better word — explain the project to the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren.

“When you look at this at a distance, you can’t tell whether it’s upside down or right side up, you can’t tell what’s here; it looks like a pattern,” said Phil Chernofsky, the author, though that term may be something of a stretch. “That’s how the Nazis viewed their victims: These are not individuals, these are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate.

“Now get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a ‘Jew,’ ” Mr. Chernofsky continued. “That Jew could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and aunts and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state where you look at one word, ‘Jew,’ you look at one Jew, you focus on it and then your mind starts to go because who is he, where did he live, what did he want to do when he grew up?”

I have no major quibble with seeing this book as a testament to how Nazis looked at the Jews. But for the same reason that it might work on that level, it strikes me as a terrible form of memorialization, especially since most of Hitler’s Jewish victims are not nameless.

Rudoren’s story went right to my next thought — Yad Vashem and it database of victims:

While many Jewish leaders in the United States have embraced the book, some Holocaust educators consider it a gimmick. It takes the opposite tack of a multimillion-dollar effort over many years by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum here, that has so far documented the identities of 4.3 million Jewish victims. These fill the monumental “Book of Names,” 6 1/2 feet tall and 46 feet in circumference, which was unveiled last summer at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“We have no doubt that this is the right way to deal with the issue,” said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s director. “We understand that human life, human beings, individuals are at the center of our research and education. This is the reason we are investing so much in trying to retrieve every single human being, his name, and details about his life.”

Clearly this project works for some folks. According to the Times, the ADL’s Abe Foxman lined up a few donors to buy 3,000 copies to send around.

“When he brought me this book I said, ‘Wow, wow, it makes it so real,’” Foxman reportedly said. “It’s haunting.” (OK, I’m a little hurt about not being on Abe’s comp list, but I promise that has nothing to do with this post.)

But still, I just don’t see it. The Nazis may have indeed murdered our people en masse, but that’s no reason for us to play along. We have 4.3 million actual names. I’d rather see them put in a book and have people ruminate on that.

Survivor, storyteller, celebrity, sage: Elie Wiesel at 85

When talking about Elie Wiesel, who turns 85 on Sept. 30, it is far too easy to fall into a list of superlatives. 

As a child who survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Wiesel witnessed more death and more horrors than most human beings ever will. A onetime journalist who wrote for Hebrew- and Yiddish-language newspapers, starting in the 1950s, Wiesel has gone on to publish more books than most writers ever do, including “Night,” which has become the second-most widely read work of Holocaust literature in the world. He’s received more awards and honorary doctorates and rarified accolades than most university professors might dream of — including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 — and has, quite possibly, met with with more world leaders than any Jew in history. 

In a wide-ranging interview earlier this year, Wiesel talked to the Journal about some of the lesser-known parts of his remarkable life, including his years working as a journalist, and he expressed concern about what he saw as an increased tendency toward violence in today’s world. Softly, speaking in a contemplative tone, Wiesel used mostly short sentences and never moved to touch the shiny platter of pastries on the table before him. 

But when I offhandedly called him a “public figure,” he swiftly shot down the characterization. 

“I don’t consider myself as a public figure,” Wiesel told me. “I am a teacher. A writer and a teacher at the same time — for me, writing and teaching are the same.”

Not knowing exactly what to make of Wiesel’s comment, I called Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who has known Wiesel well for 35 years. 

“It’s an inaccurate statement,” Berenbaum said. A professor at American Jewish University and an expert in the development of historical museums and films, Berenbaum wrote his doctoral dissertation in the 1970s about Wiesel’s work and later worked with Wiesel on the council that created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. “There’s nobody else who would argue that.”

Indeed, countering Wiesel’s humble assertion isn’t difficult; the survivor’s forceful objection to President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery, where members of the SS are buried, is but one instance of Wiesel publicly challenging a world leader. 

And wherever he goes, Wiesel is certainly accorded treatment befitting a public figure. I met him in April on the campus of Chapman University in Orange County, where he was spending his third consecutive year as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. On my way to the quiet room in the school’s main library where we were to meet, I passed a poster for Wiesel’s three staged discussions taking place during his weeklong stay there, as well as a glass case in the lobby displaying more than a dozen of Wiesel’s published books and a bronze bust of the author near the entrance to a library room devoted to Holocaust studies. 

Among today’s living Jewish leaders, Berenbaum said, Wiesel is unique. 

“Wiesel is probably the only major American Jewish thinker who is an international figure of world renown without either billions of dollars or an institutional base,” Berenbaum said. “Wiesel’s moral power base is directly related to the moral stature that has been accorded to the Holocaust, and to Wiesel as its most eloquent living survivor voice.”

Unlike, say, philanthropists Ronald Lauder or Charles Bronfman, or the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, or any rabbi one can think of, Wiesel has served as a voice for the voiceless, a voice for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, a voice against genocide, a voice against Holocaust denial — and he’s done all this on the strength of his own reputation, his conviction and his writing. 

One could liken him to others who survived totalitarian regimes and then went on to lead — figures like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel — but unlike those two men, Wiesel seems to feel, or at least project, more discomfort with his own present-day moral authority and power. 

Wiesel also rejects any characterization of him as a “Holocaust author.” 

“I’ve published 16-plus books; maybe three or four deal with that subject,” Wiesel said. “My classes? When I began my career, at City College in New York and then Boston University, only the first two years I taught what you call ‘Holocaust literature.’ I don’t teach it anymore. I don’t know how.”

Such a statement might surprise many of Wiesel’s readers, largely because most of them are very familiar only with “Night,” first published some 55 years ago in French. Wiesel is fully aware of this, of course; at Chapman, he signs the copies of what most of the undergraduates first read in high school. Indeed, some high school teachers feel so strongly about the book’s instructional value that they have their students read it twice. 

Although Wiesel says he does not cover his own writings in his classes, others who study and teach Holocaust literature have devoted years — and numerous pages in scholarly journals — to dissecting the narrative of “Night,” and have expended a lot of energy on the question of how to classify the book. 

“If you want to get Wiesel angry,” Berenbaum told me, “all you have to do is call ‘Night’ a novel instead of a memoir.”

“ ‘Night’ is not a novel, it’s an autobiography,” Wiesel told an interviewer for the Paris Review back in 1978. “It’s a memoir. It’s testimony.”

Wiesel also told that interviewer that he still had the 860-odd-page Yiddish manuscript that later became the book. Left unmentioned in that interview was the version of that Yiddish text that was published, in 1956, two years before “La Nuit,” under the title “Un di velt hot geshvign” (“And the World Was Silent”). 

In 1996, Naomi Seidman, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, closely examined the slim French volume alongside Wiesel’s Yiddish-language account, and found “Un di velt” to be an angrier work than “La Nuit,” from its first pages through to its end. 

Among Seidman’s examples: Wiesel dedicated both books to the memory of his father, mother and younger sister, Tzipora, but in “Un di velt,” he mentions his parents’ names, Sarah and Shlomo — and mentions explicitly that all three “were killed by the German murderers.” 

Seidman also noted significant differences in the ways each book reveals Wiesel’s writing process: In the Yiddish memoir, he starts to write immediately after liberation, while the French text says he started writing only after a 10-year vow of silence. 

Seidman’s article provoked much conversation and debate — at the time, Eli Pfefferkorn, a Holocaust survivor, called her close reading “an attempt to undermine the authenticity of ‘Night’ as witness testimony.” (Pfefferkorn has since told Seidman that he’s changed his mind about her article and about Wiesel.) Holocaust deniers have used the scholarly debate over discrepancies for their own dubious purposes. As for Wiesel’s own reaction, Seidman said she’s never spoken with him about it. 

“I heard he was angry after my essay was published, and tried to call him, but couldn’t get through,” Seidman wrote to me in an e-mail earlier this month. “Later I sat across from him at a dinner party, and hoped he wouldn’t catch my name.” 

Whatever Wiesel’s influence may have been before, it was Oprah Winfrey’s decision, in 2006, to select “Night” for her book club, which put the book on the best-seller list for the first time and afforded Wiesel a new level of recognition. 

The awards for Wiesel haven’t stopped coming. Named three times by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, Wiesel is set to also receive Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Medal of Distinction this year. 

At Chapman, though, Wiesel brushed off his celebrity. 

“I have everything; what can I want?” Wiesel said. “I love teaching — I have teaching obligations; I love writing — I write. What else do I need? Honors? I have enough. Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] said, ‘If you pursue honors, they run away.’ I have, thank God, all the highest honors that a human being can get. So what? Has it changed me?”

I asked — perhaps foolishly — if it had. 

“No,” Wiesel said, his voice dropping into its lowest register. Look, if Auschwitz hasn’t changed me, you think honors can change me?”

Some have speculated that those honors may have changed the way people approach Wiesel, though. 

“I have found that Wiesel tends to be ‘celebrated’ rather than questioned in any probing way,” Gary Weissman wrote to me in an e-mail. An assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, Weissman has written about “Night” and about the challenges of teaching Wiesel’s text. 

“Many are investing in treating — and experiencing! — Wiesel as a holy figure, rather than as a complex and real human being,” Weissman wrote in his e-mail. 

Weissman said he hasn’t ever spoken with Wiesel; indeed, many of those who have looked critically at Wiesel’s work nevertheless hold the man in high esteem. 

“I have met him several times, but always too briefly to receive much of an impression,” Harold Bloom, a professor of English at Yale University, wrote in an e-mail. “I regret that his writing to me seems to possess neither cognitive nor aesthetic elements that cause me to meditate further. His has been an honorable life and I respect him.” 

Even Seidman called Wiesel “a very impressive man,” and said that in her 2006 book, “Faithful Renderings,” she had revised her essay about Wiesel in ways that were “much more generous” than she had been 10 years earlier.

“I think I was too judgmental,” Seidman wrote in an e-mail.

It’s hard to stand in judgment of Wiesel, especially today, when he is received around the world in the manner of a visiting sage. Indeed, every word Wiesel says can make news — as I found on April 16, one day after the terrorist attack that targeted the Boston Marathon. At the time, very little was known about the bombers or their motives; in that environment, my reporting that Wiesel, in our interview at Chapman, had called on President Barack Obama to appoint “a special commission of educators and philosophers and social philosophers and thinkers” to investigate the attacks, instantly became news. The short blog entry was shared 700 times on Facebook; Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison asked Wiesel about the commission when she met him later that week. 

Over the course of his life, Wiesel has been approached with these big kinds of questions, and he’s addressed them in his writings. His next book, Wiesel told me, will be about a philosophy of teaching and friendship.

But even today, it’s often Wiesel’s stories that have the greatest impact on listeners. In our ranging conversation, Wiesel and I talked a lot about journalism. Long before he became a celebrity, Wiesel filed stories in Yiddish and Hebrew, first in Paris and later in New York. He told me about the weeks after Kennedy was assassinated, when he put in 18-hour days as the New York-based correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot. Back then, Wiesel said, he used to wire his stories from the offices of Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). He used Hebrew to write shorthand — and still does today. 

From that comment about handwriting, Wiesel shifted into a story of a notebook that his sister recovered from Sighet, the town where he grew up. In that yellowing book, Wiesel found an essay he had written in 1941, when he was 13 years old, called “Reflections on the Interpretation of the High Holidays Liturgy.” 

Meshugge!” Wiesel said, laughing at his former self, an ambitious adolescent, an innocent who knew nothing of what was to come. 

“All of a sudden,” Wiesel continued, “there is one page, which is out of the blue.” 

It was a record of the credit that his family — which owned a small grocery store — had extended to people in their town. 

“All of a sudden, I see there, in the store, [the name], Akiba Drumer, who takes six bottles of this and this. Another thing, another person, a whole page of names,” Wiesel said. “Akiba Drumer; I wrote about him in ‘Night.’ I described about how he came to my father in Auschwitz, he said: ‘In three days, I will be gone. Please say Kaddish.’

“And he owes me six bottles of something in this little book!” Wiesel continued with a chuckle. “So, first of all, I forgave him the debt.”

As readers of “Night” will remember, Drumer’s prophecy comes true — Google his name today and you’ll find links to notes for the many middle and high school students who have to write about the book. Wiesel, who has lived to embody the memory of Drumer and the millions of others killed in the Holocaust, is as powerful and influential as he is precisely because he can, in a few words, bring Drumer into a library’s conference room, just by mentioning a 70-year-old list of names.

But as powerful as Wiesel’s stories are, they cannot match the real-life impact of the events they relate on the man before me. I heard a story of a notebook; Wiesel feels its power. 

“I kept it,” Wiesel told me. “And I had palpitations the whole day. I couldn’t read. That little book — and I was 13 when I wrote it.”

‘Resistance’ was not futile

As one of the very few reviewers who found fault with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” I once wrote that I would have preferred a film based on “Defiance,” Nechama Tec’s brilliant study of the Bielski partisans, which shows Jews not as the passive beneficiaries of a Nazi factory owner’s largess, but as active resisters who picked up a gun and fought back. And, in 2009, director Edward Zwick came to the same conclusion in his own movie, also titled “Defiance.”

Now, Tec, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, revisits the subject of Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany in “Resistance: How Jews and Christians Fought Against the Nazis and Became Heroes of the Holocaust” (Oxford University Press, $27.95).

Tec explains that while certain inevitable questions asked by her audiences made her feel “uncomfortable and even resentful,” the same questions have been asked as often by Jews as by non-Jews ever since the Holocaust came to worldwide attention, most notably: “Why didn’t the Jews strike back at their oppressors?”

As someone who knows the history of Jewish resistance in all of its detail, Tec muses that “these troubling questions might have been fueled by ignorance.” So, she takes it upon herself to explain the truth in “Resistance,” a study of the unique circumstances in which the victims of the Holocaust found themselves and the courageous ways in which they did, in fact, fight back.

“Has anyone seen an army without arms?” asked Luchan Dobroszycki, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. “An army scattered over 200 isolated ghettoes? An army of infants, old people, the sick?” To which Tec stirringly answers: “This book seeks to answer this question with a resounding yes.”

She traces the charge of “complicity in their own destruction” to Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, who famously complained that the Frank family “could have provided themselves with a gun or two, had they wished” and “shot down at least one or two of the ‘green police’ who came for them.” Hannah Arendt reinforced the same harsh view in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which she blamed Jewish community leaders who had been pressed into service in the notorious Judenrat for facilitating the Final Solution. 

To rebut these allegations, Tec showcases the varieties of Jewish resistance.  A young Polish Jew named Ephraim Bleichman, for example, stripped the Star of David from his sleeve and escaped into the countryside: “From the beginning I knew that I wouldn’t let them kill me,” Bleichman told Tec, “and that I would not submit.” He eventually found his way to a band of 100 or so like-minded Jewish partisans, who possessed only two guns and no ammunitions. Soon, they had acquired a small arsenal and taught themselves how to use the weapons: “I personally didn’t know how to hold a gun, let alone how to use it,” Bleichman recalls. “But the minute we had weapons, we became much braver.”

Resistance necessarily took a different form in the ghettoes, where the Nazis gathered and held their Jewish captives before shipping them off to the death camps. Here, it turned out that women were bettered equipped than men to resist: “Women’s traditional roles as caregivers, housekeepers, and cooks remained essential,” explains Tec. “Deprivation and hunger made those who could procure and skillfully handle food particularly valuable. Thus, in the ghetto, unobtrusively yet consistently, women contributed significantly to survival.”

Some acts of resistance had nothing at all to do with weaponry. Emmanuel Ringelbaum, for example, organized the so-called Oneg Shabbat project in the Warsaw Ghetto, a communal effort to gather and preserve a record of the crimes that were being committed against the Jewish victims. “They were racing against time,” Tec writes. “At this stage, unable to protect the Jewish people, they concentrated on saving Jewish history.  This was their act of resistance.”

Tec shows us that the most famous Jewish resisters of all — the ghetto fighters in Warsaw and elsewhere — made a conscious decision to send a message to the world, and to history, through the manner of their death. Escape and survival were beside the point, although they certainly wanted to extract a price in blood from their murderers. “We do not wish to save our lives,” declared Jurek Wilner, one of the ghetto fighters. “None of us will come out of this alive. We only want to save the honor of mankind.”  Writes Tec in one heartbreaking line: “It was a shame that Ringelbaum was not there to witness this transformation.”

Even in the heart of darkness — the death camps — Jewish resistance was alive.  Jewish women who were assigned to slave labor in the munitions factory at Auschwitz/Birkenau, including the heroic Roza Robota, managed to steal small quantities of gunpowder and smuggle it out under the false bottom of a specially fashioned “menashke,” a tin soup bowl. Their comrades in the men’s camp fashioned the explosives into the bombs used to blow up Crematoria IV, while others used hammers, axes and stones as weapons against their Nazi guards.

To her credit, Tec digs deeply into this incident and acknowledges that a terrible fate was visited upon actual and suspected participants in the revolt.  One of the moral quandaries of would-be resisters, in fact, was the sure knowledge that every act of resistance would bring down bloodthirsty reprisals by the Germans against innocent men, women and children. Yet we cannot help but thrill at the otherwise heartbreaking scene of the public hanging of Robota and her fellow resisters on Jan. 6, 1945. “The executions themselves happened under a cover of sullen silence,” Tec writes. “Only once was this utter silence broken — by Roza Robota’s cry of ‘Nekama!’ — ‘Revenge.’ ”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Songs of hope at Auschwitz

When Judith Schneiderman was 14, she was taken from Hungary and sent to Auschwitz. It seemed that all hope was lost — that is, until she opened her mouth.

A naturally talented vocalist who was never formally trained, she began to sing, and it probably saved her life. The wife of an SS commander overheard her, then taught her German songs and how to entertain Nazi soldiers, who would give her food. 

Her story was self-published in the book “I Sang to Survive.” Co-authored by Jennifer Schulz, Schneiderman’s granddaughter, the German version was presented in May by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located in Berlin. 

Schulz, an acting teacher in Los Angeles who is credited in the book by her maiden name, Jennifer Schneiderman, said that although there are many Holocaust books out there, her grandmother’s is unique because it’s “about hope and human kindness and that there is more good than evil in the world. Even though there are a lot of terrible things in the book, it’s a small aspect of what the story is about. It’s a love story more than anything else.”

Instead of placing emphasis on the tragedies that befell Schneiderman — who turns 85 this month and now lives in Columbus, Ohio — the book aims to be uplifting. It takes a look at her life before the war, her time in America, her family and her 66-year romance with Paul, a fellow survivor she met at a displaced persons camp who died earlier this year. They settled in New Jersey and had four children together.

Schulz said that the theme of “I Sang to Survive” is how “we really can survive anything if we believe in our hearts that there is goodness in the world.”

In her book, Schneiderman wrote that her time in the camp taught her about human nature and changed her perspective forever. 

“During the Holocaust, I learned the most important lesson of my life: that nothing is purely good or evil, and that both reside in the best and worst of us and our intentions.”

The book begins in Rachov (part of Czechoslovakia at the time), where Schneiderman was born in 1928. She was one of eight children in a very religious family. They lived in the back of the grocery store that they owned on the main street of their town. However, Rachov was economically depressed and, despite her vocal talents, she was never able to afford lessons.

“We were not poor, but we didn’t have enough money for such luxuries,” she said via a phone interview. “My father had a beautiful voice, and that’s where I got it. But I was the star in the house.” 

One of her daughters, Helene, was more fortunate in taking the next step in musical training. When she turned 18, Helene Schneiderman started taking voice lessons at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey. There, she excelled, and eventually got into the renowned Stuttgart State Opera in Germany. When the mezzo-soprano told her parents, however, both had mixed feelings, Schneiderman said. 

“We decided for her future that she would go,” she said. “It was a little difficult visiting the first time [in Germany], but the second visit was much easier. We supported her 100 percent. She is very special girl not only as a singer, but she’s an unusual human being.”

Although Helene Schneiderman also had her hesitations about going to Germany, she knew it was the best decision for her future. 

“There is a very good system for young opera singers, where you get paid by the month and you perform often, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be in one place for years at a time,” she said. “My parents struggled with the thought of my coming over, but they love me more than they could hate anyone, and so things went smoothly.”

Recently, Helene Schneiderman, who has performed in Austria, France and Italy, put out a CD of Yiddish songs, “Makh Tsu Di Eygelekh” (“Close Your Little Eyes”). It includes four tracks of her parents singing together.

“I always enjoyed singing Yiddish songs because my mother taught them to me as a child,” Helene Schneiderman said. “The lullabies were especially beautiful.”

Although Judith Schneiderman never got the chance to sing professionally, to this day, she still does it for fun, especially with her family. Her favorite tunes are, of course, in Yiddish. 

“Sometimes when I’m alone and I’m in a fairly good mood, I feel like singing them in my room,” she said. “My daughter Helene and I sing duets. I still have a voice. I’m very surprised at my age, 85, I’m not wobbly, not yet.”

‘My Mother’s Wars’: Witness From Afar

I met Lillian Faderman last Saturday when we both appeared on a panel titled “Holocaust Lives” at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. To be sure, the Holocaust figures crucially in her new memoir, “My Mother’s Wars” (Beacon Press, $25.95), but her book is more than a testimony of the Holocaust — it is a love story, a family memoir and, above all, an American tale.

“My mother kept no secrets from me about her strange and difficult life before I was born,” explains Faderman, a leading scholar of lesbian history and literature. “But the older I got, the less I understood. … Thirty years after my mother’s death, my young-womanhood long gone, a sadness suddenly came upon me with the thought that though I’d known all her secrets, I hadn’t known her.”

The starting point of Faderman’s search for meaning and memory is her mother’s lifesaving flight, at the age of 17, from Latvia to America, where she hoped to become a dancer. She soon ended up sewing pinafores in a clothing factory on Delancey Street and living with her older sister and brother-in-law in Brooklyn. On the day she left Vilna, she vowed to the rest of her family that she would bring them to safety in America, too: “I swear on my life, as soon as I have the money. All of you!” But when she happens to meet a charming young man called Moishe in a park in the Bronx, it turns out to be a fateful encounter.

“In the old country they would have said it was beshert, destined,” observes Faderman. “I’m not sure that I believe in beshert, but I am sure that … this moment, too, led inexorably to what she would pay for to her last rattling breath.”

The saga of Mereleh Luft — who would soon rename herself Mary Lifton — will remind some readers of Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” or Abraham Cahan’s “The Rise of David Levinsky.” Indeed, Faderman is a gifted storyteller, and her haunting book carries all the toolmarks of the novel, the sights and sounds and smells that allow the reader to enter the narration in an especially intimate way. But she always reminds us that “My Mother’s Wars” is memoir, not a work of fiction, by heralding each new chapter with a fragment of reportage from the 1930s and 1940s, an era when every private life was impacted, distorted and often ended by the workings of history. “The world was rocking,” she observes, “and would soon tip over.” 

It turns out, in fact, that Mary Lifton is an eyewitness to some of the most momentous events of the era in which she lived. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union organizers in the clothing factory where she works, for example, appeal to the cutters and drapers to strike. “I bet that’s why the bosses didn’t want to fix the toilet,” says one of her fellow workers. “[T]hey don’t want the radicals meeting in the ladies room.” For Mary, the risk of losing her job threatens not only her livelihood but also her ability to send money back to the family in Latvia. Yet she acts on principle: “Welcome, Comrade” she says to each one who joins her on the picket line. She is rewarded with a blow to the head from a horse-mounted cop.

“ ‘F—ing kikes!’ he sneers, and again swings his billy club.”

Now and then, Faderman herself enters the story she tells with an aside, often ironic but even more often tender and poignant. She knows, for example, that her mother’s tumultuous love affair will result in the birth of a child, but not in a marriage. “I cheer her on,” writes the author. “Much better, for so simple a soul, to be obsessed by simple slogans than by a lover who’s as cloudy as a muddy river. Much safer, despite even the baton’s blow, to think day and night about unions and comrades and struggles for justice than about a love as insubstantial as the ether: that’s what I’d like to shout to her across the eight decades. But she would hear such selfless nattering like a deaf person hears the shouting of a mute — which is just as well, for if she’d chosen better and safer, how could I come to be?”

From back in Latvia, even more ominous events are reported to Mary in letters from her younger brother, Hirschel. The so-called Perkonkrusts are the Latvian version of the Nazis, and “they look and sound like that lunatic wind-up doll in Germany with the black toothbrush pasted above his lip.” Hirschel envisions a dire future: “You’d have to be a mole not to see where this is going.” For Mary, love and history are enmeshed: “And if things get worse for the Jews in Latvia and the family has to come here and she has a baby and isn’t married.” But it turns out that Mary makes a choice in her love life that closes off what may have been the best chance of escape for her family.

Thus does Faderman allow us to understand the significance of the title she has chosen for her book. Even as her mother yearned to find love in America, she was forced to witness from afar the workings of history that would ultimately extinguish the lives of her cherished family — “she’s standing on a high cliff watching shipwreck victims, those she loves, foundering in the sea far below.” In a strange and shattering way, her struggle for private happiness worked against her family’s struggle for survival, an irony that impressed itself first on Mary Lifton herself, then on her brave and discerning daughter, and now on her daughter’s admiring readers.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Fifteen years of research leads to four-volume book on Holocaust—in Farsi

Ari Babaknia doesn’t expect that Iran’s president will ever read his four-volume series of Holocaust books written in the Farsi language.

But the author says he is confident that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knows the books exists.

“I’ve done 10, 11 television interviews,” Babaknia said—interviews that are transmitted via satellite to Iran.

He has sent the four volumes, released in April, to three people in Iran who requested it via the website

The volumes are titled “Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” “America’s Response to the Holocaust,” “The World’s Response to the Holocaust” and “End of the Holocaust and Liberation of Nazi Camps and the Genocides of the Last 100 Years.”

Once the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and Babaknia’s family Memorah Foundation, which published the volumes, recoup what the author estimates at $70,000 to $80,000 in publishing costs, he plans to make the works available online for free.

Babaknia, an Iranian-born Jew who sits on the Wyman board, says the costs do not account for his time or the money he paid for researchers or designers.

A physician who completed medical school in Tehran, Babaknia arrived in the United States in 1974 to continue his education in women’s medical health and then infertility.

In the 1990s, he began his Holocaust research.

“More than 120 million speak or write Farsi in the world, and there never has been a well-researched or -documented book about the Holocaust in Farsi,” said Babaknia, 65, of Newport Beach, Calif.

However, Project Aladdin, a UNESCO-sponsored project that works to foster positive relations between Muslims and Jews and to combat Holocaust denial, does offer several books on the Holocaust in Farsi translation.

Babaknia said he initially expected to complete his research during a one-year sabbatical.

“One year was two or three years, then it was 15 years later,” said Babaknia, who explained that he kept finding himself with more questions to research.

The author views the Holocaust as a “human catastrophe.” The Jews were the victims, he says, but “we don’t own” the Holocaust.

In looking at the world’s response to the Holocaust, Babaknia notes that Jews remained safe in Iran.

“The most important thing to understand about Iran is that Iran has a virtually flawless record during the Holocaust,” said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. “When Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, he also denies the humanity of his own people.”

Berenbaum commended Babaknia for translating original documents and materials in a serious “attempt to educate those in the Iranian population who are interested in studying history instead of the fantasy that the Holocaust never happened.”

Liebe Geft, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which hosted a book launch party for Babaknia in April, praises the series as “a monumental work of enormous importance.”

“Put into the hands of young people today, academics,” Geft said, Babaknia’s books provide “an opportunity to learn, to understand, to encounter and perhaps even to transform.”

How Hollywood’s Hunt ‘Found’ Elinor Lipman’s novel

Elinor Lipman, writer of smart and often hilarious modern-day social satire, considers herself “the luckiest writer.” Her first novel, “Then She Found Me,” well-received when it was published in 1990 and selling steadily ever since, has inspired the film of the same name — starring, co-written and directed by Helen Hunt — that opens in theaters this Friday.

But fans of Lipman’s novel should be forewarned: Don’t judge the movie by its book. Hunt spent nearly 10 years nurturing this project and in the process changed many of the novel’s particulars — adding and deleting characters and sub-plots, altering motivations. Yet the film is faithful to the heart of the story and retains Lipman’s signature balance of wit and pathos.

In the novel, 36-year-old, never-married high school Latin teacher April Epner, adopted daughter of Holocaust survivors Trude and Julius, is a no-nonsense, plain-Jane kind of gal — but one with a sure, quiet sense of self and a quick wit. Out of the blue, shortly after Trude dies (and less than two years after Julius’ death), a mysterious stranger appears with a message from April’s birth mother, employing stealth and melodrama to tell her, “I represent someone from your past … would that be welcome news?”

Thus begin the misadventures of the shy schoolteacher and her overbearing, confessional-talk-show-host birth mother, Bernice Graves. In Lipman’s novel, April struggles for self-definition — and compassion — in the face of Bernice’s glaringly different personality. Her turmoil is buffered by a blossoming love she shares with the equally retiring yet charmingly wry school librarian, Dwight Willamee.

Lipman, though neither adopted nor an adopter of children herself (she and her husband have one son), had nevertheless long been intrigued by the emotional conflict and drama inherent in birth-parent/adoptive-child reunions. When a friend found his birth mother when he was in his 40s, Lipman decided to further explore the subject and make it the focal point of her novel.

In Hunt’s film version, Bernice (Bette Midler, delivering some of the film’s funniest lines) and April (Hunt) similarly navigate the minefield of their budding mother-daughter relationship, but there’s no shy librarian in sight. Instead, April marries, then is summarily dumped by, her man-child fellow teacher (Matthew Broderick) and subsequently falls in love with the also recently dumped, nurturing father (Colin Firth) of one of her kindergarten students. The film’s April, nearing 40, desperately wants a child; this becomes a central theme in the movie.

Hunt explained that she was drawn to the originality of the novel and to “the way Elinor surprised me in the story.” She initially tried to acquire the film rights in the early 1990s, but the book had already been optioned — before it had even hit bookstores — by Sigourney Weaver’s production company, which rebuffed Hunt’s overtures for involvement.

Several years later, after Hunt had won four Emmys for her role in the NBC hit comedy series, “Mad About You,” and the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for her performance opposite Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” she was finally able to secure the rights to Lipman’s book.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, Lipman had been wondering if the film would ever be made.

“I got a call from Helen Hunt’s manager on the day my mother died [in 1998],” Lipman said; the call “was like a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise sad time.”

Despite Hunt’s fondness for the novel (“the novel is perfect,” she said), she wrestled with the screenplay for nearly five years, trying to translate what she considered a “subtle, internal” story into an external, visible story that would work on screen.

One solution was to have April want a baby; Hunt felt that would externalize a longing that remains inchoate in the novel. It was also a deeply personal addition for Hunt, who said she “wanted a baby very much during the time I was working on the script.” She now has a 3 1/2-year-old daughter with television producer and writer Matthew Carnahan.

When Hunt read an essay on betrayal by Jungian psychologist James Hillman, she finally “found her north star about what she wanted to explore in the film,” Lipman said.

The central theme of the film became, “You can’t really love until you’ve made peace with betrayal,” Hunt said.

So, in the film, April becomes both a victim and perpetrator of betrayal, who at times feels betrayed by God.

Hunt, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish, also made April more of a religously observant Jew, in order to give her protagonist “a deep sense of tradition [and] a specific version of faith that doesn’t back away from the difficult questions,” she said.

A different attic’s holocaust secrets

Joseph Hollander left the untold story of his life packed up in a suitcase, waiting to be found.

His son, Richard Hollander, found the suitcase in the attic of his parents’ Westchester house in 1986, after they were both killed in a tragic car accident. The younger Hollander uncovered piles of letters, neatly stacked, from a family he didn’t know — his father’s mother, three sisters and their husbands and children –written from Poland between November 1939 and December 1941, to Joseph, who managed to leave in 1939 and make his way to the United States. Each envelope had a large hand-stamped Nazi imprint on the back.

When Richard Hollander, the only child of his parents, found the suitcase, he was still so devastated by his parents’ sudden death that he packed up the contents again and stashed it in his own attic for more than a decade. Also packed inside, along with the letters, were files and court papers involving the U.S. government’s efforts to deport Joseph when he arrived as an undocumented refugee, a case Richard hadn’t heard about. Richard also found photographs, his father’s unfinished hand-written autobiography with a preface to his grandchildren — he didn’t know his father had been working on this — and also a stack of letters between his parents during their courtship and marriage.

“Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland” edited by Christopher R. Browning, Richard S. Hollander and Nechama Tec (Cambridge University Press), is the story of Joseph Hollander’s experience and that of his family. Richard Hollander, a former newspaper and television reporter who now heads a communications firm in Baltimore, spearheaded the project and wrote Joseph’s story. He commissioned translations from Polish and German of the mostly hand-written letters. Browning and Tec, who are scholars and authors of important works about the Holocaust, lent their support to the book and contribute historical and analytical essays, providing context for the letters.

The power of the book lies in the letters, which depict day-to-day family life and concerns amid growing uncertainty and stress. These letters are very different from the many memoirs of survivors written after the war looking back at their experiences, for as the Hollander family was writing to Joseph, they didn’t know the final chapters of the story. The letters, written by three generations of a family, are not about political events, nor do they provide detailed descriptions of the suffering the family endured, as the writers were mindful of postal censors; sometimes they wrote about fears and hopes in coded language. Theirs is a one-sided correspondence, for although Joseph — Joziu, as he is referred to in the letters — was meticulous about saving the letters he received, none of his responses exist.

“History is usually written by the victors, not the victims,” Richard Hollander said in an interview recently. “The losers don’t get much chance to write history.”

book cover

When he first showed the letters to a curator at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., he was told that they were a historical treasure.

“There are two parallel Holocaust stories. My father is in the U.S., facing deportation and probably death, and his family is in Cracow, facing separation and probably death,” Richard Hollander said.

While Joseph was trying to secure his own entry, he was also trying to arrange his family’s emigration. His great frustration was that although he was able to save people through his travel business while he was still in Europe, he couldn’t save his own family.

Although a journalist by trade and an inquisitive person, Richard never spoke to his father about his experience during the Holocaust. Richard says he doesn’t understand why he didn’t inquire, but he somehow knew that his father, a man of great integrity, didn’t want to talk. His mother served as gatekeeper for her husband on everything related to the Holocaust.

“Mostly this is the story of my father, a man who was a victim of the Holocaust, although he never saw a ghetto, experienced the dehumanizing conduct of Nazi overseers, nor witnessed the indescribable atrocities,” Richard Hollander writes.

The book’s title is drawn from a letter written by Berta Hollander, Joseph’s mother, in May 1941. For her, as she awaited her son’s responses, “Every day lasts a year.”

In another letter, his sister Klara writes, “During our land exploring journey we lost most of our belongings but may this be our only sacrifice. I thank God that we are all together and we all help each other as much as we can. We all work and this is good since we don’t have too much time to think, and time runs quickly. I don’t have to write you that your letters are our joy, but we don’t get too many of them. Are we going to see each other?”

Richard Hollander explains that their “land exploring journey” was a failed attempt to leave Cracow. The book includes 300 entries from different family members, each with their own outlook and vision. Sometimes the different writers share a single piece of paper, and they often make references to the letters they are receiving from Joseph. At times, they ask him to stop sending packages, explaining that they don’t need anything and have been getting some uninvited guests. Richard Hollander assumes that these guests were the Nazis.

After finding the material about his father’s case in the suitcase, Richard Hollander contacted the National Archives and New York Federal Court, and received hundreds of pages of documents. Joseph and his wife arrived in New York in December 1939, on board an Italian ship named Vulcania. They had first sailed from Naples to Portugal, their original destination, but they weren’t allowed to disembark, as they didn’t have proper documentation; they then sailed on to New York where they were considered stateless and illegal.

Richard Hollander was recently told that his father was “the Elian Gonzalez of 1940,” referring to the young Cuban boy whose deportation attracted much attention in 2000. Included in the materials are letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of Congress and other high-ranking officials. The resourceful and determined Joseph, who was trained as a lawyer in Poland, spent years in litigation. His marriage fell apart in 1942. In 1943, he was granted citizenship, and then soon after joined the U.S. Army. Before being shipped to Europe, he met the woman who would become his new wife. He searched for members of his family, but none survived.

Books: ‘Primo Levi’s Journey’ traces the path of a survivor

“Primo Levi’s Journey” defies neat categorization. It’s part travelogue, part Holocaust remembrance, part philosophical reflection.

The documentary’s roots lie in the Italian Jewish writer’s long journey after his liberation in January 1945, from Auschwitz to his hometown of Turin on a train trip escorted by Russian soldiers for a 10-month zigzag course across much of Europe. It seems guided, or rather misguided, by an unknown hand and could have been mapped out by Kafka himself.

Levi and 600 other Italian camp survivors and ex-prisoners of war crossed from Poland to Ukraine, laid more than two months in Belarus, then traveled through Moldavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, finally reaching northern Italy thousands of miles later.

He wrote down the recollections of these wanderings in “The Truce” (published in the United States as “The Reawakening”) many years after describing his one year in Auschwitz in his major work, “If This Is a Man.”

In 2005, Italian filmmaker Davide Ferrario decided to mark the 60th anniversary of Levi’s liberation by retracing the route with a camera crew. Intercutting footage from the 2005 journey with Levi’s earlier observations on the same places, the film is disorienting in the beginning. Only gradually does it become clear that Ferrario is contrasting how much — and how little — has changed in the 60-year interval.

In the cities, Americanization and globalization have left their obvious marks. Intimate pubs, and corner stores have given way to McDonalds and supermarkets patronized by jean-clad natives and foreign immigrants. But, to his surprise, Ferrario found that in rural and farming areas, time has often stood still.

In Belarus, he encounters a perfect replica of the 1930s Soviet Union, as if preserved in amber. After being arrested as a suspicious foreigner, Ferrario is proudly treated by the local KGB to a grainy agitprop film of peasants celebrating the joys of working on a communal kolkhoz.

Old hatreds remain, as in Lvov, where young Russians beat a young singer to death for performing patriotic Ukrainian tunes, and in Munich, where neo-Nazis mourn the good old days.

Levi’s 1945 observation of a planet “that prefers disorder to order and stupidity to reason” seems as apt as ever.

There are some truly Kafkaesque sights along the way. In Budapest, it is the Cemetery of Communist Statues, displaying huge sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and muscular workers with a sign, “We accept credit cards.”

Like most Italian Jews, Levi grew up thoroughly assimilated and really awoke to his Jewishness only in Auschwitz. In one scene from his 1945 travels, Levi encounters two Yiddish-speaking girls and introduces himself as a fellow Jew. The girls reject him outright, saying, “You don’t speak Yiddish, you can’t be Jewish.”

When Levi returned to Turin after the war, he resumed his profession as a chemist, writing intermittently. In 1987, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and died. The coroner classified the death as a suicide, though Levi’s family and some friends protested that he had died accidentally.

Ferrario believes that the writer took his own life, but, hesitating to use the word “suicide,” simply states in the film that “he threw himself down the stairs.”

Perhaps Elie Wiesel had it right, when, hearing of Levi’s death, he remarked, “Primo Levi died 40 years earlier in Auschwitz.”

“Primo Levi’s Journey” opens Nov. 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Siblings show they have write stuff

As they practiced their haftorah portions, perfected their speeches and sent out invitations, Daniel and Lauren Deitch felt something was missing from their b’nai mitzvah preparations: Grandma Julie.

The Deitches’ grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, had promised to attend their Dec. 9, 2006, simcha. But her death six months earlier left the siblings with a void that seemed nearly impossible to fill.

To include her in their special day, the two were inspired to write and illustrate “We Will Always Remember” (Mishpucha Press, 2006), a book detailing their grandparents’ experiences during the Holocaust to be distributed during the ceremony. But what began as a mitzvah project to honor family and remember the Holocaust soon became much more. The Deitches, who live in Hidden Hills, wrote about the experience and won first prize in Areyvut’s annual B’nai Mitzvah Essay Contest for a poignant piece detailing their unique and very personal project.

The inspiration for the book was sparked during the shiva, when the Deitches’ parents took out the videotaped interview Grandma Julie had provided to the Shoah Foundation. After watching her testimony, Daniel, 14, and Lauren, 12, started to ask questions about her life, especially about her survival during the Holocaust.

“My grandma used to tell us stories about when she was … in the Holocaust,” remembered Lauren. “But she didn’t go that far with it.”

For their mitzvah project, the Deitches had originally planned to collect books for BookEnds, a local nonprofit that gathers children’s books through student-run book drives and places them in schools and youth organizations that lack reading materials. They’d been involved with the group in the past, and it seemed easy for them to continue the effort.

But the interest the siblings took in their grandparents’ lives made them reconsider their mitzvah project plans. When their publisher father suggested that they write a book about their grandparents, the Deitches decided to take on both projects.

Daniel and Lauren filled the gaps in their grandmother’s tales by digging up old photos, talking to family members, reading Holocaust-related books and visiting the Museum of Tolerance.

In their research, they began to understand their grandmother’s desire to protect them from the horrors she’d seen. At the same time, they uncovered a fascinating story. Their grandmother was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. She escaped a concentration camp in Hungary with her infant child and played up her fair features in order to pass herself off as a Christian.

Daniel and Lauren were also inspired to learn more about their Holocaust-survivor grandfather, Walter. He escaped from Germany as a child via Kindertransport, a British program that enabled Jewish children to escape to England, while his parents fled to Shanghai to survive.

Daniel and Lauren unveiled the book to their friends and family during the b’nai mitzvah ceremony. The siblings remember watching their guests’ faces when the rabbi revealed the book.

“Everyone started crying,” Lauren said.

To continue to honor their grandmother’s memory, the Deitches have arranged for the profits from book sales to go to The Blue Card Fund, a national charity that provides financial assistance to needy Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children.

For Daniel and Lauren, becoming authors has also meant serving as peer educators.

“I told my friends that I wrote a book about the Holocaust, and at least three of them didn’t know what it was,” said Daniel. Lauren had a similar experience.

In addition to sharing their knowledge and their book with their friends, the children gave copies of it to their principal and teachers at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas. Another copy resides in the school library.

It was the personal aspect of the Deitches’ essay about their book project that won over the judges. “[Their project] took an experience that hit home for them, in terms of their grandmother passing away and their grandparents in the Holocaust, and it really added to their celebration,” said Daniel Rothner, founder and director of Areyvut.

Areyvut of Bergenfield

, N.J., a nonprofit that sponsors the annual essay contest, is dedicated to promoting charity, justice and social justice. In addition to its popular “A Kindness a Day” page-a-day calendar, the organization offers resources for b’nai mitzvah projects for students, educators and families. The essay contest, now in its third year, allows students to share their outreach experiences, speak for their peers and elevate their celebrations by helping others.

While their prizes for the essay include a Giving Certificate to be redeemed through Tzedakah Inc. and an iPod, the students feel the experience itself is more valuable than the prizes.

“Daniel and Lauren have done something that will be with them for a long, long time as they get older,” Rothner said.

For now, the Deitches will continue to educate others. “If people ask, ‘What’s the Holocaust?'” Lauren said, “we’re going to tell them.”

For more information on Areyvut, visit For more information on BookEnds, visit

Books: Ruth’s Garden of Secrets

Eva Etzioni-Halevy, a Viennese-born Holocaust survivor, wants everyone to enjoy Bible stories as much as she does.

“At a certain stage in my life I became religious, and I wanted to bring the Bible close to people’s hearts,” said the 72-year-old Israeli academician turned best-selling author.

Etzioni-Halevy has focused her attention on reworking popular biblical stories, making the characters, particularly women, more alive and personable for modern readers.

“The Bible stories are very beautiful but very brief,” Etzioni-Halevy said in a phone interview from her home in Tel Aviv. “They leave a lot unexplained, so you to have to fill out the gaps with your imagination.”

Her most recent book, “The Garden of Ruth,” explores “the smooth, idyllic pastoral story” of Ruth, the widowed Moabite woman who was one of King David’s ancestors and is revered for following her bereaved mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel.

As told in “Megillat Ruth,” she is credited for extraordinary modesty and loyalty. It was Ruth who uttered the famous words “Where you go, I will go.”
In Etzioni-Halevy’s retelling, Ruth’s fictional great-grandchild, Osnath, becomes a detective of sorts when she discovers a scrap of a love letter written to Ruth. Osnath investigates her ancestor’s story, even as she deals with her own problems in becoming the paramour of both King David and his brother.

In the book, Ruth is not just the modest woman of tradition, but rather one with a secret, and her journey back to Israel is not simply and act of devotion, but also a journey to rejoin an unnamed lover.

Etzioni-Halevy’s biblical personalities lose their halos.

“The Bible makes it very clear that the heroes are not angels — it is full of descriptions of the weaknesses of the patriarchs,” she said. “It doesn’t detract from the heroes — but it makes them more human. I think the Bible did us a great favor by not presenting people as saints and angels — and we should follow what the Bible says and not sweep it under the carpet.”

Eva Etzioni-Halevy will be in Los Angeles Feb. 8-12.

Books: Farce, fascism and dash of Proust create a ‘Wonder’

“The Eighth Wonder of the World” by Leslie Epstein (Handsel Books, $24.95).

“I don’t think it’s possible to write a really interesting or good book without the Holocaust being in it. Even if you’re not Jewish, you’re a Jewish writer. If it doesn’t enter your consciousness, you’re not a serious artist.”

So said novelist Leslie Epstein, author most recently of “The Eighth Wonder of the World” in a phone interview from his office at Boston University, where he chairs the creative writing department.

Epstein, father of Boston Red Sox wunderkind general manager Theo Epstein, is also the son and nephew of Philip and Julius Epstein, the famed Golden Age screenwriting tandem behind “Casablanca,” “Four Daughters” and other Warner Bros. classics. Leslie Epstein grew up in Pacific Palisades observing Christmas, yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, his secular upbringing, he has returned to Judaism. At the age of 68, he just became a bar mitzvah with the Lubavitcher Jews at his alma mater, Yale University, after giving a talk at the Chai Society — not to be confused with the Bing Crosby film, “High Society,” Epstein says.

His current novel, “Eighth Wonder,” actually has some of the mirth of that Bing Crosby film, even though it takes place primarily in fascist Italy at the time of the Holocaust. This is not the first occasion in which Epstein has grappled with the Shoah in his prose. “King of the Jews,” his most famous book, examined the ethical quandaries of the leader of a Jewish ghetto in Poland, a man who rationalizes his actions by telling himself that, for every 10 Jews he sends to the concentration camps, he saves 100.

“King of the Jews,” which came out in 1979, attracted much controversy because, Epstein says, it bore traces of Hannah Arendt and “exposed the dirty linen” of Jews; it also had an “irreverent tone,” most clearly evidenced when the unnamed narrator addresses the readers as “ladies and gentlemen,” as if he is an impresario at a circus or, Epstein suggests, a host at a nightclub.

While the humor of “King of the Jews” was at times camouflaged and muted by the deeply depressing nature of the book, there is no concealing the hilarity of “Eighth Wonder.”

In this latest book, Epstein’s 10th work of fiction, he presents Il Duce as a buffoon, inflating his chest in a “pneumatic trick”; requiring a woman every eight hours; intoning in front of large crowds in the third person and in all capital letters; and ending every other word with a suffixed “a” when speaking more intimately, so that he sounds like a cross between Chico Marx’s stock immigrant and a character out of Jimmy Breslin’s “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

Epstein has created another splendid comic villain in Amos Prince, an anti-Semitic architect, based on Ezra Pound, whose penchant for malapropisms and bad puns leads him to refer to Mussolini as “Douche,” “Dolce,” and “Mauso-lini,” to give a few examples.

But Prince can turn off his antic disposition when he seeks the commission to build a mile-high monument, the titular eighth wonder of the world, to commemorate Italy’s victory over Ethiopia: “Our monument is literally just such a clock, a gigantic sundial, with the tower as the gnomon and all of Rome as the face.”

Although in this book Epstein commingles fictional characters with historical ones, as E.L. Doctorow does, Epstein’s key influence appears to be Proust.
Like Prince, the architect’s protégé, protagonist Max Shabilian, has a split voice, stammering in his old age, yet communicating eloquently in his interior monologue, a Proustian stream of consciousness that Epstein uses not only in Max’s narration but also in Prince’s spiral notebook entries. In one characteristic passage, Max attempts to recapture the past, “Memories! You think you’ve strangled them, lopped off the hundred heads; but they lurk, they linger, until you understand they’re the ones strangling you. Philomene. Katya. Shemi. Judit. Yes, those words, too.”

Those names haunt us as they haunt Max, whose stuttering, we assume, has to do with his conduct during the war.

What better way to write about a searing subject like the Holocaust than by invoking Proust!

In the late 1990s, Epstein began reading two pages of the French author every night.

“It’s deeply refreshing to encounter a noble mind at the end of the day,” he says. Epstein maintained that regimen for a number of years until, in December of 2000, he received a phone call that his mother had suffered a heart attack. He returned to Los Angeles from Boston. His mother seemed fine when he visited her at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center but several days later she endured a second heart attack and died. Three days after that, his uncle Julie, a father figure to him, also died.

Three years ago, at a book signing for “San Remo Drive,” a “novel from memory” about Epstein’s childhood in Pacific Palisades, he remarked on how this doubling of the deaths reinforced his recollection and brought him to many earlier memories, such as his first memory of being with his mother in MacArthur Park in a rowboat. Several years later, he said, he was in another rowboat, this time with a man who was his mother’s suitor and whom he feared would kill him. The “erotic charge” in both memories and their doubling rendered them indelible and led Epstein to explore them imaginatively in his art.

“Eighth Wonder” also features much doubling. The book begins with an extended set piece of the victory parade to celebrate Mussolini’s triumph over Ethiopia’s Lion of Judah, which recalls the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, which occurred on the anniversary to the day of the Babylonian destruction of the first temple. This chapter is followed by Prince’s first notebook entry, written on the 25th anniversary to the day of his return to Italy.

All of this doubling highlights a theme in Epstein’s work of history as a wheel constantly repeating itself. In both “King of the Jews” and “Eighth Wonder,” he broaches the debate of free will vs. destiny.

Gunter Grass Admits to SS Past

Gunter Grass Admits to SS Past

Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass’ admission that he was an SS member has drawn both rage and defenses of the writer.

While some say the revelation devalues his life’s work, others are showing more understanding for the pressures faced by the teenager who later would write such modern German classics as “The Tin Drum.”

Grass, 78, whose autobiography is due out this fall, told the Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung in an interview published last Friday that he was drafted into the Waffen SS in the final months of World War II.

The Waffen SS was the elite fighting force of the SS, the Nazi Party’s quasi-military unit, and was declared part of a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials. Grass was interned briefly in a POW camp in Bavaria after the war.

Literary critic Helmuth Karasek told the radio program BDR that Grass should have revealed the truth sooner, and suggested that the Nobel Prize committee might not have honored someone “whom they knew had been a member of the Waffen SS and had long denied it.” Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

Grass biographer Michael Juergs said he was “personally disappointed,” and has called into question the validity of Grass’ life work. But German writer Erich Loest told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that Grass’ admission should be “accepted without condemnation. He was very young and there was no one to influence him in the opposite direction,” he said.

Grass told the Frankfurt paper he was drafted as a 17-year-old following a stint in a support unit for the German air force, and was brought to serve in a Waffen SS tank division in Dresden. In the forthcoming autobiography, “While Skinning an Onion,” he writes that the past had “oppressed him. My suppression of this through the years was among the reasons why I have written this book. It had to come out, finally.”

Grass said he originally had volunteered to serve in a Nazi submarine unit, which was “just as crazy.”

Until now, his biography has shown that Grass was drafted in the support unit for the air force in 1944, then served as a soldier. In the new book, he writes about how he was 15 when he tried to volunteer with the submarine corps and was rejected because of his age. He was called up in 1944, as were all boys born in 1927.

He was assigned to the Waffen SS, which “in the final year of the war took draftees, not only volunteers,” he said in an interview with the German Press Agency.

Grass said he never had tried to hide the fact that as a youth he was vulnerable to Nazi propaganda. He also told the Frankfurt paper that he never actually served in the Waffen SS division to which he had been assigned. He ended up behind the Russian front on reconnaissance patrols, witnessing what he described as gruesome scenes and surviving by pure chance. During his brief internment as a POW, Grass says he met the similarly interned Joseph Ratzinger, who now is Pope Benedict XVI.

Israelis Arrested for Allegedly Running U.S. Hooker Ring

Two Israelis are under arrest for allegedly running a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar prostitution ring in four Western states, employing up to 240 women.

Boaz Benmoshe, 44, and Ofer Moses Lupovitz, 43, the alleged leaders of the ring headquartered in Palm Springs, are now in a local jail, Sheriff Bob Doyle of Riverside County announced Monday.

Also arrested were two Russian nationals, Moti M. Vintrov, 33, and Eliran Vintrov, 28, together with their spouses.

According to authorities, the two Israelis ran the sex ring under the cover of Elite Entertainment, an adult escort business, which dispatched prostitutes to clients in California, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon.

The Press-Enterprise news service in Riverside described the ring’s Palm Springs headquarters as a glass-walled office in a quiet open-air business complex, which also included the district office of U.S. Republican Rep. Mary Bono.Elite Entertainment allegedly operated 80 phone lines, over which clients ordered sexual services through their credit cards. Rates varied from $200 to $2,000, “depending on what you’re getting done,” Doyle said.

Local authorities and U.S. Secret Service agents arrested the suspects after a two and a half year investigation and seized $5 million in assets and more than a dozen computers.

The suspects used their income to fraudulently obtain loans to buy luxury homes in the Palm Springs area, authorities alleged.

An arraignment is scheduled for Aug. 21.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

AIPAC Judge Won’t Broaden Case

The judge in the classified information case against two former pro-Israel lobbyists rejected a prosecution attempt to broaden the indictment. Prosecutors had sought to redefine as classified a document described as unclassified in the original indictment.

Judge T.S. Ellis III rejected the request last Friday, saying it would unconstitutionally alter the indictment.

Keith Weissman, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s former Iran analyst, asked Larry Franklin, a Pentagon Iran analyst who since has pleaded guilty, for the document in June 2003.

It’s the only document that Weissman or his former boss, Steve Rosen, actively solicited, according to their August 2005 indictment.

In pre-trial rulings, Ellis has made clear that at trial he will expect a higher bar of evidence to prove that defendants knew they were hearing classified information in conversations, as opposed to receiving documentation.

Holocaust Cartoon Exhibit Opens in Iran

Iran opened a competition for the cartoons in reaction to last year’s controversy over the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. One of more than 200 cartoons displayed shows the Statue of Liberty holding a book on the Holocaust in one hand and giving a Nazi-style salute in the other, The Associated Press reported.

Scandal Over General’s Stocks

Israel’s military chief drew fire following revelations that he sold an investment portfolio when the Lebanon war erupted. Within hours of a Hezbollah border raid July 12 in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two abducted, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz sold off some $25,000 worth of stocks, Ma’ariv reported Tuesday. Halutz confirmed the sale, which came shortly before markets tumbled at the prospect of major unrest in the Middle East, but said he did not know at the time that there would be a war. Ma’ariv’s revelations further stoked Israeli ire at the military’s handling of the offensive against Hezbollah, which ended this week in a cease-fire. Lawmakers from across Israel’s political spectrum called for Halutz’s resignation, and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz was asked to investigate whether the stock sale constituted a criminal breach of trust.

Jewish Greeks Advocate for Israel

Jewish fraternities and sororities are launching an Israel advocacy push on college campuses this fall. Alpha Epsilon Pi and Alpha Epsilon Phi, the two largest Jewish Greek organizations, brought 90 students to Louisville, Ky., from Sunday through Tuesday to learn about building support for Israel.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Beware the Finkelstein Syndrome

In May of 2006, I witnessed the bizarre rantings of the author and Holocaust revisionist Norman Finkelstein at UC Irvine. This was the second time that I had the misfortune of sitting through his lecture, the first time was at Cal State Fullerton.

Finkelstein uses his identity as the child of Holocaust survivors to gain credibility, distorting history by omitting context and defaming well-respected figures for the purpose of promoting hatred against the State of Israel and minimizing the horrors of the Holocaust.

His lectures include predictable rants against Israel, promotion of conspiracy theories regarding the reason his own new book, “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History” (University of California Press, 2005), was not reviewed and a strange continuous bashing of Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz for writing “The Case for Israel.” He spends an inordinate amount of time lecturing about Joan Peters’ book, “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine,” and calls survivor Elie Wiesel the “clown in the Holocaust circus.”

How twisted is Finkelstein’s sense of human decency?

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I find Finkelstein beyond despicable. I believe he openly and methodically lies in order to promote his own anti-Israel agenda.

It is well known that some children of Holocaust survivors carry severe scars and wounds that actually manifest in peculiar psychological behavior. For two decades, I worked as a licensed family therapist, and I believe that some day soon there will be a formal psychological syndrome that would account for self-hating Jews like Norman Finkelstein. Perhaps the syndrome will even be named after him: The Finkelstein Syndrome.

It’s inconceivable to me that Finkelstein might achieve tenure at De Paul University in Chicago, where he presently teaches his bizarre theories. That he is an assistant professor there is, in my view, a badge of shame for De Paul.

His true occupation is as a member of a traveling circus, a freak show of anti-Semites who promote anti-Israel propaganda from campus to campus. He openly admits to having high regard for Hezbollah on his Web site, and he promotes the false notion that “scholars widely agree that Israel ethnically cleansed the Palestinian people in 1948.”

Even the historians that he quotes disagree with him. He denies the evidence that Arab leaders told Palestinian Arabs to leave Israel in 1948 so that the combined forces coming from Arab countries could exterminate the Jews, after which the Arabs who had lived in the region could return.

He denies the overwhelming evidence that this was the case, contained within periodicals and confirmed radio announcements at the time — among them The Near East Arabic Broadcasting Station, The New York Herald, London Economist, Time Magazine and Jordanian Daily Newspaper — that clearly reflected the push by Arab leaders to encourage the flight of their brethren for the purpose of the annihilation of the Jews and their reborn state. (A compiled list of critical quotes from reputable sources regarding this issue is available at

I cannot help but wonder why Finkelstein fails to mention that approximately 150,000 Palestinian Arabs chose to remain in Israel in 1948, becoming Arab Israelis with descendants and friends that now number over 1 million. Growing numbers of Arab Israeli citizens, with representation in Israel’s Knesset, do not match with his accusation of ethnic cleansing.

I once wrote a letter to Finkelstein, because I was frustrated after attending one of his deeply disturbing lectures. I asked him why he lied to well-meaning students during his lecture. I showed him the evidence that the flight of the Palestinian Arabs from Israel in 1948 was, in part, due to the war, and, in part, due to the clear calls from Arab countries.

I showed him evidence from credible sources. I asked him to refute them, but he did not in his reply. Instead, he told me to read his book, and he told me that our conversation was at an end.

As I sat watching Finkelstein this second time, I looked around the room at the eager 300 to 400 students who came to hear him speak. Many of them were already anti-Israel and enjoyed his presentation, because it supported and expanded their own prejudices. Others, however, had heard that a controversial speaker was coming and came in good faith with open minds.

I watched for three straight hours at UC Irvine as students were poisoned by the Finkelstein Syndrome. I walked away feeling saddened by the notion that young hearts and minds were affected by a man of such dubious scholarship and malicious intent.

What remedy do we have when a hateful propagandist and academic fraud like Finkelstein comes to town? As the national director of an organization that believes in free speech, the only power we have is to expose him as a failed scholar who lacks balance, as a man with an obsessive agenda and as a man who respects the likes of Hezbollah.

Maybe if these things about him become more widely known, the people who may have the misfortune of attending his future lectures will come for entertainment, rather than for education.

Roz Rothstein is national director of StandWithUs.


Wiesel’s Words of Hope for ‘Uprooted’

When Elie Wiesel spoke last year at the 92nd Street Y, teaching about Jewish texts, his quiet voice had a trance-like quality, as he shifted between classic sources, Chasidic tales and his own views of world events. His fiction is similarly powerful. Sometimes the words have the poetic feel of liturgy, holy words.

“To write is to pray,” said the Nobel laureate, who will be the scholar-in-residence May 19-21 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“I want my stories to become prayers. I want my prayer to become stories,” he said, quoting Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, in an interview, when asked about the connection between fiction and prayer. “I love prayer. When words become prayer, something is added to the words. There’s purity in lashon kodesh [sacred language].”

“Wounds, too, can become prayers,” he added.

Wounds are plentiful in “The Time of the Uprooted,” an absorbing novel that moves back and forth in time, from 1940s Hungary to New York at the end of the 20th century, shifting points of view, with emotional intensity packed into memories and stories.

Ever gracious and eloquent, the author of more than 40 books spoke of his fiction and the all-too-true news of the world, with daily reports of newly uprooted souls: thousands who no longer have home addresses and are scattered far from the ground they know.

Not unlike Gamaliel Friedman, who plays the central role in “The Time of the Uprooted.” Gamaliel was born in Czechoslovakia and survived World War II in Budapest, left by his mother in the care of Ilonka, a non-Jewish cabaret singer. He escaped Budapest in 1956, leaving Ilonka behind, and moved to Vienna, Paris and then to New York, with stops in between. In New York, his closest circle is a group of exiles, each one with an intriguing story, spun with pain. Calling themselves, with irony, “Elders of Zion,” they help others who are either still in Europe or exiles like themselves.

“Once a refugee, always a refugee,” the narrator says of Gamaliel, and as Wiesel admits, could be describing the author, who feels close to fellow refugees. The narrator continues, “He escapes from one place of exile, only to find himself in another: Nowhere is he at home. He never forgets the place he came from; his life is always provisional. Happiness for him is a moment’s rest. Love never ending is the blink of an eye.”

The reader first meets Gamaliel as a child, still at home with his parents, when a vagabond storyteller visits; this begins his lifelong fascination with madmen. Later on, as a New Yorker, he is “no longer young,” walking hunched over. A ghostwriter, he makes his living by penning “love stories for shop girls, Kiplingesque adventures in exotic settings, financial conspiracies, gritty detective stories: scribbling, not writing.”

He thinks of himself as a banker, lending words to those who need them. At the same time, he is working on his own book, “The Book of Secrets,” which runs through the novel, unfinished. He is divorced, cut off from his daughters, dropped by the last woman he was involved with.

“No trees line the ways of our lives,” he notes.

His friends include Bolek, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto; Diego, who fought in the Spanish Civil War; Yasha, who survived Stalinism, and Gad, a former Mossad agent. They are agnostics and unbelievers, yet their conversation often comes around to God. Gamaliel is also close to Rabbi Zusya, a mystic who continues to believe. Suffering is what unites the group, although, together, they try to transcend it.

In this novel, perhaps more so than in Wiesel’s many previous books, women play key roles; several have had much influence over Gamaliel. His mother is never far from his mind. With love, tempered by guilt, despair and acceptance, he looks back at his time with Ilonka and at his ex-wife and other women who have been close to him.

Gamaliel learns of a hospitalized woman who may be in her last days, seemingly without an identity, who is said to speak a language that sounds like Hungarian. He wonders if she might be Ilonka, the woman to whom he owes his life, or perhaps someone else from his past. There’s nothing about her that he recognizes and it’s not clear that she hears him. But there’s some connection that draws him back to her, and also to a young woman doctor at the hospital, who wants to hear his story.

In this novel of ideas, Wiesel explores anew themes he returns to in his fiction and nonfiction: the link between memory and identity, dispossession, friendship, the mysteries of love, the constancy of suffering, the paths of writing and storytelling.

It’s also a novel of compassion. And when there’s compassion, there’s also hope and resilience. As the author does in conversation, Gamaliel uses the phrase “And yet” as though posing new possibilities, new beginnings. On many levels, this makes for timely reading.

He says that his sense of memory grows stronger as years pass. Now, he sees some things more clearly, more urgently: “I have to work hard. I have a feeling that I haven’t begun. With all the books, there’s still so much I want to say.”

Now 77, he keeps a steady schedule of travel and lectures, along with teaching at Boston University, where he has been Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities since 1976. Each year, he creates different courses — such as one course on banned books and another on Rabbi Nachman.

Usually, Wiesel spends his mornings writing fiction, sitting at his desk, and later in the day, turns to nonfiction and research in his library. He writes in French; the new novel is translated by David Hapgood.

The writer has no end of stories, pointing to an imagined pile under the table.

“I hear stories from people everywhere,” he said. “You can hear someone say good morning. It becomes a story by the way a person says it. There’s a story in every event.”

The master storyteller is often described as a messenger, telling of life before the war and of the Holocaust.

“I feel almost helpless,” he admitted. “I speak for many of us. It’s not easy to tell the tale, but we tried, and it didn’t change the world. The message was not really received.”

“To this day I have doubts,” he said. “Maybe if the survivors had all met and took a vow not to speak, the silence would have been so overpowering, it would have changed the world. I have a heavy heart. I don’t know where we are going. And yet, we have to overcome it. We have to create hope even when there is none.”

Sinai Temple will be hosting renowned author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel May 19- May 21. He will be speaking to young professionals at a special Friday Night Live on May 19. He will be addressing the whole congregation at Shabbat services on May 20. And, on Sunday morning, May 21, the weekend will culminate with a teen forum with seventh- to 12th-graders. For more information, call (310) 481-3343 or e-mail


Touring With Lévy a Dizzying Experience

“American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Random House).

Date: Saturday, April 8, 2006.
Time: 9 a.m.
Place: The Beverly Hills Hotel lobby.

I have come to this palace of privilege to meet Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s philosophy king, the author of 30 books, including best sellers “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” released earlier this year, and “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” (Melville House, 2003).

Lévy’s boyish good looks, intellect and swashbuckling charm have made him a superstar in his native France, where he is simply known as BHL, a veritable brand name as famous for his personae as for his words.

In addition to philosopher, he is a novelist, diplomat, TV personality and documentary maker who first made a name for himself nearly three decades ago. In his book, “Barbarism With a Human Face” (Harper & Row, 1979), he had the temerity to call out France’s old-guard intellectuals for their support of Marxism. Soon thereafter, a movement known as Les Nouvelles Philosophes, or the New Philosophers, coalesced around him.

Married to the beautiful French actress, Arielle Dombasle, and the proud owner of a Moroccan palace, the 57-year-old Lévy would appear to have it all. Vanity Fair called him “Superman and prophet,” while The New York Times said, “Bernard-Henri Lévy does nothing that goes unnoticed.”

A rumored recent affair with Sharon Stone has done little to diminish his reputation as a libidinous libertine with a brain.

“Lévy is probably America’s best known French intellectual,” says New Republic Editor in Chief Martin Peretz. Peretz recently defended Lévy and “American Vertigo” in a New Republic column after the appearance of a scathing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review by writer and public-radio raconteur Garrison Keillor.

I sit nervously as the minutes tick by, waiting and waiting and waiting. Suddenly, a frumpy-looking Donald Trump passes by. Like Lévy, Trump knows how to capture the media spotlight and market himself as a star attraction. Unlike him, though, Trump is a crass creation of America’s unbridled capitalism, a man with little charm or class but with lots of cash. French designer Jean Paul Gaultier walks by looking très chic. But still no Bernard-Henri Lévy.

After a flurry of frantic phone calls to his New York publicist, Lévy finally appears — 45 minutes late. European time. He is tall and tan. He wears sunglasses, even though he’s indoors. His stylish shirt is untucked and unbuttoned at his navel, revealing a flat stomach. His black slacks hang just so. Despite middle-age, jet lag and his globetrotting life, Lévy looks more like a male model on holiday than an intellectual hawking his latest work.

“Hi, I’m Bernard-Henri Lévy,” he says, extending his hand.

I am with a veritable French legend. After helping to “dethrone socialism, Marxism and communism in France,” in the words of the New Republic’s Peretz, through his attacks on French intellectuals’ love affair with Stalinism, Lévy trained his sights on Judaism.

His iconoclasm continued with the publication of “The Testament of God” (Harper & Row, 1980), in which he encouraged French Jews — burdened by memories of the Holocaust — to celebrate their identities rather than flee from their heritage through assimilation.

These days, he raises hackles with his “anti-anti-Americanism.” Unlike many French intellectuals, BHL loves America, loves its freedoms, loves its democracy, even if he abhors its penchant for “obesity,” the idea that bigger homes, bigger cars and bigger churches are somehow better.

Lévy, his celebrity notwithstanding, is seen in some circles as lacking intellectual heft and rigor. Many critics note a lack of footnotes and an abundance of opinion in his books.

“I am not sure whether serious philosophers would consider him their equal,” says David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. Still, Myers adds, he finds Lévy “an interesting observer and bellwether of the Jewish condition in Europe today,” and respects Lévy’s ability to synthesize historical and sociological data with philosophy.

Myers recently hosted an April 11, UCLA speech by Lévy on European anti-Semitism before a near-capacity crowd of 400.

My plan is to drive with Lévy around Beverly Hills, Fairfax and the Pico-Robertson district, engaging him in conversation about the city’s Jewish life. He doesn’t like the idea.

“Why do you want to drive around?” he asks sourly. “Don’t you think we could get more done just talking here at the hotel?”

His reaction surprises me. I had cleared the plan with his publicist, who, I assumed, had relayed it to Lévy. More importantly, he amassed the material for “American Vertigo” by traveling more than 15,000 miles around the United States by car.

My sister-in-law, Elizabeth Vitanza, a Ph.D. student in French at UCLA, leads Lévy; my brother, John (doubling as a photographer), and me to her Toyota Corolla. The philosopher reluctantly steps in and takes a seat next to me in the back. I am sure he is accustomed to traveling in a better class of vehicle. He does not put on a seatbelt. As we drive through Beverly Hills, I point to a mansion. I tell him that more than one-third of the residents in this city of multimillion-dollar homes are Jews. Looking at these houses, I ask, what can one say about the concept of Jewish obesity?

A good question, I think. Shows that I’ve read his book and digested the big ideas. He, apparently, doesn’t share my opinion. Lévy furrows his brow. He looks disappointed.

“I would not enter into that,” he says. “I’ve met many poor Jews in my travels in Los Angeles. Some really lower middle-class Jews. They are not victims of this syndrome of obesity at all.”

Strike One. A French intellectual whom I’ve admired since my junior year at La Sorbonne in Paris more than 20 years ago thinks I’m a dolt — perhaps just a cut above the cop who, in Lévy’s book, chastises him for urinating at the side of the road. What to do? Like any good journalist, I do the obvious: I ask Lévy about himself.

“You’re a self-proclaimed agnostic,” I say. “Yet, you call yourself a Jew. Isn’t that a contradiction?”

The cool demeanor melts away, and the conversation, like Lévy himself, perks up.

“I believe [being an agnostic] is one of the best ways to be a Jew,” he says. “Jewishness is an experience of the nonevidence of God. That’s one of the main differences between Judaism and other faiths. The Jewish faith, the Jewish relationship to God, is the one most aware of [God’s] absence sometimes, the silence often. If you read really the prophets of the Bible, you’ll find that their main experience isn’t one of the warm presence of God, but of the despairing absence of it.”

Passionate Jews like himself need not believe in God to embrace the bedrock Jewish value of tikkun olam.

“At least, I would say for me, it is the only viable conception of an individual,” Lévy says. “If you are not committed to repairing the world, better do something else.”

Lévy points out the car window to an Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah and says, sadly: “This in Paris, you don’t see so much. In some parts of Paris and the suburbs, it exposes you to blows.”

American Jews, unlike French Jews, have the freedom to openly practice their Judaism without fear. They are also for the most part free, he says, from “the stupid loss of time” of constantly having to fight anti-Semitism.

And what accounts for this anti-Semitism? Many factors, Lévy says, including “the Shoah, the Holocaust. Europe is still bleeding.”

But wouldn’t that historical memory make the French and other Europeans more sensitive to the Jewish plight? I ask.

“They are fed up with guiltiness!”

Then, are teaching and talking about the Holocaust bad for Jews?

Absolutely not, he says. Sure, some people might complain about being bombarded with Jewish suffering, but knowledge of that suffering helps others’ become more compassionate. In France, he says, the Jews, with their history of the Shoah, were among the first to raise their voices against the slaughters in Bosnia, in Rwanda and, now, in Darfur.

“If Holocaust education stopped it would be bad for the Jews,” Lévy says. “It is a wall, a shield against anti-Semitism.”

It quickly becomes clear that he has little desire to comment on the landmarks of Jewish Los Angeles and is far more interested in letting our conversation take us where it will. As we pass Jewish day schools, synagogues and kosher restaurants, he speaks of his pride in his Jewish roots, despite never having set a foot in a synagogue until he began working on “The Testament of God” in the late 1970s.

“The tradition of Talmud is as great as the tradition of Voltaire and Racine and La Fontaine and Rabelais,” he says.

Strong words for a man of French letters.

We stop at Canter’s. He poses for two photos in front of the deli’s mural, one with his sunglasses on, the other with them off. No smile. As we enter, Lévy checks messages on his incessantly ringing blackberry. He grabs his pants as they start to slide off his tiny waist.

“I have to be careful,” he says, flashing a smile.

“I wish I had such a problem,” I respond, suddenly self-conscious about the extra 15 pounds I’ve packed on since college.

We seat ourselves in a booth, with Lévy taking a place next to my attractive sister-in-law, Elizabeth. He orders black tea, but doesn’t touch the chocolate ruggalah on his plate. Then, he holds court, telling us that the old anti-Semitism, the anti-Semitism that blamed the Jews for the killing of Jesus and vilified Jews as an inferior race, is largely dead. In its place, a new anti-Semitism has taken shape that is every bit as dangerous and disturbing.

“If I had to describe this, I would describe it in three words,” he says, pausing for effect. “Israel and anti-Zionism.”

This “anti-Zionism as a vehicle for anti-Semitism,” Lévy says, appears in newspaper and magazine articles that attack Israel without providing the political and historical context found in stories about other countries. Another variant of this new anti-Semitism occurs when the Jews’ enemies resort to anti-Semitic canards in their vicious attacks on Israel.

“A lot of things that you are no longer allowed to express, that you don’t dare to express, you can express through your hatred for Israel,” he says. “For instance, you can no longer say Jews are thieves, but you can say Israel has robbed the earth of the Palestinians.”

There is a final example of this new anti-Semitism, and it is coming from unexpected places, Lévy says. In America, minority groups such as Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos, just like large swaths of Europe’s immigrant communities, have increasingly come to view Jews as competitors for the spoils of suffering. In this zero-sum game, to borrow a political-science term, Lévy says Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and Native American activist Russell Means, among others, have concluded that sympathy for the Jews somehow diverts attention from and diminishes concern for the plight of Indians, Latinos and blacks.

In “American Vertigo,” Lévy writes about his disturbing encounter with Means, a veteran of the 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee. Meeting the Indian icon at his home in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Lévy feels proud to be in the presence of such a hero — until Means opens his mouth.

“You here, Mr. Lévy? Not in Israel yet? But I heard on the radio that Sharon wanted all the Jews in France to emigrate to Tel Aviv! Ha, ha!”

Shocked, Lévy doesn’t laugh. He considers himself sympathetic to the Indian cause, so he asks Means why no one has suggested creating a kind of Yad Vashem of Indian suffering? Why, instead, do Native Americans seem to unite around “the casinos that are a slow-working poison?”

Means response: “I don’t need advice from Zionists; you understand?”

The Indian activist goes on to say that Indians are “the poorest of the poor” in America and the “most diseased people in the Western Hemisphere.” The whole world is against Native Americans.

Back at Canter’s, Lévy argues that this competition among minority groups for “the crown of martyrdom” has mutated into virulent anti-Semitism.

“It’s an absurd, disgusting, ridiculous belief that suffering is like a market, and, in a market, you have a limited number of shares,” he says. “So, if there is a booming share for one community, there will not be for the others. You have some people in America and Europe who believe human consciousness, the human mind is unable to shed tears twice.”

“In the United States, my prediction, my fear is that more and more [minorities] could start to say, ‘Stop with the Shoah, the Holocaust. The more you speak of this past suffering, the less you keep space in the public debate to think about our presence,'” Lévy says.

What about the evangelical Christians? I ask. Are they a danger?

Yes and no, Lévy replies. They say they like us, but offer their friendship for the wrong reasons. He turns to Page 77 in “American Vertigo” and reads: “And beyond all that, what about the brilliant evangelical Protestant idea of the need to ensure a peaceful, faithful, and, above all else, Jewish Israel for the time when the Christian Day of Judgment comes?…. Perhaps I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t like to bet on American support, for the survivors of the Shoah if it comes down to depending, really depending, on an outlook of this sort.”

“Let’s realize we don’t have so many allies,” he later remarks. So let’s take their support; but with a gun under the pillow.”

A sobering thought.

Back in the car, I tell Lévy that, according to the National Jewish Population Study of 2000-2001, the U.S. Jewish population has dipped 5 percent, to 5.2 million, since 1990. Not to worry, he says. The problem of Jewish assimilation dates back to the fall of the Second Temple.

“You see a tendency to come back, and a tendency to withdrawal,” he says.

From the 12th or 13th century until the end of the 18th, Lévy estimates that maybe half of the Jewish population disappeared, some from pogroms by the majority, from conversion and assimilation.

That sweeping statement raises my suspicions. Smart as Lévy is, he occasionally seems to exaggerate for effect, substituting philosophy and opinion for factual analysis. In “American Vertigo,” for instance, he calls Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, “the cradle of a national religion, the new Nazareth.”

A national pastime, maybe, although the shrinking World Series audience might belie that. But a national religion? Only in Yankee Stadium.

Similarly, Lévy opines that Sun City, Ariz., an upscale retirement community that bars children and teenagers, a “gilded ghetto,” in his words, could serve as a model for future planned cities that bar the elderly, gay men, women or Jews. Nice theory, but existing housing laws prevent such discrimination.

Is Lévy right? Did the Jewish population shrink by half from the late Middle Ages to the Enlightenment?

Although the Jewish population did dip to less than 1 million by 1500, disease and illness accounted for the decline more than Lévy’s claim of conversion and assimilation, UCLA’s Myers says. Furthermore, the drop in the Jewish population was consistent with general societal trends. Contrary to Lévy’s assertion of a Jewish population shrinkage that continued until the 18th century, Myers adds, the number of Jews began to rise in the 16th century with medical advances, among other factors.

As we hurry back to the Beverly Hills Hotel for Lévy’s noon interview, I ask him a final question: Is it easier to be a Jew in America or in France?

“It’s not completely comfortable to be a Jew anywhere,” he says. “Don’t believe, my friends, that there won’t be an uneasy tomorrow. You have uncomfortable friends. You have strong enemies. You have new arguments that make it easier to spread anti-Semitism.

“Of course, you will win,” Lévy adds.

“Rushmore as a Myth,” excerpt from “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Pages 63-66)

Rushmore as a Myth

Three small facts that I’m not sure the countless tourists who come every year in pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore know and that I, at any rate, was unaware of.

First, the architect: the famous John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, to whom we owe the idea for, and then most of the construction of, the four stone faces that are the symbol of American democracy the world over, especially since Hitchcock’s film, “North by Northwest.” In Wounded Knee I learn, from the mouth of an old Indian woman I meet at the entrance to the little monument built on the site of the 1890 massacre, that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; that his first great project was a memorial in Georgia to the glory of the Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson; and that it was only after the failure of this first project — and thus his break with the dubious United Daughters of the Confederacy — that he fell back on Rushmore.

Then the site itself. This magnificent place, chosen for the way it takes the light, the profundity of its granite rock, and its resistance to erosion through the ages. But its other characteristic, its location in the heart of the Black Hills, a holy place for the Indians and for the Lakota Nation in particular, to whom it had been guaranteed by the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Other options had existed. The Rockies, even the Appalachians, weren’t lacking in superb places where the admirer of Rodin could have given shape to his dream. But he chose this one. He and his sponsors, beginning with the secretary of the South Dakota Historical Society, Doane Robinson, could think of nothing better than to stick their monument in this highly disputed area, in the heart of what the Indian nation holds as most sacred.

Finally, the name: Rushmore, which I had always thought, because the sound of it was unfamiliar to my French ear, was some sort of traditional Indian name. Not so. There is nothing less age-old than the name of Mount Rushmore. For here is an extraordinary detail I discovered a little later on, as I was surfing Internet sites devoted to tourism in the regions: it’s the name of Charles E. Rushmore, a lawyer who in 1885 — in the midst of the gold rush, when people were looking for all the military and legal methods of expropriating the last Indians — crisscrossed the Black Hills on behalf on an American mining company. What is the name of this rich mountain? he is supposed to have asked his guide. No name, the guide replied. It’s an old Indian mountain without a name. Give it your name, and this act of naming will justify expropriation….

….This temple of the Idea, this semisanctuary, where millions of Americans come believing they can find the elemental spirit of their country’s manifest destiny, this cluster of icons that that a former member of the Ku Klux Klan sculpted on land that was stolen from the Indians and christened by a gold prospector (I discovered later that, after his break with the KKK, Gutzon Borglum never completely renounced his anti-Semitism or his ideas on the supremacy of the white race) — all this an outrage as well as a memorial. Do the Americans know? Do they feel, even obscurely, that their Founding Fathers are, here, also Profaning Fathers? Is that the reason the memorial, which was originally meant to be enlarged, to make room for and honor other figures, finally remained as it was? All I can say is that the American Idea is too important, too beautiful, and also too indispensable to the symbolic economy of the world to be left in the care of the fetishists of Mount Rushmore.

Excerpted from “American Vertigo” by Bernard-Henri Lévy, copywright 2006 by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

‘Paper Clips’ Continues to Link Crowds

Until recently, the riveting and much-acclaimed 2004 documentary, “Paper Clips” — which chronicles the attempt by the small, rural town of Whitwell, Tenn., to educate its students about the enormous number of Jews killed in the Holocaust — could be seen mostly at special screenings and community events. After an initial exclusive release of the DVD version to Blockbuster, as of March 7, the DVD has gone into general release so everyone can finally get a copy, which is sure to broaden the film’s exposure. And there’s also the book, “Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of a Children’s Holocaust Memorial,” by German journalists Peter W. Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, who played an instrumental role in helping the film succeed.

The book and the film were the focus of a recent gathering at the Museum of Tolerance’s Peltz Theatre, which featured a screening and a Q & A session with the writers and Miramax producer Matthew Hiltzik.

“Our 94-year-old friend, Lena Gitter, found out about the ‘Paper Clips’ project on the Internet,” Schroeder-Hildebrand explained during the talk following the screening. When the journalists learned of the project, they pitched in by sending letters to their press contacts, authoring nine articles about the project for a German newspaper and subsequently writing a book. Due to their efforts, the students’ collection went from 160,000 to more than 22 million.

A spirit of collaboration marked the filming process as well.

“So many people wanted to give of themselves to this project. The beauty was in the simplicity and letting it speak for itself … it shows what people can do together,” Hiltzik said.

“It’s unbelievable how many people were involved,” Schroeder-Hildebrand added.

By the project’s end, the children just needed to find a place to house the clips, as a memorial to the victims. The journalists volunteered to locate an authentic German railway car that had transported Jews to the gas chambers, so the children could transform it into a monument of hope.

“As Germans, did you find yourselves coming up to walls of prejudice?” one audience member asked.

“We encountered some resistance,” Peter Schroeder answered. “The German newspaper we write for grumbled that we were taking too much time off.”

In their book, the authors recount other hostile reactions, among them: “Another Holocaust memorial? It’s time to forget what happened 60 years ago.” Others, however, responded with good will. Finally, the pair found car No. 011-993 and raised the funds to bring it to Whitwell.

Elana Samuels, an assistant director at the Museum of Tolerance, praised the film for its message of tolerance and its positive portrayal of educators.

“Good teaching needs motivated educators … not necessarily with all the information, but with the desire to get it.”

She said this event meant a lot to the museum because it “brings history to life … it shows the beauty of interchange, of intergenerational dialogue.”

“Showing the film in Tennessee for the first time, I was the only Jew there,” Hiltzik said. “But a lady came over to me and said she’s also an outsider — because she was from Mississippi! I went to the cattle car, and putting on my tefillin there and knowing the circumstances … you did feel the souls.”


Two Dark Tales Illuminated at Sundance

Martin Scorsese has famously influenced a whole generation of American filmmakers, from Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino to Rob Weiss and Nick Gomez. But his influence is not limited to filmmakers in this country.

One who has channeled the Gotham-based auteur, albeit subconsciously, is Tony Krawitz, an Australian director, who specializes in short films. Krawitz’s most recent effort is “Jewboy,” a one-hour feature about Yuri, a Chasidic Jew, who comes back to Sydney, Australia, for his father’s funeral and has a crisis of more than just faith.

Although Krawitz says that he refrained from watching Scorsese’s films while making “Jewboy,” his lead character Yuri reminds one at times of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in “Mean Streets,” as well as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.”

Like Keitel’s Charlie, Yuri places his fingers over the flame of a burning candle. He wonders if God will really punish him, if the flame is truly eternal. He also wants to feel something, even if it’s pain. That is why he touches the fire, since his religion prohibits him from touching a woman, from even holding hands with any female other than a family member.

The provocative title of the film “reflects the mentality of the lead character, so marked is he by being an Orthodox Jew 24/7,” says Krawitz, speaking from Australia. “Jewboy” makes a powerful statement about the oppressiveness and sterility of this Orthodox environment. Smothered with extended family whose expectations are that he will follow his father by becoming a rabbi, Yuri sees a future of loveless marriage, platitudes uttered by friends, and constraint.

More than anything else, he wants to connect with other people, and not only figuratively. The tension in the film occurs whenever he wants to touch a woman. There is a moment early on when he and his Lubavitch girlfriend circle their fingers through powdery flour on a table, coming tantalizingly close to touching each other. They both shudder and smile secretly as they part from the exercise, an erotic fillip in their claustrophobic world.

Krawitz, 38, was born in South Africa but grew up in Bondi Beach, a neighborhood of Sydney with a large Chasidic presence. He remembers a high school classmate who told him that he would not be able to touch a woman until he got married. Although Krawitz considers himself a secular Jew, this early exposure to the Orthodox world led to a lifelong fascination with that community.

As a university student, Krawitz drove cabs and on occasion was called “Jewboy” by his fares. Yuri, too, becomes a cab driver, which leads him into Sydney’s demimonde of sleaze, a scaled-down version of the Times Square in “Taxi Driver.”

Ewen Leslie, who gives Yuri’s character a tremendous inner life, bears a physical resemblance to Travis Bickle. Both dark-haired ghosts of the city, Leslie, when he takes off his shirt, reveals a sinewy, bony physique that is very similar to De Niro’s in that film. And Yuri’s small, nondescript one-room apartment calls to mind Bickle’s lodgings.

Yuri’s awkwardness with women and his conflicted feelings about sex are yet another echo.

Tortured as he is by his religion’s restrictions, Yuri goes to extremes to honor them: carrying a drunk, cleavage-displaying rider out of a cab by wrapping her with his jacket; touching the window of a peep show gallery as the topless dancer performs for him; and finally reaches the precipice, holding back his arms as a sexy prostitute presses her breasts against his chest and then fellates him.

After this encounter, Yuri rushes through the neon underworld with what Krawitz terms a “strobe-light effect,” the increased speed and then slow-motion of the camera, evocative of the turmoil in the streets in “Chungking Express,” a film that Krawitz says did influence him. In this case, “messing with speed” mirrors the inner confusion Yuri is undergoing.

At the end of the film, he holds his grandmother’s hand as she, a concentration camp survivor, watches a tennis match and roots for Australia’s Mark Philippoussis.

“I have faith in him,” she says.

“Jewboy,” which was entered into Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, is Krawitz’s first film at Sundance. Although slightly less than an hour long, it will compete in the feature category.

Also competing at Sundance, in the documentary category, is “KZ,” perhaps “the first postmodern Holocaust movie,” says its director Rex Bloomstein. “It explores the subject in a different way.”

Certainly, there is more than an element of postmodern irony about a bunch of present-day, lederhosen-clad Austrian youth, singing roistering tunes about the concentration camp in Mauthausen and hoisting mugs at the very place where SS officers once clinked glasses of Schnapps after massacring their victims.

But that’s just one example of irony. Bloomstein interviews present residents of Mauthausen, including a young, dark-skinned teenage girl, presumably of mixed ethnicity, who wears a T-shirt with the words “New York” running across it and says that living in Mauthausen “is a perfect dream.” In the background, her surly, silent boyfriend, arms folded, leans against a car, impatient for the interview to end.

Bloomstein also interviews older residents of the town who lived there during World War II, one of whom beams with pride over having been married to an SS officer.

“KZ,” an abbreviation for the Austrian name for concentration camp, “Konzentrationslager,” depicts not only the town’s residents, but also the tour guides and the tourists.

One tour guide, an intense young Austrian with a shaved head, speaks to the visitors in staccato tones. He has a defiance about him, so consumed is he with anger at his country and the town’s legacy. Another guide is an older middle-aged man, who admits that he has become an alcoholic after years of working at the camp.

For the first 15 minutes of the film, neither guide mentions the word Jews, because Mauthausen was not exclusively a Jewish concentration camp. It began as a labor camp and later admitted large numbers of Russians and Poles as well as Jews, who were not brought to the camp until 1944, according to the film.

Bloomstein, a 64-year-old resident of England, has made numerous television documentaries with Jewish themes, including the three-part series, “The Longest Hatred.” But “KZ” marks his first time at the helm of a documentary film.

He was making a TV documentary called “Liberation” when he noticed the beer drinking and singing taking place within yards of the former concentration camp. He was “haunted by the disjunction, the reality of people enjoying themselves, and then the reality over there” at the camp, and decided to make a film that would show “the interface of memory and history and the present.”

Using a hand-held camera, Bloomstein finds one man, standing next to a crematorium, who straightens out his trousers after his girlfriend tells him they’re rumpled; then, camera in hand, she takes a picture of him. Bloomstein finds another man visiting the camp, a swarthy fellow, who writes in a book of visitors’ comments that Israel should be ashamed at how it has treated the Palestinians and the Kurds. His daughter simply writes, “Peace.”

Unlike most Holocaust documentaries, this one, as its press materials proclaim, contains no archival footage, no survivor testimonials, no voice-over. Bloomstein points out that there is also “No music.”

He doesn’t want an artificial stimulus for people to feel sad. He wants the filmgoer to be one of the tourists and take in everything as if he were there — the gas chambers, the ovens, and the “Wailing Wall,” the wall in front of which Jews, left to die, stood naked for days in the snow and in the burning heat. For postmodern irony, this is about as gruesome as it gets.

For more information on the Sundance, visit

Hitler’s Favorite Book Ignites Feud

A mounting Internet feud has led to the expulsion of a public leader of the Holocaust revisionist movement from and triggered a slew of threatening e-mails against a Jewish communal official.

The trouble started soon after Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the Los Angeles office of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), ordered one of Hitler’s favorite books, “The Riddle of the Jew’s Success,” Sept. 10 from a seller on’s marketplace. Only afterward did she find out that she had purchased the book from Holocaust revisionist Michael Santomauro, who runs an e-mail list called, ReportersNotebook, that is dedicated to Holocaust denial, as well as to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel material.

When Amazon banned Santomauro from its marketplace a few weeks later — due to e-mails he had sent to Taylor — he distributed her home address and e-mail account to his thousands of subscribers. Taylor was immediately hit with a barrage of threatening e-mails — one of which led her to contact the Los Angeles police: “Since you support Zionists,” the anonymous e-mailer wrote, “I’m sure you won’t mind having your family members shot and your house bulldozed.”

The Internet has been a boon for Holocaust revisionists, who have found few other mainstream outlets for their ideas and products. Earlier this year, Santomauro began selling “The Riddle of the Jew’s Success” on the Amazon marketplace, which serves as a middle man between Internet buyers and sellers.

The book, which was written by Theodor Fritsch, was first published in 1887 and became one of Hitler’s favorites. In an e-mail to supporters, Santomauro wrote that the book explained how “Judaism is a conspiracy against non-Jews. Its aim is to fulfill the covenant and gain dominion over mankind by controlling wealth.”

He reprinted 1,000 copies of a translation of Fritsch’s book, and by September, he had sold more than 100 of them. Taylor came across the book as part of her work with the AJCongress, where she said she is “in charge of monitoring anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism on high school and college campuses.”

Taylor has posted a number of online reviews of books relating to Israel and Judaism on In a review of a book edited by prominent left-wing Israeli historian Tom Segev on Israeli political dissent, she wrote, “If you like lies, revisionist history, falsehood and numbers without statistics to back them up, then this is the book for you.”

The same day that Taylor bought “Riddle” from Santomauro, she posted a review of the book. In it, she wrote, “Shame on Amazon and shame on you if you purchase this trash.” Santomauro wrote to Taylor using the e-mail address he had received through the order, and asked her why she had written a bad review before reading the book. (Taylor said that she had read excerpts before purchasing it.)

Amazon prohibits sellers from having any contact with customers that is unrelated to the transaction. Taylor said that soon after, she received two more e-mails from Santomauro’s personal e-mail account, one of which, she said, “talked about Jews masturbating over body parts.” When Amazon asked for a customer review of her experience, she sent along the e-mails from Santomauro.

In an interview with The Forward, Santomauro said he sent the e-mails only after Taylor asked to join his ReportersNotebook e-mail list. Taylor countered that she did request to join his list — for monitoring purposes — but only two days after receiving the first batch of e-mails. Neither claim could be confirmed, because both Santomauro and Taylor told The Forward that they had deleted their e-mails from the relevant time period. has already taken steps to avoid any possibility of a repeat occurrence, at least one involving Santomauro. Amazon spokesman Craig Berman confirmed that will no longer allow the Holocaust revisionist to sell books through its Internet Marketplace.

The Marketplace allows third parties to sell “new, used, refurbished and collectible items” through Amazon facilities, in exchange for a fee equal to 15 percent of the proceeds.

Santomauro violated his participation agreement with Amazon, which prohibits information about a book buyer from being misused “for sending unsolicited e-mail, harassment, invasion of privacy, or other objectionable conduct,” said Berman.

However, as a basic principle, Berman added, “Amazon believes in providing access to all reading material, however controversial or distasteful. Anything else, we believe, is censorship.”

Santomauro and various pro-Nazi groups have urged their followers to protest Amazon’s alleged censorship in cutting off sales of “The Riddle of the Jew’s Success.” Berman said he had no information on how many protest e-mails Amazon had received.

This is not the first time that his various e-mail lists have gotten crossed. He also runs a roommate-matching service on the Internet and in 2003, was swamped with complaints after his Holocaust revisionist e-mails accidentally were sent out to his real estate clients.

Amazon wrote to him Oct. 11, telling him that he was “no longer able to sell on our site,” because of “inappropriate e-mail contact that originated from your e-mail address.”

Santomauro told a different story in e-mails that he sent out to his supporters after he was banned by Amazon. He immediately wrote to his ReportersNotebook list, proclaiming that he was the target of a “professional campaign to smear booksellers that deal with the ‘Jewish Question.'” He told his readers to protest to Amazon.

Then he sent out a separate e-mail with Taylor’s home and e-mail addresses. Santomauro told The Forward that he sent out Taylor’s personal information to help journalists who wanted to write about the story.

Since then, Taylor said, she has received about 50 threatening e-mails. A friend helped Taylor track down the person who sent the most threatening e-mail, and she reported it to the domestic terrorism unit of the FBI.

While two additional neo-Nazi groups — Mein Kampf and Der Leibstandarte — have joined the campaign against Taylor, she has received no further hate e-mail following the initial flurry, Taylor reported this week.

“Apparently, they have been scared off by learning that the FBI is on the case,” Taylor said.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment, citing agency policy, but The Journal has learned that the FBI is actively investigating the threats against Taylor as a domestic terrorism case.

Santomauro said he saw nothing wrong with his decision to publicize her address: “For somebody who is trying to destroy my livelihood, and saying things in derogatory ways — I didn’t see what was wrong to announce her address.”

About the threatening e-mails, Santomauro said, “How do I know it’s not a campaign being fabricated in cahoots with the [Anti-Defamation League]?”

Neo-Nazi Internet magazine National Vanguard picked up Santomauro’s story and reprinted his telling of it, without including a response from Taylor. The magazine identified her as an “alleged operative of the ADL,” because of an e-mail she wrote to one of Santomauro’s supporters, saying she intended to pass along the book to the ADL. An ADL official said that the organization has had no contact with Taylor about the incident.

Taylor has written to Amazon, asking the site’s operators to display prominently the fact that sellers on the site will receive buyers’ contact information.

“Had I known I was giving all my information to Santomauro,” Taylor said, “I would have done things differently.”

Reprinted courtesy of The Forward (

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, September 24

Easiest mitzvah opportunity of the week award goes to “One Night Only: A Concert for Autism Speaks” tonight at the Kodak. For the bargain price of $52 (and up), you get laughs and music care of Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Simon, respectively (or so we hope). And as you might’ve already guessed, your fun will also benefit the Autism Speaks organization, which raises funds for autism research and works to raise public awareness of the disorder.

8 p.m. $52-$502. Kodak Theatre, Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

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Paul Simon

Sunday, September 25

Just in time for the most guilt-inducing period of the year, otherwise known as the High Holidays, comes the book that offers guidance on that most-Jewish of all emotions. "The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt" is on the bookshelves, but for some personal assistance, head over to Dutton’s tonight to hear contributors like the Journal’s own Amy Klein and Lori Gottlieb read from their stories. Or don’t…. It’s not like they could use the support…. And they wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble.
2 p.m. Dutton’s Brentwood, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. (310) 476-6263.

“Entourage” lovers get another HBO show about the industry with tonight’s debut of the UK’s “Extras.” Ricky Gervais, creator and star of another Brit hit, “The Office,” has followed up that success with this comedy, in which he stars as a 40-year-old man who quits his job to pursue acting. A host of celebs have cameos, including Kate Winslet, who in one scene admits that she’s accepted a role in a Holocaust movie so she can finally win an Oscar.

10:30 p.m. (Eastern), 1:30 a.m. (Monday, Pacific). ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

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Ricky Gervais, standing, and Stephen Merchant.
Photo by Ray Burmiston/BBC

Monday, September 26

UCLA’s Freud Playhouse presents the musical, “Working,” a tribute to the work of everyday Americans that stars Ricki Lake, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimi and Steven Weber. People from parking lot attendants to corporate executives are celebrated.

8 p.m. $60. Macgowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

Tuesday, September 27

Holocaust escapee and artist Eugene Berman’s figurative paintings always evoked nostalgia for the losses of history, and received a good amount of appreciation in Berman’s own time. In the face of more recent devastating events, new admirers of Berman’s works have recently emerged. An exhibition of his work, titled “High Drama: Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime,” is now open at the Long Beach Museum of Art, with various accompanying educational programs scheduled through October.

2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 439-2119.

Wednesday, September 28

Vladimir Levitansky clowns around for your amusement this evening. Known for his fusing of physical comedy, clowning, pantomime and poetry, the entertainer presents, “Fancy: A Clown’s Wondrous Journey Into the Absurd” through Oct. 19.

8 p.m. (Wednesdays). $18. Elephant Asylum Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 874-8216.

Thursday, September 29

It’s no-holds barred, no-limit hold ’em at Hollywood Park Casino tonight. Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters hosts a Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament to benefit their efforts providing mentors to L.A. Jewish kids. Reserve your spot, show up and prepare to drop some cash.

5:30-10 p.m. 3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood. (323) 761-8675, ext. 30.

Friday, September 30

Tobey C. Moss Gallery presents “California Gold,” a group exhibit that focuses on So Cal artists of multiple media with an emphasis on the diversity of L.A. artists. Included are works by Peter Krasnow, who “reveals a search for a ‘life force’ within the source of the wood for his sculpture and the Torah’s teachings through his paintings,” according to Moss.

7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Movie’s Journey Mirrors Director’s

In 1993, actor Liev Schreiber stood at his grandfather’s bedside in the blue-collar, Lower East Side apartment where he had spent many happy hours during an otherwise turbulent childhood.

In his prime, Schreiber’s grandfather, Alex Milgram, had been a tough but cultured proletarian who drove a meat delivery truck, briefly served as a bodyguard for the Communist Party, played the cello and painted in oils. But the 87-year-old Ukranian Jew had become frail and shrunken, and Schreiber, then 26, could only watch helplessly as his grandfather succumbed to complications from lung cancer.

“I didn’t know how to begin to mourn him,” said the actor, who is now 37. “He had been the pivotal figure in my life.”

Schreiber considers his film directorial debut, “Everything Is Illuminated,” a tribute to Grandfather Milgram. The film is based on the acclaimed literary novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s also about a search for a Ukrainian grandfather and for meaning.

The lushly photographed film, like the book, is a kind of tragicomic, surreal nightmare that works its way to a devastating but ultimately transcendent denouement. The movie focuses on a fictional young American who is searching for his grandfather’s shtetl, as well as for the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The character collects family artifacts in Ziploc bags during madcap travels with a malaprop-prone tour guide, Alex; Alex’s anti-Semitic grandfather, and a schizoid dog by the name of Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

“It’s really about a man who wants to learn about his family, which happened to be swept up in disastrous historical events,” Schreiber said. “He doesn’t deal with those events from a social or political perspective, but from an individual one. He represents a new generation’s processing of history in a distinctly personal way.”

Schreiber has traveled a similar road in coming to terms with his personal history, the loss of his grandfather and the mystery — the unspoken family history his grandfather embodied.

Milgram had been Schreiber’s primary male role model after his parents divorced when he was 4 and his father left during a bitter custody battle. The grandfather spent his life savings to ensure that Schreiber’s bohemian mother, Heather, received custody of young Liev.

Although poor, Milgram provided whatever financial assistance he could as the destitute mother and child moved into a series of squatters’ apartments on the Lower East Side, without electricity or running water. The boy was often left alone all day while she drove a cab; his grandfather helped by taking him to the circus and to baseball games, buying him clothes and introducing him to Judaism via seders at his home.

Yet Milgram wasn’t a talker; he declined to discuss his childhood in a Ukrainian shtetl or his teenage years in Lodz. Nor would he talk about why he immigrated to the United States in 1914 or about his relatives who died in the Holocaust.

After Milgram’s death, Schreiber felt tormented by unanswered questions.

“Because of the poverty and isolation of my childhood,” he said, “I had grown into a detached, neurotic adult, afraid of new relationships, and those feelings intensified after my grandfather died. But I knew I had felt deeply connected to him, and I intuited that exploring those feelings might be a good way to begin feeling connected to everyone else.”

He began by writing a screenplay about Milgram. He wasn’t satisfied with the result, however. That’s where things stood in 2001, when he chanced to read a pre-publication excerpt of Foer’s dizzyingly imaginative “Illuminated” in The New Yorker. Schreiber immediately felt a personal connection to the loosely autobiographical piece about a withdrawn young American seeking to understand his grandfather’s life.

“The protagonist felt like me: This odd, very introverted character who has become obsessed with his grandfather’s history,” Schreiber said.

The actor (“The Sum of All Fears,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) identified with the story so much that he invited then 24-year-old Foer for a drink to talk about movie rights.

“I really trusted [Liev] right away,” Foer said in an interview with studio publicists. “I had no idea of what he was going to do with the book, but I knew that he cared about it and whatever he did would be a reflection of that caring.”

After hours of schmoozing about their grandfathers and what it means to be Jewish, Foer gave Schreiber the go-ahead and handed him his agent’s number. Before long, the actor was adapting a book that went on to become one of 2002’s most hyped (and best-selling) novels. It was proclaimed the first 21st-century Jewish masterpiece by a reviewer for The Forward.

Although a first-time director, Schreiber wasn’t such an unusual choice for the perfectionistic, Princeton-educated Foer. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Schreiber is considered one of his generation’s finest Shakespearean actors, having performed acclaimed turns as Hamlet and Othello at New York’s Public Theater. During a recent interview from his home, not far from his grandfather’s old apartment, he mentioned that he was still wearing the sleazy mustache required for his role as a real estate shark in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for which he won a 2005 Tony Award.

Schreiber is an intense student of words as well as a speaker of them. During an interview, he peppered his speech with references to Russian literature and also to classical music, as he spoke quietly and seriously about his life and career.

His acting work also included conscious efforts to connect with his late grandfather, he said. He pursued the role of Marty Kantrowitz in 1999’s “A Walk on the Moon” because the character — a working-class Jew who sacrifices everything for his family — reminded him of Milgram.

The actor also portrayed a scrappy boxer in Peter Kassovitz’s Holocaust-themed “Jakob the Liar” because the movie was to be shot in Lodz, where Milgram had lived for a while.

“There for the first time I felt the presence of my grandfather’s relatives and realized what they had endured,” he said. The revelation was so traumatic that Schreiber suffered what he thinks may have been a psychosomatic breakdown: He developed bronchial pneumonia for the entire shoot, but recovered immediately upon returning to the United States.

He was more prepared to tackle scenes involving the Shoah with “Illuminated,” in part because he did not see the drama strictly as a Holocaust movie.

After all, Foer’s novel had begun as a family quest: His grandfather had died when he was a boy, but his relatives had refused to discuss his past in a shtetl called Trachimbrod. On a whim, around 2000, Foer again asked his mother for details. All she could provide was a photograph of his grandfather and the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The author immediately bought tickets to Eastern Europe, but where Trachimbrod once stood, he found only an empty field.

“I would not have written a book had I had an experience that was as profound as the kind that I tried to write,” he told the Evening Standard.

The result was his postmodernist “Illuminated,” told through the fictional Alex’s letters to Foer’s alter ego (also named Jonathan Safran Foer), Alex’s written account of Jonathan’s journey and Jonathan’s novel in progress, a fanciful history of Trachimbrod.

After purchasing the movie rights, Schreiber — who took much of the dialogue directly from the book — transformed the sprawling, complex book into a trim road-trip movie, excising the elaborate historical passages to focus more on the relationship between Jonathan and Alex, and dramatically changing the finale.

The film is among several book adaptations (including Gary David Goldberg’s “Must Love Dogs,” based on Claire Cooke’s novel) that veer from the summer trend of sequels and re-workings of television shows.

During pre-production, Schreiber cast 24-year-old Elijah Wood (“The Lord of the Rings”) as the fictional Jonathan because he felt the actor’s expressive blue eyes could convey the character’s rich inner life.

“I loved the idea of playing a person who is coming into who and what he is,” Wood, who is undergoing a similar transition, told The Journal. “And I loved what the story ultimately became: this beautiful illumination for each character as they reached some sort of epiphany.”

Schreiber, too, experienced illumination during the 42-day shoot in Eastern Europe, although he did not ultimately find his grandfather’s shtetl. He cited a scene in which one character tells another that World War II is over.

“The war for me had been a metaphor for so many things: my inner turmoil and the mourning of my grandfather, for example,” he said. “But that scene taught me that, yes, the ‘war’ can be over, because we can contain our stories and the little things in our lives, like the pieces of Jonathan’s collection that remind him of the constant companionship of his family in his memory.”

While filming the sequence in which the fictional grandfather is buried, Schreiber felt as if he were finally laying Milgram to rest.

“Because I was not ready at the time to deal with his death, I felt that, in a way, I needed to experience it again,” he said. “The movie allowed me to do so.

“My ‘illumination’ was that my grandfather is such an integral part of who I am that I don’t need to mourn the loss of him, because he hasn’t really gone anywhere. He is inside of me.”

The movie opens Sept. 16 in Los Angeles.


Stanley Kubrick’s Unrealized Vision

When Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999 during the post-production of his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” he left behind several pet projects he had been working on for decades. These included a science-fiction riff on “Pinocchio” (later finished by Steven Spielberg as “A.I.”), a historical biopic of the life of Napoleon and a Holocaust project with the working title “Aryan Papers.”

The recently released “Stanley Kubrick Archives,” an unwieldy coffee-table tome published by Taschen, sheds new light on the famously secretive director’s failed project. An essay by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and producer, details Kubrick’s longtime pursuit of the Holocaust as a subject for a film. Harlan writes of traveling to New York in 1976 to try and interest Isaac Bashevis Singer in contributing an original screenplay. What Kubrick sought from Singer was a “dramatic structure that compressed the complex and vast information into the story of an individual who represented the essence of this manmade hell.”

Singer, who—unlike many of his friends—was not a Holocaust survivor, gratefully declined, saying, “I don’t know the first thing” about the Holocaust.”

Kubrick shelved the project until 1991, when he read Louis Begley’s short novel, “Wartime Lies,” about a Jewish boy and his aunt who survive the war by snaking their way through Poland, pretending to be Catholics. Begley’s autobiographical tale so intrigued Kubrick that he was willing to shoot the project abroad—a dramatic decision for the director, who hadn’t left England for more than three decades. Kubrick got the go-ahead from Warner Bros.—which publicly announced the project as “Aryan Papers” (a reference to the documents required to escape deportation) in 1993—and he got fairly far along in the pre-production, hiring set and costume designers and casting several of the main roles. For the role of the boy’s aunt, Tanya, Kubrick considered Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman. However, preparations ceased when it became known that Spielberg had started working on “Schindler’s List.” Fearing competition, Kubrick shelved the project for a second and final time, and devoted his energies to “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Kubrick’s lifelong fascination with the Holocaust coexisted with extreme doubt as to whether any film could do justice to the subject. In 1980, he told the author Michael Herr that what he wanted most was to make a film about the Holocaust, “but good luck in putting all that into a two-hour movie.” Frederic Raphael, who co-authored the screenplay for “Eyes Wide Shut,” recalls Kubrick questioning whether a film truly can represent the Holocaust in its entirety. After Raphael suggested “Schindler’s List,” Kubrick replied, “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t. Anything else?”

The scholar Geoffrey Cocks has written extensively about Kubrick’s fascination with the Nazi era. In numerous essays and a book, “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust,” he argues that the Holocaust serves as the “veiled benchmark of evil” in many of Kubrick’s films, specifically “The Shining.” According to Cocks, the failure to bring “Aryan Papers” to fruition had to do with a profound awareness of “the problem of how to do ethical and artistic justice to the depiction of the horror of mass extermination,” a problem that has—in one form or another—plagued all postwar artists. Unlike Harlan, who recalls Kubrick’s great enthusiasm for the project, Cocks quotes Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, as telling him that Kubrick was horribly depressed throughout his work on “Aryan Papers.”

The Holocaust was such a sensitive issue that Kubrick’s reaction took the form of approach and avoidance, Cocks argues. Though Kubrick never confronted the subject head-on—and the scant appearance of Nazis in his films take the form of parody (as in “Dr. Strangelove” and “Lolita”)—Cocks writes that “[a]s a Jew in a gentile world, Kubrick would use his position as an outsider with a deep sensitivity to social injustice to expose the dark underside of society.”

A quote from Kubrick on the connection between rape and Beethoven in “A Clockwork Orange” illustrates Cocks’s assertion: “[It] suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men, but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.”

Kubrick was a master at exploring the darker side of human nature, whether it was sexual obsession (“Lolita”) or the will to power (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) or human cruelty (“A Clockwork Orange”). It’s fascinating and terrifying to imagine what Kubrick’s Holocaust might have looked like.

Reprinted with permission from The Forward.
A.J. Goldmann is a writer living in New York.

Local Writers Recall Times of Tyranny


In a tale rooted in personal experience, Dr. John Menkes explores the themes of loss and recovery in his novel “After the Tempest” (Daniel & Daniel, 2003). A Holocaust survivor, Menkes returned to his hometown of Vienna after the war and found that not only was his family and his home gone, but his very identity had been irrevocably lost.

Now an internationally recognized pediatric neurologist based in Los Angeles — as well as a published author and playwright — Menkes alternates between past and present to tell the story of childhood best friends in pre-war Vienna: Judith Berger, a Jew, and Anton Kermauner, a non-Jew. As the forces of Nazism take hold, the pair are separated. Judith’s parents send her to Ireland, while they stay behind and eventually perish. Anton joins the Hitler Youth. But neither Judith, who ends up in the United States, nor Anton, who is eventually stationed at Auschwitz, forget one another.

After the war, Judith returns to Vienna hoping to resume her life and find Anton. Her experience unfolds in an emotionally charged narrative that explores how its characters deal with memory, blame, guilt and forgiveness.

While these next two tales of peril, escape, capture and ultimate redemption might sound like the stuff of fiction, two Los Angeles women have written about experiences that were altogether real: life under national socialism and communism.

In “I Held the Sun in My Hands” (Authorhouse, 2004), Erika Jacoby recounts her odyssey from idyllic childhood in Hungary to the horrors of Auschwitz to the circuitous path that brought her to Los Angeles. Jacoby, who lost her grandparents and many other relatives in Auschwitz, managed to remain with her mother and aunt first in Auschwitz and then in numerous slave labor camps.

Jacoby’s straightforward narrative is a quick and compelling read. A clinical social worker, she examines her experience through a professional lens, realizing that she gained purpose from acting as her mother’s protector.

“I knew in the camps that I would not give up and become a Musulman, one who lost all will to live, because I had to stay alive for my mother…. I couldn’t let her lose another child,” she writes.

Jacoby devotes about half the book to what happened after liberation — first scrounging for food and eluding menacing Soviet soldiers; then returning to her native Hungary where she joined a Zionist youth organization and met her husband, Emil. She lived in the United States as a fugitive and then under threat of deportation before finally gaining legal citizenship.

In 1953, Jacoby and her husband moved to California, where Emil spent the next 23 years as Hebrew school principal at what is now Adat Ari El. (He later became director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, and continues to work there as a consultant.) Erika became a social worker, bringing compassion and understanding to others who had experienced similar horrors.

Born just six days before Hitler invaded Hungary, Susanne Reyto was too young to recall the Nazi era. Yet she, too, has stories of imprisonment, separation of families and life under a ruthless regime: communism.

“Most people believe suffering in Europe ended [after World War II],” she writes. “However, it is the farthest thing from reality.”

Reyto, a Beverly Hills resident, retired travel agent and member of the governing cabinet of Hadassah Southern California, penned her memoir after being invited to speak to her grandson’s eighth-grade class about this time in history. Interweaving her childhood memories with the recollections of her mother, Reyto’s “Pursuit of Freedom: A True Story of the Enduring Power of Hope and Dreams” (Jet Publishing, 2004) chronicles the family’s arduous journey from communist Hungary to freedom in America.

The book recounts her parents’ experience during the Holocaust, and how their happiness after Hungary’s liberation soon turned to dread as they witnessed the rise of state-controlled domination. In December 1949, her family attempted to flee the country, but were caught and imprisoned. Five-year-old Susanne was separated from her parents for months. The family’s assets were seized and, as known “troublemakers,” they were among the first families to be deported from Budapest and sent to a communist internment camp.

Reyto’s story is laced with gratitude — for the kindness of friends and strangers who helped her family along its journey, and for the freedoms she found in the United States. At the same time, she asserts that we must be ever vigilant against future threats to liberty.

“In this time of terrorism and religious tyranny,” she says, “it is our obligation to learn from the past to better prepare ourselves for the future.”


History on Trial


“History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving,” by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Echo, 2005) $25.95.

For five excruciating years, from the moment that David Irving sued her for libel in England until the appeals process ran its course, Deborah Lipstadt had to remain silent. Others defended her scholarship and revealed the deceitfulness and deliberately misleading nature of Irving’s writings. But Lipstadt would not, did not take the stand in her own defense.

Lipstadt is a contemporary women not known for her reticence. Silence was hard on someone who prides herself on fighting her own fights — but it was necessary. Now, finally, she speaks freely.

It all started in 1993, when Lipstadt wrote “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault Against Memory and Truth,” a book which described Holocaust denial in our age. A few paragraphs were devoted to Irving, the most informed, original and therefore most dangerous of Holocaust deniers.

Irving could not bring action against Lipstadt in the United States, because as a public figure, the burden was on him to prove that Lipstadt engaged in reckless disregard of truth — a near impossible task — since what she said was true. In England, the burden of proof is reversed. So when Penguin published the book in England, Irving sued both the author and publisher in London.

Lipstadt wrote that Irving was “a Hitler partisan wearing blinkers, who distorted evidence, manipulated documents and skewed and misrepresented data,” and that “Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying out Hitler’s legacy.”

British revisionist historian
David Irving.
by Martyn Hayhow/AFP

She considered him a dangerous Holocaust denier. As the court determined in 2000, Lipstadt was not wrong, merely understated.

Perhaps Irving thought that Lipstadt would back down, issue a pro forma apology and settle for a symbolic sum. As the trial neared, he asked for a pittance — 500 pounds — to go to charity. Perhaps he thought the potential liability would force the parties to back down.

Lipstadt could not back down. To concede would be to accept defeat, inflict injury upon Holocaust survivors and desecrate the memory of the dead. She had to take a stand to preserve her standing, her dignity and her values.

The lawyers decided that the case would not be tried in the court of public opinion in the press, but in a courtroom. The trial was held before Judge Charles Gray — without a jury.

The press fury Irving induced as he played to them for months allowed his side of the story to be ubiquitous, while Lipstadt was silent. In the end, it was up to the judge to deliver a decisive, clear judgment.

What did Lipstadt do during five years of public silence?

As a blind person may hear more clearly; a deaf person see more intently, one who is muted may listen more carefully.

Lipstadt proves to have the keen eye of a journalist, observing the setting, the demeanor and even the fashion style of everyone from the court clerk to the judge and her barrister. She writes with a novelist’s sense of plot, so that while the reader is led through the entire trial, from first accusation to final vindication, the major story is never lost in the details. She doesn’t tell everything — but she does convey the drama, the anguish and the wealth of emotions that were her day-in, day-out experiences.

She writes without self-pity, but the reader is likely to pity her restraint. For those who did not follow the trial day by day, this book is fascinating reading that gives one a sense of what it was really like to sit there, to see the nature of the evidence, and see how strategic decisions were made.

In the end, all drama aside, the judge understands and renders the clearest of judgments by unmasking the pretense and politics of Irving’s pseudo-scholarship and the racism and anti-Semitism of his beliefs. And the plaintiff, Irving, plays his role to perfection, exceeding even our fondest wishes for him, by destroying himself in public. In defeat, his sting is diminished.

As Lipstadt writes, she did not stand trial alone. Her book is a tribute to those who stood by her. She is the first to recognize their importance, their competence, generosity and dedication.

Her brilliant and dedicated legal team included Anthony Julius, a fine lawyer and literary scholar, who wrote a doctoral thesis on T.S. Eliott’s anti-Semitism, and was a proud Jew known as Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer. His partner, James Libson, and his law firm, Mishcon de Reya, were prepared to take the case pro bono. They recruited Richard Rampton, a distinguished London barrister, to try the case after they prepared it. He, too, was prepared to work pro bono.

In the end, adequate funds were raised for the defense from Leslie and Abigail Wexner, Steven Spielberg, William Lowenberg and other Jewish philanthropists. Rabbi Herbert Friedman, whose distinguished career began as a U.S. Army chaplain working with soldiers and survivors and working with Bricha, organized the fund-raising effort discretely. (For the record, I was honored to assist him.)

The American Jewish Committee stepped in without seeking credit or publicity. Ken Stern, a lawyer and an authority on Holocaust denial, masterfully ran its efforts. Emory University, where Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, stood by her and gave her paid leave. Others taught her Holocaust course; friends visited, called, e-mailed and supported her through the long ordeal.

Scholars were recruited: Richard Evans of Cambridge, a superb historian and an expert on historiography, read each of Irving’s works and then checked and double-checked the original documents Irving cited and his translations — a tedious and increasingly loathsome task, as the depth of Irving’s deceit became clear.

Christopher Browning of the University of North Carolina, a worthy successor of Raul Hilberg as the leading authority on German documents, worked on German documentation of the “Final Solution.” Robert Jan Van Pelt, a Canadian of Dutch origin, an architectural historian who wrote brilliantly of the gas chambers of Auschwitz and who reads German documentation, testified on gassing at Birkenau.

Peter Longerich, a German living in England, analyzed the work of the Einsatzgruppen in former Soviet territory in 1941-42. Hajo Funke examined Irving’s association with neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and racist groups; the speeches he made, and the manner in which he played to his crowd.

Evans examined Irving’s footnotes and documentation. Their findings were devastating to Irving.

The team’s scholarship became contributions to the historiography of the Holocaust. Evans’ case became an extended discourse on how historians should read documents and reach their learned conclusions, an expression of historiography at its best — that demonstrated the most egregious violations of the cannons of the profession. The books that emerged from this team have added significantly to our knowledge of the Holocaust in clarity and in depth.

No survivors were called as witnesses, no Israelis. The trial was designed to be a trial of documents — an added benefit, since we are approaching the day when the last survivor will leave this earth and living memory will become the stuff of history. To those who feared that this natural development of time would put the memory of the Holocaust at risk, the trial proves otherwise.

Lipstadt is entitled to gloat, but does not. She understands the importance of her vindication — and its limitations. The British press was nasty, seeing it as a battle of class — an English gentleman against an American Jewish woman upstart Some barely concealed their anti-Semitism, and sometimes they confusingly presented the trial as an issue of free speech.

In our world, where rumor and innuendo parade as fact and insight, there is a tendency to believe that in every squabble there is some truth to each side and a basic laziness to uncover the truth. At least in England, Lipstadt was spared cable’s Court TV spinning.

Anyone who opens this book will be gratified by Lipstadt’s vindication. But what was all-important was the unmasking of Irving. He may have made the greatest contribution to that himself by bringing the suit in the first place, defending himself and then destroying himself.

Irving was the superstar of Holocaust deniers, and now he is known as the racist and anti-Semite who deliberately misread and mistranslated documents toward one end, the exoneration of Adolf Hitler. This case — and this book — prove that good scholarship can beat bad scholarship, and that even in our age of relativism and deconstructionism, there is a difference between good history and fraud.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and an adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism.


3 Novels Explore Life in Cold War Era

“Meritocracy: A Love Story,” by Jeffrey Lewis. (Other Books, $18).
“Dancing With Einstein: A Novel,” by Kate Wenner. (Scribner, $24).
“When She Sleeps,” by Leora Krygier. (The Toby Press, $19.95).

The memory of the Holocaust has haunted the Jewish imagination for three generations. It represents the rupture in our communal history, its shadow falling on everything else. And yet, we have amassed new memories since. Three books by local authors use the legacy of the Holocaust in their attempts to grapple with many facets of the Cold War.

By the 1960s and ’70s, when these three novels are set, Jews had established themselves at the vanguard of the United States. As if trying to make up for all that had been taken from them in midcentury Europe, Jews rose to the highest levels of education, politics, science and cultural production, benefiting from the new spirit of meritocracy that, as Jeffrey Lewis puts it in his novel of the same title, was the result of “a slight softening of the contours of traditional anti-Semitism, in the guilty aftermath of catastrophe.”

“Meritocracy” tells the story of a group of friends, all recent Yale graduates, who travel to Maine before one of them, Harry Nolan, ships off to basic training. Elegiac in tone, the novel mourns all those promising young men lost to the Vietnam War, while consciously drawing parallels to today’s political landscape, dominated as it is by other sons of privilege who attended Yale and Harvard during the late 1960s.

The novel’s tone is pitch perfect, slow and contemplative, shadowed by tragedy before it even strikes. Nostalgic, too, because even though this is a work of fiction, it is far too autobiographical (the narrator’s name is “Louie,” which we learn, late in the day, is a nickname bestowed by Harry) not to absorb its author’s mourning for his own youth, his generation’s potential that was never, as the novel makes clear, fully realized.

This is beautiful story, one that captures the fears and hopes of a generation of well-educated, well-positioned young people that thought itself blessed, but found that, like all those around them, they were not immune to life’s misfortunes. Its weakness lies precisely in its title, and in the author’s ruminations on the meritocratic ideal in this country, which are unnecessary, because their meaning is illustrated through the events of the book. That one flaw notwithstanding, “Meritocracy” is a beautiful book: evocative and immeasurably sad.

Kate Wenner’s narrator, Marea Hoffman (named for the dark seas of the moon) is of the same generation as Louie, Harry and their friends, but she has run from them, as she has from all reminders of her past. After seven years wandering the earth, she returns to New York to face herself and her father’s legacy: as a scientist with the Manhattan Project, he helped build the atom bomb. Marea, who grew up with the arms race, witnessed the tension between her pacifist, Quaker mother and her ally, Albert Einstein — a family friend and Marea’s “Grandpa Albert” — and her father, who both believed in and was tortured by his work.

Marea is a quirky, unstable character, but also smart and full of humor. She engages four different therapists to try to get to the heart of herself — her inability to put down roots and her need to forgive her mother, whom she blames for her father’s early death.

Jeffrey Lewis will appear Sunday, Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books, 475 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena. (626) 304-9773.

“Dancing With Eintein” is a novel that grapples with the many layers of memory: how one generation’s needs for absolution get passed down to the next. Wenner has written a luminous book: the characters, from Marea and her New Age, baker boss, Andrew, to Albert Einstein, himself, are all portrayed with depth and nuance.

The book’s ending is somewhat abrupt. Marea suddenly is able to commit to a place, relationships and the idea of a future. By this point, though, we have grown so fond of her that we want a happy ending for her.

Kate Wenner will appear Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at a private residence in La Canada-Flintridge. For reservations and directions call the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at (626) 967-3656. $10. Both Lewis and Wenner appear as part of the Jewish Book Festival.

The last and least of the books considered here is Leora Krygier’s “When She Sleeps.” From the uninspired title to the overwrought writing, this book telegraphs its desire to be “deep,” in the parlance of the late 1970s, when its story takes place.

“When She Sleeps” follows the experiences of two teenage girls, half-sisters who have never met. Vietnamese Mai is the Amerasian daughter of a linguistics professor and an American army doctor who tried to get his lover and daughter out of the country, and has never forgotten that he failed to save them before the fall of Saigon. Lucy lives in the Valley, spending all her time in the darkroom, filtering her experiences through the manipulation of photographs.

The girls form a psychic connection through the dreams that Mai “steals” from her mother and transmits, without knowing it, to Lucy, so that by the time they meet, the sisters already share knowledge of their parents’ past that has previously been closed to them.

The idea of this story has merit: the time has come to think about the results of the Vietnam engagement, especially, as is done here, by refracting it through the lens of the Holocaust. There is much to say about the relationships forged between American servicemen and their Vietnamese girlfriends, as well as the children they produced. This is not the book to do that, though: The characters are all too one-dimensional and similar for the novel to truly ground itself in reality (even a magical version), and the language is so self-conscious and forced that it never soars.

Leora Krygier will appear Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 380-1636; and Sunday, Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. at Village Books, 1049 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades, (310) 454-4063.

Something for Every Bookworm

Saturday, Nov. 13

Journalist-author Yossi Klein Halevi, foreign correspondent for the New Republic, speaks on “Israel’s Current War and the Looming Battle Within,” 8 p.m., $15 with R.S.V.P., $18 at the door, B’nai David Judea, 8906 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 276-9269.

Sunday, Nov. 14

Jonathan Kirsch on “God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism,” about the final clash between one God and many. Jewish Book Festival: A Celebration of Jewish Book Month, sponsored by the Jewish Federation serving the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. 4 p.m., free, Borders Montclair, 5055 S. Plaza Lane, Montclair, (909) 625-0424.

Dr. Leonard Felder, “When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People,” his latest conflict-resolution how-to, 10 a.m., $7.50, bagel breakfast, men’s club, Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia, (626) 445-0810.

Second annual Jewish Children’s Bookfest, celebrating 350 years of Jewish life in America, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., featuring readings, arts and crafts workshops, a tea party and entertainers such as puppet master Len Levitt. Look for The Jewish Journal’s workshop. Free. At the Triangle, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley, (866) 266-5731 or

Tuesday, Nov. 16

David Bezmozgis on “Natasha,” his acclaimed short story collection about a Russian Jewish family struggling to achieve the immigrant dream in Toronto. Jewish Book Festival, 7:30 p.m., $10, at a private residence. Directions will be provided with reservation, (626) 967-3656.

Thursday, Nov. 18

David Horovitz, “Still Life With Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism,” about the profound effect the current intifada has had on the lives of ordinary Israelis. Jewish Book Festival, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, 7:30 p.m., $10, Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia, (626) 445-0810.

Saturday, Nov. 20

Judea and Ruth Pearl, editors of “I Am Jewish,” a collection of reflections inspired by the last words their son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, spoke before he was murdered in Pakistan. Jewish Book Festival, , co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, $20, 7:30 p.m. Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena, (626) 798-1161.

Tuesday, Nov. 30

Rochelle Krich on her noirish mystery, “Grave Endings,” about a modern Orthodox journalist investigating the murder of her best friend, $8, 9:30 a.m., sisterhood breakfast, Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 553-7468.

Thursday, Dec. 2

Gregg Hurwitz on “The Program,” his thriller about a U.S. marshal who infiltrates a mind-control cult. Jewish Book Festival, 7:30 p.m., free, Borders Arcadia, 400 S. Baldwin Ave., Suite 920, Arcadia, (626) 445-1320.

Aspirations and Anxiety in America

“The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000” by Hasia Diner (University of California, $29.95)

In the late 1970s, a time when Jews in the United States had arguably achieved more status and social acceptance than in any previous era of their long Diaspora, American Jewish groups began work on a project that culminated in 1993 with the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Mall, of course, is the heart of monumental Washington. It pays tribute to the nation’s most revered icons and heroes. The new museum was a powerful symbol of how thoroughly integrated Jews had become in the fabric of American life and culture. The museum itself was dedicated to the memory of Jewish victims of Nazi fascism. At the very moment that Jews had become an accepted part of the majority culture, they were memorializing their history as a persecuted minority.

The dueling combination of aspiration and anxiety has always characterized the American Jewish experience. But paradoxically, over the past several decades, as Jews have risen to admirable prominence in U.S. society, victimization has become ever more central to American Jewish identity. Even as the last vestiges of anti-Semitic barriers were removed and the vast majority of Jews achieved comfortable, upper-middle-class lives, the Holocaust was elevated to iconic status. The struggle against oppression and discrimination remained at the core of the American Jewish narrative.

But unlike in Europe, where they had long been the quintessential “other,” Jews were never the paradigmatic outsiders in America. While they were at times stigmatized for not being Christian, Jews were nonetheless white people in a nation whose social hierarchy was based on race, not religion. Although some may have questioned Jews’ claim to whiteness, no movement in the United States ever sought to strip them of their citizenship, nor deny them the political rights — voting, holding office and serving on juries — to which white men were entitled. In other words, the discrimination that Jews did face was never comparable to that experienced at various times by blacks, Chinese and other nonwhite groups. Indeed, since the Colonial era, the religious and ethnic tolerance of America has been a relief to the many Jews who’ve arrived on these shores.

In her book, “The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000,” Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish History at New York University, seeks to recast history in light of that fundamental fact. Without ignoring the significant anti-Semitic episodes that did occur nor disavowing the real sense of vulnerability that Jews have often felt, she nonetheless attempts to balance the realities of prejudice and progress. She chronicles Jewish life in America since the first Sephardic refugees arrived in New York City from Brazil in 1654. She explains how both the fluid nature of American identity and the pragmatism at the core of American culture worked to the benefit of Jews. In the 17th century, the relative tolerance Jews enjoyed stemmed from their usefulness to the colonial enterprise. As Diner writes, “trade made the colonies, and Jews made trade.”

Under European colonial rule, Jews did not enjoy full political rights, but from their earliest days of settlement in America Jews sought relief from the highest seats of power. Indeed, their refusal to accept America as it was is what distinguishes the Jewish experience from so many others.

When Peter Stuyvesant sought to exclude the first Jewish refugees from the colony for fear they would destroy its Christian character, the settlers appealed to the Jews of old Amsterdam to intercede on their behalf to the Dutch West India Company. By the time of American Independence, a handful of Jewish merchants had amassed huge fortunes and become pillars of society. Some, like Haym Salomon, who has been called the “financier of the American Revolution,” utilized their trade connections on behalf the colonies’ struggle for independence. The Constitution, which framed America as a society built on individual entitlement rather than on corporate identity, created a “Jewish comfort zone.”

From 1820 to 1920, millions of Jews, primarily from Russian and Eastern Europe, migrated to America. Their growing numbers brought greater confidence and communal diversity. They also drew greater resistance from society at large. By the 1880s, a racialized view of Jews had emerged and some rights were compromised. Jews were refused entry into luxury hotels and denied access to jobs at some elite universities and law firms. At the same time, however, their political rights remained unchallenged. Indeed, their political influence only grew. As anti-Semitic rhetoric rose, greater numbers of Jews entered the political arena. Indeed, political participation, along with philanthropy and programs for self-improvement, were part of a broader effort at Jewish self-defense. As Diner writes, Jews “believed that if they met with the right officials, showed their deep patriotism as Americans and behaved respectably, they could prevail.”

And they did. Even at the peak of American anti-Semitism from the 1920s to the 1940s, Jews progressed. Elite colleges imposed quotas on Jewish students, and affluent neighborhoods sometimes imposed restrictive covenants to prevent Jews from buying homes. But there is nonetheless little indication that these restrictions hampered Jewish mobility. Furthermore, they were also an indication of Jewish ascendance in American society. By the mid-1940s, the majority of Jews were white-collar workers. In terms of education and income, they “far outpaced” the children and grandchildren of other European immigrants. In the postwar years, Jews could afford to suburbanize more than most other Americans. As of 1953, one-sixth of American Jews had graduated from college, compared to one-20th of the population at large.

Even as they moved out of their ethnic urban enclaves, Jews tended to cluster in suburbs that had a strong Jewish presence. Their choice to live with other Jews was driven by preference rather than anti-Semitism. Unmoored from the neighborhood bakeries, bookstores and delicatessens that once defined Jewish life in the city, suburbanites had to redefine what it meant to be Jewish. Suddenly, American Jews, who had been observing fewer and fewer aspects of Jewish ritual, returned to synagogues as the locus of their religious and ethnic identities. The postwar years saw a remarkable explosion in synagogue construction. Between 1945 and 1950, American Jews spent upwards of $500 million erecting new religious buildings. More Jews were affiliated with synagogues than at any other time since mass migration began in the early 19th century.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, no fields of endeavor denied access to Jews. That Jews were prominent in nearly every sector of American life was no longer a subject of much discussion. Indeed, this very diffusion of Jews into all aspects of American society challenged Jewish identity. For many, Jewishness no longer determined “with whom they socialized, whom they married, where they resided, or how they spent their leisure time.” To be Jewish increasingly became a matter of choice. As a result, many of the organizations that had been founded to defend Jews began to spend more energy on preserving Jewish culture and identity in America.

Diner pays particular attention to the ebbs and flows of Jewish identity throughout American history. Just as Jews never felt obliged to accept America as they found it, neither were they afraid to reinterpret Jewish identity to fit the times. “The Jews of the United States” is both balanced and comprehensive. For that reason, however, it is not Diner’s finest work. The sweeping format prohibits her from injecting the texture of the Jewish experience into her interpretation.

While solid and authoritative, “The Jews of the United States” lacks the intimacy and detail that characterized two of Diner’s previous books, “In the Almost Promised Land” and “Hungering for America.”

Still, Diner’s willingness to take on some of the shibboleths of the popular American Jewish narrative is welcome. Indeed, it is what keeps this book from being just another history textbook.

Gregory Rodriguez is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.