Child Holocaust survivors speak up for those who can’t


Only a precious remnant of Holocaust survivors is alive today, and many of them were just children when they went into hiding or ended up behind barbed wire. Indeed, there’s a heartbreaking irony in the fact that the last survivors are the ones who were the most at risk, precisely because the Germans had no use for youngsters who could not perform heavy labor.

The story is told in the first person in “How We Survived: 52 Personal Stories by Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” a publication of an organization called Child Survivors of the Holocaust Inc. ($30, ” title=”www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve” target=”_blank”>www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

The fear of silence


Robert Geminder was six years old when he heard the dogs barking. He was hiding in a little pantry with his older brother, George. His mother, Bertl, would always tell them to be extra quiet, because you never knew when “the soldiers” would show up.

When the dogs got louder, he figured the German soldiers would soon open the pantry door and find him and his brother, crouching in the corner. He didn’t figure that his mother, with the help of his grandmother, Golde, would think of stacking firewood in front of the pantry to disguise the smell of the boys. But that’s what they did, and it worked. The dogs and their Nazi bosses left, and Robert and his brother could breathe again.

This was in 1941 in Stanislawow, Poland. Two years earlier, at the beginning of World War II, Robert was a 4-year-old living in a nice neighborhood in Bielsko in Southern Poland. In August of 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, Robert’s town was devastated by the blitzkrieg. His father, Mendel “Mano” Geminder, died of a heart attack while trying to barricade a living room window with a mattress. As the troops invaded, his grandfather was executed on the streets, leaving Robert, George, Bertl and Golde homeless and on the run.

They tried to flee to Russia but were turned back. Eventually, they ended up in Stanislawow, in one of 300 Jewish ghettos that the Germans had set up throughout countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania. Before the war, about 3 million Jews lived in Poland, the largest concentration of Jews in the world. It’s estimated that 97 percent of those Jews died.

To this day, Geminder can’t quite fathom how he ended up in the 3 percent that survived.

It helps, though, that this 72-year-old retired engineer and now schoolteacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District has a very sharp memory. As he shares story after story of his many escapes and close calls and plain old suffering (“I was hungry for six years,” he says), it’s clear that there were at least two reasons for his survival.

Extraordinary luck and an amazing mother.

One of his closest calls came on a winter day in 1942 when he was one of 20,000 Jews taken to a cemetery near Stanislawow. There, Jews were greeted by German snipers who shot them and pushed their bodies into mass graves. Geminder and his family were “lucky” enough to be among the first batch of Jews to arrive, which meant they were at the back when the shooting started. By the time the snipers got to them, after mowing down about 16,000 other Jews, it was dark and had started to snow, so the Germans took them back to their ghetto.

They survived there for a couple of years. On those rare times when the young Geminder was not hiding in closets, he remembers seeing “daily hangings and children being killed and thrown against walls.”

One day his mother heard a rumor that the entire ghetto was to be “liquidated.” Her rabbi told her to do whatever she could to “get the children out,” so she came up with an escape plan with the help of a girlfriend. The two women hid the boys under their skirts as they walked out of the ghetto walls, ostensibly to go to their “slave labor” jobs. They never came back. Geminder’s grandmother, the rabbi and everyone else never made it out.

For the next three years, until the end of the war, the Geminder clan — which by now also included Emil Brotfeld, a man who would later become Geminder’s stepfather — wandered throughout Poland living on their wits and courage and hoping only to stay alive.

As he sits now in his modest home in Rancho Palos Verdes, where he has lived for 42 years and where he and his wife Judy are active members of the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid, Geminder tells me he’s got “maybe a hundred” stories of how they just barely made it.

“One of those things goes wrong,” he says, “and I’m not here talking to you.”

But while he’s got many stories of survival, there’s one story in particular he keeps bringing up: On May 11, Geminder will don a graduation cap and walk with students less than half his age to receive his degree in education from Loyola Marymount University.

He’s especially proud of that story. But why would a man get a teaching degree 48 years after graduating from university with an engineering degree?

He can’t say for sure, but he thinks it has something to do with the fact that he loves talking to people, especially young students. For as long as he can remember, early May has been “his busy period,” when Jewish organizations from across the country recruit Holocaust survivors like Geminder to tell their stories in schools and other venues. So Geminder knows from talking in noisy classrooms, and what job could be better than schoolteacher for someone who loves to talk?

In fact, when you talk to Geminder, the theme of talking and making noise is never too far from his mind. What seems to haunt him most from his childhood as a “wandering survivor” is not the fear of hunger or the fear of death — but the fear of silence. It’s those hundreds of “shhhs” he would hear while spending most of that childhood hiding in silence.

He prayed that if he ever made it out alive, and had children of his own, that he would never be forced to keep them quiet. This is another way of saying that Geminder wasn’t too hard on his three children, who are now grown-up, when they got a little, say, rambunctious.

Sixty-six years after crouching in a pantry in forced silence, Robert Geminder, survivor and proud new graduate, defines his freedom as having no fear to make a little noise.



Last October, VideoJew Jay Firestone taped survivor Eva Brown’s story at her home in David Suissa’s Pico-Robertson hood.


David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

The indestructible spirit of Holocaust survivors


These photographs by Bill Aron are part of a project titled “Holocaust Survivors: The Indestructible Spirit.”

The project, sponsored by Chapman University, unites interviews and images of local Holocaust survivors, with each illuminating the other, telling their stories from the war and also showing them today as they have not only survived, but prospered.

The biographies here were condensed and excerpted by The Journal from interviews by students of professor Marilyn J. Harran, director of Chapman’s Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. The interviews were conducted as part of Harran’s Holocaust history courses at Chapman, and are © 2007-2008, Chapman University.


“I was welcomed not only into their homes, but also into their hearts. They gave me a gift of openness and trust, which made possible one hundred truly memorable encounters. It was the essence of these encounters, a deep sense of connection, an exquisite intimacy, if you will, that I felt, and that I tried to put into the images. The extent that my photographs are successful is due to their openness and trust. . . .

The prophet Zechariah proclaims that the people of Israel will prevail “not by might, nor by power, but by spirit alone … will you survive.” Clearly, it was not by might, nor by power that they prevailed, but by the strength of their enduring spirit.

— Bill Aron, photographer


Jack Pariser was born in 1929 in Poland, south of Krakow. His father sold lumber and his mother sold fabric. When the Nazis began terrorizing Jews in 1939, Jack’s grandfather was beaten unconscious for refusing to walk on the Torah; he died soon after. In early August 1942, Jack’s mother learned that the Germans were planning to murder the town’s Jews the next day, and the family fled, hiding for months in the forest. They were rescued by a Christian man who had worked for Jack’s father and were hidden in a bunker under a woodshed floor. When they eventually moved to another hiding place, they were betrayed and arrested by Polish police. They escaped from jail by cutting through the wall with a penknife. They were again protected by non-Jews until the war ended in 1945.

The family moved to the United States in 1949, and Jack went on to become chief scientist at Hughes Aircraft, where he retired from in 1987.

Eva Brettler (nee Katz) was born in Romania in 1936. She was visiting her grandparents in Hungary in 1944 when the German soldiers took her grandmother and aunt as she hid. When she emerged, she sought out the town rabbi, who reconnected her to her parents. When her father was made to do forced labor, her mother tried to protect young Eva, at one point taking on a false identity as a non-Jew, for which she was later denounced and mother and child were arrested. In September 1944, the two were sent on a forced march to Germany with thousands of Jews; Eva’s mother was killed on the walk, and the young girl tried to understand why her mother didn’t come for her. Eventually, with the help of a fellow prisoner, she arrived at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was encouraged and protected by women prisoners. With the advance of the Russian army, the Germans moved the prisoners to Bergen-Belsen by cattle car, and Eva survived — and helped others — by luck and ingenuity, squeezing through wire fence to steal scraps of potato peelings from a kitchen refuse area. After liberation, she reunited with her father and they returned to Hungary. In 1956, after the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, Eva fled her country, arriving in the United States in 1957, where she met and married fellow survivor Marten Brettler. In 1983, she earned a degree in psychology from UCLA and became a social worker.

Sally Roisman (nee Zielinski) was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1930 to a devoutly religious family. When war broke out, the family had nowhere to flee to, so they survived by bartering jewelry for food. Young Sally was often sent to do the job. In 1942, her father was sent to Auschwitz, and the rest of the family was moved to the ghetto. Eventually her sisters, then Sally, were sent to Graeben, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen. Sally, just 13, survived with the help of her sisters. In January 1945, as the Soviets approached, the Germans sent 250 prisoners on a death march to Germany; Sally was among the 150 to arrive at Bergen-Belsen, where she almost died of typhus. In April 1945, when the British liberated the camp, the sisters learned that their brother had also survived at a nearby camp and two other brothers were at Buchenwald. Their parents, three brothers and two sisters were murdered at Auschwitz.

The remaining six siblings eventually moved to Australia. On a vacation to New York, Sally met her future husband, Steve Roisman. The couple settled in Los Angeles, near Sally’s sister and brother. Today, Sally is an artist, making award-winning paintings of Jewish life before the Holocaust.

Curt Lowens was born in 1925 in East Prussia (now Poland), to a home filled with music and laughter. His father, once a respected lawyer, lost all his clients with the rise of Hitler. The family moved to Berlin in 1936, hoping to find safety in the large Jewish community there, but eventually decided to immigrate to the United States. The day before they were to depart on the SS Veendam from Rotterdam, the Germans invaded Holland, preventing the departure. In June 1943, the family was sent to Westerbork, a transit camp, and then to Auschwitz. However, they were released and immediately went underground. Curt received a false identity and became an active and valiant member of the resistance, under the name “Ben Joosten.”

After the war, in 1947, Curt, his father and stepmother immigrated to the United States; he became an actor, and met Katherine Guilford at the famous Berhoff Studio. He is a respected character actor, working onstage on Broadway and in film and television.

A privilege to share


Hanging above the sofa in the den of my next-door neighbor's house when I was a child was an old-fashioned family portrait painting; the figures in it looked stiff, the background was dark brown, muddied by time, and it was forbidding.

But spookiest of all, the picture bore a giant tear right through canvas at the lower left-hand side of the image. The gash, I was told, had been made by Nazis.

I knew that much of my friend's family hadn't made it out of Germany, and the picture was a precious record. But that's about all I was told at the young age of 6 or so, when this picture was an object of great fascination for me. The gash was a symbol for remembering something that was, in all other ways, a big giant secret.

At that time, in the 1950s, the Holocaust was still too fresh to talk about much, particularly to children, and so dark pasts were hidden, acknowledged through mementos rather than stories. I never quite knew which questions were OK to ask.

I thought of that picture last week, as I listened to Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel speak to a rapt audience of 1,700 people crammed into the sanctuary and every other nook and cranny of Stephen S. Wise Temple. He'd come for an informal, staged chat with Rabbi David Woznica, and, as always, Wiesel's message was a call for remembrance. His own experience as a Holocaust survivor did not need retelling, but once again, as he often does, Wiesel challenged the audience to ask other survivors those questions I'd once felt were taboo.

“We are members of an endangered species,” he said in his famously lilting voice that contains traces of his native Romanian intonation, as well as some French and much American flavor. “A survivor has an authority that no one else has.”

We can't expect those survivors to volunteer their stories, he chided. And isn't he right? How many families have let the secrets lie dormant for decades?

And we can no longer wait, Wiesel insisted, as the survivors are aging. He told the story of a group of students in a class he taught about the Holocaust. After a few meetings, he said, he realized that “almost all my students were children of survivors.” But none could talk about the experience with their parents. So they asked him questions, and he told them to go home and ask again.

“They are privileged,” he said, “both parents and children — and to bring them together is so rewarding.”

Wiesel has taken on a rock-star status, which maybe has both helped and softened his message. When he walked into the sanctuary, the crowd immediately rose to its feet in an ovation, even before he'd opened his mouth. His every minor quip got lots of laughs — and he is funny — and now, at 78, he's lost some of his bristle and is willing to charm.

But I wondered how deeply his message penetrates those of us applauding him, despite the increased urgency in light of the recent Holocaust-denier's conference in Iran. At an L.A. synagogue, isn't he preaching to the choir? We remember. We know. But is that enough?

Or have we, by now, all heard so many stories as to become inured?

“I do not think that the Holocaust can be forgotten,” Wiesel said. “It is the most recorded event in history. But I am afraid it will lose its uniqueness. I'm afraid it could be cheapened, diminished, trivialized.”

He talked of a long-ago mini-series on TV that he hated. He talked of increased anti-Semitism abroad. He talked of Iran, and of his belief in the need for a law against denying the Holocaust, such as they have in Germany — the right to free speech makes such laws impossible in the United States.

And he talked of listening.

“Anyone who listens to a witness becomes a witness,” he said.

What keeps Wiesel's passion and curiosity alive? Among Jews, we come in contact with survivors all the time. They are our neighbors, our parents and grandparents, our friends' parents, our grumpy encounters in the checkout line at Trader Joe's or our brilliant university professors. They are the same and different from us. They have a story we are often still afraid to hear.

My friend Julie Tuomi called me just the other day, before I'd gone to hear Wiesel, and she mentioned that her 97-year-old grandmother, Senta Marcks, might be worthy of a story for The Jewish Journal. Marcks is a survivor, Julie said, and maybe we would like to hear her story while she “still has all her marbles.”

I love Julie, and I know she loves and admires her grandmother, but I have to admit that initially I kind of groaned inside at her suggestion, wondering when I could find the time to talk to Marcks, wondering if, really, there was anything new in her story — Holocaust or no. So, I avoided committing.

After Wiesel's talk, I called Julie back.

“Let's go this Saturday,” I suggested.

No time to waste. Anything she wants to say, I want to hear. And as it turned out, the grandmother had since been hospitalized from a fall; visiting her at the hospital had become a double mitzvah, even more urgent than before.

So on Saturday evening, Julie and I set out, our daughters in tow, and we went to Marcks' hospital room, where she was sitting up in bed, glowing with joy at our arrival. She didn't know my purpose for coming, and of course she was glad for any company. When Julie told her I wanted to hear about how she'd had to leave her home, her eyes widened, her smile grew enormous, and she leaned back on her pillows to collect herself.

“I was born in 1910 in Breslau,” she began. “I lost my parents and my husband to the Nazis. Only my daughter and I left.”

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: Kristallnacht’s memory revealed and recovered


Nov. 9, 2006 marks the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogroms throughout Germany and Austria, then incorporated into Germany, that set fire to the synagogues in towns and villages, pillaged Jewish shops, and led to the arrest and incarceration into concentration camps of 30,000 Jewish men aged 16-60.

Kristallnacht marked the end of Jewish life in Germany; a pivotal turning point in what later became known as the Holocaust. From that night onward, the situation of German Jewry went from bad to worse.

The youngest of the survivors of Kristallnacht, those who can actually recall the events give it texture and context, are now in their mid-70s. Soon, all too soon, the generation that lived through these events will be no longer and living memory will be replaced by historical memory.

A generation is passing, but it is a generation that has left behind voluminous records, testimonies and memoirs, video recordings and diaries, letters, notes – the raw stuff from which not only the historical record can be reconstructed but the personal narrative, the very lives that were lived and lost, can be recaptured, at least in part, at least for some.

Four books have recently been published that grapple with the Holocaust and recover lives that would otherwise be lost. Two are memoirs written by Holocaust survivors for whom English is not their native tongue and writing their learned obligation rather than their vocation. The other two are the work of descendants, professional writers who learned of the Holocaust by listening to those who were there and set out on their own journey to encounter the past and it.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” (Harper Collins: 2006) is a gripping story told so very beautifully. Mendelsohn’s grandparents left Europe and came to the United States in the great wave of immigration in the early 20th century. His grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who migrated to Miami, and Mendelsohn was raised on Long Island in a home where Jewishness was venerated but the attachment to tradition and Jewish learning were attenuated. A classics scholar by training, he is more at home in Greek civilization than with ancient Hebrews or contemporary Jews, and yet it is the memory of his grandfather’s brother and his family lost in the Shoah, the unspoken loss within his own family, transmitted only in the most fragmentary of memories, that propels him forth to seek his past and to uncover the family secret. He is haunted by the presence of absence and the absence of presence, and thus sets out on a journey that takes him to Australia and Israel, to Sweden and to Ukraine to Poland and elsewhere, all in search of six people from the small village of Bolechow who were murdered in 1941, 42 or 44 — two of whom were saved for a time and later betrayed. His siblings join him for part of the journey; his friends join him for other parts; and his family, present and absent, looms large in the narrative.

As he confronts his personal past, his search deepens, and he reads and rereads his journey through the legacy of his people as captured in the opening sections of Bereshit (Genesis), and bringing his manifest literary skills to his new study of Torah. The result is satisfying because his talent for storytelling is so evident. And sometimes as the novice, especially one so well trained in reading ancient literature, he brings new insights and a freshness to this very familiar material. His search for just these six people encapsulates the history of the Holocaust, the journey of survivors after the war to the lands of their resettlement and rebirth, and the passage of one Jew forth unto the past and unto himself.

Lech Lecha is the commandment given to Abram, the first demand of a demanding God. Translated “Go forth”, the words literally mean “go unto yourself.” Every journey outward is also a journey inward, as Mendelsohn — and we — soon discover.

His quest takes place just in time. He meets people who will soon be gone, who do not live to read of his discoveries, and he weaves together the distant recollections of dispersed and aging people into a tapestry that is rich and deep and by the end almost complete. He brings the reader along on his quest, making us relive his experience and piece together the fragments of information that he receives as he receives them. We experience his hopes and his disappointments as he experiences them, and we become ever more invested in this journey that soon may also become ours as well. His discoveries are miraculous — seeming coincidences that soon feel like destiny.

Mendelsohn’s begins with dim recollections. He must go forth on his own. In “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story” (Free Press, 2006), Ann Kirschner begins with so much more. She possesses very rare documents; a series of letters written to Sala during her incarceration in seven Nazi slave labor camps by her family and friends, which she scrupulously guarded and saved. Because she was in slave camps and not concentration camps, Sala was able to save the letters. Kirschner only has the letters written to Sala; her responses were not preserved, but Kirschner’s commentary skillfully brings Sala’s story to life.

Meticulously researched and respectfully presented, she seldom intrudes and always illumines so that we come to appreciate Sala’s struggle, her family’s anguish, when she is taken off to camp and they are left behind, and when she volunteers to go instead of her more reserved, less-worldly sister. We learn more of Sala’s friends and their impossible circumstances. For historians, one of Sala’s friends is of particular importance: Ala Gertner, who worked with Moshe Merin, the controversial leader of the Sosnowiec area, who was later one of the four women hung at Auschwitz for smuggling gun powder to the Sonderkommand to facilitate the October 1944 uprising that destroyed a gas chamber at Birkenau. We see a mother-daughter relationship play out in discovery and admiration. Originally conceived as an exhibition for New York’s famed 42nd Street Library that soon resulted in a very satisfying book, “Sala’s Gift” is a singular work that extends our understanding of Jewish women and the manner in which they struggled for survival.

Zenon Neumark’s “Hiding in the Open: A Young Fugitive in Nazi-Occupied Poland” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2006), joins the many stories that have been told in recent years by younger survivors who used their youth as a weapon of survival and escaped living in the “Aryan” world while all that they knew — their families, their villages, their towns and their loved ones — were destroyed. The reader should know that I wrote the foreword to this book and assisted him in finding a publisher, but I have no financial interest in its success.

British theater group Stan’s Cafe uses piles of rice to bring statistics to life


It’s nearly impossible to comprehend very large numbers. Take the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. How does one go about understanding the magnitude of 6 million?

One way would be to visit the Skirball Cultural Center, where the British theater company, Stan’s Cafe (pronounced “kaff”), will perform its latest piece, “Of All the People in All the World,” from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1.

Upon entering the museum, visitors will receive a grain of rice, representing themselves. Then, they will walk into a room filled with 300 million grains of rice – one for every person in the United States. The rice will be divided into piles, each one illustrating a statistic, such as the number of people who have walked on the moon or the millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. One grain of rice will stand for one person.

And there it will be, among all the piles: a large mound with 6 million pieces, representing each individual Jewish life lost in the Holocaust.

The performance piece will take place during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of reflection known as the Days of Awe.

“We specifically chose to do it in the Days of Awe,” said Jordan Peimer, director of programs at the Skirball. “What better way to understand your place in the world, your role in life, than to begin to understand the fabric of life on earth?”

The piece will open with 150 labeled piles of rice, illustrating serious statistics, such as the millions of people with HIV in Africa, as well as pop culture trivia, such as the number of people who watched the last episode of “Cheers.”

Over the course of the show, five actors, dressed as factory workers, will manipulate the piles to illustrate various truths, including the number of passengers on the Mayflower and the number of people per police officer in Los Angeles.

Visitors will be encouraged to interact with the actors, to share their own stories and discuss the demographics to which they belong. Occasionally, the performers will measure statistics suggested by visitors on the spot.

Peimer said he had been following the innovative Stan’s Cafe troupe for a while, waiting for the right time and the perfect piece to bring to the Skirball. When he saw the rice performance at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, last year, he knew he had to bring the show to Los Angeles.

The performance will be the second stop, after Portland, on the troupe’s first U.S. tour. Since premiering in Coventry, England, in 2003, the show has toured throughout the United Kingdom. It has also traveled to Ireland, Canada, Italy, Spain and Germany, whose daily newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, praised the show, saying “The knowledge gained is astonishing.”

The actors tailor each performance to the country, city and building in which they perform. They decided the Holocaust representation would be just right for the Skirball.

“To hear the statistic of the number of people who died in the Holocaust is one thing,” Peimer said. “To see all of those people represented and to have you [represented as a single grain of rice] in relation to them is a very potent thing.”

The troupe will also lead workshops for students from Brawerman Elementary School, Robert Frost Middle School, La Ballona School and Thomas Starr King Middle School. The children will research statistics and build mounds of rice to illustrate their findings.

James Yarker, artistic director of Stan’s Cafe, who co-founded the group 15 years ago, said he came up with the idea for the piece when he was on tour with another performance in 2002.

“Each time we touched down, we found another city full of people bustling about their business, for whom it would be no appreciable loss if the U.K. and its 59 million inhabitants, including Stan’s Cafe, didn’t exist,” Yarker wrote in an essay on the group’s Web site.

“This parochial small island boy was beginning to get a sense that the world was far, far bigger than he had ever imagined it to be,” Yarker continued, speaking about himself in the third person, “and he was starting to wonder if he would ever be able to understand how many people he shared the planet with.”

After considering sand, sugar, salt, pebbles, peppercorns, spices and more as a way to represent large numbers of people, Yarker settled on rice. “We needed grains that were small, cheap, robust and which wouldn’t roll around,” he said on the Web site. Rice “also has powerful resonance, being a staple food for much of the world and looking vaguely humanoid in close up.”

For piles with fewer than 200 grains, the group typically counts each grain. For larger piles, it weighs the rice. The Skirball will provide not only the scales for weighing the five and one-half tons of rice that will be used during the performance but also the rice, which it bought for less than $2,000 from local wholesalers. The grains will be recycled for animal feed when the exhibit concludes.

“We’ve never done anything like it,” said the Skirball’s Peimer. “I hope it makes people think about their place in the world, and I hope it makes people pause to remember the grain of rice that they are.”

The exhibit will be open during regular museum hours (12 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 12 to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday). Admission will be free on Thursday and Sunday. Other days, general admission will be $8, $6 for seniors and free for members, students and children under 12. For advance tickets call (866) 468-3399.

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 Centennial@sinaitemple.org.

 

Guilt Judo


Rosh Hashanah dinner. My friend — like me, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors — settles into the seat next to his grandfather. The two exchange pleasantries. Then my friend mentions that he’s recently taken his toddler on her first choo-choo ride.

“Trains,” says the grandfather. He splays his hands on the tablecloth, and sighs. “I remember when they put us on a train. This was during the transport from the ghetto to the first work camp.”

The story of the grandfather’s wartime suffering — tragic, inexorable, hypnotic in its familiarity — spins out as the Rosh Hashanah meal is brought to the table, served, and consumed.

“But that’s history,” the grandfather intones at last, as the plates are gathered. “Life is for the young.”

A college buddy of mine — Jewish, though not a descendant of survivors — once observed that his family dynamics follow the rules of a sport: Guilt Judo. The sport requires a range of moves: arm-twists, throws, the art of the pin. Grace and style matter, and it is, of course, imperative to master that most fundamental skill: learning to fall without injury.

“Oh. You’re home. No, it’s just that I thought you’d be home an hour ago. It’s OK, it’s just that the dinner got dry and ruined in the oven. And your uncle went home. He was upset not to see you, though he didn’t want to let on. So tell me, how was your drive?”

To play successfully, my friend maintained, you need to understand the rules. Family obligations pin the needs of single people. The needs of the elders pin the needs of the young (except when said young are infants). Safety pins punctuality.

Q: Why were you late?

A: I wanted to come earlier, but the roads were wet…. I just didn’t want to take the chance.

You get the idea.

The Holocaust pins everything.

Many Holocaust-survivor families — at least the ones I’ve encountered — have powerful vocabulary for everyday troubles. The missed phone call is terrible, as is the stained blouse. The over-seasoned soup? Disaster.

Disaster, in fact, lurks around the most innocent-looking corners. Mountains hang by a thread. I’ve known survivors who are impossibly controlling in day-to-day life — worried about the weather and the canned goods in the pantry; consumed with planning for traffic patterns; beside themselves because you haven’t made reservations, dressed for the cold, put a dust-ruffle on your child’s bed (“It’s hygienic!”). They seem nearly undone by humdrum disorder.

Yet in an emergency they shine. They turn into the heroes you always knew them to be. To varying degrees the same goes, I believe, for us children and grandchildren of survivors. Calm waters may disorient us, yes; small matters may evoke overblown responses. But when you’re raised to anticipate disaster, it’s no big deal when it comes. (The one time when, living in a group house in college, I actually had to say, “Mom, I have to get off the phone, the house is on fire,” my mother barely batted an eye.)

Here is what my mother says about her own mother: She would threaten to jump out the window when she was upset. She would open the door of a moving car and threaten to jump.

Though I didn’t have many years with my grandmother — she died when I was 5 — I adored her. She was a brilliant, artistic, beautiful, rebellious woman who’d lost her community and most of her family in the war. Her hard-won law degree (not a small achievement for a woman in 1930s Poland) was useless in post-war New York.

“She would say she was going to kill herself,” my mother says, “then lock herself in the bathroom for an hour.”

It was only in my 20s that I read Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust” — a book first published in 1979, with page after page detailing nearly identical behavior. Children standing anxiously outside bathroom doors. Parents enclosed in darkness.

My grandfather told me to have six children. (“They killed one-third of us. We need numbers.”) He said I wasn’t safe in the United States (“We thought we were safe in Poland.”) He counseled me endlessly to remember the stories of the Holocaust. If we grandchildren did not remember no one would. This truism was solemnly echoed in my Jewish school and summer camps. To remember, to remember actively, was to ensure that these things could not happen again. To forget was to let the survivors’ experiences wither away. To forget was to let Hitler’s victims die all over again.

There was never any danger, for children and grandchildren of survivors, of forgetting.

At every Holocaust-related lecture I have attended, there is one. She stands on line for the Q-&-A microphone — it’s usually a she. You can see her coming. Waiting behind distinguished professors, doctoral candidates and a few elderly Holocaust survivors who wearily, politely, offer small corrections of fact to a scattering of interested hums.

She waits on line. Pent up, straining forward, her hair white or perhaps heavily dyed. Something about her dress is often strange — the colors too bright or the blouse askew, the buttons of her sweater misaligned. When at last she reaches the microphone, she seizes upon something one of the speakers has said: the American graduate student’s stray assertion that most refugees traveled a certain route, or perhaps the French professor’s assessment that in the wake of Chirac’s historic speech and the creation of a commission to enact individual restitution, the French government’s rapprochement is, at long last, finished.

“No.” This woman’s hand chops the air. “My uncle traveled this route. My aunt was imprisoned. My cousin traveled a different route so this is not true what you say, that Jews traveled only the Vladivostok route. There was another.”

Often she holds documents, which she reads from in a quavering, accented voice: the aunt’s prison papers. Her voice strains with fury at the betrayal she has just heard.

“Here is the documentation. I brought the documentation. My family was in France. It is not finished.”

The sheaf of pages rattles. Her voice is thick with rage.

This is an academic setting. It is not a place for fury. Of course her specific case may be true, but this is irrelevant to larger historic questions. Speakers are lined up behind her, eyes averted, faces impassive; the session is running late; every extra minute is coming out of the lunch break. Someone rises — everyone has been waiting for someone to rise — and takes the microphone from her: “Thank you. Others are waiting. Your contribution is appreciated.”

I come to think of this woman — this survivor who refuses to be polite — as a Jewish prophet, a wrathful Job or omnipresent, ever-witnessing Elijah. Long after the last of the survivors has died, she will continue to appear at lectures: throwing a wrench into academic discussion, rattling her sheaf of papers, raging with the choking grievances of Lamentations.

I am wrong about this. She will not visit these gatherings eternally. In a few years she’ll be dead.

In college and after, I was periodically asked to speak at Holocaust-commemoration events — I’ve been entrusted with stories. I’ve researched and written fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I’ve felt, all my life, fiercely protective of survivors. And now, as I watch them enter old age, many with a prodigious, stunned contentment at having made it there at all, I understand it’s my job to keep the flame lit.

But does that mean suiting up for a lifetime match of guilt judo?

Perpetuating memory, passing on the stories of the survivors I love: I’ve been committed to these things as long as I can remember. The horrors that were done, and the pure human evil displayed by the doers, need to be known and pondered today and always. But I don’t think that gives me carte blanche to use the Holocaust in any way that happens to feel satisfying. And I don’t believe the point of never again is to render everyone reverent unto silence; to pin everyone else’s suffering to the mat until the end of time.

I refuse to be so intimidated by guilt that I don’t speak up against what I see as misuses of the victims’ memory. I’ve seen Holocaust-education programs that seemed so invested in emphasizing Jewish annihilation that they couldn’t tolerate acknowledging that some Eastern European Jews are still alive. (The March of the Living, an international program that brings teens to visit the Polish concentration camps, initially prohibited Polish Jewish teens from participating.) I’ve met students who can tell you all about Auschwitz but nothing about the pre-genocide lives of the Jews who were murdered there. I’ve been rebuked for my participation in German-Jewish dialogues (“I can’t believe you talk to them”) by a second-generation writer who told me he thinks a 5-year-old German is culpable; I’ve heard the same writer tell audiences, to applause, that Jews have no business living in Europe today. (Isn’t that what Hitler said?)

By birthright, I’m a natural-born black belt. I know the moves. But here is what I now wish I had asked my college friend: What happens to the people who win at guilt judo? If we pin all comers, what then? What is the game’s endpoint?

Like it or not, we’re in this together: descendants of victims, of bystanders, of perpetrators, locked in our holds, straining. Guilt judo isn’t going away any time soon, because the sport was invented for a reason. It’s a wearying but sometimes necessary way of making sure unredressable wrongs are at least acknowledged–making sure you get heard. We all know how to play it, whether recreationally or in self-defense, in our families or in politics.

Of course, this endless contest is not limited to those affected by the Holocaust. Look around and you’ll notice that most of the globe — at least wherever the philosophy of might makes right has evolved into blessed is the lamb–is engrossed in its own intergroup matches. Black vs. Jews (how dare they compare slavery to the Holocaust); Native Americans vs. African Americans (slaughter to slavery); Palestinians vs. Jews (their suffering to ours?).; Catholic vs. Protestant vs. Jew vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. The Hatfields have suffered — but the McCoys have suffered more. You say your population was decimated? Decimated is one-tenth of your population wiped out. Decimated would have been an improvement, compared to what happened to us.

But exactly what — in our homes, in our political conferences — is the point of the game? What is the point of determining who hurts more; whether my tears were more important than yours; whether the Holocaust was worse than slavery? Does it render the opponent’s suffering lesser, unmentionable? Does it guarantee sympathy? Love? Compensation? A better future? Does it work?

We all conduct ourselves as if we believe it does. And sometimes we’re right –sometimes guilt judo is an effective tool for important practical ends. But it’s also, if we’re not careful, poisonous: “You were only in Auschwitz for two weeks. I was there two years. What did you survive? You have no right to call yourself a survivor.”

The person who makes such a declaration is not malevolent; he or she has simply been destroyed in spirit.

May I say something, now, about guilt? I think it has a bad name. American culture presumes guilt is something manipulative, something to be washed away with a good jet of therapy. Guilt, though, is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make: Do something to repair the situation, or accept it and move on.

Guilt is a powerful, important road sign. The trick is to remember that it’s not the destination. In truth, it’s a fundamental error to believe that the word for the burden we all carry — we children and grandchildren and neighbors and acquaintances of survivors — is guilt.

I don’t feel guilty about the Holocaust. (I didn’t do it.) Nor do I feel guilty because my family survived. And now that I’m an adult, I no longer feel any guilt about the contrast between my own privileged life and the traumas my family endured. My grandparents wanted me to have a good, safe life; if tragedy should befall me, I know how fervently I’d wish my own children a joyous life. My family’s legacy neither devalues my own experiences, nor does it make me somehow holy. It just means I inherited a history, transmitted by people doing the best they could. So now I need to do the best I can.

What I feel is not guilt — it’s responsibility.

I don’t care who suffered the most. All I care is what we do about the Holocaust’s legacy now, for the generations behind and ahead of us. Getting mired in guilt (mine, yours, theirs) is a waste of all our time. There may be infinite ways to feel guilty about the Holocaust, but the “Your life is good and they died” varieties and the “How dare you compare other people’s suffering to ours” varieties are moral dead ends.

The only one worth sweating over is the one that asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

I have a responsibility to carry on my relatives’ stories; to speak out about anti-Semitism and racism when I encounter them; to do my small part to keep crosscultural dialogue going; to make sure victims’ individuality isn’t lost in thickets of tragedy; to respond actively when I see harm being done, and to avoid posturing and self-importance in the process. I have a responsibility, too, to make sure I enjoy life’s wonders to the fullest. I would be remiss if I neglected to laugh; to make the most of this country’s freedoms; to teach my toddler how to imitate a pterodactyl, talk to the moon and delight in a train ride.

Memory fades. Tomorrow’s children will never know survivors. The responsibilities I bear have no statute of limitations; I’ll always do my best to protect the survivors and their legacy. But that doesn’t change the fact that the history of the Holocaust will grow distant, even abstract. No amount of guilt judo can prevent this. And while strenuously broadcasting that the Holocaust was worse than any other human suffering may be justified, it can’t keep the survivors alive any more than it can undo what happened … and it is going to damage us.

If the memory of the Holocaust recedes, let it not be because I failed to do my part to keep it alive–I’m committed to that labor. But if the Holocaust comes, in some unknown number of generations, to occupy a smaller place on our cultural landscape, I don’t see this as cause for guilt. The point isn’t to pin everyone else ad infinitum, but to carry forward the important pieces of memory so that people see, and understand, and act differently in the world because this happened.

If we can accomplish that, then whenever it comes, the inevitable decrescendo of memory — which some will call abomination and others will call healing — will be, in truth, neither. It will simply be life. It won’t signal that we’ve failed — that we’ve let down the Holocaust’s survivors or, worse, its victims — but rather that we’ve simply, regretfully, tragically, hopefully, moved forward. And that has nothing to do with wrestling each other to the mat, and everything to do with standing up.

Excerpted from “Guilt Judo” by Rachel Kadish from “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. (Dutton, $24). Copyright (c) 2005 by Rachel Kadish.

Rachel Kadish is the author of “From a Sealed Room,” as well as numerous short stories and essays. She has been a fiction fellow of the NEA and was the recipient of last year’s Koret Foundation Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award. Her new novel, “Love [sic],” will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year.

Spectator – Hard Truths of ‘Hamburg’


Polish journalist Hanna Krall’s “The Woman From Hamburg: And Other True Stories” (Other Press, $19) is based on interviews she did that in some way involved the Holocaust. But when one of the 12 stories was recently featured in The New Yorker’s fiction issue, an accompanying note explained that her writing is indeed factual.

The 60-something Krall was a reporter for Polityka from 1957 to 1981 when martial law was imposed and her publications were banned. Her award-winning books have been translated into 15 languages, (the English version is by Madeline G. Levine). Yet the boundary between fact and fiction can seem blurred in her work, for Krall writes in an unadorned but intimate style, moving in fractured time, creating a rhythm that might resemble contemporary fiction.

“My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue,” Krall wrote in one of the “Hamburg” stories. “And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen.”

In “Portrait With a Bullet in the Jaw,” Blatt is a survivor living in California. Krall accompanies him back to his village, where they try to meet up with the Polish man who had agreed to hide him and two friends and then ordered them killed. Blatt was the only one to escape; the bullet intended to kill him has remained lodged in his jaw for more than 50 years.

When a man asks him why he holds onto the bullet. Blatt realizes that without it, he would “lose everything. If I had it removed, I would lose it, and this way it sits in my jaw and I know that it’s there.”

In another story, a Jewish woman finds refuge with a childless Polish couple in 1943, hiding out in their closet. She becomes pregnant; the wife begins to go out with pillows under her clothing, and then takes the baby out as though it were her own. The Jewish woman slips away, and the couple raise the child. As a young woman, she finds out the truth of her parents and then travels to meet “the woman from Hamburg” who tells her, “I had to agree to everything. I wanted to live.” And then she says, “Don’t ever come here again.”

Krall pays great attention to detail — the ribbons sewn onto a pillow used to create the look of pregnancy, for example.

As she once explained in an interview, “We know the world through details. We never see it in its entirety, only its fragments. And that’s how you should write about the world, making sure you select the fragments that really matter.”

 

The Forgotten Pogrom of Baghdad


At about 3 p.m., June 1, 1941, everything changed for Iraq’s Jews. No American Holocaust museum pays homage to their tragedy. Holocaust studies have virtually overlooked the incident and its profound consequences. But the Jews of Baghdad found themselves caught between Hitler’s master plan to dominate Europe and the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine.

At stake was the oil Hitler needed to succeed.

As the world finds Iraq once again at the center of competing international interests, a look back at this bloody chapter in Iraqi history illuminates how this region’s inherent geography and geology have given rise to a crossroads for conflict, conquest and commerce that has endured through the years.

That day in 1941, on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the sight of Jews returning from the Baghdad airport to greet the returning Regent Abdul al-Ilah, ruler of Iraq, was all the excuse an Iraqi mob needed to unleash its vengeance.

The attack began at 3 p.m., as the Jewish delegation crossed Baghdad’s Al Khurr Bridge. Violence quickly spread to the Al Rusafa and Abu Sifyan districts. The frenzied mob murdered Jews openly on the streets. Women were raped and infants were killed as their horrified families looked on. Torture and mutilation followed.

Jewish shops were looted and torched. A synagogue was invaded, burned, and its Torahs destroyed in classic Nazi fashion. The shooting, burning and mayhem continued throughout the evening. Jews were dragged from their automobiles. Homes were invaded, looted and burned. On June 2, the fury continued with policemen and slum dwellers joining in.

At the Muallem-Cohen house, young Nezima was terrified. Her father had just returned from the synagogue, relating terrible stories about daughters being raped and homes burned, when suddenly shouting, armed men crashed through his own front gates. Quick, Mr. Muallem-Cohen rushed his family to the stairs to escape to the roof. Up they scampered, first young Nezima, then her mother, and then her father. A shot — Mr. Muallem-Cohen was dead.

Mrs. Muallem-Cohen looked back in horror. Just then a policeman appeared.

“They killed my husband,” she shrieked.

“How do you want to die?” the policeman snapped back, and then cracked her skull with his gun.

Finally, in the afternoon, British forces punched into the city. They opened fire on the rampagers. A 5 p.m. curfew was broadcast. Scores of violators were shot on sight. The disturbances were finally quelled.

The carnage of those 48 hours would be forever seared upon the collective Iraqi Jewish consciousness as “the Farhud,” best translated as “violent dispossession.”

It was the beginning of the end. From that moment, Iraq’s approximately 125,000 Jews would be systematically targeted for violence, persecution, commercial boycott, confiscation and eventually, in 1951, near complete expulsion.

For 2,600 years, the Jews of Iraq had dwelled successfully in the land of Babylon, achieving as much acceptance and financial success as any non-Muslim group could in an Islamic society that despised infidels.

In 1941, Iraqi Jews were well entrenched at all levels of farming, banking, commerce and the government bureaucracy.

What happened in 1941 and why?

After the Allies defeated the Turks in the World War I, the British in 1920 engineered a League of Nations mandate over Turkish Iraq to obtain its fabulous but still undeveloped oil. Faisal, who fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia, was rewarded with the monarchy, and designated “King of Iraq.”

In 1941, the succeeding heir was Faisal’s 4-year-old grandson. So London installed as Iraq’s governing regent Abdul al-Ilah, another Hashemite prince from Saudi Arabia.

This appointment stirred deep resentment among Iraq’s Muslim masses that viewed the British “infidels” as occupiers, and those who cooperated with them as lackeys. As resentment turned to armed resistance and terror, militants targeted the British, as well as anyone deemed collaborators — including many Jews who held the top posts in all strata of commerce and civil service.

Seizing on the growing discontent, the pro-Nazi cleric, Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, the leader of the Arabs of Palestine, continuously railed against the Jews, accusing them of being part of a Zionist plot to dominate the Middle East.

The mufti — who was being sought by the British in Palestine on charges of terrorism — had slipped into Iraq on Oct. 13, 1939, six weeks after the outbreak of World War II.

In Iraq, the mufti set up a new and powerful base. He conspired with a group of pro-Nazi Iraqi officers, known as the “Golden Square,” to overthrow the regent.

The mufti also entered into a secret pact with Germany, offering Iraq’s precious oil in exchange for the destruction of the Jews of Palestine and the Reich’s support of Arab national aspirations across the Middle East.

Hitler himself was anxious to thwart Britain’s domination of the oil-rich Middle East and secure the oil needed to fuel his planned invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. So he went along with the idea, even though the Nazis reviled “the Arab race.”

On April 1, 1941, the Golden Square staged a coup, forcing the regent to flee Iraq. British warplanes stationed in Iraq responded with a series of persistent bombardments against Golden Square forces.

The German high command reacted as well, dispatching 16 Heinkels and 10 Messerschmitt heavy fighters to aid in an all-out attack on British forces at the giant British air base at Habbaniya, located midway between Fallujah and Ramadi. Meanwhile, two-dozen German mechanics and airmen filtered into the country, along with Reich secret agents known to Arab elements.

Luftwaffe planes began running strafing and bombing missions against Habbaniya, as well as British commando formations crossing the desert to aid the besieged camp. The British airbase at Habbaniya, at the time, was only defended by students and instructors. Undaunted, the Brits climbed into their rickety trainers and took to the skies, heroically flying day and night against the Germans and the small Reich-supported Iraqi air force. Most enemy craft were destroyed on the ground, sometimes a dozen at a time.

Churchill had already sent a foreboding cable to President Franklin Roosevelt, stating that if the Mideast fell to the Germans, victory against the Nazis would be a “hard, long and bleak proposition.” All understood that if Germany secured Iraq’s oil, the Reich would proceed all the way to the East.

By May 15, 1941, urgent messages burned the telegraph wires as British commanders in the area informed London that land operations to destroy the oil infrastructure were now out of the question. One typical note declared: “In view changed situation Iraq, consider it will be impossible to destroy Kirkuk wells at short notice.”

Besieged and out of options, the British called in the Irgun, an extremist Jewish defense organization in Palestine. Irgun commander David Raziel, at that moment, was in a British prison in Palestine. Raziel was approached by British intelligence and asked if he would undertake a dangerous mission to destroy the oil refineries in Iraq, thereby denying fuel to the Germans.

The answer was yes, on one condition: Raziel wanted to kidnap the mufti of Jerusalem and bring him back.

Agreed.

The next morning, May 17, 1941, Raziel and three comrades, along with a British officer, quietly climbed into an RAF plane parked at Tel Nof airbase, and flew to Habbaniya. While in flight, however, London decided that the destruction of Iraq’s refineries should be delayed to the last minute. Rebuilding the pipelines would take years and place an enormous strain on British fuel needs for the rest of the war.

Raziel was given new orders: Undertake an intelligence mission preparatory to a British sweep into Fallujah as part of the final drive to retake Baghdad from the Golden Square.

So they set out by car from the Habbaniya base toward Fallujah. At the first river, they found a boat, only big enough for two. Raziel ordered his comrades to proceed, while he went back to the car with his fellow Irgunist and the British officer.

Just then, from nowhere, a plane — no one knows if it was British or German — dived from on high, dropping a bomb. The car was destroyed and Raziel with it.

On May 25, Hitler issued Order 30, redoubling support for Iraq.

“The Arabian Freedom Movement in the Middle East,” he wrote, “is our natural ally against England. In this connection special importance is attached to the liberation of Iraq I have therefore decided to move forward in the Middle East by support of Iraq.”

The Admiralty in London now gave the final order to destroy the refineries and pumping stations in Iraq at will.

“If Germans occupy Iraq and Syria,” the message read, “they cannot profit by the oil resources there for at least some time.”

But suddenly, the forces at Habbaniya were gaining the upper hand. Persistent bombing, Arabs abandoning their positions and equipment en masse to disappear into the populace, plus the sheer exhaustion of Arab supplies delivered victory to British forces.

On May 30, the British-organized Arab Legion, led by legendary Maj. John Glubb of Britain, pushed past fatigued ground resistance and a steady barrage of German air attacks. Glubb reached Baghdad at about 4 a.m. By now, the Golden Square, and their Reich cohorts, had fled to Iran.

The mayor of Baghdad was the only one left to sign the cease-fire document.

On May 31, Regent al-Ilah was preparing to fly into Baghdad to reclaim his leadership. To avoid the appearance of a London-sponsored countercoup, British troops were instructed by their commanders to remain on the outskirts of Baghdad, allowing the regent to enter unescorted.

But for days before, the mufti had been broadcasting by radio, inciting the people of Iraq against the Jews, accusing them of having intercepted telephone and telegraph transmissions and passing the information to the British Embassy — thus causing the defeat of the Golden Square. All Jews, the mufti declared, were spies.

For a few hours on June 1, a power vacuum existed in Baghdad. The Golden Square had fled. The regent was en route. The British were at the city’s edge. For just a few hours, Baghdad was unsupervised. But a few hours was all it took for angry masses to suddenly erupt in a maniacal pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

At 3 p.m. the sight of Jews returning from the Baghdad airport to greet the regent was all the excuse an Iraqi mob needed to unleash its vengeance.

The Farhud and its consequences are absent from the Holocaust museums and study courses. But it will live forever in the hearts of generations descended from the Farhud’s victims and the more than 100,000 Iraqi Jews who 10 years later, after a campaign of systematic persecution, were expelled to Israel.

This article is adapted from Edwin Black’s just-released book, “Banking on Baghdad” (Wiley), which chronicles 7,000 years of Iraqi history.

‘Heart’ Celebrates a Nation’s Dream


Controversy sells movies. Remember "The Passion of the Christ?" Now Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing "Fahrenheit 9/11" is raking in millions since launching its own firestorm when Disney refused to distribute it, citing the studio’s nonpartison history. This July 4 weekend, "Disney will offer a counterdocumentary called ‘America’s Heart and Soul’ with panoramic vistas, soaring music and heartwarming profiles of cowboys, gospel singers and handicapped athletes," Newsweek said.

If the controversy pumps up "Heart," its Jewish filmmaker, Louis Schwartzberg, isn’t taking advantage. The 54-year-old is hardly as flamboyant as Moore, nor has his face been all over the news. Rather, he has been quietly attending Q-and-A sessions about his film, which Disney is promoting via word-of-mouth screenings — a less incendiary marketing tactic borrowed from "The Passion." His powerful, jaw-droppingly gorgeous documentary has been shown to dozens of targeted groups, from Jewish musicians to Future Farmers of America.

The Journal recently caught up with Schwartzberg on the Disney lot between screenings for radio host Dennis Prager and an evangelical Christian organization. Soft-spoken and dressed in jeans, he almost faded into the background as the dynamic Prager conducted an informal Q and A.

"My parents are Holocaust survivors who came to this country with nothing," he said. "They instilled in me a strong appreciation of the American ideals of tolerance, freedom and opportunity, which I wanted to celebrate in a movie."

"Heart" presents 26 vignettes of ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories (think Studs Terkel) including a blind mountaineer, a klezmer clarinetist, and an ex-con who heads the Olympic boxing team.

But don’t call Schwartzberg the anti-Michael Moore. Some of the media spin "makes it seem like [Moore’s] the left and I’m the right, but that’s not true," he said. Schwartzberg describes himself as politically liberal (he’s a board member of two environmental groups); he didn’t intend his film to be "a whitewashed, Pollyanna greeting card vision of America."

He believes it depicts the flipside of the American dream, including homelessness and unemployment, while celebrating the proverbial devotion to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"It doesn’t matter if these values aren’t perfect or whether they even exist," he said, later, while sitting in a gleaming lobby amid images of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. "I know there isn’t yet equal opportunity for all, but shouldn’t we strive for that? That’s what I’m hoping my film will inspire people to do."

"Heart" ends with breathtaking images of Fourth of July fireworks near Ellis Island, which Schwartzberg also traces to his parents.

"The Statue of Liberty is the first thing they saw when they came to this country, and it represents the ideals that brought them here," he said.

Although he shares these ideals, he didn’t always share his parents’ politics. During the Vietnam War, his father, a tool and dye maker from whom he inherited his love of photography, worked for a military aircraft manufacturer; Schwartzberg, meanwhile, shot photo essays about police violence during demonstrations at UCLA.

Rather than go to work for the audio visual department of dad’s company after graduation, he developed a reputation as a preeminent time-lapse photographer. Later he directed commercials and spectacular time-lapse sequences that have been featured in films such as "American Beauty," among other endeavors.

It was while traveling the country to direct promotional spots for local news broadcasts that he got the idea for a movie featuring vignettes that, strung together, "would provide a snapshot of the American character." He spent millions of his own dollars to shoot "Heart," which uses 35mm stock and looks like the priciest of IMAX films. ("I’m out on a limb, big time," he said of the expense.)

Schwartzberg persevered even as every studio in town rejected his film; Disney finally bought "Heart" 18 months ago, well before the Moore brouhaha.

If generating movie controversies has become as American as apple pie, Schwartzberg wants no part of it. "For me, it’s a nonissue," he said.

He’s equally direct with those who might label his film as right wing or naive: "I don’t think it’s hokey to love your country," he said.

"America’s Heart and Soul" opens today in Los Angeles.

Yom HaShoah’s Uncertain Future


Will lighting six candles and reciting "Kaddish" rouse the emotions and intellect of generations of Jews who never met a Holocaust survivor?

Within the next 40 years or so, most Holocaust survivors will no longer be alive, making this question less theoretical. Before that happens, Holocaust scholars and professionals are challenging today’s Jews to take responsibility for either etching Yom HaShoah as a permanent fixture onto the Jewish calendar, or letting it fade into history along with the survivors who founded it.

"I have been alive for every Yom HaShoah in Jewish history. It’s the equivalent of being in the first generation that observed Passover," said Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at the University of Judaism. "We are precisely in that first iteration as that first generation. That is why we are reaching for forms. It is an incredible privilege and an incredible responsibility, and part of that responsibility is how do we shape the forms that will endure?"

The question comes amid increasing debate about how prominent a role the Holocaust should play in American Jewish identity, and whether resources would be better spent on Jewish education and positive cultural activities. At the same time, and pulling in the opposite direction, increasing anti-Semitism and violence against Jews in Israel, Europe and other countries has called into question the comfort of assuming that the world has learned the lessons of the Holocaust.

"A basic rule for the times we live in today is that we should no longer stand in silent tribute to dead Jews with anyone who has no respect or concern for live ones," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

But wherever one falls on the balance of how central the Holocaust should be to American Jewry, most agree that remembrance on Yom HaShoah is appropriate, and the only question becomes in what form.

"We are in a transitional period in Jewish history," Cooper said. "The survivors, the witnesses, are slowly but inevitably leaving the scene, and the connectedness to the first-person experience is certainly crucial. It’s going to be a challenge to maintain the poignancy, the educational aspect and the communal commitment to remembering Yom Hashoah. In order to have that, you have to have more year-round education of our young."

To that end, the Wiesenthal Center makes sure that at least half the audience at Yom HaShoah programs are students, and thousands of students visit the Museum of Tolerance every year.

Interfaith memorials and joint ceremonies with other groups who have been victimized — Rwandans, Armenians, Kosovars — have also become common. Marcia Reines Josephy, former director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said that as long as the uniqueness of the Holocaust is not compromised in such events, such joint remembrances help transmit what she thinks should be the key message of Yom HaShoah.

"The lesson I always tried to tell the students who came to the museum was that the Holocaust is the ultimate degradation of humanity, but if we can learn from that that you don’t have to like everybody you associate with but you can respect differences, than we’ve learned something important," Josephy said.

While lighting six memorial candles, reciting "Kaddish" and the "El Maleh Rachamim" memorial prayer have become standards at most events, some are trying to bring Yom HaShoah into line with other enduring Jewish observances by adding sacred texts and ritual actions.

The Conservative movement last year introduced Megillat HaShoah, a six-chapter booklet written by Rabbi Avigdor Shinan that tells of the Holocaust from six different vantage points.

"We felt there was a need for a sacred text that would be read every year — like the Book of Esther on Purim, or Ruth on Shavuot," said Rabbi Perry Rank, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation has created a Yom HaShoah seder, where teenagers act out and retell the stories of survivors — both published ones and the personal stories of shul members. Incorporated into the storytelling are ritualized foods — dry bread and watery boiled cabbage. At various points participants are asked to put their jewelry and glasses into a large box, or to get up and move away from their children.

"What I found is that survivors themselves deeply appreciate this kind of observance and have been very forthcoming in giving us their stories for adaptation," said Kanefsky, who picked up the idea for a seder from Rabbi Avi Weiss in Riverdale, N.Y. "The children have a means of connecting to the Shoah in an emotional and intellectual way they wouldn’t otherwise have."

Dr. Joel Geiderman, director of emergency medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, is looking for a more subtle but universal observance. Geiderman, the son of survivors who sits on the United States Holocaust Council, is promoting the idea of everyone — Jews and non-Jews — wearing yellow star lapel pins on Yom HaShoah.

"I think even in the United States there is not enough awareness of Yom HaShoah," said Geiderman, who hopes to launch the pin next year. "I think in the last few years there are more events and community activities, but it would be nice if there was something done in a more routine manner, more universally. This was a tragedy for all mankind."

Berenbaum said he believes more people attend Yom HaShoah events today than did 25 years ago, because rather than fading from memory the Holocaust has gained significance as it moves further into history.

"I think it is safe to say that there are enough institutions that are committed to remembering the Holocaust that they will succeed in preserving the memory," said Berenbaum, who played a key role in creating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "In every field of knowledge worldwide — films, museum, literature, historical scholarship — the Holocaust occupies an enormously significant role and that is because it has become the negative absolute of modern society. Consequently it would be wrong to presume that it would not be around in another generation."

Add to that the unprecedented volume of recorded firsthand testimony, and the legacy of the Holocaust seems all but assured.

The Israeli parliament in 1950 established the 27th of Nissan as Yom HaShoah V’hagevurah, the Day of Holocaust and Heroism. While early remembrances were primarily attended by survivors, by the 1960s the date was more universally observed, and in 1980 the United States Congress established the Days of Remembrance, mandating federal agencies to commemorate the Holocaust during the week of Yom HaShoah.

It was then that large communal observances began to take shape, such as the communitywide memorial at Pan Pacific Park, which attracts hundreds every year (see sidebar).

Today, the Jewish community again finds itself at a juncture in Holocaust remembrance.

Berenbaum watches all of these attempts with interest, aware that the searching going on in this generation will help Yom HaShoah to find its natural and hopefully lasting expression.

One of the reasons a satisfactory expression has remained elusive is because the topic itself is so difficult, he said.

Some historical tragedies, such as Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Temple, are remembered in theological terms — we sinned, God punished us, we repented. Others, such as Purim and Chanukah, are about God snatching the Jews from the jaws of defeat.

But the Holocaust neither makes theological sense, nor can the deaths of 6 million be termed anything other than defeat, despite attempts to train the lens on resistance.

"The Holocaust challenges our religious forms, it challenges our religious responses, it challenges a whole range of things," Berenbaum said. "When we don’t develop an easy language of commemoration in part it is because the reality of how to deal with the Holocaust is complex and tough."

The ‘Secret Lives’ of Shoah’s Hidden


In 1993, filmmaker Aviva Slesin traveled to Lithuania to meet Matilda Salenekas, the non-Jew who hid her from the Nazis when she was a small child. She had no memories of Salenekas, whom she had not seen since 1945, and the two women did not speak the same language.

"But the feeling between us was so powerful," Slesin said by phone from her Manhattan home. "We both wept, and I understood that in some strong way we were connected. I began wondering whether the experience was similar for other hidden children, and if they had memories of their rescuers, what the relationship was about."

Slesin’s curiosity led her to produce and direct a documentary, "Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During World War II," which joins a particularly heartwrenching subgenre of Holocaust cinema: documentaries about child survivors by filmmakers with a family connection to the subject. Examples include Pierre Sauvage’s "Weapons of the Spirit" (1987) and Deborah Oppenheimer’s Oscar-winning "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" (2000). The films are especially poignant because only 10 percent of Jewish children survived the war.

Slesin’s affecting but unsentimental documentary focuses on the psychological aftermath of hiding, such as the sense of abandonment child survivors carried into adulthood and the difficulty rebonding with parents.

Alice Sondike, who was sheltered on a farm in Poland, describes the revulsion she felt when her mother, Julia Melcer, returned from Auschwitz.

"I was covered with lice, and she was trying to clean me up," Sondike says on camera. "What she looked like when she came back…. I didn’t believe she was my mother."

Melcer, sitting next to Sondike, nods and adds that her daughter said, "Don’t touch me with your Jewish hands."

Other relationships also proved strained.

"Hidden children are generally very adaptable, but for some of us, the bonding mechanisms are altered or broken," Slesin said. "I think that children have only so many bondings in them. At some point, they don’t ‘take’ anymore."

The filmmaker speaks from personal experience. Born Aviva Leibowitch in 1943, she was smuggled out of a Jewish ghetto in a suitcase before being placed with Salenekas and her husband, Juozas, when she was 9 months old. Slesin, who has never married or had children, vaguely remembers that when her mother returned from Stutthof concentration camp two years later, "she was a stranger and I didn’t want to go with her."

Like most survivors who had hidden their children, Slesin’s mother had been greatly altered by the war.

"Many of the returning parents were themselves orphans and they were grieving," the director said. "They looked like hell because they had been to hell and back."

Over the next decade, Slesin lived a nomad’s existence, relocating to Munich, New York and Montreal as her mother married, was widowed and remarried.

"It was not a happy time for me," she said of the years with her second stepfather. "That was one bonding too many I was asked to do, and it just didn’t work."

In 1965, Slesin moved to Manhattan, she said, "To start my grownup life in a place with no history or baggage from my family." Because of her refugee experience, she was "never a joiner," but she was a good observer — which in part led her to become a filmmaker.

Over the next 30 years, Slesin made movies that were anything but personal, winning the Oscar for her 1987 documentary, "The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table."

The change came after she attended a convention of hidden children in 1991; two years later, she set off for Salenekas’ Kovno, Lithuania, home with a translator.

"I wanted to see if I could get some memories or any kind of clues into my character," she said. I also wanted to find out why she risked her life to save me, but she just sighed a lot when I asked her that. She wasn’t really able to answer."

Slesin hoped to learn more by quizzing survivors who, like herself, had been hidden by rescuers without apparent ulterior motives.

"Her questions were penetrating," the film’s co-producer and writer, Toby Appleton Perl, recalled. "Aviva was very much driven by her need to understand certain things about her experience."

During interviews, conducted in Israel and Europe, Slesin said, she was deeply touched by a Dutch woman who also had been hidden as a small child. Erica Polak recounted the "difficult relationship" she had with her mother and the great joy she had experienced upon reuniting with her rescuer.

"She moved me enormously because she had no memory either of this woman, yet her feelings about her were so strong," the director said. Interviews like Polak’s were revealing for Slesin.

"What I have come to understand is that our rescuers were also our parents," she said. "When you are a child, the people who feed you, protect you and care for you in essence are your parents. That explains why the bonds are so emotional and lasting, even after more than 50 years."

"Secret Lives" opens June 20 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

Failing Minds Fall Prey to Holocaust


"Why did you come? Go, go before it’s too late," Laja Szydlowski warned her daughter, Hanna. She then whispered, "They’re killing people here. You don’t understand."

This encounter did not take place in 1940, with Szydlowski holed up in a cramped apartment in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. This happened less than a year ago, in a cheerfully furnished room at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). However, in Szydlowski’s mind, she was back in Lodz. This time the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, rather than the Nazis, imprisoned her.

"What happens," explained Dr. Marla Martin, a clinical psychologist who has worked intensively at JHA for more than 10 years, "is that the sense of time is impacted by dementia, and the person again becomes the young man or woman struggling against all odds to survive."

Szydlowski, 93, has been reliving the Holocaust for the past six or seven years, according to her daughter, Hanna Golan. However, her Alzheimer’s disease has now progressed to where she can no longer verbally communicate. "She is constantly crying," Golan said.

Szydlowski is one of an estimated 11,000-12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles County, whose average age is 81. With nearly half of all elderly people 85 or older affected to some degree by Alzheimer’s or other dementias, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of those Holocaust survivors, who are reliving in their minds the roundups, selections, starvation, brutality and the killing of family members, often in their presence, is significant.

Even without dementia, many survivors have nightmares, fear abandonment, act secretively and read anti-Semitism into innocent interactions. They react adversely to such seemingly normal activities as standing in lines or dealing with uniformed personnel. Some even avoid the oil well on the Beverly Hills High School campus, now painted with flowers, because it is a reminder of the smokestack at Auschwitz.

Helen Zisner, 82, who is in early stages of dementia and living at the Vista del Sol Care Center in Culver City, is not catapulted back into the Holocaust but reacts to certain stimuli.

"You can’t approach her from behind," her son, Benjamin, said. "She’ll ask, ‘Who are you here for?’ because she’s reminded of guards entering her concentration camp barracks."

But for survivors with more pronounced dementia, the Holocaust experience exacerbates the paranoia and suspiciousness, and, Martin said, "Those people are much more likely to experience flashbacks."

JHA, with a population of 800 residents, houses only 41 Holocaust survivors in its residential and skilled-nursing facilities, according to Laurie Manners, administrator of the Grancell Village campus. The number is small but, with over two-thirds of them suffering from some degree of dementia, the behaviors stand out.

"We have people who hoard food, who stockpile it in their rooms," Manners said. "And we have one resident who is convinced that noxious fumes are coming in through his air conditioning vent. ‘It’s poison gas. I’m suffocating,’ he tells us."

Holocaust survivors, who felt so deprived, often cannot adjust to living with a roommate, whom they may believe is plotting against them or stealing their possessions. Some are very distrustful.

Haya Berci, JHA’s executive director of nursing, said, "If something goes wrong, some survivors are afraid to say anything, for fear of retaliation."

They also have issues surrounding money, such as one resident who believed a rabbi had stolen her $50,000. Many want to sleep with their cash. These behaviors happen more readily in an institutional setting, where survivors feel less in control, according to Martin.

"They can react to showering or to undergoing a medical procedure," she said. "They think the hospital is performing experiments on them and their family has been murdered."

Also, she said, many lose the ability to speak and understand English and are frightened by people talking in what they perceive as a foreign language.

Most survivors, however, according to Paula Fern, director of Jewish Family Service’s (JFS) Pico-Robertson Storefront and the Holocaust Survivors Program, like most elderly, generally live in their own homes, alone or with paid caregivers or with relatives.

JFS works with about 650 survivors in their 60s and older, about 10 percent of whom suffer from some type of dementia. Caseworkers in four storefront facilities make home visits, assisting the survivors and their families. Additionally, JFS provides adult day care for Alzheimer’s clients in three locations, as well as respite time for families.

Still, JFS has seen its share of survivors with Alzheimer’s or dementia who, according to Fern, "are caught in the moment of the Holocaust and relive all that terror, anguish, anxiety and peril."

Fern tells of a past client, a physically fit man in his 70s, who, donning a suit, tie and hat, and putting his financial papers and money into a leather briefcase, disappeared. He stayed with various friends, a few days at a time, and only occasionally resurfaced.

"It took a long time to figure out he had been a courier in the Paris underground and was re-experiencing those days," Fern explained. Because he had no family, JFS arranged for a private conservator.

"This phenomenon is not a new revelation," Fern said. JFS has had survivor clients since 1945 and began a program specifically for aging clients in 1997.

Currently JFS has an extensive program for survivors and their families funded by the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, as well as private donations. Additional training on Alzheimer’s and other aging issues is provided by the Alzheimer’s Association and JFS staff.

"Training, training, training," stressed Berci of JHA, which provides training to new employees, along with ongoing education for all staff members, on Jewish culture and issues, including the Holocaust. Recently, JHA received a grant from Wells Fargo Bank to set up a comprehensive program specifically to assist Holocaust survivors, including those with dementia, and their families.

Interestingly, while the Holocaust population in general is decreasing, this subset is actually increasing as survivors, like the general population, are living longer, and thus are more likely to become demented.

"The cruel irony," geriatric psychiatrist Daniel Plotkin said, "is that dementia doesn’t protect these people. Their long-term memory remains intact."

Plotkin stressed the importance of a trusting relationship, whether it’s with the spouse or a hired caregiver.

For Szydlowski, that trusted person is her husband, Michael, 94, who also lives at JHA and comes to his wife’s room every day before she rises.

"He is afraid to have her wake up and have him not there, because that would be terrible for her," Golan explained. "He doesn’t sleep because he’s afraid of oversleeping."

He stays with her in the Alzheimer’s day room, taking time off only to eat and, at his daughter’s urging, to play bingo a couple times a week.

"I’m not sure she recognizes my father or me, but she feels safe with us," she said. "With everyone else, even nurses who have cared for her for years, she struggles."

For some, artistic pursuits help tame the Holocaust demons. Sam Gal, 81, entered JHA in 1998 and took up painting for the first time. He spent every day in the art room, creating a prolific portfolio of paintings, which gradually became lighter, in both content and appearance. About two years ago, as dementia set in, he was forced to stop.

Medication can sometimes help control the agitation and paranoia, though it can’t prevent flashbacks. People can also often be distracted, with a song or a walk. For those with severe dementia, just holding their hand or talking to them in their language of origin can comfort them.

"Our philosophy is to know each person," Manners said. "What were his hobbies? What did he do for a living? Often, we can calm someone by doing something familiar."

Some known triggers can be eliminated, even in institutional settings. In JHA, patients can be given baths rather than showers. The overhead paging system is rarely used. Bank statements have been simplified, to make them more understandable, and residents have a locking drawer in their room, to securely store their possessions.

Facilities can also be made as homelike as possible. JHA’s Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center, which opened a year ago on the Eisenberg campus with 96 beds for residents with dementia, offers lots of sunlight, with floor-to-ceiling windows, carpeted rooms and a soft décor. Some residents simply become less agitated as they become familiar with their surroundings and staff and relax into a routine.

"However," Fern said, "most children are extremely reluctant to place their survivor parents in facilities. It’s a tough sell even to get them into adult day care."

Miriam, who declined to give her last name and whose mother, 78, suffers from Alzheimer’s, arranges care for her parents in their own home. That is also their wish.

"They’ve gone through so much in life," she said. "I don’t want anything at the end of their lives to resemble the hardships they went through at the beginning."

Golan’s parents, on the other hand, independently made the decision to move into the JHA in 1995. She visits them several times a week, though she’s not certain her mother realizes she’s there.

"She’s fighting for her life," Golan said, explaining that her mother’s first husband was beaten to death in front of her, just before her 2-year-old daughter was taken away. She subsequently spent time in Auschwitz, Treblinka and Mauthausen.

"Once was enough," Golan said. "Once was too much."



Remembrance Rites to Mark Holocaust

Two Holocaust remembrance events will be held on April 29 and May 4 at the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park.

The April 29 observance, starting at 11 a.m., will bring together approximately 1,600 students from 25 public, Jewish and Catholic schools for a memorial program conducted by students and for readings by Holocaust survivors. Each participating school will receive four books for its library.

One of the books is "Abiding Hope, Bearing Witness to the Holocaust," by Benjamin A. Samuelson. The author, who uses a pen name, was forced to work as a member of the sonderkommando, which operated the crematoria. He later was wounded fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. The books are being donated by the Greta Savage Memorial Foundation.

The other three books are "Witness to the Truth," by survivor and philanthropist Nathan Shapell; "The Children of Willesden Lane," by Mona Golabek; and "In the Shadow of the Past, Lest We Forget," the stories of 12 survivors.

Both events are being underwritten by Jona Goldrich, chairman of the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Second Generation.

The Holocaust Monument is located at the north end of Pan Pacific Park, between Beverly Boulevard and Third Street, adjacent to The Grove and Farmers Market.

The May 4 observance will be held at 1:45 p.m. Free transportation will be available from Westwood and the San Fernando Valley by preregistration. For information, phone (310) 280-5010 or (310) 821-9919. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

New Releases Keep Shoah an Open Book


“The secret of redemption is remembrance,” as a sign announces in Israel’s Yad Vashem, an institution dedicated to remembering the Holocaust. Books, too, are in service of memory, inspiring readers to think again and anew — and to fight forgetfulness. As Yom HaShoah approaches, the call to memory resounds.

Despite the many thousands of books on the subject, there’s still much about the Holocaust that hasn’t previously been written about and published. This season, there are important new works by scholars analyzing newly available material, journalists uncovering little-known episodes, artists with new interpretations, survivors telling their own stories for the first time and more.

In “Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust” (Yale, 2003) scholar Nechama Tec, who is herself a Holocaust survivor, tackles a topic that has been rarely discussed: the effects of gender on experience during the Holocaust. Through interviews conducted over a decade, she analyzes patterns of behavior in terms of women’s and men’s self-esteem and coping strategies.

“Even though the Germans were committed to sending all Jews to their deaths, for a variety of reasons women and men traveled toward that destination on distinct roads,” Tec writes. Recognizing that gender is a complex and sensitive issue, she looks at the issue from different vantage points and in various settings. She finds differences between how people reacted in the ghettos and concentration camps and those fighting in the forests, as well as social differences in each setting. She explains that those in the upper classes had “farther to fall” and seemed to have a harder time enduring constant humiliations.

Some anti-Jewish measures were gender specific. She shows how for many men, ruthless assaults led to the loss of their abilities to perform their roles as providers and protectors for their families, and also to their becoming demoralized and depressed. Many women, used to being in supportive roles, began to take on some of the traditional male roles with their families, as well as with people in the larger community.

The author of several award-winning books on the Holocaust and a professor at the University of Connecticut, Tec is a member of the Council of the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Holocaust: A History” by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt (Norton, 2003) is a remarkable work, a detailed and scholarly one-volume history that’s highly accessible for general readers. The authors, who previously collaborated on the award-winning “Auschwitz,” place the Holocaust in the context of European history and are mindful of the stories of individuals. Included are 75 illustrations and 16 original maps.

Dwork is the author of “Children With a Star” and a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University, where she is founding director of their Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Van Pelt, who was born in Holland, is professor of cultural history at the University of Waterloo and author of “The Case for Auschwitz.”

In his eighth book on a Holocaust theme, Sir Martin Gilbert presents inspiring stories of Christian and Muslim people — farmers, priests, soldiers, diplomats and other extraordinary “ordinary” people — in every occupied country, who risked all to save Jews from deportation and death. “The Righteous: The Unsung History of the Holocaust” (Henry Holt), draws on 25 years of research. In these true stories, “righteous acts testified to the survival of humane values and to the courage of those who save human life rather than allow it to be destroyed…. Six million Jews were murdered, but tens of thousands were saved.”

The author, a historian and the official biographer of Winston Churchill, is the author of eight books on Holocaust themes. This is the first to focus on altruism. Gilbert quotes Abraham Foxman, who was saved as a child by his nanny in Vilna, “Even in hell, even in that hell called the Holocaust, there was goodness, there was kindness, and there was love and compassion.”

“The Hidden Life of Otto Frank” by Carol Ann Lee (Morrow, 2003) is a penetrating, robust biography of the man turned into a legend by the publication of his daughter’s diary. The author breaks new ground in naming the man, a member of the Dutch Nazi party, who betrayed the Franks and their friends in 1944. The book was published to much acclaim and controversy when it was released in the Netherlands last year, and since then, Lee has gotten new information, included in the American edition. The English-born author, who previously wrote a biography of Anne Frank, lives in Amsterdam.

Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins bring to light the story of the largest maritime loss of civilian life during World War II, when the Struma, a ship filled with Jewish refugees with hopes to get to Palestine, exploded on the Black Sea, near Istanbul. About 800 people were killed in this little-known 1942 episode, including more than 100 children. One man survived; he is one of the sources in the compelling, well-written narrative, “Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II’s Holocaust at Sea” (Ecco). The authors piece together the facts, and also recount recent attempts to locate the Struma at the bottom of the sea, a search initiated by the grandson of two victims. An appendix lists the names and ages of the victims. Frantz is the former Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times, now investigations editor for the newspaper, and his wife, Collins, has covered Turkey for the Chicago Tribune.

In 1941, when 16-year old Lena Jedwab left her Bialystock home for summer camp in Russia, she expected to return in a few weeks. But that was not to be, and she was stranded, separated from her family, after Germany invaded the former Soviet Union. “Girl With Two Landscapes: The Wartime Diary of Lena Jedwab 1941-1945” (Holmes & Meier, 2002) is the diary she began keeping that summer in a children’s home, translated from the Yiddish by Solon Beinfeld, with an introduction by Jan T. Gross and a foreword by Irena Klepfisz. The book is a powerful document by a young woman of intelligence, enthusiasm and moral strength, with much to say about themes of home and exile, as well as daily life. The author, Lena Jedwab Rozenberg, now lives in Paris.

The title, “Here There Is No Why,” Rachel Chencinski Roth’s memoir (translated from the Polish, with a grant from Yad Vashem), is Dr. Joseph Mengele’s response to the author and millions of others. The book is the fulfillment of a promise the author made at Maidenek, when she told a young friend she would tell the world of the horrors they experienced. The daughter of a journalist, she writes of her teenage life in the Warsaw Ghetto, her participation in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and her transports, along with her aunt, to several concentration camps.

The themes of the Shoah are taken up artistically by Judith Weinshall Liberman, who has just published a collection of her work, “Holocaust Wall Hangings” (Schoen Books, 2002). The artist was born in then-Palestine in the ’30s, and aware — as much as a teenager might be — of the Holocaust as people close to her were losing loved ones. In 1947, she moved to the United States to pursue her education, earned four university degrees and chose to pursue her artwork after lecturing and writing about law. Since 1988, she has been creating art, mostly on fabric, with a Holocaust theme, and many of her works are exhibited in the United States and Israel. She uses color expressively, although in limited ways, and also employs embroidery and beading, and repeated imagery like boxcars and views of Anne Frank. Included are essays by art historians and curators and explanations of each color plate.

Newly available:
Back in print, after Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for literature are two of his novels, “Fateless,” his first and perhaps best-known novel about a Hungarian Jewish boy’s experiences in concentration camps and after the war, and “Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” the story of a Holocaust survivor taking stock of his life in middle age, both translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Hydra/Northwestern University Press).

True Tales From the Holocaust and After


"Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After" by Henryk Grynberg. Translated from Polish by Alicia Nitecki. Edited by Theodosia Robertson. (Penguin Books, 2002).

Until recently, the word Drohobycz (pronounced "Dro-ho-bit-ch") sounded to most American readers like an exotic Eastern European tongue twister.

Then, three years ago, the name of this Ukrainian town appeared in the world press when representatives of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial controversially claimed a set of murals painted by Bruno Schulz, a lifelong resident of Drohobycz who was gunned down by the Gestapo there in 1942, and is now considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

It is Bruno Schulz’s haunting self-portrait that gazes at us from the cover of Henryk Grynberg’s powerful book, "Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories," and it is Schulz and his fellow residents of the eastern borderlands of prewar Poland who inspire Grynberg’s tales, which have been awarded the 2002 Koret Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

A child survivor of the Holocaust and longtime resident of the United States, Grynberg has dealt directly or indirectly with the Holocaust in 26 books of prose, poetry, essays and drama, all written in his native Polish.

He considers the Holocaust singularly important as a lesson, a warning and a turning point in the history of our civilization, and frequently calls himself a guardian of the graves and the writer of the dead.

The documentary-like stories of "Drohobycz, Drohobycz" are set in almost a dozen countries. His narrators are survivors of ghettos, labor and death camps, as well as wartime deportations to the Soviet Union.

The narrators recall hundreds of names, places and local historical events; in the face of destruction, these details of the past acquire a new poignancy, and Grynberg’s allusions underline the wide geographical scope of the Shoah.

Letting others speak is Grynberg’s conscious strategy — he takes his inspiration from real testimonies but crafts them with fictional techniques. We can only guess that the names mentioned in the dedications preceding each tale — "Halina M." or "Janina" or "Ben, Zoila, Michal and Basia" — belong to the real-life victims on whose lives the fictions are based.

Grynberg dutifully catalogs these survivors’ responses to the horrors they have experienced and the challenges of survival. In some cases, the survivors, many of whom like Grynberg, himself, are children of the Holocaust, view the world from a child’s perspective.

After the war, the narrator of "A Hungarian Sketch" is surprised to see mothers with children strolling in the street; having miraculously escaped the clutches of Mengele, she imagined there can be no more mothers and children in the world.

Others experience permanent alienation: "To the Americans I was a foreigner," says the narrator of "A Pact With God." "To the Poles, a hidden Jew. Who was I to the Jews?" The narrator of "A Family Sketch" remarks, "I married twice and didn’t try after that. I didn’t want to have children. I’d rather be by myself." Another woman narrator argues survivors are like painters unrecognized during their lifetimes.

Although Grynberg is very careful to give his narrators their own voices, his authorial touch is felt in the ironic distance, sense of absurdity and even humor of these tales. A former actor, Grynberg has said that he has been encouraged by his editors to exploit his talent for comedy in his fiction. Though only so much humor is appropriate in stories as grim and often heartbreaking as these, Grynberg’s ironic sensibility makes his tale-testimonies easier to read, as their tragedy is tempered for the reader who otherwise might be overwhelmed with the scope of suffering and horror he describes.

Twenty years ago, Philip Roth introduced Schulz to the American audience in the series "Writers From the Other Europe." Since then, Schulz’s life and work have inspired novels by Cynthia Ozick and David Grossman, and a powerful biography by Jerzy Ficowski, recently translated into English. Schulz’s famous example illustrates how important it is that new stories of tragedy and survival continue to be unearthed from the wartime and post-war experiences of Polish Jews. In "Drohobycz, Drohobycz," Grynberg carries on this work, using fiction to tell "True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After" and to create a compelling portrait of the effect two totalitarian systems — Nazism and Stalinist communism — had on the lives of millions. By sharing his own story and those of more than a dozen survivors, Grynberg helps these millions become less anonymous.


Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska is a professor of American and comparative literature
and head of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin,
Poland, and the co-editor of “Contemporary Jewish Writing in Poland: An Anthology.” This review originally
appeared on the recently redesigned JBooks.com, the online Jewish book community produced by Jewish Family & Life.

Offbeat Austrian


The opening scene of “Gebürtig” is as clever and shocking ascene you’ll see on screen this year: The cold, mist-covered grounds of aconcentration camp. Skeletal Jews in ragged clothes huddle together for warmth.Nearby, SS officers in thick wool coats smoke, laugh and drink. An old Jew slips,collapses. An SS man rushes over, extends his hand, helps him up and offers himhis cigarette.

These are actors in the midst of shooting a major Holocaustmovie, and in the course of “Gebürtig,” set in Vienna during the Waldheimaffair of the late 1980s, we will get to know how they and others deal with thereality of what they are paid to fictionalize.

Gebürtig, Austria’s entry into the competition for BestForeign Film in the upcoming Oscar race, is a clever and mostly engaging moviethat goes after the big questions: Is the Holocaust best told as documentary orfiction? Are its terrors better left to historians or storytellers? Are itstruth found in the courtroom or in poetry? In other words, how do you come to termswith coming to terms with the past?

The movie, based on a 1992 novel by co-writer andco-director Robert Schindel, has a delightfully jaundiced view of the wholeHolocaust movie industry. It’s a Holocaust movie that could, and should, onlybe made in the wake of dozens of more serious Holocaust movies. It has, too, amuch more serious take on how Austrians themselves have or have not come togrips with their history.

The movie tracks a handful of Austrians as they come togrips with how the Holocaust, or the aftermath of the Holocaust, influencestheir lives. A Viennese journalist sets out for New York to convince Jewishimmigrant Hermann Gebirtig, whose name is spelled differently than the film’stitle, to return to the town of his birth and give evidence in court against aformer concentration camp supervisor. A famous German journalist is forced tofinally face the fact that he is the son of a high-ranking SS doctor. Jewishcabaret artist Danny Demant and his circle of theatrical friends — the mixed-togetherchildren of victims and aggressors — vie for parts in a Hollywood Holocaustmovie, even as Demant tries to forget his Jewishness in the arms of a beautifulER doctor.

“Once the world capital of anti-Semitism, Vienna has becomethe capital of forgetting,” Demant sings in his cabaret.

The stories come together in a very European, untidyconclusion, when Gebirtig does return to testify, only to see the defendantreleased for lack of evidence. Was Gebirtig’s journey a waste of time? The oldpoet shrugs.

“Vienna is a beautiful city. To die for,” he says.

So is much of this movie.

The Academy Award nominations will be televised at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 11 on ABC.

Q & A With Steven Spielberg


Prior to the Shoah Foundation’s annual banquet on Dec. 5, Contributing Editor Tom Tugend conducted an e-mail interview with its founder, director Steven Spielberg.

Tom Tugend: Why have there been so many Holocaust-themed books and films in recent years?

Steven Spielberg: I think with the passing of time, and with current world events, survivors of the Holocaust are compelled to share their stories. Racism and terror are not isolated to World War II Europe, and atrocities continue to occur around the globe.

I think Americans came to realize this on a much more personal level after Sept. 11. I remember many people saying, "Why would they do this to us?" The Jews said the same thing back in the 1940s.

I hope that each book and film about the Holocaust brings us closer to understanding why such horrific events continue to take place, and how to prevent them in the future.

TT: Do you feel the success of "Schindler’s List" helped pave the way for these projects?

SS: "Schindler’s List" introduced the Holocaust to a new generation of filmgoers, and for this I am grateful. I’m delighted that films, as well as television miniseries, can continue to examine this part of history. There has also been a string of independent films produced in Europe about the Holocaust, and these films have also been well received throughout Europe, as well as in the U.S.

TT: Is there a danger that too many such films will cause people to become uninterested in the subject?

SS: Every time these films are shown, they reach a whole new audience — children, teens and adults. They encourage young viewers to ask questions, and this leads to dialogue.

There is a term called "Holocaust fatigue," which is slightly offensive, but I understand it. Most of us don’t want to hear about things that are disturbing and upsetting. On the other hand, the stories of survivors are hopeful stories … of people triumphing over oppression and racism and rebuilding their lives.

TT: What are you proudest of vis-à-vis the Shoah Foundation?

SS: I had no idea the Shoah Foundation would evolve into such an amazing global organization. We have collected almost 52,000 eyewitness testimonies around the world, and I am inspired by the courage these individuals have shown by sitting in front of a camera and reliving these events. To have this archive is, indeed, a gift to all of us.

And, I have seen students watch testimonies and become transformed by the experience. This is very rewarding. To affect one person at a time. To change a life in even the smallest way, so that they might stop and consider the consequences of their actions or choices. This is why the Shoah Foundation exists.

I want the Shoah Foundation to make a difference in the world. I want to someday look back and be able to say, "The survivors came from the ashes to change the world."

At the foundation, we continue to index the testimonies so that they will be available for research, and we are currently disseminating the archive in a variety of ways: through collections in museums and other institutions and through educational products, such as documentaries and educational CD-ROMs.

It is vital the testimonies be returned to the countries and communities from which they came, and we are establishing partnerships with institutions across the globe to do this. Our President and CEO, Douglas Greenberg, has just returned from Australia, where he met with potential partners and supporters to help bring the Australian collection to that community.

TT: Are you concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in places like Eastern Europe and in the Arab world? Do you feel this means people have not learned from the example of the Holocaust?

SS: Everyone should be concerned about anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred throughout the world. That’s why the mission of the Shoah Foundation is to work toward understanding among all people, so that hatred and bigotry can be diminished.

TT: Is the Shoah Foundation planning to do anything to reach out to people in the Arab world?

SS: The Shoah Foundation’s mission is to bring its message of tolerance to underserved populations throughout the world. We are currently focusing on communities throughout Europe and parts of the United States, and this is a mammoth task to undertake. While there are no current plans, I’m sure there will come a time when the foundation will reach out to the Arab world.

TT: Do you have any plans to revisit the Holocaust in a future feature film project?

SS: I think the global educational work of the Shoah Foundation is the most effective way I can reach an audience about the history of the Holocaust and the consequences of hatred and violence.

"Schindler’s List," while based on facts and historical incidents, is a feature film with actors and sets. There is nothing more powerful than watching a survivor look the camera — and you — in the eye and recall the personal events that occurred in his or her life.

TT: What is the Jewish content of your life today?

SS: We observe the High Holidays and the prime holidays throughout the year. My wife, Kate [Capshaw], bakes challah for the Sabbath, which is something the whole family observes to honor our tradition.

Last year, one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life was my son Theo’s bar mitzvah. Kate and I and our family are looking forward to other joyous celebrations.

TT: Have Jews in Hollywood been outspoken enough in support of Israel at this time? If not, please explain your theories as to why they have not been outspoken enough. How do you personally feel about the situation in Israel?

SS: We know there is a crisis that has been devastating to innocent victims, but it would be inappropriate for me to make a generalization about the Jews of Hollywood.