How a comic book kept this Dutch Jewish couple close but out of Nazis’ reach

As a Dutch Jewish couple hiding separately from the Nazis, Emmanuel Joels and Hetty van Son were literally drawn together by a comic book of Emmanuel’s romantic invention.

After narrowly avoiding deportation to Auschwitz thanks to a policeman’s tip, the young couple spent 2 1/2 years living less than a mile apart, each in the care of rescuers with ties to the resistance in the city of Apeldoorn, 55 miles east of Amsterdam.

It was a fortunate situation in a country where 75 percent of Dutch Jewry were murdered — the highest death rate in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Their benefactors were so caring that they risked catching Hetty’s tuberculosis, supplying her with the rare luxury of fatty foods to treat her.

Even though they were safe and close, the lovers could not see one another — their hiding places were separated by a major traffic artery for Nazi troops that they could not risk crossing.

So Emmanuel – or E., as he calls himself – devised a creative and discreet way for the couple to stay in touch and offer mutual support: He drew his love a colorful comic book, dispatching a new episode each week to her safe house. The courier was Geeske Schurink, the 7-year-old daughter of the family that sheltered E.

After decades of storage in a cardboard box, E.’s three wartime detective graphic novels about Dompie Stompie, a stick figure detective made out of what appears to be metal wire, finally was published last year. It forms the basis for an exhibition that opened last month at the Jewish Historical Museum here.

The Amsterdam museum, a renowned institution that receives more than 250,000 visits annually, put E.’s “Dompie Stompie Metal Wire Man” series on display as “an illustration of stubborn bravery” during the Holocaust, curator Irene Faber told JTA.

Yet the books – each containing 30-odd pages filled with neatly handwritten text and drawings — do not mention the Holocaust or the war. Rather they are escapist stories about imaginary countries that Dompie Stompie visits in his travels, where he is asked to solve crimes.

Joels, a retired finance auditor with a photographic memory who rarely speaks about his emotions, says he took up painting because it was the hobby of choice at the Schurinks, the impoverished family that hid him and several other Jews during the Holocaust.

Bored and cut off from the outside world, Joels brushed up his sketching skills from high school and drew from memory a Monopoly board for the family’s four children. They had never heard of the game.

He says he chose a stick figure for his graphic novels’ protagonist because he was no good at drawing faces. But his oldest daughter, Jet Naftaniel, believes there is more to the choice: She says it “symbolizes simplicity and fortitude” as well as, perhaps, the barbed wire fences that were surrounding ghettos and concentration camps.

Joels says he found his own drawings “silly.” But after the war, he adopted the stick figure as his John Hancock and would often make humorous references to Dompie Stompie’s adventures around the dinner table, Jet says.

In the third and final “Dompie Stompie” volume, the detective is set upon by a bird of prey that resembles the Imperial Eagle that featured heavily in Nazi imagery. The bird drops Dompie in front of a camouflaged bunker that evokes the author’s own life in hiding.

Joels, now 97 and living in an assisted-living facility, says he never intended such allusions, attempting merely to entertain his fiancee with drawings that would betray neither their author nor intended reader in case they were ever intercepted. They were married shortly after the war ended.

A scan of a page out of E Joels' graphic novel A scan of a page out of E Joels’ graphic novel “Stopmie Dompie in Rooverije.” Photo courtesy of Jet Naftaniel

For him, the “Dompie” series was primarily a way of keeping his promise to Hetty, who passed away last year, that they would always offer each other positive “light points” no matter what hardships life threw at them.

By the time they were 25, life had thrown quite a few hardships their way. Before going into hiding, Hetty was forced out of her training position as a buyer for a department store in Amsterdam. She became a nurse at a Jewish psychiatric hospital in her hometown of Apeldoorn – one of the few places where Jews could still work under Nazi occupation, and the place where she contracted her lung disease.

Joels followed her there, escaping with her just hours before the Nazis raided the institution and sent all the patients and staff in cattle cars for immediate execution at Auschwitz. They both lost family members in Nazi death camps.

After the war, the couple seldom spoke about their traumas. Joels would read from the “Dompie Stompie” books to Jet and her younger sister, Marian, but it gave them nightmares, Jet recalls.

“Our parents would only tell us about the positive things from the Holocaust, but even as a child that didn’t add up,” she said. “We knew relatives died there and we sensed the tension in their voices. They gave us their anxieties without ever speaking about them.”

Jet and Marian found the drawings in a box buried deep in a closet a few years ago while moving their parents to an assisted living facility, Jet recalls.

“It’s a nice family story, but it’s also a story of the incredible willpower of my parents and their whole generation not to succumb to darkness even when resisting it seemed pointless,” she said.

Joels and his family gave the first copy of the “Dompie Stompie” series to Geeske Schurink, the little girl who delivered his episodes across the street to Hetty. Geeske never said a word about the guests, who would huddle together in the attic whenever the Schurinks received visits – including by some Nazi relatives.

“It was one of the many unbelievable things that happened then, that none of the children, no matter how young, ever told anyone about the people in hiding in their home,” Joels said.

LAMOTH remembers 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation

It’s been 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, but it’s essential to remember that the horrors of anti-Semitism live on, according to Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel.

“This is not ancient history; it is right now,” Siegel said during a Jan. 27 speech. “So, words and remembrance without deeds are empty; they are hollow. Governments must stand up against anti-Semitism. They must prevent and act against Holocaust deniers and take on radical Islamist governments that endanger Jews and endanger society at large.”

Siegel spoke to a crowd of approximately 100 people who attended a Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) event in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date was designated by the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. 

Siegel’s remarks looked back in honor of all those who perished, paying tribute to the approximately 25 survivors and camp liberators in the audience, while looking forward to the future of world Jewry, particularly in light of the recent deadly shootings in France.

E. Randol “Randy” Schoenberg, LAMOTH president, was also one of the many speakers. He described Auschwitz as a “man-made hell.”

“I begin by saying how unfathomable Auschwitz and the Holocaust is, and, for me, being the president of the museum has also been a learning experience,” he said. “I think it’s natural for people who were not there to have a certain skepticism about the stories, to say that couldn’t have happened that way, that shouldn’t have happened that way, how could that have happened that way — and, it’s a process, I think, becoming comfortable enough with the facts to accept that [these] things happened.”

Commemoration was on the mind of community member Beth Kean, a third-generation Holocaust survivor, as she discussed her grandmother, a survivor who was interned at Ravensbruck. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website describes it as the “largest concentration camp system for women in the German Reich … second in size only to the women’s camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau.” 

“My body became numb when I saw the numbers [of how many died at Ravensbruck], because I had no idea that they were so grim,” Kean said. “How in the world did my grandmother survive?” 

The many survivors in attendance included Robert Geminder, who was 6 when he witnessed a mass shooting in Stanislawow, Poland, during the war. Today, he is a LAMOTH board member who hopes that Holocaust commemorations don’t fade with the passing of survivors. 

“I am hoping 50 years from now, there will be something for the 120th anniversary, when all the survivors are gone, because that’s what is important — to make sure we keep the memory of those 6 million people alive and make sure they didn’t die for nothing. That’s what truly counts to me,” he said in an interview with the Journal. “That’s why I speak at this museum, that’s why I speak at the Museum of Tolerance — to make sure that the young people know what happened.”

Auschwitz survivors Helen Freeman and Elisabeth Mann also attended. Freeman recently inspired Milken Community Schools students to create a mural that was on display at the museum. There was artwork by Mann as well.

The event featured musical performances by students who are part of the LAMOTH Young Pianist Showcase and Musical Ambassadors program. Samara Hutman, the museum’s executive director, was in Poland at the time of the commemoration, visiting Auschwitz on behalf of LAMOTH; the museum’s director of community support, Samira Miller, read remarks on Hutman’s behalf. 

Survivors return to Auschwitz determined to share their stories

What kept you alive? Did your non-Jewish friends reject you? Could you ever forgive?

Those were some of the questions posed by Jewish young adults to Holocaust survivor Marcel Tuchman on Monday at the Galicia Jewish Museum here.

“What kept me alive was having my father with me,” said Tuchman, 93, a physician from New York who was born in Poland and survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. “And another thing was the hope I had that one day I will be able to tell the story to the likes of you, so you can tell it to the next generation.”

His meeting with young Jews was one of many such encounters taking place in and around Krakow on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.1 million people were murdered — many of them gassed.

On Tuesday, in a tent set up around the gaping entrance to the Auschwitz-adjacent Birkenau concentration camp, survivors and their companions were joined by dignitaries from more than 40 countries for ceremonies that may well mark the final time that so many Auschwitz survivors are together here again.

Halina Birenbaum, who survived Auschwitz as a child, described to the crowd of 3,000 her impressions of the Nazi camp 45 miles east of Krakow, calling it “a bottomless pit of hell that I could not get out of.”

“All around us was electric barbed wire. Rows of barracks, stinking mud … a disgusting mass of people all in lousy wet rags, with numbers and shaven heads,” she said. “Those gray faces with legs like sticks, wearing those muddy clogs. Nothing reminded you of anything human.”

Roman Kent, president of the International Auschwitz Committee, which was founded by a group of Auschwitz survivors, said his experience in the camp was “more than enough to keep me awake at night until the end of time.”

He added: “How can I ever forget the smell of burning flesh that permeated the air” or “the cries of children torn from their mother’s arms.”

While survivors cannot forget, others simply must remember. Otherwise, Kent said, “the conscience of mankind would be buried alongside the victims.”

Tuesday’s memorial was sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Communications, whose subsidiary, Discovery Education, is working with the Shoah Foundation to develop digital teaching materials about Auschwitz. The event also featured the screening of a short documentary, “Auschwitz,” co-directed by the famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who started the Shoah Foundation.

In a moment of disequilibrium, survivors watched the film about their former place of imprisonment, sitting in front of the very gate through which cattle cars once passed, delivering so many Jews to their deaths. Just outside the tent, a light snow was falling on the remaining barracks of Birkenau, surrounded by barbed wire.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, addressed the crowd.

“Auschwitz never goes away,” he said. “This awful place stands as a reminder that propaganda leads to anti-Semitism … that anti-Semitism will grow if nobody speaks out.”

Anti-Semitism, he said, “leads to places like Auschwitz.”

He added: “After the recent events in Paris and throughout Europe and around the world, I cannot ignore what is happening today. Jews are targeted in Europe once again because they are Jews.”

The ceremony was the culmination of several days of events and meetings attended in total by some 300 Holocaust survivors. Few of them were actually liberated at Auschwitz. But all passed through its gates.

Today they are in their 80s and 90s, and fit enough to have traveled from Israel, America, Argentina and elsewhere.

A group of survivors who was to visit the Auschwitz exhibit on Monday never got beyond the infamous gate, marked “Arbeit Macht Frei” — so crowded was this threshold with eager journalists who had come from around the world. And yet the hubbub didn’t seem to faze them a bit. In fact, most of the visitors seemed determined to tell their stories to all who inquired.

“I know that we’re getting old and have to make sure that the memory doesn’t die with us,” said Irene Weiss, 84, of Fairfax, Va., who traveled with her daughter Lesley. Her key message to today’s youth: “[Don’t] be deceived by demagogues.”

On Monday at a ceremony for visiting survivors, Spielberg, whose Oscar-winning movie “Schindler’s List” was filmed partly in Krakow, told the survivors, “I found my own voice and my own Jewish identity thanks to you.”

Spielberg, whose USC Shoah Foundation has interviewed more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors since it was founded 21 years ago, said he was first confronted with the Holocaust as a child reading the numbers on his grandfather’s arm.

Edgar Wildfeuer, 90, came here this week from Argentina with his daughter, Doris Wildfeuer, wanting to show her both the camp he survived and city where he grew up: Krakow, with its parks and market squares, its church spires and streetcars. They planned to visit the street where he had lived and the synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah.

Wildfeuer, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, lost 32 relatives.

“I was the only one left,” he said.

Still, his daughter said, “He wanted to show me not only that place but the place where he grew up and was happy.”

Tuchman, too, recalled a happy childhood in Poland. But when the question of forgiveness came up before the youthful crowd on Monday evening, he paused.

“Forgiveness is a very complicated thing,” said Tuchman, who came with his son Jeffrey. After the war, he testified on behalf of a German engineer who had overseen slave laborers, including Tuchman himself,  in Auschwitz.

But Tuchman also dealt out his own justice. In postwar Germany, he and a fellow survivor spied a man who had tortured them.

“He was a sadist: He pounded on our stomachs when we were sick with diarrhea,” Tuchman recalled. “We recognized him on the street and grabbed him, and beat the hell out of him.”

Politics, Putin cast shadow over Auschwitz liberation anniversary

When they announced the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Polish officials insisted that at this year’s event, “the eyes of the world will be focused” on about 300 Holocaust survivors whose presence Tuesday at the former Nazi death camp near Krakow may be the last gathering of its sort.

The generation of Holocaust survivors, after all, is dying out.

Yet critics are charging that politics and tensions between Russia and its neighbors are nonetheless eclipsing the focus on the survivors and even muddling the historical record. Many believe that behind the main event, at Auschwitz, was an organized effort to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending — a reprisal of sorts for Russia’s annexation last year of Ukrainian territory.

Putin in his earlier stint as president attended the 60th anniversary ceremony in 2005. This time, a tentative invitation was extended to the Russian Embassy but not to Putin directly.

An attempt to keep out Putin was “a serious failure in commemoration because it was Russian troops who liberated the camp,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the human rights organization. “This attempt to erase the Russian people’s contribution to defeating Nazism is casting a shadow on this commemoration and creating a vacuum in which untruths flourish.”

One such distortion: On Jan. 21, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told a local radio station that Ukrainians, not Russians, liberated Auschwitz, citing the fact that the Red Army unit that reached Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front. And on Jan. 8, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that the Soviets “invaded  Ukraine and Germany,” when, in fact, it was the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union. His spokesman later explained that Yatsenyuk had in mind the carving-up of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.

These historical inversions “show the level of hatred that exists for Russia for the moment,” said Peter Feldmajer, a vice president of the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz.

In addition to the event in Auschwitz, the camp’s liberation was scheduled to be commemorated in Prague on Jan. 26 and at the United Nations General Assembly on Jan. 28.

But Putin’s presence would have been an especially sensitive matter in Poland, where anger over Russian aggression in Ukraine is mixed with bitter memories of Russian domination during and predating the Soviet era and fears of its return.

Polish officials denied that Putin was deliberately disinvited or discouraged from attending, noting that no other head of state had been officially invited, owing to the policy of focusing on survivors.

Many, however, doubted this argument, as the list of attending dignitaries at the Auschwitz event grew. Among others it included French President Francois Hollande and his German and Ukrainian counterparts, Joachim Guack and Petro Poroshenko, as well as the Dutch and Belgian premiers, Mark Rutte and Charles Michel, respectively.

Putin, however, had been invited to attend an event near Prague co-organized by the European Jewish Congress that brought hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries to commemorations of the Auschwitz liberation and to the nearby Terezin Memorial for the Theresiendstadt concentration camp.

EJC’s Russian-born president, the industrialist Moshe Kantor, set up the event near Prague with the Czech government to provide a commemoration ceremony where Putin would feel welcome, according to Peter Brod, a board member of the Jewish Community of Prague’s foundation.

“The feeling was that the Russian contribution to the liberation should be honored and commemorated in some way, and this led to the event,” said Brod, a former BBC journalist.

But Arie Zuckerman, a senior EJC official, said the event near Prague — which featured debates about anti-Semitism today and legislation to curb it — were never meant to serve as an alternative to the Auschwitz event, “which, unlike our event, is only about commemoration.”

Marek Halter, a well-known French Jewish author who survived the Holocaust in his native Warsaw before escaping to Russia, said he and his generation “have a responsibility to protect [the] historical record for as long as we can.” The record, he said, “is in danger of being lost in the politics of the new cold war we are entering between the United States and Russia.”

Putin’s attendance at Auschwitz, he added during an interview with JTA, “should have been facilitated to defend against this sort of obfuscation.”

Serge Klarsfeld, a Romania-born Jewish Nazi hunter who survived the Holocaust in hiding in France and whose father died at Auschwitz, said he “could understand the Polish state of mind regarding Putin,” but that he should have been invited.

“It’s not, as some Poles claim, that the Russians liberated Auschwitz because it was en route to Berlin,” he said. “They came to free Auschwitz, and the survivors will never forget the Red Army’s arrival there.”

Still, Halter said he could think of no place more appropriate than Prague and Terezin to commemorate the Holocaust.

“Prague was the only old Jewish city that the Nazis left intact because they wanted to turn it into a Jewish Jurassic Park, a museum to an extinct people,” he told JTA. “Convening hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries is a powerful response.”

But how the message is carried is changing as the last generation of Holocaust survivors passes on, Frans Timmermans, a vice president of the European Commission, told JTA at the Prague’s Municipal House, where Czech President Milos Zeman welcomed leaders of European Jewry and politicians with a brief address.

“We are at a critical point in European history because living memory is becoming history,” Timmermans said. “Soon there will be no more people with numbers on their arms to tell the story, and the tendency to beautify a terrible record is tempting.”

In Auschwitz, one of the survivors who is still telling his story is Ernst Verduin, 87, who lived in hiding in the Netherlands before he was deported to the death camp with his family. Verduin arrived at Auschwitz suffering from a severe lung infection and was sent immediately to the gas chambers.

“As we said goodbye, my sister wished me a quick death,” recalled Verduin, who survived because he left the gas chamber group and snuck to the group of men sent to work.

Witnesses to Kristallnacht

On a Wednesday evening in late 1938, the sounds of broken glass shattered the quiet streets of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over the next 24 hours, Nov. 9-10, rampaging Nazi mobs would torch more than 1,000 synagogues; vandalize Jewish homes, businesses and cemeteries; and kill nearly 100 Jews. As many as 30,000 Jews were arrested and carted off to concentration camps. These coordinated attacks, which came to be known as Kristallnacht —  the Night of Broken Glass — mark the beginning of the Holocaust.

Survivors who lived to tell the story of the terror of Kristallnacht  — some quite young at the time — remember vividly the horrors of that night. These four, who share their memories on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, are among the lucky ones whose families were able to escape and who, eventually, made their way to Los Angeles. 

Herbert Jellinek, Vienna

Late on the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, Herb and his father, Leo, were walking home from their weekly visit to the public baths,when from a distance they saw the Turner Temple in flames. Only a year and four months earlier, Herb had become a bar mitzvah at this Vienna synagogue, but now Nazi Brownshirts, also called SA or Stormtroopers, were standing around with the local police, watching the building burn, and a crowd of Austrians had gathered and were cheering the sight. Herb and Leo stayed in the shadows. “We were very afraid,” Herb said. “We tried to get home as quickly as possible.”

They arrived at their apartment on Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, around noon to find Herb’s mother, Irma, in tears. Later that afternoon, Herb peeked out of their living room window and saw hordes of Brownshirts going from building to building, breaking the windows of apartments and stores where Jews lived and shopped. He also witnessed the Brownshirts roughing up Jewish men, dragging them out of their apartment buildings. Herb’s family fully expected the Nazis to come to their door to take Leo, and possibly 14-year-old Herb. They sat on the couch, wearing their overcoats because the apartment didn’t have central heat, and waited. 

Suddenly the doorbell rang. Irma opened the door and was surprised to find their electrician standing there, responding to their call from several days earlier to repair a broken radio. “I can’t understand what’s going on,” he told the Jellineks. “It’s ridiculous.”

Herb and his parents waited the rest of the night, listening to their newly repaired radio and staying quiet so as to not draw attention to themselves. They learned later that their concierge had steered the Nazis away, informing them no Jews lived in the building. 

The next day, Herb’s parents resolved to leave Austria. 

The situation had been deteriorating, especially since the Anschluss on March 12, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Three days later, Hitler had entered Vienna, the climax of a triumphant tour of Austria. Despite a warning over loudspeakers that anyone leaning out a window or leaving curtains open would be shot, Herb peered out to see Hitler riding in an open car with his hand raised. He heard people cheering and saw buildings adorned with swastika flags and banners. “It was like everyone all of a sudden became Nazi,” he recalled. 

Shortly after, Herb was forced to transfer from public school to a Jewish school, an hour’s streetcar ride, and at least weekly he found himself fighting members of the Hitler Youth. 

But Kristallnacht was the turning point for the Jellineks, and the following week Herb accompanied his father to the American consulate, where Leo filed an application to immigrate to the United States. But the waiting list was long, as it was at other consulates they visited. Weeks later, they learned that only Shanghai, which the British had established as a treaty port in the 1840s, would take them without a visa. With difficulty, Leo secured second-class tickets on an Italian passenger ship, departing Trieste in the spring.

In June 1939, Herb and his parents left Vienna. As they crossed the border into Italy and an Italian customs official entered their train car, they felt great relief. 

“A lot of people forget. You can’t forget what we went through,” Herb said. 

Rita Feder, Berlin

As evening fell on Nov. 10, 1938, Rita heard a huge crash outside her family’s apartment on Berlin’s Metzer Strasse. She looked out the front window and there, next to the entrance to their building, she saw four or five Brownshirts throwing cement blocks through the windows of the stores that occupied the ground floor. Rita’s mother, Fanny, started screaming. She dragged 10-year-old Rita away from the window and closed the drapes. 

 The Atterman family in Berlin in 1938. From left, mother Fanny, brother Jona (Heinz), Rita, brother Bill (Willy) and father Max

The family gathered in the living room, in the center of the apartment and away from the front windows and the back staircase. Rita sat in the dark with her parents and older brother, Bill (Willy). Her middle brother, Jona (Heinz), had immigrated to Palestine several months earlier. Time moved slowly. “I was so scared. It was the only time I was almost traumatized,” Rita recalled. While Max Atterman, her father, thought the Nazi hysteria would pass, Rita believed this was the end.  

The next day, Rita saw the store windows had been boarded up and the owners were sweeping up shattered glass. “There was not one store that wasn’t hit,” she said. Rita went to school that day, but no one talked about what had happened. 

Life had become increasingly unhappy for Rita as Hitler gained power. A gymnast and a sprinter, she had dreams of participating in the Olympics and desperately wanted to attend the 1936 Berlin Games. But Jews were not allowed. Her father did take her, however, to watch the men’s 50-kilometer walk, which took place along city streets.

About a year later, in 1937, Rita and her mother were walking near Alexanderplatz when the crowd began buzzing that Hitler was approaching. Everything quickly came to a standstill, and Fanny warned her daughter, “You better raise your hand now and scream, ‘Heil, Hitler.’ ” Rita shouted the salute as the Führer rode by in his open car, his arm raised. “I felt terrible,” Rita recalled.

Kristallnacht convinced Fanny that it was time to leave Germany, but Max wanted to stay. He thought again, however, as people around them began making plans to emigrate. Then, after visiting various consulates in Berlin, he discovered the world was blocked off to Jews. 

One day, a family friend came to visit. “We’re getting out of here, and you are, too. We’re going to China,” she told Fanny and Max. Max thought she was crazy.

In December 1938, Max made arrangements to send Rita to live with his niece in Antwerp, Belgium. When the smuggler came for her, Rita was frightened. “You have to go. It’ll save your life,” her mother told her. The man, who was Jewish, delivered Rita to her relatives. “They were wonderful people,” she said. 

In July 1939, the niece’s husband brought Rita back to Berlin, and a week later, Rita, her parents and her brother Bill boarded a train to Italy. “A stone fell off my parents’ hearts. They were getting away,” Rita said. They took a passenger ship to Shanghai, and in 1947, she and Bill immigrated to Los Angeles. 

“I have to give back to God and my country. I’m so fortunate,” Rita said.

Tom Tugend, Berlin

From his family’s second-floor apartment on Berlin’s Greifswalder Strasse, during the late-night hours of Nov. 9 or very early on Nov. 10, 1938, Tom heard the crashing of glass as bricks or rocks were heaved through the windows of the street-level shops. Tom’s mother, Irene Tugendreich, hustled Tom, 13, and his older sister, Brigitte, into her bedroom, and then his usually undemonstrative mother lay down and cuddled her children in the dark room. 

Tom Tugend, 14, and his mother, Irene Tugendreich, in 1939 in Philadelphia, their first year in the United States. 

At one point, the doorbell rang. The owner of the stationery store on the building’s ground level stood in the hallway, deathly pale and shaking. “Can you hide me?” he begged. The gentile landlady, who had answered the door and who also lived on the second floor, was too frightened to take him in; her Jewish husband had been sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp just a few days earlier. But she allowed the man to run through Tom’s apartment and out the back door. Tom didn’t feel particularly frightened at the time, he said, but, “I always remember his face, that absolutely horror-stricken face.”

Tom, his sister and mother returned to the bedroom. Tom continued to hear the shattering glass and the shouting mob. The three of them were grateful that Tom’s father was in the United States, as he undoubtedly would have been arrested.

The following day, Tom went to school. He remembers seeing the shattered glass on the streets and the stores being boarded up. But in a few days, life returned to what was then normal. He was riding his bike to school and playing soccer, the activity that mattered most to him at the time. 

His father, Gustav, a highly respected pediatrician and a World War I medical officer, had believed for a long time that Hitler was an aberration. But by 1937, when Gustav was no longer permitted to treat non-Jewish patients and when the family was forced to move from their upper-middle-class apartment to a smaller one in a working-class neighborhood, Gustav realized it was time to leave. Plus, he was likely influenced by Irene’s more pronounced sense of urgency. But by that time, most countries had closed their borders, and it was impossible to obtain visas.

Gustav, however, had tracked down the American and British Quakers, with whom he had worked in Germany in 1919 feeding hungry children. They found an immigration law exception for academicians and secured Gustav a one-year lectureship at the University of London in 1937-38 and one at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania the following year, thus qualifying him for a non-quota visa. Meanwhile, after the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and again after Kristallnacht, Gustav had been writing the family urgent letters from the United States, begging them to depart as soon as possible.

Finally, on April 20, 1939, with flags bedecking the city to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday, Tom, Brigitte and Irene boarded a plane from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to London. They then traveled to Southampton and sailed by passenger ship to New York. 

Tom cautions that the trouble with writing history is that you see it through the lens of what has happened since. “Nobody could imagine at that time, even after Kristallnacht, that the Holocaust could happen,” he said.

Since 1955, Tom has lived permanently in Los Angeles. He has been writing regularly for the Jewish Journal since 1993 and serves as a contributing editor.

Risa Igelfeld, Vienna

Before Kristallnacht, and even before the Anschluss, when Risa witnessed Nazi soldiers singing and marching along the streets, she saw many Viennese turning to Nazism. “They came up like cockroaches. It was a frightening time,” she said.

Risa Relles Igelfeld, center, in Vienna in 1928 with her older sister, Edith Relles, and half-brother, Paul Knie. The girls were given the maiden name of their mother, who died when Risa was 1. 

Risa was asleep in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 1938, when the sound of boots kicking the front door of their house awakened her abruptly. “Where’s the money?” she heard the intruders shout. Risa, 21, and her older sister, Edith, who shared a bedroom, heard them enter their parents’ bedroom. “You’re coming with us,” they ordered Risa’s father, Ruben. The girls got out of bed and started dressing. “I was shaking like a leaf,” Risa recalled. The Brownshirts burst into their bedroom, searching for money, then left with Ruben. Risa and Edith stood together, holding onto one another. “I was so scared, just so scared,” Risa remembered.

About an hour later, Risa ventured into the living room. Daylight had broken, and she looked out the window onto Favoritenstrasse, one of Vienna’s main streets, to see other Brownshirts pulling away in Ruben’s first-ever new car. She kept pacing back and forth to the window. At one point, she saw SS and Brownshirts marching up and down the street, singing. Another time, she glanced at the window of the house across the street to see a neighbor sticking out her tongue at her. 

The following night, Risa’s half-brother, Paul Knie, managed to cross Austria’s border and head for Belgium. Then on Sunday, Risa was walking alone when she was stopped by the Brownshirts, who forced her to eat grass. She also saw elderly Jews she knew, on their hands and knees cleaning the sidewalks. “That was very upsetting for me,” she recalled.

The family did not learn Ruben’s fate until a month later, when they received a letter from him. He had been taken to Dachau and then Buchenwald. 

In early January 1939, Risa, following in her sister’s footsteps, left for London on a domestic visa sent by an English family looking for a servant. Soon after, she was promoted to the position of nanny for the couple’s two young children. 

Back in Vienna, Risa’s stepmother went to Nazi headquarters and bribed an SS official, who agreed to release Ruben with the stipulation that the couple leave Austria immediately. They boarded a boat to Palestine but were refused entry. Other ports were also closed. They finally landed on the island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, where they were imprisoned for three years. 

Before Kristallnacht, Paul had gone to the American consulate to search its telephone books for people with their surname, Knie, writing letters pleading for help. A couple in Chicago, Max and Tesse Knee, who were not related, responded, offering affidavits for all the family members. “They were just good people,” Risa said. Her parents arrived in New York around 1944. Risa and her husband, Gershom Igelfeld, whom she married in London, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949. 

Hatred of Jews remains strong, Netanyahu and Peres tell Yom Hashoah rite

The hatred of Jews is still strong more than 70 years after the Holocaust began, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres said at the national Yom Hashoah ceremony at Yad Vashem.

“The map of Europe still contains local stains of anti-Semitism,” Peres said at Sunday night's ceremony in Jerusalem, his voice breaking with emotion. “Racism erupted on that land in the last century and dragged it down to its lowest point. Ultimately the murder which came from her, damaged her.”

“Not all the flames have been extinguished. Crises are once again exploited to form Nazi parties, ridiculous but dangerous. Sickening anti-Semitic cartoons are published allegedly in the name of press freedom.”

Netanyahu said in his address to Holocaust survivors and their families, “Hatred of Jews has not disappeared. It has been replaced with a hatred of the Jewish state.”

He followed his assertion with quotes of anti-Semitic statements made by Iranian religious and political leaders.

Six Holocaust survivors told their stories in a prerecorded video before they lit the six torches representing the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The ceremony was broadcast on all Israeli television channels and on several radio stations. On Yom Hashoah in Israel, places of entertainment are closed and Holocaust themed-movies and documentaries are shown on television channels. Memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country.

On Monday morning, a siren will sound for two minutes to honor the victims of the Holocaust, followed by an official wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem.

Also Monday, the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael will hold a joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust. The ceremony is scheduled to be held in the Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza. 

The ceremony will recall the rescue activities of Otto Komoly, president of the Zionist Federation in Hungary and the chairman of the Hungarian Jewish community’s clandestine Rescue Committee, and later director of the International Red Cross' “Department A” responsible for rescuing Jewish children.

On Sunday, Israeli military chief  Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz left for Poland with an Israel Defense Forces delegation to the March of the Living in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gantz will lead the March of the Living — the first time the march will be led by a current IDF chief of general staff. Some 10,000 people from all over the world are expected to participate in the march.

Gantz also will lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, where a military service will take place.

On the weekend prior to Yom Hashoah, dozens of young Poles who recently discovered their Jewish roots came together in Oscwiecim, the site of the Auschwitz camp,  for a weekend educational seminar under the auspices of Shavei Israel.

A Turkish Muslim perspective on Yom HaShoah

When people of reason and conscience look back on the subject of Shoah (otherwise known as the Holocaust) today, it is common to hear questions like: “How could a nation of philosophers, composers of classical music, technology, poets, in this seat of the Enlightenment itself, suddenly give vent to savagery not seen since the Dark Ages? How could such dreadful, inhumane impulses seize every apparatus of a nation and cause it to commit such atrocities?”

In looking at the subject of the Holocaust violence, we can see the obvious influence of pseudo-scientific thought as well as a reversion to a far darker philosophy in human history. Arguably, the roots of anti-Semitism in Europe run quite deep, and found their most lethal expression in the Shoah itself; when some six million innocent Jewish men, women and children were done to death on the edge of mass graves in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia or had their lives systematically snuffed out at factories of mass murder such as Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chelmo and Belzec, names that shall forever be remembered as grim testaments to hatred. While it is not my intention to go too in-depth on the roots of European anti-Semitism, it must be touched upon in order to illustrate how prejudice led to disdain, then to hatred, and finally to genocide.

Anti-Semitism in Europe has a long and tragic history. For many centuries, this dislike of the Jewish people of the Diaspora was confined to the religious and social sphere; indeed, it's all too easy to recall such events as the massacres of the First Crusade in 1096, the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the assorted pogroms in Russia and Ukraine; the list is long and horrific. This awful situation persisted as recently as 1959, when a reference to “… perfidious Jews” was finally dropped from the Good Friday Liturgy of the Catholic Church (it must be said here that the Roman Catholic Church has made enormous strides in its relations with the Jewish people, most notably beginning with Vatican II and the later efforts of Pope John Paul II; and let us not forget the many Catholics – and others – who risked, and in some cases, lost their lives to save innocent Jews from Nazi terror).

Until the 19th century, European anti-Semitism was largely confined to the religious sphere (and to a lesser extent, the socio-economic sphere as well). Then, by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, it began to change in tone and style. Anti-Semitism became no longer a matter of theological difference, but rather a matter of biological differences. This was the introduction of so-called “scientific racism” through the introduction and application of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which had gained widespread acceptance by the end of the Nineteenth Century. And with this, the argument among European anti-Semites changed from, “Let us convert the Jews” to “Let us rid ourselves of this infectious and invasive species” (May God forbid). Simply put, an openly exterminationist sentiment had arisen, based on pseudo-scientific reasoning. The Jewish people had gone from being “the Other” to being “the Subhuman”, “a bacillus”, “a virus”. Surely they are beyond this defamation.

Darwinism, and its false implication that human beings are mere animals, classified as “superior”, “inferior” or “non-human” is the basis for the pseudo-science of racism. When Hitler said, “Take away the Nordic Germans and nothing remains but the dance of apes”, he was referring to the falsehood of Darwinist ideas. (Carl Cohen, Communism, Fascism and Democracy, Random House, New York, 1972, p. 408-409) While certainly, there are differences between people, to suggest that a group of people is inherently superior to another, and therefore has a right or moral imperative to subjugate the other, is a grossly mistaken idea.

As a result of such pseudo-scientific fallacies and and neo-romanticist fantasies, six million Jews, innocent men, women and children over a vast swath of the European continent were dehumanized, corralled into ghettoes and exterminated by the conquering Nazis. According to their racial delusion, the Nazi herrenvolk would rule over a vast empire of slaves, with the conquered peoples being the hewers of wood and drawers of water, and with the Jewish people (not to mention anyone else who failed to measure up to the Nazis exacting Darwinian standards) having been eliminated from the face of the earth itself. The Nazis' crude interpretations of Darwinism – influenced by agricultural practices such as animal husbandry – and their outlandish views of history such as Ariosophy, are all too familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary education, and there is no need to comprehensively explain their overall ideology. There are indeed people alive in Israel today, and many other countries, who survived this darkest period of human history, who can easily attest to the horrors they witnessed and experienced.

As Muslims, we bear a special obligation to confront the anti-Semitism that has infected the Muslim world. We must not traffic in discredited ideas and unbecoming stereotypes or proclaim, as truth, notorious forgeries such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (it has been well known for almost a century now that this tract was a forgery by the Czarist Secret Police in order to justify pogroms in Russia). We must not subscribe to pseudo-scientific notions such as racism, nor allow ourselves to succumb to pseudo-historic nonsense such as Holocaust Denial. When it comes to anti-Semitism, we must confront it. We must educate against it. And most of all, we must repudiate it utterly.

We can also look to the recent past and remember how Turkish diplomats worked to save Jews from persecution and extermination during the Second World War. Although it is neither as emphasized or as well-known as the stories of Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, it is a fact that Turkish diplomats provided official documents such as citizenship cards and passports to thousands of Jews. Just to give one example, the Turkish ambassador Behiç Erkin -in order to save the Jews- gave the Nazis documents certifying that their property, houses and businesses, belonged to Turks. In this way, many lives were saved. Yet another example is that of the Turks who organized boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey. My intention in mentioning this is that Muslim Turks' attitude for centuries has demonstrated that Turks and Jews have continued to help each other in times of great crises and God willing, it will continue to be this way, no matter what happens.

For hundreds of years, Jews have known suffering, pain, and have never been at ease. Since the Diaspora, they have been expelled from almost every place they ever went for centuries. And now there are some who say they want the Jews to leave Israel also. The question arises, “Where are they supposed to go?” The Jews, the people of Israel, have the right to live in the Holy Land, in peace and security; indeed, it is so commanded by God Himself in the Qur'an: “And thereafter We said to the Children of Israel: 'Dwell securely in the Promised Land.'” (Surah Al-Isra, 104) Therefore, no one who professes submission to God and heeds the Word of God can oppose their existence in the Holy Land. And as Turks, as Muslims as much as we want the welfare of humanity, we want Jews to live in peace as well. We will always make our best efforts to ensure this goal. To do otherwise is to stand in defiance to the Will of God Himself.

The author is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV. She is also the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization. She can be reached on and

Survivor initiative to thrive on common cents

Sixty-eight years after being liberated from the horrors of the Holocaust, many aging survivors are living another nightmare — poverty without hope.

“Every single one of them came to this country destitute, with zero resources, and had to start from the beginning,” Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education said in an interview. And although “some have lived the American dream,” Smith added, “it’s only a very small minority that are able to achieve that.”

Many survivors lack money to pay for the most basic needs, including food, housing, medical bills, legal bills or some combination of these. But, as Smith pointed out, living through the Holocaust made many of them survival-oriented and independent, meaning that they may not ask for help, even if they are desperately in need. “If you don’t have the support of the community around you, [if it] doesn’t understand the depth of your experience, you become very lonely.”

So Smith is among a group of community leaders and organizations trying to send a message to survivors who are financially struggling: “We want to support you in your old age and let you know that you are cared for by everyone,” he said.

To that end, the Shoah Foundation has joined an effort organized by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles called the “Six Million Coins” initiative, an innovative project hoping to engage people from throughout the region to contribute funds — in small and large sums — for struggling Holocaust survivors. 

The project, which aims to collect 6 million coins in specially designed tzedakah boxes, will be introduced at a Yom HaShoah commemoration at Mount Sinai Simi Valley on April 7.

Mount Sinai hopes to distribute 25,000 tzedakah boxes across Southern California before Yom HaShoah next year, according to general manager Len Lawrence, who came up with the idea for the initiative. Lawrence said the plan is to collect enough coins to honor each of the 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust.

Anyone can request a tzedakah box for free at the initiative’s Web site ( Each box, Lawrence said, comes with five coins adding up to 18 cents, which is also the numerical equivalent of chai, the Hebrew word for life.

The coins are attached to a card, and Lawrence’s hope is that when people remove those coins and place them in the small box, they will become the first of many that they drop in. With 25,000 boxes, Mount Sinai would be providing 125,000 coins toward the final tally, adding up to $4,500.

A virtual counter on the bottom of the initiative’s homepage indicates that even before the official kick-off, Mount Sinai, which also has a memorial park and mortuary in the Hollywood Hills, already had collected more than 115,000 coins, adding up to $1,150 (100 pennies per dollar donated online) as of April 1. Anyone can make a donation online or deliver their coins to Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location.

All of the proceeds will be handled by Federation and distributed to six different charities, five of which support survivors who need financial assistance. The other — the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous — does the same for non-Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, usually at great personal risk. 

Although Lawrence’s goal is to reach 6 million coins, he emphasized that Mount Sinai is “not going to stop” if there is a demand for this initiative once the 6 million goal is reached.

“As long as there are survivors who need help, Mount Sinai will keep supplying tzedakah boxes” to people who want them, Lawrence said.

The USC Shoah Foundation, established by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in 1994, collects video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. Smith said he has personally interviewed numerous survivors who are currently in financial distress. A 2008 study by Federation estimated about 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in the Los Angeles area, about half of whom are low-income or poor. 

“The truth is many survivors are struggling,” said Jay Sanderson, Federation president and CEO. “This particular tzedakah box is going to help those survivors in need.”

At the April 7 event, beginning at 10 a.m. at Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location, Lawrence will unveil an 8-foot-tall tzedakah box, in which people can place money, including the coins collected in their personal tzedakah boxes.

The ceremony will be followed by a Yom HaShoah memorial service. A noon ceremony, to be streamed live on the initiative’s Web site, will include a reading of some of the names of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, followed by a 2 p.m. roundtable panel discussing the work of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped rescue tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Andrew Stevens, a Holocaust survivor who assisted Wallenberg’s efforts, will make an appearance.

Mount Sinai also will provide a 4-foot-tall tzedakah box for public use. It will travel across Southern California to schools, synagogues and other organizations that want to host name-reading commemorations. Synagogues as far south as Santa Ana and as far north as Sacramento have scheduled ceremonies. 

Of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, about 4 million names are known. Lawrence hopes that every one of them will be read during the lifespan of this initiative. He said that Mount Sinai “will set up at any place, at any organization that wants to read names,” providing the 4-foot tzedakah box, the list of names and any other needed equipment.

Joining Mount Sinai and Federation and the Shoah Foundation in organizing and promoting the initiative is TRIBE Media Corp., which publishes the Jewish Journal. 

Reliving the Holocaust

“They’re going to come with the dogs. They’re going to start beating me.” Pola Lipnowski spoke in Yiddish, an expression of sheer terror on her face. She turned to her daughter, Hendel Schwartz, for protection. 

But Lipnowski was not in Poland. She was in her room at Emmy Monash Aged Care, a residential facility in Melbourne, Australia. “You’re safe. I’m here,” Schwartz reassured her.

Still, in her mind, Lipnowski, who was born June 1, 1920, was back in Jedrzejow, Poland, where her family — her husband and son, her parents and her seven siblings and their families — were relocated to the ghetto in spring 1940. “They’re going to start taking people away. They took away my parents,” she told Schwartz.

This time it was her dementia and not the Nazis that imprisoned her, returning her to the Jedrzejow ghetto where she was forced to cook and launder for the German soldiers, to a labor camp in Czestochowa where she operated machinery and incurred a cut that traversed the length of her left arm, and to a death march to Auschwitz, where, ill with typhus, she was liberated by the Russian army on Jan. 27, 1945. Lipnowski was the only member of her family to survive.

Schwartz, who lives in Los Angeles, had asked her mother to move to California years earlier, before the dementia set in. But Lipnowski was adamant about remaining in Melbourne with her tight-knit Jewish community, most of whom were Yiddish-speaking survivors from Poland. In 2005, she moved to Emmy Monash, and in 2009 she was transferred to the dementia unit. Schwartz spent weeks at a time with her, staying by her side from morning to evening, speaking to her in her native Yiddish and trying to comfort her as her dementia destroyed her short-term memory and reawakened traumas suffered in the Holocaust. 

Andy Meisels with his wife, Vera, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Vera Meisels

Schwartz also noticed other behaviors she attributed to her mother’s war experiences. Lipnowski hid bread and an occasional banana. She wanted to save any food left over from her meals. And when Schwartz tried to take her for a walk outside the building, Lipnowski stopped at the door and demanded, “Take me back.”

Then, in 2011, Lipnowski’s memories turned to an earlier period in her childhood — she talked about the family bakery and her sister — and her nightmares ended. Eventually she stopped eating and died on June 27, 2012. 

“I lived with this for so many years, but nobody talked about it,” said Schwartz, adding that the staff at Emmy Monash “were aware and not aware.” Because Schwartz grew up in a community where her generation had no grandparents, they also had no knowledge of old people.” “I had to learn my way through it,” she said.

Historically, the distinct effects of dementia on Holocaust survivors were not recognized until long after World War II ended. For one, those who survived the horrors of the Nazis tended to be younger and did not fall prey to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia until decades later. Also, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Alzheimer’s was even identified as a disease and not part of the normal aging process. 

But, for survivors, growing old is not necessarily a normal experience, as life events can awaken Holocaust memories, according to Shoshana Yaakobi, a senior social worker and Holocaust Resource Program coordinator at Baycrest, a health sciences center focused on the aging in Toronto. For example, older survivors spend more time visiting doctors, and in the camps, doctors weren’t to be trusted. When they get sick, which was a death sentence under the Nazis, or suffer the death of a spouse, the experiences bring back all the losses they endured during the Holocaust. 

In 2003, Baycrest published “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors,” a manual that for the first time presented comprehensive information and strategies for caring for this specific and often challenging population.

In the 10 years since the manual was published, the behaviors of the survivors have not changed, according to Yaakobi, but health professionals have learned more, especially in understanding what can trigger certain behaviors. 

Genia Burman at the Los Angeles Jewish Home in 2007.  Photo by Steve Cohn, courtesy of the Los Angeles Jewish Home

“There are triggers you can anticipate — things like loud voices, sounds of steps like boots, dogs barking, certain smells, like disinfectants,” Yaakobi said. Other triggers are less obvious. One survivor told her that the sound of a train always evokes memories of the train that took her to Auschwitz. Another survivor with severe dementia pointed to a standing pole used for IV drip bags and said, “Don’t you see the cross? They’re going to kill us.” 

In addition to suffering dementia, older survivors are generally particularly frail. And they are prone to conditions such as osteoporosis, impaired vision and cardiac issues resulting from experiencing prolonged malnutrition and other traumas in the camps.

For Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles, this translates to an increased need for home care, which includes help with cleaning, cooking, laundry, bathing, grocery shopping, medical appointments and errands.  

JFS currently assists approximately 2,000 of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles County, according Susie Forer-Dehrey, JFS chief operating officer. (This number, which has not changed in more than 10 years, is questioned by Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips & Herman Demographic Research, who estimates the total number of survivors as closer to 4,200, excluding child survivors.) 

JFS funds its services to survivors through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, and the Abner D. and Roslyn Goldstine Fund for Holocaust Survivor Services. The agency also expects to provide additional help through the Fund for Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need, a grass-roots effort recently initiated by The “1939” Club.

“We find that the survivor clients want to stay in their homes and in the community as long as possible,” Forer-Dehrey said. 

This is certainly true for Andreas (Andy) Meisels.

“Please leave me alone. Stop hitting me. I didn’t see anybody.” Andy Meisels, 85, is in the early stages of dementia. But in his nightmare, he is back in the former Warsaw Ghetto.

In June 1944, Meisels was transported from Auschwitz to a work detail in the Warsaw Ghetto, which had been liquidated and destroyed. His job was to gather bricks from the demolished buildings and cart them away. At one point, several prisoners in his detail wandered away, leaving Meisels alone. A kapo, or supervisory prisoner, appeared and demanded the names of those missing. Meisels claimed he did not know. The kapo hit him several times with the wooden handle of a hoe, threatening to break the handle over his back. Meisels remained silent.

Born on July 19, 1927, in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia, Meisels was the youngest of six children and one of only two family members, along with his brother Erno, to survive.

Today, Meisels is a retired computer engineer and technical writer who speaks nine languages, six of them fluently. With his dementia, however, he forgets what day of the week it is, although he can tell you that Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, which was a Sunday. 

But dementia is only one of the challenges Meisels faces, according to his wife, Vera. He also suffers internal bleeding, as well as other health problems. 

Meisels is a client of Bet Tzedek Legal Services though its Holocaust reparations program. The family is also working with Nicholas Levenhagen, an Equal Justice Works fellow, a position sponsored by Greenberg Traurig LLP, and the first full-time attorney at Bet Tzedek dedicated solely to providing elder law and end-of-life services to Holocaust survivors.

For survivors with dementia, Levenhagen helps families figure out how to pay for increasing care needs through various state and private programs. Also, if necessary, he helps them with powers of attorney, health care directives and statutory wills before the dementia becomes debilitating.

Levenhagen recently referred Meisels to Jewish Family Service. Vera, who is his primary caregiver, said she will accept help when she needs it. 

“He’s deteriorating,” she said. “But I will never, ever put him in a home. I love him. I cannot express how much I love him.” 

For others, however, a residential facility is often the best option.

Genia Burman was recently sitting in the garden of the Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village Campus in Reseda. “This area was a DP camp,” Burman told her daughter Barbara Bloom. “And before that, it was a Nazi camp.” 

Burman, 92, has talked about the war and her family of origin, all of whom perished, for as long as Bloom can recall. “But she now has dementia and only remembers the tragedies,” Bloom said. 

Bloom had wanted her mother to move to Flagstaff, Ariz., where she lives, but Burman insisted on staying in Los Angeles. She moved to the Jewish Home in 2004 and remarried in 2005. But after her husband died in March 2011, she started becoming forgetful. Eventually Burman, who also suffers from congestive heart failure and macular degeneration, was moved to the Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center for residents with dementia, where Bloom frequently visits her.

According to Susan Leitch, community manager of the Factor Nursing Building and Goldenberg-Ziman, seven of the approximately 60 Holocaust survivors at the Jewish Home suffer from dementia. 

Burman, the youngest of five siblings in an extraordinarily poor family, was born Dec. 2, 1920, in Turka, Ukraine. At 17, she moved to Lvov and later Olesko, Poland. Then, in June 1941, when Germany invaded Russia, Burman escaped to the east, arriving in Uzbekistan in November 1941. She worked on collective farms, contracting malaria and often going hungry.

Burman has made several attempts to leave the Goldenberg-Ziman building, ostensibly to find her family. “Maybe I should have stayed with them. I could have helped,” she said.

“Genia is all about saving food and saving people,” Bloom said. She saw people starving and also is haunted by her imaginings of the fates of her sister and brother and their families. Bloom believes they likely starved to death in the Lvov ghetto.

Distractions can take Burman away from the war, and Bloom often drives her to a park in Reseda. “She spends an hour or two feeding the birds. She loves that,” Bloom said.

With the passing years, the number of Holocaust survivors continues to decrease. According to Hillary Kessler-Godin, director of communications for the Claims Conference, only about 500,000 survivors remain alive worldwide, including survivors from the former Soviet Union who fled eastward or endured the Siege of Leningrad. 

But with nearly half of all people aged 85 and older suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia to some degree, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of people now vividly reliving their Holocaust horrors is substantial.

“It’s unimaginable what these people had to go through,” Hendel Schwartz said. “And to have to repeat the process is so unfair,
so hard.” 

Spielberg directs kids to ‘iWitness’ history

In a video, a Holocaust survivor remembers how he had to kill the family dog as he faced deportation to a wartime ghetto, where there would not be enough food for humans and none for animals.

After watching the testimony and letting it sink in, a New York high school student went to a neighborhood animal shelter to become a volunteer worker.

It was the kind of reaction filmmaker Steven Spielberg hoped for when he and his associates conceived the iWitness Video Challenge, a new effort to engage the public with the vast number of testimonies gathered from Holocaust survivors by the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg created and has supported with the proceeds from his seminal film “Schindler’s List.”

Spielberg came to the campus of the Chandler School, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade private school in Pasadena, to publicly introduce iWitness last week.

“The idea behind the iWitness challenge is the same idea that was behind ‘Schindler’s List’ — that profound changes can occur when one person makes a positive choice,” Spielberg told a roomful of students and media.

“So, students will listen to testimonies from eyewitnesses, and they’ll develop insight as to how to use those testimonies to draw conclusions about how they can better their communities. And then build a video essay telling the story of how they made their community better and how they participated in making the world a better place,” Spielberg said.

A second goal of the project is to give students the tools of “media literacy and digital citizenship in the 21st century,” according to Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation.

The concept underlying iWitness is as old as a teacher making a point by way of example and as new as the latest digital technology.

Instead of textbooks, the program’s basic instructional tool is a Web site,, which holds nearly 1,300 personal histories told by survivors, liberators and other witnesses to the Holocaust, as well as to more recent genocides, mainly in Africa.

From these testimonies — selected from a trove of the nearly 52,000 archived eyewitness accounts gathered by the Shoah Foundation — teachers are encouraged to create their own classroom lessons and homework assignments, and students can dig deep into the material by using 9,000 keywords that enable the user to focus on their specific interests.

Most importantly, iWitness is intended to encourage sixth- through 12th-graders in public, private and home schools to create videos using a special iWitness editor available on the Web site, which enables users to integrate clips from the testimonies with footage from other sources, as well as photos, voice-over audio, music and text.

The iWitness project is a direct descendant of “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie that in 1993 brought about a dramatic awareness of the Holocaust to members of a new generation as well as to their elders who had largely forgotten it.

Spielberg told the gathering a story he has frequently recounted: “After ‘Schindler’s List’ was finished, I would meet Holocaust survivors, and each would say, in so many words, ‘That’s a fine film, but you’ve only told a small part of what happened. Now let me tell you my story.’ ”

Although the filmmaker knew he could not make thousands upon thousands of movies about the Holocaust, he became convinced that each survivor’s story should be preserved in some way.

As a result, within a month after “Schindler’s List” won Academy Awards in 1994 for best picture and director, Spielberg and a small group of advisers launched the Shoah Foundation.

Its goal, seemingly an impossible task at the time, was to permanently record on videotape the testimonies of all Holocaust survivors willing to relive their traumas, as well as the accounts of liberators and other eyewitnesses.

In recent months, the Shoah Foundation expanded its mission to add testimonies from the victims of genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, as well as from descendants of Armenians who survived the mass slaughter of their people during World War I.

Even in mere numbers, the content of the foundation’s Visual History Archive is staggering.

Currently the collection includes 105,000 hours of video testimony, representing interviews with 51,696 witnesses. This massive archive, the largest collection of its kind in the world, is digitized, fully searchable and hyperlinked to the minute.

With the help of such indexing, scholars and students can access any of the material through more than 60,000 keywords, 1.2 million names and 700,000 images, while clips and full-length YouTube testimonies are available for more casual viewers (check

In addition to its historical contribution, the full visual history archive has been awarded 11 patents for digital collection management technologies.

On March 1, 1993, Spielberg started filming “Schindler’s List” in Krakow, Poland. Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of this venture, he announced not only the iWitness Video Challenge, but also the release of a Blu-ray version of “Schindler’s List,” restored from the 35-mm film original.

The limited-edition Blu-ray combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment offers the contents in a variety of formats, including Blu-ray disc, DVD, digital copy and UltraViolet.

Joining Spielberg and Smith at the introduction of the iWitness Challenge, the Shoah Foundation brought in 18 teenagers, students ages 13 to 18 from the Chandler School and from public middle and high schools, representing the ultimate targets and transmitters of the project.

Addressing students individually and as a group, Spielberg defined the highest purpose of his project. “We can use iWitness to show the power of random acts of kindness, the significance of contributions to the community, and the very idea that the best way to teach empathy is with examples of it,” he said.

“So that maybe some day, kindness will be a natural reflex, and not just a random act.”

The students sat around three tables, each facing a laptop computer. Checking out the scene, Kori Street, director of education for the Shoah Foundation, observed, “Today’s students would rather watch than read — that’s the reality. We live in a digital world.”

In that world, in the case of iWitness, students can pick, choose and blend together footage from the program’s 1,300 digital testimonies by Holocaust and genocide survivors.

Street believes this kind of exercise can lead to critical thinking, as well as connection to a specific issue, and finally concrete action by the students inspired by what they have absorbed.

One of the students was Steven Colin, a senior at the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in midtown Los Angeles, who was introduced to iWitness in a humanities class.

Colin, who is of Latino descent, said he has faced subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination. As a result, he said, he felt a kind of bond to the victims of the Nazi regime.

Matthew Culpepper, a seventh-grader at the Chandler School, said he himself has not had to face prejudice and that he could hardly grasp the testimonies on the video screen: “How could people do that to other people?” he asked.

Whether by impact of the iWitness project or inherent decency, Colin and Culpepper said they had recently stepped up and intervened when they saw classmates bullying fellow students.

Already, iWitness has reached about 2,000 educators from 35 countries and all 50 states, and 6,100 of students are involved in the program. And, Street said, China is showing interest as well.

“Our aspiration is to eventually reach 100,000 students,” Street said, noting that “you don’t even need classrooms. You can create your own project at home or in a library.”

Among participating Jewish schools in the Los Angeles area are the Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am and New Community Jewish High School.

All current students will submit projects to their teachers, with each student completing a video, one to four minutes long, tying what she or he has learned from the survivors’ stories to a personal contribution to better their communities.

Street cited the project of a group of students that watched the testimony of one survivor who had “lost his smile” in a concentration camp, but regained it through the love of his family.

Inspired, the group set out to help unhappy or depressed classmates, aiming to “turn that frown upside down” by posting humorous notes and supportive messages around its school campus.

At another school, a student watched the testimony of a survivor who related that despite the horrors of the concentration camp, some prisoners continued to sing to lift the spirits of fellow inmates. The student followed up by organizing a small choir, which then visited retirement homes to serenade the elderly.

Students with the best video entries from six regions, five from the United States and one from Canada, will be recognized, together with their teachers and parents, at another 20th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles. This event, in March 2014, will honor the founding of the Shoah Foundation itself.

Corah Forrrester, a 7th grader at Chandler School in Pasadena, created this video poem using testimony from Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics, given at the USC Shoah Foundation.

Germany should award pensions to ghetto survivors, Jewish body says

Germany's main Jewish body is calling on the German government and parliament to step in on behalf of survivors of World War II ghettoes who have not yet received a German pension for their work.

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement March 1 that political leaders should not allow the “wrong and fatal impression” that they are playing with time, waiting for survivors to die. Noting that the average age of the survivors is 85, Graumann said that “every day the circle of possible recipients is growing ever smaller. So now is not the time for petty arithmetic, but rather for speedy action.”

Germany's Federal Social Court had granted the survivor pension entitlement back in 2009 after the Bundestag unanimously approved pension payments for former ghetto workers in 2002, retroactive to 1997. But the German Pension Insurance Organization reportedly awarded pensions to only a small fraction of those who qualified, critics have said.

One hurdle is that German social law only allows for four years of retroactive payments.  Three German parties – the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party – have put in a formal request that the government make up the difference for the survivors.

According to the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, State Secretary Ralf Brauksiepe, of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union Party, said on Feb. 27 that the federal government had not yet made a decision as to whether and how back payments to ghetto workers could be made for those years in which red-tape prevented them from receiving any pensions for their labor. There was also no indication of a timetable, the report noted.

“For years, about 22,000 individuals – by now quite elderly – have been waiting for the retroactive payment of their pension,” Graumann said in his statement. Payments would also be a form of recognition of their endless suffering during the Nazi period – a moral duty on Germany's part, he indicated. “Every single day they wait is a day too many,” he said.

Survivor: Harry Magid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrecting Lithuania’s Jewish past

During the course of one month in 1941, most of the thousands of Jewish residents of Utena, Lithuania, were rounded up by the Nazis, taken into the forest and murdered. Only a few dozen managed to escape.

That episode nearly buried the entire history of the centuries-old town, but through the efforts of the nonprofit MACEVA and volunteers like students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, this history is finally being unearthed. On Jan. 23, the entire eighth-grade class at Heschel filled the gym to translate the Hebrew inscribed on recently uncovered gravestones from Utena.

MACEVA, from the Hebrew word for “gravestone” (matseyva), is an organization that aims to preserve evidence of old Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania. Grant Gochin, a member of MACEVA’s international advisory board, came upon the idea of restoring these burial grounds when he visited Lithuania a few years ago, interested in his own family’s history. 

“I realized that these cemeteries had fallen into complete disrepair, and that if we could read the gravestones, we could gain a small look into the lives of these people and help us honor their memory,” said Gochin, 49, a wealth adviser from Chatsworth. 

It quickly became a multinational effort as Gochin got kids here and in Lithuania involved in the restoration and translation project.

“I wanted the students to learn that the Jewish people didn’t just arrive here randomly or disappear abroad without so much as a footprint, but that they came from an immense, majestic history that needs to be understood,” he said.

Efrat Yakobi-Gafni, the middle school Hebrew coordinator at Heschel, saw the project as a way for students to not only use their Hebrew, but to understand Jewish history in a much more personal way. 

“They are learning this history in a very real sense, not just from a textbook,” she said. “It imparts an understanding of the destruction of Jewish communities that they cannot fathom just by reading.”

One of the gravestones. Photo by Julie Bien

In Lithuania, students went into the forests, located the gravestones, cleaned them, photographed them and uploaded the images onto MACEVA’s Web site. Heschel students then accessed the photos online and used their Hebrew skills to translate the names, dates and descriptions on the stones, which were then posted at

Romy Dolgin, a student at Heschel, found that the ability to work hand-in-hand with eighth-graders across the globe was one of the most exciting things about this project. 

“Just knowing that right now, kids on the other side of the world are looking at these tombstones, and it’s connecting us to them, is very thrilling,” she said.

“Obviously,” Romy added, “the most important part of this project is to remember and understand that these people whose names are on these gravestones lived there and had real lives, and their families want to be able to trace back to these villages to find out where they came from.” 

Gochin said that while the Heschel event was just for one day, their involvement with the project doesn’t need to end.

“The students can remain involved after doing this here. And their parents can as well,” he said. “There are thousands of untranslated gravestones that need to be translated. Hopefully, this will help the next generation understand and appreciate the history.”

Poster collection looted by Nazis to be auctioned

A collection of pre-World War II posters that were returned to the heir of a Jewish dentist who fled the Nazis is going on sale.

The more than 4,300 posters collected by Hans Sachs and looted by the Nazis will be auctioned at Guernsey's in New York on Jan. 18, though the auction house is seeking to sell the entire collection to one buyer. The posters are worth about $5.8 million, according to Bloomberg.

They reportedly arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York at the height of superstorm Sandy. The posters had been returned last month to Sachs' son Peter of Sarasota, Fla., from the Deutsches Historisches Museum, where they had been stored.

Hans Sachs was a serious poster collector who began collecting in the late 19th century. He also published a poster magazine. 

The posters were taken by the Gestapo in 1938; Sachs was told at the time that Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wanted them for a museum exhibit.

Sachs was arrested on the night of Kristallnact in November 1938 and taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His wife secured his freedom and the family escaped to the United States.

Sachs accepted compensation for the collection from West Germany in 1961. He died in 1974.

Survivor: Regina Hirsch

“Leave your possessions. We will bring them to you,” a Jewish commando greeted the trainload of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. He pointed to Regina Landowicz’s mother: “Too old.” And to her sister Lillie: “Too young.” Sally, another sister, took scissors from her rucksack and quickly trimmed their mother’s hair and lopped off Lillie’s braids as German soldiers shouted, “Raus, raus!” (Out, out!) On the platform, a German soldier tried to grab Lillie from their mother’s arms, but their mother clutched her tightly, even as he beat her. “Ma, ma,” Regina, Sally and another sister, Ruthie, screamed. A soldier whipped the girls, separating them from their mother and Lillie. “Where you’re going you don’t need a mother,” he told 16-year-old Regina. 

Regina, Sally and Ruthie were processed and taken to Block 25, which housed 1,000 women. “We lay on the floor like animals,” Regina said. From the open door, they saw the entire sky glow red from fire and later learned their mother and Lillie had been gassed and cremated. 

Regina was born on June 29, 1928, in Lodz, Poland, to Ajzyk and Esther Landowicz, the third-to-last child in an observant family of eight girls and one boy. Only Regina and three sisters survived the Holocaust.

Regina’s father had been a wealthy businessman. The family lived in a large apartment and spent summers in the country. Regina remembers that every Shabbat her father brought an oyrech — an impoverished guest — to dinner. In the early 1930s, Regina’s father lost his money and opened a small grocery store.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, occupying Lodz seven days later. The Germans immediately cut off food supplies to the city’s approximately 230,000 Jews, instituted curfews and confiscated property. Jewish men were carted off to labor camps. In December, all Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars. Regina’s five older siblings fled to Warsaw and points east. (Of those five, only Judy, who escaped to Siberia, survived.) 

“Everybody was scared,” Regina said. She and Ruthie often stood in line all night in the snow and cold for a loaf of bread. One time, in the early morning darkness, a German soldier approached Regina and yelled, “Jude, raus” (Jew, out). He beat her up. Ruthie later returned home with bread. 

As rumors of a ghetto began circulating, Regina’s parents, with $50 from an American uncle, purchased a room from a Polish family. Regina and Ruthie dragged a sled carrying household items, including a wooden bathtub and their father’s Hebrew books, there, making several trips. By February 1940, all Jews were ordered into the ghetto. 

On April 1, Regina, who had contracted typhoid, was taken to a small ghetto hospital. She awoke the next morning semi-conscious in a bathtub of ice. “You’re the luckiest kid in the world,” a woman told her.  The previous day the Gestapo had rounded up all the doctors, nurses and patients and shot them. 

In spring 1940, the Jews began working in exchange for food. Regina wove shawls by hand on a loom. Later she made boots out of straw for the German soldiers. “My hands were full of pus from that work,” Regina said. Her last job was making wooden cribs. Regina stopped working toward the end of 1943, as deportations to Auschwitz increased. 

One day, Regina and her family hid in the attic of a burned-out factory. German soldiers with dogs later searched the building but didn’t discover them. 

Another time, in June 1944, their mother took Regina and Lillie (Sally and Ruthie were still working) to a field, where they hid in a tepee-shaped bundle of hay. They lay there all day, until Regina lost a boot and her mother decided to leave. German soldiers later machine-gunned everyone hiding there. 

“Miracles. Unbelievable miracles. I myself don’t believe them,” Regina said.

For the next two months, Regina and her family spent their days hiding in the large Jewish cemetery and their nights in a nearby shack. One day they heard gunfire ring out for hours. The next day Regina, her three sisters and her mother were captured and shipped to Auschwitz. Regina never learned her father’s fate. 

After two months in Auschwitz’s Block 25, 250 girls from the Lodz ghetto, including Regina, Sally and Ruthie, were transferred to A Lager. During the night, German soldiers burst in and took out 50 girls. Regina and her sisters lay huddled on a top bunk, hearing the others’ screams.

“If I live to be 100 years, I cannot describe Auschwitz. Unbelievable. Hell on earth,” she said. 

From Auschwitz, the girls were taken to a munitions factory in Oederan, Saxony. Upon arrival, they were led into a dining room, where bowls of soup awaited them. “A spoon. They gave us a spoon,” Regina recalled. Subsequent meals were less lavish, but they had food, slept five to a bunk and were given hot water every week to wash up.

In the factory, Regina worked 12 hours a day drilling holes, one at a time, into German bullets. “I tried to make the hole on the side, but the foreman was measuring constantly,” she said.  

In late April 1945, the girls were sent to Theresienstadt. There, with “unbelievable hunger and not a drop of water,” Regina said, they lived outdoors. 

On May 8, Soviet troops liberated the camp.

After several months, Regina and her sisters found themselves at a DP camp in Landsberg am Lech, Germany, where Regina studied design and pattern making through ORT. More than four years later, in 1949, Sally and Ruthie were each married and had immigrated to the United States. Regina followed, arriving in Los Angeles in August 1949.

In early 1950, Regina met Phillip Hirsch, a landsman from Lodz and a Bergen-Belsen survivor. They married on March 11, 1951. Their son, Mark, was born on Jan. 4, 1952, and daughter, Laurene, on Sept. 28, 1956. Phillip died on June 1, 2008.

Today, Regina, now 84, lives in Westwood. She enjoys spending time with her family, including her son, daughter, son-in-law, two grandsons and sisters Ruthie and Sally. 

Regina began speaking out about the Holocaust in 1949, a time when “nobody wanted to listen,” she said. She was one of the first speakers at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and continues to speak there every Thursday. She also talks to college students and the U.S. military.

“While we’re here, we have to talk, we have to teach. What else is there to do?” she said.

Survivor: Sonja Telias

From the upstairs bedroom she shared with four girls, Sonja Blits heard the soldiers marching through the quiet village of Zaandijk, outside Amsterdam, where she was being hidden by a generous Dutch family. “Remember, stay below the windowsill,” Moe Haidel, the other girls’ mother, reminded her. But, drawn to the unusual noise, Sonja stood up and peeked through the curtain. Her eyes fixed on the SS troops’ black boots making clicking noises on the brick street. That sound continued to haunt her.

Sonja Blits, living under the false name of Rietje Knox, had been with the Heidels since she was 3, placed there in early 1943 after first being hidden on a farm for just a few months. Her blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to blend in with Saakje (known as Moe) and Hank Heidel’s four daughters, becoming the middle sister.

Sonja was born in Amsterdam on June 8, 1939, to Eva and Louis Blits, a successful toy manufacturer. Germany invaded Holland in May 1940, but it wasn’t until July 1942, when they received notice to report for relocation, that the family felt the need to escape. A few days later, Sonja’s father, who had connections with the Dutch underground, escorted her, her mother and his parents to various safe houses.

Sonja’s father, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, with his blond hair, blue eyes and fluent German, was able to work for the underground while passing himself off as an agricultural expert, even though, Sonja said, “He didn’t know the difference between a pea and a beet.”

An older Jewish woman, whom Sonja called Aunt Catoetje, and a Jewish couple also lived in the Heidels’ tiny, immaculate home. The three adults shared a small upstairs bedroom, rarely leaving. Sonja remembers them mostly playing cards.

Sonja spent her days in the girls’ bedroom, playing with dolls, coloring and avoiding the window. “We can’t tell anybody that you’re here,” Immy, the second oldest sister, said to her. “It’s a big, big secret.” In the afternoon, the two older girls taught Sonja to read, draw and other skills they were learning in school.

In the evenings, Sonja joined the family for dinner, which was often just rice. Afterward, Hank, whom Sonja remembers as distant, retired to the living room, while Moe played the radio and danced with the five girls. “I felt so much love,” said Sonja, who wasn’t able to remember her own parents.

During this time Sonja’s father, dressed in bib overalls, rode a rickety bicycle to various farms and traded small loose diamonds from his brother-in-law’s diamond business for food, regularly delivering eggs, rice and cheese to the Heidels and to other families harboring Jews. “That’s what saved us,” Sonja said. She didn’t recognize him as her father, but she liked him.

Three times, when the Nazis searched for Jews inside the houses on Oud Heinstraat, Sonja and the three adults had to crawl backward into a hiding place behind one of the headboards in the girls’ room. The opening, about 3 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet, resembled a hollowed-out rain gutter, Sonja said. Each time they remained in the dark hole, with little air circulation, for several hours. Sonja sat silently on Aunt Catoetje’s lap.

A Christian couple next door, Joop and Lena Keijzer, also were active in the Dutch resistance. Several times Joop came to the Heidels’ house at night, hoisted Sonja on his shoulders and walked along the canal behind the houses. “I was amazed to be outside in the fresh air,” she said.

Shortly before the war ended, in May 1945, Sonja’s parents came for her. She was almost 6 and had spent two and a half years in hiding.

The Blits family, including Sonja’s father’s parents, returned to their house in Amsterdam, where they learned that Sonja’s mother’s parents and two brothers had perished in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Her mother never talked about it and never cried, even when friends gathered in the garden and sobbed. “It was sad times,” Sonja said.

Sonja’s mother, despite being in bad physical shape, gave birth to Sonja’s sister Grace in 1946. But Grace was always troubled, and Sonja was never close to her, or to their mother. “Moe Heidel was a better mother to me than my mother ever was,” Sonja said.

It was Sonja’s father, who was gregarious and always hugging, Sonja said, on whom the light shone. On Sunday mornings, he took her to Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, where they talked and where, later, he told her stories about the war.

Finally Sonja’s family, including her father’s parents, was permitted to immigrate to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles on Oct. 26, 1949.

A week later, her father enrolled her at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica. It was a hard adjustment, but a girl soon befriended her, staying after school and teaching her 10 English words each day.

Sonja graduated from Santa Monica High School and attended Santa Monica City College. Then, on May 10, 1958, she married Larry Faber and together they had three daughters: Deborah, born in 1959; Michele, in 1963; and Lisa, in 1965.

Sonja said she has always felt like a survivor. In 1964, she was in a serious car accident, which led to two unsuccessful back surgeries. She was told, erroneously, she would never walk again.

In 1965, she enrolled at West Valley Occupational Center, where she learned medical office skills. She worked for several doctors, retiring in 2005.

Sonja also survived what she described as “a difficult divorce” in 1983, as well as two bouts of cancer, in 1986 and 1996.

Grace, Sonja’s sister, died at age 46, in 1992, of complications from multiple sclerosis. Their father died in 1989, their mother in 1994.

In May 2000, Sonja traveled to Holland to witness Moe Heidel being recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. She also visited the house on Oud Heinstraat, where subsequent owners have preserved and continued to honor the hiding place.

While Sonja has always suffered a deep sense of abandonment, today she values her 24-year marriage to her second husband, Leon Telias. She also enjoys spending time with her three daughters, their husbands and her nine grandchildren.

“There are good people in the world who make the best of everything,” Sonja said.

March of the Living Honors Survivors, Prepares Next Generation to Carry Torch

“I’m a simple man … [and] life is very simple,” Max Webb said. “Only problem we have is people make it complicated.”

Webb, a home builder and philanthropist, addressed approximately 500 people as he accepted the Eternal Flame Award during March of the Living’s Tribute to Life Gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on March 21. And while the audience laughed at his comment, a measure of seriousness undercut the remark.

Webb survived 12 labor camps and six concentration camps; he had face-to-face encounters with Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor known for conducting human experiments on camp inmates; and he survived a death march in 1944.

Liberated from Waldenburg on May 8, 1945, Webb married Sala Shapell that same year and soon had two daughters. In 1952, he and his family immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Los Angeles. In 1955, he co-founded a private home-building company with his brothers-in-law, Nathan and David Shapell. The success of the company, now known as Shapell Homes, has enabled Webb to make good on the vow he made many years ago to help the Jewish people.

“In my life, I’ve solved a lot of problems,” said Webb, who recently turned 95.

Indeed, his donations have funded scholarships for March of the Living as well as construction and activities at Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University; synagogues, including Beth Chayim Chadashim and Congregation Beth Israel; Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Video presentations at the gala highlighted moments from Webb’s life and past March of the Living programs.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who presented Webb with the award, described him as a dancer, a builder and a lover of the Jewish community.

Webb was once a dance teacher and he continues to dance until this day, Wolpe said. “Even now you see in the grace of his movements, and the grace of his life; he never stopped dancing.”

Among the speakers at the March of the Living gala were Bruce Powell, founding head of school of New Community Jewish High School; Jeffrey Gunter, vice chairman of March of the Living International’s national advisory board; Harry Zimmerman, chairman of March of the Living International’s western region; and Maya Cohen, a 2004 March of the Living participant.

Also at the event was retired U.S. Army Sgt. Rick Carrier, who offered a complementary narrative to Webb’s story of survival.

On April 10, 1945, the day Carrier turned 20 years old, he was on a search for engineering supplies and equipment left behind by the Nazis in Weimar, Germany, when he discovered the Buchenwald concentration camp. He helped liberate the prisoners by blowing up the gate’s lock.
“I went from being a teenager to an adult very fast, so fast that it scared the s—- out of me,” Carrier said.

Carrier’s presence at the gala marked a new beginning for March of the Living. This year, the program celebrates its 25th anniversary, and, for the first time, concentration camp liberators, Carrier included, will accompany the teenagers, survivors and educators participating in the march.

A delegation of high school students from Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School, who will be participating in the April 16-30 March of the Living this year, walked onto the hotel ballroom stage wrapped in Israeli flags.

Of the 10,000 students worldwide participating in March of the Living this year, 202 are from Los Angeles.

BJE, Builders of Jewish Education, a beneficiary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, runs the trips locally. More than $100,000 in scholarship money was distributed to the participating L.A. students this year.

Nine survivors will accompany March of the Living’s L.A. contingent this year, along with David Cohen, a camp liberator from Southern California. However, with each passing year, as the survivors age, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to participate in what is a physically and emotionally demanding trip.

“So, what happens is,” Monise Neumann, director, BJE March of the Living, said, “the staff and kids who have gone before, who then become staff, will become the storytellers.”

Survivors: Rita Kahane and Serena Rubin

“Schnell, schnell,” the SS soldiers, with dogs and guns, yelled at the newly arrived Auschwitz prisoners. “Hurry, hurry.” Twins Rita and Serena Siegelstein, then 17, were suddenly separated from their parents and two brothers and rushed into a large building. Female guards appeared. The group of young girls was forced to undress, everything but their shoes, and their hair was shorn. They were then marched down a long hallway. The twins looked at their reflection in the windows, not recognizing themselves. “We weren’t even human anymore,” Serena said.

The group, which also included the twins’ two sisters, was given shapeless gray dresses and marched to a barracks. For two weeks, they endured roll calls three times a day, ate only one meal daily, at noon, of only soup and bread, and slept together shivering on the floor. One day, SS guards ordered them outside. They were told to undress and run single-file past the gate, where 2,000 were selected for a labor camp in Latvia. The twins didn’t dare look back, only later discovering that their sisters had been pulled from the line. “We cried most of the trip,” Rita said.

Originally named Razi and Suri, Rita and Serena were two of seven children born to Isadore and Elena Siegelstein in Transylvania, Romania. They were a modern Jewish family. Isadore ran a general store, and the family lived comfortably. The twins loved school. They also loved visiting their grandparents’ nearby estate.

In 1940, however, Transylvania came under Hungarian rule, and on March 19, 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary. The twins’ older brother, Bill, originally Bela, was taken to a labor camp. And in early May, soldiers transported the family to the ghetto Bistrita at the Stamboli farm, where nurses searched all the females vaginally for hidden jewelry. On June 6, they were loaded on cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz. “Children were crying. Everyone was crying,” Rita said.

After Auschwitz, the twins were transported to Riga. Serena, sick with a fever, was hospitalized, while Rita was taken to the nearby Kaiserwald concentration camp. For two weeks, she lined up for endless roll calls, never knowing if there would be a tomorrow. One morning, after volunteering for work in a labor camp, she found herself reunited with Serena in Riga. “It was a miracle,” said Serena, who narrowly missed being taken to the crematorium.

Next were two short stays in labor camps. Then, in August 1944, loaded into a stifling boxcar, they traveled four days and nights to Stuffhof, a concentration camp in Poland. “It was even worse than Auschwitz,” Serena said. One night, noticing that Serena’s hospital dress was different from the gray dresses the others wore, an SS guard beat her up. Another guard took pleasure in pouring buckets of water on the sleeping prisoners. Mostly the prisoners waited for roll calls and endured numerous selections.

After a week, the twins, along with some 500 other girls, were transported to Glowen, a forced labor camp near Sachsenhausen. For eight months, they slept in barracks, with each girl assigned a bunk bed with a blanket. They received three meals a day and weekly showers, and worked digging building foundations and carrying bricks.

But then, as Allied paratroopers descended from the sky, they were evacuated on a death march. They walked days and nights with no food or water, with SS and their guns and dogs at their backs and with bombs raining down. During the walk, Serena became very weak and was carried by Rita and some friends.

On May 5, after three weeks, they finally arrived at Ravensbruck concentration camp. They entered the barracks late at night, climbing over bodies crammed together on the floor. The next morning, hearing a huge commotion, they ran outside. When the other girls didn’t join them, they realized they were dead. They saw SS soldiers fleeing. The gate was open, and they were free. Of the 2,000 girls who had left Auschwitz together less than a year earlier, only 18 survived.

On their own, with Serena sick, they stayed in the area, discovering an empty house and cooking potatoes. They also found three broken mezuzahs, which Rita owns to this day, and a white tablecloth with colored stripes, which Serena sewed into a dress. “I was very proud. That was my only dress for a long time,” she said.

After a week, they started walking, and finally reached a transit camp, which they believe was named Molchow, where they registered as displaced persons. They soon left by train, learning at one stop that their parents and younger brother had been killed.

They finally arrived at their home in August 1945 and saw that almost everything, including the windows and furnace, was gone. Rita went inside and gathered whatever photographs she could find. “That was the saddest day of my life,” she said.

They continued traveling, meeting some cousins and reuniting with Bill, who was then working in Baru Mare, Romania. He supported the twins until October 1946, when they all left Romania. They spent two years in Austria, where they attended the ORT school in Salzburg, and then traveled to Montreal. In 1950, Rita moved to Los Angeles, where her aunt and uncle lived, and Serena followed in 1953.

Rita met Tom Kahane, an engineer who was born in Vienna and sent to England at age 11. They married on Dec. 27, 1957, and had two daughters — Cindy, born in 1960, and Tammy, born in 1964. Both are married with two children. Tom died in 1999.

Serena met Dick Rubin, and they married on March 3, 1963. Daughter Claudia was born in 1964 and son Jeffrey in 1966. Both are married with two children.

Rita, Serena and Dick live in a house in Woodland Hills. Family is most important to them. The twins also do international dancing three times a week. They are active in ORT and Café Europa, and for the past three years have participated in UCLA’s Bearing Witness program.

Every Friday night, Rita lights Shabbat candles. “I had a dream after the war that my mother came home and asked me to put candles on Friday nights and holidays,” she said. She has followed that wish ever since.

Ending the injustice: Making Holocaust survivors whole

Sixty-six years ago, when the Allied forces dismantled Hitler’s Nazi regime, the world swore never to forget the horrors of the Holocaust and the millions of lives lost. Yet, to this day, many Holocaust survivors continue to suffer grave injustices from that grim period in history — this time, at the hands of insurance companies. It is time to make these survivors whole again.

Prior to the Holocaust, many Europeans purchased insurance policies to provide themselves and their families with a means of protection against the growing Nazi regime. Following Hitler’s defeat, many survivors approached the insurance companies to redeem their policies and were shocked to discover that the companies would not honor their claims. Without original certification of the policies’ existence or other documentation such as death certificates, the companies refused to pay out the policies.

These requirements were ludicrous, given the circumstances: No death certificates were issued for those murdered in gas chambers and killed in concentration camps. Further, insurance documentation would almost certainly have been lost, confiscated or destroyed when a family was deported to the death camps. In many cases, the insurance companies possessed the only proof of a policy’s existence and refused to provide information to the policyholders or their families.

In 1998, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) was established to resolve these claims. Participation in ICHEIC was voluntary, meaning that while some companies chose to participate, many others did not. The ICHEIC process itself had a remarkably high percentage of claims rejection (approximately 84 percent), often due to the same limitations in documentation that prevented claims from being honored previously. Companies were never forced to make an adequate disclosure of policy ownership, leaving potential claimants unaware of funds they could be owed. When the ICHEIC process ended in 2007, many Holocaust survivors were outraged that their claims were dismissed.

Today, a tremendous number of survivors in the United States live below the poverty line and increasingly face the medical challenges of old age without the means to afford health care. I [Ros-Lehtinen] have the honor of representing one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the country. These extraordinary individuals, having endured the horrors of the Holocaust, came to the United States to escape the injustice and brutal discrimination they faced in Europe. We will not allow Holocaust survivors to fall victim to companies that seek to profit from the Nazis’ atrocities.

The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act — co-authored [by Ros-Lehtinen] with U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) — addresses these pressing issues. This bipartisan legislation would allow survivors to avail themselves of state laws that were passed to allow them their day in court and to require European insurance companies conducting business in those states to disclose Nazi-era insurance policy information. This measure does not award any money; it simply affirms survivors’ rights to bring the issue before a federal judge, a right that is guaranteed to all American citizens. The late Tom Lantos, former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, co-sponsored a version of this legislation in a previous Congress, for he understood this was an important means of making survivors whole.

For almost seven decades, the United States has led the charge to restore justice and dignity to Holocaust survivors. As long as European insurance companies continue to take advantage of the vulnerability of Nazi victims, injustice is perpetuated and the scars of the Holocaust grow deeper. We have the opportunity to right these wrongs and enable survivors to recover the funds they are owed; however, our window grows smaller every day. United States law will protect the victims of the Holocaust, not those who seek to gain from the Nazis’ cruelty.

For third straight year, Germany doubling up on funding for Holocaust survivors’ home care

The German government is doubling the amount of money it will provide for home care for poor Holocaust survivors, the Claims Conference said.

The increase announced Monday to $145 million for 2011, doubling the amount given in 2010, is meant to meet a growing need among the elderly survivors, and it comes as the sources of Claims Conference funds for Holocaust survivor programs—derived from the sale of heirless Jewish property in the former East Germany—are drying up.

“We know there is need in two places”—home care and other services to survivors—the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, Gregory Schneider, told JTA. “Disgracefully, there are survivors on waiting lists in certain places. No poor survivor should have to be on a waiting list for home care. That is the bottom line.”

In negotiations with the Claims Conference, the German government began funding home care in 2004 with an initial allocation of 6 million Euro (about $8 million by today’s exchange rates). The allocation has steadily increased; it has nearly doubled in each of the last three years.

The Claims Conference projects that the need for home care will increase until 2014, when it likely will hit a tipping point before starting to decrease as today’s estimated population of 520,000 survivors dies out.

In 2011, the money will go to support home care services for more than 60,000 survivors in 32 countries. In total, the Claims Conference distributes $270 million in funding to services that support survivors. This includes money obtained by the Claims Conference from the sale of heirless Jewish properties in the former East Germany, but it does not include direct payments to survivors from Germany for which the Claims Conference acts as a pass-through.

In all, Claims Conference-distributed money goes to more than 100 organizations that provide home care, food, emergency assistance and medical care to Nazi victims in 46 countries.

This week’s announcement comes about a month after the FBI made 17 arrests in a $42 million fraud scheme at the Claims Conference in which employees of the organization filed fraudulent claims for people who were not victims of Nazi Germany, thereby obtaining millions of dollars from the German government through the Claims Conference. The fraudsters received kickbacks from the claimants.

Schneider and the chief negotiator for the Claims Conference, former U.S. ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat, said the arrests and ongoing investigation did not weigh on the negotiations with the Germans. On the German side, the negotiations were led by Werner Gatzer, the state secretary at the Finance Ministry.

The Claims Conference said it notified the German government of the fraud weeks before the fraud became public.

“It played no role in the negotiations,” Eizenstat said, although he did say that the Germans had to get final permission to make the home care agreement public because of the negative press associated with the fraud.

Germany’s Finance Ministry is now working with the Claims Conference to strengthen the organization’s internal controls, adding extra vetting and precautions to make sure that the money only goes to survivors, Eizenstat said.

Claims Conference officials told JTA that they are in the process of trying to recover the fraudulently obtained money and will return it to the German government.

Conference tackles Shoah survivors’ needs for next decade

Holocaust survivors are rapidly dying off and will soon disappear, according to perceptions held by the international Jewish community. But a conference in Los Angeles devoted to caring for victims of Nazi persecution in North and South America, which took place from June 22 to 24 demonstrated otherwise.

Not only are survivors alive in large numbers — estimated at 700,000 worldwide, with about 85,000 in the United States — but they are projected to be a part of Jewish society for another 10 to 15 years, and even longer for child survivors.

“There are survivors. But they’re getting older and sicker, and they need more,” said Greg Schneider, chief operating officer of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which finances most of the social welfare programs for survivors globally.

The Claims Conference sponsored the international seminar, “Caring Across Continents: Working with Jewish Nazi Victims in the Americas,” in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. It was held at The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, with 120 social workers and program directors attending from the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America and Australia.

The conference focused primarily on providing specialized communal services for needy and vulnerable Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, a field that has come to the forefront only in the last 13 years. Previously some survivors received — and some continue to receive — only individual compensation, primarily from the German government.

“There was no recognition of the special needs of the survivors,” said Schneider, referring to such services as case management, subsidized home care, emergency-assistance funding and socialization programs like Café Europa, a Holocaust survivors’ support group.

That changed in 1994 when the Claims Conference became the legal successor to unclaimed private and communal Jewish properties in former East Germany and began receiving money from the sale of those properties or compensation for formerly Jewish-owned properties that couldn’t be returned. A year later, the Claims Conference began partnering with Jewish Family Service and other social service organizations in major cities to use those funds to develop programs for disadvantaged survivors.

Currently the Claims Conference designates $125 million a year for such programs, with up to $18 million of that total set aside for Shoah education.

“There’s no fixing what was broken, and everyone here understands that. But you can try to make a difference,” Schneider told the participants, conceding that the needs of the survivors far surpass what the Claims Conference is able to provide.

The conference, the first of its kind held on the West Coast, afforded participants the opportunity to network and share expertise and to hear about new strategies and interventions in such areas as bereavement, dementia and socialization. Additionally, they were able to replenish their own resources in a job that can be psychologically depleting and, for those living in small communities, isolating.

For social workers and program directors from South America, who work with small populations of Jewish Nazi victims, networking was clearly helpful.

“We are all together trying to take care of survivors, quality and quantity,” said Rosa Ana Silberman Jait, program coordinator of Fundación Tzedaká in Buenos Aires.

Much of the challenge lies in the fact that survivors have very different needs depending on their country of origin, where they spent the war years — in ghettoes or concentration camps under Nazi domination or in flight to eastern territories of the Soviet Union — and where they lived after the war.

In a session on working with Jewish Nazi victims from the former Soviet Union, Marina Berkman, director of Jewish Family Service’s West Hollywood Comprehensive Service Center, addressed the fact that the Holocaust was never mentioned by Soviet Union officials until Perestroika in 1985.

“People talked about the heroes of World War II but not about the survivors, so there was a shame,” she said.

And when Jewish agencies dealt with resettling the Russian émigrés in the 1990s, no one asked about their Holocaust history, said Ruth Paley, client services director at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis.

“We played into the conspiracy of silence,” she said.

Now, however, there are Russian-speaking social workers serving this population and a greater understanding of their culture and needs. Still, Berkman said, you could devote a whole conference to this huge issue.

In a session on forming innovative partnerships with government agencies, foundations and other programs, participants were solidly committed to doing whatever it takes to assist survivor clients.

“If they don’t have money for Shabbos dinner, we’ll go out on the street and beg for money,” said Rizy Horowitz, senior coordinator for Nachas Health and Family Network in New York City. “We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again.”

And while begging sounds extreme, the reality is that funding for these programs is expected to end in five years, when the East German unclaimed properties are all sold or restituted.

Claims Conference COO Schneider, however, is hoping that further funding will be available through an agreement with Poland on restitution of individual or private property. While Poland is the only former Soviet Union block country that has not helped Jews recover stolen private property, Schneider reported that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk promised an agreement by year’s end.

In the closing session, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at Los Angeles’ American Jewish University, validated the important responsibilities of social workers in attending to survivors’ intense and often critical needs as they reach the last stage in their lives, the only one ending naturally.

Those efforts include offering care and concern, giving them deep respect for both their personal and historical story and finding ways of bridging the loneliness and isolation that causes what Berenbaum called “death before dying.”

But those obligations clearly extend beyond the scope of committed and often overstretched social service professionals.

In a statement addressed to the larger Jewish community, Claims Conference COO Schneider said, “We judge our parents’ generation that they didn’t do enough. But our children will judge us by how we handle the last chapters, by how we help these people live the last years of their lives with some dignity.”

“That’s our responsibility,” he said.

New Shoah pension deal gives survivors ‘recognition of suffering’

For Aviva G., the significance of last week’s announcement that more Holocaust survivors like her will be eligible for pension payments from the German government was not about the money. It was about principle and the notion that a certain degree of justice may now be done.

Aviva, 71, says there is no true compensation for years in ghettos, but she sees the new deal as a “recognition of suffering.” Aviva asked that her family name be withheld.

After extensive negotiations with the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Germany eased some eligibility requirements so more low-income survivors like Aviva can receive so-called Article 2 pension payments.

The agreement, which adds $250 million to the pension fund over 10 years, may be one of the last and biggest breakthroughs in the area of reparations to survivors, according to the Claims Conference.

The deal affects survivors whose income levels made them ineligible for payments in the past. Until now, those with annual income above $16,000 were excluded from the payments.

Under the new deal, income received from other pension sources, including governmental pensions, disability payments, retirement plans and the like, or a spouse’s income, will not be counted toward the $16,000 total.

The change effectively enables thousands more low-income survivors to collect pension payments from Germany. The funds will be distributed starting Oct. 1 and continue for 10 years.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said in a telephone interview with JTA. “It will make a big difference for a lot of people worldwide.”

Taylor said it took “a long battle” and months of negotiations to reach the agreement.

The Claims Conference will be launching a major advertising campaign to reach those who might be eligible, he said. Information about how to apply is available at Claims Conference offices and on its Web site, There is no deadline for applications, according to Taylor.

The decision to lower the bar for eligibility comes just as Germany has enacted a law granting pensions to victims of the German Communist regime. For these victims, too, pensions and income from spouses will not count against eligibility.

The Law for Support of Victims of the Socialist German Dictatorship, the third post-reunification law aimed at compensating victims of World War II, was enacted Aug. 29. Low-income applicants who were imprisoned under the Communist regime for at least six months may receive 250 euro per month.

The additional payments for Holocaust survivors will be from the Claims Conference Article 2 Fund pension program, which currently distributes pensions to 51,000 survivors. The new rules will lead to a 10 percent increase in those who qualify for payments, or about 6,000 people, the Claims Conference estimated.

Aviva might be among the younger ones. Born in 1938 in Boryslaw, then part of Poland, she was a small child when German troops wrested the region from Soviet control in the summer of 1941. Most of the town’s Jews were killed, but Aviva’s mother managed to hide her in the ghetto while most other children were deported.

“When my mother found out that all the women and children and nonworking old men would be deported, we left the ghetto and hid in the woods, and then in the home of a Ukrainian woman who had worked for us,” Aviva said.

Her brother, who later was killed, gave the woman money to hide them. For a while, Aviva and her mother lived in the space behind a wardrobe pushed against a corner.

The woman “slipped the food to us from below,” Aviva recalled. “I could not be loud. I could not laugh, cry or shout. And afterward, for months I could only whisper.”

They were liberated by Russian troops at the end of 1944.

Aviva met her husband, Juergen, an engineer, in Israel, and returned with him to his native Germany in 1958. They had two daughters and now have five grandchildren who live in Israel.

For decades, Aviva was a social worker for the Frankfurt Jewish community. She and her husband are retired.

She said she received a small reparations payment from Germany of 5,000 Deutschmark in the 1950s — that’s worth about $3,500 today — “but that is nothing for the fact that I basically lost my childhood.”

She applied for Article 2 payments in 2000 but was told her income was slightly over the limit.

“That disappointed me a lot,” she said. “Thank God, I am financially not so dependent. It is more a moral issue. This suffering I experienced as a child was never recognized.”

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.”

Briefs: Holocaust denial resolution goes to U.N.; Swiss admit Israel-Syria mediation; Survivors owed

Holocaust Denial Resolution Goes to U.N.

The United States presented a resolution condemning Holocaust denial to the United Nations General Assembly. The text, introduced Tuesday in advance of the U.N.-designated International Day of Commemoration for victims of the Holocaust on Jan. 27, urges member states “to reject any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event” and “condemns without reservation any denial of the Holocaust.” Although it does not mention Iran, the measure is seen as a reaction to last month’s Holocaust denial conference hosted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a reaction to, but certainly the conference in question only reminds us that there are those among us who actually minimize or deny the Holocaust, and we find that frightening,” said Richard Grenell, the U.S. mission’s spokesman. “And this resolution makes clear it’s unacceptable to even minimize it.”

The resolution, which has some 25 sponsors, is expected to go to a vote Friday.

Pole Wins Jerusalem Prize

This year’s Jerusalem Prize will go to Leszek Kolakowski in recognition of his critiques of the repressive aspects of Soviet communism and his championing of human liberty. The prestigious literary prize will be presented at next month’s Jerusalem International Book Fair.

Born in 1927, Kolakowski earned a doctorate from Warsaw University and went on to serve on the faculties of Harvard, Oxford and the University of Chicago before retiring in 1995. Past recipients of the prize include Bertrand Russell, Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera and Simone de Beauvoir. Some of the recipients went on to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, including V.S. Naipaul and J.M. Coetzee.

Swiss Admit Israel-Syria Mediation

Switzerland confirmed that it had been mediating secret efforts to launch Israeli-Syrian peace talks. Swiss President and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said Monday that top emissaries from her government were currently in Damascus. She refused to elaborate, but the disclosure appeared to confirm a Ha’aretz report earlier this month that a European country had mediated two years of unofficial talks between a retired Israeli diplomat and a Syrian American businessman about how the two countries could resume peace talks that were cut off in 2000. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed the contacts as unauthorized, while the Syrian government called the Ha’aretz report baseless.

Survivors Owed Billions, Study Says

Holocaust survivors are still owed as much as $175 billion in reparations, according to a new study. The Jewish Political Studies Review in Jerusalem said European nations had promised $3.4 billion in reparations, but only half of that had been paid by 2005. Only about 20 percent of Jewish assets have been returned overall, according to the study, which was made public last Friday by Reuters. The study said payments slowed after the United States stopped pressuring Europe on restitution. Holocaust survivors, many of them poor, are frustrated with the lack of payments. “Things are moving much too slowly,” said Menachem Rosensaft, founder of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. The Claims Conference said it would not comment on the report.

Katsav to Face Rape Charges

Israel’s attorney general decided that President Moshe Katzav should be charged with rape. Menachem Mazuz’s office issued a statement Tuesday saying it had collected enough evidence to support charging Katsav with rape and sexual harassment of former employees, obstruction of justice and fraud. A final decision on whether to indict Katsav will be made after a hearing in which the president may present his case. The president has immunity while in office, but said last month that he would resign if indicted. Katsav has denied any wrongdoing.

JDub, Matisyahu End Legal Troubles

In a release issued Tuesday, nonprofit Jewish record label and management team JDub announced it has resolved all legal disputes with Matisyahu, although its business relationship with the artist remains severed. In a surprise move last March, the Chasidic reggae star abruptly ended his management agreement with JDub’s Aaron Bisman and Jacob Harrison on the eve of the release of his first major studio album, “Youth.” JDub claimed their agreement with the artist had three years remaining on a four-year contract when Matisyahu moved to representation by former Capitol Records president Gary Gersh.

— Staff Report

Rap Mogul Addresses Jewish Congress

Rap mogul Russell Simmons called on Jewish entertainers to fight racism. In a speech Monday to the World Jewish Congress titled “Unity: Fighting Our Fights Together,” Simmons spoke about his public service announcements against racism and anti-Semitism that will be aired in Europe later this month. The ads, produced by Simmons, co-leader of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, feature Simmons and rapper Jay-Z encouraging young people to fight racism and anti-Semitism in their communities. Simmons called on the Beastie Boys and other Jewish entertainers to create another public service announcement with him, this one focusing on Islamophobia.

Saddam Chroniclers Look to Yad Vashem

Iraqis documenting Saddam Hussein’s crimes have been consulting with Yad Vashem. Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday that a group of Iraqi exiles that want to honor the late dictator’s victims visited the Jerusalem-based Holocaust memorial last year and also met with Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who has documented the stories of Holocaust survivors. “It is difficult for me to make a comparison between the story of the Iraqi victims and the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe,” Kanan Makiya, one of the researchers, told Yediot. “Yet there are many basic similarities. Saddam behaved toward some parts of his people as Hitler did toward the Jews. Both cases are tragedies and there were innocent victims in both cases.”

Shipwreck Found Off Israel’s Coast

An eighth-century shipwreck was discovered off Israel’s northern coast. Though the 50-foot-long boat was discovered almost a decade ago, Haifa University’s Institute for Maritime Studies announced the find Tuesday after completing its research into the vessel.

“We do not have any other historical or archaeological evidence of the economic activity and commerce of this period,” said the university’s Ya’acov Kahanov. “The shipwreck will serve as a source of information about the social and economic activities in this area.”

In addition to the wooden hull, many of the boat’s contents were preserved. Among them are 30 vessels of pottery of different sizes and designs containing fish bones, ropes, mats, a bone needle, a wooden spoon, wood carvings and food remains, mainly carobs and olives.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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


Filming on Babi Yar Genocide Underway

A new Holocaust documentary, co-produced by the Los Angeles-based Shoah Foundation, is being filmed in Ukraine and targeted mainly toward a Ukranian and Russian audience. The film should be completed by September, in time for the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre.

The 70-minute documentary will focus on Babi Yar, the infamous ravine just outside Kiev, where approximately 33,000 Jews were slaughtered in September 1941. It also will deal with the larger history of the Holocaust in Ukraine, according to Douglas Greenberg, Shoah Foundation president and chief executive officer.

Greenberg told Ukrainian reporters last week that the bulk of the film’s material will come from the video archives of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which was created by filmmaker Steven Spielberg after he finished his 1994 Oscar award-winning “Schindler’s List.” Budget figures have not been disclosed.

The foundation has so far collected 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors in 56 countries, speaking in 32 languages, including 3,200 interviews from Ukrainian survivors.

Both Greenberg and Spielberg have family roots in Ukraine.

According to Greenberg, the foundation’s mission now is to bring these testimonies back to the countries in which they were collected to educate local populations about the Holocaust. Greenberg said he hopes the film will eventually be distributed in Ukrainian schools. Work is under way to create a teacher’s guide so Ukrainian teachers can use the film in their Holocaust lessons.

Approximately one-fifth of the film will be new material shot in Ukraine this past year, Greenberg said. Interviews with Ukrainian Jews remembering the country’s prewar Jewish community will make up much of this material.

The documentary is co-produced by Ukrainian Jewish oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, a son-in-law of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and a major donor to the Jewish community in his native Dnepropetrovsk. Greenberg said Spielberg and Pinchuk were introduced to each other by a mutual friend a year and a half ago.

“We’ve always wanted to make a documentary film about the Holocaust in Ukraine, because it’s such an important chapter” in the overall history of the Holocaust, Greenberg said. “And there was Mr. Pinchuk, who was also interested in the subject.”

Pinchuk’s spokesman, Thomas Eymond-Laritaz, described his boss’s participation in the project as “a tribute to the Jewish community he was brought up in,” as well as his “desire to participate in something that would eventually benefit the wider world community.”

Film director Sergey Bukovsky, a 20-year veteran of the Ukraine film industry, said that the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to much “creative directing” but said he would try to make it as engaging as possible.

“We looked for other solutions to avoid having just ‘talking heads,’ ” Bukovsky said. “There will be Jewish artifacts and scenes from the old Jewish towns in western Ukraine in the film.”

Bukovsky, who is not Jewish, said he had to resist the temptation to editorialize.

“The biggest challenge for me has been finding a balance between educating and moralizing in the film,” he said.

One thing that makes the Ukrainian project stand out from similar documentaries produced by the Shoah Foundation in other countries, Greenberg said, is that it will include the testimony of Ukrainians who helped Jews during World War II.

Distribution plans have yet to be finalized, but Greenberg said he expects the film will be shown on Ukrainian television, and he hopes for a theatrical release in Ukraine, as well. The film will be released in both Ukrainian and Russian, Ukraine’s two official languages, and will be subtitled in English for the United States, Europe and Israel.

“This is a story that isn’t Ukrainian or American, Polish or German,” Greenberg said. “It’s a human story, and from this point of view, the fact that it’s going to be told about Ukrainians and in the languages that Ukrainians speak makes it very important.”

The Leah Doll

Tante Mina sat on her couch and slowly tore away the wrapping. When the paper fell and she saw the porcelain doll her nieces had molded, painted and dressed for her, her breath caught in her throat and she let out a little gasp. As Tante Mina continued to stare at the doll, Mali, my mother, told her 81-year-old aunt about the next step.

“Now you have to name her.”

“Her name is Leah,” Tante Mina said right away. Mali looked at her twin sister, Tova, slightly stunned.

“Tante Mina, how did you do that so quickly? It usually takes people a little while to let the doll’s name come to them.” Mali said.

“No, her name is Leah,” Tante Mina said again, “she looks exactly like my sister who died in the Holocaust, her name was Leah.”

Mali and Tova slowly sat down.

“My sister, Leah, had black hair, freckles and the same face as this doll,” Tante Mina said.

“Do you have a picture of her?” Tova asked.

“No, the only picture exists in my mind, and now here she is,” Tante Mina said gesturing to her heart and then to the doll sitting in her lap.

My family talks about everything. We laugh, giggle and involve ourselves in one another’s lives. But for everything that is talked about and laughed at, there is the same equivalency of things not being said. For all of our plans and hopes, my family’s past is never mentioned. It is known, understood and remembered but never talked about. It’s a past farther back than how I’m related to a certain person. It’s all the stories of my relatives who lived and died during the Holocaust.

When I was younger I would ask questions about why some of my great aunts had never had children, and my mother would start to answer and then emotion would take over. Her eyes would start to water as she quickly explained how their bodies never recovered from what happened during the war. I was given the facts but the details were hidden behind tears and sadness that my family would rather repress then delve into again and again.

Of course, growing up, I learned in school what the Holocaust was and heard all of the horrible stories about what happened during those dreadful years to millions of Jews. The most education I received on the subject outside of school was through a trip to the Museum of Tolerance, and from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” which my mother made me go see with my dad.

There is the famous saying when it comes to the Holocaust — never forget. As long as we never forget, these horrible things can never happen again. However, there is a distinct difference between never forgetting, and remembering and honoring the lives lost.

The Holocaust survivors in my family, like Tante Mina, don’t mention the hardships they endured or the family they lost. It is something that they keep inside, never forgetting, yet never revealing. The faces of their lost loved ones, like Tante Mina’s sister, Leah, exist only in their memories, growing fuzzy with time yet always hovering near them.

When my mother called me and told me about Tante Mina’s doll, I could hear the emotion in her voice: “Isn’t that weird, of all of the choices of doll molds, of hair colors, eye colors, styles of clothing, it all turned out to be the image of the sister she lost in the Holocaust. A sister we didn’t even remember existed in the first place.”

Leah now sits on Tante Mina’s dresser in the Jewish Home for the Aging. A small, freckle-faced doll with black, braided hair, a straw hat and a beautiful green dress, a sense of loss behind her green painted eyes yet an aura of hope around her. She’s a constant reminder of the sister she had and serves as a guiding force, watching over Tante Mina as time passes, a presence to remind her that she has never, and will never, be alone.

An amazing connection can exist between past and present that, if strong enough, will present itself in ways never thought possible. This mystic connection graced my family when a doll was created that, unbeknownst to those who created her, also had a past.

There is so much sadness, pain and secrecy in the past that holds onto people’s souls for the duration of their lives. Although it is hard to recount these memories of loss, it is such an important first step to remembering and honoring — the past of who lived — while also being dedicated to not forgetting those who died.

Caroline Cobrin is a writer living in Van Nuys.


Austria Makes Reparations for Nazi Past

The expulsion and extermination of 182,000 Austrian Jews during the Nazi era is a wound that will never heal completely, but two important decisions during recent weeks at least point to a symbolic closure for the dwindling number of survivors and the Austrian government.

In a high-profile case, Maria Altmann won her seven-year battle to recover from Austria five famous paintings looted by the Nazis and now valued at $200 million. The art works were seized in Vienna in 1938 from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish sugar magnate and Altmann’s uncle.

After an even longer period of legal and diplomatic wrangling, a court decision has cleared the final hurdle for payment of restitution money to survivors or the heirs of victims.

The drawn-out Altmann case finally reached its end when the Austrian government accepted the decision of an arbitration court in Vienna that the five paintings by Gustav Klimt rightfully belonged to Altmann and four relatives.

The decisive ruling in favor of Altmann and her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, is “the most important victory in the entire history of litigation on Holocaust restitution,” said professor Michael J. Bazyler of Whittier Law School, whose latest book, “Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy,” has just been published by New York University Press.

Altmann, a tall and animated Cheviot Hills resident, who will celebrate her 90th birthday next month, greeted the decision as “Fabulous…. It is wonderful that justice has finally been done, that was my whole goal.”

Born Maria Victoria in Vienna in 1916, she was raised the pampered daughter of the fabulously wealthy Bloch-Bauer family. Her uncle Ferdinand owned Austria’s largest sugar-refining factory, numerous mansions and a major art collection.

The Bloch-Bauers were Jewish, but in the selective manner typical of central Europe’s Jewish upper class.

“We went to a temple once a year on Yom Kippur, where I remember seeing the Rothschilds, the men in top hats and cutaway coats,” Altmann recalled. “But otherwise, we celebrated Christmas and Easter. That’s sometimes hard to explain to American Jews.”

In December 1937, in the last grand Jewish wedding in Vienna, Maria Block-Bauer married Fritz Altmann, an aspiring opera singer. The newlyweds left for an extended honeymoon. Shortly after their return, Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna, amid the unrestrained jubilation of the Austrian people, Maria Altmann remembers well. In one of their first acts, the Nazis seized the art collection of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, including the Klimt paintings.

The most famous of the paintings is a gold-flecked portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, currently a centerpiece of the Austrian National Gallery and one of the most reproduced pictures of all time.

Following the ruling, there remain some loose ends to be tied up, especially whether Austria will try to buy the Adele portrait, considered a national treasure, from Altmann.

The portrait itself is valued at about $100 million, and the government has said it cannot afford the sum, which is equal to the annual budget for all Austrian museums.

It is Austria’s hope that a generous private donor might step up and pick up the tab.

The other Klimt works are a second portrait of Bloch-Bauer and three landscapes.

Schoenberg predicts that his client’s victory will encourage other governments and museums, especially in France and Spain, to arrive at settlements on other cases of Nazi looted art taken from Jews during the Hitler era.

A bizarre touch was added last week, when Schoenberg received an anonymous e-mail, whose sender threatened to destroy the Klimt paintings in order for “hungry people to get bread.” Austrian authorities temporarily removed the paintings from the National Gallery, and then arrested a 50-year-old man, tracked down through his Internet provider.

The unidentified man claimed that he was drunk when he sent the e-mail.

Until two years ago, Altmann, mother of four and grandmother of six, supported herself by running a fashionable dress shop for women over 40.

Her fortunes have changed in recent months. In addition to the money she is expected to receive under the settlement with Austria or the sale of some of the Klimt paintings, Altman and 13 co-heirs got $21.8 million last year in recompense for the sugar factory and other properties seized by the Nazis.

Although the Bloch-Bauers had the foresight to set up a trust account for the factory’s stock in a Swiss bank to shield it from seizure, the bank turned around and sold everything to a well-connected German businessman at a fraction of its value.

Altmann said she plans no changes in her lifestyle.

“I’ll stay in the same home where I’ve lived for 30 years and keep driving my ’92 Ford,” she said. “And I don’t need any new clothing.”

However, she plans “to do something” for the Jewish communities in Austria and the United States and for Israel.

Once the money is in hand, she also hopes to realize her long-held dream of sponsoring a performance by the Los Angeles Opera, starring her idol, tenor Placido Domingo. The event would be dedicated to her late husband, whose operatic career was cut short when he had to flee Austria.

Altmann said she had urged Austria seven years ago to arbitrate the dispute, “but I never got a response back.”

Schoenberg savored the end of the lengthy confrontation, noting that “at the beginning, we didn’t think we had any chance at all.”

A decisive break in the legal proceedings came in June 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Austria could be sued in a U.S. court, despite the opposition of the Austrian and American governments.

The Supreme Court decision helped Austria “to finally see the light” and agree to arbitration, Schoenberg said.

Austria Accepts Responsibility

While the Altmann case has made headlines, it is only part of the larger question of Austria’s responsibility toward Nazi victims in the postwar decades. Austria, whose native son Adolf Hitler incorporated it into the Third Reich during the 1938 Anschluss, played the role of “first victim” of the Nazis, guiltless of the Holocaust and other atrocities.

This attitude changed in the mid-1990s, when the Austrian president admitted for the first time that his country bore its share of blame for Nazi crimes against Jews, as well as against the Roma and Sinti (gypsies), homosexuals and the disabled.

In 1995, the Austrian parliament established the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, which over the past 10 years has appropriated some $770 million under various programs compensating for loss of property, education, pensions, tenancy rights, and for slave labor and hardship cases.

But Austria has held back a good chunk of the allotted money, some $210 million, until the government was guaranteed that no subsequent class-action suits against Austrian businesses would be filed by survivors.

Last month, a U.S. District court in New York dismissed all such class-action suits, a decision welcomed by the Claims Conference, which negotiated with Austria on behalf of survivors.

The first payments to some 19,000 claimants in 69 countries are to start next December and should be completed one year later, said Hannah M. Lessing, secretary general of the Austrian National Fund. Lessing was in Los Angeles last week to meet with survivors and, accompanied by Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, met with The Journal over cappuccino at a Brentwood restaurant.

Lessing was born in Vienna in 1963, the daughter of a Jewish photographer who had fled from Vienna to Palestine in 1939, but returned to his native city after the war. He had left behind his mother and grandmother, who both perished in Auschwitz.

Lessing’s non-Jewish mother, with Hannah and her siblings, formally converted to Judaism in 1973. Her later resumé includes a stay in Israel, where she worked as a hotel receptionist and businesswoman.

The raven-haired Lessing wore a prominent Star of David around her neck, which led to a question about the widely reported wave of anti-Semitism again rising in Europe.

She said that the reports were greatly exaggerated, although remnants of classical anti-Semitism remain and in France, especially, threats from young Muslim immigrants.

“I wear my Star of David in Vienna without any comments or incidents,” Lessing said. “But when I’m in Paris, my friends think I’m crazy to do so, and in New York I am often advised that I might be better off leaving it at home.”

On a subtler level, she acknowledged that most non-Jewish Austrians would categorize her first as a Jew and secondly as an Austrian, just as in past decades most non-Jewish Americans considered Jewish citizens as not “real Americans.”

Her answer drew a pained rebuttal from Consul General Weiss.

“I am a Catholic, and I consider Hannah as much an Austrian as I am,” he protested.

When Lessing switched from her career as a banker five years ago to accept her present position, she insisted on a pro-active policy of seeking out survivors, open access by claimants to her offices and a minimum of red tape. Nevertheless, she acknowledged criticism that the whole process is still too slow and complex, especially given the advanced age of the remaining survivors.

“There are only some 12,500 Austrian survivors still alive, and every time one dies, we lose,” she said.

Lessing also wishes that she could raise the payment rate for Jewish property lost during the Nazi era, which now stands at only 10 to 15 percent of current valuation.

“No amount of money can ever make up for the suffering of the Holocaust,” she said. “Whatever we do is meant as a gesture of reconciliation toward our former citizens.”


Oprah … Shoah … Shoah … Oprah

This is how naive I am: I never understood why Primo Levi killed himself. I’d long admired and devoured the works of the Italian chemist who wrote of his experiences surviving the Holocaust. When he committed suicide in 1987, at the age of 67, I couldn’t fathom it. Hadn’t he survived the worst? Hadn’t he transformed his suffering into art? Hadn’t the worst memories softened over time, the worst scars healed?

That’s the American way of grief: stuff happens, you get over it.

Maybe for some people, in some situations, that’s true. But the Holocaust is different, too, when it comes to memory. Its shadows darken and lengthen; its pain grows more, not less intense.

This may be the result of the process of recovering memory, something writers like Levi must feel compelled to do. When historian Iris Chang also took her life in 2004, at the age of 36, she left a note blaming her immersion in the horrid details of the Japanese occupation of China, which she chronicled in “The Rape of Nanking.”

But it’s not just a professional hazard. A study published in Israel in August found that elderly Holocaust survivors are “at an increased risk for a reactivation of the symptoms of trauma, depression and suicide.” The study of patients at a psychiatric hospital in Tel Aviv found nearly 25 percent of the Holocaust survivors studied attempted suicide compared to 8.2 percent among those with no World War II experience.

Or, as Elie Wiesel said at the news of Primo Levi’s death: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later.”

Just a month before Auschwitz Liberation Day, which takes place on Jan. 27, Oprah Winfrey selected “Night,” Wiesel’s own memoir of his internment in Auschwitz, as one of her Book Club books, guaranteeing that slim, searing volume a new audience of millions of people whose exposure to the Shoah might, until now, not extend beyond those clips of nominated documentaries they show during the Academy Awards. Boy, will that ever change.

I walked into Barnes and Noble on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade last Sunday afternoon and was confronted by a stack of “Night” a yard tall. And that’s the beginning: Oprah will accompany her Book Club selection with a televised visit to Auschwitz, guided by Wiesel, discussions on air with survivors and experts, plus additional readings and segments on the Holocaust.

Good for her, really. People are ascribing all sorts of nasty motives to Oprah for picking “Night,” such as the need to choose a real, factual memoir when her last pick turned out to be, at best, faction. Any way you can get the Holocaust and its lessons down the gullet of an anti-historical nation, good. Her challenge, I suppose, will be how she can she give her audience a taste and still leave them, as shows like hers must, with an ultimately uplifting, life-affirming and commercial-selling message. In an age and a format where every sorrow must have its silver lining, every tragedy its release, the Shoah is stubborn: there’s nothing therapeutic about confronting the Holocaust.

Last week I had dinner with Hannah Lessing, the woman in charge of the Austrian government’s reparation funds to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Lessing is vibrant, young, quick-witted (that means she laughed at my jokes) and articulate.

Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, who with his wife, Susan, hosted Lessing, began his toast to her by repeating an old, tongue-in-cheek aphorism: “It used to be said that Austrians are Germans who don’t apologize.” But thanks to a series of proactive measures by the Austrian government — beginning with a much-belated statement of apology to Shoah victims in 1991 and continuing on to this week’s much-belated decision to return priceless paintings to their rightful Jewish owners (see story on page 14) — that perception has changed.

And for that Weiss also credited Lessing, the Viennese-born granddaughter of survivors. For more than 10 years she has traveled the globe, meeting with Austrian Holocaust survivors, collecting and processing their claims, hearing their stories.

Lessing said that success takes its toll. She and her staff of more than 100, “almost all non-Jews,” undergo regular therapy. Generations removed from the horrors of those years, they often find themselves unable to shake the darkness to which they’ve been exposed.

In “The Truce,” Primo Levi wrote of a recurring dream, in which he wakes up to find that his normal life is but a dream, and the reality is he is still in Auschwitz.

“I am in the Lager once more,” he writes, “and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, Wstaw?ch.”

I’ve found the more I read about the Holocaust, the more survivors I speak with, the less I get it. This is what the Holocaust is for the rest of us: a journey into sadness, with no end, no meaning, no exit. Welcome, Oprah’s Book Club members. Hope you enjoy the show.

To link to more information on Hannah Lessing and the Austrian claims process, see this article at

Nation & World Briefs

Jews React to Williams’ Execution

Rabbi Steven Jacobs was home late Monday night watching TV coverage of the execution of Crips gang co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams, and he was glad he wasn’t at the loud candlelight vigil outside San Quentin State Prison.

“The sideshows on both sides. It was such a circus,” said Jacobs, leader of the Reform Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and a prominent death-penalty opponent.

Williams was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 13 for murdering four people in 1979. Having renounced gang life years ago while imprisoned, his plea for clemency drew international attention but ultimately was rejected Monday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Local Jewish community support for Williams was evident in the course of his clemency campaign. But except for the left-of-center Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), major Jewish groups did not make the ex-gang chieftain’s controversial case a top issue.

“I don’t think most Jewish communal organizations, other than the Progessive Jewish Alliance, see capital punishment as a major Jewish communal priority,” said PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, who kept vigil Monday night with about 100 other death penalty opponents at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Westwood.

“What disturbs me has been those who have campaigned to abolish capital punishment even for crimes against humanity and genocide, torture and mass terrorism,” death penalty supporter Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told The Journal. “I’m disturbed by the abolitionist’s argument.” Greenfield also appeared on CNN in the minutes before Williams’ execution began, at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

One abolitionist watching Greenfield was Jacobs. By 1 a.m. Tuesday, about 30 minutes after Williams was pronounced dead, the rabbis’ Boston-accented voice was heavy over a phone line as he said to a Journal reporter, “It’s just sickening. It’s just the manufacturing of death in this country that’s so sickening. It’s not about mercy. It’s not about justice. It’s about politics.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Way Cleared for Payments to Austrian Holocaust Survivors

A U.S. court decision has paved the way for final compensation payments to Holocaust survivors from Austria.

Last week’s decision by a U.S. District Court in New York to dismiss class-action lawsuits against Austrian businesses was greeted with relief by survivor organizations and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, parties to a settlement negotiated with the Austrian government.

The resulting legal closure means payments are imminent, said Gideon Taylor, Claims Conference executive vice president. Neither the Austrian government nor businesses would agree to payments without insurance against future lawsuits.

“This fund has been tied up in legal knots in courts in the U.S., and this had deprived many Austrian Holocaust survivors and their heirs of the symbolic payments,” Taylor told JTA in a telephone interview.

But “like most restitution payments, this is not an issue of money,” he emphasized. “The amounts are small, but the property losses were large. This is about symbolism. People are frustrated that what was supposed to be a symbolic gesture turned into a legal argument.”

In some cases, heirs will be the beneficiaries, said Hannah Lessing, director of the Austrian National Fund, which will distribute some of the payments. Of 30,000 who filed for compensation, only 15,000 are still living. The fund tries to reach the oldest claimants first, she said.

“Nothing will ever be fair,” said Lessing, whose father fled Nazi Austria for Palestine. “Whatever we do will always be a little piece of a puzzle.”

Jackson Seeks Retraction of Anti-Israel Remarks by Iran

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called on Iran’s president to retract anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments. The comments by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “are a threat to the fragile fabric of the world community,” Jackson said in a statement.

In comments made last week, Ahmadinejad said: “If the Europeans are honest, they should give some of their provinces in Europe, like in Germany, Austria or other countries, to the Zionists, and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe, and we will support it.”

He earlier called for Israel’s destruction.

Hillary Clinton Endorses Israel’s Security Barrier

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) backed Israel’s right to construct its West Bank security barrier. Clinton, speaking after receiving an honorary degree from Yeshiva University last Sunday, said that a recent visit to Gilo, a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, gave her “an even greater appreciation for the importance and rationale” of the fence, which has helped reduce Palestinian terrorist attacks. At the height of the intifada, Gilo was the target of frequent shootings from the neighboring Palestinian town of Beit Jalla.

Israel has the “right to build a security barrier to try to keep out those who would do harm to Israel,” Clinton said.

Israeli ‘Rabbicops’ Ploy Being Investigated

Hundreds of Israeli policemen are believed to be obtaining rabbinical ordination to boost their salaries. Citing Justice Ministry sources, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported in an expose that as many as 600 policemen have taken courses for the Orthodox clergy so that they could receive $430 monthly stipends.

According to the newspaper, some of the “rabbicops” are openly secular, and the sages administering the ordination courses have been known to allow their students to abbreviate the studies for the sake of convenience. Police spokesmen declined comment, citing a probe already under way.