Zane Buzby hugs Mina Zalmanovna, then 80, on her second visit to see her in Pinsk, Belarus, in 2016.

Race to Aid Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Survivors


In 1941, Iraida Solomonova, an 18-year-old slave laborer in Kuibyshev, U.S.S.R., was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. She was tortured and jailed for a year.  She then spent 10 years in a Kazakhstan gulag, where she endured hard labor, hunger, insect infestations and malaria before exile to Siberia.

Now 93 and living in Kishinev, Moldova, Solomonova is a survivor of two heart attacks and suffers from hypertension and thrombophlebitis. She has difficulty walking and has not ventured outside for several years. Her gas stove leaks and her 1958 refrigerator needs replacing.

Solomonova is one of 1,000 or more people The Survivor Mitzvah Project hopes to help as the end of 2017 — the peak season for charitable giving — approaches. Zane Buzby, the project’s founder, is preparing the year’s final distribution of funds, poring over lists of Eastern European survivors who are new to the program or need additional assistance.

This year to date, Buzby has brought in more than $500,000 to help just over half of the 2,300 impoverished, ailing and mostly forgotten survivors in Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, Russia and Ukraine on The Survivor Mitzvah Project’s current roster. She hopes to raise at least an additional $250,000 by year’s end to assist Solomonova and other survivors, whom she defines as any Jewish man, woman or child impacted by the Holocaust.

“It’s always a race to the finish. We don’t have any source of guaranteed institutional funding,” Buzby said.

The Survivor Mitzvah Project (survivormitzvah.org) has been a grass-roots effort since 2001, when the former actress and television sitcom director/producer traveled to Lithuania and Belarus to visit her grandmothers’ former shtetls. There, she encountered eight elderly survivors, living alone in Vilnius or remote Belarusian villages, poor and forgotten.

When Buzby returned to Los Angeles, she couldn’t get them out of her mind — survivors such as Zeydl Katz, then 80 and toothless, covered in dirt from digging up potatoes, his only food supply for the long winter. She began sending them money.

Zeydl Katz offers Buzby apples on her 2001 visit to Volozhin, Belarus.
Photos Courtesy of The Survivor Mitzvah Project Holocaust Educational Archive

The list of survivors quickly grew to 35 and kept expanding.

“I thought once I told people about these survivors living in such conditions, the major philanthropists and the Jewish welfare organizations would immediately step in,” she said.

They didn’t. So by 2008, Buzby had founded The Survivor Mitzvah Project, got 501(c)(3) status as a public charity, and started helping more than 750 survivors in five countries with financial aid for food, medicine, heat and shelter on a total budget of $209,000.

“These destitute survivors are forced to choose every day between food, heat and medication.” — Zane Buzby

Buzby,  a CNN Hero in 2014 and a recipient of the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 Deborah Award, has relied mostly on individual donors. “These people who are compelled to help these last survivors are, and always have been, the lifeblood of the project,” she said.

Individual donors account for 91 percent of all contributions, mostly small donations averaging $150, with some up to $5,000 or $10,000. The project receives some larger contributions from corporate and family foundations.

In 2016, the project’s best year to date, it raised $711,185. All donations go directly to help survivors, except those earmarked specifically for general support, which include an annual contribution for overhead from the project’s co-founder, Chic Wolk, 91, and help from foundations for translators. Buzby takes no salary.

The project wants to ensure that each survivor — each of whom has been vetted — receives $150 a month, or $1,800 a year, for adequate food, medication and heat. But the need always has exceeded the resources, and providing all of the survivors on the current roster with $1,800 a year would require $4.1 million.

With less than $1 million a year, Buzby and her staff are forced to triage, distributing funds according to need. Crisis situations, such as hospitalizations, surgeries, expensive medications, caregivers and broken windows, are covered by a small emergency fund.

Over the years, the project has been life-changing for survivors, providing emergency aid as well as friendship and hope.

Anna Israelevna, 93, from Kherson, Ukraine, wrote to Buzby: “Thanks to The Survivor Mitzvah Project, I stay alive, I am warm, I have food, and because you helped me, I was able to have the operation on my eyes, and now I can see.”

Like most American Jews who Buzby meets, she once believed that the majority of Eastern European Jews had been murdered by the Nazis or had emigrated to the United States or Israel.

But many thousands were — and still are — struggling in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Their current pensions average $75 a month, just $18 a month above the line the World Bank established in 2015 for measuring extreme poverty. Some pensions, particularly in Moldova, are as low as $10 a month.

“These destitute survivors are forced to choose every day between food, heat and medication,” Buzby said.

These are survivors who receive no compensation or only a minimal, one-time payment of reparation funds from Germany as negotiated by the Claims Conference, and who receive no or minimal goods and services from the Joint Distribution Committee.

Data culled in September 2017 from 530 Survivor Mitzvah aid applications show that 69 percent of survivors do not have enough food; 73 percent cannot pay for doctors, hospitals or medication; and 50 percent need help with daily tasks or home improvements.

As they age — most are in their mid-80s to mid-90s — and encounter more health issues without health insurance or government assistance, their situation becomes more urgent.

And the number in need continues to grow.

The Claims Conference recently changed eligibility requirements for survivors in the former Soviet Union, cutting off compensation funds to 3,000. Many of those are seeking aid from The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which already has helped more than 100. (To help all 3,000 would require $5.4 million a year.)

Buzby also received the names of 70 survivors from Father Patrick Desbois’ organization Yahad-In Unum, which locates and marks the Einsatzgruppen killing fields of Eastern Europe and interviews aging witnesses. Buzby began collaborating with Desbois in 2015.

Buzby receives additional names from other survivors and volunteers in Eastern Europe.

Since her initial trip in 2001, Buzby has made 12 expeditions to Eastern Europe. She’s had the opportunity to see firsthand the impact that the project has made in survivors’ lives.

Mina Zalmanovna, now 83, whom she visited in Pinsk, Belarus, in 2007 and again in 2016, now walks less painfully and without canes, and can treat her diabetes and heart problems thanks to previously unaffordable Western medications. She has a new gas stove, replacing a wood-burning unit, new windows to protect her from rain and snow, and new curtains.

“You are my rescuers,” Zalmanovna wrote.

Buzby is planning an expedition to Moldova, where more than 1,200 survivors are scattered across 16 cities and villages. But first she needs to raise at least $120,000 to distribute.

More than 75 years since the start of World War II, Buzby is hoping major funders will step in so every survivor on her list can be helped and she can begin the search for the tens of thousands still out there suffering.

“Everyone has to die,” Buzby said. “But for a Holocaust survivor to die of neglect, what does that say about us as a people?”

Leo Wolinsky, right, with his sisters Rachel, left, and Janis, pictured in Los Angeles, stand to inherit a property in Bat Yam through Hashava. Photo courtesy of Leo Wolinsky.

Israeli Organization That Connected Heirs With Assets to Be Shut Down


About three years ago, Leo Wolinsky got a call from a private investigator in Santa Monica who asked if he knew Abraham Wolinsky.

Yes, he replied, Abraham Wolinsky was his father.

“Next thing I know, I’m in touch with Hashava, which I had never heard of,” Wolisnky said in an interview.

Established in 2007 by passage of the Israeli Holocaust Victims Assets Law the previous year, Hashava’s mandate was to gather assets that belonged to European Jews who never made it to Israel’s shores — namely, their bonds, bank deposits and real estate — and distribute them to their rightful heirs. Among the 60,000 assets they collected was a piece of real estate bought by Wolinsky’s great uncle.

But Wolinsky will be among the last to receive a mysterious call from Israel about a surprise inheritance. On Dec. 31, Hashava will shut its doors.

Like many other heirs, Wolinsky was suspicious at first — as were his friends. They warned him, “Watch out, it’s a scam,” he said.

The genealogist who connected the dots to Wolinsky for Hashava, Ayana Kimron, eventually told him that his uncle, a Polish textile manufacturer who perished in the Holocaust, had purchased a property in the Israeli city of Bat Yam in the 1930s, which Wolinsky and his family members now stood to inherit.

Kimron, for her part, said she enjoyed making such calls. “Wonderful job,” she said in an interview. “I wish it continued.”

While heirs still will be able to claim assets after Hashava shuts down at the end of this year, Hashava’s team will no longer actively search them out, said Elinor Kroitoru, Hashava’s head of research. Moreover, claimants will have to produce their own documents proving their inheritance, and there is no statute of limitations, she said.

“The special thing about Hashava is that we did a lot of research for the heirs,” she said. “They didn’t have to come with any documents.”

From the time it was established, Hashava has collected about $600 million worth of assets. It has approved 2,811 applications for restitution, totaling about $205 million in disbursements. Another $285 million worth were liquidated after Hashava determined heirs could not be found, with proceeds given to needy Holocaust survivors or spent on Holocaust commemoration and education.

In September, Hashava announced it had met its targets set out by law and would shut down.

Now, Kroitoru said, “Heirs will have to do a bit more themselves,” and claims will be handled by a small staff working within the Israeli Ministry of Justice, which will hold the remaining assets. “It’s just not worth holding a whole company for the assets that are left. And so it was decided that Hashava would close.”

But for Kimron, the genealogist who was terminated in June, Hashava’s shutdown leaves a chapter of history unresolved. As long as assets remain unclaimed, she said, “for me, personally, the Second World War did not end.”

Kimron said she treasured her job tracking down the heirs of Holocaust victims, especially when she was able to inform non-Jews of their Jewish heritage, and of forging close relationships with heirs, she said.

“Sometimes, I would call a person, like Leo, and talk to them as if I was their cousin — and I knew more about their family than they did,” she said.

This summer, Kimron plans to visit Wolinsky in Los Angeles.

Often, she said, people were suspicious of her. For instance, Wolinsky’s distant cousin in Israel, with whom he and his two sisters will split their inheritance, took some time to convince.

“And not just her — there’s a woman that I chased for a whole year, to convince her to file the request,” she said.

For Wolinsky, Kimron’s call introduced him to a dark chapter in his family’s history that he had never bothered to ask his European-born parents about when he was young and the subject was still fresh in their minds.

“People are not used to having Israelis look for people to pay them.” — Elinor Kroitoru

“As a kid, I didn’t care that much, to be perfectly honest,” Wolinsky said. “Growing up in L.A. in the 1950s, it’s the last thing you care about — these men with long beards in sepia-tone photographs.”

Nonetheless, he said, he was impressed by Kimron’s skill. Through some Yiddish writing on the back of a passport-sized photo, she was able to track down his cousin in Herzliya, whom he never knew existed.

Kimron also learned that Wolinsky’s great uncle, Joseph Volisnky of Lodz, Poland, had acquired a piece of real estate in Bat Yam before perishing in Europe, most likely in Treblinka. The new information excited Wolinsky’s curiosity enough that he eventually traveled to Poland, visiting his father’s hometown of Grodek, near the Belarussian border.

The lot in Bat Yam, he learned, had remained undeveloped as sand dunes all around it were gradually replaced by high-rise buildings. Now, Wolinsky said, it is worth well over $1 million — that is, if he manages to change the title and pay 80 years’ worth of back-taxes.

“I love Israel, but what a bureaucratic country — unbelievable,” he said.

As of Jan. 1, 2018, despite Hashava’s decade-long effort to get the word out, unclaimed assets will likely be locked behind even greater bureaucratic obstacles. Moreover, calls from the forgotten past like the one Wolinsky received will cease.

“It wasn’t easy to get our message out over the years, but we did try our best,” Kroitoru said. “People are not used to having Israelis look for people to pay them. If an Israeli calls them, it’s usually for a donation, not to give money.”

Ed Mosberg. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Survivors Open Up in ‘Destination Unknown’


In the opening sequence of the acclaimed documentary “Destination Unknown,” Ed Mosberg dons a blue-and-gray-striped jacket emblazoned with the number 85454 and a matching hat. It’s a replica of the uniform he was forced to wear 70 years ago as a slave laborer in concentration camps such as Mauthausen and Plaszow, some of whose inmates were famously saved by factory owner Oskar Schindler.

Mosberg wears the uniform whenever he has a speaking engagement or visits camps-turned-memorials. He had it with him when he attended a September showing of the film at the University of Southern California, sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation.

Mosberg, 91, was the only member of his Polish family to survive the Holocaust, and he’s one of 12 survivors in the film who relate their harrowing experiences during World War II. He wears the uniform “so that people never forget that [the Shoah] did exist,” he told the Journal. “My whole family was murdered. I have to talk because they can’t. This is my duty and obligation. As long as I live, I will be talking.”

The film, 14 years in the making, blends archival footage with testimonies from Jews who survived concentration camps, were in hiding, fought with partisans, or were fortunate to have been chosen for Schindler’s famous list. Many had never spoken on the record before. And half of the participants died either during the film’s production or after its completion in 2016.

“Now there’s the recognition of mortality,” said Llion Roberts, the film’s producer. “They don’t want to take this to the grave.”

In the film, survivors vividly recall incidents of brutal treatment, the last time they saw their families, the kindness of random strangers that allowed them to live another day and, for some, the post-liberation reunions with parents and siblings they had assumed were dead.

Listening to Mosberg and the other documentary subjects tell their traumatic tales took a toll on Roberts. “I found it so intense that I had a nervous breakdown in 2004,” he said. “I had panic attacks in 2015. It cost me too much in time, stress and funding. But I’m glad I met the people I met. It’s been an incredible journey.”

Roberts, who is not Jewish, was deeply affected by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2001. He couldn’t forget seeing a photo of a 13-year-old girl who resembled his daughter, who was the same age at the time. He started doing research and in 2003 began finding subjects and conducting interviews.

“I was doing 14-hour days of listening to them take me through from childhood to liberation,” he said. “I didn’t ask questions. I just let them talk. Some of these interviews would last five hours. This is why I got such intimacy.”

Roberts ended up with 400 hours of footage, and in 2014 brought in director Claire Ferguson to help him finish the film, with “no narration and primary sources only. No experts or historians.”

“As long as I live, I will be talking.” — Ed Mosberg

Roberts believes what sets “Destination Unknown” apart from other Holocaust survivor documentaries is his use of primary sources. “It keeps it authentic,” he said.”

Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, saw the film in 2016 and came aboard as an executive producer.

“The way the film is woven together, with many stories making up a larger one, will appeal to young people because it brings the testimony alive,” said Smith, who plans to build lessons around the film.

With the alarming rise in anti-Semitism and hate groups around the world, Roberts believes the film’s message couldn’t be more timely.

“History is repeating itself,” he said. “You have another generation coming in, making the same mistakes as the previous ones. There’s a correlation between the mortality of survivors and apathy. Once they’re gone, there’s no obligation to talk about them anymore.”

But Roberts emphasizes that his documentary “is not a history lesson. It is about the resilience of the human spirit, and hope,” he said. “Even for people who have experienced the worst kind of trauma, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Destination Unknown” opens Nov. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Screenshot from YouTube.

Are Jews the Only Ones Who Need a Thick Skin?


Why would Larry David stride up so confidently on the “Saturday Night Live” stage and joke about picking up women in a Nazi concentration camp? And why would he wallow in the fact that many of the recently accused sexual aggressors have Jewish names? Hasn’t he heard about anti-Semitism?

Here’s my theory: He assumes Jews can take it. At a time when everyone is allowed to get offended by the smallest slight, Jews are supposed to be, well, different.

College students can get offended by an email about Halloween costumes, but Jews should handle gross jokes about the Holocaust. Any student can yell about a micro-aggression, but Jews are expected to handle macro-aggressions.

Maybe David figured Jews are on another level. We’re the chosen ones, right? We’re the sophisticated Americans obsessed with education and with being loved by gentiles. Who has endeared the Jews to America? It’s not the lawyers, believe me. It’s the comedians.

For more than a century, from Burns to Benny to Allen to Crystal to Seinfeld, we’ve made America laugh by poking fun at ourselves. And why not? When you’ve been persecuted for 2,000 years and you finally find a place that accepts you, what better way to show your gratitude than by being entertaining?

And Larry David surely is an entertainer. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is my all-time favorite comedy. I love, among other things, that there’s no laugh track. No one cares whether I laugh or not. I get to eavesdrop on a wacko who obsesses over stuff that makes me squirm.

That’s the key word — eavesdrop.

Last Saturday night, as David was using the Holocaust to try to make me laugh, I wasn’t eavesdropping at all. I was looking straight into the eyes of a stand-up comic. This was not the David of “Curb” who was oblivious to my presence and just going about his crazy business. This was a guy who was pushing my buttons, who wanted something from me.

One of the extraordinary things about “Curb” is David’s ability to break virtually all taboos. I’ve often watched an episode and thought, “I can’t believe he’s pulling this off.” He’s poked fun at African-Americans, people with disabilities, Palestinian Muslims, and, yes, even Holocaust survivors, and, somehow, he pulls it off.

For one night at least, I wanted to yell to my fellow Jew to curb his enthusiasm.

His mistake last Saturday night was a professional one — he overlooked the context. What works in his “Curb” bubble doesn’t necessarily work under the bright lights of a live stage. The sacred cows he could slay on “Curb” ambushed him on stage.

The funny thing is, until he brought up the Holocaust, he seemed to understand those limitations. His act was quite funny. It’s only when he veered into the excruciatingly sensitive subject of a Nazi concentration camp that he blew it.

As Rabbi David Wolpe tweeted, David was “joking about how a starved, shaved and beaten woman might still reject him. I’m helpless with laughter.” Without the protective cover of his show, David just stood there, naked. On “Curb,” he’s an oblivious fanatic who can get away with almost anything. On “SNL,” he’s a self-aware comic with no margin of error. That’s not the best moment for a Holocaust joke.

After watching his act, part of me wanted to say, “Hey, we’re Jews. We can take it. We have a sense of humor!” But the other part wanted to say, “You know what? I’m tired of trying to be better. I want to be offended, just like other Americans.”

That side won out. For one night at least, I wanted to be like those college students and tap into my sensitive gene. I wanted to be an activist with Jewish Lives Matter and yell to my fellow Jew to curb his enthusiasm.

Comedian Melissa Rivers Responds to Larry David’s SNL Monologue


Melissa Rivers on Larry David SNL Controversy

What do you think about Larry David's SNL monologue?

Posted by Jewish Journal on Monday, November 6, 2017

Larry David Goes One Cringe Too Far


With his appearance on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, Larry David, the undisputed king of cringe-comedy, may have finally crossed a line. It is a symbolic line, admittedly, one that artists draw for themselves both morally and aesthetically.  But it is a line nonetheless.

Of course, it’s not a line David would ever hesitate crossing again.  He’s taken that same devilish step many times in the past—all for laughs.

His monologue on SNL, however, doubled down on a theme that properly deserves to be forever buried and left alone.  That’s what we do with the dead, especially the victims of mass murder.  A certain amount of piety is expected, and one never dreams of desecration with such nightmarish events.

David pivoted from the recently disclosed sexual predations of certain men in the entertainment industry, making the unpleasant association that many of them happened to be Jews, to his own unseemly wolfish behavior.  Apparently, so indiscrete are his sexual urges that he can imagine checking out Jewish women in a concentration camp.  In fact, he gave a national audience a glimpse of David hypothetically approaching an attractive woman with death in her immediate future, and testing out pick-up lines.

Appalling, but perhaps not surprising.  David has been flirting with the Holocaust for many years.  And he keeps coming back, not taking no for an answer, a nebbish with a libido for bad taste.  Except the Holocaust is not a love interest.  It is an unsightly atrocity, incapable of attraction of any kind, and on any human scale.

This is the same man who conceived a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry was making out with a girl during a screening of Schindler’s List.  And another in which a disagreeable fast-food proprietor was renamed “The Soup Nazi.”  An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm riffed on the Reality TV show, The Survivor, in which a winning contestant squared off at a dinner party with an actual survivor of a death camp, comparing their relative suffering.  In still yet another, a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm turns out not to be a Holocaust survivor, but rather just someone who temporarily inks his lotto ticket number each week so as not to forget.

So much for Never Again.

Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.  George Costanza, David’s doppelganger, was an enduring fool of humiliation, placed in recurring, squirming situations.  David took the Borsht Belt and twisted it into a straightjacket of Jewish self-loathing.

In France, the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has incorporated crude concentration camp humor (and jokes about gassing Jews) into his act.  And because of such material, he is routinely banned from performing and has been convicted for engaging in racial hatred.  In Belgium, he was imprisoned and forced to pay a $10,000 fine for inciting hatred.  In America, for expressing self-hatred, and mocking the Holocaust, David was honored with guest-hosting duties on SNL.

Of course, freedom of expression is a hallmark of American democracy.  David is merely taking extreme artistic liberties with his comedic imagination—Holocaust survivors be damned.  Moreover, unlike Dieudonne, David is himself a Jew.  Shouldn’t he be given the same leeway African-American comedians receive when their material invokes the “N-word”?  After all, concentration camp victims were known to tell jokes to each other in order to keep their spirits up and maintain their moral survival.

But those were their jokes to tell; they owned the experience, and they weren’t ribbing each other for laughs alone, one skeleton to another.  And there are still survivors living among us.  Isn’t there some gentleman’s agreement about un-ripened events “too soon” for comic exploitation?

And as for France and Belgium, they are democracies, too, with artistic licenses of their own.  They just happen to believe that common decency and a respect for the dead should not be debased for the sake of nervous laughter.

Larry David may have finally gone one cringe too far.  Surely, he didn’t violate any laws, other than the one of nature—with something as supremely unnatural as Auschwitz, go find another gag line.

But after all these years, shouldn’t the Holocaust be able to take a joke?  Actually, it can’t, and what’s more, it shouldn’t have to.


Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.  He is the author of “The Golems of Gotham” and “Second Hand Smoke,” among other fiction and nonfiction titles.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Courage to Confront Our Shadows


Walking through the densely wooded fields and forests near Rava-Ruska, Ukraine, where wildflowers and green shoots of grass spring up, one could be forgiven for forgetting what remains buried underground. Villagers living around that forest still regularly find evidence of the atrocities that took place some 75 years ago, when Nazis regularly marched Jews out to those fields to be executed and tossed into mass graves.

One French Roman Catholic is now working tirelessly to preserve the memories of those victims before they are lost. Father Patrick Desbois is motivated by this urgent call to action to memorialize the victims buried there in mass, unmarked graves, before no eyewitnesses remain.  He is an unlikely hero to shoulder this task, sharing neither nationality nor religion with these victims of the Holocaust. Instead, his connection to the Jews and Roma killed by the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile killing squads, initially came through family history, as his grandfather was a French soldier held in a camp in Rava-Ruska.

In 2002, while visiting the site of his grandfather’s imprisonment, he traveled to the site of the massacre of Rava-Ruska’s Jewish population and found no memorials or markers for the Jewish victims murdered there, save the testimony from a small cluster of elderly residents. Father Desbois decided then to dedicate his life to ensuring similar stories from the Holocaust are well documented, transforming the fading memories of the past into lessons for the future.

Today, the world is in need of more heroes like him. He embodies the courage needed to face bigotry and evil, and the drive to teach tolerance and compassion. Father Desbois will share his experiences, insight and courage with the Jewish community of Southern California at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 7, at the Chai Event hosted by my organization, Heritage Retreats.  There, he will speak on three lessons he has taken away from his work, which may be applied to our current struggle against bigotry and anti-Semitism:

First, we must recognize the importance of friendship between communities. Without allies like Father Desbois, it is easy for the Jewish community to feel isolated and insecure in uncertain times.  Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise all across the country, and it is difficult to not see parallels between those events and 1930s Germany.  Instead of feeling frightened, however, I am reassured by Father Desbois’ commitment to interfaith solidarity. We should all be similarly inspired to care for those outside our community, country and faith.

Second, we must celebrate every-day acts of heroism. The acts of Father Desbois and his team. The acts of the men and women who recall these crimes against humanity in detail for Yahad In-Unum’s records and lead Father Desbois to the sites.  The acts of individuals volunteering their time and energy to worthy causes. This is why small acts of day-to-day heroism in our community deserve recognition and praise as well. We will celebrate a small fraction of these at Heritage Retreats’s Chai Event by honoring our community members and volunteers who have worked to create a better future for all of us.

Third, we all have stories to contribute to the fight against bigotry. Father Desbois works to record the memories of the last generation of witnesses to the Holocaust, and uses those testimonies to teach the Holocaust to the first generation that won’t have a relative who remembers the war. This is l’dor va’dor in motion. All of us, not just religious leaders, Holocaust survivors, and community leaders, can play a role in teaching two of our community’s most heartfelt beliefs: Never Forget and Never Again.

We all can learn from the example of Father Desbois. I hope many of you will join me when Father Desbois delivers his remarks at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles on November 7th.  While the spread of anti-Semitism today is frightening, we can respond with courage, compassion, and a little help from friends such as Father Desbois.

Playwright Tania Wisbar.

In Nazi Germany, A Story of Love and Horror


When playwright Tania Wisbar was growing up, her mother shared little about her past in wartime Germany. When she did, “It was all about the art and the music and her writing … and coming from a very well-placed and highly respected film family,” said Wisbar, who was born in Germany in the 1930s and came to the United States as a girl.

Then, in 1999, a German professor visiting the U.S. brought Wisbar a 60-year-old document he had discovered in a Harvard University archive. In the 88-page manuscript, Wisbar’s mother, Eva Kroy Wisbar, who was Jewish, detailed her forbidden marriage to a German film director as the Nazis were coming to power. The manuscript held answers to many of the questions the playwright’s mother never answered before her 1984 death.

Now that document has become the inspiration for a play, “The Red Dress,” currently in its world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Wisbar said the decision to write the play didn’t come easily. In fact, her initial reaction to the manuscript was fear. “It just shook me. Fortunately, it was in German, and my German reading is not that fluent, so it gave me a little buffer of time to do what I think many, many children of war, or observers of war or violence [would do]. You just go into a place of hiding.”

But Jonathan Sanger, a producer who has partnered with Wisbar on previous projects, encouraged her to write a play based on the story.

“I said ‘No, I can’t touch this. I don’t know these people.’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘Think it over.’ So I did, for 15 years.”

The play she wrote spans the years 1924 to 1936 and begins in a badly defeated post-World War I Germany, falling apart under the burdens imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

The story centers on Alexandra Schiele (Laura Ligouri), a wealthy movie star who meets Franz Weitrek (J.B. Waterman), a virtually homeless former serviceman and itinerant sketch artist. They fall in love and marry.

Using family connections, she helps him enter the film business and he becomes a successful director. Eventually, Franz makes films for the Nazis and becomes a favorite of propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. While Franz expresses sympathy for some of the Nazi ideology and policies, Alexandra detests them.

Events come to a head at an awards ceremony honoring Franz, when Alexandra shows up in a red dress (hence the title), defying the Nazi dress code requiring black-and-white attire. She is soon arrested, and a Gestapo officer produces proof that she is 1/8 Jewish — information unbeknownst to her. He forces the couple to divorce, in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws forbidding intermarriage between Germans and Jews.

Wisbar said that information she gathered from various sources provided sometimes conflicting information about her parents’ history, but she said her mother’s manuscript was the most reliable source. Most aspects of “The Red Dress” parallel real life. Unlike the character of Alexandra, however, her mother always knew she was fully Jewish, she said.

“I said ‘No, I can’t touch this. I don’t know these people.” – Playwright Tania Wisbar

An incident in the manuscript reveals her mother’s defiance. Wisbar said that her mother described attending a party where “two Nazis in uniforms sat at the table as if they owned it, and she just got into a rant and rave and finally said, ‘I won’t sit with Nazis,’ and walked out, followed by the Gestapo.”

In fact, Wisbar said, her mother was constantly followed by Gestapo officers and had to report to the Gestapo every month to be interrogated. And while her parents were ordered to divorce, they stayed married. After she, her sister and her mother left Germany for the U.S. in 1938, the Nazis issued a divorce decree dissolving her parents’ marriage.

Her father, Frank, remained in Germany, immigrating to America months after Eva and his daughters left. He subsequently married three more times.

Wisbar believes the main issue her play examines is the slow loss of civil liberties that may go unnoticed at first.

“Be very vigilant of your human rights,” she said, “and include everybody in that vigilance.”

“The Red Dress” runs Oct. 28–Nov. 19 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. For more information, visit odysseytheatre.com.

Izak and Shep Szewelewicz. Photo courtesy of Alon Schwarz.

Brothers Find Each Other Decades After WWII


Izak Szewelewicz was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1945. When he was 3, his mother, Aida, sent him to Israel to live with an adoptive family.

Growing up, Izak didn’t know he was adopted. Then, before he turned 13, Aida made contact with her son. They reunited at Izak’s bar mitzvah and stayed in touch. She would fly from Canada, where she lived, to visit him in Israel.

When Izak asked about his father, Aida said his name was Grisha, and he had been killed in the war. Izak didn’t probe further.

Flash forward many years. Izak, nearly 70, has a family of his own. His relatives have made a pact never to reveal the truth: Izak has a brother. But one day the secret comes out, sending Izak on a life-changing journey.

“We’re two brothers trying to learn about each other after 68 years.” – Shep Szewelewicz

That quest is the subject of the film “Aida’s Secrets,” which will be shown on Oct. 27 at Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino; Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles; and Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

Israeli Alon Schwarz, Izak’s nephew through marriage, directed the film. It documents the family’s journey as it seeks out Izak’s long-lost brother, with help from a genealogy-research firm.

“I went through months of research,” Schwarz said. “You build stories in your head. We built a timeline. It was something very personal for me to finally have this happen in front of my eyes.”

The family locates the brother, and — 20 minutes into the 90-minute film — Izak goes to Winnipeg, Canada, to meet him. His name is Szepsyl Szewelewicz, or Shep. He is 10 months younger than Izak and blind.

“It was quite a shock to get a call saying you have a brother,” said Shep during a phone interview. “We’re two brothers trying to learn about each other after 68 years.”

It turns out that Shep had never met his mother, Aida, who was living in a Canadian nursing home at the time of filming. Grisha, or Greg, was also Shep’s father — and had survived the war. He had raised Shep and died in 2008.

At Shep and Izak’s tearful reunion in the film, they decide to visit Aida so Shep can meet her. When Aida sees Shep, she embraces him and acknowledges him as
her son.

“When you haven’t met your brother or mother for a long period of time it’s hard to take in,” Shep said. “It was with some trepidation that I went. It was nice for her to say, ‘My Shepsyl’e’ to me. It gave me affirmation that I was her child.”

Schwarz said the reunion “was like a climax of emotions. We didn’t even know if she would acknowledge Shep. Everybody in the room was crying except Aida. But she was very emotional.”

Shep visits Aida a few more times, trying to get more answers out of her. She won’t divulge whether Izak and Shep had the same father — or that there is a third brother (as the family discovered independently).

Shep said Aida was tight-lipped because of the horrors she saw during the war. She had to learn to be quiet and guarded in order to survive.

As a teen, Aida was forced to work for a German woman, a Nazi, said Schwarz, the director: “She probably got abused by Nazi soldiers.”

Aida died in 2016, and Shep and Izak are in occasional contact. During the filming, Shep visited Israel for the first time and celebrated Passover with his brother. After growing up an only child, Shep said, he enjoyed sharing the seder with 20-plus relatives. “It was really lovely. I never had that.”

“Aida’s Secrets,” first released in 2016, has played at film festivals around the world. After screenings, “people hug me, they kiss me, they get emotional,” Schwarz said. “For me, the film has been the closing of a circle.”

“Aida’s Secrets” will screen Oct. 27 at Laemmle Town Center 5, 17000 Ventura Blvd., Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; and Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.   

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

‘One of Us’ co-director apologizes for Holocaust comment


Heidi Ewing, a co-director of the “One of Us” Netflix documentary, has apologized for her comments about Hasidic Jews being targeted during the Holocaust for not blending into society.

Ewing appeared on The Charlie Rose Show on Thursday and said, “The vast majority of Hasidic Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, partly because they refused to blend in.

“They kept wearing the clothing,” said Ewing. “They sort of were loud and proud about their identity, and the vast majority died in the Holocaust.”

Ewing received some serious backlash on social media for her comment:

Others weren’t quite as taken aback by it:

Well at least once I get to quote Mein Kampf."One of us" Filmmaker Heidi Ewing faced criticism for asserting that…

Posted by Yoel Schaper on Monday, October 23, 2017

Any Jew who grew up ultra-Orthodox has heard rabbis link the Holocaust to Germany's Reform movement and assimilated…

Posted by Zac Mordechai Levovitz on Monday, October 23, 2017

Heidi Ewing: Chassidic dress made them easy Holocaust targets.Chassidim: That’s offensive! The Holocaust was punishment for Reform Judaism.

Posted by Ari Mandel on Sunday, October 22, 2017

 

Ewing eventually apologized for her Holocaust remark.

“I am sorry if my words on Charlie Rose caused any pain and would like to clarify their meaning,” Ewing said in a statement. “The devastating losses that the Jewish community suffered at the hands of the Nazis is unspeakable. Almost half the population of world Jewry was destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators, whole communities destroyed.”

She added that “Hasidic Jews suffered disproportionate losses” since “they were more easily identified and therefore had more difficulty hiding.”

“It took great courage for Hasidic Jews at that time to refuse to change their appearance to look more like the general European public,” said Ewing. “I am only filled with respect and admiration for any person who chooses to live their own truth.”

Some weren’t satisfied with her apology:

Others felt that her comments shouldn’t take away from the substance of the movie:

“One of Us” is a documentary that follows three former Hasidic Jews who have been ostracized by the community since they left. The documentary was released on Friday. Gerri Miller wrote about it for the Journal here.

White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci takes questions at the White House on July 21. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Scaramucci Post lambasted for posting Holocaust poll


The Scaramucci Post, the new media outlet created by President Trump’s former communications director Anthony Scaramucci, is getting lambasted for posting a poll about the Holocaust on Twitter.

The poll, which has since been deleted, asked people if they knew the number of Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust:

Naturally, the tweet received serious condemnation on Twitter:

An apology was posted on Scaramucci Post’s Twitter account:

Since the apology has been posted, the Scaramucci account re-tweeted tweets defending their poll:

Others didn’t think that Scaramucci Post’s apology was adequate:

According to CNN’s Jake Tapper, Scaramucci himself was infuriated by the poll and that “at least one person is getting fired.”

Scaramucci created his media outlet after he was fired from his short-lived position as White House communications director. He intended his new publication “to be the center lane in a two-lane highway.”

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

WATCH: Holocaust survivor recounts leaving father behind on train to Auschwitz, receives message from him years later


A remarkable story has emerged of a Holocaust survivor leaving her father behind on the train cars headed for Auschwitz and receiving a message from him years later.

The 92-year-old survivor, identified as Klara Prowisor, told filmmaker Matan Rochlitz that she, her husband Philippe Szyper and her father were all forced by the Nazis to ride the train cars to Auschwitz. Szyper repeatedly insisted that they jump out of the car in Belgium, but Prowisor initially resisted because her father had become gravely ill and didn’t want to leave his side. Others in the train car didn’t want them to jump because the Nazis threatened to punish them if anyone was missing.

However, after sleeping on it she eventually decided to jump.

“I left my father,” said Prowisor, “and it was so painful. I abandoned my father in such terrible conditions.”

Szyper jumped shortly after Prowisor, and Belgian citizens provided them refuge until the war was over.

One evening in 1962, when Prowisor and Szyper were visiting Tel Aviv, they were walking down Dizengoff Street when Prowisor was approached a woman who said she had been looking for Prowisor for 20 years because she witnessed Prowisor’s father wake up after Prowisor had jumped. Prowisor’s father told her to relay a message to Prowisor.

“If you ever meet my daughter again, tell her I’m the happiest father,” Prowisor’s father told the woman. “I’m glad she jumped.”

Prowisor learned from the woman that her father had passed away on the train before the train had reached Auschwitz.

“He had this intuition to tell me, ‘You did the right thing,’” said Prowisor. “I live with that. A weight fell off me.”

She later added, “It was so important for me to hear this woman pass on my father’s message to me. It’s exceptional. It’s a gift … from God.”

Prowisor then said she didn’t believe in God.

The woman who relayed the message to Prowisor has never been identified, but it is believed that she was Dutch.

The full video can be seen below, via the New York Times:

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Holocaust revisionism in Croatia not just a Jewish fight, Jewish group says


(JTA) — In an unusual plea, the World Jewish Congress urged international bodies to oppose what it calls “brazen attempts” to whitewash Holocaust crimes in the European Union’s newest member, Croatia.

The call came in a 4,000-word position paper published Monday in Tablet magazine by Menachem Rosensaft, the WJC’s general counsel.

The article, titled “Croatia is Brazenly Attempting to Rewrite its Holocaust Crimes Out of History,” examines dithering and mixed messages by the Balkan country’s highest elected officials on the Ustasha, a fascist movement led by Ante Pavelić that murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews during World War II. Reviled by many Croatians for their war crimes, Ustasha criminals are celebrated as heroes by many others — often with a nod from the government.

Last year, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic posed during a trip to Canada with an Ustasha flag. The previous year in Israel she expressed her “deepest regrets” to victims “killed at the hands of the collaborationist Ustasha regime.” Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic also condemned the Ustasha publicly, but did nothing when soccer fans chanted the Ustasha slogan during a match that he attended against an Israeli team.

These events and others prompted the local Jewish community to boycott government-sponsored Holocaust commemoration events for two consecutive years since 2016.

That year, Croatia’s culture minister, Zlatko Hasanbegović, praised a revisionist film claiming that Holocaust survivors’ testimonies from the Ustasha concentration camp of Jasenovac were exaggerated.

The veneration of pro-Nazi war criminals is not unique to Croatia in Eastern Europe, where Russian expansionism is serving to legitimize the open celebration of anti-Russian fighters who murdered Jews and perpetrated other war crimes on the side of Nazi Germany. Similar processes are the subject of an intense public debate Hungary, Ukraine, Lithuania and to some extent also Poland.

Croatia, which was accepted into the European Union in 2013, is unusual in that the veneration of war criminals comes from the top echelon politicians, and in the Jewish community’s resolute stance against such rhetoric.

Moreover, Rosensaft wrote, “the recasting of the Ustasha as national heroes and role models has ominous connotations in a country and region where ethnic hatred and strife have had catastrophic consequences, not just during WWII but more recently during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.”

As Croatian nationalists are “becoming increasingly brazen, if not overtly shameless, in their attempts to write the crimes against humanity committed by the Ustasha out of their nation’s history,” Rosensaft concluded, support for the Jewish community’s opposition to these efforts “should come not just from international Jewish organizations and other Jewish communities, but from institutions and agencies around the world that are dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust and other genocides.”

While Israeli-Croatian bilateral relations “are excellent,” the WJC’s CEO, Robert Singer, said in a statement to JTA, his organization is “deeply concerned by what appears at best to be official indifference to the resurgence of the fascist Ustasha movement that actively participated in the perpetration the Holocaust.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Bernie Sanders chokes up when he learns about relative who died defying the Nazis


In the upcoming season premiere of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” Bernie Sanders does more than look at a printout of his family tree: He gets emotional when he discovers a relative died while standing up to the Nazis during World War II.

In a clip released to JTA, the Jewish lawmaker is visibly moved as the show’s host, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., asks him how he feels after learning about the relative.

“I’m proud of his courage, and willingly going to his own death in order to protect innocent people,” Sanders says. “So I’m very, very proud that I have a family member who showed that type of courage and decency.”

“It’s one of the bravest acts I’ve heard of,” responds Gates, a historian who has hosted the show since it first aired in 2012.

Sanders’ father Eli grew up in Slopnice, Poland, before immigrating to the United States in 1921 at age 17. Many of Eli Sanders’ relatives perished in the Holocaust. The longtime Vermont senator’s mother Dorothy (née Glassberg) was born in New York City.

A Brooklyn native, Sanders, 76, grew up in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Flatbush. While campaigning to be the Democratic nominee for president, and becoming the first Jewish candidate to win a primary, he rarely discussed his Jewish identity.

 

In the clip, Sanders goes on to say that he got involved in politics in part to “prevent the descent of humanity” into Nazi behavior.

“It just makes us realize how hard we have got to work to not descend into this type of barbarity and to create a world where people can love each other,” he says. “That’s what this reinforces in me.”

Tuesday’s episode kicks off the fourth season of the show, which delves into the family history of celebrities. Among the other Jews who will appear in the fourth season are Scarlett Johansson, Amy Schumer and Paul Rudd. In a previous season, Dustin Hoffman broke down in tears after learning of his family’s tragic Jewish history.

The episode also features comedian Larry David, who famously impersonated Sanders on “Saturday Night Live” throughout last year’s presidential campaign. It received some advance buzz in July when David revealed he’s a distant cousin of the senator, something he learned while filming “Finding Your Roots.”

“I was very happy about that,” David said at the time.

Survivors of Mauthausen beg for food through a barbed wire fence. Photos by U.S. Army photographer Ken Parker

Rare Holocaust photos resurface in North Hollywood home


The 13 black-and-white pictures sat in a cardboard box in a North Hollywood residence, half a world and seven decades removed from the horrors they captured.

In August, Robert Aguilar, 78, a retired truck driver, found the photos at the back of a cupboard as he and his wife, Paula Parker, 69, prepared to sell their townhouse and move to Nevada to live out their retirement. The pictures are presumed to have been taken by Parker’s father, Ken Parker, a U.S. Army photographer in World War II.

Found jumbled together with an Army uniform and a confiscated German pistol, the pictures appear to show the liberation of Mauthausen, one of the Nazis’ cruelest concentration camps. In graphic detail, they offer proof of the emaciated conditions of survivors, with their apathetic expressions and jutting ribcages, along with piles of corpses discovered by the Allies.

“I can’t believe human beings would treat others like that,” Aguilar said, his voice catching in his throat as he spoke on the phone. “Prisoners — they’re not supposed to be tortured to death.”

Aguilar, a Vietnam veteran, said the images reminded him of the American prisoners who were mistreated during the war in which he served. He called the Journal and offered to provide the photographs for safekeeping in the hope that they could be of some use.

“I didn’t want to throw them in the trash,” he said. “They’re history — World War II history, you know. I wanted somebody that could use them.”

Ken Parker was better known for the “girly pictures” of scantily clad models he took in the 1950s and ’60s — some of which still can be found on the internet — than for his war photography. But the photo prints found at the back of his daughter’s cupboard indicate that, for at least a few days in the waning moments of World War II, he became a witness to history, helping record the aftermath of some of the worst Holocaust atrocities.

Mauthausen — the hub of a network of smaller death camps outside of Linz, Austria — was notorious for its cruelty. It had all the horrors of Nazi sadism seen at many other concentration camps: a functioning gas chamber, torture instruments and evidence of grotesque medical experimentation. Other horrors were unique to Mauthausen: Prisoners were forced to carry 50- to 60-pound rocks up 186 steep, uneven steps from a quarry. Sometimes an officer would shoot a prisoner, toppling the rest like dominoes.

U.S. Army photographer Ken Parker in Nice, France, in 1945. Photos courtesy of Paula Parker

 

As the eventual outcome of the war became apparent, the camp’s leadership considered moving the remaining 18,000 prisoners into a tunnel system and sealing the exits. Instead, the SS simply abandoned the camp. The Third United States Army arrived on May 5, 1945, to find prisoners milling about in various states of starvation.

“Mauthausen, for a person going in, was absolutely bedlam,” Richard Seibel, the U.S. Army colonel who took charge of the camp after liberation, said in an interview recorded by the Dayton Holocaust Research Center in Dayton, Ohio, in 1989. “We had no water — everything had been disrupted before we got there — no water, no sewage, no food, no power, nothing. And here are 18,000 people being corralled, if you will, by combat troops who had no experience in handling a situation of this kind.”

“I’ve always heard stories about the Germans always trying to deny that they treated the people like that. Well, there’s proof in those pictures.”

Into this chaos walked Parker, who joined the war effort at 34, having already started a successful photography business in the Midwest. He easily endeared himself to colleagues, picking up nicknames like “Little Iron Man” for his compact size and tenacity, and “Tony” for his tan skin and slicked-back hair.

Before his deployment to Europe, Parker earned a reputation as a ladies’ man. He would sneak away from his Army base in Missouri and use a car he had hidden to hit the town and pick up women, according to his daughter.

As a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, a technology and communications division, Parker was assigned to document the U.S. combat mission, tailing Gen. George S. Patton and his troops through the Battle of the Bulge before arriving at Mauthausen.

With his camera — he favored a 35mm Nikon — Parker became involved in the documentation effort undertaken by the Allies for the twin purposes of prosecuting the Germans for war crimes and alerting the public to atrocities they had been only dimly aware of, if at all.

A soldier speaks with female survivors of Mauthausen shortly after the camp was liberated in May 1945.

 

American generals made a point of publicizing what they saw in the camps. Patton ordered the entire town of Weimar to march through Buchenwald so its residents could see the piles of emaciated corpses and a lampshade made of human skin, among other gruesome sights. Encountering the camps, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, ordered camera crews to film them as evidence of war crimes.

“It was as if the liberators, coming originally from Eisenhower, predicted the phenomena of Holocaust denial,” said Judith Cohen, chief acquisitions curator of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. “And Eisenhower said he wanted documentation so that people wouldn’t attribute this to propaganda. That’s an amazing thing, because, of course, we see Holocaust denial left and right these days.”

In sending the photographs to the Journal, Aguilar said he had the same thought.

“I’ve always heard stories about the Germans always trying to deny that they treated the people like that,” he said. “Well, there’s proof in those pictures.”

According to Parker family lore, some of his photos ended up in the hands of prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials.

Some of Parker’s pictures also made it into the USHMM Photo Archive, courtesy of Seibel. One of them, shown here on the top right, Cohen recognized as a particularly iconic image — a picture of a soldier speaking with female survivors. In the archive, however, the photos are missing the photographer’s name. While other members of the Signal Corps went on to win widespread fame, including movie director Frank Capra and film producer Darryl F. Zanuck, Parker remained largely anonymous outside the world of Hollywood glamour photography.


Emaciated prisoners in a bunk in Mauthausen shortly after the camp was liberated.

Cohen said large amounts of historically significant material — diaries, photographs and other documents — still are stored in people’s homes, as Parker’s photos were.

“There’s an amazing amount of material still in private hands,” she said. “And we desperately would like to get it.”

“We are in a race against time,” she added.

Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar at the American Jewish University in Bel Air, agreed.

“The reality is we’re now at one minute to midnight in the lives of the survivors, of the living witnesses,” Berenbaum said during an interview in his office. “Kids are emptying out their parents’ homes. Survivors are dying every day.”

Parker, according to his daughter, hardly ever spoke about what he saw during the war.

Moving to California in the 1940s after his Army service, Parker became a Los Angeles Police Department photographer for 11 years. He was let go for moonlighting as a photographer of pinup girls, a career that later earned him some acclaim in Hollywood.

But what he saw in Europe evidently left him with an unusually strong stomach for horrific images. Paula Parker said her father photographed the gruesome Black Dahlia murder scene for police in 1947 and kept copies, although she later threw them out, not fully aware of their value.

A soldier poses in front of an oven at Mauthausen used for the cremation of human remains.

 

She recounted that once, during a family vacation, her father spotted a fatal train crash along the road and pulled over.

“My mother, she couldn’t stand blood anyway,” Paula Parker said in a phone interview. “She was so upset that my father would take time out of the vacation to take pictures of people dead.”

“After the war, nothing bothered him, I think,” she said. “My dad could do things that other people couldn’t.”

While the 13 Mauthausen pictures are unsigned and no independent source could confirm Parker shot them, his daughter — who saw the photos for the first time when she was about 30 — believes they came from his camera. He often developed his own photographs and kept duplicates as keepsakes, she said.

Moreover, the Mauthausen photographs were stored among hundreds of others she inherited that he shot over his lifetime. They showed family, friends, car races, golf games, Hollywood stars like Mae West and Bing Crosby (shot for Globe Photos), and images from other countries and of natural wonders that were taken for use in advertisements promoting American Presidents Line, a shipping company.

When she spoke with the Journal, Paula Parker said clearing out her father’s photos was a necessary part of  preparing for her Nevada retirement, after working in Jewish delis around the San Fernando Valley for 38 years, sometimes holding three jobs at once. She said she and Aguilar threw out most of her father’s photographs but kept a select few.

She was ready to pass along the pictures of starving prisoners, barbed-wire enclosures and piles of corpses.

“Oh, I’ve seen them enough,” she said, “and I’ll always remember. What am I going to do, hold on to them?”


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Elly Rubin (left) and Lya Frank. Photo by David Miller

Survivors Lya Frank and Elly Rubin: Former hidden children ‘have a story to tell’


On the evening of April 18, 1943, as Lya and Elly Meijers were being bundled up by their parents, they were told, “You’re going away for a few days.”

The day before, the girls had celebrated their shared birthday — Lya had turned 7 and Elly 4 — and now, with only a valise each and no further explanation, they were placed on the backs of bicycles belonging to non-Jewish friends, Wilhelmina and Jan van Hilten, whom the girls called Tante (Aunt) Wil and Oom (Uncle) Jan. As they rode away from their home in Utrecht, the Netherlands, Lya and Elly had no idea they soon would be separated from each other for more than two years.

They also never would see their parents again, and their only indirect communication would come 50 years later, when someone unexpectedly forwarded a postcard their father had thrown from a train on his way to a transit camp in the Netherlands, after he and their mother had been captured. It was written in pencil, dated May 1944 and addressed to a neighbor in Utrecht.

After the war, Lya and Elly were encouraged not to speak about their past. Later, as former hidden children who hadn’t experienced the horrors of roundups, ghettos or camps, they thought their stories weren’t consequential.

But faced with some personal crises in 1993, Lya began to acknowledge her long-buried anguish of having been separated from her sister and of emerging from World War II to discover that her parents and extended family — except for an uncle, aunt and cousin — had been annihilated by the Nazis. Soon after, she began sharing her story publicly. For the past five years, Elly tentatively has followed suit.

“We do have something to say. We do have a story,” Lya said. “It may not be Auschwitz,” (“Thank God,” Elly interjected) “but we have different issues.”

Lya and Elly were born in Utrecht, a city in the central Netherlands, to Lion Mauritz, known as Leo, and Renee Meijers.

Leo worked for the Hamburger Lead and Zinc manufacturing company as the equivalent of a chief financial officer. The family lived comfortably, often surrounded by friends and family. “I have memories of a happy childhood,” Lya said.

After Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, anti-Jewish measures were implemented, though Lya and Elly’s parents mostly sheltered them from details of the increasingly perilous situation. By April 1943, they were living in permanent hiding places.

Lya, who kept her name, which, like her appearance, was not identifiably Jewish, was placed with the Broers family in Amersfoort, about 15 miles northeast of Utrecht. She was instructed to tell people, if asked, she was from Rotterdam, which had been heavily bombed, and didn’t know her parents’ fate.

Hugo Broers was an ophthalmologist with an office on the first floor of their spacious house. His wife, Kathy, worked with him. They had two daughters, Pauline, then 6, and Francine, 4. “I was treated as one of the girls,” Lya said.

The first night, when Hugo and Kathy entered Lya’s large bedroom to say goodnight, Lya burst into tears. “I don’t want to sleep alone,” she told them. The parents moved her into their girls’ bedroom the following night.

Sometime later, a new housekeeper cornered Lya, interrogating her. “What kind of parents do you have? They don’t write. They don’t see you,” she said. Lya remained outwardly calm. “I don’t know. I’m from Rotterdam,” she answered.

That night, Lya recounted the incident to her foster parents. “We’re really proud that you stuck to your story,” they told her, rewarding her with a scarce piece of candy and firing the housekeeper.

Elly doesn’t recall being taken to her foster families in 1943. “But I remember the families,” she said.

She first was placed on a farm in Baambrugge, about 18 miles north of Utrecht, with Wijntje and Jacobus Griffioen and their six children. But after six months, because the house was close to the road and because Elly’s darker hair and complexion made her conspicuous, she was moved to the farm of Wijntje’s sister and brother-in-law, Cornelia and Jan van der Lee.

At the time, the van der Lees had six children. They were not well-to-do, but, Elly said. “They were rich in religion and family life.” Elly attended their Dutch Reform church and was part of the family. “I was loved until [they] died,” she said. Jan van der Lee died in 1968; his wife, who was known as Cor, died in 2006.

On May 5, 1945, the area was liberated. “The [Dutch] flags went out and people were celebrating,” Lya said. Allied tanks and jeeps rolled in, and the children were allowed on the street, where soldiers distributed chocolate and white bread.

A couple of months later, Lya was visited by her Uncle Lex, their birth father’s brother, who had been in hiding himself and who had learned the girls’ locations, most likely through the van Hiltens. He reunited Lya with Elly, whom she didn’t recognize but by day’s end didn’t want to leave, in fear of being separated again. The foster parents agreed that Lya should stay with Elly while Lex and his wife, who had two daughters of their own, searched for housing.

One day, Cor van der Lee called Lya and Elly into the front room, which was used only on Sundays and holidays. “I have to tell you, Mommy and Daddy have gone to heaven,” she told the girls. Lya immediately burst into tears. “That couldn’t be,” she said. “They loved us.”

In November 1945, the girls moved to Amsterdam with their Uncle Lex and his family. They lived in a large house and attended the Rosh Pina Jewish school. “We had a good family life,” Lya said.

But when the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956, Lex announced, “We’re not staying here to go through this again.” They arrived in the United States as immigrants a year later.

The family first lived in Glendale, where Lya and Elly worked in banking. Eighteen months later, they moved to Los Angeles.

Lya married Henk Frank in December 1959. Their daughter, Terry, was born in August 1962. Elly and Coleman Rubin married in December 1962. Their two children are Mark, born in August 1964, and Sharon, born in April 1966. Coleman died in 2004 and Henk in 2014. Lya has two grandchildren and Elly has nine.

Over the years, Lya and Elly learned that their parents — along with two uncles, an aunt, their grandmother and a cousin — had been hidden by two brothers in Brummen, a village in central Netherlands, which was their father’s birthplace. There, one brother’s step-daughter, who was having a relationship with a German officer, divulged their hiding places and got paid for the information. “For a small amount of money, they annihilated our whole family,” Lya said.

Lya and Elly also learned that as the bus carrying the captured family members pulled away from Brummen, their mother was shouting, “I want my children. I want my children.”

The family was taken to the Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz, where only a cousin survived.

The van Hiltens, Broers, Griffioens and van der Lees all have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Lya and Elly have remained close to the families, visiting through the years. “I loved these families. I still do,” Elly said.

Lya and Elly said they feel fortunate to have each other, each other’s families and their hiding families.

“You know what?” Lya repeated. “We do have a story to tell.”

Children posing for a photo in hats that read “Exodus 1947” in a displaced persons camp in Germany, September 1947. Photo by Robert Gary

These photos of Holocaust survivors from the SS Exodus are incredible


In the summer of 1947, when the British turned away the SS Exodus from the shores of Palestine, the world was watching.

Before the eyes of the international media, British troops violently forced the ship’s passengers — most of them Holocaust survivors — onto ships back to Europe. The resulting reports helped turn public opinion in favor of the Zionist movement and against the pro-Arab British policy of limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine.

But much else was happening in the aftermath of World War II, and attention soon shifted elsewhere. One of the few journalists to stick with the story was Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondent Robert Gary, who filed a series of reports from displaced persons camps in Germany.

Seventy years later and decades after his death, Gary is again drawing attention to the “Exodus Jews,” albeit mostly in Israel.

An album of 230 of his photos will be sold at the Kedem Auction House in Jerusalem on Oct. 31, and a number of the images reveal the reality inside the camps, where the Jews continued to prepare for life in Palestine under trying conditions.

Some of the photos, which have little to no captioning, capture the haunting similarities of the DP camps to those in which the Nazis interned and killed millions of Jews during the Holocaust, including images of Exodus Jews repairing barbed-wire fences under the watch of guards.

But others show the Jews participating in communal activities and preparing for their hoped-for future in Palestine. In one photo, Zionist emissaries from the territory — young women dressed in white T-shirts and shorts — appear to lead the Exodus Jews in a circular folk dance.

Shay Mendelovich, a researcher at Kedem, said he expects there to be a lot of interest in the album, which is being sold by an anoymous collector who bought it from the Gary family. Mendelovich predicted it could be sold for as much as $10,000.

“The photos are pretty unique,” he said. “There were other people in these camps. But Robert Gary was one of the few who had a camera and knew how to take pictures.”

Jews dancing in a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary)

Between 1945 and 1952, more than 250,000 Jews lived in displaced persons camps and urban centers in Germany, Austria and Italy that were overseen by Allied authorities and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Despite having been liberated from the Nazi camps, they continued to languish in Europe under guard and behind barbed wire.

Gary was an American Jewish reporter who JTA sent to Europe to cover the aftermath of World War II. He detailed the living conditions in the camps more than a year before the Exodus journey: inadequate food; cold, crowded rooms; violence by guards and mind-numbing boredom. But he reported in September 1946 that the greatest concern among Jews was escaping Europe, preferably for Palestine.

“Certainly the DP’s are sensitive to the material things and sound off when things go bad (which is as it should be), but above all this is their natural desire to start a new life elsewhere for the bulk in Palestine, for others, in the U.S. and other lands,” he wrote. “Get any group of DP’s together and they’ll keep you busy with the number one question: When are we leaving?”

In July 1947, more than 4,500 Jews from the camps boarded the Exodus in France and set sail for Palestine without legal immigration certificates. They hoped to join the hundreds of thousands of Jews building a pro-Jewish state.

Organized by the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary force in Palestine, the mission was the largest of dozens of mostly failed attempts at illegal Jewish immigration during the decades of British administration of the territory following World War I. The British largely sought to limit the arrival of Jews to Palestine out of deference to the often violent opposition of its Arab majority.

The Haganah had outfitted and manned the Exodus in hopes of outmaneuvering the British Navy and unloading the passengers on the beach. But near the end of its weeklong voyage, the British intercepted the ship off the shore of Palestine and brought it into the Haifa port. Troops removed resisting passengers there, injuring dozens and killing three, and loaded them on three ships back to Europe.

Even after two months on the Exodus, the passengers resisted setting foot back on the continent. When the British finally forced them ashore in September 1947 and into two displaced persons camps in occupied northern Germany — Poppendorf and Am Stau — many sang the Zionist anthem “Hatikvah” in protest. An unexploded time bomb, apparently designed to go off after the passengers were ashore, was later found on one of the ships.

Jews repairing fencing at a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary)

The widely reported events won worldwide sympathy for European Jews and their national aspirations. An American newspaper headlined a story about the Exodus “Back to the Reich.” The Yugoslav delegate from from the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine called the affair “the best possible evidence we have for allowing Jews into Palestine.”

Later, the Exodus achieved legendary status, most famously as the inspiration and namesake of the 1958 best-seller by Leon Uris and the 1960 film starring Paul Newman. Some, including former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, credited the Exodus with a major role in the foundation of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Gary, who was stationed in Munich, had close ties to Zionist activists; he reported early and often on the continuing plight of the Exodus Jews in the camps. His dispatches highlighted their continued challenges, including malnutrition, and unabated longing to immigrate to Palestine.

In a report from Poppendorf days after the Exodus Jews arrived, Gary said the dark running joke in the camp was that the alternative to Palestine was simple: “Everyone would choose a tree from which to hang himself.”

“The Jews of Germany demand and expect a chance to start life anew under reasonably secure circumstances,” he wrote. “They feel these places exist mainly in Palestine and the U.S. And they are determined to get there, either by legal or illegal means, or just by plain old fashioned patience.”

Pnina Drori, who later became Gary’s wife, was among the emissaries that the Jewish Agency for Israel sent to the camps from Palestine to prepare the Jews for aliyah. As a kindergarten teacher, she taught the children Hebrew and Zionist songs. Other emissaries, she said, offered military training in preparation for the escalating battles with the Arab majority in Palestine.

“In the photos, you see a lot of young people in shorts and kind of Israeli clothes,” she said. “We were getting them ready for Israeli life, both good and bad. You have to remember Israel was at war at the time.”

A 1947 photo of the fake certificate identifying Robert Gary as a passenger of the SS Exodus. (Courtesy of Kedem Auction House)

Gary was one of the few journalists who continued visiting the DP camps in the weeks after the Exodus Jews returned to Europe. Somehow he even obtained a fake certificate identifying him as one of the former passengers of the ship. But by late September 1947, JTA reported that British authorities had tired of Gary’s critical coverage and barred him from entry.

“The fact that Gary and [New York newspaper PM reporter Maurice] Pearlman were the only correspondents still assigned to the story, and had remained at the camps, aroused the authorities, who charged that they ‘were snooping about too much,’” according to the report.

Israel declared independence in May 1948, and after Great Britain recognized the Jewish state in January 1949, it finally sent most of the remaining Exodus passengers to the new Jewish state. Nearly all the DP camps in Europe were closed by 1952 and the Jews dispersed around the world, most to Israel and the United States.

Gary soon immigrated to Israel, too. He married Drori in 1949, months after meeting her at a Hanukkah party at the Jewish Agency’s headquarters in Munich, and the couple moved to Jerusalem, where they had two daughters. Robert Gary took at job at The Jerusalem Post and later worked for the British news agency Reuters. Pnina Gary, 90, continued her acting career.

She said her husband always carried a camera with him when he was reporting, and their home was filled with photo albums.

Decades after Robert Gary died in Tel Aviv in 1987, at the age of 67, Pnina Gary wrote and starred in a hit play, “An Israeli Love Story.” It is based on her real-life romance with the first man she was supposed to marry, who was killed by local Arabs in an ambush on their kibbutz.

“We knew life wouldn’t be easy in Israel,” she said. “That’s not why anyone comes here.”

Schoenberg parts With LAMOTH, citing problems with new management


E. Randol Schoenberg. Photo from Twitter

A week before Rosh Hashanah, philanthropist and world-renowned litigator E. Randol Schoenberg shocked the Los Angeles community when he announced on Facebook that he was withdrawing his support from the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park (LAMOTH), an institution he has supported since 1996 and which he helped transform into a leading Holocaust education destination.

In a Sept. 14 Facebook post, Schoenberg, a former president of the museum, signaled that his decision was the result of friction with the institution’s current leadership.

“I am sad to say I have decided I can no longer support the new management of Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and therefore cannot continue to be involved with or support the museum,” Schoenberg wrote. “Thank you to everyone who has supported the museum during the 21 years I have been there. I am very proud of what we accomplished together.”

Within minutes, dozens of comments piled up on Schoenberg’s Facebook page expressing shock and confusion over what had gone wrong at the institution where he once played such an integral role.

“The obvious question is why you made this decision,” one woman wrote. “Not lightly, I’m sure. And to announce this so publicly on Facebook adds extra weight to your words. … Please don’t drop this bombshell without explaining it. Not fair to your legion of fans or the museum.”

But Schoenberg provided no further explanation on social media.

In an interview with the Journal, Schoenberg denied that he simply is having a hard time allowing the new leadership to take charge and suggested something more dysfunctional than change is poisoning the atmosphere at one of the city’s most prized Jewish institutions.

“The last month has been very difficult for me,” Schoenberg said. “Change is always difficult. But that isn’t what this was about.”

Schoenberg declined to get into the details but indicated that the last year has been full of friction.

When reached for comment, LAMOTH President and CEO Paul Nussbaum said he was “personally saddened” by Schoenberg’s decision.

“Randy was the one who recruited me to come onto the board of directors, so there’s a personal loss to me,” said Nussbaum, a former banking and wealth management executive. “I had looked to Randy for institutional knowledge and support, counsel and advice early on.”

LAMOTH President Paul Nussbaum

Schoenberg’s decision to distance himself from the very leadership he helped install left many wondering how a relationship that began in mutual respect and trust had soured.

“Change is traumatic, and sometimes change is most traumatic for people who are founders or significant contributors to the development of an enterprise,” Nussbaum said.

By the time Shabbat arrived on Sept. 15, Schoenberg’s name had been scrubbed from the LAMOTH website’s list of honorary directors. Next, the museum issued a statement from the Goldrich Family Foundation — the museum’s other major benefactor — affirming support for the leadership that Schoenberg couldn’t tolerate.

“The Goldrich family and the Goldrich Family Foundation strongly support the current management team at the Museum and have been in active consultation with the management team as it has implemented changes over the last few years to support the Museum’s growth and continued vitality,” the statement said.

For years, Schoenberg and Jona Goldrich, a real estate developer and Holocaust survivor who died last year at 88, worked together as the most significant and passionate supporters of the museum. He also was one of the lead donors for the museum’s permanent building in Pan Pacific Park.

One of his daughters, Andrea Goldrich Cayton, now serves as LAMOTH vice president.   

Goldrich’s other daughter, Melinda Goldrich, who is a museum board member, wrote to the Journal, “Both my sister and I feel that the museum, through its current staff and supportive board members, has come a long way from its early days of inception. Though it is a young museum in its current form, its evolution is ongoing and as the primary donors to the operation, we couldn’t be more pleased to see these changes.”

Schoenberg first joined the LAMOTH board in 1996, nearly a decade before he won a landmark art-heist lawsuit that made him an international celebrity. With the case, Republic of Austria v. Altmann, Schoenberg restored a group of Gustav Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis to their rightful Jewish owner, Maria Altmann.

The case was popularized by the 2015 film “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren as Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Schoenberg. In 2005, the lawsuit reached the United States Supreme Court, and by early 2006 Austria agreed to remove the paintings from the country’s museums and turn them over to Altmann.

After the five Klimt paintings were recovered and sold at auction for an estimated $327 million, Schoenberg, who reportedly received 40 percent of the proceeds, became a wealthy man. In addition to the leadership role he assumed in December 2005 as president of LAMOTH, which was founded by a group of Holocaust survivors in 1961, he also was in a position to help fund the expansion and operation of the museum.

During the decade he served as LAMOTH president, Schoenberg led a $20 million capital campaign to expand the museum into an eco-friendly, state-of-the-art building in Pan Pacific Park. It opened its doors in 2010, at a ceremony attended by city officials and Jewish community leaders.

In addition to fundraising, Schoenberg was meticulous in overseeing the new building’s details, including designing its permanent exhibitions, curating its award-winning audio guides and dreaming up the centerpiece exhibition, “Tree of Testimony,” a data-visualization art project featuring 52,000 survivor testimonies.

Since 2006, Schoenberg, who is guarantor for the museum’s line of credit, has contributed about $7.7 million to the museum, he said.

But last summer a reshuffling of museum leadership led to some unexpected changes, triggering a turbulent series of events.

In August 2016, the museum’s then-executive director, Samara Hutman, whom Schoenberg supported, began an abrupt and unexplained leave of absence. As word quietly spread among the L.A. Jewish community, many were surprised that a woman who had served the museum for three years and was credited with improving its programming and raising its public profile disappeared from her desk.

Around that same time, Nussbaum, who previously had served as board treasurer, took over as president and former president Beth Kean assumed the position of executive director.

Three months passed before a formal announcement was made on the museum’s website, explaining that Hutman was leaving the museum and returning to the Remember Us organization, a Holocaust engagement program for teens.   

When reached by phone, Hutman declined to comment on the reasons for her departure. So did Schoenberg. Nussbaum also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Once Nussbaum and Kean took over the management of LAMOTH, they initiated changes that affected the operation of the organization and its staff. Schoenberg played a periodic role, stepping in on an as-needed basis — sometimes by request and sometimes through personal initiative. Eventually, conflict arose about the way museum business was handled.

In interviews, Schoenberg insisted he offered a helping hand for the health of the museum. Nussbaum defended the new ways.

“The museum is in incredible shape,” Nussbaum said. “It is thriving. We’re in the greatest fiscal health that this organization has ever been in, and our programs and our galleries are teaching tens of thousands per year about the Holocaust. This year, we’ll have 20 percent more visitors than we had the year before.”

He added, “That should put your questions in context.”

When asked if Schoenberg’s departure was related to a personality conflict, Nussbaum responded: “I’m not going to enter into that discussion.”

He also declined to be specific about how the loss of Schoenberg’s financial contributions would impact the museum.

“At this point, if you’re talking only about financial support, we are not facing the loss of a significant supporter on a yearly basis,” Nussbaum said. “This is about change. All it’s about is about change.”

Schoenberg rejected the notion that he was having a hard time letting go, explaining that he always had planned to step out of the way and hand the reins to a successor.

“This was a very tough decision for me to make,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve put a lot into the museum and I’m very proud of what we accomplished because it was a team effort. Unfortunately, many members of that team are no longer there.”

Asked what he’ll do next, Schoenberg said he is about to publish a book of correspondence between his grandfather, composer Arnold Schoenberg, and writer Thomas Mann. Titled, “The Doctor Faustus Dossier,” it reveals the dispute between Mann and Arnold Schoenberg after Mann used the composer as the model for the title character of his novel “Doctor Faustus” — a character who sells his soul to the devil.

Schoenberg also is devoted to the study of Jewish genealogy and continues to advocate for the restoration of Nazi-looted art to its lawful owners.

“I always keep busy,” he said. “I’m not gonna be twiddling my thumbs.”

 

 

 

Karen Ulric, who traveled to Germany on a tour of Jewish heritage sites in July, observes a Holocaust memorial in Frankfurt. Photos by Eitan Arom

Seven decades after the Holocaust, can a Jew enjoy a German vacation?


Our gaggle of mostly Jewish, mostly American travelers stepped off a tour bus on the outskirts of Nuremberg, Germany, pointing cameras this way and that and ambling onto a seemingly unremarkable, wide-open expanse of pavement surrounded by parkland.

It was a glorious Sunday in July, and the Nurembergers were soaking it in, gliding by on bicycles and rollerblades, for the most part ignoring the monolithic concrete structure looming over a set of bleachers. Nobody seemed particularly bothered by the fact of what brought us there: About 80 years earlier, Adolf Hitler stood high atop the structure to review a parade of goose-stepping Nazi troops.

As we fanned out across the former parade ground, snapping photos, I thought to myself: This is an odd way to spend a vacation.

I had my reservations about traveling to Germany. I had been to Ukraine and Poland, seen killing fields and the ruins of ancient synagogues, but venturing into the heartland of the Holocaust seemed a daunting prospect. It wasn’t a trip I likely would have taken had I not been invited to go without paying a dime.

In June, I hadn’t given a second thought to accepting an invitation from the Encino-based travel company Uniworld to join a river cruise down the Rhine and Main Rivers on one of its inaugural tours of Jewish heritage sites in Germany.

After all, who says no to a free cruise?

But as my July departure date drew near, my hesitation mounted. I grew up in a home where German cars were strictly verboten. My current bedroom is home to piles of books about the Holocaust, with names such as Elie Wiesel and Hannah Arendt staring at  me from their spines. And as a reporter on the Jewish world at a time when racist ideologies are on the rise, Hitler’s handiwork is never far from my mind.

I decided my trip would be a test. Germany is a modern, beautiful country abounding with history and culture. I would be sailing in style down two scenic and storied rivers. I intended to find out, more than 70 years after the gas chambers were shut down, whether a Jew like me could enjoy a luxurious German vacation.

At first, things looked promising. Our group of writers and reporters met our ship, the River Ambassador, while it was docked near Frankfurt. It was an elegant, elongated vessel, designed to fit precisely through the locks on the rivers. As soon as I stepped on board, a glass of white wine materialized in my hand, proffered by the hyperattentive cruise staff. I then retired to my stateroom to lie back and watch the rolling hills and quaint river towns glide by my window.

Nurembergers cycle past a podium where, about 80 years ago, Adolf Hitler reviewed goose-stepping Nazi troops on parade.

 

The next day, I awoke from this pleasant dream into a crueler reality.

We disembarked and took a bus to Frankfurt, where Uniworld had arranged for us to meet a member of the local Jewish community, a graduate student active in Hillel International and the Jewish Student Union Germany. Despite his attempt to paint a rosy picture of Germany’s future, he seemed to return constantly to its grim past and uncertain present.

“We have a functioning community,” he reassured us. (Tepid praise if ever I’ve heard it.)

“There is a future in Germany. There’s a young movement coming that wants to change things, that doesn’t want to be afraid to be a Jew in Germany,” he said.

Later, we stood outside the aging hulk of a synagogue used by all three major denominations of Frankfurt Jews, a magnificent edifice that had seen better days. It was closed to the public and looked abandoned but for a few Orthodox men hurrying in and out via side entrances. As we stood shifting our feet, I wrote a sad little poem about the massive shul. It was only Day One of the cruise and Germany already was throwing me for a loop.

The author took a river cruise down the Rhine and Main Rivers on a tour of Jewish heritage sites in Germany. Photo from Wikimedia

 

After that, it was back to the ship for an evening of sailing, fine dining and drinking at the open bar. Before dinner each evening, the ship’s bartender and sommelier addressed the passengers in the spacious lounge to apprise us of the evening’s fermented offerings.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman, it is wine o’clock,” she said, psyching us up for her nightly pun. “Remember, everything happens for a Riesling.”

The cruise continued in much the same way: Day trips focused on Germany’s painful Jewish past and diminished Jewish presence, followed by evenings of merriment and luxury.

Even in seemingly innocuous locales such as Rothenberg, a walled town of nearly pristine medieval architecture, our tour guides told stories of unthinkable terror visited upon generations of unfortunate Jews.

Emerging from one of the cobblestone alleys into a square, we caught site of what seemed to be a Jewish star hanging at the site of Rothenberg’s first Jewish quarter. But our guide quickly disabused us of any such hope. In Germany, that particular six-pointed star symbolizes beer: An upside-down triangle for water, plus an upright triangle representing fire — in a truly German feat of addition —  means beer. Here in Rothenberg, it signaled the presence of a pub.

The disappointment in our ranks was palpable.

We did learn, however, that the synagogue that once stood in the square was demolished after all 450 Jews who lived in Rothenberg in 1298 were flayed or burned alive.

For the great majority of the 2.2 million tourists who visit Rothenberg every year, the place is a medieval playground of gift shops and sidewalk cafes. For my fellow travelers and me, it was a graveyard.

The trip continued in much the same way, with the members of our little group keeping our chins up as we ambled through centuries of persecution.

The next day, I sat in Nuremberg’s historic main square with a belly full of pork sausage, drinking a shandy beneath a glorious blue sky as a reggae band tuned up for a free concert. Sipping my beer-and-lemonade mixture, I tried — perhaps too hard — to prove to myself that I could have a good time immersed in secular pleasures, Jewish history be damned. 

The author enjoys a shandy in front of the Church of Our Lady in Nuremberg, built on
the site of a synagogue destroyed during a 14th-century pogrom.

Opposite me, a looming Gothic church scowled across the throngs that choked the square. Our guide had informed us as that the Church of Our Lady was built on the site of a Jewish synagogue destroyed in 1349, when Nuremberg’s Jews were burned alive as scapegoats for the Black Plague.

No marker indicated the Jewish significance of the church. But the fact of its origins darkened my mood. I felt doomed to walk like a ghost through a landscape of long-forgotten horrors.

Had I not known about the 1349 pogrom, I wondered, would I have enjoyed my sausage and shandy in peace?

The emotional climax of the trip was a visit to Dachau, the labor camp-turned memorial complex. The morning of our visit, on the second-to-last day of the trip, my stomach tied itself into knots as we stepped off our ship and boarded a bus. The Jewish heritage sites on the trip’s itinerary were optional, with other day-trip options on offer, but nearly our entire group chose to visit the camp.

I moved with practiced stoicism through Dachau’s gravel-strewn complex until we reached the area of the camp’s crematory, a lustrous green clearing in the woods that stood in stark contrast to the hot, barren expanse where the prisoners’ barracks were once located.

In a corner of the clearing was a landscaped patch with bushes and ferns, and a stone monument with a Jewish star bearing an inscription in German, English and Hebrew: “Do not forget.” A footstone read: “Grave of Thousands Unknown.”

The words of the Mourner’s Kaddish jumped into my mind and tears into my eyes.

To visit Germany as a Jew without paying heed to our painful saga there is to miss an opportunity to mourn a deep and staggering loss.

You can ignore history or drown it with a bottle of wine, but like all of life’s challenges, that doesn’t make the horror go away.

Perhaps without the grim reminders from our tour guides, I might have seen Germany’s fairy-tale villages and ancient castles as the quaint locales and proud landmarks that beguile millions of tourists — rather than elements of a multigenerational crime scene.

But I doubt I could ever take it all in without being haunted by the pain and suffering that took place there. I’ve had too much Elie Wiesel in my life, too many visits to Holocaust museums and too many family stories from the grim years of 1939 and 1942 for me to uncritically sip beer and scarf sausages like the average tourist.

If you’ll forgive the pun, that ship has already sailed.

Photo courtesy ofJay Kronish

Jay Kronish is using Holocaust education to preach tolerance — in South Korea


NAME: Jay Kronish
AGE: 71
BEST KNOWN FOR: Former Holocaust educator in South Korea
LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: Befriended Robin Williams — before he was famous — during a stint as a Bay Area restaurateur


As Jay Kronish took the stage in April at the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in South Korea in front of a group of American soldiers, he wore a long overcoat and flat cap with Jewish stars of yellow cloth pinned to his arm and chest — the costume of a ghetto-bound Jew under Nazi rule.

“Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God, my soul, that turned my dreams to ashes,” he said, quoting Elie Wiesel. “Never shall I forget those things even if I were condemned to live as long as God.”

The costume was new, but the speech was polished: Kronish had spent the previous four years as a Holocaust educator in South Korea, a country almost devoid of Jews.

In 2013, Kronish opened the Busan Israel House, a cultural center in the southern port city of Busan, after a stint living in Israel with his Korean-born wife. In addition to introducing Koreans to Israel, the couple operated a permanent Holocaust exhibition. Drawing on his involvement in the civil rights movement as a teen — in 1963, he heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Washington, D.C., and met activist Rosa Parks — he used the exhibition to preach tolerance and acceptance.

Kronish’s wife died in January after a yearslong battle with cancer, and he moved to Los Angeles shortly afterward, returning to the low-slung 1916 home in Silver Lake where he was raised and which he now shares with his brother and their dog, Didi. He sat in their living room for a recent interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Journal: How did the Busan Israel House come about?

Jay Kronish: One of the friends we had made in Israel was the Israeli ambassador to South Korea, Tuvia Israeli. A wonderful guy. He asked me and my wife to find someone in Busan to open an Israel cultural center. So we did, and the person after a year or so backed out. Since nobody else was interested in doing it, we did it.

JJ: How did people in Korea respond to the Israel House?

JK: The interest in Israel in the almost 40 percent population of Korea that is Christian is staggering and enormous. From the time we opened on March 4, 2013, till the time I left in February of 2017, over 9,000 people came to the Israel House.

JJ: Did the funding for the house come from the Israeli government?

JK: Not a cent. The funding came from us, from the money that I had saved and made, and the mandate was, “I want you to open an Israel culture center.”

I just felt in my heart that it wasn’t just about a culture center. It was about all of the things that I had done in my life that were meaningful, coming from the early days of the civil rights movement, and that could be manifested through a Holocaust museum and experience.

I went to several of the Holocaust education centers in Israel and they gave me a ton of digital files and I made a Holocaust museum — bought a bunch of TVs, got a bunch of films from the foreign ministry and from the different Holocaust groups and put together presentations and started educating people.

JJ: Did people in Busan even know what the Holocaust was?

JK: To some extent, because Koreans are very bright, well-educated people. Especially among the Christian community, if there’s any affinity or interest in Israel, there is an absolute segue into the Holocaust, primarily because of their own experience of the atrocities that occurred to them during the Japanese occupation. They got it. They got it in their heart. They got it in their gut.

JJ: Now that you’ve been back in Los Angeles for some months, what’s next for you?

JK: I’m retired. I go to the gym. I have a bunch of old friends that I see. And I’m pursuing figuring out how to get into different speaking circuits. There’s a man named (Lt.) Gen. Thomas Vandal, now the commander of all the United States forces in South Korea. After I gave the Holocaust presentation at his camp, Camp Red Cloud in 2015, we were chatting afterward, and he said, ‘You should go to the States and give these talks on college campuses. Our kids need to hear this.’ And since that time, I could not get that out of my mind.

JJ: I see you have a Hebrew tattoo on your arm — Baruch HaShem, blessings be to God. Why ‘Baruch HaShem’?

JK: Because after what I went through, in being the caregiver to my wife for eight years of her suffering with cancer, the only thing that I was left with was being thankful: being thankful that I was willing to give up my ego and my will, my likes and dislikes, my habits and cravings, to serve another person in their time of need; thankful that I went through what I went through — the pain, the suffering, the degradation that I went through in dealing with a person who was slowly dying. n

The comic book directed by Ari Folman is the first such publication authorized by the Anne Frank Foundation. Illustration by Ari Folman

Anne Frank’s diary is now a comic book


In a bid to preserve interest in the Holocaust by future generations, the Basel-based Anne Frank Foundation unveiled the first authorized comic book based on the teenager’s famous diary written in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam.

The 148-page adaptation, which is to be published Sept. 18 in France and in some 40 languages worldwide, was presented to journalists in the French capital Thursday by the graphic diary’s illustrator, David Polonsky from Israel, and its writer, the Israeli film director Ari Folman, who is working on the first full-length authorized animation film based on the comic book.

The comic book, referred to as a graphic diary by its developers, was produced in cooperation with the Anne Frank Foundation, or fonds — the organization that Anne’s father, Otto, entrusted with preserving her memory — contains colorful illustrations both of realities described in the book, including the teen’s difficult relationship with her mother and sister, and her dreams and fantasies.

One full-page drawing, based on Anne’s writing about wanting to become a journalist, shows an older Anne sitting at her desk with framed newspapers in the background, including a Life magazine cover featuring a picture of her.

Another shows her family members and other Jews with whom they lived in hiding for two years in Amsterdam depicted as animals, corresponding to Anne’s humorous anecdotes about their personalities. Other drawings feature allusions to great visual artworks, including by Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt.

“I’m worried we’re coming to an era where there won’t be Holocaust survivors on Earth, no living witnesses to tell the story,” said Folman, who was born to Holocaust survivors whom he said told him and his sister “way, way too many” horrible stories from the genocide. As they disappear, “the entire story of the Holocaust risks becoming something ancient so it’s essential to find ways to preserve” interest in the Holocaust, he said during a Q&A in Paris.

Anne, her sister and parents and several other Jews were deported in 1944 to be murdered following a raid by Nazi soldiers on the so-called secret annex where they lived in hiding with help from the Dutch resistance. Anne died seven months later in a concentration camp. Her mother and sister also died. Only Otto survived, and he edited his younger daughter’s writings and had them published in 1947.

Folman, who is well-known internationally for his film about Israel’s Lebanon War, “Waltz with Bashir,” said his first reaction was to “immediately say no” after being approached by the Switzerland-based Anne Frank Foundation, or Fonds.

Folman and Polonsky initially turned down the offer, they said, because artistically they doubted their ability to make a contribution that would stand out from the many films, books, theater shows, operas and musicals that have been produced over the story of Anne Frank — perhaps the world’s most famous Holocaust victim following the publication in dozens of languages of her diary over the last seven decades.

There has been “too much done around the story,” Folman said. But he reconsidered after talking to his 95-year-old mother, whom she said is now “living with the goal of seeing the premiere” of the film he is making about Anne Frank.

Since the 1940s, many authorized and unauthorized adaptations of the Anne Frank story have been created in many media. In Japan alone, the Anne Frank story has been the subject of several comic books – graphic novels in the Japanese manga style. But these publications were not authorized by the Anne Frank Foundation for historical accuracy corresponding to Anne’s actual writings.

The film, Folman told JTA, will treat also the last “horrendous” seven months in Anne Frank’s life, despite the absence of material on this period written by her.

“We used other historical sources to address this part of her life,” he said. “It was a condition of mine to work on this.”

Georg and Elisabeth Citrom of the Holocaust Survivors Association, Sweden standing among the wreaths in the Hall of Remembrance.

Georg Citrom: A Life Transcending Generations


Every generation has its own unique experiences; each new generation receives memory’s inheritance in its own way.   We live in an increasingly mobile and global world, where just two generations can span continents, wars, economic hardship and success; migration and displacement; loss and growth and change. Our identity, which is both fixed and fluid, adapts and changes rapidly as we move physically, economically and socially; our chameleon instincts enable us to survive in new and changing environments. 

Perhaps no group demonstrates the relationship between life lived and memory transferred more than the rapidly reducing number of Holocaust survivors, who every day pass the baton of memory to their families. 

Georg Citrom was born in Romania in 1931.  By the time he was just fourteen he had experienced life in the Oradea ghetto and had survived both Birkenau and Buchenwald – schooled, as some survivors say, in the hardest university of life. He could have been an angry and bitter man; after all, everyone he had grown up with, and all those he had loved, were turned to ashes during the Holocaust. But Georg chose a higher path. Dignified, hard-working and humble, he labored his way from teenage refugee to successful businessmen in his adopted Sweden. His wife Elisabeth, also a Holocaust survivor, raised their two children Evelyn and Joel in a Swedish culture devoid of Jewish influence, yet imbuing in them a keen sense of their Jewish identity.  Evelyn settled in Israel where she still lives today.  Joel settled in the United States, where, after graduating from the University of Southern California, he made a successful business career in New York. Joel’s wife Ulrika, also a daughter of a Holocaust survivor living in Sweden, raised three beautiful children with both Swedish and American citizenship, acutely aware of their deep connection to Israel and their European Jewish identity.  They are a truly global family, just two generations on from the moment the Nazis intended to eradicate their lineage entirely. 

I had several opportunities to spend time with Georg and Elisabeth Citrom, most recently in their home in Stockholm, where they married over sixty years ago. They bestowed me with affection as if I were a part of the family, and lavished homemade fare over a laden Shabbat table, as if I had not eaten for a week. I was enveloped by the warmth of their home and their deeply giving souls. As I left them and stepped into the chill night, I wondered how people who had experienced such darkness could become such shining beacons of humanity.  

This week I was with Joel, Ulrika and family enjoying the Labor Day weekend, when news came through that Georg had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.  In the silence that ensued, I first felt that beacon flickering out, because for sure, no one can replace the man that was Georg Citrom. But then as I watched, I realized that his family are that light – they not only inherit his story, they are his story.

Should you walk into the reception of USC Shoah Foundation you will encounter a large life-sized photo of a Holocaust survivor surrounded by lights and cameras, documented while giving testimony.  The man in the photo is Georg Citrom on the day he gave testimony in 2010. Over 55,000 survivors and witnesses have given testimony to the Visual History Archive, but as chance would have it, that photo of Georg was picked out by our graphic designer to represent the experience of all of them in the lobby of the Institute.  

The day he gave testimony Georg brought together his traumatic past with his successful present and future legacy, and bequeathed it to his family, and all who are prepared to listen. The legacy that lives on in the story of his family bring together the Jewish community of Oradea; the lost souls of Auschwitz and Buchenwald; the power of survival; the strength of the refugee who thrived against the odds; the father who raised his children to be upstanding citizens of the world; the mortal whose final resting place will be in Israel the country he loved. As his family gather in Israel to say their final goodbyes, they will take on once and for all the bittersweet story of which they are an integral part.   

As Joel left for the airport to be at his mother’s side, he turned to me and said, “Please make sure you always save the photo of my father at USC Shoah Foundation.”  Alongside that photo is the statement in bold letters – “Every Survivor has a Story to Tell” – a story that transcends time, language, geography and generations.

 See the full testimony of Georg Citrom here.

Stephen D. Smith PhD is USC Shoah Foundation Andrew J. and Erna Finci-Viterbi Executive Director.

The Red Cross and the Holocaust


One of the sorry backstories of World War II is found in what the Red Cross did — or, more precisely, failed to do — during the Holocaust. 

The pointed question was asked aloud by one survivor in May 1945 — “Where, above all, was the International Red Cross Committee?” — and now it is answered with authority and in compelling detail in “Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust” by Gerald Steinacher (Oxford University Press).

Steinacher is the Hymen Rosenberg Professor of Judaic Studies at the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska. One of his previous books, “Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice,” was honored with a National Jewish Book Award by the Jewish Book Council in 2011.

In his new book, Steinacher reminds us that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as the Swiss-based organization was formally titled, deferred to the German Red Cross throughout the 1930s, when Hitler’s concentration camp system was first put into operation. Already “deeply Nazified,” the German Red Cross assured the ICRC that “the living standard in the camps [was] higher than most of the inmates were generally used [to].” Steinacher writes: “The German Red Cross had for all practical purposes … turned into a National Socialist medical service unit supporting Hitler’s Wehrmacht.”

Even after the outbreak of World War II, the ICRC did little or nothing to assist the victims of Nazi terror. Steinacher describes how the ICRC managed to send a few food parcels to Germany in 1943, including 882 packages that reached Dutch and Norwegian inmates, and 31 packages that reached Jewish inmates. But when the ICRC proposed to send food parcels to Auschwitz, the German Red Cross “claimed that the Jews were employed exclusively in labour camps in the East and that food and medication there [were] reportedly abundant,” Steinacher writes. In a message tainted with bitter irony, a representative of the German Red Cross wrote to the ICRC that “shipments of supplies to these camps were in principle not necessary.”

What is surely the most tragic moment in the history of the International Red Cross came when Nazi Germany invited the ICRC and the Danish Red Cross to inspect the concentration camp at Terezín (Theresienstadt). “Weak and sick people were deported to Auschwitz to reduce the numbers in the completely overcrowded camp, houses painted, streets and parks cleaned, and flowers were planted,” Steinacher writes. “The delegates were shown a school, a soccer game, and a children’s theatre performed for them. The deception seemed to have worked, and the Nazis were very pleased with the ICRC’s favourable report of the good treatment of Jews in German camps.”

Not until 1944, when the mass murder of Jews already was being reported in the pages of The New York Times, did the ICRC finally bestir itself to render “tardy assistance” to the Hungarian Jews who were the last major Jewish population to be deported to the death camps. Representatives of the ICRC belatedly showed up in Budapest, where they joined other humanitarians — most notably, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg — in an 11th-hour effort to save the precious remnant that remained alive.

“The ICRC in Budapest soon followed the Swedish example and handed out letters of protection to Jews and put Jewish hospitals, clinics, hostels, and soup kitchens under the protection of the organization,” Steinacher reports.

But it took urgent intervention by both Pope Pius XII and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to move the ICRC to write a letter of appeal in June 1944 to Hungarian dictator Miklós Horthy. “With this letter, the ICRC officially broke its silence,” Steinacher writes. “But this change of policy came too late for the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who had already been killed by this point.”

And yet, even then, the ICRC remained ambivalent toward Nazi war crimes and the men who committed them. When the ICRC began issuing travel documents to refugees, starting in February 1945 and continuing after the defeat of Nazi Germany in May of that year, the recipients included “thousands of former Nazi collaborators and SS men from all over Europe, including known Holocaust perpetrators such as Adolf Eichmann,” Steinacher explains.

Much of “Humanitarians at War” is devoted to a careful and penetrating analysis of what came next — how these events shaped the identity and destiny of the Red Cross. It examines the resulting competition among Red Cross organizations in Switzerland and Sweden and the complex organizational politics that surrounded the worldwide activities of the Red Cross. More than anything else, it reveals the crisis of conscience within the Red Cross as it confronted its own failings in the postwar era.

But the cutting edge of “Humanitarians at War” is the bill of particulars that Steinacher presents about those failings. “Although the Red Cross achieved much in helping the plight of POW’s, especially in Western Europe, its role in the context of the Holocaust still casts long shadows and ‘has haunted it ever since,’ ” Steinacher writes. “It was only in the 1990s that the ICRC publicly admitted that its silence on the Shoah was a ‘moral defeat.’ ”

Gabriella Karin holds up a visual aid while fellow Holocaust survivor Robert Geminder speaks at the Last Bookstore on Aug. 19. Photo by Eitan Arom

Survivors speak at The Last Bookstore, despite online harassment


Despite online harassment by an alt-right provocateur, two Holocaust survivors told their stories of triumph over evil, as planned, to a standing-room-only crowd at The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 19.

The appearance by Robert Geminder and Gabriella Karin came 11 days after a person who writes under the name “Johnny Benitez” posted a Facebook link for the event with the tagline: “Who wants to bet money this is another white guilt push. Lesson 1: white people are bad and it’s good they’re an ever increasing minority.”

After the event’s organizer, Jennifer Brack, told Benitez he was not welcome, Benitez — whose real name is Juan Cadavid, according to a report by the OC Weekly — posted a video encouraging his followers to attend the event.

At the advice of the Anti-Defamation League, Brack hired a pair of armed guards and proceeded with the event, the third in a series called “Lessons of the Past,” survivor speaker engagements organized by Brack with the help of the American Society for Yad Vashem.

The audience of about 300 people, who sat on folding chairs and the floor, was attentive, respectful and engaged. And after Geminder and Karin spoke, a long line formed with well-wishers who praised their eloquence and courage.

“People more than ever these days want to hear survivors,” Karin told the Journal before she spoke. “They want reassurance that people will go out and speak in spite of the threats.”

Karin, 86, and Geminder, 82, are a couple. They began dating in 2015 after both had lost their spouses to illness years before. They briefly wondered how they should proceed with the speaking event after they learned about the harassment, but they never gave a second thought to pulling out.

“I’m not afraid,” Karin said. “Maybe because of what we went through, nothing makes me afraid.”

Even so, she and Geminder were perturbed with the harassment, which came a week after white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va. — one of the largest such demonstrations in a decade, according to the ADL.

“When we see a Nazi flag like we saw over the weekend in Charlottesville, it just tears us apart,” Geminder said.

Both survivors tell their stories around the world, and neither has experienced any kind of harassment, online or otherwise, before the posts from Benitez.

At the event, as they have done hundreds of times before, the two carefully told the stories of their experiences and shared the lessons they have drawn from them.

Geminder was born in Wroclaw, Poland, in 1935. He saw as many as 14,000 Jews massacred at the cemetery in Stanislawow but managed to survive, he said, by pure luck. He and his brother, mother and stepfather were in Warsaw when the Warsaw Uprising was quelled. The Nazis put them in a cattle car on a train headed to the Auschwitz concentration camp, but the family was able to escape through an opening in the roof of the car within a hundred yards of the camp.

Karin was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1930, and spent the Holocaust in hiding, successfully sheltered by her mother’s underground contacts and the help of a righteous gentile named Karol Blanar.

Neither survivor mentioned Benitez’s harassment at the bookstore event.

“I don’t want to make anyone else aware of the negatives,” Geminder said. “I want to focus on the positives.”

Meanwhile, as Geminder and Karin were speaking, Benitez was at a Laguna Beach event he organized called “America First! Electric Vigil for the Victims of Illegals and Refugees,” according to his posts on Facebook.

Benitez, whose recent web exploits included posting a manipulated photo that made it appear the Jewish mayor of Laguna Beach was wearing a Nazi uniform, has long been on the radar of Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher at the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

Benitez does not have a history of violence, but some groups who show up to his rallies, including skinheads and antigovernment extremists, do, she said.

In the video Benitez posted about the survivors’ event, a framed photograph of various guns is visible in the background as he talks about how the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center is involved in a Jewish conspiracy to use the Holocaust to antagonize white people.

“Why is it so concurrent that the anti-white narrative and the anti-Trump narrative is so closely tied to these events that push the Holocaust and white privilege and white guilt?” he says in the video, which he streamed live simultaneously on Facebook and the social media site Periscope.

Mendelson, who has followed Benitez’s rising profile within the alt-right, said he has a “fixation with Jews” that borders on Holocaust denial. After he posted the video, in which he holds up an iPad with Brack’s Facebook profile on it, the ADL encouraged her to take basic precautions such as contacting law enforcement.

“Although no direct threats of violence were made against the organizer, we still wanted to make sure that law enforcement were in the loop and to help safeguard this gathering,” Mendelson said. “It is a sad state of affairs when individuals who have been traumatized by the Holocaust are in some ways revictimized by anti-Semitic and hateful racist thought leaders.”

Contacted via Facebook Messenger, Benitez told the Journal he wanted his followers to “observe and report the narrative” from the bookstore event. He said he first learned about the event through a Facebook ad.

Asked if he denied the Holocaust or questioned its magnitude, Benitez was evasive.

“I don’t address the holocaust. I view any attempt to lure people into discussions about it to be Red Herrings,” he wrote, not acknowledging the fact that he brought the Holocaust history event to the attention of his nearly 2,000 Facebook friends and followers.

At The Last Bookstore, during the question-and-answer period, audience members wanted to know how Geminder and Karin felt about the recent events in Charlottesville, where swastikas were abundant and men yelling “Sieg Heil” marched in front of a synagogue.

“It was a nightmare for us,” Geminder said. “I can imagine how every one of you must have felt. Imagine a hundredfold how survivors felt during this. When we came to America, we never expected to see that again. Never, never, never.”

Even with the recent news events, both Geminder, a retired electrical engineer and part-time math teacher, and Karin, an artist and former fashion designer, said they are avowed optimists.

Karin recounted for the audience the moment after World War II when she decided she would move on from the trauma of the Holocaust to have a full and active life. She was standing on the platform of a train station in her native Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia, as emaciated Jewish refugees streamed into the city.

“I decided to myself, ‘Hitler did not get my body; he will not get my soul. I will smile. I will be happy,’ ” she told the audience. “And I am.”

President of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust Paul Nussbaum, during a reflective moment at Auschwitz. Photos by Esther D. Kustanowitz

Jewish life and history are complicated in Poland


“There are no Polish concentration camps.”

I felt our group’s energy shift defensively at our guide’s proclamation. Quickly, there was a clarification: This was not a denial of Auschwitz and Birkenau’s existence, but a semantic edit — they were German Nazi camps on Polish soil, not camps established by Poles.

This is the murky, difficult-to-navigate space of contemporary Poland, a country eager to tell its national story but unsure of how to handle the more challenging stories within its history.

As a first-timer in Poland and guest of the Polish Press Office and the Polish government on a recent trip with seven other West Coast Jews, I had to balance the tales I’d heard of Poland’s anti-Semitism with the country’s contemporary, culture-celebrating face: Who has the right to shape the story of what happened in Poland in the 1930s and ’40s and put it into a contemporary Polish context? How could I acknowledge Polish pain within the deep wound of my Jewish pain? And how would being here inform my relationship with Poland and its people?

Joshua Holo, dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus in Los Angeles and one of the five local people on my trip, explained Polish attempts to present history are “a bit like a three-car accordion mashup.” As he explained, the first car (Nazis) rear-ends a second car (Poles), which then rear-ends a third (Jews). The Poles understand that the third car was damaged but don’t see themselves as responsible.

“In fact,” Holo said, “the Poles braked as hard as they could and heroically tried to avoid damaging the third car, but the violence of the collision proved too much. But the Polish version risks appearing defensive to many Jews and even partially distorted — distorted, that is, where it concerns us most.”

The week before she joined our trip, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, was in Germany and noted how differently the Poles and the Germans handle acceptance of the Holocaust. In Germany, she said, “everywhere you go, there’s testimony to the existence of the Jewish people — memorials, museums, statues. With the Poles, that story is still sort of hidden.” She observed that the Germans are “clearer on their story,” and that “some of their acts of teshuvah (repentance) or reparations is to tell the Jewish story. Poles haven’t yet gotten to the place to say, ‘We were part of this’ because they feel like it was done to them.”

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust President Paul Nussbaum, a trip participant whose Hungarian parents survived Auschwitz, said he believes the responsibility to be vigilant in telling the truth is sacred.

“It is entrusted to us by those who cannot speak their truth themselves,” he said. “So when the truth is hijacked or attempted to be managed for petty political purposes, I am compelled to fight it with all my strength in order to honor my sacred responsibility.”

​Close-up of the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial

Everything we did in Poland had two layers — what is now, and what was and is no longer. And the transition often was an emotional and historical whiplash. For instance, our group took a train from Warsaw to Krakow on a Friday for a 650-person Shabbat dinner and a Jewish culture festival held in Kazimierz, which had been Krakow’s Jewish quarter before the Nazis deported the inhabitants. The following morning, we were at Auschwitz, making the weekend feel like a reductive, sped-up tour of the Jewish European experience: vibrant  Jewish culture suddenly, and drastically, dimmed at a concentration camp.

The trip presented contemporary Warsaw and Krakow as Poland’s current cultural and cosmopolitan face to accompany a troubled history. The Poles — at least those we met in the context of our trip — were fond of saying, “There is no Polish history without Polish Jewish history” —  often before reminding us again that the Poles were victims and that they weren’t responsible for the concentration camps.

It seemed like they were sincere and trying to say, “We’re all in this together.” But equating the Jewish and the Polish experience under Nazi-occupied Poland didn’t sit quite right.

At the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2013 and is built where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood, our guide shared a legend: When the wandering Jews reached Poland, they saw the word “Polin” — Poland in Yiddish — written on a tree. They mistook it for the Hebrew po-lin, “rest here,” and they did for 1,000 years, until 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population was destroyed in the Holocaust. The architecture of the museum entrance was designed to evoke the parting of the Red Sea and also the bridge of history — a rich Jewish life in Poland, disrupted by the Holocaust, and now moving forward.

The question of where Jewish culture and symbols belong in contemporary Poland is complicated. Because the Jewish population was decimated during the war, the Jewish culture has become for the Poles something exotic, somewhere between a fascination and a fetish. And the elevation of Jewish deference, even for celebratory or festival purposes, may still, for some Jews, feel more like anti-Semitism.

On Aug. 9, JTA reported on a fake Jewish wedding, held by a Polish cultural heritage group, involving a group of non-Jewish volunteers dressed in traditional Charedi costumes. Many Polish souvenir shops sell small figures of bearded Jewish men, called “Lucky Jews.” One of our guides said it’s not considered anti-Semitic, explaining that Jews are so rare as to have become the emblem of good fortune.

And then there is the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, a week in June offering workshops, concerts, tours and lectures for thousands of people for the past 28 years. As the brainchild of Janusz Makuch, a non-Jewish Pole, the festival culminates in a massive, multi-act, outdoor, afternoon-to-night klezmer concert on Szeroka Street in Kazimierz. In the background stands the shul of Rav Moses Isserles (the Rema), considered to be the Maimonides of Polish Jewry.

Makuch spoke with us at a Morocco-and-Israel-themed coffee shop called Cheder Cafe, where many patrons spoke Hebrew. The menu offered Israeli snacks, kosher wine and charoset. The finjans (tea kettles) were authentic, Makuch bragged, from Nazareth.

Makuch grew up knowing nothing about Jews until he visited Kazimierz and realized “there had to be young Jews hungry for knowledge of the world we lost.” He credited young musicians for “bringing real Jewish light to this dark place” and expressed pride in the festival’s mostly non-Jewish volunteers.

The culture festival is curated, likely with the best of intentions, initiated by a new generation trying to apply cultural salve to what the wartime generation had wrought. But some Jews see the result as similar to Disney’s Epcot Center’s treatment of different countries: well-intentioned but inevitably displaying little more than cultural tropes and stereotypes. Jews of the world, ingrained with ancestors’ anecdotes over decades, may not always see this a positive, whatever the intent.

Still, what a marvel, I thought, that 70 years after near extermination, Jewish culture had returned to Krakow. And what a strange gloss on history such a vibrant, loud and musical return of Jewish culture to the main square truly is.

In Warsaw, the ground floor of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) resembles a cafe, with a coffee bar and tables. The JCC also hosts films, events, lectures and classes for its 400 members and 1,000 program participants, most of them young families. And in Krakow, the JCC is serving 630 members and actively building the Jewish community of tomorrow. Its preschool, pristine at the time of our visit, opens this fall.

While most online sources indicate that modern Krakow has “a few hundred Jews,” Jonathan Ornstein, a Polish and United States citizen who is the JCC’s executive director, estimates there are at least 100,000 in Poland and a few thousand in Krakow, but admits, “it’s hard to know.”

He painted a picture beyond verifiable statistics and our American-inflected understanding of “who is a Jew.” A Pole discovers, through a family confession or a box of relics in the attic, that she has a Jewish mother. She becomes involved, even religious. Her 12 other relatives are as Jewish as she is but do not care and do not become involved.

Ornstein knows this kind of story from personal experience. The weekend of our visit, he married his fiancée, Kasia, who had learned of her Jewish heritage only several years ago, after which she sought out the JCC to learn more.

“The people who are living there as Jews clearly want to tell their own story,” said Peretz, recalling another woman who had discovered she was Jewish but didn’t want to be told how to be Jewish. “She and her sons are exploring it, while no one else in their family is interested. We have to be willing to let them write their own story.”

Krakow has seven synagogues within walking distance of one another, and the JCC had 100,000 visitors last year, “after the Polin Museum and the camps, the most visitors,” Ornstein said.

“There’s the idea that we have to treat it [Poland] as a cemetery. Now, there’s a rebirth. Hey, March of the Living, come inside and see some Polish Jewish life,” Ornstein said.

As one example, he mentioned the Krakow JCC fundraising program, Ride for the Living, an 8-hour, 55-mile bike ride starting at Auschwitz and ending in the massive, JCC-orchestrated Shabbat dinner that happens during the culture festival.

“Why are we still around as Jews? We developed values and mechanisms for dealing with our tragic past,” Ornstein said. “We are Jewish despite the Holocaust not because of it.”

Nedda Black, an L.A.-based lawyer on the trip, found this future-driven spirit deeply resonant.

“Polish-Jewish children, no less and no more than American-Jewish children, need to feel loved, to laugh, to experience joy and to have a story that is their own,” she said. “I felt honored that so many Polish Jews shared their stories with me and allowed me into their community and homes to light candles, break bread, sing and dance together with them. In the end, we are all looking for the same things in life.”

The New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston was first vandalized on June 28, 2017. Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Boston Holocaust memorial vandalized for second time this summer


A pane of glass was shattered Monday evening at the New England Holocaust Memorial, the second time in less than two months the Boston memorial was vandalized.

A 17-year-old male suspected of the vandalism is in custody, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department told JTA. Two passers-by tackled the  suspect and held him until police arrived, according to the Boston Globe, which reported that the police are investigating whether it was a hate crime.

A visitor to the memorial, which is located along Boston’s historic Freedom Trail, told the Globe he heard the sound of glass shattering as he was reading panels at the memorial and later saw police make an arrest.

“It’s a reminder that we as a community need to be united, both in our opposition to all forms of hate, but also in the important role that memorials play in our community,” Robert Trestan, the region’s director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Globe.

Trestan said it was a second blow to the community.

“It comes at a time when most of Boston is standing in solidarity [against] the hatred that we saw in Charlottesville over the weekend,” he said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston published a joint statement with Combined Jewish Philanthropies linking the vandalism to the deadly violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.

“We are appalled and saddened that the New England Holocaust Memorial was vandalized Monday night for the second time in just 6 weeks,” the statement said. “The images of Nazis marching in the streets of America over the weekend in Charlottesville and now shattered glass once again at this sacred space in Boston are an affront to our Jewish community and to all those who stand up against bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism.

“We thank the Boston Police and the Public Works Department for their rapid response and for their continuing support during this difficult time. We will remain resilient and will have a timeline for rebuilding the memorial once we have assessed the damage.”

In a post on Twitter, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the city stands against hate.

“I’m saddened to see such a despicable action in this great city,” he said.

The 22-year-old memorial was recently repaired and rededicated following the earlier vandalism in which one pane of glass was shattered, the first time it was struck by vandalism, allegedly by a 21-year-old man with a history of mental illness.  The six-towered memorial, designed by architect Stanley Saitowitz, features 132 panels of glass etched with seven-digit numbers symbolizing the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jews during the Holocaust.

Speaking at the July 11 rededication, Israel Arbeiter, a prominent 92-year-old Boston-area Holocaust survivor, said the public ceremony brought a sense of renewal.

“The horrible suffering that we, the survivors, endured in concentration camps cannot be forgotten. When we repeatedly say ‘remember,’ we turn first of all to the world around us,” Arbeiter said at the ceremony, which was attended by Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, as well as leaders of the Jewish community and other faith and civic groups.

Photo courtesy of the Kristal family.

World’s oldest man, a Holocaust survivor in Israel, dies at 113


Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor from Haifa who was recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest man in the world, has died, a month before his 114th birthday.

Haaretz reported that Kristal died Friday.

Born on Sept. 15, 1903, in the town of Zarnow, Poland, Kristal moved to Lodz in 1920 to work in his family’s candy business. He continued operating the business after the Nazis forced the city’s Jews into a ghetto, where Kristal’s two children died. In 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz, where his wife, whom he had married at 25, was killed.

In 1950, he moved to Haifa with his second wife and their son, working again as a confectioner. In addition to his son and daughter, Kristal has numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Guinness recognized him as the world’s oldest living man in 2016. When asked at the time what his secret was to long life, Kristal said: “I don’t know the secret for long life. I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why. There have been smarter, stronger and better-looking men than me who are no longer alive. All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.”

Last year, when he turned 113, about 100 family members celebrated his bar mitzvah, a century after he missed it due to the upheavals of World War I.

Stray dogs roam the Babi Yar monument on March 14, 2016 in Kiev, where Nazis and local collaborators murdered 30,000 Jews in 1941. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz.

Researchers find Jewish headstones at the Nazi killing site of Babi Yar


Nazi troops dumped dozens of stolen Jewish headstones at the same site near Kiev where they murdered tens of thousands of Jews, researchers in Ukraine discovered.

The Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center last month extracted  50 headstones from the Babi Yar ravine, where Nazis and local collaborators murdered more than 150,00 people, including 50,000 Jews, starting in September 1941.

“The tombstones were removed from a local Jewish cemetery during the Holocaust and thrown into the same ravines where over 150,000 Jews, Roma people and Ukrainians were murdered during the Holocaust,” Marek Siwiec, a former Polish politician and current head of the memorial center, said in a statement earlier this week about the discovery.

With a mandate from the Ukrainian government, Siwiec’s organization, which was set up last year, is heading international efforts to commemorate the Babi Yar tragedy in a manner befitting its scale. Jewish victims arememorialized at the site only by an unfenced six-foot menorah, which is situated near a dumping ground for industrial waste and is vandalized regularly.

“The significance of Babi Yar is of upmost importance, at this horrendously difficult site, the largest single act mass murder of Jews took place during the Holocaust, with 37,771 brutally murdered during a two-day period, it is our duty not just to remember this site but also proactively learn from the darkest days of human history to build a better future,” Siwiec said in the statement about the discovery.

Additional headstones from Jewish graves are scattered in the ravine but they require careful excavations to be extracted intact, according to Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths organization, which promotes the commemoration of the Holocaust in Poland. Daniels visited the site earlier this week to see how From the Depths, which has focused on restoring pillaged headstones in Poland, could assist the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, he said.

Ursula Martens in her Baldwin Hills home. Photo by Tess Cutler

A Nazi then, remorseful now


A former Hitler Youth reflects on the guilt of her past as she seeks understanding and redemption

Ursula Martens is a dainty 88-year-old with blue eyes, snow-white hair and a healthy, active lifestyle. She could easily pass for anybody’s grandma.

She lives independently in a large, two-story home in Baldwin Hills, where she runs a successful building maintenance business. She has friends, children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. She likes to garden. Every morning, she feeds hundreds of wild birds that gather on the electrical lines surrounding her property.

By these accounts, Martens appears to be living a good, if not ordinary life. Her biography seems typical of octogenarians these days — she’s industrious, social, in possession of adequate resources, and a sense of purpose. She appears altogether normal.

With one exception: Ursula Martens was a Nazi.

Born on March 28, 1929, in Kropelin, Germany, a 2 1/2-hour drive northwest of Berlin, Martens grew up in the shadow of the Third Reich. Like most Germans of her generation, she joined the Hitler Youth by the time she was 10. Even among believers, she distinguished herself as one of the more fervent champions of Hitler and his ideas. She was so enamored of the Fuhrer that she developed a crush. “How handsome he was … the best-looking man I had ever seen,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir, “Stations Along the Way,” co-authored with Mark Shaw. And woe to anyone who disagreed with her: “He seemed like sort of a God to me.”

Instead of fantasizing about the cute boy in class like other girls her age, Martens spent the formative years of her youth obsessed with modern history’s most brutal mass murderer. She claims that at the time, she did not know the extent of Hitler’s crimes. But she was every bit the willing participant in his homicidal campaign to eliminate offenders of his Aryan ideal.

“I was trained to hate before I was 10 years old,” she wrote.

And so she hated. She hated the Romani. She hated the disabled. And most of all, she hated Jews.

Reflecting on the advent of the discriminatory Nuremberg Laws, which demoted Jews to second-class citizens, Martens wrote: “I understood that these laws put the Jews where they belonged, at the bottom of society.”

Instead of fantasizing about the cute boy in class like other girls her age, Martens spent the formative years of her youth obsessed with modern history’s most brutal mass murderer

Today, despite her comfortable life in Los Angeles, the hateful views Martens adopted as a girl continue to dominate her psyche — but now as sources of shame, self-recrimination and guilt. For the past 60 years, Martens has tried everything imaginable — confession, education and religion, even a love affair with a Jew — to exorcise the evils that poisoned her young mind. Her memoir is only part of her mea culpa; whatever opportunities she has to accept responsibility, apologize and seek forgiveness — including cooperation with this story — she has undertaken with gusto.

But whether absolution exists for her is beside the point. She was on the wrong side of history and has no choice but to atone again and again and again for the crime of losing her innocence.

“I don’t think you can ever forgive yourself for something that you were part of,” Martens says, sitting stone-faced at her glass dining room table. Her hair is down, shaped in a bob, and her large eyeglasses magnify the lines of her wrinkled face. Adjacent to where she sits is a small, overstuffed bookcase dominated by the works of Deepak Chopra.

Although Martens was not a Nazi in the conventional sense — she never held a weapon or committed any crime — she feels her mental complicity in Hitler’s race war laid the intellectual foundation for violence.

“I feel like I was part of it,” she says, “even though I didn’t have whatever it takes to open the gas.”

But she cannot be sure.

Martens doesn’t really know if she would have killed, she says, because she never had the opportunity. In her book, it is a question she asks herself over and over, and on occasion, she describes feeling bloodlust. During the British bombing of Germany in the later years of the war, the Hitler Youth were given instructions to wound or kill any survivor of a downed British plane. “They told us that if you ever see [a plane’s crew members parachute down], take whatever tool you have and go and try and kill them. And I thought ‘Yeah!’ That’s what I was looking for, when I saw planes, to be able to do that.

“I don’t think you ever get over that.”

Martens is one of tens of thousands of Nazi war criminals and collaborators who gained passage to the United States after World War II. According to U.S. census data, 226,000 Germans immigrated to the United States from 1941 and 1950. Some were engineers and scientists, like Wernher von Braun, recruited by the U.S. government for their technological expertise. Others were senior Nazi party officials who were offered asylum in exchange for serving as spies against Soviet Russia in the early years of the Cold War. Most, however, were like Martens, ordinary German citizens who quietly slipped in, melding into the American panorama with no desire to continue Nazi activity or call attention to themselves. Many succeeded. Others, like Martens, could escape everything but their conscience.

Martens was 4 years old when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, setting the country and the rest of the world on a course to war. He won support as a democratically elected populist leader who promised a struggling country, which a generation before had lost World War I, that he would make Germany great again. The excitement he aroused around the nation was palpable. Martens still recalls the first time she heard his voice.

“I remember the decorations they put up,” she says of an early, local rally in support of Hitler. “It was like a movie I saw that I never forgot.”

Martens’ father was a railroad stationmaster, so she and her family moved a lot, often living in apartments above the station. Since most stations were located in the center of town, the family had front-row seats to public gatherings and rallies. The first time she saw a crowd gather to listen to one of Hitler’s radio speeches, she was instantly awed. “[I]t gave me the shivers,” she wrote. “[His voice] was so clear and distinct … I felt that that voice had power, and I noticed others, including my parents, felt the same way.”

As stewards of the train station, Martens remembers the day men in uniform entered her family home to unfurl a banner of Hitler that reached from the balcony of their apartment to the station floor. Soon after, her father began wearing what the young Martens perceived as “a red armband with a symbol on it.”

The political metastasis of the Third Reich became the landmarks of her childhood. When Martens and her older sister first heard the word “Nazi,” they asked their mother what it meant. She says they were told, “Communists are bad people, and Nazis are good people.” They were children, after all. Simple explanations worked.

Growing up at that time, religion was frowned upon, so politics — in the form of nationalism — ruled the day. Prejudice was common. According to Martens, German superiority had been a feature of the national character well before Hitler arrived. By the time the Nuremberg Laws were passed at the end of 1935, when Martens was 6, Jews had become the symbol of everything undesirable. “When we did not like a kid at school or wanted to make fun of them, we called them a Jew,” she wrote.

Jews weren’t the only hated ones. When Martens befriended a young boy called Heine, whom she describes as “different” and “slow,” her mother objected. One day, she and a friend ditched Heine on the walk home from school to the station. Hours later, he was found dead, sandwiched between two boxcars. Martens was devastated. But when she sought comfort from her parents, none was offered.

“There was a lack of affection,” Martens tells me about her relationship with her parents. “That’s kind of typical German. Emotions meant you were weak.”

The emotional isolation she felt at home intensified as she grew into adolescence. Her mother refused to discuss subjects of interest, like boys and sex, warning the young Martens that she could become pregnant from kissing. The recollections in her memoir give the impression of an adolescent girl desperate for an emotional outlet, and Martens found hers in Hitler.

In the Jungmadel, “young girls” of the Hitler Youth movement, she found community and purpose. She attended weekly meetings and rallies where indoctrination techniques took hold: A local political leader “reported” the news; Hitler’s radio addresses were played and replayed, his speeches memorized. The young people sang nationalistic songs glorifying the Third Reich. And everyone was expected to play sports and attend camping trips.

It was at these meetings that the Hitler Youth were exposed to “race education.” In her book, Martens recalls a demonstration in which she was asked to aid the teacher by having her skull measured. “This was a means of knowing what the lecturer called the cranial index of the ideal Aryan,” she wrote. “How proud I was when my head size was perfect. And of course, I was blond-haired and blue-eyed — perfect, too. I smiled all the way home.”

Reading Martens’ memoir is a bizarre experience. It is extremely detailed, reflecting Hitler’s ideology on many of its pages, and since Martens is recalling the indoctrination of her youth, the views expressed are relayed uncritically. The tone is matter-of-fact. And even though the work is the product of a wiser, older woman, it is filtered through the prism of a child. Unlike Anne Frank, however, young Martens lacked the personal insight and moral judgment to comprehend what was happening within and around her.

Martens concedes that the driving force behind her enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth was that she wanted to outperform her older sister, Evie. “My sister was five years older and she was the learned one, the intelligent one,” Martens says. “At least that’s how I thought she was treated by my father. They would have intelligent conversations at the dinner table, so I kind of envied her. I didn’t like it. I was a little jealous.”

Sibling rivalry, at least as much as Hitler’s demagoguery, propelled her radicalism.

“I wanted to show her I could do something,” Martens says, pointing her finger to her chest. “You know, like, ‘I’ll show you …’ ”

Martens concedes that the driving force behind her enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth was that she wanted to outperform her older sister, Evie.

Plus, being in the Hitler Youth came with perks. Once the Nazis had taken over the country, German cultural life was at their disposal. “We could go to movies, we could go to the theater, the opera — everything was free,” Martens says.

Life, in short, was fun. “Ohhh, yeah,” she says with emphasis.

With Germany on the brink war, things turned sinister. Signs were posted everywhere informing Germans not to speak too loudly, lest an enemy — the Jew — eavesdrop. The day after Kristallnacht in 1938, Martens was startled to discover a beloved local shop had been destroyed. In one telling passage, she sees the destruction, but laments only the broken crystals shattered on the sidewalk.

“I felt sorry for all the beautiful crystals,” she wrote. “It seemed like such waste to me. I knew that because the owners were Jewish, they weren’t supposed to have a store, and so I didn’t question what had been done to it.”

She also remembers the raging flames from a book burning that night. “I had heard people talk about the list of authors that weren’t suitable for Germans to read. I knew they were Jews, Communists and other writers that wrote anything against the Nazis.

“Books did not mean as much to me as the beautiful crystal and porcelain broken into millions of pieces that Crystal Night,” she wrote.

By age 11 or 12, Martens was the first to salute “Heil, Hitler” when encountering passersby on the street. She believed in “blitzkrieg” and Hitler’s vow to turn Germany into a world power. When neighbors mysteriously disappeared, she told herself there was good reason for it. And she bought into the anti-Semitic propaganda that Jews were “bloodsuckers” and “parasites,” that her family shouldn’t patronize their shops. She turned her head from signs declaring “Jewish filth” without ever questioning it. Today, however, she admits she barely knew any Jews while growing up.

Ursula Martens as she was photographed at her grandparents’ house in Germany after World War II. Photo courtesy of Ursula Martens

 

“I think people are easy to brainwash,” she says. “I can see that now. Because whatever you question, there’s an excuse for everything. When [the propaganda] started, [Germans] were saying ‘Jews are the ones that make it hard for us.’ And I always remember Jews working in banks or being lawyers or doctors. And I still say that now. Jewish families don’t say, ‘What do you want to be, a hairdresser?’ They say, ‘Be a lawyer or a doctor.’ You have no other choice.”

Martens pauses, wondering if maybe she has said something offensive. Perhaps the stereotypes she’s spent years trying to shed are still there, lingering just beneath the surface.

“I think that’s good,” she adds. She wants to be clear she means this as a compliment.

For someone who hated Jews, Martens now seems oddly admiring of them. It’s as if the Jew, after being hated, became an object of mystification. Since she was young, the truth of what was happening to Jews during the Holocaust was hidden from her. There were rumors. There were signs. But the darkest secret of what Nazi Germany was perpetrating upon millions of innocent people was a forbidden subject.

One afternoon, when her parents weren’t home, she entered her father’s “forbidden room” and rummaged through some drawers. She found a hidden envelope containing images she now presumes were from the camps: an SS soldier holding a pistol, people lying on the ground, shot dead. She was horrified but says she “blocked it out,” never bringing it up with her father. Even after the war up until his death, she never questioned him. His role in the deportation of countless innocents is answerable only by her imagination.

In 1945, when Martens was 16, the family was stationed at Malchow, which she later discovered had a munitions factory where rocket parts were made, probably by Jewish prisoners. The town included part of the Ravensbrück concentration camp. One winter night, while walking home, she saw people in striped uniforms with yellow stars on them being herded onto a train. ,“Jews!” she wrote. “ “I couldn“ t even make out if they were women or men.” They were emaciated and their heads shorn. “They looked cold. …
I had a strange feeling watching them.”
It was a confusing scene, which turned violent. According to Martens, the SS soldiers unleashed their dogs, which pounced on the feeble prisoners. “They could not fight back and fell to the ground with the dogs biting them. The sound of this, of the dogs tearing into the helpless Jews was like a nightmare,” she wrote. But after this, once again, she remained silent.

When asked why, time and again, Martens suppressed feelings that “were scarring her soul,” she has a hard time offering an answer. If she was so upset by these events, why did she not speak or act in accordance with her instincts?

“I tried to put it out of my mind,” she says.

If she heard anything that upset her, she says, she denied it or rationalized it. For the duration of the war, she continued to believe that concentration camps were internment camps “where you could live with your family,” such as the camps in the United States where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the war.

Martens chose denial until the final moments of the war, when it was clear the country that she was told was invincible was, in fact, losing. Her infallible “god” had lied. Suddenly, her family’s foremost concern was fleeing to the American-controlled part of Germany to avoid confrontation with the Soviet Army; she heard rumors that the Red Army was raping German women.

What followed were the hardships that come in the aftermath of war — her father lost his job, they had no money and many days were on the verge of starvation. “We traded every piece of porcelain, everything we had, we traded for food,” she tells me. “But then I felt like, that’s what we deserve. When you lost. You knew you were guilty, all the people around you, they were all guilty. And I kind of started hating the Germans a little bit.”

When Martens stood in line with her mother to get ration cards, she saw for the first time the arrival of a truck filled with liberated Jews from the camps. Martens was overcome: “My eyes met those of a Jewish girl about my age ahead of me in line who had a yellow star stitched to her sweater. We just stared at each other … she had the saddest look on her face.”

From that moment, Martens says she was determined to “cleanse herself of Nazism.” In Berlin, she had love affairs with two Mexican-American soldiers, the second of whom she married, convinced that falling in love with a minority not only would cleanse her of racism and bigotry but prove to the world she was no longer prejudiced. The marriage did not last, but it earned her passage to the United States and produced two children. It was in an effort to save her marriage that Martens, by then in her 30s, moved with her family from El Paso, Texas, to Los Angeles.

Ursula Martens (top row, right) poses with her family in a photo taken in Germany. Photo courtesy of Ursula Martens

 

The past was never far enough behind. One of the first things she did in her new city was visit the Museum of Tolerance. “I walked out so weak I nearly fainted,” she wrote of the experience.

But she was determined to confront what she’d done. Little by little, she began reading books about the Holocaust, studying what had really happened. She hated herself even more. Then she got a job in a clothing factory, working for a man named Aaron Gold — a Holocaust survivor. And she fell madly in love with him even though he was married.

At first, Martens was terrified to tell her Jewish employer she was German, but Gold introduced her to other Germans employed at the factory, which put her at ease. Before long, Martens and Gold were staying late at the factory together, so they could sit in Gold’s office and talk. Martens was impressed by his intelligence and success. She felt connected to him as they discussed their lives in Europe and where they had been during the war.

According to Martens, Gold was Czech and went into hiding with his sisters before joining the resistance. In her memoir, she describes Gold getting captured and tortured by the Gestapo, and how she felt when she first saw his scars. “I was so ashamed,” she wrote. “How had I been so crazy? How had a whole nation of Germans been so crazy?”

As their friendship deepened, Martens was forced to re-evaluate the choices and beliefs of her youth. Gold was the first Jew she ever got to know, and rather than discover any of the labels she attributed to Jews in her youth, she discovered instead that she admired and respected him.

They began a passionate affair, which she described in the book with drama and fatalism, the way a teenager might — no two people had ever loved each other more. They eventually broke things off when Gold’s wife became pregnant. But the experience of being loved by a Jew was life altering. “Perhaps clean is the best word,” Martens wrote. “The dirt had finally been washed away.”

But her words belie the struggle that remained. Even if some part of her was healed, she still sought redemption before God. Martens turned to the Founders Church of Religious Science, which exposed her to spirituality for the first time. Its teachings drew on the works of religious figures and thinkers as diverse as Moses, Augustine and Einstein. Excited by the intellectual possibilities the church provided, she became a devotee of the Agape Church. She shared her story with others. She consumed volumes of self-help literature and started to believe in God. “I had finally traded in ‘Mein Kampf’ as a bible for a real bible,” she wrote.

The most significant event of her later life, however, occurred when she befriended a Polish-born Jewish woman named Judith, whose daughter, Ruth, was born after the war in a displaced persons camp. One day, Ruth invited Martens to read a prayer at her son’s bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am. Martens was overwhelmed by the opportunity, not only to enter a Jewish house of prayer but to contribute to a sacred Jewish ritual. “I could not believe that a former Jew hater like me was going to be part of this age-old ceremony,” she wrote.

It was the first time Martens had ever entered a synagogue, and she says she felt a whirlwind of emotions. Martens was grateful that Ruth and her family had shown her kindness and mercy, despite her past, but she feared others would look at her and see only a Nazi. She was mesmerized by the beauty and stateliness of the synagogue. But she couldn’t avoid flashbacks to the war, “when synagogues had been burned by my fellow members of the Hitler Youth.” She said she felt joy at making this small repair — teshuvah — but she also felt shame.

For all the intellectual and spiritual renaissance she experienced, Martens continues to live with profound regret. She regrets the foolishness of her youth and her inability to think for herself; she regrets enabling a murderous tyrant in his domination scheme; she regrets the way she treated family members, especially her grandfather, who challenged her radicalism to no avail; and she regrets never confronting her father, whom she now thinks of as a war criminal.

Most of all, she says, she regrets that millions of Jews, a people she would later learn to esteem, were annihilated because of Nazis just like her.

“I will never get over the guilt,” she says.

Each day, when she lies down and when she rises, she says she feels 6 million souls gather around her like the wild birds on the wires, haunting her. Martens often uses the word “nightmare” to describe scenes in her life, but she does not speak in metaphor, she speaks in truth. Given the time she lived through, one can only imagine the terror of her dreams.

“I sit in the morning and eat my breakfast, and then I try to meditate, but it’s never meditating. It’s always going back and thinking, what could you do? Where did you fail? That’s always, always there.”

After several hours of talking, Martens grows quiet. She leans back in her chair, staring out past the darkened living room. The silence is palpable, as if she is wrestling with voices in her head. So much has changed. And so much hasn’t.

Finally, she asks, “Do you think a Holocaust survivor can ever get over what they’ve been through?”

Can we change the Swastika to mean something different?


Recently, I came across a commercial charging humanity to change the Nazi symbol into a symbol of peace by a T-shirt company called Teespring and KA Designs. They suggested this symbol we have come to know as a symbol which reflects hate, devastation, tragedy, and murder can be redesigned by repurposing it for a symbol of tranquility and love just by coloring it a multitude of pastel pink, green and blue colors and willing it so.

My first reaction to this suggestion was visceral. It was filled with pain and disgust. It felt like I was being manipulated versus inspired. I have learned that when I get that feeling that lives deep inside my gut, that feeling which tells me something is wrong or untrue, I should listen to it.

I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my negative reaction to this suggestion. After all am I not a self evolved person who has the ability to transform hatred into kindness if I wish it so? Am I not evolved enough to see this suggestion as a transformation versus a disfiguration? Is it really so bad that a group of folks want to redirect our thinking when seeing the Swastika to reflect peace versus hatred and murder? After all, the Nazis took an innocent Eastern symbol which originally meant “Good Fortune” in Hinduism and Buddhism, when turned clockwise, and twisted it to mean hatred and anti semitism.  Why can’t we turn this back around to a new meaning of peace and love? Isn’t it just a symbol, aren’t symbols what we choose to make them, and how we choose to give them meaning? Is it so radical to think we cannot rededicate the most radically perverted symbol in the world to mean something different- to mean love?

The way we communicate with one another is complex and nuanced. We use words, eye contact, gestures, body language and symbols to create tone and to tell our stories. Yes, a symbol is the meaning we dictate it. A symbol carries with it stories, lives, human narrative and communicates our deepest selves. A symbol showcases history and human connection. The suggestion that a symbol which stood for lives being broken, ended, gassed, burnt, wiped out and destroyed can suddenly be erased to mean something different is erasing the very stories affected by that symbol as well. We don’t transform ourselves because we change what that symbol means, we merely lose ourselves. Transformation is the ability to take something and change it, shift it, redesign it, not delete, obliterate or ERASE it.

The suggestion that the Swastika could represent love when it was designed to represent hatred is preposterous and not because of what it is asking from us, but because of what it is taking from  us. While I applaud those who want to switch the meaning, you cannot switch a meaning without erasing the first one. You are not asking us to transform, you are actually asking us to regress. By asking us to erase it’s original meaning, you are asking us to erase the stories that assembled because of and in spite of that symbol.

Essentially, you are asking us to forget. And that’s why my gut turned. Because you are asking too much. I imagine the Eastern originators of the Swastika symbol felt the same way- like their stories had been hijacked by a black cause that created suffering versus the enlightened meaning it was meant to inhabit. When the Nazis stole their symbol, they stole and erased their stories as well – just as you are asking to steal and erase ours.

You are insulting us by assuming evil could be erased. You are not asking us to redesign our thinking,  you are asking us to stop thinking, to stop communicating our stories and who we are because of- rather- in spite of that symbol. Because that symbol carries with it the stories of those times, and by erasing those stories, you erase those people, my people. You are asking us to forget them. You are asking us to discredit them.

A symbol carries the weight we associate to it. And in this case, it carries the stains that bleeds on it as well. If you want to change thinking, create a different symbol that carries with it a new weight and reflection of that communication of peace, don’t insult us to believe our stories associated with that horrid symbol can merely become erased just because we will it so.

The Nazis chose to steal this symbol. It was hijacked. It cannot be reinvented without hijacking the stories behind the symbol as well. You are asking us to have our truths stolen away, to have our history expunged, to have our records erased into oblivion. You are asking us to change the symbol’s meaning, which essentially pirates our stories just as the Nazi’s stole the originator’s stories.  The end doesn’t always justify the means. Changing the swastika meaning doesn’t change the result that occurs because the action is well intentioned. In this case, the result is  the feeling of having our narratives deleted, our truths and lives inconsequential all over again.

When healing from pain, we can’t negate it’s existence to become enlightened, we must acknowledge the pain first, then reposition ourselves around it, and redesign something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to reflect the lessons learned and the knowledge acquired out of the ashes. We don’t pretend the pain never existed by coloring it a pretty pink and willing it so.

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