Myrtle G. Sitowitz and grandson Emmett Sitowitz Seid at the B’nai Mitzvah Remembrance Wall. Photos by Eve Z. Sitowitz

Remembrance Wall connects B’nai Mitzvah kids to Holocaust, Israel


Myrtle G. Sitowitz always has had a special place in her heart for Israel.

She moved from England to the Holy Land in the 1960s, performed in the theater in Tel Aviv and met her Bronx-born husband there before immigrating with him to Los Angeles. When it was time for the bar mitzvah of her grandson, Emmett Sitowitz Seid, last month, she wanted to do something to keep her family connection to the Jewish state strong.

Sitowitz, who said she supports many organizations in Israel, learned about the Jewish National Fund-USA’s (JNF-USA) B’nai Mitzvah Remembrance Wall in Jerusalem’s American Independence Park. Constructed in the shape of a Torah scroll, the wall contains glass tiles of the names of bar and bat mitzvah teens from the Diaspora, the date of their celebration, their hometown and the name of a child who died in the Holocaust. Sitowitz said she wanted her grandson to have a place on the wall and help support the State of Israel.

“Not only was the bar mitzvah unbelievable,” said Sitowitz, who lives in Los Angeles, “but the B’nai Mitzvah Wall was tremendously emotional and meaningful.”

Sitowitz chose the name of a Holocaust victim, Salo Goldshtein, from Czernowitz, Romania, to be inscribed next to Emmett’s on the wall. Her mother was from Romania, and her father’s last name was Goldstein. “All those children that were killed in the Holocaust were very precious,” she said.

Emmett, who attends Windward School in Mar Vista, celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Kotel before making his way over to the JNF-USA wall on June 25. “I felt it was a great idea, and I was honored to be able to do it,” he said. “We can do something to be connected with people who were in the Holocaust and have them on live on.”

Emmett’s mom, Eve Sitowitz Seid, said the wall is a way for bar and bat mitzvah teens to understand the Holocaust on a deeper level. “The kids learn about it in more detail in sixth grade. To be able to participate and do something, anything, and remember it is pretty cool. It’s personal and allows you to get closer to it in that way.”

Max Levin, who lives in Los Angeles, came up with the idea of the wall as part of his bar mitzvah experience 12 years ago. He was visiting Israel with his parents, Judy and Bud, and they all stopped by the JNF offices in Jerusalem, where Max flipped through “Children’s Books of Honor,” listing the names of children as well as gifts given to Israel from European countries from 1901 to 1941. Most of the 300,000 boys and girls inscribed in the books were killed in the Holocaust.

“Max said, ‘I want to remember those children who never had an opportunity to be bar or bat mitzvahed,’ ” his mother said. “We put together the idea about wanting to create a permanent memorial for the lost children.”

Max, now 24, paid for the entire wall, which is about 10 feet tall and 25 feet wide, using money he received in gifts for his bar mitzvah. The plaques cost $1,800 each and money left over is used to send Israeli children to summer camps.

“The wall is a timeless opportunity for b’nai mitzvah kids to connect to Israel and the Holocaust.”

— Russell Robinson, CEO of JNF

“Max saw kids from all different parts of the spectrum of Israel going to camp,” said Russell Robinson, CEO of JNF. “We investigated and found out they were on scholarships. We decided to keep it in the story of the children.”

Since the wall was erected in 2006, teens have donated hundreds of plaques, according to Robinson. There is still room for another couple of hundred, and after it’s filled, the JNF plans to build another wall. “The wall is a timeless opportunity for b’nai mitzvah kids to connect to Israel and the Holocaust,” Robinson said.

Max certainly hasn’t forgotten. A dual citizen of Israel and the United States, he fought as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces. When he isn’t visiting Israel, he attends Columbia University in New York.

“We feel so good about the project we’ve done,” his mother said. “It’s not just our project. We’ve been able to share this with everyone because everyone can participate in it.”

Although his bar mitzvah and his trip to Israel are over, Emmett wants to continue helping. He said he is going to contribute at least 10 percent of his bar mitzvah money to JNF. “I’m very happy to be able to do something to help in any way.”

For his mother, the wall is one way to commemorate the Jews who perished and pass along a legacy to the next generation.

“When you go into to the B’nai Mitzvah Wall, which is so beautiful, you’re filled with bittersweet feelings because of the great loss that these poor innocent children suffered,” she said. “The world is suffering for not having them. But now, we are filling the world with strong, youthful and prideful Jews.”

Emmanuel Macron speaking at a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv Holocaust roundup in Paris on July 16. Photo by Kamil ZihnIoglu/AFP/Getty Images

6 reasons why Macron’s speech about the Holocaust in France was groundbreaking


It wasn’t the first time that a French president acknowledged his nation’s Holocaust-era guilt, but Emmanuel Macron’s speech Sunday was nonetheless groundbreaking in format, content and style.

Delivered during a ceremony at the Vel d’Hiv Holocaust memorial monument exactly 75 years after French police officers rounded up 13,152 Jews there for deportation to Nazi death camps, the 35-minute address was Macron’s first about the Holocaust since the centrist won the presidency in May.

Evocative and more forthright than any of the speeches on the subject delivered by Macron’s predecessors, his address “relieved the feeling of isolation” experienced by many Jews due to anti-Semitism today, according to Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, who leads the Liberal Jewish movement in France.

Macron’s speech “made me proud to be French and Jewish,” she said.

Here are six significant ways that the address differed from those of previous French presidents, including in scope; the unusual role played at the event by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; its references to present realities, and Macron’s emotional delivery.

Monsieur le Premier Ministre

It was the first time that an Israeli head of state attended the annual commemoration for the Vel d’Hiv deportations of July 16-17, 1942, named after the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium that used to stand near the monument.

Netanyahu was invited despite objections on Muslim websites, by the Communist Party  and the party of the far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon — although the invitation came from the CRIF federation of French Jewish communities and not by the Elysee Presidential Palace, as reported by some French media. The Elysee, which organized the event, did not object publicly to Netanyahu’s attendance and facilitated it.

The arrival of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in a motorcade whose limousines sported gold-fringed Israeli flags electrified the predominantly Jewish audience of 1,200 people. Holocaust survivors in their 80s and 90s approached the monument railing to catch a glimpse of the Israelis as others reacted with thunderous applause.

They oohed and applauded as Netanyahu delivered the first part of his speech in French, which he speaks with a thick accent and some errors, but understands without requiring translation. And they nodded as he urged Macron to stand with Israel and fight “the cancerous spread of militant Islam” and “hate that starts with the Jews but never ends there,” as Netanyahu defined it.

But their enthusiasm for Netanyahu was dwarfed by the deafening applause they gave Macron when he responded to Netanyahu.

Anti-Zionism and the reinvention of anti-Semitism

Addressing Netanyahu, Macron assured the Israeli leader and listeners that “we will continue our fight against terrorism and the worst kinds of fanaticism,” adding: “So yes, we will never surrender to the expressions of hatred; we will not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is a reinvention of anti-Semitism.”

Articulated in recent years by Emmanuel Valls, a former prime minister of France, Macron’s statement was the first time an incumbent president in France equated anti-Zionism – a fairly popular sentiment in France – with anti-Semitism. It triggered several emotional yelps from the audience and applause so vigorous, it caused the tarp strung up over the monument plaza for security reasons to vibrate.

There was another wave of applause when, unusually, Macron and Netanyahu hugged publicly after Netanyahu’s speech.

Deeper, farther

Much of Macron’s speech was devoted to establishing France’s complicity in the murder of 25 percent of its Jewish population during the Holocaust and deconstructing apologist views on the subject.

Speaking plainly and avoiding metaphors, Macron sounded less like a politician than a historian or a prosecutor who is committed to factual accuracy.

In the first admission of Holocaust culpability by a French president, Jacques Chirac in 1995 said that “Frenchmen, the French state assisted the criminal folly of the occupier,” resulting in a failure to uphold the nation’s values and an “irreparable crime.”

And Francois Hollande in 2012 said the roundups were a “crime committed in France, by France.”

But the Macron address delivered Sunday “was a precedent-setting speech that went deeper, on a pedagogic level, than addresses that preceded it by French presidents,” said Serge Klarsfeld, a historian and one of France’s leading researchers on the Holocaust.

Members of the audience listening to French President Emmanuel Macron near the Vel d’Hiv memorial in Paris, July 16, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

 

Macron’s speech was the first presidential address that named individual collaborators who helped the Nazis kill Jews, including René Bousquet, a police chief who was indicted for planning the Vel d’Hiv roundups, but died in 1993 before his trial.

“France organized the roundups,” Macron said. “Not a single German participated.” And so France “in almost every aspect organized the death” of the victims.

More jarringly to many French ears, he said the collaborationist Vichy government “was not replaced overnight” by the free French government that succeeded it after the country’s liberation in World War II.

“Ministers, civil servants, police officers, economy officials, unions, teachers” from the Vichy government were all incorporated into the Third Republic that replaced it, Macron said.

By touching on France’s perceived failure to purge itself of collaborators and their legacy, Macron differentiated himself from all of France’s presidents after Francois Mitterrand. Klarsfeld praised Macron for pointing out how Mitterrand and postwar leader Charles de Gaulle “remained silent on the historical truth” about collaboration “in favor of appeasement and reconciliation.”

Macron said he “does not judge” his predecessors who remained silent on the issue.

During his speech, Macron said “It is very convenient to view Vichy as a monstrosity, born of nothing and returned to nothing.” But it is “false. We cannot base any pride on a lie.” Rather than weaken the French nation, as argued by National Front politicians, admitting its guilt “opened the path to correcting” its faults, Macron said.

Refuting revisionists

Speaking about the Vichy puppet government, Macron deconstructed the main revisionist talking points put forward by the French far right led by the National Front party under Marine Le Pen. In April, Le Pen argued that the government’s actions in World War II do not represent France as a nation.

“I reject the attempts to absolve one’s conscious by those who claim Vichy wasn’t France,” Macron said. No other French president had said this in these terms.

L’affaire Halimi

Responding to repeated pleas by French Jews – including at the Vel d’Hiv event during a speech by CRIF President Francis Kalifat – Macron for the first time commented on the death of Sarah Halimi,

Halimi, a 66-year-old physician, was killed by a Muslim neighbor, Kobili Traore, who shouted about Allah before he killed her. Halimi’s daughter said that Traore had called her a “dirty Jew.” Yet in what CRIF considers a “cover-up,” the indictment filed against Traore last week does categorize the killing as a hate crime.

In his address, Netanyahu counted Halimi among other French Jews murdered in recent years by Islamists.

Macron replied: “Despite the denials of the murderer, the judiciary must as soon as possible provide maximum clarity on the death of Sarah Halimi.” Klarsfeld said it was a strong message that will “probably induce change” in how Traore is tried.

Emotion

A rational and analytical thinker with a background in banking and economics, Macron surprised many of his listeners with the apparent intensity of his intonation and body language during the speech.

“Above all, the speech was special for his palpable emotion,” Horvilleur said.

Vision

Like many others Horvilleur, the Liberal rabbi, was “deeply moved” by Macron’s remarks at the end of his speech about how the children deported from Vel d’Hiv informs how he views his role as president.

Children “who wanted to go to school, graduate, find work, start a family, read, watch a show, learn and travel,” he said. “I want to tell those children that France has not forgotten them. That she loves them. That their tragic fate demands of us never to give up to hate, rancor or despair.”

Paper cranes made by people from around the world decorate the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Shrine. Photo by Rob Eshman

In Hiroshima, thinking of North Korea


I spent my birthday in Hiroshima.

We didn’t plan it that way, it’s just where we happened to end up in the midst of a summer trip to Japan. It didn’t occur to me what it would mean, or how I would feel, to be celebrating my birthday in a restaurant at the foot of the Aioi Bridge.

The Enola Gay was aiming to drop Little Boy above the bridge, but missed by 800 feet. Instead, the world’s first atomic bomb used in combat exploded 1,900 feet over Shima Surgical Clinic on Aug. 6, 1945.

From Caffe Ponte, where we chased our pizza Margherita with sake shots, we could see the shattered remains of what had been the city’s Product Exhibition Hall, its skeleton now preserved as a memorial.

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine what the rest of Hiroshima looked like that day, because that afternoon we had visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

In a flash, the city was obliterated. About 150,000 people died, many in that instant, more from injuries and radiation poisoning. For miles around, the Exhibition Hall was one of only a few buildings left standing.


Left: Hiroshima, Japan, after the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the city, August 5, 1945. The standing building is now preserved as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Right: Genbaku Dome was the only building left standing near the hypocenter of the A-bomb’s blast. Every year, thousands gather at the iconic dome, now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Photo by Rob Eshman


If you’ve been to Holocaust museums and memorials, you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu visiting the one in Hiroshima. Yes, of course, the circumstances of destruction couldn’t be more different. But even so, we have a limited vocabulary for recalling carnage.

There are the relics of dead children — a charred tricycle, which a grief-stricken father buried alongside his 2-year-old son killed in the attack. There are the photos — of the fireball, of blackened bodies, of huddled survivors. There are the video testimonies of survivors — the woman who woke from a blinding flash to find her house had disappeared around her, leaving only her son and daughter behind, both dead. There is an Anne Frank whom kids can relate to — Sadako Sasaki, a girl whose diary became the basis for the book “One Thousand Paper Cranes.”

And there is the abiding theme of “Never Again,” in this case framed as an emphasis on nuclear disarmament.

But for humans, “Never Again” turns out to be a difficult ask.

Since the Holocaust, there have been many genocides. And 72 years after Hiroshima, the world is again on the brink of a potential nuclear conflict. Japan, hard as it is to believe, is again a potential ground zero.

Just as we were leaving Japan, on July 4, North Korea launched a KN-17 liquid-fueled missile that landed in the Sea of Japan, in the country’s exclusive economic zone where fishing and commercial vessels are active.

It was that nation’s first successful flight of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as North America. Experts say North Korea, which already has eight to 10 nuclear bombs, is a couple of years away from developing the technology to fit them on a warhead that could reach us. No one wants North Korea President Kim Jong Un to be able to do that.

“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory,” John Hersey wrote. “The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”

Hersey traveled the desolate city shortly after we dropped the bomb; his reporting became the basis for his masterful book, “Hiroshima.”

But he’s wrong, unfortunately. Of all the tools President Donald Trump has at his disposal to control North Korea’s weapons, sending Kim Jong Un to the Peace Museum may be the least effective.


A lone floutist plays on the banks of the Ota River, just at the foot of the Aioi Bridge, the initial target of the first atomic bomb.  Across from him is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  Video by Rob Eshman


As the Journal reported in a 2014 cover story, the concentration camps President Kim maintains around North Korea — where tens of thousands of dissidents are tortured, abused and executed — are not the work of a man who cares about anything but his own individual survival. His murder of Otto Warmbier last month is yet another demonstration of Kim’s insolent evil.

But what to do? If you haven’t read or heard any of the hundreds of pundits and experts weighing in on North Korea, let me cut to the chase: There’s no good option. That’s what they all conclude.

The three bad options are: 1) a preemptive strike obliterating the country’s weapons of mass destruction and taking out the regime; 2) a smaller “warning” strike; 3) more diplomacy and sanctions, to induce the Supreme Leader to compromise.

After running through the scenarios, all but a handful of experts end up on No. 3. Military options would provoke North Korea into launching devastating attacks on Japan and South Korea. Casualties could reach a million. I’m no expert, but I’ve now seen Tokyo at rush hour. It’s what they call a target-rich environment.

Little Boy was highly ineffective, using only 1.7 percent of its fissionable material. The power and number of bombs we have today would make the Korean Peninsula and Japan look like one endless Hiroshima.

If the people of Hiroshima were concerned about North Korea’s newest provocation — or the fact that their fate is in the hands of Donald Trump — they didn’t show it. The city thrums with energy. The malls are packed. Buzzed salarymen stroll from bar to bar, lovers embrace by the riverbanks, cars stream toward Mazda Stadium to see the Carp play another baseball game, and tourists line up for the famous okonomiyaki noodle cakes. It’s a river-crossed Phoenix of a city.

We crossed the Aioi Bridge on the way back from dinner, stopping at a memorial for the thousands of children killed in the blast. Never again? We’ll see.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

 

 

 

Saved by art: How one man’s skill got him through seven Nazi camps and the difficult years that followed


Kalman Aron is a prolific artist. Even during his internment at seven Nazi camps, he didn’t stop drawing — and his artwork saved his life.

“I probably have in Germany a hundred drawings, drawings of soldiers,” the 92-year-old artist said during a recent interview. “They wouldn’t pay me anything, but I would get a piece of bread, something to eat. Without that, I wouldn’t be here.”

Speaking in the living room of his modest Beverly Hills apartment, Aron was surrounded by his artwork, collected over decades. Paintings are stacked five and six deep against each wall, with more in his bedroom and even more in a basement storeroom.

Aron immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949 and built a life, a career and a circle of friends. They were artists and musicians. Now, apart from his wife and a part-time caretaker, it’s his paintings that keep him company.

“I don’t have anybody to talk with,” he said. “All my friends are gone. I had probably 15 friends. They were much older than me. I was the youngest one. And then suddenly, nobody here. I have drawings of them. A lot of drawings in the back there. Filled that room downstairs, filled up completely.”

Aron was born with a preternatural talent for portraiture. At 3, he was drawing likenesses of family friends in Riga, Latvia. At 7, he had a one-man show at a local gallery. At 13, he won a commission to paint the prime minister of Latvia. He was 16 years old and a student at Riga’s art academy in 1941 when the Germans occupied the country.

Seven camps, four marriages and nearly 80 years later, he’s proven to be a resourceful and dogged survivor. In the long and circuitous course of his life, art and survival have gone hand in hand.

Kalman Aron in his Beverly Hills apartment in June. Photo by Tess Cutler

It began in the ghetto in Riga, when he did a pencil drawing of a guard and showed it to him. The guard liked it enough to spread the word about his talent. The formula repeated itself over and over in the coming years of persecution and hardship.

Still, for a Jew to have writing materials in the camps was considered a risk, so German troops who wanted a likeness would hide him in a locked barrack while he drew them or worked from a photograph to draw their relatives.

“Once I did a portrait and other people liked it, they would do the same thing: lock me in the room, not let me out,” he said.

Aron managed to leverage his skill anywhere he spent a significant amount of time, particularly the Riga ghetto and the labor camps of Poperwahlen in Latvia and Rehmsdorf in Germany. In each place, he attracted a clientele of rank-and-file soldiers and high-ranking officers who rewarded him with scraps of food and pulled him out of hard labor.

What seems like lifetimes later, he believes painting still keeps him alive today.

“Friends of mine, they get old and they don’t know what to do, and they die of boredom,” he said in his dining room, his eyes widening with intensity. “Boredom! And I’ll never die of boredom, as long as I have a piece of paper.”

‘Mother and Child’

Decades before he spoke openly about what he saw during the Holocaust, Aron painted it.

Until 1994, when he was interviewed by the USC Shoah Foundation, he tended not to describe what he had seen. But during those long decades of silence, he produced a number of artworks — in oil, watercolor, pastel and charcoal — depicting his memories of that trying time.

“Mother and Child” (1951), pastel on paper on a board

There was Aron at the head of a line of inmates on a forced march. There was Aron at Buchenwald, sleeping outside with a rock for a pillow. There were haggard portraits of fellow inmates.

But the most well-known of these paintings is “Mother and Child,” which now hangs in the lobby of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Aron moved to Los Angeles in 1949 with a young wife, $4 in his pocket and zero English proficiency after finishing art school in Vienna. In 1951, he had a job illustrating maps in Glendale when one day, he decided to glue two city maps to a board to create an 8-foot-tall canvas.

He brought home the oversized sheet, and after four or five nights of laboring past midnight, he finished a pastel, showing a scene he had witnessed many times in the camps: a mother clutching her child tightly to her face, as if they were one, bound together no matter what abuse they might have to face.

As he worked on the painting, he recalled, “I wasn’t feeling. I saw it happening.”

He went on, “I just said, ‘I’m going to put it on paper.’ I wanted to draw them. That’s why.”

“Mother and Child” sat in his studio for nearly 60 years as he found himself unable to part with it, the glue he used to create the canvas bleeding slowly through the paper to create a brownish tint. Today, it is considered one of his masterpieces.

At the time he painted it, Aron was unable to put his trauma into words. During his later Shoah Foundation interview, as a videographer switched tapes, Aron chatted with the interviewer, a fellow survivor, apparently unaware that audio still was being recorded, and described his difficulty.

“About 30 years ago, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. I would choke up if I did it. I’m fine now.”

Sherri Jacobs, an art therapist outside Kansas City, Mo., told the Journal that art sometimes enables survivors of trauma to express what they otherwise could not. Jacobs has conducted an art therapy workshop at a Jewish retirement home near Kansas City for 15 years, working with many Holocaust survivors. Though they rarely paint explicitly about their Holocaust experience, as Aron has, creative expression nonetheless helps put shape and form to their trauma, she said.

“They can express things in a metaphorical way,” she said, “in a way that it’s leaving their mind, leaving their body and going on paper.”

Painting men and monsters

Drawing in the camps, Aron said he was not thinking of his hatred or fear of his subjects — only of surviving.

In Poperwahlen, for instance, the camp commandant gave Aron a photograph of his parents and ordered him to draw a miniature that could fit in a locket mounted on a ring.

Aron had seen Jews randomly beaten or shot by guards at the camp. More than anything, he was thinking about his own survival  as the commandant locked him in a barrack with a pencil and paper.

“I mean, in my head is, ‘Am I going to be alive tomorrow?’ ” Aron said in his apartment nearly eight decades later. “Watching them killing the Jews was terrible, terrible, terrible. I have very bad nights sleeping here.”

The task could have taken him two days, he said. But he stretched it over more than a week for the exemption it afforded him from back-breaking labor.

It’s difficult for Aron to estimate how many portraits he drew. He knew only that the same interaction repeated itself many times with Nazi troops.

“Wherever I was, I made sure I had a piece of paper and pencil,” he said.

As the months passed, he parlayed his skill into gaining more materials, piecing together a sheaf of drawings that he carried with him. Observing his assured manner and his materials, camp guards mostly left him alone.

“When they saw that, they knew, ‘Don’t touch this guy, he’s doing something for us,’ ” he said.

By the end of the war, his skill accounted for perhaps an extra 5 pounds on his skeletal frame, he told the Shoah Foundation interviewer — a small but critical difference.

“There also were people that were tailors and shoemakers,” he said in 1994. “They would also get fed much better. They were indoors. They would sew, you know. These are the kind of people that had more of a chance of survival than a guy who was digging ditches.”

Reclaiming a world of light and color

Jacobs, the art therapist, said understanding Holocaust survivors as the product of a single experience can be misleading, traumatic though it may have been. And in trying to understand Aron through his art, putting the Holocaust constantly front and center would indeed be a mistake.

Of the hundreds of paintings that line his apartment, relatively few deal with the Holocaust. More often, they are landscapes of the places he’s visited, views from his balcony looking out at downtown L.A. and portraits of the women he’s loved. Prominently displayed is a 2006 oil portrait of Miriam Sandoval Aron, his fourth and current wife, straight-backed, wearing a baseball cap during their honeymoon in Hawaii.

His earliest landscapes in Los Angeles are often devoid of color: A rambling house in Bunker Hill is rendered in shades of gray with no sign of life; a monochromatic landscape of Silver Lake shows not a single inhabitant. But soon enough, he took to painting colorful tableaus of the city at various times of day.

Eventually, he made enough money to rent a West Hollywood studio with high ceilings and northern light, where he hosted parties that lasted until sunrise. Over the years, his art has been exhibited at several museums and galleries, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Art Association and the Seattle Art Museum. He has painted a number of celebrities and public figures, including novelist Henry Miller, pianist and composer André Previn and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California.

For months at a time, he traveled through North America and Western Europe — though never to Germany — stopping whenever he was moved to paint.

His third wife, Tanis Furst, described one such incident to author Susan Beilby Magee for “Into the Light: The Healing Light of Kalman Aron” (2012), a book of Aron’s art, framed by interviews with the artist.

In 1969, driving through Montreal during a trip across Canada, Aron pulled over in a rundown part of town to paint a house where a woman lived with dozens of cats.

“This happened all the time on this trip,” Furst said. “He would drive along and stop: ‘Gotta paint that.’ We had a lot of fun.”

A short while later, Aron’s only son David was born.

“I was a very happy guy when my son was born,” he says in the book. “In fact, it was the happiest day of my life.”

Telling his story

Even in 2003, when Magee first set out to write “Into the Light,” she said she found Aron profoundly ambivalent about telling his story of sorrow and survival.

In an interview with the Journal, Magee said that while part of Aron seemed to be saying “It’s time to tell, the pain of not remembering is greater than the pain of remembering;” another voice was telling him “You survived because you were invisible; do not tell your story; do not be seen; to be seen is to be killed.”

Magee had spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., working in government, before quitting in the late 1980s to pursue hypnotherapy, meditation and energy healing. One thing she was not was a writer.

But that didn’t deter Aron. Sitting down for lunch in Palm Springs in 2003 with Magee and her mother, one of his earliest and most ardent patrons, he suddenly fixed upon Magee with his blue-eyed gaze.

“Completely out of the blue,” she recalled, “he turns to me and says, ‘Susan, will you write my story?’ He is a highly intuitive man, and somehow he knew he could trust me to do it.”

“Self Portrait” (1954); “Self Portrait” (1967), oil on canvas; “Self Portrait” (1994), oil on foam core

Although he had produced numerous paintings dealing with the Holocaust, he had been hesitant to speak about it, even with those closest to him.

“Kalman shared some things about his family and the Holocaust, but not in a great deal of detail,” Furst says in the book.

Nonetheless, after his 2003 encounter with Magee, he consented to 18 hours of interviews with her. Later, she traveled to Europe to retrace his steps. Nine years after she set out, the book was published, with a release party at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Recently, Aron agreed to be featured in an upcoming documentary about his life and art, backed by television producer Norman Lear.

“We’re going for the Oscar on this thing, and you can quote me on that,” said Edward Lozzi, Aron’s longtime publicist who introduced him to the documentary’s director and executive producer, Steven C. Barber.

Aron said he hopes the extra publicity will help him sell paintings and pay rent, which even at his advanced age continues to be a concern. But in general, he’s content to sit at home and paint.

Though Aron sometimes struggles to remember words and names, he remains spirited enough, painting for hours each day and eagerly engaging visitors in conversation. “I can manage six languages,” he said. “But I can’t remember people’s names.”

Magee said she believes that through telling his story, Aron has at long last found peace.

“His willingness to tell his story — to finally remember after suppressing it all those years — gave him that freedom to paint for the joy of it,” Magee said.

These days, his paintings are mainly non-objective rather than representative.

“I used to go to the park,” he said, sitting in an airy corner of his apartment, next to the kitchen, where he keeps his home studio. “I used to meet people. Now, I’m not allowed to drive at my age. So I’m here all the time.”

Lacking subjects for portraiture, Aron paints sheet after sheet of shapes and colors.

“I enjoy the design, the design,” he said, holding up a recent painting, a set of undulating neon waves. “Movement, movement. This moves, it doesn’t stay still.”

Aron considers himself lucky to have a gift and a passion that keeps him occupied into his old age.

“My situation may be a little bit better than some people who came out of the camps,” he told Magee during their interviews. “They may have nothing else to do but watch television and think about those bad days in the camps. I did that in the beginning, but I got away from thinking about it by doing portraits, landscapes, traveling and painting. I think that kept me away from all this agony of ‘How did I survive?’ or ‘Why did I survive?’

“I did, and that’s it.” 

A flower is placed by next to the name of a former concentration camp inside the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem on April 24. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

The German and the Israeli


I’m not sure how to view what happened at lunch today. Coincidence? Serendipity? Or “bashert”, the Yiddish word that means “meant to be”.

I know several now-middle-aged Germans who never met a Jew until, as adults, they traveled outside their country. Nearly twenty years ago, one such German was my seatmate on a long, delayed trans-Atlantic flight. Andreas, from Cologne, was happy when I mentioned that my mother was born in Germany; his expression, however, turned somber when I explained that we’re Jewish, and she and most of the rest of her family managed to escape their “heimat”, or homeland, in the years after Hitler came to power. Other relatives, of course, were not so lucky.

Whenever I meet young Germans, here or during my four trips to that country, I do my best to make relevant and real what seems like ancient history to them. We ended up speaking for hours about my family’s experience in the Holocaust and his family’s actions during the Third Reich. Although he knew neither Jews nor Shoah survivors, he was surprisingly sensitive to my stories and clearly moved by them.

Andreas and I became friends on that flight, and have stayed in touch since then. I visited him once in Cologne, and he’s visited me at my home in New York, where he travels every year for business.

He was in town this week, and we went to lunch at a pleasant Long Island restaurant overlooking a pond. The conversation inevitably turned to politics and history, and we discussed whether there is any basis for comparing America’s current leader to Germany’s long-dead Fuehrer. We spoke about his two sons, ages 14 and 11, and what they know of Germany’s history.

After we finished eating, we went outside to the restaurant’s balcony to take some pictures with the spring scenery. We were alone for a couple of minutes until an elderly white-haired woman stepped outside and asked us if it was OK to smoke there. I said I had no idea, and she apologized, saying she’d mistakenly thought we were restaurant employees. By that time I’d recognized her accent, and asked in Hebrew, “You’re Israeli, right?”

She was surprised, but laughed and confirmed my hunch. Continuing in Hebrew, I asked if she’d been born there. Again, laughter, and the response “What, you want to know my whole complicated life story?”

Well, I answered, I’m a reporter, and yes. Go right ahead! After she spoke for two minutes in Hebrew, I stopped her and said (in Hebrew), please repeat that in English, as I want my friend, a non-Jewish German, to hear this.

So Maya told us how she was born in Tel Aviv in 1938, but the following year, her parents inexplicably decided to return to Europe, where they’d been born, with her and her eight-year-old brother. To their horror, they soon were entangled in the Nazi web, fleeing from place to place, country to country, hiding in forests, being caught and escaping detention… all in all, a typical Holocaust survivor’s story (if it can even be said that there is such a thing). Maya only remembered the last, frantic years of the saga clearly, from ages four to six; she discovered the rest of the details years later from her parents and brother.

“And then”, she concluded, “we finally returned to Tel Aviv from Europe after the war ended, and we were all almost killed in a huge explosion. We made it into the shelter in the nick of time”.

With that, Maya said she had to get back to her friends, having decided to forego her smoking break for our entirely unexpected chat.

She went inside, and I turned to Andreas. He looked stunned, his eyes wide with astonishment at what he had seen and heard over the previous five minutes. I had to smile. “This is not exactly the kind of unplanned conversation you might have with a stranger in Deutschland, is it?”, I said. “In fact, I guess this is the first time you’ve actually met someone who survived the Holocaust”.

Andreas nodded. “You know”, he said slowly, shaking his head in disbelief, “I was thinking the most interesting thing I would tell my kids next week was about the 35-mile bike tour I took from Jersey City. But now I have a very different story to share with them.”

Nirit Bialer, an Israeli expat, speaks with seventh-graders in Berlin as part of the “Rent A Jew” program. Photo by Gregor Zielke

For questions about Jews, just ‘rent’ one for answers


The subject sat there, surrounded by 23 nursing students from the School of Health and Healthcare at the Alexianer St. Hedwig Hospital in the former Jewish quarter of eastern Berlin. They examined her as if she were an endangered species, ready to be dissected. Some had never encountered such an organism before. After all, in Germany, her type had been endangered for some time.

The center of curiosity was Juna Grossman, a 40-year-old Jewish woman born in the former East Berlin. Her grandparents survived the Holocaust, saved by a German family who hid them in southern Germany. With her long, dirty-blond braids and hazel eyes, she sat there, smiling and patient, ready to take questions, as a Jew “rented out” through a German-Jewish program called Rent a Jew.

With its controversial name, Rent a Jew both objectifies and at the same time humanizes what for many young Germans is a novelty: a living, modern Jewish person.

“It’s a bit ironic, but we thought we would embrace the irony in the situation,” said Alexander Rasumny, coordinator of Rent a Jew.

The name, he said, is a provocative description of a speaking bureau of Jews from all walks of German life who are available to German schools and institutions to educate non-Jews about Judaism and to dispel stereotypes and prejudices that have been linked to Jews for centuries.

“We were thinking how to try to change the image of Jews in Germany for the better, and we thought direct contact is the best way to do that,” Rasumny said.

Rasumny co-founded Rent a Jew in 2015 while working as a project manager for the European Janusz Korczak Academy, a Munich-based partner of the Jewish Agency for Israel that seeks to reinforce Jewish identity in German-speaking countries. Rent a Jew has conducted more than 30 sessions across Germany. The 50 to 60 Jewish participants represent a cross section of the German-Jewish population and undergo a screening and training process.

The Rent a Jew website explains its rationale this way: “Talk to us, not about us. We don’t give lectures on Jewish history or religion as experts but talk about what it’s like for us to be a Jew in Germany. Above all, we encourage people to ask questions and yes, voice those stereotypes like: Are all Jews rich? Do they control the media? Or are they really the chosen people? Most importantly, people can talk with Jews instead of only talking about them.”

Rent-A-Jew

Photo by Orit Arfa

Rent a Jew is not the first effort to market Jews playfully as a product. A 2013 exhibition on Judaism at the Jewish Museum in Berlin drew criticism when it exhibited “Jew in a Box,” in which alternating Jews sat in a display case to field questions from the public.

Dani Kranz, a Cologne-based anthropologist and expert in Israeli migration to Germany, applauds such tongue-in-cheek attempts to educate Germans about contemporary Jews and Judaism.

“I would say the mere attempt to represent oneself, to take charge, and to communicate as an individual Jew and individual human being is direly needed because Jews are exoticized,” Kranz said. “In some respects, it’s painful to see because it makes the assumed difference between Jews and non-Jews blatantly clear, but it should be addressed.”

And not only for Jews. Kranz, a German-born Jew, said the Arabs and Muslims in her social circle also encounter prejudices and misconceptions.

“There should also be a program for Rent a Muslim or Rent a Palestinian,” she said, although she conceded that the Shoah makes some Germans believe they must handle Jews with special gloves.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, half a million Jews lived in Germany, more than 150,000 of them in Berlin. While the 500,000 accounted for less than 1 percent of the country’s population at the time, many stood out as leaders in academia, banking, media, industry and business. Early 20th-century Berlin was home to some of Jewry’s leading minds, including Albert Einstein, philosopher Martin Buber and scholar Gershom Scholem. They built on a Jewish-German intellectual tradition started in the 18th century by celebrated philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

After the Nazi atrocities of World War II, fewer than 20,000 Jews remained in Germany, about 8,000 in Berlin. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the country’s Jewish population had grown to nearly 30,000.

After Germany’s official reunification in 1990, the new government welcomed Jews from the former Soviet Union to re-establish the community Hitler had decimated. Russian immigrants and their children, such as Rasumny, form the bulk of Germany’s Jewish population, which today stands at more than 100,000 — maybe as many as 200,000. (Precise numbers are elusive because the German government does not require citizens to reveal their religious affiliation, and the dogged question of “Who is a Jew?” further complicates an accurate count.)

According to Grossman, the Jew who visited the nursing students at Alexianer last month, most German students today do not learn the full history of Jewish life in Germany and, instead, focus on the attempted Nazi genocide.

“When you ask Germans what they think when they think of ‘Jews,’ you always have the Holocaust or the typical ‘black-hat Jew,’ ” Grossman told the Journal before her talk at the hospital. “That’s not the reality, is it?”

She said she believes Holocaust education is diminishing in some German curricula as instruction about this time period competes with that of the Cold War era.

Born under communism, which suppressed religious practice, Grossman “returned” to Judaism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, studying at the historic Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in the former East Berlin, led by a female rabbi and best known for its restored golden dome.

As a program speaker and blogger on Jewish life in Germany, Grossman invites questions from German students that don’t dwell on the Holocaust. In fact, she said, she looks forward to when the Holocaust plays less of a role in Jewish identity and perceptions in Germany so she can feel the ease and normalcy she felt as a Jew living in Boston for several years.

“Here, when you meet somebody not Jewish and you ‘out’ yourself as being Jewish, you get reactions like: ‘Oops, how do I behave now?’ ” she said. “It’s a strange glaze in the eyes, and sometimes they say something about their grandparents.”

Julia Engelhardt, a nursing instructor at Alexianer, heard about Rent a Jew on German television and immediately decided to try it for a class on world religions.

“We thought it would be good for them to know things they should or shouldn’t do if they have Jewish patients,” Engelhardt said before the class with Grossman.

Grossman began her session with an introduction about her German-Jewish background. Across from her on the wall was a statuette of Jesus on the cross; to her left, a model skeleton.

Students slowly raised their hands to ask questions about Jewish life and death, unrelated to the actual life and death of Jewry in the neighborhood of the hospital — a former Jewish quarter, something most students did not know.

Just a few blocks away, on Grosse Hamburger Street, is the memorial site for the Jewish Home for the Aging that the Nazis converted to an assembly camp for deporting 55,000 Berlin Jews. Behind it is the Jewish cemetery that dates back to 1672, where Mendelssohn was buried.

The class included some foreign students, including one from Poland who asked: “What do Jews do when someone dies?” Grossman explained burial and shivah mourning rituals.

“Why do Jews step on a glass cup at a Jewish wedding?” asked an African student. Grossman explained it commemorates the destruction of the Temple.

Grossman’s favorite question came from a German man to her left: “Do Jews believe in an afterlife?” She explained that Judaism differs from Christianity in its lack of emphasis on heaven and hell, although the student said he is comforted by the idea of a paradise in the next world.

“I liked it the most, as he was very respectful and just accepting my other view on things,” Grossman told the Journal. “That’s not really common for Christians, I mean for real active ones. Usually, they seek to convince you of their belief.”

Not all Rent a Jew sessions run so smoothly.

Nirit Bialer, founder of Habait (The Home), a Berlin-based organization that seeks to expose Germans to Israeli culture, was taken aback by some of the stereotypes and misconceptions she encountered from a seventh-grade class at a school in Neukölln, a Berlin district with a large immigrant population.

“There were a lot of kids there with Muslim backgrounds, kids with parents coming in from the Middle East,” Bialer said. “That was a different experience. A lot of politics involved; people confused ideas about Judaism, Israel. Everything was intermingled together. There were many facts they were not sure about.”

She recalled how one student asked if Hitler and the Zionists worked together, while another asked what the Palestinians did so wrong to the Jews.

“It was not an easy situation for me personally, since you are being pulled into the Middle East conflict when trying to talk to a class about Judaism,” Bialer said.

Her previous Rent a Jew appearance had occurred at an adult education class in which participants — curiously and courteously, she said — asked about her experience living in Berlin as an Israeli. Bialer represents a relatively new but significant component of Jewish life in Germany: Israeli expats, although the number of them living in Berlin is difficult to determine. Estimates range from 7,000 to 20,000.

The turning point during the Neukölln session came when her fellow “rented” Jew, a Russian-born woman named Esther Knochenhauer, told the class that she works as a booking agent for German rappers.

“Some of the kids that were talking to her were like, ‘Wow. That’s a cool Jewish girl.’ ”

That’s when the ice broke and the class’ Jewish visitors truly were humanized.

Esther Knochenhauer, a Russian-born Jew who accompanied Nirit Bialer on her school visit in Berlin, writes on the classroom chalkboard. Photo by Gregor Zielke

Increasingly, the Rent a Jew program is bringing knowledge of Judaism to a population generally untouched by the Shoah: first generation and nonnative Germans.

“The students in Neukölln, now, demonstrated a pattern of seeing Jews only through the lens of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is not uncommon in migrant communities, particularly with an Arabic, but also Turkish, background,” Rent a Jew coordinator Rasumny said.

These communities initially encounter anti-Jewish and anti-Israel propaganda at home, through Arab-language television or Islamic and Turkish nationalist youth organizations.

“So we have to reach them while they’re in the school and at least somewhat open to arguments,” Rasumny said. “The same goes for students who grow up in households with parents holding populist or far-right views. The number of such households should not be underestimated. And, of course, there also is a very distinct left-wing anti-Semitism, which is mostly Israel-related.”

A recent report from the German parliament found that 40 percent of Germans hold anti-Semitic views expressed by hostility toward the Jewish state. Most program participants, however, as with the Alexianer students, were apolitical and limited in knowledge.

Nursing students Elise Senst and Kate Kalhol, both 21, said they came out of the Alexianer session feeling intellectually enriched.

Both grew up in Brandenburg, one of Germany’s 16 federal states, on the outskirts of Berlin, and neither has Jewish friends. At first, they were confused by the program’s name, Rent a Jew. Kalhol had been to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, while Senst received general knowledge of Judaism as a youth. As third-generation Germans from the Nazi era, the Holocaust is not necessarily their immediate association with Jews.

“In my circle of friends, it [the Holocaust] is not even there,” Senst said, although her grandmother lived through the Nazi period and told her stories of Jews fleeing. “I have a couple of friends who did social work in Israel, but they didn’t go because of the Holocaust and that part of German history, but for the country itself. It’s there. We can’t forget about it, but it’s not on top anymore.”

Senst was most surprised to learn that Jewish identity is not dependent on belief in God, as Christianity is.

“I really enjoyed the communication, but the strange thing to me is that if you decided to believe in the Jewish religion, that all the following generations will be Jewish even if they don’t believe in it,” Senst said.

Kalhol said she is inclined to separate Judaism from Israel, while Senst associates Israel with the Jewish people. By showcasing both Israeli and Diaspora Jews, Rent a Jew seeks to discuss the distinction between Judaism as a religious identity and a national one.

“If I meet an Israeli, I’m going to ask what the country’s like, what life is like there, maybe I would also ask if he’s Jewish or what kind of religion he belongs to, but that’s another stereotype,” Kalhol said.

At Alexianer, Engelhardt, the nursing instructor, said she was pleased with the program, especially for clarifying differences between Jewish rituals and practices and those of other religions.

“For example, Juna [Grossman] said that if a Jew dies, don’t lay their hands like a cross the way Christians do, and this is a kind of sensitivity you could have also with other religions,” she said.

Engelhardt said Alexianer will be a repeat customer. She already has booked Grossman again, proving that the name of the program can succeed in challenging another stereotype: Jewish greed.

Rent a Jew Jews are “rented” for free.

Top of the front page of the June 8, 1967, edition of Heritage. Photo courtesy of Tom Tugend

Los Angeles rallied around Israel in ’67


“Pray for Israel — Act for Israel”

That was the fervent banner headline I splashed across the front page of Heritage, a small Jewish weekly in Los Angeles, on Monday, June 5, 1967.

The time was 8 p.m. in the Middle East, but only 10 a.m. in Los Angeles. As I drove to the paper’s printing plant in Culver City, the car radio blasted news of Arab boasts that their forces were about to take Tel Aviv and throw the trembling Zionists into the sea.

Normally, I would have been at my regular job as a science writer at UCLA, but Herb Brin, the editor, circulation manager, advertising director and everything else at Heritage, had left a week earlier on a press trip to Israel and had asked me to fill in, reading the page proofs of the week’s edition.

I threw out whatever bar mitzvah extravaganza was gracing the front page and, at a fever pitch, wrote about the catastrophe again facing the Jewish people, a scant 22 years after the end of the Holocaust, and implored readers to rally around the defenders of the Jewish state.

The paper was delivered to its readers on Friday, June 9. By that time, of course, the world knew that Israeli forces had won a stunning victory. So quickly had events moved that my stirring headline of four days earlier already had the feel of ancient history.

Two weeks later, I looked back on that tumultuous month and wrote, “The three weeks — from the beginning of the crisis to the final cease fire — were one of those rare periods of total emotional immersion which a man remembers to his dying day.

“Who will forget the midnight calls, the morning and evening emergency meetings, the knuckle-cracking hours glued to the radio and the TV screen, the committee resolutions that were outpaced by events as soon as they were passed, the stomach-knotting hours and days waiting for a telegram from relatives in Israel?”

Besides changing the map and power balance of the region, Israel’s victory had a profound psychological impact on American Jews — and how they were viewed by their gentile countrymen — even exceeding the impact of the 1948 war that secured the independence of Israel.

In 1967, the American Jewish community, molded for decades by a “don’t make waves” mentality — which shamefully persisted throughout the Holocaust — finally found its voice. Not only a voice, but the communal body stiffened its collective spine, stopped worrying about accusations of dual loyalty and pitched in as all Americans did after Pearl Harbor.

Young Jews, who were ardently protesting against the United States’ role in the Vietnam War, clamored to go to Israel to join the fighting or work the land. Academicians and intellectuals, usually busy concentrating on their research, joined mass demonstrations. Israel-related agencies were besieged by thousands of instant donors — the wealthy waving million-dollar checks, the poorer hocking valuables or taking out loans to make their contributions.

To their surprise, even timorous Jews discovered that the great majority of their countrymen, whose prevalent anti-Semitism had only been spurred by Jewish success in medicine, the arts and commerce, now expressed unbounded admiration that the Jews in Israel could fight and win against all odds.

While past generations of American (and European) Jews had sought assimilation and defense against anti-Semitism, the “new” Jew accepted that the fates of Israel and Diaspora Jews were inevitably linked and that the Jewish state was the only guarantor against a future Holocaust.

Jokes at the time had it that the Pentagon had asked Gen. Moshe Dayan, leader of the Israeli armed forces, for advice on how to win the Vietnam War.

Time and Life, two of the most influential American magazines at the time, had followed a pro-Arab line for years but now swung to the Israeli side (the death of founder and publisher Henry Luce three months earlier may have played a role in the changed stance).

And Los Angeles Jews joined their co-religionists across the country in actions large and small.

A hastily organized community rally was held June 11 at the Hollywood Bowl, drawing 20,000 people as well as 4,000 pledges of large and small gifts. In attendance were California Gov. Ronald Reagan, U.S. Sen. George Murphy, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and dozens of Hollywood celebrities, such as Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye and Carl Reiner.

The board of directors of the Hillcrest Country Club, founded by and for Jews, mandated that every member had to contribute to the United Jewish Appeal’s Israel Emergency Fund.

At UCLA, some 1,000 students attended a vigil and 200 signed up for volunteer service in Israel. Jews flocked to synagogues in unprecedented numbers. With minor variations, similar responses took place in every major American city.

One of my favorite 1967 war anecdotes revolved around Mike Elkins, at various times a Hollywood scriptwriter, an Office of Strategic Services operator during World War II and a labor union organizer.

Barbra Streisand
and Eva Marie Saint at the rally for Israel at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo courtesy of Barbra Streisand Archives

I met Mike in 1948, when I was attending UC Berkeley, and looking for some way to get to the newly established State of Israel and join the fighting. Someone advised me to contact Elkins, then a business agent for the butchers’ union in San Francisco. I walked into his office unannounced and told him I wanted him to get me to Israel to participate in the War of Independence.

Elkins blanched, told me he had set up an elaborate vetting and security system to keep American authorities from discovering his then-highly illegal activity, and here I had just walked in.

In any case, he found it prudent to leave the United States for Israel later in 1948 and, after a year on a kibbutz, found a job as a stringer for the BBC and other media outlets.

On June 5, 1967, Elkins went to the Knesset and ran into a knot of highly excited politicians, from whom Elkins gathered that Israeli fighter planes already had wiped out the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Elkins immediately phoned his BBC editor in London and announced, “Israel has won the war.”

The flabbergasted editor thought that Elkins had lost his mind. Cairo, Damascus and Amman were transmitting a string of bulletins previewing the utter defeat of the Zionist entity.

Elkins, however, stuck to his guns. The BBC editor finally gave in but warned Elkins that if he were proven wrong, this would be his last day as a BBC correspondent.

Mike Elkins kept his job and lived and died in Jerusalem.

Joy Rieger (left) and Nelly Tagar co-star in “Past Life.” Photo courtesy of TIFF

Holocaust is passed down and always present in ‘Past Life’


The parents ate sour grapes and the children have rotten teeth.”

That line from the film “Past Life” summarizes the story’s exploration of the Holocaust’s effect on subsequent generations.

The movie is the first in a trilogy planned by writer-director Avi Nesher, one of Israel’s foremost filmmakers. “The other two stories also deal with the way the past affects the present, true to the Faulkner quote, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Both stories also feature complex relationships between parents and children — an arena where the past plays a particularly important part,” Nesher said in a recent interview.

The film is based on the book “Can Heaven Be Void?” by Holocaust survivor Baruch Milch, one of the movie’s main characters (played by Doron Tavory). Nesher also used information supplied by Milch’s daughter, Ella Milch-Sheriff, a renowned musician and composer, who contributed to the film’s haunting score.

As the movie begins, it is 1977, and Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger), the role based on Milch-Sheriff, is a vocal soloist at a concert in West Berlin. During the reception that follows, a much older woman (Katarzyna Gniewkowska) accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. The woman is with her son (Rafael Stachowiak), a famous composer, who apologizes, saying his mother had a hard time during World War II.

The incident sets a series of events in motion, as the sensitive Sephi and her hard-nosed sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar), begin a quest to uncover painful secrets about their father’s past, especially about what he did while hiding from the Nazis in Poland. Their investigation and what they uncover could well cause a cataclysm in their family. An aura of suspense accompanies the twists and turns of revelations from a dark history.

As the son of Holocaust survivors himself, Nesher said he relates to the story. He explained why he tackled this subject.

“I feel that I live in a country which is trapped in its past and, most particularly, in its traumas,” the director said. “Israel is an extraordinary nation, which has [had] incredible achievements in its 69 years of existence, and yet the trauma of the Holocaust is still used by Israeli politicians in order to justify political maneuvers that do not necessarily serve the greater Israeli good. National traumas [such as slavery in America] can only be solved culturally, and cinema is a great catalyst for initiating such a process.”

The Milch family lives in Israel, and Baruch, a gynecologist, is drawn as a toughened man who was hard on his daughters, especially on Nana, whom he beat when she was young. The real-life Baruch Milch revealed his own embittered nature through his book, in which he wrote his personal Ten Commandments, such as “Though shalt have no other God before yourself,” “Do not have faith — the sky is empty,” “Toughen your heart and do not heed it” and “Do not get close to people, and do not bring them close to you.”

“Baruch is a man who believes that we live in a tough, cruel world, and you cannot afford to display any weakness, or kindness, or magnanimity. He expects the world out of his daughters. He wants them to achieve great things and, in a way, accomplish what history prevented him from accomplishing,” Nesher said. He added, “For me, the central themes of this film are the acceptance of humans as flawed beings and the inevitable conclusion of this acceptance, which is forgiveness.”

Another theme in the film is sexism. Sephi wants to be a composer, but her chauvinistic instructor discourages her, saying there are no female composers of any note. Ultimately, she triumphs.

All in all, Nesher believes his film’s core issues are relevant today, especially in his area of the world.

“As an Israeli, I feel that I am part of a battle between two people [Jewish and Palestinian] who carry a very heavy emotional load regarding the past and are out for ‘justice,’ ” he said. “I believe that, in this case, justice is a dangerous and impractical concept — forgiveness is the first step toward coexistence. Each side can develop a compelling argument as to why they are ‘right’ and the other side is ‘wrong’ — but that will translate to much future bloodshed.”

As for what Nesher would like audiences to take away from his film, he said, “I would like people to think of their own past and how it shapes, for better or for worse, their own present.”

“Past Life” opens in Los Angeles on June 2.

Photo by David Miller

Survivor Tomas Kovar: Hiding in Slovakia, awaiting liberation


The Germans were coming.

Nine-year-old Tomas Kohn, then living as Tomas Blaho, knew the drill. He headed to the front door of the cottage in Ponicka Huta, a village in the Low Tatras mountains in central Slovakia, where he and his parents were living as the supposed cousins of the home’s owners, Alexander and Maria Kur.

As Tomas’ mother grabbed a jacket for her son — it was March 1945 and chilly — Tomas pushed open the door, only to discover three German soldiers already climbing the steep alley leading to their cottage. He couldn’t wait for his mother without arousing suspicion — even with false papers, the Jews in Ponicka Huta didn’t feel safe — and instead walked directly across the alley, disappearing into the forest.

“They didn’t say anything or follow me,” Tomas recalled.

As he walked deeper into the forest, Tomas frequently looked behind him hoping to see his mother. Several hours later, he was lost, certain the Germans had captured her and were lying in wait for him.

Eventually, Tomas came across a woodcutter, who led him back. As Tomas exited the forest, he dashed into the cottage. He didn’t see his mother anywhere.

During the war, Tomas didn’t realize the extent of the dangers he and his parents faced. “They didn’t talk about it. Not during the war and not after the war, either,” he said. Instead, his parents changed the family name to Kovar, a non-Jewish surname, and the family kept a low religious profile.

As he grew up, Tomas didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust, in which many of his aunts, uncles and cousins had perished, and spoke only rarely about his experiences until five years ago, when he attended a talk by another Slovakian survivor at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Since then, he has told his story at the museum twice a month. “There are fewer and fewer survivors,” he said. “I want the people to know what happened.”

The only child of Ernest and Klara Kohn, Tomas was born on Feb. 18, 1936, in Nitra, Slovakia, the closest town with a hospital to the western Slovakian village of Zabokreky nad Nitrou, where his parents and 55 other Jewish families lived.

Ernest managed a large farm, which was owned by a Jewish man named Ernest Gruen. The family lived in Gruen’s unoccupied farmhouse.

Sometime in 1941 or so — about two years after Slovakia had declared its independence and allied itself with Nazi Germany — the farm was confiscated and given to a Mr. Kasicky (Tomas does not remember his first name), a private secretary of Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who had become Slovakia’s president. Kasicky retained Tomas’ father as the farm’s manager.

By spring 1942, as the Slovak government began deporting its Jewish population, only the Kohns and two other families of men whom Ernest needed on the farm remained in Zabokreky.

After the Slovak National Uprising broke out on Aug. 29, 1944, and German troops began occupying the country, Kasicky could no longer protect the three families. They immediately loaded up a large wagon with some food and household goods and followed the partisans, who were headed toward the mountains.

After reaching Banska Bystrica, a city in central Slovakia, they proceeded uphill to a flat mountaintop area. The partisans departed, and the families settled into separate huts used to store hay. Other Jews hid, scattered across the mountains.

About a week later, townsmen from Ponicka Huta appeared, looking for items the partisans had abandoned. Ernest asked one of the men, Alexander Kur, if he could pay him to hide the three families. Kur, whose cottage was small, left to consult with his brothers-in-law and returned before nightfall, leading the families to the village, already occupied by the Germans.

The Kurs gave their small bedroom to Tomas and his parents, sleeping in the large living room with their three children. The other families each bunked with a brother-in-law.

During this time, according to Tomas, the Germans conducted roundups two or three times a week. Only occasionally did the Jews, who were being harbored in almost all of the village’s approximately 25 houses, have advance warning.

At a moment’s notice, Tomas and his parents could move the living room carpet, where a trap door and a few steps led to a small, dank cellar, a tight fit for three people. With more time, they climbed into an armoire, escaping out a hole in the back into a storage room. But the safest shelter was the forest, directly across the alley. “The Germans shied away from it,” Tomas said.

At some point, possibly in early 1945, the Germans began rounding up the men of Ponicka Huta to dig trenches. The men, Jews and non-Jews, began spending their days in a bunker they had constructed in the forest, essentially a large dirt hole covered with boards.

By February, the roundups had increased, and the men began living full time in the forest bunker. Everyone was waiting for the Russians, “like for the Messiah,” Tomas said.

Ernest was in the bunker on the day Tomas escaped into the forest without his mother. And Klara, Tomas discovered, had been hiding in the cellar. She emerged, grateful that the Germans had not captured her son.

A few nights later, at midnight, Russian soldiers knocked on the Kurs’ door. “We don’t want to destroy this town,” a Hungarian-speaking soldier told Klara, who spoke the language, explaining that they needed to find the German trenches. Klara took the soldiers to the bunker, and Ernest led them to the trenches.

The following day, sometime in mid- to late March 1945, Ponicka Huta was liberated.

Soon after, the Kohns returned to Zabokreky, where Ernest again managed the farm for Ernest Gruen. Tomas enrolled in public school.

On Sept. 24, 1945, a pogrom broke out in Topolcany, about 60 miles southeast of Zabokreky, spreading across the country. “Wherever they could find Jews, they were beating them up,” Tomas said. He and his parents quickly left, returning later that day and deciding they needed to leave Slovakia.

Finally, in January 1947, they boarded a ship in France, headed for Chile, where they had relatives.

Ernest rented a farm in La Florida, an area southeast of Santiago. Tomas attended Jewish school, Instituto de Hebreo. A year later, he transferred to Escuela Nacional de Artes Graficas, a boarding school in Santiago, graduating in 1956. He began working in the meat market his father then owned in Santiago.

In summer 1960, Tomas met Rita Bromet, who had moved to Santiago after the May 22 earthquake in Valdivia. They married on Jan. 27, 1963. By then, Tomas managed his own meat market.

Their daughter Jacqueline was born in November 1963 and son Bernardo in April 1965. Eleven months later, the family immigrated to Los Angeles, and their son Desidario was born in April 1968. They now have six grandchildren.

In Los Angeles, Tomas first worked as a meat cutter for Gelson’s Markets. Then, after a series of jobs, he and Rita owned Hallmark stores from 1978 to 2000, when Tomas began working as a Spanish-English interpreter assisting workers’ compensation patients. He retired in 2015.

Tomas, now 81, is trying to donate a piece of his history, a Torah that belonged to the Zabokreky Jewish community and that was safeguarded by the town’s Catholic priest during the war, to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Tomas’ family carried the Torah to Santiago, where it now resides in their former synagogue, La Sociedad Cultural Israelita B’nei Israel.

“It’s very old and will disintegrate,” Tomas said. “It should be in a museum where it could be more appreciated.”

FBI Director James Comey. Photo courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League

Comey on Holocaust: ‘Good people helped murder millions’


FBI Director James Comey discussed those who participated in the Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual conference on Monday afternoon. “Although the slaughter of the Holocaust was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by and followed by people who loved their families, took soup to sick neighbors, who went to church, who gave to charity,” Comey told the ADL gathering. “Good people helped murder millions.”

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

The top law enforcement officer added that in order to better understand humanity’s perils, the FBI requires officers and analysts to tour Washington’s Holocaust Museum in addition to studying about Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement.

“I believe the Holocaust is the most significant event in human history. How could such a thing happen? How is that consistent in any way with the concept of a loving God?” Comey asked. “The answer for me is I don’t know.”

During the first several months of the administration, the issue of the Holocaust has consistently dogged Trump’s presidency. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer argued that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad committed acts worse than Hitler while also referring to “Holocaust centers.” (Spicer later apologized). In a statement commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House declined to include Jews, a strange omission, but furthered when they refused to admit any mistake.

The FBI director also noted that on his desk he keeps a 1963 memo from Director J. Edgar Hoover to Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking permission to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr. due to “communist influences.” Comey asserted that this letter was critical to remembering the dangers of unchecked law enforcement powers.

Why I love Berlin when I was supposed to hate it


The following article was originally published in German in Fluter.de, a German political magazine for young adults ages 18-25.

I was supposed to hate Berlin when I first visited from Tel Aviv in 2014. I came with my American father, who wanted to see the former Displaced Persons camp in Hannover where his Polish parents, Auschwitz survivors, gave birth to him. I may not have come had a good friend from Los Angeles not recently moved to Berlin. My Israeli mother opposed the trip. While her parents are Iraqi, she still swears off German cars.

I admit, when I first walked the Berlin streets, I didn’t see a modern city. I’d imagine Nazi banners strewn across the buildings. I’d wonder from which of these adorable Alt Bau apartments Jews were dragged out. I’d hear German: the language that murdered my grandparents’ families. I’d take a train: to what death camp? This creepy Holocaust awareness must be common for Jews during a Berlin initiation.

That same year, Berlin made headlines in Israel in what became known as the “Milky Controversy.” An Israeli Berliner angered Israeli parliamentarians when he encouraged Israelis to move to Berlin, comparing grocery receipts that put Berlin’s chocolate pudding one third cheaper than Israel’s famous “Milky” brand. By 2015, when I returned to work with my friend on a music project, I started to understand why young Israelis flock to Berlin. (Although I recently learned that the German brand is made with unkosher beef gelatin.)

With the obligatory visit to the Holocaust Memorial and Topography of Terror already out of the way, I could focus on enjoying Berlin as the creative, vanguard, affordable capital it is. My friend and I still made occasional Holocaust jokes (like when we’d behold a stunning blue-eyed, blonde German who looked like an “Aryan” poster boy), but overall, we made music, went out, and socialized with friendly locals, forgetting the city once housed SS headquarters.

As I struggled to like Berlin, I interviewed young Germans living in Tel Aviv, its Israeli “sister-city”, to find out if the attraction was mutual. Naturally, the Holocaust came up, and one woman said that I can’t blame her generation for the sins of the fathers. “I wasn’t born when it happened,” she said, while acknowledging she feels a special responsibility for Jewish safety today.

I realized Germans and Israelis are quite alike – we come from two people struggling to rebuild and make sense of a troubled yet soaring national identity after a great trauma. Even though we come from opposing sides – the persecutor and the victim – we, this third generation, carry a burden that may be best unpacked together.

Still, I shocked fellow Israeli patriots when I told them I planned to spend Summer 2016 in Berlin. They scratched their heads when I started adding heart emoticons around Berlin on my Facebook statuses. Their shock had run out when I announced my decision to stay, indefinitely.

The artistic vibe, the historical richness (and scars), the ease of getting around, and, of course, the insanely cheap groceries and beer all make Berlin loveable to many internationals: Australians, Argentinians, Brits, etc.

But the pleasure I get from just walking the streets is deeper; it’s like a transmutation of the pain Jews must have felt here, once, in fear of deportation, of torture, of death – a fear I don’t have to feel anymore. Now I don’t see Nazi banners, but delightful café signs; I don’t see “Aryanized” Jewish apartments, but apartments I’d like to own; I hear German: a challenge; I take the train: to which party?

While growing up in the US, I learned about Germany through horror stories almost as much as I learned about Israel through heroic legends. Hence, my strange familiarity and connection to this land. And as much as the Jewish state is a modern miracle, so is the re-transformation of Berlin into a force for liberty.

Courtesy of Pexels.

Letters to the Editor: ‘The Promise,’ Sean Spicer and the Holocaust


‘The Promise’ Closely Adheres to History

I recently read Rob Eshman’s column “Morgenthau’s Children” (April 21) in the Jewish Journal, where, in describing the exchange between Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and Ottoman Empire Interior Minister Mehmet Talaat in the movie “The Promise,” he wrote, “I don’t know whether the incident happened exactly as it played on screen.”

As a matter of fact, and to the credit of the filmmakers, that entire scene is faithful to Morgenthau’s account in his 1918 memoir, “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story.” The passages in question (from the 1918 edition) read:

“Why are you so interested in the Armenians, anyway?” he said, on another occasion. “You are a Jew; these people are Christians. The Mohammedans and the Jews always get on harmoniously. We are treating the Jews here all right. What have you to complain of? Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?” …

“You don’t seem to realize,” I replied, “that I am not here as a Jew but as American Ambassador. My country contains something more than 97,000,000 Christians and something less than 3,000,000 Jews. So, at least in my ambassadorial capacity, I am 97 per cent Christian. But after all, that is not the point. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or any religion, but merely as a human being. You have told me many times that you want to make Turkey a part of the modern progressive world. The way you are treating the Armenians will not help you to realize that ambition; it puts you in the class of backward, reactionary peoples.”

Thank you for your column.

Armen Manuk-Khaloyan, master’s candidate in history,Cal State Northridge

I agree with what Rob Eshman wrote in “Morgenthau’s Children.” The last paragraph especially resonated with me: “If we, of all people, do not take up the cause of the victims of genocide, in every country, in every generation, who will?”

It is with that truism in mind that I write this email. I don’t speak for all Armenians, but while Armenians are generally sympathetic toward Jews (common history marked by persecution and near extinction), and they admire Jews, some have expressed frustration with Jews, Jewish organizations and Israel for what they think is not only undermining the Armenian cause but even represents hostility toward Armenians.

If ever there was a country that should recognize the Armenian genocide, and if there ever was a people who should make sure that the lessons of genocide — not just the Holocaust, but all genocides — are never forgotten, it should be Israel and the Jews. Unfortunately, not only has Israel, and in many instances, Jewish organizations, been silent on this cause, but in some cases have gone out of their way to prevent the formal recognition of the Armenian genocide.

Additionally, after what has now been dubbed the Four-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan (April 1-4, 2016), it was discovered that Israel had sold Azerbaijan drones as well as more lethal weapons. While on the surface this may seem benign, that nations sell their weapons to other nations all the time, for Armenians this is akin to Armenia supplying nuclear-making material to Iran.

I hope Jews, especially American Jews and Jewish organizations would be more forceful in asking or demanding that Israel, of all nations, to properly recognize this crime against humanity.

 Arthur Bayramyan, Via email

 

Dennis Prager, Sean Spicer and the Holocaust

Dennis Prager’s defense of Sean Spicer’s ignorance misses the point (“More Left-Wing Abuse of the Holocaust,” April 21). I, too, do not believe that Sean Spicer is a Holocaust denier. I believe he never even thought about the Holocaust and those “Holocaust centers” until his boss told him to go out to the White House press corps and make a statement. He is a reflection of his boss’ ignorance — and that’s the point!

Gilbert H. Skopp, Calabasas

My lifelong experience convinces me that incompetence, ignorance and stupidity trump (no pun intended) conspiracies and hidden agendas most of the time. While I agree with Dennis Prager that Sean Spicer’s comments contrasting Bashar Assad to Hitler were not some conspiracy to deny the Holocaust, of which I am a survivor, they are another example of the Trump administration’s lack of competence to lead our nation.

Prager uses an overreaction to a mistake by Spicer to write an entire column condemning what he calls the “left,” while defending the administration that creates “alternative facts” and is attempting to trample every freedom and social benefit it finds too inconvenient or too costly. Dennis, where are the Jewish values that you profess to espouse?

 Michael Telerant,  Los Angeles

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

LAMOTH makes Holocaust personal with ‘Names Instead of Numbers’


In early 1945, when a Russian-Jewish soldier rode in on horseback to help liberate Auschwitz-Birkenau, 21-year-old Renee Firestone was there, barely alive. Her mother and sister, victims of Nazi atrocities, weren’t so lucky. With odds heavily stacked against her, Firestone began life anew.

“Without a penny in my pocket, not even underwear, wooden Dutch clogs on my feet, emaciated and with my shaved head, I re-entered the world, the same world that put me in [Auschwitz] 14 months ago,” Firestone, now 92, said, addressing a crowd of nearly 800 at Pan Pacific Park as part of the 25th annual Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) Yom HaShoah commemoration on April 23.

“How does one become a human again?” Firestone asked, as the audience, which included 50 other Holocaust survivors, sat in silence.

Universal lessons of shared humanity was a prominent theme as survivors, community leaders and special guests honored the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust.

One of the featured survivor artists was 87-year-old Eva Zuckerman-Warner, who spoke to a small group that included her grandson Jerry. As a young girl who designed clothes for her own dolls, Zuckerman-Warner longed to attend art school. Hungarian anti-Jewish laws prevented her from doing so.

“I think I was born without a left brain,” she joked. “I only got the right brain. I’ve always been this way.”

Zuckerman-Warner sat beside one of her 20 sculptures, a life-size clay-molded face with a gaping mouth crying out in agony. She said the work is a tribute to the nameless, faceless Jews who perished in the concentration camps, an example of how the tragedies of her past dominate her work and often help her cope.

“For me, art is a way to reflect on the trauma of the Holocaust, the horrors I experienced,” she said. “This came from my heart. I wear my heart on the outside.”

Guests were invited to visit a new international traveling exhibition, “Names Instead of Numbers.” An in-depth look inside Dachau concentration camp, it features artifacts, letters, photographs and personal testimonies both from LAMOTH’s collection and from the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany.

“What’s really unique about this exhibit is that it shows the personal experiences of people who were persecuted by the Nazis,” Jordanna Gessler, LAMOTH’s director of education, told the Journal. “Each part of the exhibition is curated to highlight these individual stories.”

One of those individual stories is that of a young Polish man identified on a dilapidated, 1948-issue German driver’s license as Idel Aleksander. After his liberation from Dachau, he drove around Germany looking for surviving family members. He found none. Now 94, Joseph Alexander stared at his old driver’s license on display.

“I like that it’s here. I like that people will see it,” Alexander said. “It’s important that we share personal stories like mine in this way. There are still deniers out there in the world. I’m the living proof; so are these documents. People need to know these things happened to me. We have to keep talking about it.”

Paul Nussbaum, president of LAMOTH and a child of Holocaust survivors, opened the ceremony by reading aloud a letter sent by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. He then delivered a fiery speech in which he spoke not just of a need to look back into tragic parts of history like the Holocaust, but also to recognize similar historical patterns forming today.

“We must bear witness now, because as I look across the landscape of Europe, Great Britain and — shamefully, I must admit — our beloved United States, the seeds of otherness have sprouted and are being fertilized by the sowers of hate, fear and intolerance,” he said.

John Emerson, the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2013 until early this year, and his wife, Kimberly Emerson, a lawyer and human rights activist who now sits on the board of Human Rights Watch, served as keynote speakers. Both touched on the importance of Holocaust education to prompt change in future generations and to eradicate genocide in all forms. John Emerson made his point by illustrating the difference between history and memory.

“Historians conduct research, they fix dates and interpret the significance of events,” he said. “But memories are kept alive through storytelling, through teaching, sensitive writing, commemorations, even judicial proceedings, and especially at places such as this that are devoted to preserving survivors’ stories.”

Pairs of survivors and young grandchildren lit commemorative candles. A quartet of teenage classical musicians from Los Angeles County High School for the Arts performed “Tracks,” a melancholic composition written by Noah Daniel, a Milken Community Schools student. Alyssa Jaffe, a Santa Monica High School student, sang the U.S. national anthem and “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. A delegation from the Knesset looked on.

In her speech, Israel’s minister for social equality, Gila Gamliel, said, “The difference between today and some 75 years ago is that today we have a strong State of Israel. This is our pledge. This is our bond. This is our unbreakable link. This is our ‘never again.’ ”

Firestone plays her part by traveling the globe as a public speaker. She told the crowd she felt compelled to take control over the tragedies of her past by sharing her story. A longtime Los Angeles-based fashion designer, she capped her speech by offering advice and hope.

“To parents, I say speak to your children and teach them to respect each other and help each other,” she said. “To the schoolteachers, on the other hand, I tell them to tell their students to put their cellphones in their pockets. This way, they may just find out that most of them want to live in peace, and by learning to respect and care for each other, maybe — maybe — we can make that happen.” n

Ruth Moll. Photos courtesy of Cedars-Sinai

Kindertransport passenger shares a different kind of survivor story


It was not until a movie about the Kindertransport came out in 2000 that Ruth Moll began to consider herself a Holocaust survivor.

Moll was 10 years old when she and her two sisters boarded a train to escape Nazi Germany shortly after Kristallnacht in November 1938. They were among the 10,000 children saved in the Kindertransport, a series of rescues organized by Great Britain before World War II began.

So, unlike many of the stories recounted around Yom HaShoah, Moll’s evasion of Nazi persecution does not involve ghettos or concentration camps. But that does not make her experience less harrowing or, as she insists, less critical to relate.

“It’s very important for people to know,” Moll told the Journal after a memorial candlelighting at a Cedars-Sinai Yom HaShoah ceremony on April 21.

As a contrast, she cited the example of the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner that was filled with hundreds of European Jewish refugees but turned back from the United States in 1939.

“To think a country like America could have done that — it’s not very nice,” Moll said. “And that’s why I stress that if it wasn’t for England, I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”

Now 89, Moll volunteers in various nonclinical roles at Cedars-Sinai, where she was one of several survivors who participated in the memorial candlelighting. The event included an address from Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, before a crowd of 200 or so members of the extended hospital community.

Born Ruth Schmidt in Stuttgart, Germany, Moll enjoyed a traditional Jewish childhood before the horrors of Kristallnacht ravaged her community. She remembers hearing the sound of shattering glass from inside her home. Weeks later, the Gestapo came looking for her father, a successful businessman. Luckily, he wasn’t home.

Sensing the immediacy of the Nazi threat, the Schmidt parents sought to protect their three daughters, ages 12, 10 and 9 at the time. With the help of a wealthy aunt, they secured travel documents and tickets for their children on a train bound for the Netherlands coast. A ferry would take them the rest of the way to England.

The children were permitted one small overnight suitcase each; no sentimental items could be accommodated. But Moll managed to smuggle her wooden recorder, on which she had been playing children’s songs since kindergarten, in her bag. She has kept the instrument to this day.

“It meant a lot to me because I was the only one of the three of us [who played] an instrument,” she told the Journal. She joked that she would probably need some breathing practice before she could play the wind instrument again. “I’m an old woman,” she laughed.

She left home not knowing if she ever would see her parents again, and upon arriving in England, on Feb. 3, 1939, the Schmidt girls were met by a relative, who enrolled them in a Christian boarding school. Moll’s parents later gained passage to England, mere weeks before the war started, and while they were able to visit their daughters at the boarding school, the family was not fully reunited until after the war.

Unfortunately, many of the other children saved by the Kindertransport never saw their families again. That includes her late husband, Rudy Moll, whom she met after moving to California in the 1950s.

Moll’s flight from Nazi persecution was made possible in the aftermath of Kristallnacht when a group of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed to Parliament for the admission of unaccompanied Jewish children as refugees from Nazi territories. British authorities agreed to take in an unspecified number as temporary migrants, with the assumption that they would return to Germany once the danger had passed.

Jewish organizations inside Germany and its territories planned the extraction, prioritizing especially vulnerable children, such as orphans, and organizing the travel from major cities like Prague, Vienna and Frankfurt, where Moll and her sisters were dropped off at the train station by the family maid.

Ruth Moll as a child

Ruth Moll as a child

Overall, around 10,000 children made it safely to England, mostly by train and ship, with a few arriving by airplane. The Kindertransport ceased operating in May 1940, when Dutch forces surrendered to the German army, making the last leg, the ferry, unnavigable.

“England was the only country who was willing to open their doors to save 10,000 children,” Moll said, “and they would have saved more if they would have had the money.”

Still, since she never saw the inside of a concentration camp, she never thought of herself as a Holocaust survivor. “Into the Arms of Strangers,” a documentary about the Kindertransport, changed her perspective.

“Now when people ask me, I tell them I’m a survivor,” she said. “It seems to have some kind of impact, which is really what I’m happy about.”

She sees the rescue effort that saved her life as a moral imperative for future generations, one that’s never been more pressing than today. With this in mind, she talked about the refugee crisis in Syria and Europe, saying that people today aren’t listening to what’s going on in Syria and noticing the parallels with the Holocaust.

“I’m scared for what’s happening in the world, for myself,” Moll said. “Because we said never again, but who knows?”

Photo by Carla Acevedo-Blumenkrantz

Survivor Av Perlmutter: ‘Angel’ watched over him


“Where’s Adolf Perlmutter?” one of the German soldiers shouted, bursting into Suzanne Cohen’s house in Amsterdam in March 1943, rushing past a 15-year-old boy living there who was known as Avraham or Av.

Upstairs they found one of the Cohens’ sons, in his early 20s, and ordered, “You come with us.” On their way out, they grabbed Av, realizing he was the one they were looking for — his official name was Adolf — and led both young men into a police van. They headed to the Jewish Theatre, which had been converted to a detention center from where Jews were deported to camps.

“The moment I came in, I was thinking how to get out,” Av recalled. He noticed that pairs of German soldiers at the exits changed shifts regularly. At one door in particular, they actually abandoned their post to fetch their replacements. He mentioned this to the Cohen son, who deemed it too dangerous to try escaping. “They’ll shoot us,” he told Av.

Av was undeterred. In the middle of the night, when the exit was left unguarded, he calmly walked out and ran.

Avraham Abba Perlmutter, who was given the name Adolf by the Austrian government, was born on Aug. 28, 1927, in Vienna, to Chaim and Malka Perlmutter. His sister, Thea, was three years older.

Chaim owned a textile store, providing the family with a middle-class, very observant life. Every morning, Av prayed with his father in the small shul located on their apartment building’s first floor.

Av was a self-described “wild child.” At 6, he was asked not to return for a second year in Jewish school because of his misbehavior. He attended public school and played soccer with neighborhood boys.

Av’s life changed on March 12, 1938, with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Two days later, Av followed the crowds to one of Vienna’s main streets, where he witnessed Hitler riding by in an open car.

Av’s non-Jewish friends began beating him, and he no longer attended school. The following fall he enrolled in a Jewish middle school.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht began. The Perlmutter family’s store was plundered.

Two months later, Av’s parents arranged for him and Thea to leave for the Netherlands on a Kindertransport — a rescue operation for children — to join Av’s aunt and uncle, Anni and Aby Bachrach. “It was like an adventure,” Av said.

They arrived in Wijk aan Zee, a village on the North Sea coast, where they spent two months at a Catholic campsite run by nuns before being transferred to a series of refugee camps. Then, in December 1939, after a bout with diphtheria, Av was released to Sientje and Joop Van Straten, relatives by marriage, who lived in The Hague, 40 miles south.

Thea, meanwhile, was transferred to a Youth Aliyah camp east of Amsterdam in Loosdrecht, with a plan to join her parents in Palestine, where they had immigrated illegally in June 1939.

Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. And while Av continued attending school, playing soccer and celebrating his bar mitzvah, anti-Jewish measures were enacted gradually.

On Oct. 7, 1942, after non-Dutch Jews were ordered to move from coastal areas, Av was sent to Amsterdam, where he was placed with Suzanne Cohen and her adult sons, within 2 miles of where Anne Frank and her family were already hiding. His relatives in The Hague were all murdered later in Auschwitz and Sobibor.

After Av escaped from the Jewish Theatre in March 1943, he ran back to the Cohens’ house, where he hid in the backyard.

The next morning, Ellie Waterman, a member of an underground organization founded by Dutch Christian Joop Westerweel, coincidentally showed up. “It was a pure miracle,” Av said. Thea had asked the group to find a hiding place for him.

“I was very Orthodox Jewish and I strongly believed that an angel of God was guarding me,” Av said.

Waterman told Av to meet him at the train station. After a series of stops and train changes, Av exited at what he believes was Zutphen, a city in the east-central Netherlands, where Waterman led him to the house of an elderly couple.

After dinner, as German soldiers approached, Av hid in a bedroom closet. As one of the soldiers approached, Av began hiccuping out of fear and nearly choked, smothering the noise. The German opened the closet door and slammed it, cursing. “Fortunately for me, he didn’t look very much,” Av said.

The couple then hid him in a backyard coal bin. But after the Germans returned a second time, Av left, not wanting to endanger the couple.

Despite the late hour, Av knocked on a nearby door. “I’m Jewish. Can you hide me?” he asked the young man who opened it. The man, who had a wife and small child, concealed him behind some boxes in the basement.

“I was very Orthodox Jewish and I strongly believed that an angel of God was guarding me”

“These Christians who were hiding Jews were extremely courageous, because if they were caught hiding a Jew, they were treated like a Jew,” Av said.

The next morning, Waterman found Av and arranged for Dutch Christians in several cities to hide him. Then, sometime during the summer, Av was placed in a boarding house in Rotterdam, where two boys were staying, as well as a teacher, who taught Av English and French.

One day in September 1943, the boys heard the familiar pounding of German boots and quickly hid in a prearranged spot. After the Germans left, they split up, believing they would be safer.

Av wandered for about 20 minutes before a German soldier stopped him, asking for identification and summoning a police van. He placed Av in the partitioned back, guarded by two Dutch police officers. Thinking the policemen might be anti-Nazi, Av slid toward the rear doors of the van as the police officers talked. Av partially opened one door and when the van slowed, he jumped out.

After running several blocks, he stopped a man on the street who took him home and contacted Joop Westerweel. An aide to Westerweel arranged for Av’s last placement.

Av traveled to Venlo, in the southeastern Netherlands, where a pastor, Henricus Vullinghs, met him at the train station and transported him on the back of his bicycle 5 miles north to the home in Grubbenvorst, a town within 3 miles of the German border where Peter and Gertrude Beijers lived with three of their six adult children.

Forty-two of the village’s 240 families, all Catholic, were hiding Jews. Pastor Vullinghs told his parishioners that they were assured a place in heaven if they saved a Jew.

As Av grew close to the Beijers family — he called the parents Mom and Pap — he began helping on the farm, becoming expert in growing asparagus.

After the Allies invaded Normandy in June 1944, they advanced toward Germany and by September were approaching Grubbenvorst.

When several German soldiers moved into the Beijers’ house, Av hid in the stable. Pap then built him a more secure hiding place, a concealed hole in the hill behind the barn. Av lay on his back all day, with red ants for companions, venturing out only in the evenings.

On Nov. 22, 1944, the Allies liberated the village of Sevenum, about 5 miles west of Grubbenvorst, launching a heavy barrage eastward toward the Germans’ defense line.

That night as Av joined the Beijers in their neighbors’ basement, the Germans forced everyone out, planning to evacuate all town residents across the Maas River to Germany.

Afraid of entering Germany, Av remained in Grubbenvorst, hiding once again in the stable. With British artillery shells exploding ever closer, he left, reaching the street just as a shell landed on the stable, demolishing it. Again, Av said, “I knew at the time that the angel of God was with me.”

As the pounding continued, Av crawled along toward the British line, feeling for mines. Suddenly someone shouted, “Halt,” as Nazi soldiers jumped out from the roadside. “Where are you going?” one demanded. Av pointed to a nearby house. Just then the British began firing, and Av pushed himself free and ran, despite the mines and the bullets flying past him.

He reached a farmhouse where he found the entire Beijers family. The bridge over the river had been destroyed, thwarting the Germans’ evacuation plans.

Two days later, Av persuaded one of Beijers’ sons to accompany him to Sevenum, now in Allied hands. They arrived on Nov. 26, 1944, which Av considers his liberation date. “I felt fantastic,” he said.

Wanting to help the British army, Av worked as an interpreter for a month as soldiers directed the locals in rebuilding the bridge. At Av’s request, one soldier sent a letter to his parents in Palestine. In January, the Jewish Brigade came for Av, to reunite him with his parents. Av said goodbye to the Beijers.

Years later, he submitted their names and that of Pastor Vullinghs to Yad Vashem, which recognized them in 1994 as “Righteous Among the Nations.” The Perlmutter and Beijers families have remained very close.

Av arrived in Haifa on July 16, 1945. Soon after his father picked him up, his aunt told him that his mother had died of an adverse penicillin reaction the previous January, two weeks before his letter arrived.

Weeks later, Av was living in Tel Aviv with his father and assisting in his small jam factory when they learned that Thea, who had been captured and sent to Auschwitz, had survived.

In 1947, Av joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground, but was badly injured in a motorcycle-truck collision. He was discharged as a wounded war veteran on Nov. 8, 1949, and made his way to the United States.

He entered the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1951 to study aeronautical engineering, graduating in June 1954. After earning  a master’s degree at Princeton in 1956, he accepted a job at Kellett Aircraft Corp. in Philadelphia.

A year later, Av met Ruth Gitberg at a synagogue social. They married on Aug. 31, 1958, and had four children. He later earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

Av and two colleagues at Kellett formed their own company, Dynasciences, in 1961. When Dynasciences merged with Whitaker Corp. in 1969, Av moved his family to Los Angeles and worked in engineering and other ventures until he retired in 2015.

Av is now 89 and the grandfather of five. He wrote an autobiography, “Determined,” which was published in 2014, and a Dutch version, in collaboration with the Beijers family, will be released this spring.

For 20 years, Av has been speaking about his experiences — at museums, schools and synagogues.

“I always like to tell my story in hopes that it helps others, especially children.” he said. “I tell them that regardless of difficulties, don’t give up.”

President Donald Trump watching the lighting of memorial candles during the annual Days of Remembrance Holocaust ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on April 25. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

On Jews and the Holocaust, Trump signals that he finally gets it


President Donald Trump got the memo on the Holocaust and the Jews.

In a barrage of statements this week from the president and his aides, the Trump administration wants you to know, he gets it, he really gets it: The Holocaust describes a genocide committed only against one people, the Jews.

It’s a radical departure from the first days of the Trump administration, when a statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day omitted any mention of Jews. That was made worse, in the eyes of most of the Jewish establishment, when Trump staffers further blurred the distinction between the Jewish genocide and the sufferings of other groups during World War II.

Trump made the distinction clear in his speech Tuesday at the annual Days of Remembrance commemoration in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“The Nazis massacred 6 million Jews,” he said. “Two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide. Millions more innocent people were imprisoned and executed by the Nazis without mercy, without even a sign of mercy.”

Trump made the same distinction a day earlier in his proclamation declaring the Days of Remembrance and also on Sunday in a video address to the World Jewish Congress. The State Department last week held a ceremony honoring Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania who provided transit visas to Japan for 6,000 Jews, saving their lives.

Trump taking out time to keynote the museum event Tuesday was in itself significant. Presidents have appeared at the event, but their presence is not routine, and this week isn’t exactly a down week for the administration with a government shutdown looming.

And his embrace of Jewish sensibilities about the Holocaust was robust, extending to an excoriation of Holocaust denial, a rejection of anti-Semitism overall and a defense of Israel.

“This is my pledge to you: We will confront anti-Semitism,” Trump said. “We will stamp out prejudice. We will condemn hatred. We will bear witness. And we will act. As president of the United States, I will always stand with the Jewish people — and I will always stand with our great friend and partner, the State of Israel.”

A number of Jewish groups, among them groups that had been harshly critical of Trump’s past fumbling of the issue, welcomed the turnaround. In some cases, the compliments seemed almost backhanded, giving Trump credit for simply getting his facts right.

Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s associate director for policy, praised Trump for his “forthright message of fidelity to historical accuracy, empathy with the Jewish people, and commitment to combat all forms of hatred and violence towards Jews.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who has had a contentious relationship with the administration, said he looked “forward to working with the president and his administration to put his pledge into action.”

So what moved Trump? A variety of factors might have been in play:

It’s personal.

Much has been made of the fact that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner – both unpaid White House staffers – are Jewish, as are some of his top aides.

Ivanka Trump, in her own Holocaust remembrance message, made clear how personal the week was to her and her husband.

“I want my children to live in a world where every country and its leaders pledge to ensure a genocide like the Holocaust will never happen again,” she said. “I want them to grow up in a world where people are tolerant, inclusive and loving toward one another.”

The next day, on a visit to Berlin for the G20 women’s summit, Ivanka Trump visited the city’s Holocaust memorial.

It’s loyalty.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been outspoken in his praise of Trump, and rarely misses an opportunity to compare him favorably to his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The same goes for Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers. In his own address in the Capitol on Tuesday, Dermer flattered Trump explicitly and derided the Obama administration implicitly by comparing their approaches to Syria.

“History shows that indifference has been the rule, not the exception,” Dermer said. “The exceptions have been decisions like the one President Trump made this month to respond to a chemical attack by the Assad regime against innocent men, women and children. That decision was a defiance of indifference.”

Obama, notably, did not strike Syria after a 2013  attack much worse than the one earlier this month that killed 89 civilians in rebel-held territory. Instead, his threats to strike led to negotiations that culminated in a deal in which Syria promised to divest itself of its poisonous gases.

Dermer, however, took aim at Obama’s stated preference for “soft power” and seemed to allude to a campaign by Obama’s wife, Michelle, to raise awareness of victims of the Islamist Boko Haram group in Nigeria, who kidnapped 276 schoolgirls.

“Those contemplating evil should know that they will face more than the soft power of self-righteous condemnations and feel-good hashtags,” he said.

Trump was impressed and extemporized a thank you to Dermer in his speech that immediately followed.

“We are privileged to be joined by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, friend of mine — he’s done a great job and said some wonderful words — Ron Dermer,” he said.

Trump in his video address to the World Jewish Congress was similarly effusive in praising the group’s president, Ronald Lauder.

“I want to thank Ronald Lauder not only for his many years of friendship — and he truly has been my good friend, he even predicted early that I was going to win the presidency — but also for his leadership of this organization,” the president said.

Lauder, notably, was the only Jewish leader to give Trump a pass for his botching of the Holocaust remembrance message in January. An old acquaintance of Trump’s, the cosmetics executive has for decades been deeply involved in Holocaust remembrance. The message: Flattery may work better with Trump than confrontation.

Stephen Bannon in the shadows

The adviser to Trump most in sync with the “alt-right,” the loose-knit assemblage of anti-establishment conservatives where soft denial of the Holocaust has found a home, is Stephen Bannon, who is believed to have been behind the January statement.

Trump recently demoted Bannon, pulling him off the National Security Council, and is said to be frustrated by Bannon’s hard-line ideological fixations, believing they are obstructing his efforts to pass legislation through an ideologically diverse Congress. Moreover, Bannon has clashed with Kushner, and Trump always sides with family first.

Who needs the headache?

Fairly or not, another Trump adviser, Sebastian Gorka, has been driven to distraction by allegations of his associations with the Hungarian far right. He stormed off a Georgetown University panel after students at the university confronted him with questions about those allegations.

As Trump scrambles to name accomplishments in his first 100 days in office, distractions about what the Holocaust means is exactly what he does not need.

Tensions between Trump and the wider Jewish community will not likely disappear anytime soon. A key lesson of the Holocaust for many Jews – one Dermer mentioned – is that they should keep their eyes wide open for any likelihood of genocide against any people. Other presidents marking Holocaust remembrance have noted contemporary threats; Trump spoke only vaguely of “stamping out prejudice.”

“This spirit should not be restricted to Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Greenblatt said in his statement. “We very much hope the president will continue to use his bully pulpit to speak out against anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hatred in all forms. We urge the president and his administration to act to protect targeted communities against hate crime and discrimination.”

President Donald Trump speaking in the Capitol rotunda on April 25. Photo by Ron Kampeas/JTA

Trump vows to combat Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism


President Donald Trump pledged to combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism, and to defend Israel in a speech marking the national days of Holocaust remembrance.

“Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil,” he said Tuesday at the annual ceremony organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the Capitol rotunda. “And we’ll never be silent — we just won’t. We will never, ever be silent in the face of evil again.”

Trump described anti-Semitism “on university campuses, in the public square and in threats against Jewish citizens. Even worse, it’s been on display in the most sinister manner when terrorists attack Jewish communities, or when aggressors threaten Israel with total and complete destruction.”

He pledged to “stamp out prejudice.”

“As president of the United States, I will always stand with the Jewish people — and I will always stand with our great friend and partner, the State of Israel,” he said.

The speech and a series of statements Trump has issued in recent days differ considerably from his first week in office, when a Jan. 27 statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day neglected to mention Jews. Trump’s spokesmen subsequently said they were aiming at an “inclusive” statement to cover Jews and non-Jews murdered in the Holocaust, although the term is applied by historians solely to the Jewish genocide.

EXCLUSIVE: Tom Hanks on Elie Wiesel, the importance of Holocaust remembrance


 

In an exclusive interview, Tom Hanks talks about spending time with Elie Wiesel at the Friar’s Club in New York City where they discussed topics ranging from displaced persons camps to dogs.

Hanks also discussed the importance of Holocaust remembrance.

Interview by Danielle Berrin
Video by Tess Cutler

A flower is placed by next to the name of a former concentration camp inside the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem on April 24. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Extracting meaning from the madness


Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote 30 years ago that the way we work through the memory of the Holocaust, the Shoah, the way we extract meaning from the madness, would be the most critical question of post-Holocaust generations.

That question remains the premiere challenge of our generation.

Today, on Yom HaShoah, the day of remembering, here are three ways to wrest meaning from the madness.

First, we remember. Remembering is not the same as not forgetting. Not forgetting is driven by fear. Remembering is driven by love. Read survivor testimonies. Watch a film. Feel something. Remember the human capacity for depravity, cowardice and complicity, and remember human courage and compassion. Active memory is a gesture of hesed—it is equal parts an act of grace and an expression of loyalty toward those who lost everything and persisted in breathing and loving and rebuilding nevertheless.

Second, we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the quiet heroism of the righteous gentiles, hasidei umot ha-olam, who jeopardized everything to protect, support and save the lives of Jews. Their stories remind us not only that good exists even in the heart of evil, but that the demands of human decency call us to stay vigilant to the dangers of bigotry, racism and discrimination even when we are not directly in the line of fire.

In this moment, in America, many minority communities feel like endangered species: diminished, scapegoated and targeted. The threat doesn’t have to rise to the level of Holocaust horror for us to mobilize against it. The Jewish community honors, indeed venerates the Righteous Gentiles who risked and often gave their lives to defend our people. The best way to honor their memory is to strive to be like them. Today we are called to become Righteous Jews. To use whatever resources we have—political, financial, spiritual—to stand up and speak for those whose rights or safety or dignity are threatened. The memory of our suffering calls us not only to hold compassion, but to actively stand in solidarity with those who today are vulnerable to racialized hatred.

Finally, we must stay awake and discerning. Anti-Semitism is a real and present danger. Over the last several years, we’ve seen a spike in violent incidents directed against the Jewish community, the vicious trolling of prominent Jewish leaders and journalists on social media, cemetery desecrations, and—perhaps most ominously—the elevation of unabashed hate mongers—including those who traffic in racist and anti-Semitic tropes—to the highest offices. In France today, the daughter of an avowed Holocaust denier and rabid anti-Semite, someone who herself argues that French Jews ought not be permitted to wear kippot or hold dual citizenship with Israel, is emerging as a lead presidential candidate, again raising the terrifying specter of state supported anti-Semitism in Europe.

And still, the reality of anti-Semitism and the aching truth of the Shoah must not distort our judgment or weaken our discernment.

Not every criticism of Israeli policy, not every analysis of Jewish power or privilege is evidence of anti-Semitism. To turn every critic into an enemy is not only wrong, it is disingenuous and dangerous. It diminishes our ability to respond effectively to the real threat of anti-Semitism, to protect our communities and live by our core Jewish values. We must remember this.

Yom HaShoah is a day not only to mourn, but to rededicate ourselves. Let us remember the past in a way that transforms the present. In a landscape of increasing incivility and cruelty, we honor the memory of those whose lives were tragically cut short by living more compassionate, more purposeful, more meaningful, more dedicated lives.

Zikhronam livrakha– may their memories be a blessing.

Actor Tom Hanks with Auschwitz survivors Mary Bauer, left, and Betty Cohen, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on April 23. Photo by Danielle Berrin

Moving & Shaking: Tom Hanks, survivors and others do a live-reading of Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’


About 1,000 people attended a reading of “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his experience during the Holocaust, on April 23 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT) in observance of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, the first since Wiesel’s death in July.

“This afternoon’s reading is a wakeup call … a call to activism, to compassion, to understanding,” WBT Rabbi Susan Nanus, one of the event’s organizers, said during her introductory remarks.

Steven Z. Leder, WBT’s senior rabbi, was the first to read from the memoir. He was followed by readers who, among others, included actor Tom Hanks; talk show host Tavis Smiley; Rabbis David Wolpe, Karen Fox, Daniel Bouskila and Laura Geller; philanthropist Sharon Nazarian; Jewish Journal senior writer and columnist Danielle Berrin; and the consuls general of Germany and Israel in Los Angeles, Hans Jorg Neumann and Sam Grundwerg, respectively.

After the conclusion of the reading, which lasted about three hours, the audience in the synagogue’s Byzantine-revival sanctuary stood and observed a moment of silence and then recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

A video of the reading can be watched at jewishjournal.com.

On the same day at Congregation Kol Ami, a West Hollywood Reform synagogue, Danny Maseng, chazzan and spiritual leader of Makom LA, recited prayers and lit memorial candles during a ceremony in commemoration of Yom HaShoah.

“Human spirit is the light of God,” Maseng said.

Attendees included David Straus, a board member of Jewish World Watch, and Rev. Keith Cox, spiritual leader at the Center for Spiritual Living Los Angeles.

 

Episode 35 – Holocaust Memorial Day Special with Yad VaShem Chief Historian Prof. Dina Porat


Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorates the 6 million Jews who perished in the genocide. However, in order to prevent the crimes of history from repeating themselves, we cannot simply remember, we must learning from them. We must study the past and compare it to the present. Professor Dina Porat does exactly that at the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry. Every year on the eve of Yom Hashoah,  the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University publishes its Report on Antisemitism.

Professor Porat is also the chief historian of Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Museum and she joins Two Nice Jewish Boys in this episode for a special on Antisemitism and Yom HaShoah.

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Remembering is Important, but Now It’s Time to Step Up and Also Remind


Eight years ago, I stood on Auschwitz Birkenau’s railroad, where more than 1 million Jews were led to their death only 65 years beforehand.  It was part of a special 8-day journey offered to 11th graders in Israel, to travel to Poland and learn more, and from up-close, about the horrors of the Holocaust.

 

It took me a while to decide on whether I want to join this trip or stay home. Up until then, I had tried to avoid seeing and hearing too much about the Holocaust, fearing it would be too much for me to handle. But eventually I decided to join my classmates on what became the most meaningful experience of my life.

 

It took us a while to soak everything in, and realize what we’re seeing, hearing and touching. It was there, on Auschwitz Birkenau’s railroad, when the haze finally cleared. I remember standing there, waving the Israeli flag, and vowing to always remember and never forget.

 

On that day, I wrote in my journal:

 

“This feeling cannot be described on paper. You have to be there to feel this intense, powerful, complicated feeling. We marched, hugged together, in a concentration and death camp that looks as if 60 years never passed by. The only difference is that instead of the smell of scorched bodies, there’s the salty smell of tears. There is blue sky instead of no sky. Other than us, there was a church group, led by a priest, who also came to witness the unbelievable. I can’t describe the joy I felt knowing we are not the only ones who care. One by one, we begin to appreciate what we have. I am very lucky to be here today with my friends.”

 

Today, we mention Israel’s National Holocaust Remembrance Day, which should be a reminder to everyone, not only Israelis, to guarantee history doesn’t repeat itself.

 

Anti- Semitism is still alive and well, more bluntly than ever before. What was considered a taboo for decades, is now practically mainstream, as haters step out of the shadows. Behind computer screens, they spread hatred mixed with lies, which gives a shady legitimacy to them bluntly attack innocent civilians on the streets.

 

About 80 years ago, people in Germany were frustrated. The loss of WWI came with a high cost, and many were stripped of their assets and their pride.  People were looking for someone to blame, and a small political party came up with an answer. Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party blamed all of Germany’s problems on the Jews and the people followed. Some were just happy to hear that their problems are not their fault, others took action and joined the Nazi party’s efforts in “migrating the problem.” The seeds of hatred sawed by Hitler grew to become one of the darkest times in history, which we later swore to “never let happen again.”

 

Now, decades later, the path to destruction is being built again, and “never again” can no longer only be a saying. This is when it needs to become an action.

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Last night, I participated in an event called “A Memory in the Livingroom” (זיכרון בסלון), an alternative to official national ceremonies offered to Israelis on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, where we get to sit and talk to Holocaust survivors.

 

This is the fourth year I am participating, and every year a discussion begins, on what people will remember after the last survivor will pass away. This year, everyone agreed, unanimously, that the memory of the Holocaust will never die. We promised to not let it die, and it is our promise to keep. But the only way to do so, is by fighting the scary wave of Holocaust denial and all forms of radicalism that can easily give legitimacy to history repeating itself.

 

There’s always justification to be found and someone else to be blamed. Extremists will always find a way to act, spread false truths and raise their voices and their hands. It is up to us, the sane majority, to prevent radicalism from becoming the new normal.

 

This day is a reminder, for me and hopefully everyone else, to not only remember the Holocaust, but actively battle ignorance by sharing the truth and telling the stories. We can’t let Holocaust denial become louder than the truth. We must turn up the volume, REMEMBER AND REMIND.

 

The Eternal Flame memorial in Baku, Azerbaijan

Yom HaShoah: A Day of Remembrance and Reflection


We recently took in the news of chemical weapons used to murder children in Syria, an act few considered possible since a time 70 years ago, when over 1 million children were murdered by the Nazis. Our shock and outrage as a global community never fades, and our understanding of history seems to grow with the decades between then and now. But the sheer brutality with which these attacks have occurred reminds us of the true nature of evil and contempt for human life, as well as the capacity of intolerance to rearrange the human condition and spirit. The attack in Syria weighs on our minds, and is an important reason why we must never let the memory of a great tragedy as the Holocaust slip into the annuls of history past.

Yom Hashoah begins on the evening of April 23, 2017, a day to remember the 6 million Jews, the 5 million others, and the heroes that risked everything to save lives from the perpetrators and accessories to the Holocaust.

In my homeland of Azerbaijan, the remembrance of the Holocaust has always felt personal and close to home. Azerbaijan has always stood against hatred and fascism, and this was the case during the time of Nazism, as it is true today. History remembers Hitler’s vain attempt at capturing Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, which was key to his eventual defeat, when en route, his army endured Stalingrad. Azerbaijan was then, as it is today, a haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and neighboring regions.

In 2016, the Baku International Center for Multiculturalism and Baku Slavic University organized a roundtable of high level scholars to discuss the implications of the Holocaust today, and to do so through the lens of our own national tragedy, the Khojaly Massacre. This massacre was committed against innocent Azerbaijani civilians, including hundreds of children, women and elderly in February 1992 by invading Armenian troops. The Human Rights Watch called it the “largest massacre” in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and condemned the “unconscionable acts of violence against civilians” by the Armenian forces.

The said 2016 memorial in Baku for the 6 million Jews was mostly attended by Muslim students of the Baku Slavic University. And it is no coincidence. Holocaust studies are a part of the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan’s educational system, and with our strong Jewish population, deep ties to the State of Israel for 25 years, and our own experience during World War II, the Holocaust has, in many ways, left a permanent impression on Azerbaijan.

The Holocaust is one of many connections that tie Azerbaijan to the Jewish people. Jewish communities have also shown immense support to Azerbaijan for the endurance of our own tragedy. For the past several years, the Khojaly Massacre has been memorialized in Los Angeles, with Rabbis and synagogues leading the way in this compassionate, cross-cultural effort. Survivors that have participated in these remarkable memorials have noted the impact of feeling cared for by another, and how especially meaningful the memorialization of their tragedy was under the leadership of Jewish communities, to whom such tragedy is unfortunately very familiar. But it is precisely in that space of familiarity that remembering atrocities such as the Holocaust yields hope for a future free from the evils of hatred that made the Holocaust, and many other tragedies, possible.

Remembering the Holocaust is a truly universal undertaking. And yet, it should be looked at in context for a new generation of young people that have no connection to the experience of the past.  With so few survivors left to tell their stories, with few children of the children of survivors feeling the direct connection to a page in history in a world driven by 15 minutes of fame relegates this important time to ancient history.

No matter where you come from, no matter your religion or culture, every human life is precious and deserving of freedom and dignity. If we can cross the barriers of difference to memorialize such a tragedy, we can surely cross it for many other reasons and on many more days.

An undated portrait of Asher Arom, taken in Lizhensk, Poland. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My ancestor vanished in the Holocaust; 80 years later, I went looking for him


“I need to speak with you.”

Meylakh Sheykhet was a vision from the past. I had no idea who he was when he tapped me on the shoulder in the lobby of the Hotel Dnister in Lviv, Ukraine.

Tall and bearded, with sunken eyes, he cut a jarring figure in his ultra-Orthodox garb. Around us, a conference on Jewish life was in full swing. Meylakh had overheard me saying I was an intern with The Jerusalem Post. He wanted to tell me about the deteriorating state of Jewish sites in the city — and his fight to preserve them.

Meylakh’s work is motivated by an enduring respect, a fascination even, with the dead; they are never far from his mind. Meylakh fights long odds to save Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, to uncover and preserve the burial sites of sages and to stave off destruction when developers encroach on houses of prayer or their ruins. He sleeps little and makes plenty of enemies. We sat down together in the hotel lobby, and he began to talk, quickly and frantically.

To this day, I don’t know whether to thank Meylakh or to curse him. His tap on the shoulder launched an investigation into my roots that spanned two years, three continents and five generations.

As it turned out, my trip to Lviv had brought me within 100 miles of where many of my ancestors had lived and died, just across the border in Poland. Soon after, I found myself awake at odd hours, clicking frantically from link to link as I fell deeper and deeper down digital rabbit holes on websites dedicated to Jewish genealogy.

Names and dates began to harbor an outsized significance. I found myself assaulted by a confounding rush of details, illuminating and otherwise. One figure kept emerging out of that chaos, over and over again, capturing my imagination and curiosity. It was my great-grandfather, a holy man from a rabbinical lineage who made Torah his day and night’s labor. Before long, he was the centerpiece of my frenetic journey of discovery.

I knew then I had to take my search offline. I reached out to relatives whose identities I’d learned on the internet. I pestered my dad with questions. I devoured books on life in the shtetl and on the great Chasidic dynasties of Europe.

Months into my search, I came across my first authentic relic: the calligraphic handwriting of my great-grandfather, poetic Hebrew sentences intertwined with Torah verses in letters he’d written to family in Palestine. My eyes widened. The letters were an unbearably human fragment of a vanished and tragic past. He signed with the same Hebrew spelling as my father, Asher Arom, only adding a shin, vuv, bet afterward for shochet u’bodek, ritual slaughterer. Looking at those letters, I knew I had to go back to Eastern Europe.

As Jews, we’re told that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God writes and seals the fate of each living soul. So it stands to reason that in September 1939, He was busy plotting against my forebears in Europe.

At the dawn of the Jewish year 5700, one small town in Poland became the crime scene where the Creator carried out His conspiracy against my great-grandfather’s family, with the Nazis as instruments. I suppose you could say I went there to collect evidence to put Him on trial.

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Asher Arom in Lizhensk, Poland, in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My trip came less then two years after I first visited Eastern Europe. After two weeks of traveling with my father in Israel, I took a flight from Ben Gurion Airport to Lviv. From there, a bus took me through a foggy February morning and across the Polish border. Every once in a while, the bus swerved into an improbable clearing in the dark woods to pick up someone. My fellow passengers looked to be straight from central casting. The fat matron in the checkered frock, the cadaverous woman with suspicious eyes, the tall man reeking of cigarettes, with a pockmarked face and a jagged scar from the corner of his lip to his ear — these people all looked like they belonged here. The 22-year-old Jewish boy from Beverly Hills did not.

The bus dropped me off in Przemysl (pronounced PSHEH-meh-sheel), an old Polish city of about 65,000 on the San River, where unimaginative Soviet-era buildings fill spaces left by long-gone synagogues and study halls. The bus pulled up just outside the perimeter of the former ghetto where Asher likely was murdered.

When my guide, Maciej, met me in front of my hotel, he admitted he had been expecting a man twice my age. And indeed, the people I’ve met since who tend to take these forays into pre-Holocaust nostalgia are a generation or two my senior. But to see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

My great-grandfather’s legacy is no exception to the corrosive effect of the years. He was born in Przemysl, across the river from the Jewish quarter in a neighborhood called Zasanie, where his father, Gedalia, had been the head of a yeshiva.

Today, the synagogue in Zasanie stands abandoned and deteriorating behind barbed wire. The inn where Gedalia raised a large flock of children was long ago replaced by a blocky apartment complex, painted in primary colors. The Jewish cemetery, just down the highway from the city, has been covered for eight decades with fallen leaves and broken branches, leaving an overgrown warren of blank monuments, the inscriptions worn away by time. The only trace of my ancestors here is some cursive script in a yellowing Austrian record book in the florescent-lit reading room of the Przemysl National Archive.

Shortly after Maciej and I met, we drove 76 kilometers north through heath and woods to Lizhensk, the shtetl where my great-grandfather lived most of his life, now a drab industrial town of 15,000. A relative of mine had marked Asher’s home in red pen on a hand-drawn map of the pre-war town. We parked nearby, in an open-air lot the map indicated had once been the heart of the Jewish quarter.

A drizzle was falling as we plodded down a muddy slope toward the spot indicated on the map. There, on an unpaved path beneath a slate-gray sky was the low shack Asher had built, abandoned and ill-treated by time, its wood planks bent by years, wintery vines bursting through the eaves.

Lizhensk is best known within Poland for the brewery that took its name. To Chasidic Jews, though, Lizhensk is synonymous with Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, a founding father of Chasidism and the town’s most famous resident, Jewish or otherwise.

Chasidim maintain an active relationship with the dead. At midnight on the death anniversary of a great rabbi — and few are greater than Elimelech — it’s said that the souls of the departed descend to their gravesites and carry the prayers of the living up to heaven. Before World War II, Elimelech’s yarzheit drew crowds from across Europe to worship in the cave-like mausoleum where his remains lie.

The Nazis redrew the geography of Lizhensk’s onetime Jewish quarter, erasing the Street of Synagogues from the map. Now, a large, open-air parking lot stands in its place, ringed by a dreary neighborhood with a proliferation of seedy casinos and 24-hour bars. The cemetery is equally unrecognizable. Bulldozed by the Germans, the monuments dragged away as paving stones, it sat empty and ignored for decades. When Jews began to return in the 1980s — survivors and their families as well as Chasidic pilgrims — they dragged what tombstones they could find back to the graveyard, lining them up in arbitrary rows. Year after year, the crowds worshiping at the sage’s gravesite grew.

These days, in late February or early March, according to the fluctuations of the Jewish calendar, the streets fill with Jews in black hats and headscarves, from Brooklyn, Israel and beyond, in anticipation of the 21st of Adar. By the time I learned about the yarzheit, my picture of Eastern European Jewry was colored by its disappearance: magnificent synagogues reduced to rubble and cemeteries knocked over and built upon. Eastern Europe, to me, meant dead Jews. Somehow, I thought seeing some live ones there would be a comfort.

For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final.

When I arrived, on the last day of February 2016, the city was awash with pilgrims, their tour buses parked up the street from the cemetery. A series of white pavilions had been set up at the cemetery to accommodate thousands, from those hauling cauldrons for kosher stews to opportunistic salesmen hawking Jewish books from folding tables. A public address system had been set up in one of the tents to blast klezmer music. A pair of Chasidim with a microphone manned the PA system through the night, calling passersby to come “have a l’chaim!” with a swallow of schnapps or whiskey. Gaggles of local reporters had come to observe the oddity; one of the more savvy taxi drivers had posted the word monit, Hebrew for taxi, on his driver’s side windows.

On the site where Rabbi Elimelech is presumed to rest in the rebuilt cemetery, a white concrete structure, a mausoleum, of sorts. was built to accommodate prayers. Inside, a monument enclosed in a metal trellis was piled high with scribbled notes of supplication. Even some non-Jews see the site as holy: While I watched the room fill with Chasidim swaying in prayer, a Polish man with graying hair and far-off eyes entered and bared his head — an odd custom under the circumstances — then fell to his knees, clasping his hands together in silent benediction.

Over time, the town has developed an infrastructure to accommodate the annual influx. The building that had housed the mikveh, or ritual bath, somehow withstood World War II; afterward, a group of Chasidim acquired it and added a second story to form the Hachnasat Orachim of Lizhensk, a guesthouse for pilgrims. Worshipers now could find accommodations and a prayer hall — even a functioning mikveh. Soon, the pilgrimage outgrew that long, low barrack of a building, and just up the hill, a planned extension, a massive A-frame structure covered in Hebrew banners, was nearly complete. Between the two buildings was Asher’s home.

As I walked up, rabid barking erupted behind me. I wheeled around to face the largest German shepherd I’ve ever seen, howling at me murderously from behind a chain-link fence. I resisted a momentary urge to run: German shepherds always have conjured images of Nazi attack dogs for me. Instead, I scowled at the beast and turned back to the house, trying to ignore its bloodthirsty snarls.

In pictures I’d seen of the house, it was far from luxurious, but it was the type of place where you’d expect a penurious rabbi in a Polish backwater to live. At least, it looked habitable. On Google Maps street view, in a picture taken in 2012, a sedan is parked expectantly in the driveway. Seeing the place as it now was came as a gut punch.

The blemish on the doorpost where the mezuzah had once been was the only sign of its onetime inhabitants. The windows had been spray-painted white from the inside — for what reason, I can’t fathom, other than to rob descendants of the satisfaction of peering in. The place looked as if a strong gust of wind might take it down.

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

I wanted to see inside but quickly ruled out the idea of climbing through the loft window, which was missing its frame and panes. Instead, I took to the square below to see if I could learn who had the key. One by one, I sidled up to strangers who were milling about in the drizzle. My reluctant informants didn’t seem to know what to make of me. With a camera around my neck and a yarmulke pinned uneasily to my head as a form of self-identification, I fit in with neither the Chasidim nor the Poles. I managed to win some goodwill by pointing to the tumbledown shack up the hill and saying it once belonged to my great-grandfather. Soon enough, I learned the shack was now owned by the same Chasidim who operated the guesthouse. A less welcome revelation: Before long, they planned to tear it down to build more lodgings for travelers. Pilgrim after pilgrim told me to look for someone named Simha.

Simha Krakovski is a wiry man with a scraggly white beard who directs the guesthouse. I cornered him outside an upstairs prayer hall. As we spoke, sweaty yeshiva students with sparse beards and red faces crowded around to see why Krakovski — clearly a busy man at this time of year — was talking to the only non-Chasidic person in the building. As we spoke, some scholar of great importance swept by with a crowd of hangers-on, pressing us against a wall.

To see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

Krakovski indulged me briefly with the story of his early days in Lizhensk, some 25 years ago. “I first came to pray, and when I wanted to use the bathroom, there was no bathroom,” he told me in Hebrew. “I had to pay a gentile woman a dollar to use hers, and it stank.”

I told him who I was and about my ancestor. He told me, yes, they’d acquired the house and were planning to knock it down to expand the accommodations — a dining room, lodgings, he couldn’t be sure, exactly. I asked if the new complex had a name, and why not name it after this pious man, this ghost of mine? He made it clear naming rights could be had — for a price. Come find him tomorrow, he said, and we could talk.

After he left, the young men closed ranks around me, questioning me in English and Hebrew. Did I have money? What did my father do? Is he rich? Suddenly, I felt the flush that was reddening their faces. I was too hot in my wool coat. I stepped outside and back into the drizzle.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t. It made me feel more alone, more abandoned, orphaned by history.

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

I never found Simha Krakovski again. But the next day, I was back inside the guest house, in the office of Krakovski’s colleague, Menashe Lifshitz, a Chasid from B’nai Brak, in Israel. He told me how they’d bought the shack some years back from a Polish woman who lived there, paying her what he assured me was three times the fair price.

When the guesthouse was established, he said, many of the surrounding houses still bore outlines on the doorposts where their onetime inhabitants had fixed mezuzahs. As people got the money to fix up their homes, most were painted over. The blemish where Asher had nailed his mezuzah into the threshold was the last one that remained.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t.

Lifshitz worked out of a small, cluttered office with a twin bed and a small desk on the second story of the former mikveh building. The entirety of the window in the office faces the southeastern wall of my great-grandfather’s home. Before the second story was added, Asher would have had an unobstructed view of the cemetery. He would have been able to watch as the candles burned in Rabbi Elimelech’s tomb through the night.

I asked if I could see the inside of the house. Any other time of year, Lifshitz assured me, it could be arranged. With the pilgrimage in full swing, it would be difficult. He couldn’t be too sure where the key was.

The mikveh building where Menashe Lifshitz kept his office plays a significant part in the story I’ve learned about my great-grandfather.

As it goes, when the Cossacks came during World War I, most of Asher’s family fled. Asher stayed behind so nobody with a chicken or livestock would go hungry for lack of a slaughterer to prepare it. One day, as he was walking outside, a group of Cossacks spotted him and followed. He led them to the mikveh and jumped into the depths, hiding beneath the sacred waters, where he was spared.

But his luck would run out before long. When murderers again came to his town, their fury would be greater and more destructive than the town had ever seen.

The Nazis entered Lizhensk during Rosh Hashanah 1939. On Sukkot, they rounded up the Jews in the market square. A persistent downpour soaked the crowd. The frightened townsfolk were uncertain what fate awaited them — death or deportation, bullets or banishment. Panic ruled.

And Asher was missing.

My understanding of these events is informed entirely by the adolescent memories of his granddaughter, Leah Braude. Leah’s, father, Chaskel Nissenbaum, was a slaughterer and Asher’s student. Later, when Nissenbaum traveled to Germany to ply his trade, returning only for holidays, Asher became something of a father figure to his young granddaughter.

After the war, Leah set down some of her memories from that time in what became the Lizhensk Yizkor Book, a collection of remembrances published in Israel and dedicated to the town’s martyrs. In one of the passages, she described her grandfather, who had “a smile that imparted pleasantness whenever I desired a smile.” This is the last living account of my great-grandfather — but the rest of the Yizkor Book provides a colorful recollection of a vanished world.

The last time Shabbat candles glowed in the windows of Asher’s home, it was earlier in 1939 and the forests surrounding the town were alive with the spirits of the Chasidic imagination.

The cave of Elimelech was just beyond where the town met the woods. The sage’s tomb commanded a view of the Jewish quarter, a slope of wooden homes leading up to Ulica Boznica, the Street of Synagogues.

Lizhensk was a town of a typical European mold: Sledding and ice skating in winter, and sweltering summers. Leading off the market square, where Jewish tradesmen and businessmen mixed with their Polish and Ukrainian counterparts, the synagogue street formed the heart of the Jewish quarter.

Here, Jewish homes abutted schoolrooms and yeshivas, synagogues and study halls. On Shabbat eve, the sexton would knock with his wooden hammer and call, “Jews, Jews, to the synagogue!” as the smell of fried onions and kugels filled the air.

Before the war, Jews and gentiles mixed for good and ill. The Lizhensker Jews were not spared their share of anti-Semitism; Jewish schoolchildren were regularly beaten to cries of “dirty Jew!” Sometimes, one of the nastier teachers would even join in. In spite of all that, here and there friendships grew. Gentiles dropped in on Jewish households for the lighting of Shabbat candles.

What made Lizhensk different from other shtetls, though, was the great rabbi who took its name, and who, more than a century after his death, drew mourners from across the continent to his grave. The custodians of his earthly remains, the Jews of Lizhensk, tended to be an industrious and religious lot, if poor; Asher Arom no doubt fit that mold.

Leah, barely a teenager when war separated her from her beloved Chasid, with his snowy sidecurls and white beard down to his chest, recalled in the Yizkor Book his deep devotion and fervent prayer: “My grandfather made his nights like his days, and studied Torah. His tune in the nights is woven in the depths of my dreams and adds to their sweetness.”

Shortly before death came to the rest of Lizhensk, it visited the home of the ritual slaughterer.

“May the One who consoles Zion and builds Jerusalem offer us a double portion of consolation,” Asher wrote to his son Shmuel in Palestine on the Tuesday after the reading of Parashat Bamidbar in May 1938  — he made a practice of marking the date by the Torah reading. His letters are nearly eight decades years old, but the grief they convey seems fresh, even raw.

Leah’s account had led me to her daughter, Sima Braude Marberg, a kindly woman and a distant cousin of mine who teaches tai chi in the courtyard of her apartment building on a tree-lined street in of Haifa. When I visited, she produced a binder full of old letters in plastic protectors, some of them written in Asher’s practiced, looping script.

The tales from the deathbeds of great Chasidic sages often recount a transformation as their souls hover between this world and the next. These were the terms in which Asher described the death of his wife, born Chaia Rachel Brand, my great-grandmother: “On the seventh day of the month of Iyar” — April 26, 1939 — “early in the morning at 2 a.m., her soul began slipping away from her body until she passed away at 9:30 in the morning,” he wrote to his son in Palestine. “The house was full of men and women.”

The death left her husband disconsolate.

“Rachel, the mainstay of the house, how were you taken to be buried in the ground — where finally your bones could find a resting place — but leave us to our moaning and sorrow?” he wrote. “Who will mend our broken hearts that have been torn asunder and broken into pieces?”

He delivered a eulogy. “By dint of her wisdom she was the principal force, the one who always could advise the proper path, for me and for all those who turned to her for direction,” he told those assembled. “I continued, as is my wont, to expound midrashim and Biblical verses in my eulogy, and the entire congregation broke out in tears, sobbing.”

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The community took Chaia Rachel to be buried, and then Asher led evening prayers. Afterward, he wrote, “I was overcome by a terrible burning sensation. The doctor was called, and I was carried to my bed, where I lay without feeling.”

It must have seemed the world was ending. Two of his sons had earlier abandoned Poland for Mandatory Palestine. Now their mother was gone. Bedridden, Asher was found to have a high fever. Death must have seemed near for him, too. But a week later, after the shiva had ended, he recovered, physically if not emotionally: “I now feel well and have returned to work,” he wrote.

“I ask of you to recite Kaddish throughout the entire year, every day without fail,” he bid his son. “And if there is someone with you in your kibbutz who can study mishnayot [talmudic tractates] with you — even just a few mishnayot — then you can say Kaddish afterward in memory of, and for the benefit of the soul of the righteous woman, Chaia Rachel bas Luria Simcha, of blessed memory. And in this merit you and your offspring be successful. May you find material success and enjoy long lives, and raise your son to every good end. Your father, signing with tears.”

The end for the Lizhensk Jews came quickly, before the townsfolk knew it.

In the martyrs’ book and in video interviews with the USC Shoah Foundation, survivors recount with bitter embarrassment a period of obliviousness, of false security, as the forces of destruction massed just beyond the town’s border. Few had radios in their homes, so a doctor who lived in the market square would place his receiver by a window and raise the volume so people could listen in the street below. One survivor, then a girl of 10, remembered standing in the square and hearing Edward Rydz-Smigły, the marshal of Poland’s armed forces, declaring, “We won’t give away even a button — nothing!” Soon, he had given away everything.

The invasion of Poland began on Sept. 1, 1939. By Sept. 3, German bombs had destroyed the railroad tracks in Lizhensk, the only link between the town and the outside world. When crews came to repair their tracks, aerial machine gun fire chased them off.

Jews left the city in droves, only to return hours or days later after finding the surrounding country in a similar state of pandemonium. Those who returned on Rosh Hashanah eve found German troops in town. The Nazis turned the holiday into a carnival of mockery, cutting beards off of men and forcing them to march in circles around a tree.

The Germans were in the mood for arson when they came to Asher Arom’s house on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. Earlier that night, soldiers had barged into the synagogues, demanding volunteers for work. In a surprising act of mercy, they allowed the congregants to evacuate the synagogues, but their intentions were clear. They brought kerosene and kindling. Then they set the buildings ablaze.

The main concern for many of these Jews, it turned out, was not preserving their property or protecting their families, but finding a place to finish praying. With the ashes of the holy places still choking the air, “it was told to them that grandfather had made his house open for the needs of prayer,” Leah recalled in the Yizkor Book.

Some two dozen Jews gathered at the ritual slaughterer’s home. The Nazis quickly learned what was going on. They chased away the prayer quorum but locked my great-grandfather inside. Soon, they returned with bundles of straw and rags soaked in kerosene. Leah’s sister Sarah, then a girl of 16, begged for her grandfather’s life, weeping. The Germans ignored her, intent on burning the 72-year-old alive. Only when a gentile woman who lived next door joined in Sarah’s protest did the Nazis relent.

“She was afraid her home would catch fire, as well,” Leah wrote. “The Germans returned the key to my sister and removed the flammable material from around the house, and grandfather was again saved from certain death.”

On Yom Kippur, we are taught, the ink is still wet in the Book of Life. Even the hosts of heaven shrink in terror as the Creator ponders fates: “The Angels of heaven are dismayed and seized by fear,” the prayer goes. “The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard.” Was anyone fool enough, or fervent enough, to blow the shofar in Lizhensk that year? Did anybody hear the still, small voice?

By the Day of Atonement in 1939, the Jews of Lizhensk were afraid to walk in the streets for the harassment it undoubtedly would bring. Those still inclined to pray mostly stayed home and found a quiet corner to do so.

For the Chasidim of Lizhensk, the world to come must have seemed nearer than ever. Yet they were not ill-prepared to meet their end. For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final. When sickness or disasters struck, the Lizhenskers would climb the hill of the cemetery to ask the dead to intercede on their behalf. Orphaned brides and grooms would go there to invite their deceased parents to celebrate their wedding. The place abounded with legend.

It was to those old stones that Asher Arom would retire when he could wrest a moment from the demands of work, family and study.

“He would spend hour after hour there cleaning the gravestones and making the inscriptions clearer,” his granddaughter Leah wrote. “When the Messiah comes, each minute will be precious and holy, and it would be a shame if time would be wasted on clarifying the blurred inscriptions.”

Sometimes, he brought Leah to weed the grass around the graves. Once, he explained to her why he did it: “Death is nothing but the natural continuation of life,” he said. “And if we love a life of cleanliness and being cared for, we must give this also to the dead. We must look after the gravestones, just as we look after our home.”

The bitter irony is that his body most likely went up in smoke or was tossed in a mass, unmarked grave.

The circumstances of 1939 gave new meaning to the Yamin Noraim, the Days of Awe — more literally, the days of terror between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “We sat with closed doors and shut windows,” survivor Shaul Spatz recalled in the Yizkor Book. “The silence outside was only interrupted by the occasional thumps of the boots of the German soldiers.”

Soon it was time to erect their sukkot, but the familiar sounds of hammers hitting nails were absent. “That year, all Jewish homes remained exposed without sukkot attached to their walls,” he wrote. “In the Jewish street, fear walks. Apprehension replaced the joy of the holiday.”

You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

Then, the rumors of a roundup came true: The next morning, the Jews were to report to the market square.

“I don’t remember which one of our neighbors told us that we had to leave the house,” Spatz wrote. “We fearfully gathered a few of our belongings.”

Hundreds of Jews already had assembled when Spatz arrived. “It was raining,” he recalled. “Our bundles were wet and their weight increased by the moment.”

Death was the punishment for absence, and yet there was no trace of Asher.

Leah had arrived at the square with her parents and sister. Her mother, Gittel, must have been frantic: Simcha, Gittel’s only son, was away at yeshiva in Lublin. Later, Leah’s daughter Sima told me, Gittel had risked a summary execution and snuck back across the San River to see if her boy had come home to find his family, but there was no trace of him, either.

Tension mounted. Anxiety and anguish boiled like puddles in a hard rain. And still Asher was missing.

“We were unable to search for him without being shot,” his granddaughter wrote. “At the last moment, as we organized into rows for the gloomy march, he appeared next to us, calm and filled with family warmth. He was wearing his clean Sabbath clothing, and had his tallis and tefillin bag with him.”

His family scolded him, but, “He smiled and mocked us: What is all the confusion? For it is impossible to believe these murderers. However, perhaps they indeed intend to kill us. Therefore, I went to the mikveh to purify myself, and now I am ready and prepared if it is the will of our Creator, the Creator of the world who determines the fate of man.”

The march began, 2 1/2 miles to the banks of the San River. “The Jews traveled with their heads down, their eyes toward the ground, as if they were guilty of some terrible deed,” another survivor wrote in the Yizkor Book.

When they got there, the Germans unrolled a sheet and commanded the Jews to drop any valuables onto it, on penalty of death. To show they were serious, they shot one of the Jews on the spot. But when the Jews then were ordered across a makeshift bridge, suddenly they were alone; the opposite bank was Soviet territory. Two years before the Wannsee Conference and the decision to implement the Final Solution, the Nazis seemed content with banishment. “So ceased to be one Jewish community in the first days of the war,” Spatz wrote.

Leah and her family headed east, surviving deportation to Siberia and eventually making their way to Israel. But Asher seemed to resign himself to his doom.

The conclusion of his granddaughter’s recollection is as terse as the rest of it is reverent: “When we crossed the San, we continued to wander in the direction of Przemysl. Grandfather was a native of Przemysl, and he decided to remain there until the storm would pass. After we took leave of him, we never met again. He succumbed to the murderous Nazis.”

Was he murdered when the Germans rounded up and killed the entire Jewish population of Zasanie in June 1942? Was he sent to Belzec some two months later along with 12,500 Jewish residents of Przemysl? Or would he have lived to the very end and been one of the 1,000 murdered behind the Judenrat building, during the final liquidation of Przemysl’s Jews, when the shooting went on for six hours?

What became of Asher Arom remains an intractable and deeply frustrating mystery to me. The only evidence of his death is a small, yellowing scrap of paper on which his son Shmuel, my grandfather, scribbled a contradictory series of Hebrew and Gregorian dates, recorded, probably, from phone calls from family and former neighbors after the war.

But how he died doesn’t interest me quite so much as how he lived. I’m still waiting to stumble on the single detail that will bring events from Lizhensk back to life for me, even just momentarily, in a brilliant flash of transplanted memory. I didn’t find it in Poland. Most of my time in Lizhensk was spent ambling from spot to spot, possessed by a sense of detachment, the drizzle dampening my mood. Even the beards and shawls and the prayerful wailing through the night failed to conjure anything profound.

There’s a disconnect I can’t get past. The removal is too great, the violence too jarring, the years too many. Sitting in the main square in Lizhensk, brooding over a notebook and trying to figure out how to feel, it didn’t really land that this was the same square where the Jews had gathered on Sukkot, where Leah had fretted over her grandfather. Would that it had, I might have decided to hike from Lizhensk to the river, following in the path of my ancestor, letting March showers stand in for fall rain. I didn’t. I’m not sure what I would have gained from it.

My ghosts have become better defined since I went looking for them, but they remain no less puzzling, no less tiresome and my relationship with them no less one-sided. They remain ghosts, dead things, dust and forgotten secrets. You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

To those planning a foray into their family history  by buying a plane ticket to Poland, my advice is: You might want to reconsider. You will find no answers there. Seeing will bring you no more comfort than knowing. Only emptiness and grief remain for the likes of me, and faint traces of a bitter past. Soon, those too will be gone.

David Benson (left) and his brother, Andrew Benson, accompany their grandmother, Holocaust survivor Sidonia Lax, on the 2015 International March of the Living. Photo courtesy of David Benson.

Who will tell survivors’ stories when they’re gone?


In the spring of 2011, David Benson, found himself walking with his grandmother, Holocaust survivor Sidonia Lax, down the “black path” that once led to the crematorium at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was Lax’s fifth trip with the annual International March of the Living as a survivor, with the Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) teen delegation, his first as part of a large family contingent with the BJE Los Angeles adult group.

As they headed toward the massive circular mausoleum that now stands at the end of the path, holding the ashes of some of the approximately 59,000 Jews and 19,000 non-Jews who were murdered there, Benson, then 35, found himself alone with his grandmother, then 83, for the first time during the trip. Something came over him, something that he can’t explain to this day, and he vowed, “As long as you want to come on this trip, I will come with you. And I’ll come in your stead when you can’t anymore.”

Benson’s sacred promise to his grandmother represents a welcome response to a mounting challenge facing museums, historians and educators as survivors of Nazi-era atrocities grow old and die, taking their firsthand accounts with them: How will their memories be kept alive for future generations? More and more, it is the survivors’ descendants — their sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — who are taking on that responsibility, and beyond them, anyone who hears their stories.

It also is spurring wider efforts to record survivors talking about their exploits for posterity, much in the way the USC Shoah Foundation videotaped more than 50,000 testimonies of Jewish survivors between 1994 and 1999 and how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is continuing to expand its collection of more than 12,000 audio and video recordings of Jewish survivors.

Benson is one of the many children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of survivors — known within the Holocaust community as Second, Third and Fourth Generation — who are stepping up to tell the survivors’ stories as educational programs, institutions and museums worldwide prepare for a world without survivors.

For the past five years, Benson has left behind his wife, his two young children and his business for a week to accompany his grandmother to Poland. This year, after 10 March of the Living trips, Sidonia is unable to participate. And although David cannot attend this year because of preparations for Sidonia’s 90th birthday and other conflicts, he already has signed up to lead an adult group next year.


“As long as you want to come on this trip, I will come with you. And I’ll come in your stead when you can’t anymore.”

— David Benson, to his grandmother, on a march of the living trip to Poland


He knows his grandmother’s story intimately, how she and her parents had been crammed into a small cellar bunker with 35 people in the Przemysl ghetto in Poland for three months in the fall of 1943. An escape plan for her family failed, and her mother was captured and later murdered. A few days later, her father slipped out of the bunker in search of a smuggled apple for his severely undernourished daughter. He never returned.

Benson has followed his grandmother inside her former barracks in Birkenau, one of six camps in which she was imprisoned, where she’s pointed and said, “This is the bunk where I slept.”

“There’s nothing like someone, firsthand, standing there and saying that,” said Monise Neumann, director of the BJE Center for Teen Experiential Education, who has led 12 trips with the BJE Los Angeles delegation. “You can’t duplicate that.” Still, she said, “David serves as an amazing kind of figure as we transition from firsthand witnesses.”

Seven decades ago, at the end of World War II, approximately 3.8 million European Jews were alive, according to research by demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, among Jews who were in camps, ghettos or hiding under Nazi occupation, only 100,000 worldwide are alive, including 14,000 in the United States, Amy Wexler, public relations manager for The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, said via email.

In Los Angeles, extrapolating from the 1997 Jewish Population Survey, in which survivors self-identified, demographic researcher Pini Herman estimated the current number of living survivors at 3,000, excluding child survivors, those born Jan. 1, 1928, or later.

But even among the living survivors, many are ill or memory-impaired. And others, especially those born toward the end of World War II, survivors by definition, simply were too young to consciously recall their Holocaust ordeals.

In 2016, the BJE Los Angeles March of the Living delegation had only five survivors, the smallest group since it began participating in 1988. And these were mostly child survivors. This year, six are participating, all child survivors.

Over the years, staff members have become the storytellers for the next generation. Freddy Diamond, a survivor who accompanied the group five times over 10 years, used to stand outside Block 11 of Auschwitz, telling students the story of how his brother Leo, a member of a little-known resistance group, was tortured and hanged in front of 15,000 inmates. When Diamond could no longer attend, Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate director, stood outside Block 11, holding a photo of Diamond and relating his story. Now Neumann tells it.

“Look, it’ll never be the same,” Neumann said. “But because of the way the stories are being told, people will tell you that they’ll always remember them.”

In more recent years, Neumann and others have recorded survivors recounting their stories at different locations in Poland. Staff members carry these narratives on their digital devices.

Neumann also enlists the help of Third and Fourth Generation survivors who are March of the Living participants. In 2015, Caroline Lowy, then an 18-year-old student at Milken Community Schools, stood near a cattle car on the Auschwitz-Birkenau tracks and talked about how her great-grandfather Hugo Lowy arrived at Auschwitz in April 1944. He was dispatched to a line of men selected to work, but he refused to part with his tallit bag, which a guard grabbed and threw to the ground. When the guard turned his back, Hugo retrieved the bag, refusing to go anywhere without his tallit and tefillin. The guard beat him to death.

Caroline had attended the dedication of the cattle car in 2010, which had been restored and donated to Auschwitz-Birkenau by Hugo Lowy’s son, her grandfather Frank Lowy. She felt honored to retell the story to her peers, though it was difficult. But, she said, “I have a duty as a young Jewish person to keep telling the stories.”

Survivor John Adler and daughter Eileen Eandi speak at the Museum of Tolerance last June. Photo by Jane Ulman

Survivor John Adler and daughter Eileen Eandi speak at the Museum of Tolerance last June. Photo by Jane Ulman

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened in 1977, the organization sent survivors into the community to share their stories. And survivors have been speaking at the Museum of Tolerance, the Wiesenthal Center’s educational arm, since it was opened in 1993. Currently, the museum boasts a roster of 45 survivor speakers.

“There really is a difference when it is the survivor standing up and telling their own testimony,” said Elana Samuels, director of museum volunteer services at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

When survivor John Adler, now 93, came to Samuels more than three years ago, he said with tears in his eyes, “I can’t speak anymore. I have to retire.” Samuels suggested they approach his daughter, Eileen Eandi.

Eandi, 67, had wanted to become involved with the museum. Plus, she said, “I wanted to do this for my father. I wanted to be involved in carrying the story forward.”

Eandi researched her father’s experiences, putting together a timeline and selecting photographs, and then worked with Samuels and Emily Thompson, a Museum of Tolerance intern at the time, to present the story in a creative but compassionate way.

In her presentation, Eandi focuses on her father’s growing up in pre-Holocaust Germany as a child and teenager. Adler’s family moved to Breslau in 1933, where they lived on a main street that contained the headquarters of the local chapter of Nazi stormtroopers, who emerged every morning marching and singing. They then hung out in the cul-de-sac where the Adler family’s apartment building stood, forcing Adler to pass them on his way to school every morning.

In 1937, when Adler was 14, the Jewish school he attended closed. No longer able to use its sports field, Adler and his best friend went to a local public field, where one day they were accosted by three Nazi youths on bicycles. Adler and his friend bloodied their noses and the young Nazis hastily retreated. But several visits later, the boys were met by older Nazi youths who punched Adler, breaking his glasses and his bicycle. He limped home.

After this experience, followed by Kristallnacht in November 1938, Adler joined a hakhshara, a kind of kibbutz where he learned agricultural skills necessary for immigration to Palestine.

Adler’s parents left for Shanghai in February 1939, and Adler, not quite 16, left for Palestine on Aug. 30, 1939, two days before Germany invaded Poland. He joined a kibbutz, and at 18, he enlisted in the British army.

At the end of every presentation, Adler rises and answers questions. “The mood changes totally when my father stands up. There’s nothing like having this person in front of you,” Eandi said, adding that people want to hug him, shake his hand and be photographed with him.

Eandi doesn’t know what she’ll do after her father no longer can accompany her, unsure how effective her talk will be without him. But Adler’s plan is that his daughter will speak for him for a long time, followed by his grandson, Matthew Eandi. “I don’t ever want [the Holocaust] to be forgotten,” Adler said.


“The mood changes totally when my father stands up. There’s nothing like having this person in front of you.”

  Eileen Eandi, daughter of a holocaust survivor


Using the experience of Eandi and Adler as her model, Samuels reached out to other Second and Third Generation descendants to form a group called Looking to the Future, which first met in November 2013. And while some of the participants are working with various media to carry forward a parent’s or grandparent’s legacy — including film, photography or memoir projects — Samuels wants to make sure that storytelling remain the centerpiece of these efforts.

“Clearly, the most important program we offer is our witness to truth testimony, where every day we are open, visitors have the opportunity to sit in a room and hear primary testimony,” she said.

As the Looking to the Future group envisions a future without survivors and focuses on building the next generation of speakers, Samuels acknowledged that it’s also important to incorporate compelling video testimony, such as footage from a USC Shoah Foundation interview. “You need that emotional connection,” she said.

These Holocaust eyewitnesses, who are now revered, were shunned in the first two decades after World War II, sociologist Arlene Stein writes in her book “Reluctant Witnesses.” Even those who wanted to speak were told to keep quiet and move on with their lives. Only the survivors — and there were few — who had fought in wartime resistance were celebrated.

But by 1962, as survivors testified at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann trial, revealing the enormity of the horrors they suffered, the world became more receptive to hearing their stories. Through the 1970s, the Second Generation, whose lives had been overshadowed by the Holocaust, came of age. And as they sought to carve out their own identities amid the social and political upheaval in the United States, they prodded their parents to talk about their Holocaust pasts.

In 1993, the film “Schindler’s List” opened to wide acclaim. “It made the Holocaust more accessible to the general public and it gave the average survivor greater confidence to be able to speak,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Today, survivors are viewed as heroes. They have taken on a mantle of moral authority as, even in their 80s and 90s, they continue to share their narratives, to testify to what really occurred, to thwart Holocaust deniers and to encourage people to love, hope and create a better world.

And Holocaust museums and organizations worldwide are stepping up their programs to provide them with speaking opportunities. Last month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began a program called “First Person, Conversations With Survivors.” It includes two sessions a week with survivors and continues through Aug. 10.

Survivor Pinchas Gutter answers questions during filming of USC Shoah Foundation’s “New Dimensions in Testimony” project. Photo courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation

Survivor Pinchas Gutter answers questions during filming of USC Shoah Foundation’s “New Dimensions in Testimony” project. Photo courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation

“I tell my story for the purpose of improving humanity, drop by drop by drop,” said Pinchas Gutter, an 84-year-old survivor originally from Lodz, Poland.‭ ‬But for decades after the war, Gutter was silent, afraid to burden his children with his sad stories. Then in 1992, historian Paula Draper approached him in Toronto, where he has lived since 1985, convincing him of the importance of giving testimony.

“I cried. I was shaking. It was very, very difficult,” he recalled. It wasn’t until 10 years later, when Gutter was the subject of a documentary called “The Void: In Search of Memory Lost,” filmed in Poland and directed by Smith before his tenure at the USC Shoah Foundation, that he could talk more easily about his time in the Warsaw Ghetto and in six concentration camps, including Majdanek, where his twin sister, at age 10, and his parents were murdered. “It was cathartic,” Gutter said of his participation in the film. Since then, he has spoken and continues to speak, all over the world.

And now, thanks to a USC Shoah Foundation project called “New Dimensions of Testimony,” Gutter will live on as an interactive survivor, in a life-size, three-dimensional video display in which he presents his story and then answers direct questions, making eye contact with the audience. “That never existed before in any other context before this project,” said Smith, explaining that the project uses automatic speech recognition software to access a databank of more than 1,500 questions that Gutter has previously answered.

But what’s missing in these interactive encounters, Smith explained, are the nuances of conversation, both in body language and in personalization. Still, Smith believes the audience engages with the witness, not the technology. “What we’re trying to create is something that is a little more natural in terms of how we inquire about the past of an individual,” he said.

The project is still in the trial phase, with the interactive Gutter, currently in a two-dimensional format, now on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie as well as Holocaust museums in Toronto, Houston and Terre Haute, Ind. Twelve additional English-speaking Holocaust survivors and one Mandarin-speaking survivor of the Nanjing Massacre, which occurred Dec. 13, 1937, through January 1938, have been interviewed, a process that takes days. Those videos have yet to be edited.

Gutter hopes many more survivors will be able to participate. He doesn’t want the Holocaust to become just an academic endeavor, with possible distortions and inaccuracies. “When you see a documentary, it doesn’t have the same effect on you,” he said. “I’ve watched people interacting with me [on the two-dimensional projected image] and, believe me, the effect it has on them, they will never forget it.”

The USC Shoah Foundation, always has been focused on preparing for a time when there will be no survivors. Over the years, foundation officials have learned, Smith said, to trust audiences with the stories, sharing them on social media and entrusting students and teachers with the testimony. “The more we trust them to own the story, the more likely they are to tell the story to their own generation,” Smith said.

Currently, the USC Shoah Foundation is in the second year of a five-year project called the Visual History Archive Program, in which it will share and augment 53,000 video testimonies, including survivors of other genocides, with scholars, educators, descendants of survivors and organizations. “This gives us an opportunity to work with multiple audiences on figuring out how they best want to use this content or contribute to this content in the future,” Smith said.

Currently, 1,815 USC Shoah Foundation testimonies can be accessed online at vhaonline.usc.edu, and in Southern California, the full collection can be viewed at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), Chapman University and the USC campus.

Additionally, with what Smith called “a tight deadline,” the USC Shoah Foundation is continuing to work with survivors to find other ways of telling their stories, engaging them in the process so that it’s a partnership in figuring out the best ways to enable their voices to live on. “That’s very much at the heart of the mission and something we share with the survivors themselves,” Smith said.

Beth Kean, executive director of LAMOTH and herself a Third Generation survivor, is uncomfortable talking about the loss of survivors. “Yes, that’s a fact,” she said, “but there are hundreds, probably thousands, alive right now, so let’s do whatever we can to engage with them even more.”

Survivors always have been at the heart of the museum’s mission. In fact, it was a group of survivors, who were then calling themselves former German prisoners, who met at Hollywood High School while taking English classes and  founded the museum in 1961. It was to be a place where they could tell their stories and a place that charged no admission.

That hasn’t changed. Today, there are about 35 core survivors who speak in the Sunday Survivor Speaker Series and whenever a school, law enforcement or teacher education group comes to visit.

Over the past several years, the museum has reached out to more survivors, particularly child survivors, and worked to connect all of their survivors with as many students as possible in a variety of what LAMOTH calls “Art and Memory Programs.” In these activities, students and survivors interact in less traditional, more informal settings.

Children and grandchildren of the survivors also play an important role in keeping memories alive.

3G@LAMOTH is a program founded in 2013 by Third Generation survivors Rebecca Katz and Caitlin Kress. The members, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, work on ways of carrying forward their grandparents’ legacies, meeting regularly for narrative workshops, film screenings and other events.

Marissa Lepor, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, and her grandmother, survivor Sarah Jacobs, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Marissa Lepor

Marissa Lepor, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, and her grandmother, survivor Sarah Jacobs, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Marissa Lepor

Marissa Lepor, 23, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, found strength confronting her life challenges — although not comparable, she pointed out — by learning about her grandparents’ Holocaust travails. Her grandmother, Sarah Jacobs, now 92, was 3 when her mother died in childbirth and 15 when she lost the grandmother who raised her. Three years later, Jacobs was taken to Landeshut and then Peterswaldau, both subcamps of Gross-Rosen concentration camp. After the war, in 1950, she and her husband, Max Jacobs, immigrated to Los Angeles, where they raised a family.

Now Lepor brings together 3G members and other interested millennials to an event she calls Startup Stories, which began in the summer of 2015. There, Lepor briefly recounts her grandparents’ stories and interviews two or three Holocaust survivors about how they dealt with the challenges of rebuilding their war-torn lives.

“Learning from [the survivors] is really a privilege,” Lepor said.

“It’s really important today for the 2Gs and 3Gs especially to be stewards of that history. We have this responsibility to retell our parents’ and grandparents’ history,” Kean said.

Other programs at LAMOTH are aimed at young people who may not have a familial connection to the Holocaust.

L’Dough V’Dough, launched in 2012, brings together students elementary school age and older, as well as adults, to braid and bake challah while sharing stories and sometimes personal artifacts. “It’s transformative for these students,” Kean said.

And in Voices of History, students in various high schools and colleges reflect on and retell survivors’ testimony, which they condense into short films that are used in teacher-training workshops on the Holocaust and in school classrooms.

In the summer of 2015, for example, students in a digital storytelling workshop at Harvard-Westlake School toured the museum and later filmed survivor Dana Schwartz as she related her story. The students then produced an eight-minute, mostly animated film, “The Story of Three Rings,” depicting Schwartz’s life as a 6-year-old confined with her parents in the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, in November 1941. When deportations began four months later, the family hid in a cramped hole. Then, with false papers her father had procured, Schwartz and her mother escaped to a nearby town, posing as non-Jewish Poles until the war’s end.

Students also interpret these narratives through music, photography and theater.

This year, LAMOTH teamed with students from Santa Monica High School’s theater department to present “Voices of Survivors,” in which students performed some of the more chilling scenes from the lives of four survivors. During the eight-week project, the 35 students visited the museum, where they learned about the Holocaust and then met with the survivors in preparation for scripting their scenes, with help from Writer’s Room Productions, and performing them on March 22.

What does it mean for an elder who was a child in the worst possible moment of Jewish modern history to be connected to a child who’s living in a time and place of unprecedented prosperity?” That was the question Samara Hutman, director of Remember Us: The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project and The Righteous Conversations Project, asked.

And that became the genesis of The Righteous Conversations Project, which began in 2011, connecting teenagers with Holocaust survivors. Since then, the two generations have come together at various synagogues and schools for discussions, filmmaking and other creative workshops, and social justice work, which includes relating the survivors’ experiences to current issues and filming more than 60 public service announcements on subjects such as bullying, Islamophobia and racial discrimination.

“The central piece is the reciprocity of the exchange,” Hutman said, explaining that the students then become the stewards of the survivors’ stories, finding a way to honor and carry forward the their words. “There’s love and memory that doesn’t leave.”

Survivor Helen Freeman, 95, who has taken part in Righteous Conversations Project workshops since the organization’s founding, understands the power of these intergenerational encounters.

At the culmination of a summer 2012 workshop, Freeman told participant Trey Carlisle, then a 13-year-old student at Aveson Global Leadership Academy in Altadena, something that she has continued to tell students at subsequent workshops:

“Because of the way you have listened to me and because of the work you have done hearing me,” she said, “I now feel that I can die in peace.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

More left-wing abuse of the Holocaust


Last week, President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, was widely accused by Jews and non-Jews on the left of engaging in Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism when he drew a comparison between Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Adolf Hitler. The comparison involved Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill and terrorize his own citizens. As there is no lie more heinous than Holocaust denial, this is quite a charge. If true, it would signal an unprecedented moral collapse at the highest levels of American government.

But Sean Spicer never denied the Holocaust.

As professor Alan Dershowitz, a lifelong Democrat, Hillary Clinton supporter and liberal (though not leftist) activist wrote: “It never occurred to me that Spicer’s misstatements were motivated by anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial or an intent to ‘slur’ the Jewish people. Nor do I believe that those who have accused him of such evil motivations actually believe it. They deliberately attributed an evil motive to him in order to pander to Jewish listeners. That offends me more than anything Spicer did.”

Dershowitz is right: the only thing worse than Holocaust denial is falsely accusing someone of engaging in it.

Yet, that is what many on the Jewish and non-Jewish left (but when it comes to the Holocaust, it’s the Jews who matter the most) are guilty of. Accusing a non-Jew of engaging in Holocaust denial is the moral equivalent of the medieval Blood Libel against Jews (the accusation that a Jew killed a Christian child to use the child’s blood to bake matzo for Passover).

Most public figures know that it usually is a bad idea to invoke Nazism or Hitler to make a political point. But Spicer did invoke Hitler, and though he immediately explained himself, the left-wing media, also known as the mainstream media, unleashed a frenzy of irresponsible charges.

Most people knew what Spicer meant — that Assad had done something that even Hitler didn’t do: specifically, use warplanes to drop chemical weapons on his own people. However, given Hitler’s use of gas to murder German Jews, mentally handicapped Germans and others he considered less than human, the statement was factually incorrect. Spicer should not have made the point. Assad’s evil is clear enough without invoking Hitler; and the point he made could be taken by some to lessen Hitler’s evil.

Spicer realized this immediately and made a full apology shortly afterward.

Again, Dershowitz: “There was no hint of anti-Semitism in his [Spicer’s] historical mistake and his apology should have ended the matter.”

Nevertheless, the Democratic National Committee issued a statement under the headline “We will not stand for anti-Semitism,” that included the following: “Denying the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime is a tried and true tactic used by Neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups that have become emboldened since Donald Trump first announced his campaign for president.”

And Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, falsely accused Spicer of “downplaying the horror of the Holocaust.”

To which Dershowitz responded: “By leveling that false accusation, Pelosi herself is exploiting the tragedy,” he wrote.

Most people knew what Spicer meant — that Assad had done something that even Hitler didn’t do: specifically, use warplanes to drop chemical weapons on his own people.

Dershowitz also attacked two Jewish frauds, Steven Goldstein and the so-called Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. As I wrote in my last Jewish Journal column, Goldstein engages in chillul Anne Frank, a desecration of the name of Anne Frank.

“Steven Goldstein,” Dershowitz wrote, “a hard-left radical who heads a phony organization that calls itself ‘The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect,’ accused Spicer of ‘engage[ing] in Holocaust denial. … ’

“Goldstein,” Dershowitz continued, “repeatedly exploits the Holocaust in order to gain publicity for him and his tiny group of followers. Shame on them!”

But many left-wing Jews repeatedly quoted Goldstein and his radical Anne Frank Center. Adam Peck, an editor at ThinkProgress; Antonia Blumberg, a reporter at Huffington Post; Noah Berlatsky, writing in the Los Angeles Times; Kenneth Stern, executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, which also purportedly exists to fight anti-Semitism; and other left-wing Jews cited Goldstein and his organization charging Spicer with Holocaust denial.

Another one of them, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a contributor to CNN Opinion and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, also continued the lie of tying Trump to anti-Semites and to anti-Semitism, even after it became clear that threats to Jewish community centers had been made by either a Black radical or young American Jew in Israel.

Meanwhile, for the record, in 2013, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” said that unlike Assad, Hitler never used chemical weapons. It is true that he was not the president’s press secretary. But no one — on the left or the right — said anything, let alone accused Matthews of Holocaust denial. But if a Fox News host had said it, left-wing Jews and non-Jews surely would have accused him or her of Holocaust denial.

No one, left or right, should invoke Hitler for political gain. But among Jews, the left has a near monopoly on misusing the Holocaust and anti-Semitism to attack its political foes. It only serves to lessen the unique evil that constitutes the Holocaust.

Janet Halbert with Janusz Kowalski in 2016.

I thought I knew my family’s Holocaust story — until I met this man


I was in the middle of an email exchange with my Israeli cousin, Miriam, when she unwittingly dropped the bombshell.

I had written to her early last year to tell her that I would be making my first visit to Poland. I knew she had traveled to the small town that was the childhood home to our fathers’ brothers who are now deceased. So I asked her for details.

Writing in Hebrew, Miriam shared the address and a photo of the building where our fathers lived. Then, several emails later, she added a detail. “There’s a man in Warsaw whose parents saved my parents’ lives during the Holocaust,” she wrote, “in case you’re interested.”

Had I understood correctly?

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My father, Samuel Halbert (Halberstadt), narrowly escaped the Nazis, thanks to a counterfeit passport, but his parents, a sister, and her husband and son were murdered in Treblinka. In my childhood, my father suffered nightmares about the war. He so hated Poland that he wouldn’t even admit he was born there. His mantra was that the Poles were hateful, evil and eager to kill Jews.

Certainly, I had heard about righteous gentiles, selfless people who found ways to save Jewish lives. But my own relatives’ lives? How had I never known?

My plan was to join a Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) Los Angeles adult delegation to March of the Living, the program that takes thousands of Jewish teenagers to Poland each spring to bear witness and remember. I already had scheduled an extra day to visit Siedlce (pronounced SHED-litz), my father’s birthplace. Now I made an additional plan: to meet the man my cousin told me about, Janusz Kowalski.

I was so excited to hear his story that the meeting became a focal point of my journey. Painful as it was to stand at Treblinka and Majdanek, at Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau, knowing that I would encounter this righteous man somehow made it all the more bearable.

I felt that most acutely on the day the 12,000 march participants gathered at Auschwitz. During a memorial ceremony, a video of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was projected on giant monitors. His voice booming through the loudspeakers, he acknowledged Auschwitz as the place where “millions perished, and no one lifted a finger.”

No one lifted a finger. In my head I was screaming, “That’s simply not true!” His words irked me, in part because I was so focused on what I would be doing soon — meeting a Polish man who actually had done something.

A few days later at my Warsaw hotel, I met my guide, Dominika, a Polish-Jewish woman who was around 30 years old. She and her husband drove me the 43 miles to Siedlce. When my father was growing up there, it was a lively center of Jewish life, with some 15,000 Jews, two Yiddish newspapers, several synagogues, even a Jewish hospital. The Nazis murdered nearly all of Siedlce’s Jews in Treblinka. And now, set within the drab, Soviet-era cinderblock buildings, Dominika pointed out the scattered black stone monuments honoring Polish resistance fighters, some of them Jewish.

We also found the apartment house, pictured in my cousin’s photograph, where my grandparents, Herc Halberstadt and Jenta-Gitla Liberant Halberstadt, lived. I tried to imagine my grandparents living here, my father walking these streets as a boy. We visited sites where two synagogues had stood before they were destroyed by fire during World War II. She pointed out where Talmud Torah, the religious school, had stood. We walked through the lone remaining Jewish cemetery, among four that once existed, in search of my great-grandmother’s grave.

Then we drove back to Warsaw, where we had arranged to meet Janusz Kowalski at a cafe. Janusz is 85 years old. Dressed in a dark suit, he immediately struck me as spry and sharp. I instantly felt that I was in the presence of a righteous man, a godly person. Almost without hesitation, speaking through a translator, he launched into his story — as if he had been waiting years for someone to ask.

Janusz grew up in Warsaw. His father, Witold, was a postmaster. Janusz was 9 years old in the summer of 1939 when, anticipating the German invasion, his father sent his mother, Maria, along with Janusz and an older brother, to a vacation house near Bialystok for their safety. The father stayed behind in Warsaw.

When the Germans invaded, the mother and children fled for their lives. They hoped to return to Warsaw but, in the chaos on the streets, couldn’t penetrate the crowds fleeing the city. They were on the outskirts of Siedlce when they encountered a column of German tanks. Suddenly caught in the crossfire, Janusz watched helplessly as German gunfire killed two nearby Polish soldiers and then his brother, who died on the spot as Janusz watched in horror. Another bullet struck Janusz’s mother in the arm.

After a German medic helped bandage Maria’s arm, the pair — unable to retrieve Janusz’s brother’s body amid the gunfire — took refuge in a nearby town. The next day, German soldiers threatened to kill his mother, but she begged them to spare her for Janusz’s sake. A Polish noble family took in Janusz and transported Maria to a hospital in Siedlce.

There, her condition worsened, her arm becoming so infected that doctors considered amputation. Despite frantic efforts, she couldn’t reach her husband, Witold, who was in Warsaw, unaware of what had befallen his wife and children. Maria finally prevailed upon a patient who was being discharged to make contact in Warsaw with her husband, who rushed to Siedlce to reconnect with her.

First retrieving Janusz from the home where he had been sheltered, Witold made his way to Lochow, the place where the tank battle had occurred. There, he learned that a Jewish man had buried his son and the two Polish soldiers, on orders from the Germans. Witold found the man, who escorted him to the grave. The grieving father expressed gratitude for the man’s kindness. It was Witold’s first close encounter with a Jewish person, and it left a positive impression.

Soon after, he had another. Witold was at a barbershop in Siedlce when he struck up a conversation with a Jewish doctor, the head of Siedlce’s Jewish hospital. Hearing Witold’s story, the doctor offered financial and medical help.

Witold, grateful, was quick to reciprocate, volunteering to transport letters and money to Jews suffering under Nazi occupation in Warsaw.

I instantly felt that I was in the presence of a righteous man, a godly person. Almost without hesitation, speaking through a translator, he launched into his story — as if he had been waiting years for someone to ask.

As the war raged around them and Maria recovered from her injuries, the Kowalski family relocated repeatedly, ultimately to a bare-bones one-room apartment in Siedlce. Because the building lacked running water or toilets, the Germans were unlikely to seize it for themselves.

That was where the Kowalskis’ fate intersected with my family’s.

As it happened, my aunt and uncle, Israel and Rachela Halberstadt, lived across the street. At some point, they met the Kowalskis. Rachela was working as a nurse at the Jewish hospital when German soldiers opened fire there, killing nearly everyone: doctors, nurses and patients. Rachela managed to flee and hid in the bushes until the Germans moved on.

Traumatized, she showed up at the Kowalskis’ door. Fully aware that hiding a Jewish person under Nazi occupation meant risking their own lives, they agreed to take her in.

Not that there was anywhere to hide Rachela in the small flat. With Janusz sleeping in the kitchen, his parents sleeping in one bed, and Rachela in another, hiding under the blankets when she had to was all she could do to conceal herself.

Janusz was 11 years old when his parents took in my Aunt Rachela. They sheltered her for two years. To hide her Jewish identity, she assumed a Polish name, Jadzia.

There were close calls. Once, after Rachela inadvertently opened a window and a neighbor spotted her, a German soldier knocked at the door to inquire. Janusz, the only one home at the time besides Rachela, pretended he was alone, even sitting on the bed to conceal her, trying to hide his fear.

Maria and Rachela were the same age. They grew close, sometimes crying together over events raging outside, such as the time German soldiers abruptly shot an elderly Jewish man drawing water from a nearby well.

To pass time, Rachela, a talented knitter, spent long hours in the apartment making sweaters. Maria sold them, passing off the work as her own, to bring in extra income.

Since the apartment had no running water and no toilet, it fell to Janusz to dispose of the waste. Rachela, who couldn’t risk stepping outside, regularly expressed gratitude to the boy for taking on that task.

Meanwhile, Rachela’s husband, my Uncle Israel, was facing his own difficulties. Taking refuge in a series of Warsaw hideouts, he repeatedly found himself back on the street, alone, bereft and afraid. When Maria learned of his predicament, she contacted a brother-in-law and persuaded him to create a hiding place in his Warsaw flat. While Rachela hid with the Kowalskis, Israel spent 18 months concealed at the relatives’ place, along with eight other Jews.

In 1944, with Russian forces closing in on Siedlce, the Kowalskis and Rachela fled to the countryside. When they encountered a troop of German soldiers, they feared Rachela’s Jewish appearance might raise suspicions. Those anxieties were heightened when the commander asked Maria in German to cook dinner for his men. Only Rachela understood both Polish and German, so she stepped in as translator. Fortunately, the soldiers were too focused on filling their bellies to ask whether she was Jewish. The soldiers moved on the next day.

Within days, Russian troops arrived and liberated the area. My Aunt Rachela parted with the Kowalskis and made her way back to Siedlce, where she reunited with my Uncle Israel and others who had been in hiding with him in Warsaw.

The Kowalski family relocated to a different part of Poland. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1948, that Witold and Maria met again with Rachela and Israel. (Janusz was away, serving in the military.) The Halberstadts came to visit with their new baby — my cousin Miriam — just before they emigrated to Israel. Grateful for everything the Kowalski family had done, the Halberstadts made a generous proposition. They offered the Kowalskis their Siedlce home.

The Kowalskis refused to accept the gift.

Sitting in the café in Warsaw, I was stunned. Stunned by the selfless acts of this man and his parents. Stunned that they had refused compensation for their heroism. Stunned that seven decades later, I was sitting across from Janusz, hearing this story for the first time.

Then Janusz pulled out an olive wood box and opened it, displaying its contents: a medal, with words in Hebrew: “A sign of gratitude from the Jewish people.” And beneath that, their names: “Kowalski Witold, Maria & Janusz.”

It had been presented to Janusz’s parents in the 1950s by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where the Kowalskis are among more than 26,000 individuals honored as chasidei haumot haolam, righteous among the nations, for risking their lives, liberty or positions to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Now, sitting in that Warsaw café, I was stunned by something else: No one had ever told me this story.

While my father had spent years disparaging Polish people, my aunt and uncle knew better. Perhaps they thought my father had told me. For years, they had kept in touch with Janusz’s parents, routinely sending financial support from Israel, even when they themselves were strapped. My cousin Miriam and her children visited Janusz in 1994, and in recent years she has provided occasional financial support. Janusz told me that the money helped him to pay for repairs at the grave of his brother, the one killed by German gunfire.

Kowalski in 2014.

Kowalski in 2016. Photo courtesy of Janet Halbert.

In the café, he pulled out something else: a folder filled with photos Miriam had sent him over the years, including pictures of my Israeli cousins at Miriam’s wedding, her children and her grandchildren. As he spoke of them, it was as if he were speaking of his own family. In a way, he was.

After the war, Janusz went on to pilot planes in the Polish military. Later, he spent a decade as a provincial governor of the district that includes Siedlce. In that capacity, he oversaw the maintenance of the area of the Treblinka death camp, a responsibility whose significance he clearly took seriously. He also worked to support the repair of neglected Jewish cemeteries.

He now lives with his wife, who is seven years younger. Although I asked him to bring her along, he declined, explaining that she doesn’t share his interest in the past. I asked Janusz if, as a child, he had fully understood the danger of the situation. He told me he was sure his parents had lived with great fear, but they understood the importance of what they were doing.

“We were characters in a play,” he said, smiling, “and each of us understood our role.” He said he had experienced more fear later in life, flying poorly equipped airplanes.

As we stood to leave, Janusz gave me a warm hug. An hour earlier, we had been strangers. Now, we both understood the close bond that linked us. He told me to be in touch on my next trip to Poland, but I knew I was unlikely to return.   

People often ask: Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God whenever people face calamities? The answer I prefer is the one I once heard from the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino: God is the response.

On my trip to Poland, I learned about the Kowalski family’s response. They didn’t need to help my aunt and uncle, who were strangers. But because they acted, they gave life to my cousin Miriam, and her three children, and their nine children. Indeed, if not for the Kowalskis, none of those people, would be alive.

"If not for the Kowalskis, none of those people would be alive.” Photo by Miriam Halberstadt Segev

“If not for the Kowalskis, none of those people would be alive.” Photo by Miriam Halberstadt Segev

I have thought of Janusz many times, especially in recent months amid the news of travel bans and deportations. At my synagogue, IKAR, one recent Shabbat, Rabbi Sharon Brous made the connection even more explicit in a sermon. She reminded us of the thousands of righteous gentiles who risked life and liberty to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. “We work very hard to honor them, and we should,” she said. But in this moment, she said, the best way for us to pay respects to their memory is for us to stand up for those who are vulnerable,  “to strive to become righteous Jews.”

My father died in 1982. I’m not sure if he knew of the righteous acts of the Kowalski family. If he did, he never told me. I wish he had. There were so many painful events he simply wouldn’t talk about. In any case, I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to meet Janusz.  It changed my life and reminds me every day about the steps we all can take toward making a difference in another person’s life.



Janet Halbert, a Los Angeles CPA, is a longtime social justice activist. She was founding treasurer of Bend the Arc (formerly Progressive Jewish Alliance) and serves on J Street’s national finance committee.

Episode 33 – Israel and Germany: An unsettled past with Eldad Beck


The words ‘Germany’ and ‘Israel’ probably raise many differing connotations in various people’s minds but one probably stands out among them all: the Holocaust.

Germany-Israel diplomatic ties began in 1952 when Germany finally offered to pay reparations to the survivors of the Holocaust. For obvious reasons, this relationship was not without its fair share of trials and tribulations. Over the years the challenges have persisted, often exacerbated by events such as the massacre of the Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.

As the chief correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth in Germany, Eldad Beck has become well acquainted with German internal politics, diplomatic affairs and public opinion. He has written two books on the subject of Germany: “Germany, at Odds” and his most recent “The Chancellor”. Beck joins 2NJB to talk about the two countries’ strained relations and his career as a journalist.

Eldad Beck’s Facebook and Twitter

‘Germany, at Odds’ on Amazon

Direct Download

Wilshire Boulevard Temple to hold public reading of Wiesel’s ‘Night’


Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT) will host a public reading of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” at its Koreatown campus on the evening of April 23. The reading will coincide with Yom HaShoah, an international day of Holocaust remembrance, the first since Wiesel’s death in July.

Among the dozens of celebrities and public figures tapped to read from the harrowing account of Wiesel’s Holocaust experience are actor Tom Hanks, author and talk show host Tavis Smiley, Rabbi David Wolpe and journalist and producer Tom Teicholz. The list also includes Holocaust survivors, politicians and interfaith leaders.

WBT Rabbi Susan Nanus said her friend, television movie producer Linda Kent, who frequently collaborates on synagogue events, told her about a reading from the landmark memoir at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in January. She quickly decided, “We should do it, too.”

She said the people who were invited to participate were deeply honored and enthusiastic. As she and Kent began to prepare a list of readers, she reached out to Writers Bloc Presents, a local nonprofit that holds events dedicated to books and literature.

“We’re living in frightening times, and we should be looking at history and great writers to see the relationship between the past and now,” said Andrea Grossman, founder of Writers Bloc Presents. “So when Susan Nanus emailed me about this program, I jumped at it.”

The two met at Factor’s Famous Deli on Pico Boulevard and began to draft, with Kent, a list of celebrities and leaders from a broad range of Los Angeles faith and civic communities.

The diversity of the participants underscores the evening’s themes of “unity and memory and tolerance and remembering what happened — how evil triumphs when good people do nothing,” Nanus said. “That’s really what it’s all about.”

Among others scheduled to participate in the reading are Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Steven Leder, Rabbi Karen Fox, Jewish Journal columnist Danielle Berrin and attorney E. Randol Schoenberg. The list also includes leaders from other faiths, including Mohammed Akbar Khan of the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, acclaimed choir director Diane White-Clayton of Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood and Sikh scholar Nirinjan Khalsa.

Actors and filmmakers set to join the reading include Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson; Michael Tolkin; Mike Burstyn; Eric Roth and Rain Pryor. Local government officials slated to participate include former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin and Beverly Hills Mayor Lilli Bosse, a daughter of Holocaust survivors. Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg also is set to read a passage.

Other scheduled participants include Korean community leader Hyepin Im; oncologist Gary Schiller, a son of Holocaust survivors; novelist and Jewish Journal columnist Gina Nahai; 2016 MacArthur Fellow Josh Kun; and Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan.

Each participant will read approximately two to three pages of the text, Nanus said.

“It’s always great, wonderful to hear a terrific actor read, so … it will be wonderful to hear Tom Hanks and Rain Pryor and Rita Wilson,” Grossman said. “But it will also be interesting to hear the children of Holocaust survivors or Holocaust survivors themselves tackle this book. It’s difficult reading and it’s a difficult memory.”

More information and tickets are available at wbtla.org/night.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Sean Spicer apologizes for Holocaust remarks amid criticism from U.S. and Israeli Jews


White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer apologized for claiming that Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons amid widespread criticism and calls for his job, including from U.S. Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians.

After repeatedly trying to clarify his comments, made Tuesday in a White House press briefing about last week’s chemical attack in Syria and Russia’s position on it, Spicer later in the day told CNN he was sorry to anyone he had offended.

“Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which frankly there is no comparison,” he told host Wolf Blitzer. “And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”

The press secretary also on Tuesday phoned Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, whose office had reached out to him.

“Sean called shortly after and said he made a terrible mistake and apologized if he was offensive,” Adelson’s spokesman Andy Aboud said in a statement.

Spicer made the inaccurate claim about Hitler, which drew audible gasps from the Washington press corps, in an attempt to question Russia’s continued support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. The White House on Tuesday accused Russia of trying to cover-up the Syrian government’s role in the chemical weapons, saying U.S. intelligence had confirmed the Assad regime used sarin gas on its own people.

“We had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said. “So you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself is this a country that you want to align yourself with?”

The Nazis did not use chemical weapons in battle during World War II, but they used the gas Zyklon B in death camps to perpetrate the Holocaust, which wiped out some 6 million Jews. The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum said Wednesday that Spicer’s “inaccurate and insensitive” comments “strengthen the hands of those whose goal is to distort history.”

The Jerusalem-based center said Spicer displayed “a profound lack of knowledge of events of the Second World War, including the Holocaust,” and invited him to visit its website to educate himself.

U.S. Jewish groups were quick to respond Tuesday. The New York-based Anne Frank Center demanded that Trump fire Spicer for “Holocaust denial.”

Steven Goldstein, the center’s executive director, said in a statement that “on Passover no less,” Spicer had “engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death. Spicer’s statement is the most evil slur upon a group of people we have ever heard from a White House press secretary. President Trump must fire him at once.”

The AJC also called out Spicer and warned against comparing dictators to Hitler in general.

“What did the Nazis use to exterminate millions of Jews if not chemicals in their death camps?” asked AJC CEO David Harris in a statement. “Any comparisons between Hitler and other dictators, or between the Holocaust and other tragedies, such as Syria, are tricky and not advisable.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the dovish Israel advocacy group J Street, took to Twitter to call Spicer’s comments “unforgivable.”

Ben-Ami appeared to refer to the White House statement on International Holocaust Day, which did not refer specifically to the genocide’s Jewish targets. Spicer at the time called complaints about the statement “pathetic.”

Israeli politicians also had what to say Tuesday. Before Spicer apologized, Israel Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz demanded he do so or step down — a rare critique of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration by an Israeli government official.

“Sean Spicer’s statement that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons is severe and outrageous,” Katz tweeted. “We have a moral obligation that supersedes policy considerations. We must demand that he apologize, or resign.”

From the opposition, Nachman Shai, a Zionist Union lawmaker and the deputy Knesset speaker said in a statement that the White House “urgently needs a history teacher. “Where are the president’s tweets when you need them?” he asked, indirectly referring to the Holocaust Day Statement.

Several Democrats in Congress criticized Spicer Tuesday, and Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi joined the calls for Trump to fire his press secretary.

“While Jewish families across America celebrate Passover, the chief spokesman of this White House is downplaying the horror of the Holocaust,” she said in a statement. “Sean Spicer must be fired, and the President must immediately disavow his spokesman’s statements. Either he is speaking for the President, or the President should have known better than to hire him.”