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.


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, 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.

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

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.”

French far right party leader Marine Le Pen and candidate for the 2017 French Presidential elections presenting her New Year’s wishes to the press at her campaign headquarters in Paris, Jan. 4. Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images

Israel condemns Marine Le Pen for denying French responsibility for deporting Jews

Israel condemned far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen for saying that her country is not responsible for the deportation of thousands of Jews to death camps in 1942.

“This declaration is contrary to historical truth, as expressed in the statements of successive French presidents who recognized France’s responsibility for the fate of the French Jews who perished in the Holocaust,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued Monday, a day after Le Pen made the statement during an interview in Paris for the RTL network and Le Figaro daily newspaper.

The ministry’s statement also said: “This recognition underpins the annual events marking the anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from France and the study of the Holocaust in the education system, both of which are important elements in the battle against anti-Semitism, which unfortunately is once again raising its head.”

Le Pen, the head of the National Front Party who is at or near the top of polls, was asked about the roundup and deportation of 13,152 from the Vel d’Hiv stadium in Paris on July 16-17, 1942, which the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem defines on its website as “a symbol of the responsibility of the regime and the French nation for the Holocaust.”

Le Pen responded, “I think France is not responsible for Vel d’Hiv,” and added, “I think generally, and in very general terms indeed, if anyone is responsible, then it is those in power at the time, not France as such. It wasn’t France.”

Since National Front was established by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, the party has been accused of espousing anti-Semitism, hatred of Muslims and other forms of xenophobia. The elder Le Pen has been convicted multiple times for Holocaust denial and incitement to hatred against Jews.

Under Marine Le Pen, the party has softened its image, including by kicking out anti-Semitic members like Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was excluded from the party in 2015.

France will hold its presidential vote on April 23. Should no candidate win a majority, a runoff election between the top two candidates will be held on May 7. Le Pen and centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron are the front-runners in the polls.

Photo by David Miller

Survivor Celina Biniaz: The youngest of Schindler’s Jews

“Get in rows. March,” the block leader ordered the nearly 300 women in the Auschwitz barracks who had arrived from the Plaszow concentration camp only weeks earlier, in mid-October 1944.

Thirteen-year-old Celina Karp dutifully obeyed, though this was the first time in Auschwitz that she had been separated from her mother, who earlier that morning had volunteered to peel potatoes, along with 29 others, hoping to pilfer a few skins.

Celina and the others were marched to another barracks, where they were ordered to strip and form a single line. Dr. Josef Mengele stood facing them, pointing with a yellow pencil in one direction or another as each prisoner drew near. Most were shunted to his left, rapidly exiting the barracks. Celina was directed to his right, frightened to find herself on the wrong side. Then unexpectedly, Mengele ordered Celina’s group to repeat the inspection. This time, as Celina approached Mengele — “I don’t know what made me do it,” she recalled — she looked up at him and said, “Lassen sie mich.” (“Let me go.”)

He pointed to his left. She grabbed her dress and ran out, crying hysterically. “I’m 13 years old and I’ve just been given life by Dr. Mengele,” she recalled.

That was just one of the twists that allowed Celina to survive. Perhaps more famously, Celina is alive today, at age 85, because of the actions of Oskar Schindler, the Czech businessman memorialized in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List.” She is the youngest of the roughly 1,200 Jews Schindler rescued.

But she credits Spielberg, who brought to the screen so many of the horrendous incidents that she witnessed, with enabling her to speak about those experiences.

“I always tell Steven Spielberg that he gave me a voice,” she said. “I say, ‘You are my second Schindler. He gave me life, but you gave me a voice. Because for 40 years, I never was able to talk about it because I didn’t think that anybody would understand.’ ”

Celina Biniaz, since her marriage in 1953, was born in Krakow, Poland, on May 28, 1931, the only child of Ignac and Felicia Karp.

Both parents were accountants, and the family was comfortably middle class, living in a mixed neighborhood in a two-room apartment with a kitchen and bathroom. They celebrated Jewish holidays but were not strictly Orthodox. 

After Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Celina’s parents decided that she would have to relinquish her beloved puppy, a white Spitz. Several days later, as they took the dog to the animal shelter, they saw from a distance three bombs fall on the radio station — the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Krakow — and ducked into a nearby building. They then continued to the shelter, where Celina painfully surrendered her dog.

Celina was eager to enter third grade, but schools didn’t open that fall. Additionally, Jews couldn’t work, and Ignac joined the many Jewish men who began walking eastward, fearing capture by the Germans. But as winter approached, he returned.

By that time, the Jews were being conscripted into slave labor. Celina and her parents worked, shoveling snow.

By late fall 1940, the Karp family, along with most of Krakow’s Jews, had been relocated to a ghetto in the city’s Podgorze section. Celina’s parents, who were given blue cards, or work permits, were assigned to work at a factory outside the ghetto that was owned by Julius Madritsch.

Madritsch, a 34-year-old businessman and anti-Nazi from Vienna, had been named administrator of the F.A. Hogo shirt factory in Krakow, which he relocated to Podgorze and converted to sewing army uniforms. Ignac, who had been an accountant for F.A. Hogo, became Madritsch’s accountant, helping him manage the business. Felicia worked as a bookkeeper.

Celina, meanwhile, worked in the ghetto, making envelopes and brushes. But as roundups increased, Celina’s parents, worried she would be apprehended, procured a blue card for her, falsifying her age as 12, two years older than she was. Celina joined her parents at the factory, sewing uniforms.

“[Madritsch] was an amazing human being,” Celina said. He and Raimund Titsch, his factory manager, hired as many Jewish workers as possible, training them and providing them with extra food and medications.

When the Krakow ghetto was liquidated on March 13 and 14, 1943, those working in the Madritsch factory, who were essential to the war effort, were transferred to Plaszow, which was then a labor camp, rather than deported to a concentration camp.

During the liquidation, Celina witnessed German soldiers swinging infants by the feet, bashing their heads against stone walls. “I kept asking my mother, ‘How could God allow this?’ ” she said. “I lost my faith.” The experience also reinforced her fear of authority, which has never left her.

In Plaszow, Celina and her mother lived in a women’s barracks, walking to and from the factory daily in groups of five. She often saw her father there.

Inside the camp, however, where Amon Goeth was the commandant, fear ruled. “He was a beast,” Celina said. She witnessed hangings, shootings and beatings.

During one of the selections, Celina watched as the Germans rounded up 10 or 15 children. They then trucked them up a hillside and shot them, while the German lullaby “Gute Nacht, Mutter” (“Good Night, Mother”) played on the camp loudspeakers. “So sadistic,” Celina said. “You can’t imagine.”

During that time, six children managed to hide in the latrines. Madritsch’s workers later smuggled them out to the factory under big coats, two with Celina’s group, and they were placed with Catholic families.

In September 1943, a new edict forbade prisoners from leaving Plaszow’s confines. In response, Madritsch opened a factory inside the camp.

A year later, as the Russians approached, the Germans ordered all factories in the Krakow area closed. Schindler suggested that Madritsch, who had become his friend, join him in relocating his factory to Czechoslovakia. Madritsch declined, but sent 50 or more of his workers, including Celina and her parents, with Schindler’s group.

The men were shipped out first. Two weeks later, the 300 women were loaded into cattle cars. A day and a half later, in mid-October 1944, the train came to a screeching halt. As the door banged open, the women heard, “Raus, raus” (“out, out”) and dogs barking. “All of a sudden, we realized we’re someplace we’re not supposed to be,” Celina said. “Auschwitz.”

The women were marched into a barracks marked “sauna” (bath) and told to strip. Celina’s hair was clipped very short, others were shaved, and all were shoved into the shower room. “This is when we don’t know … is it going to be water or gas?” Celina said. She was incredulous when water burst from the showerheads. “That meant we had another day.”

The women were given dresses and taken to a barracks. Mostly they remained inside, except for the three times a day they stood in roll call, often for hours in the cold.

A few weeks after Celina’s run-in with Mengele, the women were unexpectedly loaded into cattle cars, pulling into the town of Brunnlitz, 140 miles northeast of Prague, three days later. Schindler had secured their release with bribes.

The women slept in the attic of the factory, where components of V2 rockets were manufactured. “Schindler told us from the very beginning that nothing was going to leave that factory that would be useable,” Celina said. With her small hands, she was put to work cleaning the insides of the large machinery. She also worked on a lathe and a calibrating machine.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered. Schindler escaped, but not before giving each family two bolts of fabric and five pairs of scissors to use as barter.

Two days later, the Soviets officially liberated the prisoners, and Celina and her parents walked and hitchhiked back to Krakow, a two-week journey. Celina was almost 14. She weighed 70 pounds.

Celina spent the summer being tutored and was accepted into high school in September. But four weeks later, a pogrom hit eastern Poland, and the Karps fled.

They were smuggled over the border into Slovakia and eventually reached the displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany. But after two weeks, having had enough camp life, they moved to Mindelheim, a small community about 20 miles east, where they shared an attic apartment with the widow of a Nazi.

Celina attended school in a semi-cloistered convent where an elderly nun, Mater Leontina, 90, taught her German and English. “She was the first human being who accepted me for who I was, a 14-year-old girl who needed help,” she said. Celina studied with her from December 1945 until May 1947, when she left for the U.S., and the two continued to correspond until Mater Leontina’s death at age 94.

Ignac’s brother, David Karp, who had sent affidavits for the family, met them when their ship docked in New York in June 1947 and drove them to Des Moines, Iowa, where he lived. Celina attended summer school, entering North High School for her senior year.

She attended Grinnell College, majoring in philosophy, and then Columbia University in New York, where she earned a master’s degree in education and where, in the international dormitory, she met Amir Biniaz. They married on Sept. 12, 1953, and moved to Wantagh, a town on Long Island, where Amir opened a dental practice.

In 1963, when their children — Robert was born in 1954, Susan in 1958 — were older, Celina began teaching elementary and learning disabled students. She retired in 1992. A year later, they moved to Camarillo, Calif. They now have four grandchildren.

The Holocaust taught Celina that “Evil can happen anywhere, with any human being, if you give it a chance.” But when Celina speaks about her experiences, which she has done since becoming active in the USC Shoah Foundation when it opened in 1994, she tells people:

“Don’t hate. Try to see the good in people. Nobody is better than anyone else.”

Refugees, most of them Syrians, struggle to leave a half-sunken catamaran carrying around 150 refugees as it arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing part of the Aegean sea from Turkey, October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

Evoking Holocaust, lawmakers demand ‘never again’ for Syria

WASHINGTON – Republican and Democratic lawmakers joined together on Tuesday urging the US government to act more decisively to stop the Syrian bloodshed while drawing upon the lessons of the Holocaust. When displaying the photos of “Caesar” — the codename of a Syrian military defector who smuggled out of the country over 28,000 images of torture and death in Assad prisons — Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee explained, “When you see the images of the Holocaust in the 1940s and the images of Syria in the 21st century, one can just get chilled to think that what has humanity learned all these years? We used to think things couldn’t happen here or any place else and now we see, we were really wrong.”

Over 400,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict erupted in 2011, many of whom are innocent civilians. Over 11 million Syrians have been displaced, over half of the country’s population in the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (D-CA) recalled his father who took photos of the Dachau Concentration Camp after it was liberated in 1945. “When high school students would hear his lecture, they would ask why was the world so asleep to Hitler’s concentration camps? He would explain there was very little visual evidence at that time until those camps were liberated,” the California lawmaker noted. “That’s why he (Caeser) ran that risk so that the visual evidence would be right here in front of us. So, what is our excuse?”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Democratic Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) also spoke at the gathering beside large posters of the gruesome photos taken by Caesar of Syrians brutally tortured and slaughtered. Al Munzer, a Holocaust survivor from Nazi-Occupied Holland evoked his murdered relatives and said, “Like in the Holocaust, inaction is to be complicit. I am here today to give voice to my sisters and to 1.5 million other children killed in the Holocaust who call out to the children burned and maimed and orphaned by bombs in Syria,” Munzer added “Their plight must be front and center of this country’s foreign policy and the world’s attention.”

In a deeply personal plea, Qutaiba Idlbi, a Syrian from Damascus who was tortured in Assad’s prisons urged President Trump, “I know that the new administration has the power to stand in the face of all types of terror.” Idlibi detailed the necessary steps he believes to stop the bloodshed. “I plead with you to establish safe zones in my country that will stop the Assad regime planes and the Iranians from targeting civilians,” he urged. “There are people that remain detained for six years in these prisons awaiting your support. Do not let them down.”

Sarah Silverman in "The Last Laugh." Tangerine Entertainment/Journeyman Pictures

Finding humor in Hitler and the Holocaust

Comedians — many of them Jewish — have poked fun at Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, even dating back to the days of the Third Reich. But is making fun of the Holocaust itself going too far?

Documentary filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein explores that question with comedians, critical thinkers and Holocaust survivors in her new film “The Last Laugh.” A special screening, along with a Q-and-A session with the director and cast members, will be held March 16 at Ahrya Fine Arts in Beverly Hills, sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival in cooperation with Laemmle Theatres; it opens in theaters March 17.

One of the big surprises in making the film, Pearlstein said, was that comedians draw a distinction between making jokes about Nazis and making jokes about the Holocaust.

“It’s OK to make jokes about the perpetrators. It’s not OK to make jokes about their victims,” Pearlstein said in a phone interview. “That’s the bottom line for people — for most people.”

As several comedians point out in the film, the first rule of telling a joke about the Holocaust — or AIDS or 9/11 — is that it has to be funny.

“You can’t tell a crappy joke about the biggest tragedy in the world,” says comedian Judy Gold.

Several comedians, such as Joan Rivers, do cross the line with groan-inducing jokes about Jews and ovens.

“Comedy puts light onto darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light,” says comedian and actress Sarah Silverman. Otherwise, she says, taboo subjects that don’t get discussed “become dangerous.”

The film opens with a quotation by Heinrich Mann: “Whoever has cried enough, laughs.” It’s followed by an image of a uniformed Nazi officer figure skating. The film then reveals the ruins of Murphy Ranch in Pacific Palisades, an abandoned camp built by Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s that becomes the improbable setting for a picnic between a Holocaust survivor, Renee Firestone, and her daughter Klara Firestone.

The older Firestone recounts meeting Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. After inspecting her mouth, he told her that if she survived the concentration camp, she should think about getting her tonsils removed.

“Most people don’t expect survivors to have much humor after the Holocaust. And that’s really not the case at all,” her daughter says. “The survivors actually have some of the worst gallows humor ever.”

The film was inspired by a thesis paper written in 1993 by Pearlstein’s friend, Kent Kirshenbaum. He gave Pearlstein the paper and told her to make it into a movie. Because the subject was so provocative, it took her and her husband, Robert Edwards, nearly two decades to find funding for it. “We kept meeting people that said, ‘Great idea! Come back when somebody else says yes,’ ” Pearlstein said.

In the meantime, Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust comedy “Life Is Beautiful” came out in 1997, and the very off-color comedy-documentary “The Aristocrats” was released in 2005, giving Pearlstein hope that a film about Holocaust humor could gain an audience. While working on another documentary about poets who survived genocide, she met a wealthy Jewish woman “with a very dark sense of humor” who wound up providing almost all the funding for “The Last Laugh” (Pearlstein said her investor has asked to remain anonymous).

The film includes interviews with major comedians, including Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Comedy writer Larry Charles, who directed three films starring Sacha Baron Cohen — “Borat,” “Bruno” and “The Dictator” — and many episodes of “Seinfeld,” offers his insights about what types of jokes cross the line.

The interviews are woven together with clips from films and TV shows ranging from “The Producers” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to Jerry Lewis’ never-released Holocaust comedy “The Day the Clown Cried.” It even has rare footage of cabarets from inside concentration camps.

In a surreal scene, Pearlstein attends a Holocaust survivors’ convention in Las Vegas and joins two of the survivors on a gondola ride through the canals of The Venetian hotel. As a gondolier serenades them in Italian, Renee Firestone and her friend Elly Gross argue about the possibility of finding humor in the Holocaust. Firestone insists that humor is an important tool for survival, while Gross has a hard time finding anything funny, 70 years after the camps.

Though the movie questions the limits of good taste, Pearlstein said it was important to treat the material in a respectful manner.

When the movie premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, Gross was in attendance.

“In front of everybody, [Gross] talked about how much she loved the film and how tastefully she thought it was made — and could she have tickets to the next screening?” Pearlstein said. “That was my goal.”

Alan Zweibel, a veteran comedy writer and producer, said in a phone interview that gallows humor plays an important role in helping people deal with painful memories.

“We’ve got to keep alive the memory — the painful memory — that this took place, with all the deniers out there and the passing of time and the fewer and fewer survivors,” Zweibel said. “We’ve got to keep alive the fact that there was a Holocaust, and Jews deal with what everybody has been handing out to us for generations. We’ll survive, and this is how we do it.”

“The Last Laugh” screens March 16 at Ahrya Fine Arts, followed by a Q-and-A with Ferne Pearlstein, Sarah Silverman, and Renee and Klara Firestone. It opens in theaters March 17. For information, visit this story at 


Calendar: March 10-16, 2017



cal-casablancaNoah Isenberg and Monika Henreid discuss Isenberg’s new book, “We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie.” Its focus is the award-winning film that was released in 1942 featuring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and a memorable supporting cast. Isenberg, a film historian, reveals the myths and realities behind “Casablanca’s” production. Through extensive research and interviews with filmmakers, film critics, family members of the cast and crew, and die-hard fans, Isenberg reveals why the film remains so revered. He also focuses on the major role that refugees from Hitler’s Europe played in the production (many cast members were immigrants). The book is filled with fresh insights into “Casablanca’s” creation, production and legacy. 3 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.



Shalom Hanoch and Moshe Levi perform their final show in the United States. 8 p.m. $100. The Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills.



cal-born-survivorsWendy Holden chronicled the stories of three young mothers who were torn from their families by the Nazis in her powerful book “Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope.” The three women were strangers, but all a few months pregnant and in need of help to keep it a secret from their Nazi captors. Despite the odds, they all defied death to give their children life. Meet one of the Holocaust survivors, Hana Berger Moran. 7:30 p.m. Free; registration required at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 556-3222.



cal-david-wolpeAs the debate over Israel rages on across college campuses and in living rooms throughout the United States, is “Zionist” still a term of support for Israel, or is it now a loaded term? How do younger Americans interpret “Zionism”? Join the Jewish Journal and Hadassah’s Defining Zionism program as we explore how tomorrow’s leaders are thinking about and engaging with the Jewish state, and how their relationship with Israel differs from that of previous generations. Moderated by Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe; Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Sarah Bassin; 30 Years After co-founder Sam Yebri; and Jewish Journal staff writer Eitan Arom. 7 p.m. $10 in advance; $15 at the door. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.


How does our Jewish tradition understand the concept and practice of mercy and how do we live up to this ideal, which is one of the highest qualities we look for in a human being? Rabbi Steven Silver will discuss “Catholic and Jewish Concepts of Forgiveness.” After lunch, there will be a screening of “Stolen Summer,” a Project Greenlight film about a young Catholic boy who goes on a quest to help a dying Jewish friend get into heaven. 11 a.m. $14; $12 for members. The Rosenberg Cultural Center at Temple Menorah, 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-8444.


Harkham-GAON Academy (at the Westside Jewish Community Center) is hosting this event for high school juniors and seniors to gain insight into Jewish life opportunities at college campuses across the country. The event will include a panel of experts on Jewish life at college with the opportunity to ask questions. You will also hear about challenges Jewish college students face. 6:30 p.m. Free. Harkham-GAON Academy, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 556-0663.


In response to the recent wave of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers nationwide, and the vandalism at multiple Jewish cemeteries across the country, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will hold a town hall addressing security issues at Jewish sites. Los Angeles Police Department officials and senior representatives from the FBI will speak. 5 p.m. RSVP required at; no walk-ins. The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.



cal-FabrizioLelliFabrizio Lelli will discuss the extraordinary spiritual rebirth of contemporary Judaism by comparing it with other intellectually significant phases of Apulian Judaism in the past. Lelli studies the history of Apulian Jewish culture, concentrating on written and oral testimonies of former Jewish refugees who were in transit camps in the region of Apulia. Lelli teaches at the University of Salento in Italy. Sponsored by UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. 4 p.m. Free. Pre-registration required at or (310) 267-5327. UCLA, 314 Royce Hall, Los Angeles.

Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh." Courtesy of Falco Inc.

‘Last Laugh’: Looking to comedy as a salve and savior

“Whoever has cried enough, laughs.” 

              — German novelist Heinrich Mann

That there is a limit to mourning, or that it must be transformed into its perceived opposite is a provocative idea. Jewish culture has historically laid claim to both emotional expressions, often simultaneously. We are a people for whom the act of remembering is central to identity, and as Jewish holidays remind us like clockwork, we are a people whose memories are tied to historical tragedy.

We were slaves in Egypt. We were exiled and held captive in Babylon. Twice, our temple was destroyed. We were victims of pogroms and anti-Semitism. And unforgettably, we were murdered, more than 6 million of us, during the Holocaust.

What tremendous burdens of memory we bear. It’s a wonder we are here at all, that we have the collective strength to remember. After all, forgetting is much simpler. What is it, a student once asked, that gives Jews such tenacity and resilience in the wake of such a long, dark history of persecution?

We laugh, I said, without considering whether it was in fact true. And certainly there are many reasons — known and unknown — that allow Jewish culture to flourish despite the atrocities to which it has been subjected. But the ability to laugh at jokes in the darkest of times may be the strongest indicator of the potential to survive just about anything.

“The Last Laugh,” a documentary film by Ferne Pearlstein that opens in Los Angeles on March 17, explores this very topic. The film opens with Mann’s statement on tears and laughter, and this strangest of pairings is the focus of the film, which cuts between scenes with Los Angeles Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone and interviews with well-known comics, including Mel Brooks, Jeff Ross, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner and Judy Gold.

After watching the film, I sat down with Ross to get his thoughts on comedy and tragedy, as well as the responsibility of comedians in our current social and political climate.

“The deeper you go with the humor, the more revengeful it is,” he says in the film. It’s “the Jewish way of getting through it.”

Jews dominate American comedy, and so it’s not the first time that an artist or filmmaker has explored the complex relationship between comedy and tragedy in the context of the Holocaust, a topic that was long considered taboo among comics. There were always Holocaust jokes, of course, even in Nazi Germany and even in the camps, some told by survivors. But never were they as pervasive as they are today, 70 years later.

In the film, Robert Clary, a survivor who entertained other inmates in the camp, says “making people forget where they were was the most important thing.” I asked Ross, king of roast comedy, what he thought about this idea. I was troubled by this statement because as a scholar of Holocaust literature my impulse is to insist that it would have been impossible to forget; to act as if it were feasible diminishes the extent of the atrocity. But Ross disagreed, insisting that it’s about context and where jokes are being told.

And Ross knows a lot about context. He has done comedic specials at places such as Westboro Baptist Church, police departments and prisons with inmates tattooed with swastikas. He’s done stand-up for soldiers and college students. But when it comes to telling jokes in places like concentration camps or war zones, he says the comic is “shining a light.”

Comedy “is resistance, so if no one is listening, if it doesn’t offend somebody somewhere, it’s probably not a joke,” he said. And so we find that telling jokes, even about the Holocaust, can be a way of continuing to resist the fascist and anti-Semitic impulses that led to it, as well as giving those who suffer a reprieve, if only for a moment.

But I had my doubts about the idea of a joke only being a joke if it offends someone, and I couldn’t help but think of my 4-year-old son who won’t stop telling the joke about the chicken crossing the road. Nothing offensive there.

As if he’d read my mind, Ross continued: “Why did the chicken cross the road? Well, somewhere in the world, right now, some kid’s chicken died crossing the road and it’s not funny, it’s not funny. Maybe his only meal crossed the road, and he’s hungry, it’s not funny. So context, timing, audience” matter.

“Even a bad show,” he said, “it can be good, it can be bad, it just can’t be boring . . . it’s torture if it is, just reminding you that you’re stuck.”

Imagine the pressure felt by a Jewish entertainer in the camps, struggling not just to tell jokes but also to make them good so that the audience wouldn’t feel stuck.

But comedy in retrospect differs from comedy during the Holocaust. One survivor in the film says: “Without humor, I don’t think we could’ve survived.” Another tells us, “you can’t live in the shadow” of the Holocaust — and that laughter is her revenge. Yet one cannot but live in its shadow. And so we find that humor, even outside the barbed wire of the camps decades later, works to help the survivor forget, for a moment, that she lives in the shadow of what was lost.

Humor is almost always connected to darkness. Inheritors of trauma, recipients of darkness, often laugh a lot. How else does one shoulder such burdens? Some of the best comics carry the heaviest burdens, I suspect. Or maybe we all carry burdens, and comics have chosen to take some of ours onto their own shoulders. I couldn’t help but ask Ross about his own personal darkness, about what made him do what he does. It’s a question I silently ask the ones who help us laugh until our insides hurt — a glimmer of the pain from which comedy often comes.

“It’s a skill,” he said. “What makes me good at that skill is really your question. And the answer is that I never really got the proper therapy to answer it. … Is it that my mother loved me too much? My parents passed away? Was it that I grew up around tough neighborhoods? Was it a defense from school bullies? Was it a way to get attention, to get girls to talk to me … a fun way to be punk rock and express my freedom of speech? I would say all of these.”

It’s complicated. And it’s a lot to bear.

Given my interest in tragedy, I can’t help but be drawn to the Jewish comic. The collective Jewish load is heavy — temples destroyed, years in exile, death marches and crematoria — but it is expected. It’s what’s added on that is intriguing, the unique, individual darkness colliding with what is carried down generationally. The ability to laugh and make others laugh in spite of it all: it’s a gift.

But with any gift comes tremendous responsibility. Some say that if the Jews are chosen, it is to be more responsible. Given recent news about desecrated Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats, I had to ask Ross about how the world of humor is changing. My own experience as a professor suggests that young people are laughing more than ever. “I love my generation,” tweeted one of my students, “we make everything hilarious.” Students are deeply troubled by the turbulence of our era, yet they laugh constantly. The threat of terrorism is dark and ambiguous, but it’s also the norm into which they were born. What choice do they have but to laugh if they want to survive?

And the new occupant of the White House, Ross suggested, permeates everything that’s happening. “It’s going to affect all comedy, all movies … painting, literature, even the Oscars, it’s less of a party now and more of a protest … Everyone has an agenda. It’s kind of a Trumpian buzz-kill going on right now. But having said this, my jokes about Donald Trump kill.” Ross dives into one of these jokes: “He’s an old friend, and I’m ghost-writing his book; it’s called ‘Mein kampf is bigger than your kampf.’ ”

Ross is quintessentially Jewish. He is never without a deep awareness of his responsibility. I asked him whether his comedy might change over the next four years, and he suggested that he has already become more politically aware, realizing that his niche is getting off the stage, out of the comedy club, into the field. Boots on the ground. Comedians have a responsibility “to not talk just about Trump, but about what’s on page 2, page 3, page 4, and make that interesting and funny,” he said. “Is our responsibility to resist Trump or to assist everybody else who’s lost in the Trump flood right now?”

Those are the kinds of statements that make Judaism great, I thought. And suddenly comedy seems like the only vehicle for hope.

I know — the idea of comedy as savior is ridiculous. Or maybe it’s not. Has humor taken on a messianic shape for this generation? As “The Last Laugh” confirms, humor helped people survive the unthinkable. Some see our current political situation as exceedingly dark, and certainly many young people feel this way. The messiah may or may not be coming, but one thing is certain: laughter is on its way, and in this laughter we find the capacity for hope and resistance. 

Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture.

Headstones were toppled at the Waad Hakolel Cemetery, also known as the Stone Road Cemetery, in Rochester, N.Y. Photo courtesy of News 10 NBC WHEC

No Esther in sight

The role of Achashverosh, the vain king who prefers to drink from goblets of gold, who is ready to turn over a nation to a minister who offers ten thousand talents of silver, is too easily filled this year’s Purim. Haman and Bannon practically rhyme. It’s a facile elision I’m not sure I agree with, but it comes naturally. But where is our Esther, and where is our Mordechai? 

I don’t think people are still pinning their hopes on Ivanka and Jared. They couldn’t do anything to stop the erasure of Jews from the White House statement about the Holocaust. And Trump still denounced the Orthodox Jewish reporter who pitched him that softball question so he could denounce anti-Semitism.

It was only after the first Jewish cemetery was vandalized that Trump finally had something to say about the subject. That gave Jews on the right a glimmer of hope that the Haman and Achashverosh shoes wouldn’t fit. Was Ivanka working behind the scenes?

But after more Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, Trump shared another brilliant insight. He thinks it’s possible that anti-Trump people might be knocking down Jewish tombstones in order to make him look bad. Of course, David Duke said it first – not that Trump notices or cares where he gets his ideas from. That’s right up Achashverosh’s alley: everything bad happens to him; his is never the flaw or fault that allows it.

If there’s one thing Trump loves to talk about, it’s not crimes of hate but the crime rate. Despite Trump’s fantabulism, it’s increasing across the U.S. for real in just one way, hate crime. But he won’t talk about the seven African American transgender women who were murdered. Or give an ounce of reflection to how his rhetoric against immigrants might have played a role when an Indian engineer was murdered by a crazy white man who screamed “Get out of my country!” 

But that’s old news. Like Peter denied Jesus (l’havdil – not to morally compare them), Trump and his entourage won’t talk about how the perpetrators could be following the lead of his rhetoric. Every day we keep learning in new ways that Trump does not have the capacity or desire to understand what’s going on, or to take responsibility, the way we would want a president to do in order to lead the nation.

But if Trump doesn’t get it that cemetery vandalizers are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, how could his two closest Jews, Ivanka and Jared, not? It’s inconceivable that neither of them understands what kind of a person you have to be to knock down Jewish tombstones.

Any or all of these three things must be true: Jared and Ivanka are too cowed by Bannon to do anything, or they don’t have the power to change Trump’s course when Bannon is pushing him, or they are willing to let it slide as long as Jared gets what he wants for Israel.

I would guess number three, but whichever it might be, it means neither of them is prepared to be Esther. Not that I wouldn’t like to see Jared in a diadem (on Ivanka it would be redundant), but I don’t think the most beautiful crown will make either one a queen.

The bottom line is that with all that is happening, many right-wing elements in the Jewish community, like Jared, are willing to trade our safety here for the sake of letting Israel do whatever it wants as it trades Palestinian lives and land to build more settlements.

It would be as if Esther were to go to Achashverosh and beg to spare only the lives of a particular Jewish sect in the holy land, while letting Haman carry out his plot against all the other Jews throughout Persia’s empire.

Their bet seems to be that it will work out in the grim end, that Israel and the U.S. don’t need democracy as much as they need more control. They may also be betting that stateside Jews will come out with our privilege intact after everything goes down – that we will get to stay “white,” and not get grouped with Muslims and Latinos. (Never mind that Jews are all races, or that Sephardim may look like Arabs.)

That can only happen if we willingly separate our lives from the lives of Muslims and immigrants and Latinos and Black people and queer people. And maybe some American Jews could have done that, since we have almost forgotten that not too long ago, Jews were not considered white, and that our essential identity was one of refugees. But the world has been conspiring to remind us. 

Trump wants us to believe that we will stay white no matter what happens, as if his opinion will matter, while the cemetery destroyers desperately want us to to know that we never were white. Whoever is wrong, when pushing comes to shoving, I don’t think we will make it through unscathed.

So far, the most extreme extremists in the U.S., the ones who target Muslims and Jews equally, are outside the halls of power – it seems like a litmus test for White House staff is that one must be willing to target Muslims but not say anything against Jews. (And maybe there are too many Hanukkah books, after all.) That makes the Trump administration a natural fit with Jews who accept the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But how long will it be before the wall between being anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim falls as other walls go up? How long before anti-Semitism gets to embody its full meaning: hatred of the descendants of Noah’s son Shem, which includes Ishmaelites and Israelites, Jews and Arabs?

Facing his fear that Esther will fail, Mordecai promises that “help will arise from another place” – and then Esther comes through. Maybe it’s not too late for Ivanka. But for now, we need to be looking for help from that other place. Our best prospect may be the compassion that has been passing back and forth from Muslims to Jews and Jews to Muslims, as we each step in to help when the other is attacked. A Muslim community given the key to a synagogue after its mosque was burned down; Muslims raising funds and giving time to repair Jewish headstones.

Mishloach manot and matanot la’evyonim, sending nourishment to one another, exchanging gifts of encouragement to revive our lives, which are being impoverished by these times. Just like the Jews did for each other at the end of the Scroll of Esther.

Not exactly a silver lining, but if the powers that be can’t generate an Esther, then we have to step into those royal shoes. Let’s step lively.

More than 200 Israelis attend funeral of Holocaust survivor they did not know

More than 200 Israelis attended the funeral of a complete stranger — a Holocaust survivor from the Canary Islands who was buried in a Tel Aviv cemetery.

Hilde Nathan’s final wish was to be laid to rest in Israel alongside her mother, the United With Israel organization said on its website.

Nathan, who did not have a husband or children, died alone last week in the Canary Islands at 90. Knowing of her wishes, the Canary Island Jewish community, which numbers about 20, raised the money to fly her body to Israel for burial. The community put out a call through the Israeli media for mourners at her funeral, which was held Monday morning.

“Nathan always lived alone, but today it seems that the entire People of Israel has come to say goodbye. She lived alone but did not leave alone,” an Israeli Holocaust survivor, the only person at the funeral who was acquainted with her when she was alive, told the United With Israel website.

Nathan, a native of Germany, was one of the few released from the Theresienstadt concentration camp by the Soviet army on May 8, 1945. Her father died shortly after the war and was buried in Germany, and she and her mother moved to the Canary Islands. Her mother died several years ago and was buried in Israel.

Photo by David Miller

Survivor Dana Schwartz: Dark past can’t hold back this ‘American girl’

“Don’t hug him. Don’t kiss him. Say goodbye like you hardly know him,” Lusia Schapira instructed her 7-year-old daughter, Dana (then Danusia), as they re-entered the ghetto in Lvov, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), from which the two had recently escaped.

No longer wearing their Star of David armbands and posing with false papers as Christian Poles, they had come to say farewell to Syd Schapira, their father and husband, under the guise of conducting some small commercial transaction. As they stood with Syd near the guardhouse, Dana politely said goodbye, tensely holding her shoulders and arms and suppressing an urge to scream. “I was very painfully aware that I may never see him again, and I can’t hug him,” she recalled. Syd walked away; Dana and her mother exited the ghetto. It was June 1942.

Dana, who was born on Jan. 30, 1935, was an only child. Her university-educated parents both worked for the Polish national lottery, owned by a man named Sam Safir. The family was upper-middle class, living in a comfortable apartment with several servants.

When Dana was 4 1/2, in September 1939, her nanny uncharacteristically allowed her out of her stroller to play in the park, where she spotted a beautiful daisy. Though forbidden, she stepped on the grass and picked the flower just as a loud boom exploded. Terrified, Dana was convinced that God was expressing his anger at her. She then noticed that everyone was running, and she hurried back to her nanny. A man came by with a large, white dog. “Go home,” he said. “The war has started.”

Soon after, Syd rented a car and driver, and the family set out for the Romanian border, which Syd hoped to cross by bribing a guard. Dana was frightened only when shooting erupted, as when a biplane strafed their car, forcing them to jump into a cornfield to hide.

When they finally arrived at the border, at the bottom of a hill below a small guardhouse perched halfway up, Syd paced back and forth, listening to Lusia tally the possessions they would relinquish if they left. These included their Persian rug, their paintings and the silver they received as a wedding present. Syd yielded to his wife’s wishes, and they returned to Lvov.

Not that he found solace. The Soviets, who occupied Lvov in accordance with the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, conscripted Syd into the army. He soon escaped but was pursued by the Soviets and forced into hiding. “You must never tell them where father is hiding,” Lusia warned Dana. “Otherwise you may never see him again.” More than once, people questioned her, but she never revealed his hiding place in the attic. “I was always proud that I did not give him away,” Dana said.

Dana was confined mainly to the family’s apartment. But one day in the summer of 1941, with the Germans now in control of Lvov, she was playing with the janitor’s children when a Nazi soldier approached her, steering her to a landing between two floors. There, with a gun in one hand, he began sexually abusing her with the other. Despite fears he would shoot her, she made a run for it, bounding up the stairs to the safety of her apartment.

Several months later, Lusia answered a loud knock at the door to find a tall German officer, accompanied by two lieutenants, who proceeded to inspect the apartment. “We’ll take it,” the officer announced. “Be out in half an hour.” After the Germans left, each member of the family packed a small valise, and they walked to the ghetto. Dana remembered how her parents strode straight ahead, their shoulders erect in a show of courage.

Inside the ghetto, the family shared a 1 1/2-room apartment,  plus a kitchen, with Dana’s uncle, paternal grandmother and another elderly woman. “I learned how to do nothing,” Dana said.

Occasionally venturing outside with her mother, Dana noticed three stains on the side of her apartment building. Later she learned that German soldiers had taken three toddlers by the ankles, trying to splatter their heads against the wall on the first swing. “Everyone drew away. It was horrifying,” Dana said.

Around March 1942, Syd announced that an aktion, a roundup and deportation of the Jews living in the ghetto, was imminent and they needed to hide. He first found a place for the older women. Then, at night, he carried Dana to the courtyard where he and Lusia crawled behind three stone steps attached to a walkway. There they lay on the dirt floor with eight or so others, venturing out only at 3 a.m. every day to stretch and drink water.

Dana had been hiding a week or two when Lusia offered their former neighbors, a Ukrainian couple, a ring in return for taking Dana for a week, knowing she would be safe. The couple put her in a bedroom with only a large pile of newspapers. After seven days, the husband returned her to the courtyard.

Dana sat on the stone steps, whispering to her father that she was back, careful not to reveal the hiding place. “Go down to the cellar,” he instructed. There, in the basement of their apartment building, she found her mother, who herself had spent the week in hiding. When the lengthy aktion was over, the three returned to their apartment.

Two months later, Dana and Lusia had false papers that Syd had purchased, enabling them to leave Lvov. (As a circumcised male, he knew he couldn’t pass as a Christian.) Lusia drilled Dana on her new name, Danusia Marysia Schabinska, and taught her Catholic prayers.

After Dana and her mother bid farewell to Syd, they made their way to the Lvov train station, where they met a farmer Syd had paid to take them to his village, Zaklikow, about 130 miles northwest of Lvov. The farmer told other villagers that these were his cousin’s wife and daughter, people he felt obliged to assist.

Another farmer rented them a space in his livestock barn. For food, as they were starving, Lusia approached the baker, bartering her silk dresses, platinum watch and engagement ring for a daily piece of bread. (In 1989, after a trip to Zaklikow, Dana succeeded in buying back her mother’s ring from the baker’s daughter.)

Meanwhile, Syd had been taken to the Janowska labor and transit camp on the outskirts of Lvov. There, he smuggled out three letters to Lusia and Dana, informing them, in the last letter, that “Syd is planning to take a vacation,” code for an escape. Dana and her mother never heard from him again.

Finally, in the summer of 1944, the Soviets liberated Zaklikow. Dana and Lusia hitched a ride in the back of a Soviet military truck to Lvov, where they found no surviving relatives and where a man Lusia had recently met rented a room for them.

One night, a drunk Soviet army officer attacked Lusia in the courtyard of their building, holding a gun while trying to rape her. Dana, then 10, was the only one who responded to Lusia’s calls for help. She jumped on the officer’s back, kicking, scratching and disorienting him, enabling them both to escape. The next morning, Lusia told Dana, “I am going to take you to America.”

Around June 1945, Dana and Lusia moved to Bytom in western Poland, and from there, in 1946, they immigrated to Sweden.

In Stockholm, Lusia remarried. “It was not a happy marriage,” Dana said, but her mother’s husband had a green card, enabling them to fulfill their dream of immigrating to the United States. On Dec. 7, 1949, they arrived in Los Angeles, where Sam Safir, Lusia’s former employer at the Polish national lottery, now lived.

In the U.S., Dana, then 14, had two wishes: to become an American girl, like the other teenagers she saw wearing Levi’s jeans, and a flamenco dancer. She took flamenco lessons for only a few weeks but, more important, attended school, graduating from high school in June 1952.

Lusia died of cancer four months later, and Dana, with the help of Safir, who became her guardian, attended college. She became an elementary school teacher, working from 1958 to 1961.

During this time, Dana met Wilbur (Bill) Schwartz, an American physician, and married him on Nov. 22, 1959. “I was finally safe and in love,” she said. The couple had three sons: Steve, born in 1961; Rick, in 1963; and Jonny, in 1969.

When Jonny was 5, Dana began to volunteer at The Maple Counseling Center in Beverly Hills. She returned to school, earned a master’s degree in psychology and worked as a licensed therapist from 1980 to 2013.  Bill died in November 2014.

In 1994, when the USC Shoah Foundation was founded, Dana began conducting interviews and training interviewers, including those who spoke Polish and Swedish. “I loved my work,” she said.

She also has been active with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust since the 1970s and currently is a member of the Survivor Advisory Board as well as a regular speaker.

Dana, now a grandmother of six, feels blessed to have so many rich memories.

“I’m not just an American girl like I wanted to be,” she said. “I’m also that person who went through all that stuff. And it lives with me. It’s the foundation of who I am.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint news conference at the White House on Feb. 15. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Netanyahu: Trump administration now ‘understands’ Jewish meaning of Holocaust

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was his impression that President Donald Trump’s administration now understands that the meaning of the Holocaust was the attempt to eradicate the Jews.

Netanyahu said he did not bring up the White House’s controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement in his meeting Wednesday with Trump, but that their teams had discussed it ahead of the summit. The statement omitted any mention of or allusion to the Jews.

“There is no doubt that they now understand the meaning of the Holocaust as a means to strike out the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said in a briefing after the summit for Israeli reporters.

The Jan. 27 statement drew criticism from an array of Jewish groups, including several that otherwise back Trump, and Holocaust historians, who said that while tens of millions were murdered during the period and multiple groups were targeted, the bid to eradicate any trace of the Jews was unique and is the only phenomenon “Holocaust” describes.

Administration spokesmen said the statement was meant to be “inclusive” of other groups that suffered during World War II and derided objections as “asinine” and “pathetic.”

JTA asked White House spokesmen to react to Netanyahu’s contention that the administration now understood the centrality of Jews to the meaning of the Holocaust. There was no reply.

Netanyahu, speaking to Israeli reporters, repeated what he had said during a joint news conference with Trump earlier in the day, when an Israeli reporter asked about a spike in expressions of anti-Semitism since Trump’s election, which the reporter linked to the xenophobic tone of Trump’s rhetoric.

“There is no better friend” than Trump “to Israel and the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said.

Asked to comment on expressions of concern by Jewish organizational leaders, Netanyahu insisted: “There is no basis for these worries.”

When Did You Lose Yours?

This article is dedicated in memory of Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz Aka Schwartzie (May the Schwartz B W U)

When did you Lose yours?

Was it the first time you heard the whisper of death creep into your wake?

Did you lose yours upon seeing illness?

Or was it upon feeling betrayal?

Did you lose yours the first time you lost love or the moment you noticed shame?

Mine was lost as a child, then again as an adult.

I’m sure you can remember the exact day you lost your innocence.unnamed

The exact moment you no longer saw the world with the same black and white colors. Like a baby adjusting to the light, as the tinge of grey began creeping into your vision, when you suddenly saw that veil lift as a crystal clear unblemished truth began to change you. Not at first. But soon. And the truth invaded your body with realism and cynicism and confusion. Not right away. But eventually.

Some lose their innocence when they are children.  As time moved forward I began to understand how the impact of loss was informing my decisions and my fears.

When my father passed away, my innocence crept away completely. Gone forever like a shadow muttering my name before I even had one. That impact made me remember how my innocence was something I wished I could hold onto. I began to resent my innocence and looked at it with distrust. I used to close my eyes and pretend I was preserving my innocence longer, wondering what it might feel like if it stayed in tact. If I had lost my innocence older, would it have  mummified inside, making the ability to see truth that much more burdensome? Would truth have been more difficult to recognize? Or would it have been easier to adjust to?

We are fortunate to have Marianne R. Klein’s artwork included in this essay. About the artist- A holocaust survivor, Marianne was born in Budapest, Hungary. Her art collection is a series of acrylic on canvas impressionistic and figurative works that depicts a symphony of colors. She also enjoys experimenting with different mediums and techniques. Her screenplays are currently under consideration. When Marianne is not painting, she is busy writing. Her recently published book entitled “All the Pretty Shoes” is now available on and can be viewed at Marianne’s artwork will be exhibited on February 4th-15th 2017 in Santa Monica, California at the Bergamot Station, Building G – Room G#8 starting @ 5:00 p.m to 9:00 p.m.

We are fortunate to have Marianne R. Klein’s artwork included in this essay. About the artist- A holocaust survivor, Marianne was born in Budapest, Hungary. Her art collection is a series of acrylic on canvas impressionistic and figurative works that depicts a symphony of colors. She also enjoys experimenting with different mediums and techniques. Her screenplays are currently under consideration. When Marianne is not painting, she is busy writing. Her recently published book entitled “All the Pretty Shoes” is now available on and can be viewed at Marianne’s artwork will be exhibited on February 4th-15th 2017 in Santa Monica, California at the Bergamot Station, Building G – Room G#8 starting @ 5:00 p.m to 9:00 p.m.

Learning truth after innocence fades feels like squinting at first, like the light is so large and so colossal our brains are unable to interpret the full scope of the information pounding down the pavement.  I wish I could look at truth with a sort of unadulterated awe. Instead it has become quite loud and colossal and very disruptive. I have a hard time accepting truth. It is not a construct I like very much. Yet it is necessary. It is affirming yet alarming. Discerning yet indifferent.

We are very crafty. We can look at the large mountain of truth and still find a way to completely avoid it’s rearing head. For years we can pretend reliable information is false. We can build strategies that allow truth to lie under the bed just a little while longer. We can even become brilliant at alternate reality storytelling, because the hurt, the betrayal, the realness of it all is just too much to bear. It is just too much.


As we get older new stories, new revelations, new shocks can seep into our system. And one day we finally look into the mirror, like deeply look, and really stare and suddenly our own truth looks foreign to us as well. We do not know our own truth anymore, so we begin wearing other people’s eternal verities. We adopt new garments of information that become our own and fixate our bodies into these threads of perceivable isms until we forget who we are completely. We can’t even feel our bodies anymore. I have done this quite brilliantly. Ignoring body parts, suppressing pain became a habit I had not even recognized I was doing until it became too difficult to rely on any longer.

We can do pretend for many reasons, but mainly because truths, which become to difficult to swallow has the ability to prevent us from feeling everything and gives us permission to go on autopilot. The danger in this mechanism is that it can allow illness take over, because the blocks in our bodies become huge gaping  holes for the feelings of dis-ease to settle into. Discomfort, disbelief, and our own disconnection with power can become unrecognizable and alien. Our voice is lost at sea, our consciousness asleep, our bodies rejecting truth becomes the exercise we cannot stop without intervention.

But imagine if we stopped that train from heading down the reckless path before the illness set in. How do we stop it?

By asking questions of ourselves. By noticing the patterns, how losing that innocence has affected our daily living routines.  By feeling ourselves suppress our convictions and emotions hiding behind the decay. By noticing our bodies and how our bodies are reacting to the loss. By seeing, not just looking. By feeling, not just touching. By listening, not just hearing. By literally smelling the damn roses for once. For just once.

Before we become too despondent maybe we can reawaken that glimmer of hope that still simmers on a low flame. Before it leaves us slowly extinguishing into a prolonged termination.

Before we layer. Layer with outside labels and immerse ourselves with exterior stereotypes. Before we create ideas that become more external ideas so as not to have to face the person who lives under the truth. The person who hides behind the realism that relies on falsehood as a mechanism to find truth. It is quite startling, really, that we have the audacity to  search for truth using pretend. As if the pretend wills the truth away.

Truly, we don’t want her to leave,  the hope. If we are honest with ourselves, we want her to stay, to re-infuse our souls and re-install our vibrancy. We want her to bathe our cynicism  and doubt into submission. But in order to do that, we must have  enough trust in ourselves, in our voice, in our power to will that into being.

If we are honest with ourselves, do we not want to get to that place where truth lives and thrives? Where the veil is no longer casting that shadow only to find us awake? Not the awake where we tease ourselves into a living that looks pretend, but the sort of living that is rooted in the deepest layers of soul. Because our soul, the instrument that keeps us awake and opens our heart, refuses to live in falsehood and has been catching us from the beginning.  It has been activated and operates on unwavering authenticity- and paradoxically on loss of innocence.

And while there are still moments we catch ourselves still aching and longing for that time of falsehood when innocence still lay intact, we are better for all of our innocence finally leaving on the whisper she flew in on. Yes, truth is more complicated, yet it is also more defining and the birthplace of creation. The creation of our new  more powerful, more beautiful, more compelling, persuasive intact new self we have finally allowed ourselves to meet.


Chaim Ferster lectured about the Holocaust in schools and colleges so people would not forget its horrors. Screenshot from YouTube

Chaim Ferster, survivor of 8 Nazi concentration camps, dies at 94

Chaim Ferster, a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor who spent time in eight concentration camps, has died.

Ferster died Monday in Manchester, England, from pneumonia and a kidney infection, surrounded by his three sons and other family members, the BBC reported. He was 94.

He was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in an Orthodox Jewish family. In 1943, the Nazis forced him to leave his home, and he spent time in concentration camps in Germany and Poland, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Ferster, his sister Manya and a cousin were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust. Manya is now 92.

After World War II, Ferster moved to England, where he found work repairing sewing machines. He later set up “a series of successful businesses,” according to the BBC.

Ferster lectured about the Holocaust in schools and colleges.

“His greatest fear was that people would forget the horrors of the Holocaust,” his son Stuart told the BBC.

On Monday, the Greater Manchester Police shared a video of Ferster playing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” on the violin during a Jan. 27 visit to its headquarters on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

On Monday, the Greater Manchester Police shared a video of Ferster playing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” on the violin during a Jan. 27 visit to its headquarters on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump team blocked State Department’s Holocaust statement that mentioned Jews

The State Department crafted a statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day that explicitly mentioned the Jewish victims of the Nazis, but President Donald Trump’s White House team reportedly blocked its release.

An unnamed Trump official said the incident was purely the product of miscommunication, Politico reported Thursday.

The State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy on Holocaust Issues prepared a statement that it believed was written for Trump to use. The statement specifically mentioned the Jews murdered by the Nazis.

The Trump official told Politico that the president did not receive the State Department draft until after he released his own statement.

Trump’s statement, released Jan. 27, elicited a storm of criticism for failing to mention the Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The White House statement spoke of “the victims, survivors, [and] heroes of the Holocaust,” but did not specifically mention Jews or anti-Semitism, which had been customary in statements by his predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

The Zionist Organization of America, Republican Jewish Coalition and the Anti-Defamation League were among the many Jewish groups to take issue with the omission. Sen. Tim Kaine likened the statement to Holocaust denial.

In response to the criticism, Trump administration spokeswoman Hope Hicks defended the statement as an attempt to be inclusive.

Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said the president “has dear family members that are Jewish.”

“I recognize, in fact, obviously that that was what the Holocaust was about,” Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend.

Survivors attend a prayer and tribute ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27Photo by Agency Gazeta/Kuba Ociepa/Reuters

Why the White House is wrong about the Holocaust: Q-and-A with Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum

In seeking to create a teachable moment following the White House’s decision to withhold the mention of Jews from President Donald J. Trump’s statement honoring International Holocaust Memorial Day, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust asked noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum to describe not only his response to the statement, but also the reasons why it generated such strong opposition.

Berenbaum served as Deputy Director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust (1979–1980), Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) (1988–1993), and Director of the USHMM’s Holocaust Research Institute (1993–1997). He played a leading role in the creation of the USHMM and the content of its permanent exhibition.

“The failure of the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day to mention the Jews is troubling because it fails to grasp the full nature of the Holocaust,” Berenbaum said. “The statement of the President’s Press Secretary defending that statement misrepresents history and invents a new category of victims.”

Who were the victims of the Nazis?

Some were victimized for what they did: trade unionists, political dissidents, social democrats even Free Masons.

Some were victimized for what they refused to do. Jehovah’s Witnesses would not register for the draft, swear allegiance to the state or utter the words “Heil Hitler.”

Some were victimized for what they were. Roma and Sinti, pejoratively labeled as Gypsies, were considered asocials. Germans of special needs – mentally retarded, physically infirm, congenitally ill, mentally retarded or emotionally distraught German – Aryans non-Jews – were sent to their death, defined as “life unworthy of living” and “useless eaters.”

Jews were victimized for the fact that they were. It was sufficient to have Jewish grandparents irrespective of one’s faith or identity for the Nazi state and their collaborators to murder one as a Jew.

Why the emphasis on Six Million Jews?

It was the German state and the Nazi regime that decided upon the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” a euphemistic way of declaring the annihilation of the Jews – all Jews, everywhere, men, women and children. Four death camps – Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Chelmno were dedicated also exclusively toward what the Nazis referred to as the extermination of the Jews. Millions of Jews were murdered in these camps, so were some 20,000 Roma and Sinti. It was the German state policy to rid the world of Jews, a policy that had no parallel in the Nazi universe.

Why are Jews sensitive – so sensitive or overly sensitive – to the omission of a specific mention to the Jews?

Three reasons:

1. During the Communist era, authorities throughout the communist world deliberately omitted all mention of the Jews, referring instead to the murder of their citizens without specifying that they were Jews. This decision obscured the nature of the crime and its reasons. It also let many collaborators, including collaborating government distort, their participation in the crime because Jews were not treated as citizens but as Jews, outsiders and no entitled to the protection of the state.

2. Jews were killed as Jews. They have every right to be remembered as Jews.

3. It gives Hitler and all who participated in the murder of the Jews a posthumous victory because they not only wanted to murder all the Jews but also to eradicate the memory of the crime. By erasing the memory of Jews, one assists in distorting the crime.

Should not all victims of Nazism be remembered?

Of course, all contemporary museums to the Holocaust include the memory of non-Jews murdered by the Nazis; because their inclusion is required to remained faithful to history and also because only be including the memory of all Nazi victims can we understand what was singular about the murder of the Jews.

So what was singular about the murder of the Jews?

– Scope
– Scale
– Duration
– Totality
– Methodology
– Purpose

The Holocaust engulfed 22 countries throughout Europe from France to Central Russia, from Norway in the North to North Africa in the South.

It was the intended policy of the Nazi German government to be rid of the Jews from German lands for 12 years, from the time that Hitler came to power to his dying day, indeed to the last hours of the war. First their intention was to be rid of the Jews by making it impossible for them to live in Germany. Therefore they would first be forced to leave, and then, after June 1941, they would be murdered, first by sending mobile killers to murder the Jews, and when that proved difficult and burdensome, by making the Jews mobile and sending them to stationary killing centers, factories of death, where assembly line procedures make for an efficient murder mechanism.

Why kill the Jews?

The murder of the Jews served no territorial purpose, was economically disruptive and burdensome to the war effort. The Jews were murdered because in the Nazi universe they were regarded as “cancerous” on German Society and their elimination first by evacuation and later by murder essential to the health of that society. Yale historian Timothy Snyder has recently written that Hitler lived in a world of dominance, the strong would either dominate or be destroyed. Thus, Jews were opposed for the values they brought into the world. Compassionate justice and assistance to the weak stood in the way of the natural order as perceived by Hitler; in nature, the powerful exercise their power without restraint. Hitler practiced social Darwinism at it most extreme. Jewish values were not only held by Jews but spread widely by Christians who revered Jesus.

The murder of the Jews was considered by the Macarthur Prize winning UCLA historian, Saul Friedlander, ”redemptive antisemitism.” The elimination of Jews would “save Germany.”

What was wrong with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s defense of the Statement?

The newly appointed Press Secretary invented a new category of victims. Had he asked – as any White House Press Secretary should ask — any knowledgeable historian would have told him German and Austrian male homosexuals were victimized by the Nazis. There is no evidence for the victimization of Lesbians, though undoubtedly so lesbians were victimized because they were Jew or fell into the other categories of victim groups.

Cartoon: Trump omits references to Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day


Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, stand behind a barbed wire fence.

‘Remember the 11 Million’?

“Five million non-Jews died in the Holocaust.”

It’s a statement that shows up regularly in declarations about the Nazi era. It was implied in a Facebook post by the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson’s unit on Jan. 27 marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And it was asserted in an article shared by the Trump White House in defense of its controversial Holocaust statement the same day omitting references to the 6 million Jewish victims.

It is, however, a number without any scholarly basis.

Indeed, say those close to the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, its progenitor, it is a number that was intended to increase sympathy for Jewish suffering but which now is more often used to obscure it.

The White House statement sent waves of dismay through the Jewish community, including among groups that have been supportive of President Donald Trump.

By mentioning the “victims, survivors, [and] heroes of the Holocaust” without mentioning the Jews, said a host of Jewish organizations, the statement risked playing into the hands of the European right, which includes factions that seek to diminish the centrality of the Jewish genocide to the carnage of World War II.

In defending the omission of Jews from the statement, a White House spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, sent CNN a link to a 2015 Huffington Post-UK piece titled “The Holocaust’s Forgotten Victims: The 5 Million Non-Jewish People Killed By the Nazis.”

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, appeared to cite the same source on Jan. 30, saying that the Nazis’ victims included Roma, gays, the disabled and priests. He called complaints about the statement “pathetic.” In the wake of the controversy, the world’s two leading Holocaust museums, in Washington and in Jerusalem, issued statements emphasizing the centrality of the annihilation of the Jews to the understanding of the Holocaust; neither mentioned Trump.

The “5 million” has driven Holocaust historians to distraction ever since Wiesenthal started to peddle it in the 1970s. Wiesenthal told the Washington Post in 1979, “I have sought with Jewish leaders not to talk about 6 million Jewish dead, but rather about 11 million civilians dead, including 6 million Jews.”

Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli Holocaust scholar who chairs the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, said he warned his friend Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, about spreading the false notion that the Holocaust claimed 11 million victims — 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews.

“I said to him, ‘Simon, you are telling a lie,’ ” Bauer recalled. “He said, ‘Sometimes, you need to do that to get the results for things you think are essential.’ ”

Bauer and other historians who knew Wiesenthal said the Nazi hunter told them he chose the 5 million number carefully: He wanted a number large enough to attract the attention of non-Jews who might not otherwise care about Jewish suffering, but not larger than the actual number of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, 6 million.

It caught on: President Jimmy Carter, issuing the executive order that would establish the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, referred to the “11 million victims of the Holocaust.”

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, wrote in 2011 how the number continues to dog her efforts to teach about the Holocaust.

“I have been to many Yom HaShoah observances — including those sponsored by synagogues and Jewish communities — where 11 candles were lit,” she wrote in an article in the Jewish Review of Books in which she lacerated Wiesenthal’s ethical standards. “When I tell the organizers that they are engaged in historical revisionism, their reactions range from skepticism to outrage. Strangers have taken me to task in angry letters for focusing ‘only’ on Jewish deaths and ignoring the five million others. When I explain that this number is simply inaccurate, in fact made up, they become even more convinced of my ethnocentrism and inability to feel the pain of anyone but my own people.”

The problem, according to Bauer, who has debunked the number repeatedly in his writings over the decades, is not that non-Jews were not victims; they were. It is that Wiesenthal’s arbitrarily chosen tally of non-Jewish victims diminishes the centrality to the Nazi ideology of systematically wiping any trace of the Jewish people from the planet.

In fact, he said, the term “genocide” could accurately be applied to the 2 million to 3 million Poles murdered and millions more enslaved by the Nazis. But the mass murder of the Poles, Roma and others should not come under the rubric “Holocaust,” a term that Holocaust historians generally dislike because of its religious connotations but nonetheless have accepted as describing only the annihilation that the Nazis hoped to visit on the Jews.

“All Jews of the world had to be annihilated,” Bauer said. “That was the intent. There was never an idea in Nazi minds to murder all the Russians.”

The number 5 million also adheres to no known understanding of the number of non-Jews killed by the Nazis: While as many as 35 million people were killed overall because of Nazi aggression, the number of non-Jews who died in the concentration camps is no more than half a million, Bauer said.

Mark Weitzman, the director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that Wiesenthal, in advancing the number, “never intended to minimize the Jewish specificity of the Shoah,” the Hebrew word for Holocaust.

“He was trying to draw attention to the fact that there were other victims of Nazi genocide,” Weitzman said.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the Wiesenthal Center and delivered the benediction at Trump’s inauguration, told CNN on Jan. 31 that Trump’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day was a “mistake,” but one he did not believe was intended to diminish Jewish suffering.

“I do not accuse President Trump of wanting to dishonor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust who were Jewish, but it was a mistake,” he said.

Lipstadt, writing in The Atlantic, is not so sure.

“It may have all started as a mistake by a new administration that is loath to admit it’s wrong,” she wrote. “Conversely, it may be a conscious attempt by people with anti-Semitic sympathies to rewrite history. Either way, it is deeply disturbing.” n

President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 31. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Jewish leaders discuss Trump’s Holocaust Remembrance Day omission

Condemnation of President Donald Trump excluding Jews in his Jan. 27 statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day was across-the-board, with organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, which has been critical of Trump from the time of his candidacy, to the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has been supportive of him, criticizing the omission.

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” the U.S. President’s Jan. 27 statement says, excluding “Jews.” “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”

In the wake of the statement’s release as well as confirmation from the Trump administration’s spokesperson, Hope Hicks, that the exclusion was intentional, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC)—whose founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, delivered the invocation at Trump’s inauguration—issued a statement calling on the White House to update the statement.

“The Simon Wiesenthal Center reiterates its call for Friday’s Presidential statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day to be updated to specifically mention the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazis,” the Jan. 29 statement says.

That update never came, much to the chagrin of Jewish leaders. In a Tuesday phone interview, SWC Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper said because the Holocaust was focused on the systematic murder of Jews, any International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement neglecting Jews is not just wrongheaded, but dangerous.

“It has real implications in places like Europe, where, as we speak, in the last 10 days there were Muslims in a German [high school] who didn’t want to participate in a Holocaust memorial and one of their professors said we have to listen to their side and be sensitive to it,” Cooper said.

It is fine to remember non-Jewish victims, according to Cooper. In fact, Wiesenthal, himself, was committed to memorializing non-Jewish victims of the Shoah. The famed Nazi hunter and survivor’s insistence on doing so, however, did not detract from his devotion to remembering the primary victims, Jews.

“A generation ago, Simon Wiesenthal was basically the only major Jewish figure to also talk about non-Jewish victims of the Nazis. In fact, when the Roma [gypsies] were initially left off the [then-] new U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council [the governing body of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum] it was Wiesenthal who enforced the issue, saying they were also victims of the Nazis and they have to be on there,” Cooper said. “He spoke about it with great passion in those years … In the same breath he would also say it’s also important to remember the Final Solution…the only target of that genocidal policy were the Jews,” Cooper said.

In an interview, Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was active in the free Soviet Jewry movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which, experts say, was a cause American-Jews took on, in part, out of guilt of not doing enough to rescue European Jews during the Shoah, says Jews are “sensitive” when it comes to Holocaust remembrance.

“We’re sensitive. The Jewish community is sensitive to this. It’s not our egos that’s driving this. It’s the motive behind white-washing the name, white-washing the Jews out of the Holocaust experience,” he said.

“Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd used the term “White-wash” when, this past Sunday on his show, he asked White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus if the Trump administration regretted not including “Jews” in his Jan. 27 statement.

“I don’t regret the words, Chuck,” Priebus said, as quoted by a transcript of the broadcast, available at

Priebus was not the only Trump administration official to defend the exclusion. On Monday, during a news conference, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the “nitpicking” that has been done to the statement is “pathetic.” Additionally, Spicer said a Jewish individual with relatives who were in the Holocaust helped craft the statement. He declined to name the person when a reporter asked if it was Jared Kushner, Trump’s Orthodox son-in-law, who drafted the statement.

On Monday evening, Politico identified Boris Epshteyn, a special assistant to the president of Russian-Jewish descent, as the person behind the statement.

Cooper, for his part, said the Jewish “nitpicking,” to borrow Spicer’s words, is not demonstrative of Jews being overly-sensitive. The anger over the exclusion, he said, is about getting the facts straight.

“It’s not about being oversensitive; the Shoah is the Shoah. We would prefer if we weren’t the target but we were and if you’re going to make a statement and going to memorialize it,” he said, “you need to get it right.”


President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 31. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump White House makes Holocaust ‘Judenrein’

In 1993, I visited the site of the German extermination camp of Belzec in Poland where my grandparents were murdered during the Holocaust. The inscription on the memorial, erected by the former Communist government of Poland, read: “In memory of the victims of Hitler’s terror.” Nothing about the Jews.

In fact, almost all of the half million who perished at Belzec in 1942 were Jews. But according to the ideology of the then-rulers of Poland and their Soviet overlords, it was politically unacceptable  to admit what in fact happened – that Jews were singled out and systematically murdered in a vast industrial effort to rid Europe of their presence.

Both the Soviets and the Poles wanted to highlight their own sufferings (and hide their own culpability) and had little empathy for the Jews either before or after World War II.

This incident came to mind last week when the Trump administration issued a statement on international Holocaust Day that contained no mention of the Jews. “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” Trump’s statement began. “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”

When Jewish groups objected to being airbrushed from history, the Trump administration doubled down. The White House made it clear that the omission of Jews was no accident. Trump’s people wanted to make the point that other victims also suffered and died in the Holocaust.

The fact is, when we speak of the “Holocaust,” we are referring to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis specifically against the Jews. That’s what the word means. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “Holcoaust”  in its modern, and accepted meaning, as “the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis in the war of 1939-1945.”

Conservative commentator John Podhoretz slammed the White House’s defense of its actions in a column on Saturday, noting that Nazi ideology rested on the aim of exterminating Jewish people from the face of earth.

“The Nazis killed an astonishing number of people in monstrous ways and targeted certain groups — Gypsies, the mentally challenged, and open homosexuals, among others,” Podhoretz wrote. “But the Final Solution was aimed solely at the Jews. The Holocaust was about the Jews.

In this statement and other actions taken in the first days of the Trump administration, the influence of chief White House strategist Steve Bannon has been clearly felt. Before joining the Trump campaign, Bannon ran the alt-right Breitbart News, which was notorious for tolerating and spreading anti-Semitic lies and slanders. For example, during Bannon’s reign over Breitbart, the website ran articles referring to conservative commentator Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew” and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum as “a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.”

After Bannon joined Trump’s campaign, it too started flirting with anti-Semitic tropes, including tweeting an image of a star of David with Hillary Clinton’s face superimposed on a pile of money. His closing ad warned of a shadowy cabal of bankers and international elites.

In each case, Trump refused to back down or apologize, and his anti-Semitic fans took heart from the coded signals in their favor. Now that Trump is president, the same dynamic is playing out around his statement on the Holocaust.

How can we best describe Trump’s Holocaust Day statement? I call it Holocaust denial. It says in effect, that there was nothing special about the fate of the Jews under the Nazis. They were just unfortunate victims along with all the other unfortunate victims.

Trump’s statement seems deliberately designed to hurt and wound us. I know this is strong language but I feel almost as if Trump is in effect completing Hitler’s work. Hitler took away the lives of our people. Trump is taking away their memory. Shame on him!

After a campaign of several years, we managed to get rid of the memorial at Belzec and replace it with one that did justice to the Jews who died there. The horrible sign disappeared.

Now we have to do the same to this President and his administration – as soon as humanly possible.

Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President of J Street and the son of a Holocaust survivor.

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Jan. 29. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Back story behind the Holocaust statement proves Trump’s a mensch

It turns out, according to today’s JTA, that the Holocaust Statement was written — all or mostly — by Boris Ephsteyn, a strongly identifying American Jew, of Russian Jewish ethnicity, who is in the Trump inner circle and who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors.

I shall now place myself in Trump’s place, and I invite you to so so.  I am a chief executive, and I want to issue a statement on Cesar Chavez Day, so I ask a trusted advisor who also is Chicano to handle the statement.  Or I ask an African American close advisor to draft my Martin Luther King Day statement.  He or she gives it to me.  I read it.  It seems very sensitive.  So I approve it. We issue it to the public.

Then it turns out that I did not catch some nuance that would be uniquely sensitive to the group in question.  It did not say “Jewish” in the otherwise-meaningful statement that remembered and mourned the loss and suffering of the Holocaust victims.  Remember — here, I am in Trump’s shoes:  As a non-Jew who associates the Holocaust with the murder of Six Million Jews, I took it for granted that the statement mourned Jewish Holocaust victims. It never occurred to me that it was flawed because it left out the word “Jewish.” Just as with my other two examples: The Cesar Chavez statement did not say something that a Chicano would expect, or the MLK statement omitted some word that an African American would expect. Like, I don’t know — does the statement have to include the phrase “We Shall Overcome”?  Or is it sufficient if it condemns racism, bigotry, hate, and division?  Well, the Chicano or African American who is so close to me, whose wisdom and counsel I value, wrote it, and it seemed sensitive, so I approved it, and it was issued.

And now I am under a torrent of criticism descending on me — from vipers who criticize my every breath every day, constantly suspecting the most evil of motives no matter what I do or say.

One choice I have: I can dump on Boris Epshteyn.  I can point fingers at him, blame him, maybe even force him to apologize publicly. Maybe even fire him. Even publicly.

But that is not Trump’s way.

Interestingly, despite Trump’s unbelievably boorish side — as in the debates, horribly so — Trump curiously has another side: he somehow also is an incredible mensch, a really nice guy, and he rewards loyalty with loyalty.  Remember how he stood by the speech writer who gave Melania that speech plagiarized from Michelle Obama?  How he stood by Corey Lewandowski after that incident with the reporter in the crowd whom Lewandowski perhaps touched? People expected that speechwriter to be fired; she even handed in her resignation.  However, Trump stood by her.  And he has stood by Lewandowski, through and through.  Just watch Lewandowski talk about Trump on CNN or Fox.

Trump stands by his people.  He will not feed his people to the wolves, even when they mess up, even when their error embarrasses him personally, just to protect himself.  He feels he has strong shoulders, and he can carry the load, no matter what hits.

Not all executives are like that, but many believe that you get the best results for the long term when your team knows that the boss has their backs as long as they demonstrate loyalty, are well beyond competent, and as long as they truly do their best.  I had that experience with a boss once.  I once made a mistake in a law position that caused him a bit of embarrassment.  He knew it was my mistake, and — oh my! — I knew it even more so.  He never said a negative word to me about it.  He acted publicly, when others tittered, as though it had been his error.  When I apologized about it later, he made a light joke about it — “I guess you were spending too much time last night studying the Talmud, Rabbi.”  That was it.  Today, 23 years later, I feel such an incredible loyalty to him, as do all others who ever worked for him.  We love him.  We would do anything for him.

That is a leadership style.  Not everyone agrees with that style — In the large law firms where I worked, many nasty partners lived by an alternative credo that, if you let a subordinate get away with making any mistake, he or she will be careless all the time forevermore.

In the end, for those who are willing to view the recent Holocaust Statement Imbroglio without a bias, the disclosure by JTA that Boris Ephteyn wrote the Holocaust Statement actually is to Trump’s praise.  No one has made this observation yet.  I think it worth noting.  He has absorbed the blame and has taken the pot shots — particularly from the usual critics and Democrat Party hacks — for a statement that one of his Jewish advisors drafted.

At least on this one, his critics owe Donald trump an apology.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, an attorney and adjunct professor of law, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County and holds and has held prominent leadership roles in several national rabbinic and other Jewish organizations including Rabbinical Council of America and Zionist Organization of America. He formerly was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review and thereafter clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Senior Counselor to the President Steve Bannon in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20. Photo by Win McNamee/Reuters

Trump’s Holocaust denial, or Bannon’s?

All week I’ve been asking myself this question: Does the Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge that Jews were the victims of the Nazi Holocaust say something about the psychology of Donald Trump, or about the ideology of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon?

After all, if something happens once, it’s a mistake. If it happens twice, it’s either a problem — or a plan.

First, the facts: On Jan. 20, 1942, the senior leaders of the Nazi regime gathered by a beautiful lake in Wannsee outside Berlin and affirmed the Final Solution against the Jewish people.   You can go there and stand in the room where it happened. You can read the documents with their signatures. I did.

Yes, the Nazis killed many people and groups of people, among them Romani, the disabled, homosexuals and Poles. But the Holocaust was conceived, planned and executed to wipe out one people — the Jews. The Germans have said this. Our new president will not.

When Trump’s speech neglected to mention the Jews, Jewish groups from across the political spectrum expressed concern and asked politely for a correction. Notably those groups included Trump allies and friends.

“The lack of a direct statement about the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust was an unfortunate omission,” a spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) wrote in a statement. “We hope, going forward, he conveys those feelings when speaking about the Holocaust.”

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and a longtime Trump supporter, called on Trump to “rectify this painful omission.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles politely asked that the administration “update” its statement to include the fact that the Holocaust was designed to exterminate one people, the Jews.

All Trump had to do was issue a correction, or an “update.” That would have pleased the critics, and assuaged his friends. Instead, the administration doubled down on what is essentially a lie of omission.

At a later press conference, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the groups that complained about the omission of Jews from the Holocaust were “nitpicking.”

“It is pathetic that people are picking on a statement,” he said.

This wasn’t just a slap at Trump’s many critics in the Jewish community, this was a middle finger to his few friends.

The ZOA’s Mort Klein heralded Trump’s election as a boon to Israel and the Jewish people, doing so even before the Republican Jewish Coalition swung on board. The RJC did eventually support Trump. And Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier delivered a benediction at Trump’s inauguration, enduring sharp criticism in doing so.

But even for them, Trump wouldn’t budge. Not even on an issue of clear historical fact, a history that Hier has devoted his entire being to memorializing.

Then again, that might not be Trump, but Bannon.

But Trump wouldn’t budge. Not even on an issue of clear historical fact, a history that Rabbi Hier has devoted his entire being to memorializing.

Bannon headed the rebirth of the web site into what he described as, “a platform for the alt-right,” the neo-Nazi retreads who sport frog pins and Twitter handles like, “Chuck U Shumer.”

On Breitbart, the Holocaust controversy played out like one long dog whistle to the comments section. A few self-described Jewish supporters excused Trump because, well, boo Obama, and anyway the new president has Jewish relatives.

But for the masses, it was all Jew-bashing, all the time. It has long been the aim of European nationalists and the alt-right here to downplay the extent to which Jews were targeted, to de-Judaize the Holocaust. Trump’s statement played into that. But it was his refusal to correct or apologize that really energized the haters.

“Um the Marxists deserved to go to the camps,” commented Chuck U Shumer.

spd1275 wrote: “Too bad Hitler didn’t round up Democrats as well…”

“I bet that people who blame Trump are anti-Semites although they call themselves ADL and Zionist Organization [of America],” wrote Felix_the_cat.

“Don’t forget the REAL holocaust was 40,000,000 Orthodox Christians sent off to the gulags by the Bolshevikim in 1917, 100 years ago today,” Anteater wrote. “’The Chosen, as they called themselves … emigrated to Israel to start spreading hate and race war all over again. And then they came for me.”

It goes on and on, page after page.

What this episode says about Trump is clear. Here is a man who is willing to throw his friends under the bus without a second thought. Corner him, challenge him or even mildly correct him, and he will paint you as “pathetic” in the eyes of his real supporters.

What it says about Bannon is more disturbing. As the former head of Breitbart, he knew exactly how this controversy would land among Trump’s diehard fans on the alt-right.

“Remember Stephen Bannon’s words,” a Breitbart commenter named “Jobu” wrote to defend Spicer’s comments. “Stay vigilant and keep energized. The whole planet of globalists is at war trying to take this country and our President down.”

Maybe Trump just doesn’t do I’m sorry, but next year he’ll correct his mistakes. Maybe Trump’s Jewish supporters will forgive a bit of alt-right red meat as long as their guy comes through for Israel.

But last week is the clearest evidence we have yet that when Steve Bannon’s ideology meets Donald Trump’s psychology, terrible things can happen.

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

Jewish presence felt at LAX protest on Trump refugee order

Shortly before Shabbat fell on Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively slammed the door on refugees seeking entry to the United States – at least for now.

Shock and anger had been building in the Jewish community since a draft order was released days beforehand. On Saturday, those sentiments exploded onto Rabbi Susan Goldberg’s cellphone in concerned messages from her congregants at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“When Shabbat ended last night, my phone was blowing up – emails, photos,” she said Jan. 29 as a crowd milled past her at the arrivals gate at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). “For Jews, there’s a clear line that’s been crossed. People felt kind of not okay. But now, it’s different.”

Thousands gathered at LAX, where a number of travellers had been detained because of the order. Police cut off traffic through much of the airport and largely gave protesters the run of Tom Bradley International Terminal.Many protesters were Jews from congregations across the city, and even on signs held aloft by non-Jews, a certain Jewish influence could be detected in references to 1930’s Germany and proclamations of “Never again.”

“There are a lot of Jews here – a lot,” Goldberg said, her husband translating from sign language, since she’d lost her voice. Her three children joined the pair at the Jan. 29 protest.

As weary travellers emerged to boisterously chanting crowds, Adam and Noah Reich held a sign reading, “Two Jewish brothers standing with our Muslim brothers.” While they spoke with a reporter, a short woman with olive skin, a total stranger, walked up and hugged both of them. That type of thing had been going on all afternoon.“Maybe like, a dozen so far,” Noah said. “We’ve been here for a couple hours and people just come up to us.”

“The collective power of everyone here is saying, ‘You’re not alone, we’re all here for you,’” Adam said. “And I think that’s a powerful thing.”

Emerging from the crowd, Jesse Gabriel, an attorney and executive board member at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, put his hand on Noah’s shoulder.

twit3“Kol ha’kavod,” he told the pair, using a Hebrew expression for “Well done!”

Gabriel was one of dozens of attorneys swarming the terminal, many with signs reading “lawyer” and announcing their foreign language proficiencies, hoping to be of help to stranded travellers or those recently released by immigration and customs officers.“When you have individuals whose rights need to be protected, that’s when lawyers need to step in,” Gabriel said. In fact, there was little work for the attorneys at the terminal, since those detained were stranded elsewhere, in the bowels of LAX, incommunicado. The crowds were chanting, “Let them in!” but lawyers were struggling even to make contact with those stranded.

“Our understanding is that there are a number of people with legal travel documents who are being detained in customs and borders patrol, in custody,” said immigration attorney Michael Hagerty. Hagerty was serving as ad hoc media liaison to a group of attorneys at the airport (as announced by a cardboard sign reading “media liaison”). Among his charges were representatives from legal aid clinic Public Counsel and the local American Civil Liberties Union. But information about those trapped – even a basic head count – proved difficult to come by.

twit4“We don’t know who they are, we don’t know exactly what their legal status is on an individual basis, but in all likelihood they are legal permanent residents, they are refugees with legal refugee travel documents, people with student visas,” Hagerty said.As he spoke, wayfarers cut through surging crowds, pushing carts and lugging suitcases. For those just arriving, it must have presented an overwhelming scene: shouts of “USA!” from flamboyantly dressed protesters, their signs decorated with everything from the Statue of Liberty to Trump with a Hitler mustache, and outside, drums banging out an incessant beat.Marchers mobbed the sidewalk on both the upper and lower levels, along with the international terminal itself. The crowd lined the curb, waving signs at passing cars, and some took to the upper levels of facing parking garages to look down over the scene.

Yet some travellers decided to join the protest, including Zoe Lister Jones, a filmmaker who had just stepped off the plane from screening her new comedy “Band Aid” at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I’ve been witnessing the injustices occurring from Park City and I came straight from the arrivals terminal to protest,” she said. “As a Jew, I think it’s part of our bloodline to stand up to injustice and resist fascism.”

Many Jewish protesters made their religious identity abundantly clear for passersby.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom, stood alone on the sidewalk outside the terminal, having been unable to locate his congregants in the chaos, wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl.

“I wanted people to know that the Jewish people feel a chill up our spine because this is happening,” he said.

Senior writer Danielle Berrin contributed to this report.

President Donald Trump at the White House on Jan. 27, 2017. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

ZOA joins those criticizing Trump’s Holocaust remembrance statement

The Zionist Organization of America expressed its “chagrin and deep pain” that a statement by the Trump administration marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day did not mention the Jewish victims of the Nazis.

In a news release Sunday evening, Morton A. Klein, national president of the ZOA, praised President Donald Trump as a “great friend and supporter” of Israel and the Jewish people. Nevertheless, he wrote, “especially as a child of Holocaust survivors, I and ZOA are compelled to express our chagrin and deep pain at President Trump, in his Holocaust Remembrance Day Message, omitting any mention of anti-Semitism and the six million Jews who were targeted and murdered by the German Nazi regime and others.”

In his first statement about the Holocaust as president, Trump on Friday spoke of “the victims, survivors, [and] heroes of the Holocaust,” but did not mention the Jews or anti-Semitism, which had been customary in statements by his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

The Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, criticized the statement on Friday, saying the omission was “Puzzling and troubling.”

Last year, the ZOA was one of the groups critical of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who delivered a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that similarly failed to mention Jews.

Responding to criticism from the ADL and others, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday morning that “there was no harm or ill-will or offense intended” by leaving Jews and anti-Semitism out of the statement, adding that the White House “certainly will never forget the Jewish people that suffered in World War II.”

The ZOA has been perhaps the most vocal supporter among Jewish groups of the Trump administration in its early days, issuing statements praising Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman; his stated intention to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and Friday’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for the next 90 days and suspending the admission of all refugees for 120 days.

Recounting his own history as the son of Holocaust survivors, Klein quoted a blistering criticism of the White House by John Podhoretz, a former Reagan White House aide, who wrote in Commentary Saturday that to universalize the Holocaust “is to scrub the Holocaust of its meaning.”

Added Klein: “ZOA hopes that president Trump will direct his staff and COS Reince Priebus to immediately rectify this painful omission.”