Hungary honors NY klezmer luminary Frank London


Hungary’s government awarded a state honor to Frank London, a prominent American-Jewish musician and a founder of The Klezmatics klezmer band.

London, a composer and trumpeter whose band in 2007 won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music, received the Order of Merit award last week at a reception from Reka Szemerkenyi, the Hungarian ambassador to Washington, the news agency MTI reported. His decoration is of the Knight of Cross, the lowest of six civilian classes making up the order.

A regular guest at Hungarian music festivals since the 1980s, London who is intimately familiar with Hungary’s music scene. The musician, who is in his late 50s, won the honor partly for his leading role in the Glass House Project, involving five American and three Hungarian musicians, which was launched as part of the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year in 2014.

“I was greatly inspired by Hungarian music and very impressed by the rich cultural life of Budapest, the unique musical traditions of rural Hungary and generally the complexity of Hungarian music,” London was quoted by MTI as saying.

In recent years, Hungary has come under international criticism, including by U.S. politicians, over issues connected to its commemoration of the Holocaust and efforts seen as minimizing Hungarian complicity during the Holocaust.

Israel’s justice minister: 70 percent of harmful content being removed from social media


Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in Budapest that Facebook, Twitter and Google are removing some 70 percent of harmful content from social media in Israel.

“A joining of forces by justice ministers from all over the world against incitement and our joint work vis-a-vis the internet companies will lead to change,” Shaked said Monday at the opening of a conference in Hungary on combating incitement and anti-Semitism on the internet.

Shaked and Hungarian Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi opened the conference.

Shaked, who is leading a five-member Israeli delegation to Budapest, said in her opening remarks that “it is important to respect freedom of speech, but it is also important that, contrary to the American absolutist view, hate speech must be put under control and punished.”

Another member of the Israeli delegation, Haim Wismonsky of the Israeli Prosecutor’s office, spoke about measures Israel is taking to curb hate speech.

Nimrod Kozlovski, an Israeli specialist on hate speech on the internet, criticized legal systems in general, saying that “laws against hate speech are very limited” and the legal system in this respect is not effective enough.

“Technology is the best tool against hate crimes, and technology can help not just the terrorist, but also against terror,” Kozlovski said at the conference.

 

Hungarian police hold two in death of Israeli tourist


Hungarian police have detained two people in connection with the death of an Israeli citizen, who went missing in the country several days earlier.

Ofir Gross, 40, who traveled to Hungary for vacation from his studies in biomedical engineering in Germany, was found dead on Saturday evening. Conflicting news reports say his body was found by police in a forest or in a countryside apartment.

Gross was last seen on Thursday at a local countryside restaurant, in the small mideastern Hungarian town of Tiszakecske, a spa area famous for its hot springs, located  about 120 miles from Budapest, after which he reportedly contacted his family in Israel on his mobile phone, Hungary’s Klubradio reported. He reportedly was headed to the eastern city of Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city.

One of the suspects detained in the case, age 21, is from a nearby village and the second suspect, 19, is from the surrounding area.

Gross’ family arrived in Budapest on Sunday to identify the body.

Police have not issued any official comments on the alleged murder.

Tens of thousands participate in March of the Living in Hungary


Three Christian bishops were among tens of thousands who took part Sunday in the March of the Living in Hungary, as well as the country’s largest anti-racist rally of the year.

“It is a historic moment, when the leaders of the Christian and the Jewish religion are on the same stage together,” Gabor Gordon, the head of the March of the Living Hungary Foundation, said in his introduction.

It marked the first time that three Christian bishops took part together in the march, which is held annually to commemorate the deportation of Hungarian Jewry to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and gave speeches on the same stage. March of the Living is now in its 14th year.

Janos Szekely, a Roman Catholic bishop, said: “We are here now at the March of the Living in Budapest to express our pain and repentance over the killing of more than half a million Hungarian Jewish compatriots.”

The march started from the downtown Dohany Street Synagogue and ended at the downtown Basilica, the largest Catholic Church in Budapest.

It began with a moment of silence in memory of Imre Kertész, the Hungarian Jewish writer who died earlier this month at 87, and whose Holocaust novels won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

The largest applause was for Hungarian Chief Rabbi Robert Frolich, who in his address was openly critical of the Christian churches.

“What if the doors of the Basilica had been left open then, during the Holocaust? … But the doors were not open, the Basilica was closed when it needed to be open,” he said.

Numerous diplomats attended the rally, including the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, Ilan Mor.

“This is now the March of the Living and not as it was 72 years ago, when it was the March of the Dead,” Mor said. “Now this is the March of Hope.”

The star of the Academy Award-winning Hungarian film “Son of Saul,” Géza Röhrig, also appeared at the event.

The Hungarian branch of the March of the Living Foundation, ahead of the March of the Living to Auschwitz, also holds an annual anti-xenophobic and anti-racist rally in Hungary.

Other events on Sunday included the dedication of a memorial statue in Budapest to the some 100,000 forced laborers during World War II,  The monument in the 8th District, which had a large Jewish population before the Holocaust, was created by Hungarian-Israeli artist Dan Reisinger.

The statue was supported by the Hungarian government and the Hungarian Ministry of Defense.

Non-Jewish activists link arms with Hungarian Jews in ‘symbols war’


Hungarian officials likely anticipated some Jewish opposition to their decision to erect a monument in Budapest to a Holocaust-era lawmaker who promoted anti-Semitic legislation.

What they probably didn’t expect was that the Feb. 24 unveiling of a bust honoring Gyorgy Donath would attract a protest of mostly non-Jewish Hungarians. The protest would lead to the statue’s indefinite removal over vandalism concerns.

Hungary’s Jews have been fighting what one leading rabbi has called “the symbols war” against the government for years over the public veneration of Holocaust-era figures who promoted anti-Semitic laws. But the mostly non-Jewish protest, in which participants carried EU symbols and chanted anti-fascist slogans, was taken as a sign that the effort is winning allies beyond the Jewish community.

Hungarian Jews launched the monument battle in 2014, when a statue seen as minimizing Hungarian complicity during the Holocaust was unveiled in Budapest’s Freedom Square. The monument, which depicted an angel (understood to represent Hungary) attacked by an eagle (understood to represent Germany), was vigorously opposed by the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz, which briefly suspended its ties with the government after its unveiling.

“It began with Jewish community activities but has spread beyond to a protest front with members of many affiliations,” said Adam Csillag, a filmmaker who has documented the protest since that unveiling.

That protest movement, which comprises a loose coalition of Christians, liberal political activists and Hungarian Jews, scored its first victory last year when Prime Minister Viktor Orban scrapped a plan to erect a statue of Balint Homan, another Holocaust-era politician who prompted anti-Semitic laws. The Faith Church, a Pentecostal body with 70,000 members, provided approximately half the 700 protesters who gathered at a site 30 miles west of Budapest in December to protest the Homan statue, which was canceled following an international outcry.

A statue of Gyorgy Donath in Budapest, Feb. 24, 2016. (Adam Csillag)A statue of Gyorgy Donath in Budapest, Feb. 24, 2016. Photo by Adam Csillag

“Every time an anti-Semitic figure is honored, there is a significant resistance from the civil society, and the members of Faith Church often take part in these protests as anti-Semitism is contradictory to our moral values and faith,” said Daniel Kocsor, a 20-year-old church activist.

The symbols war comes at a time of rising nationalist fervor in Hungary driven by several factors: economic crises, opposition to EU interference in the country’s affairs, growing Russian assertiveness and the recent arrival on Hungary’s borders of hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants from the Middle East. Wary of losing support to the far-right Jobbik party, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has cracked down on liberal activist groups and increased efforts to celebrate figures like Donath and Honan, who are considered patriotic by the right.

Both wartime politicians supported legislation in the 1940s that targeted Jews. Homan, who served as culture minister, authored a law to limit the number of Jewish university students. Donath argued for a measure to bar any sexual relationship between a Jew and a non-Jew.

They died at the hands of communists and have been embraced by the far right as nationalist symbols of communist oppression. But critics of the government believe the effort to portray them as freedom fighters is merely a thin veil intended to obscure their virulent anti-Semitism.

Homan is “a marginal figure,” Kocsor said. “So the point of the monument … is to send a message because he’s a racist and an anti-Semite. That’s outrageous.”

Other partners to the anti-government coalition include Kovacs’ group Living Memorial, which started in the wake of the Freedom Square protest and now meets in the square twice a week to display alternative commemorations featuring Holocaust-themed artwork. Also participating is Dialogue for Hungary, a small opposition political party that took part in the Donath protest.

“There’s a nostalgia toward the good old Hungary” of the 1940s, historian Eva Balogh said. “It’s scaring a lot of people and driving them into action.”

Iran proposes nuclear power cooperation with Hungary


Iran has proposed a project with Hungary to design and develop a small nuclear reactor that could be sold across Asia and Africa and also built in the Islamic Republic, Tehran's top nuclear official said on Thursday.

“We intend to fully utilise all commercial and technical opportunities, including the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities, emanating from this deal,” Ali Akbar Salehi told a conference in Budapest.

He was referring to a landmark deal Iran reached with world powers last year under which it curbed its disputed nuclear activity, prompting the removal of sanctions imposed on Tehran and freeing it to reconnect with the global economy.

Salehi said he had in mind a joint pilot project with Hungary to design a 25-megawatt reactor and from that to develop a reactor of up to 100 megawatts, a size he said would be marketable across Asia and Africa.

Hungarian town votes down contested statue of anti-Jewish politician


Following an outcry, a municipality in central Hungary cancelled its plan to erect a statue commemorating a statesman who drafted anti-Semitic laws during the Holocaust.

The city council of Szekesfehervar voted down on Friday the plan to erect with public funding a statue in memory of Balint Homan, the Clubradio station reported.

Homan served as minister of education and religion in the 1940s and was partly responsible for drafting legislation in 1938 and 1939 to restrict the rights of Jews in Hungary and for the deportation in 1944 of 420,000 Jews to Auschwitz.

The plan to erect a statue in his honor provoked protests by local and international Jewish groups, including the World Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League.

The private fund that initiated the statue’s erection this week sent a letter to the municipality and to the mayor, informing them that they are withdrawing the Homan statue project. The foundation also repaid authorities the $55,000 paid by them for the project.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also expressed his opposition to the the erection of a statue honoring Homan.

Hungary will not label West Bank products, its foreign minister says


Hungary will not label separately products made in the West Bank or the Golan Heights, its foreign minister said.

Peter Szijjarto, who is also Hungary’s trade minister, said on an overnight visit to Israel that the European Union’s guidelines for labeling goods that originate in Jewish settlements are “irrational” and do not contribute to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Szijjarto announced his country’s opposition to the labeling guidelines on Monday morning at the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, according to reports. Also attending the council meeting was Lars Faaborg Andersen, the head of the EU delegation in Israel.

Szijjarto also called the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night “a strong wake-up call for European politicians.”

Referencing the current refugee crisis, which he said should be called a “mass immigration,” Szijjarto said, “We must make serious decisions to protect our people because we are currently defenseless. We must get back the ability to control our borders. We should not be speaking about how to manage migration, but how to help these people to stay at home.”

He called on the European Union to strengthen its cooperation with Israel in fighting terrorism, citing Israel’s experience, knowledge and technology, according to The Jerusalem Post.

From a Romanian village to Jewish Los Angeles


The journey to Judaism was a long one for Kinga Dobos. She grew up in a poor village in Romania and struggled to fit in as a teenager in Hungary. She worked for years as an au pair in Great Britain and the United States, and it was the Jewish families that took her into their homes and welcomed her into their communities that persuaded her to entwine her destiny with theirs.

The slender 39-year-old redhead speaks with a slight British accent, which she picked up while studying English in London. She studied Jewish history at Santa Monica College and in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s “Judaism by Choice” program, and converted in 2011 at American Jewish University. 

“I just felt culturally Jewish, and I wanted to be legitimate,” she said. “Nearly everybody I worked for in Los Angeles was Jewish, or one parent was Jewish. I was part of their lives, and I became fond of their culture. The emphasis on education. The close-knit family. No matter what your economic status is, you have an obligation to help others, because there’s always someone who is worse off than you are. And these were not everyday observations that I grew up with.”

She lives in Playa Del Rey, works as a video editor, and is active in Sinai Temple’s Atid young professionals group. She’s also writing a book of short stories based on her life. On Shavuot, she’ll have a bat mitzvah at Sinai Temple. 

Dobos was born in Transylvania, a beautiful and historic region of Romania that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. Her family is Hungarian, and her Romanian classmates teased her about her accent. Despite the economic hardships during the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, she has fond memories of childhood in the industrial city of Brasov.

“It’s built around a mountain. We have very nice ski resorts there. My childhood was [spent] outdoors a lot. We were doing sports in the winter and going hiking and camping in the summer,” she said.

Her parents held odd jobs through the 1980s; her mother was a salesperson and a cleaner, her father was a house painter and held a government job overseeing heating for the city, even though the city had no heat.

“I remember, he was playing a lot of chess with his colleague. It was kind of a phony communist job. The one good thing about that job is, we went to his job once a week — my mom, my brother and I — and could shower there, because otherwise we had no warm water,” she said. “Our electricity was sporadic, we had it for a few hours at night, but we didn’t know when we would have it and for how long.”

Dobos’ relatives were all Christian, and she enjoyed attending church, where she could listen to Bible stories and speak freely with her Hungarian friends.

In 1989, in the months leading up to the fall of the communist regime, her parents escaped Romania and went to Budapest, Hungary. She and her brother stayed behind with their grandparents. The family reunited eight months later, after the revolution and Ceausescu’s execution. Dobos, then 14, boarded a train to Budapest carrying a duffel bag of clothes, a sewing machine and the dream of a better life.

“I was so idealistic and so naive,” she said. “In Romania, we always had to fight for necessities, for food and water and electricity. I thought once we moved to Hungary all of our problems were going to be solved.”

But life in Hungary wasn’t so easy. People viewed Transylvanians as less intelligent, and Dobos was again teased for her manner of speech.

“It’s as if I had a Southern accent and moved to California,” she said. “My classmates would mock my dialect. Every time I tried to talk, someone would repeat what I said, and it hurt my feelings.”

With her parents each working two jobs, and a guidance counselor who she says discriminated against her, she fell through the cracks at school. Despite her straight A’s, she was placed in a trade program rather than an academic one. She hated her classes, but graduated from secretarial school while working at a warehouse with her brother. She also volunteered at a Hungarian TV station, A3, where she took call-in requests for a music video show. After a few months, the station went bankrupt and she moved to England to be au pair.

She first worked for a family in Essex, but it wasn’t a good fit. Then she moved in with a Jewish family in London and lived there for a year. They had three daughters, and the father’s parents were Holocaust survivors. They kept a kosher home and asked her to keep kosher, even when she was outside the house. It was her first time learning about Judaism, she said.

“When I grew up and someone would say ‘Jew,’ people would usually whisper that word. So when I was very little, I thought maybe Jew was a dirty word,” she said.

The mother of the family tutored Dobos in English, and, after a year, she spoke fluently. She signed up with a Hungarian nanny agency and moved to Los Angeles to be close to the film industry. Her first job was in Huntington Beach, working for a divorced man with two young children, but after a few weeks she quit.

She answered a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times and found work with Dena Kleeman, a Jewish divorcee with two children and a law firm in Beverly Hills. 

“I hadn’t seen such a confident and assertive person before. I loved working for her. She was really good at balancing being a mom and working really hard. I hadn’t seen that in Romania or Hungary,” she said.

After her visa expired, she moved back to Hungary but soon got a call from Kleeman. Her boyfriend, who was also divorced with two children, needed a live-in nanny. Dobos worked for his family for two years, as well as for Kleeman’s sister, Maura Resnick, while studying at Santa Monica College. She transferred to UCLA to study film production, graduating in 2005.

“She worked to support herself. She really did it all on her own,” Resnick said. “I have such incredible admiration for that. I think she’s such a strong person. And she’s really a self-made person.”

She still helps Dena and Maura’s parents, Charles and Annette Kleeman, both 91, with household chores and errands.

“She’s a very intelligent and kind and loving and generous person, and a terrific help to us,” Annette Kleeman said.

After graduating from UCLA, Dobos adapted two books into feature screenplays and worked as a producer’s associate on a documentary film. 

When the recession hit, she went back to Hungary to visit her parents and spend time with her brother and his children. But after 13 years of living in the U.S., she said, she was stunned by the levels of misogyny and anti-Semitism she encountered in Eastern Europe.

“I realized I cannot live in that culture anymore. I’m too American and too Jewish,” she said, laughing. “There’s a great saying I heard: The mind that expands to new awareness can never go back to its original state.”

Dobos is struggling to make it in the cutthroat film industry. She’s writing a memoir and is considering going to law school. She’s dating a Jewish man and hopes to start her own family soon. She said her parents have supported her in every decision she’s made.

“When I fast on Yom Kippur, my mom fasts with me in Hungary. That’s the sweetest thing ever. She’s not Jewish. She’s very religious, she’s Protestant, but she wants to be with me in spirit.”

Survivor: Josef Kreitenberg


As the transport from Tacova, Czechoslovakia (then called Tecso, Hungary), pulled up to the Birkenau platform in late May 1944, the doors of the cattle cars slammed open. “Raus, raus,” the SS shouted, directing those fit for work into separate men’s and women’s lines. The others, mostly children and the elderly, were steered to another line. Josef Kreitenberg, 14, followed his mother and twin sister, Sura, to the group of nonworkers. Then he abruptly switched lines, joining his father, two brothers and other male workers. He stood on a stone he found nearby to make himself look taller. Josef doesn’t know what prompted him to move. “I guess I wanted to be with my father and brothers,” he said. 

Josef was born on Oct. 31, 1929, in Tacova, Czechoslovakia (now Tyachiv, Ukraine), to Elias and Chaya Kreitenberg. He had three older brothers — Sam, Yitzhak and Mendy — as well as his twin. 

The family struggled financially, living in two rooms in half of a house that had no electricity, sharing space with Elias’ shoe repair business and Chaya’s dressmaking shop. Josef’s maternal grandparents and three aunts, his mother’s younger sisters, lived in the other half of the house. “Life was not easy,” Josef said.

The family was traditional Orthodox, as were the thousand or so other Jews in their small town. Josef spent mornings in the Czech public school and afternoons and evenings in cheder, where he studied Torah. 

Anti-Semitism was always present, and Josef remembers running from boys calling out “dirty Jew.” But the Kreitenbergs also coexisted peacefully with the town’s Christians, people who patronized his parents’ businesses. 

In March 1939, Hungary occupied Tacova and Josef’s school became Hungarian.

Around 1943, Josef’s oldest brother, Sam, was taken to a Hungarian forced labor battalion. And Elias, because he was Romanian-born, was imprisoned for six months, until Chaya succeeded in securing his release.

On March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. And although it was Hungarian, rather than German, soldiers who entered Tacova, “Life quickly changed,” Josef said. The Kreitenbergs feared even to step outside of their house, because soldiers were beating up Jews. 

Then in mid-April, Tacova’s Jews were relocated to a ghetto at the end of town. Josef, his parents, Yitzhak, Mendy and Sura, along with two of his aunts, moved into a barn. His grandparents, meanwhile, had died, one aunt had moved to Budapest, and Sam remained in the forced labor battalion. 

In late May, the ghetto residents were marched to the train station and crammed into waiting boxcars. 

After arriving at Birkenau, Josef and the other men were taken to a barracks. The next day, they were processed, including being tattooed. Josef became 10192. 

They were then marched to Auschwitz and lined up as Germans called out for volunteers to work as muhlfahrer. Because muhl sounded like mel, the Yiddish word for flour, Josef, Elias and Mendy volunteered, thinking they would be working in a flour mill. Instead, they found themselves toiling in a garbage dump, and discovering that muhlfahrer meant garbage men. 

Yitzhak worked elsewhere with his friends. “We never saw him again,” Josef said. He later learned that Yitzhak, always fussy about his food, had refused to eat and died of starvation. 

In the garbage dump, which was located outside the camp, Josef, Mendy and Elias, along with 35 or so other inmates, sorted wagonloads of trash as well as debris from arriving transports. But the work had its benefits. “Sometimes we could find things to eat,” Josef said.

After a transport from Lodz, Poland, arrived in August 1944, Josef came across a large cookie with a gold bracelet hidden inside. Through a connection in the camp bakery, he traded the bracelet for seven loaves of bread and some sugar. He hid the food in the barracks and also filled a canteen he found with a mixture of breadcrumbs and sugar. 

Then, in a selection that took place in late December 1944, his father, Elias, was taken away. “I never saw him again,” Josef said. 

Around the same time, as the prisoners were returning from work one day, a Gestapo guard gratuitously smacked Josef across his face. “I saw fire in front of my eyes,” he said. 

In the very early morning of Jan. 17, 1945, the prisoners were ordered outside and evacuated, walking all day and all night. “Anyone who couldn’t make it was shot,” Josef said.

They arrived at Gleiwitz, Poland, the next morning and were loaded onto open boxcars, so crammed they had to stand almost motionless. “I was lucky to have my brother. He watched over me,” Josef said of Mendy. They traveled for several days with no food or water, trying to catch the falling snowflakes. Josef, however, still had the canteen with breadcrumbs and sugar, which he shared with Mendy. “That’s what kept us alive,” he said.

Finally they arrived at Dora-Nordhausen in Germany. Thirsty after exiting the train, Mendy drank some water that made him ill. After a week or two in the barracks, he couldn’t even stand, and Josef was forced to leave him.

In early April 1945, as the war was winding down, the prisoners were loaded into closed boxcars and transported to Bergen-Belsen. There, they found no food or water, just hundreds of prisoners sick and dying from a typhus outbreak. 

On April 15 the prisoners were summoned to roll call and informed that the British had liberated the camp. That was a relief to Josef. But, he said, “Mainly what went through my mind was, ‘Where and what do I get to eat?’ ”

The prisoners were transferred to a former German army barracks in the nearby town of Celle, which became the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp. 

Josef was later trucked to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, where he caught a train to Budapest. There, in a refugee center, he unexpectedly encountered Mendy. 

The brothers headed for Tacova, where they found their three aunts and Sam, who had spent the war in a labor battalion. Eventually they all made their way to the Gabersee displaced persons camp near Wasserburg, Germany.

In Gabersee, Josef and Mendy, who were both 18 or younger at the time, qualified to receive special orphan visas to immigrate to the United States, arriving in January 1947. They were sent to Los Angeles, where they rented a room, paid for by Vista del Mar. 

In 1949, Josef and Mendy (now Mike) brought Sam to Los Angeles. Their three aunts, by then married, also joined them.

Josef attended Roosevelt High School, graduating in January 1951. After high school, he attended Los Angeles City College, hoping to become a teacher. But the Korean War had broken out, and he was drafted, assigned to a heavy-weapons company in Metz, France, where, from 1953 through ’54, he taught English and arithmetic to soldiers.

In 1954, Josef visited Israel while on furlough. During his return to France by ship, he met Marlene Laufer, who was joining her sister in South America. Josef and Marlene corresponded for three years while Josef returned to the U.S. and earned a degree in accounting at Los Angeles State College.

Marlene came to Los Angeles in 1957, and they married on Aug. 31 of that year. Josef worked as an accountant for several electronics companies and then, in the 1960s, he and Marlene’s brother formed K & L Construction, building apartments and condominiums. 

Josef and Marlene have three sons: Irv, born in December 1959; Steve in April 1962; and Mordechai in May 1967. 

Sam died in 2008. Mike is alive, but has Alzheimer’s.

Josef retired in the late 1990s, but, now 85 and the grandfather of 18, he continues to manage some properties. He also occasionally speaks to school groups. 

The tall young man on the right is Yitzhak Kreitenberg. On his right is Mendy Kreitenberg and next to him, in the hat, Elias Kreitenberg. The child in the center, partially seen, is Josef.

Around 1979, Josef learned that a trove of photographs from Auschwitz had been discovered and compiled into a book called “The Auschwitz Album.” Josef ordered it, discovering that the photographs specifically chronicled the arrival of his transport. “When I opened the book and I saw the pictures of my family, I cried. I cried very hard,” he said. These are his only photographs of Sura and his parents.

The girl in the top left is Suri Kreitenberg, Josef’s twin sister. On her right is their mother, Chaya Kreitenberg.

Josef doesn’t know how or why he survived. “Even when I was in Auschwitz, when I was going to work, I used to pray, whatever prayers I knew by heart,” he said.

Hungary’s Jobbik drops some hardline policies in push for power


Hungary's Jobbik party will leave behind its far-right origins, keep the country in the European Union and come to terms with foreign investors as it sets its sights on government, its leader said on Tuesday.

Jobbik, condemned throughout Europe as anti-Semitic and racist, is now the strongest opposition party in opinion polls and on Sunday won its first parliamentary seat in a first-past-the-post contest, an important electoral milestone.

Unveiling what would amount to major policy shifts for the first time, Jobbik leader Gabor Vona drew parallels between his approach and a drive by Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, to ditch her party's hardline image and appeal to people fed up with the traditionally dominant parties.

“Politics will change; how exactly nobody knows,” Vona, who is 36, told Reuters in his spartan office in the Hungarian parliament building, overlooking the Danube river.

“Like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain or National Front in France, Jobbik in Hungary is knocking on the door of government. These parties are new in ways we are only beginning to grasp,” he said in the interview.

Hungary's next parliamentary election is in 2018. The last time a far-right party was in government in an EU state was in 2000, when Austria's Freedom Party joined a coalition government. The rest of the bloc isolated Vienna in response.

Jobbik's critics say its attempt to recast itself as a mainstream party is a sham, designed only to win votes. They point to people within the party who have made anti-Semitic statements, but have not been thrown out.

A Jobbik member of parliament who in 2011 spat on a Holocaust memorial and called the Nazi genocide a lie but kept his job after issuing an apology.

In a speech in the Hungarian capital at the weekend, World Jewish Congress leader Ronald S. Lauder said Jobbik's rise was hurting Hungary's image abroad.

POLICY SHIFTS

Jobbik denies it is anti-Semitic or racist. In the interview, Vona said Jobbik would break with its extremist past even in the face of resistance within his party. “I am much more consistent now about the wild offshoots that I used to allow, look away from, or sweep under the carpet,” he said.

“The responsibility that flows our way from Hungary's voters demands we do that. … With time the (extremist) elements of Jobbik you may see as prevalent will fade out because they no longer find their calling here.”

On the EU, Vona said that a Jobbik government would not try to leave the bloc, though it would try to reform Hungary's relationship with Brussels. Previously the party has said it would seek to reopen Hungary's accession treaty and even hold a referendum on an exit from the EU.

“There is no gut rejection of the EU in us…. Easing the resentment toward European integration would be Jobbik's success. People don't hate the EU because of me but because of the experience they have had,” said Vona.

He said he would challenge EU rules so that Hungary can protect some sectors of its economy from competition, especially food producers.

A 2012 incident when Jobbik's deputy chairman Elod Novak burned an EU flag at a protest was “an emotional reaction… justifiable in that situation,” Vona said. But he said the incident would not be repeated.

On tax policy, Vona softened Jobbik's previous stance blaming foreign multinationals for many of Hungary's problems. He said he would keep windfall taxes imposed under the centre-right government in power now, which have hurt many multinationals.

But he said: “We need to find the middle ground where multinationals and banks share in our burdens without hurting their prosperity or their mission … Clearly we do not want to expel multinational capital from Hungary.”

Vona said Hungary's foreign debt under a Jobbik government would not be restructured unilaterally. Instead Jobbik would see whether creditors would be open to the idea, and would seek new lenders, including in places like Russia or the Middle East.

Jobbik has cordial ties with ruling circles in Iran, Russia, and Turkey, prompting allegations the party is receiving financial support from them.

Vona denied that. He said it was in Hungary's interest to be friendly with Moscow while Iran was “a very important nation of the world.”

In Budapest, thousands mark the Holocaust at March of the Living


Thousands came out for the the March of the Living in Budapest, where World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder  reminded the Hungarian government to speak out against anti-Semitism.

Lauder also denounced the far-right Jobbik party, the second largest in the country, as “extremist” on Sunday at the annual commemoration of the Holocaust in the Hungarian capital.

“The March of the Living also reminds us what happens when the world is silent,” Lauder, the event’s keynote speaker, told the crowd, which was estimated as high as 10,000. “We will never be silent again. And when it comes to anti-Semitism, the Hungarian government must never be silent.

“Today, when the world looks at Hungary, it does not see its great culture. It does not see its beautiful cities. It does not remember its great and glorious past. Today the world sees Hungary and they see Jobbik. They see an extremist party that promotes hate.”

Jobbik is behind only the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

About 560,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust, most of them in 1944. Today, Hungary’s Jewish community numbers around 100,000.

Lauder stressed that the Hungarian Jewish community is “alive and well.”

“And the Hungarian Jewish community is not going anywhere. We march today to say: We are here. We are alive. And here we will remain,” he said.

Lauder said the Jewish community had contributed much to Hungarian society.

Hungary’s Orban acknowledges country’s complicity in Holocaust


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban apologized for Hungarians’ role in deporting Jews to concentration camps, his first acknowledgement of Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust.

In a speech Monday at a Jewish cemetery in Budapest, Orban called the Holocaust a “national tragedy” for Hungarians.

“We were without love and indifferent, when we should have helped, and very many Hungarians chose bad instead of good, the shameful instead of the honorable,” Orban said, according to the French news agency AFP.

Orban also paid tribute to Jewish Hungarian soldiers who fought in World War I.

“Without the sacrifices that Hungarian Jews made during the First World War, it would have been impossible to defend our homeland,” Orban said Monday at a ceremony to mark the renovation of World War I-era graves in the Kozma Street Cemetery, the largest Jewish burial place in the Hungarian capital.

Orban said hundreds of Jewish soldiers who fought in the war, from 1914 to 1918, were buried in the cemetery. The Hungarian government provided funding for the graves’ recent renovation.

Some Hungarian Jews criticized the timing of the event, one day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau. Half a million Hungarian Jews were killed at the concentration camp.

Ex-Hungarian Jewish leader’s government gig sparks talk of betrayal


In the 22 years he ran Hungary’s Mazsihisz Jewish umbrella organization, Gusztav Zoltai was called out for many things.

Zoltai, a former secret police agent who led the Jewish federation until his retirement earlier this year, was accused of corruption and labeled a relic of dark times. Others took issue with his flirtatious behavior toward women.

Yet for all his perceived flaws, no one had called Zoltai a traitor or questioned his loyalty to Hungarian Jewry — until September, when in the wake of a fierce war of words over what many Jews saw as the Hungarian ruling party’s pandering to far-right voters, Zoltai abruptly switched sides.

Just hours before the first meeting between community leaders and the government since relations came to a halt in February over a disputed Holocaust monument, Zoltai accepted a position as a government consultant. In the Sept. 12 meeting, Zoltai sat with Hungarian officials opposite his former Jewish colleagues.

“Betrayal. That’s the only way to call what Zoltai has done,” said Judit Csaki, a journalist who led a series of recent protests against the planned staging of a pro-fascist production at a municipal theater. “Zoltai gave his name and his face to a classic divide-and-conquer tactic designed to break up the Jewish community for its criticism of the government.”

Andras Heisler, the newly elected president of Mazsihisz, said Zoltai had “destroyed his life’s work — that wasn’t immaculate to begin with.” The board of the famed Dohany Street Synagogue, where Zoltai once served as president, voted to expel him.

For Zoltai, a Holocaust survivor who has represented the Jewish community in restitution talks with the government, being branded a traitor was painful. Raised in a Budapest suburb, Zoltai lost 27 members of his family in the Holocaust. His father died en route to a concentration camp. The fate of his mother remained unknown until 1995, when Zoltai brought back her remains from Germany, where she had died in a camp one day after its liberation.

“People who say I am a traitor are not right in the head,” Zoltai told JTA in a brief interview at his new synagogue at Bethlen Square. “I took this position to help the community, not the government. And my credentials speak for themselves. I’m no right-wing nationalist.”

Mazsihisz Vice President Peter Tordai also defended Zoltai, telling the media that the treason charge is “ridiculous.”

Raised in an orphanage, Zoltai went to work in a textile plant at the age of 18. In the harsh postwar years, he was married twice but both wives died young.

Zoltai went on to serve as an airport border guard in the feared AVO secret police. Later he joined the Worker’s Guard, a communist militia set up to suppress resistance following the failed 1956 rebellion against the Soviet-backed government.

“Zoltai had absolutely nothing,” said Peter Feldmajer, a former Mazsihisz president who worked with Zoltai for 20 years. “The party was his way to get ahead in life.”

But instead of pursuing a government career, Zoltai became the director of a small theater in the 1980s before assuming the directorship of Mazsihisz. Some allege Zoltai was forced out as part of Heisler’s attempt to reform a notoriously opaque organization that owns assets worth millions of dollars.

“The man knows everything, every little dirty secret about every community leader, past and present,” said Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti, who heads a popular synagogue in Budapest. “That he could share this knowledge with his new employers is very frightening to them. I know the government likes this, and I think Zoltai enjoys seeing them shake with fear.”

The Holocaust monument dispute followed a series of moves by the ruling rightist Fidesz party that critics allege were designed to compete for the nationalist vote against the rising far-right Jobbik party. Among the government’s decisions were plans to name a Budapest street after an anti-Semitic author and to stage a play by another at a municipal theater.

But the monument fight turned out to be a turning point. Like other community bosses, Zoltai had previously lambasted the government over the monument, which depicts an angel being attacked by an eagle. Critics charged the statue was a symbolic statement of Hungary’s innocence in the wartime murder of 500,000 Jews, a claim the government denied. Efforts to have the design altered foundered in February, after which Mazsihisz suspended contact with the government.

Citing a confidentiality clause in his contract, Zoltai would not say what his new government position requires of him, nor how much money he is earning.

Like many Hungarian Jews, Radnoti is furious with Zoltai, but the rabbi also describes him as a kind man. When Radnoti’s father lost an eye in a car accident that rendered him jobless and penniless, it was Zoltai who put him up in a community-owned home within a day of being asked to help.

Working for the government, Radnoti says, is above all Zoltai’s way of reinserting himself into the center of the action.

“This is a man who ran the show for decades but has been excluded just like that against his will,” Radnoti said. “He took the government job because can’t let go now. It would kill him. He needs to be in the center. He needs to have power.”

To Feldmajer, that Zoltai should be ostracized for accepting a government position is a paradox that is indicative of the problems facing Jews in a society that has failed to fully come to terms with its Holocaust-era culpability.

“What’s really sad about this whole case is that in any other country, the Jewish community would be honored to have a former leader become a consultant,” Feldmajer said. “But this is Hungary.”

 

Work completed overnight on Hungarian WWII monument


A controversial Nazi occupation monument was erected in downtown Budapest in the middle of the night after an appeals court rejected a petition to halt its construction.

Workers completed the main components of the memorial in Freedom Square after midnight Sunday following the decision by the Budapest Court of Appeals the previous evening, according to local reports.

Speaking Monday at a news conference in Budapest, Janos Lazar, a senior representative of the Hungarian government headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, said there will be no unveiling ceremony because of the controversy surrounding the monument.

Critics of the monument, which depicts Hungary as an angel being attacked by a German eagle, say it glosses over Hungary’s active role in sending some 450,000 Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust. The Hungarian government disputes the interpretation, arguing the figure attacked represents all victims of fascism and not the Hungarian state.

Orban in February postponed a ceremony commemorating the country’s victims of World War II following protests by Jewish groups over the monument that they said obfuscates Hungary’s Holocaust-era role. Following his reelection, he asserted in early May that construction would go forward despite the Jewish community’s objections.

The Mazsihisz Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary pulled out of all government-led activities for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Hungary because of the monument.

In a statement Monday, Mazshihisz wrote, “Our efforts have not been in vain: Outstanding Hungarian scientists, clergymen and philosophers have strongly criticized [the erection of the monument] which followed a hundred days of continuous protest.”

Government workers began constructing the monument in April, but work was halted after the lawsuit filed by a former leader of the Socialist Party.

The site was secured early Sunday morning by 100 police officers to allow the completion of the monument, according to local reports. Protests have continued since then at the site, according to reports.

In Budapest, young Jews angling for slice of communal pie


Peering through dusty apartment widows isn’t an uncommon pastime in this capital city’s crime-infested 8th District, with its many drug addicts and alcoholics seeking for a fix.

But Adam Schoenberger wasn’t scouting for a place to rob on his peeping tour of the district earlier this month.

An activist who recently moved his Jewish organization’s headquarters into the neighborhood to save on rent, Schoenberger was looking for the small apartment synagogues that persist in the area despite its few Jewish residents.

Eventually Schoenberger spotted a Star of David hanging on the wall of a ground-floor apartment on Nagyfuvaros Street. Around the corner he found another small synagogue behind a heavy, locked metal gate.

The synagogues are maintained by Mazsihisz, the umbrella group of Hungarian Jewish communities, which controls hundreds of little-used real-estate assets across Hungary. The synagogue on Nagyfuvaros Street serves a congregation of fewer than 20 people. A nearby shul on Teleki Ter normally opens on Shabbat, though not always with the prayer quorum of 10 Jewish men.

“Some of the money that maintains inactive synagogues and other heritage real estate would have much more impact if it were spent on supporting the grassroots Jewish scene, which lacks the funding to really blossom,” Schoenberger said.

To Schoenberger, the community’s continuing support for such synagogues — not to mention some 1,300 cemeteries across the country — reflects the misplaced priorities of Hungary’s Jewish leadership, which preserves such facilities even as it provides little support for the country’s vibrant Jewish youth scene.

Schoenberger is a founder of Marom, whose 13 employees and network of 100 volunteers operate the Budapest bar and cultural center Siraly, run an annual Jewish festival and does outreach to the beleaguered Roma minority in Hungary, yet receive no funding from the local Jewish community. Marom and other such groups rely on donations from abroad to survive.

Mazsihisz’s president, Andras Heisler, declined to answer questions from JTA about the organization’s funding priorities. But Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti of the Bet Shalom congregation in Budapest and a Mazsihisz employee said the umbrella group has not supported Marom because it doesn’t exclude non-Jews from its programming.

Radnoti said the Mazsihisz mandate is to cater only to Jews.

“Mazsihisz cannot check if someone at B’nai B’rith or Siraly are Jewish,” he said. “There are some non-Jews that enter among Jews because it’s fun, and that’s fine. But Mazsihisz doesn’t want to give money to such activities.”

Since the fall of communism, Hungary’s Jews have struggled to manage hundreds of properties confiscated during the Holocaust that were returned after the fall of the regime.

According to a 2010 report by the Israeli Knesset‘s research department, the Hungarian government gave Mazsihisz at least 100 properties following the passage of a 1991 law on communal restitution. The Mazsihisz list of rural cemeteries comprises 1,304 graveyards.

A prominent communal figure told JTA that maintenance and taxes on returned properties amounts to a few hundred thousand dollars annually, though Mazsihisz would not confirm the figure.

Hungary is not the only post-communist country with a relatively poor Jewish population coping with vast assets inherited from a time when the community was much larger. But unlike Slovakia, Romania and other former communist countries that are home to fewer than 10,000 Jews, Hungary has 100,000 Jews — the largest community in central Europe — and its younger generation is increasingly demanding greater investment in activities that meet their needs.

Marom, which is about to reopen Siraly after it was closed down by the city last year because it was operating out of an illegal squat, is one of the major players in Budapest’s Jewish youth scene. Also active in the capital is the Israeli Cultural Institute, which promotes cultural exchange between Israel and Hungary; Haver Foundation, an informal Jewish education platform; and Minyanim, which conducts tours of Budapest, cultural events and conferences for young Jews.

None receive funding from Mazsihisz. The reopening of Siraly was made possible by a $75,000 grant from the Jewish Federations of North America.

“The Moishe House, Marom — none of us are supported by the local Hungarian Jewish community,” said Tomi Buchler, the director of Minyanim, which receives funding from the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Meanwhile, the Mazsihisz youth division is largely inactive, according to several sources. Its former director, Mate Feldmajer, had to resign last year after saying that gays were not welcome on the Mazsihisz board, a statement that drew furious reactions from several grassroots Jewish organizations.

Mazsihisz does, however, operate large synagogues in cities like Vac and Gyongyos, where very few Jews live and where worshipers rarely reach a prayer quorum.

“It is important to show a presence in such places, which are part of who we are,” Radnoti said.

Buchler is one of several young Hungarian Jewish activists advocating greater investment in the needs of younger Jews as well as outreach to non-Jews, but he recognizes the sensitivity of the dilemma.

“My own great-grandparents are buried in cemeteries managed by Mazsihisz,” Buchler said. “Our heritage sites are part of our story. And if Mazsihisz won’t take care of our heritage sites, then no one will.”

The tension around communal resources led Buchler to help organize a conference last month about the issue. Sponsored by the Washington-based Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the From Me to We conference gathered dozens of young Jewish activists in Budapest for sessions on how to reconcile the competing commitments in Hungary and elsewhere,  as part of the Foundation’s global Connection Points program.

The discussions come amid a larger debate about reforming Mazsihisz policies and finances in the wake of a recent shakeup that saw Peter Feldmajer, the group’s former president, replaced by Heisler. Shortly after, Gusztav Zoltai, who had served for decades as the organization’s all-powerful director, resigned in what was widely seen as a forced retirement connected to alleged financial irregularities, though Heisler denies this.

“For the first time in a long time, there is a chance for change, but it will be gradual and slow,” said Mircea Cernov, CEO of the Haver Foundation. “It will take time to change the current distribution of resources within the Jewish community, which is designed to resist change instead of encouraging development and growth.”

Buchler is hoping for a more radical change, one that will do more than just redistribute community funds. His organization is working to instill a culture of giving in a country where years of corruption and militant communism have left many with a cynical attitude toward social altruism.

“Heritage preservation is done with the government’s money and young Jewish groups operate on funding from abroad, but almost nothing is coming from the community itself,” Buchler said. “We need to focus on changing that through instilling financial transparency. The rest will follow.”

Far-right surge expected in European elections


Armed with ropes and long sticks, a group of teens in Germany’s capital headed out under the cover of night. Their goal: to tear down from lampposts the campaign posters of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP).

The young people are one small posse among those who fear gains for far-right parties in the upcoming elections for European Parliament.

While the NDP seems unlikely to get more than a single seat, far-right parties in other European countries are looking forward to major advances.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said in an interview that he is worried about “a surge in the number of extremist, racist and anti-Semitic lawmakers in Strasbourg and Brussels.”

The parliament, he said, should establish a “no platform policy toward those parties to ensure that they are completely marginalized in the decision-making process.”

Taking place May 22-25 amid economic hard times, the elections are expected to yield a strong showing for far-right, far-left and anti-establishment parties.

Polls suggest that Euroskeptic parties are likely to take a quarter or more of the parliament’s maximum 751 seats. Despite their antipathy toward the European Union (EU), such parties — some unable to win significant representation in the national parliaments of their own countries — are eager for the platform provided by the European Parliament.

The president of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, warned that anti-establishment and anti-European parties on the far left and far right are a danger to “all Europeans, including Jews.”

While some Euroskeptic parties have built alliances with like-minded factions from other countries, they are a fractious lot.

There is a divide between left and right, as well as fissures within the right. Far-right parties aiming for broader appeal have been reluctant to cooperate with overtly fascist parties.

“Even if those Euroskeptic extreme-right parties will be more powerful in the next parliament — and they will be — their power will not be enough to block legislation. I don’t believe this will happen,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a French researcher on anti-Semitism and far-right parties, citing such divisions.

But their growing power reveals profound discontent with how the EU is being run. More and more people are saying, “The kind of Europe that is being offered is not our cup of tea,” he added.

Extremist parties have become “more polished, more professional in communication and have changed their way of saying things so they don’t appear as extremist as they are,” said Viviane Teitelbaum, a member of the Belgian Federal Parliament who serves on the steering committee of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians.

For example, she said, the leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen, “doesn’t use the same language against democracy in general as her father [party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen] was using. … She does not deny the Holocaust like her father did. But it is a matter of time.”

Teitelbaum went on to say, “You cannot be just a little bit democratic or a little bit fascist. When you are a fascist, you are a total fascist.”

In France, the National Front is expected to garner nearly a quarter of the vote for European Parliament and potentially will be first among all French parties. It has agreed to form a parliamentary alliance with Holland’s Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, which polls suggest could take some 17 percent of the Dutch vote.

The UK Independence Party, an ardently anti-EU group, is predicted to finish first in Britain’s European Parliament election, even though it holds no seats in the country’s House of Commons. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has said he will not form an alliance with the National Front, citing the French party’s record of “anti-Semitism and general prejudice.”

The alliance being formed by Wilders and Le Pen also would not include more extreme parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary.

Golden Dawn, with its swastika-like symbol and anti-immigrant platform, could finish third or fourth in the Greek vote for European Parliament. Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a Holocaust denier, is currently in prison with other party activists facing charges filed in the wake of the murder of an anti-fascist Greek musician.

Earlier this month, a Greek court ruled that the party would be allowed to participate in the European Parliament elections.

“We are worried, yes, but not afraid,” said Victor Eliezer, secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. “We are sure that European democratic forces generally — and especially in Greece — will safeguard the principles of democracy.”

Jobbik, Hungary’s third-largest party, won 20 percent of the vote in national elections and is expected to post a similarly strong showing in the European Parliament contest. It is fervently anti-Roma, and its leaders have often used anti-Semitic rhetoric.

By contrast, the NDP has never managed to pass the 5 percent threshold necessary to gain a seat in Germany’s national parliament, though it currently has seats in two state legislatures.

But the NDP has a chance of breaking into the European Parliament for the first time. A German Supreme Court ruling in March eliminated the threshold to gain a seat in the European Parliament, so a party needs only about 1 percent of the vote to claim one of Germany’s 99 seats on the EU body, the largest representation of any country.

Tens of thousands participate in Budapest Holocaust memorial march


Tens of thousands of Jews and Jewish supporters participated in the 12th March of the Living Hungary in Budapest.

Sunday’s event, considered the largest civil anti-fascist event in Hungary, was held on the 70th anniversary of the mass deportation of Jews from Hungary by the Nazis.

Holding posters saying “Never again” and “History cannot be re-written!,” the participants marched from the Danube River to the Eastern Railway Station in Budapest to commemorate the loss of Hungarian Jewry in 1944, when two-thirds of Hungarian Jewry — nearly 600,000 people — were deported and killed.

Dozens of Hungarian Holocaust survivors were the guests of honor at the march.

“We go to Auschwitz, but this time we will return,” Ilan Mor, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, said in an emotional speech.

Mor will be part of the Hungarian delegation in Monday’s Auschwitz commemoration, where Hungarian President Janos Ader will deliver a speech at the Auschwitz memorial site of Hungarian Holocaust victims.

The International March of the Living Conference was part of weekend memorial events in Budapest, including a panel discussion on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe with the participation of members of parliaments from Poland, Greece, Spain and Canada.

Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian justice minister and lawmaker, as well as a human rights activist, chaired the panel.

“Jews died in Auschwitz, but anti-Semitism did not die, and we are experiencing anti-Semitism yet again,” he told JTA. “Now the time to mobilize all of humanity against this anti-Semitic phenomenon that again has come.”

Cotler visited the Budapest site of the daily protest against a monument being constructed to honor the country’s victims of World War II. Jewish groups have protested that it obfuscates Hungary’s Holocaust-era role.

“I hope that the Hungarian government will cease and desist from putting up this memorial as it now stands because in the end of the day, it will not serve neither the interest of remembrance nor the truth, or not even the interest of the Hungarian government, which I don’t believe want to be seen as mischaracterizing the Holocaust,” he said.

Survivor: Edith Jacobs


“You are being relocated to a labor camp,” the Hungarian gendarmes, or police, announced to the Jews of Sopron, Hungary, who had spent the previous two weeks confined to a windowless tobacco factory. Edith Jacobs (née Rosenberger), her parents, three sisters and the other Jews were marched to the train station. There they were loaded into cattle cars where they were crammed together so tightly they couldn’t speak. Still, Edith and her family weren’t frightened. “We didn’t know,” Edith explained. But three days later the train pulled up to the Auschwitz platform, and the prisoners were unloaded and separated so quickly that Edith didn’t realize what was happening. “I never saw my mother again,” she said. “I never saw my father.” It was July 8, 1944; Edith was 18.

Edith was born on Feb. 16, 1926, to Zsigmond and Maria Rosenberger. She had an older brother, Jenö; two older sisters, Katalin and Piroska; and a younger sister, Olga. They lived in the village of Gyömöre, where Zsigmond was a bookkeeper.

Around 1932, the family moved back to Sopron, Edith’s parents’ hometown. There, Zsigmond owned a small grocery store, and Maria worked as a seamstress. Edith attended Jewish elementary school and then public high school.

The family was close-knit. They were Orthodox, and Friday nights were always special, celebrated with a white tablecloth and a challah. “You never can imagine how beautiful it used to be,” Edith said. And every Sunday, Zsigmond took the children on hikes in the mountains, a half-hour walk from Sopron.

In 1939, Edith was 13 and not allowed to perform office work because she was Jewish, so she apprenticed to a Jewish woman to learn dressmaking. She worked for three years with no pay and then a year or two with a small salary.

During this time, many Jews from Austria, which had been annexed by Nazi Germany in March 1938, escaped to Sopron, just across the border. But the Sopron Jews were not worried. “Everyone thought that it will never happen to us. We were Hungarians first and then Jews,” Edith said.

But things changed. 

In 1942, Edith’s brother was taken to a labor camp in Köszeg, Hungary, where he worked in aluminum mines. And in fall of 1943, the young Jewish women of Sopron were assigned to work details. “We heard they will let us live in peace if we do this,” Edith said. She and Olga were taken daily by bus to weed vegetable fields. “It was very hard work,” Edith said.

Then, on March 19, 1944, Germany invaded Hungary, and on April 7 the Rosenbergers celebrated their last seder. “It was very sad,” Edith recalled, as her brother was not with them. By the end of June, they and the remaining Sopron Jews were imprisoned in the tobacco factory.

At Auschwitz, Edith and her sisters were processed, shaved and each given a dress. Then they were taken to barracks, where they slept on the floor with no mattress or blanket. The first night their uneaten bread rations were stolen.

After two weeks, Kato, the oldest sister, became sick with scarlet fever. “They said they were taking her to the hospital,” Edith said, “but they took her naked in a truck and that was the last time we saw her.”

A week later, on July 30, Edith, her two remaining sisters and the other young women all were taken by train to Bremerhaven, arriving at a work camp on Aug. 2. Even though they slept on a barracks floor, Edith said, “it was not so bad,” as there was no roll call and they were given some food. 

Six days a week, Edith and the other prisoners were taken by open truck — “it was very cold in the morning,” into the city, where they cleaned up debris from Allied bombings. “We were always happy when the city was bombed, because the next day we had food,” Edith said. They ate what they found amid the debris, but had to do so surreptitiously, when the guards weren’t looking, and they couldn’t bring anything back to the barracks.

At some point Edith and her sisters were transported to Roden, Germany, along with 500 other Hungarian and Polish young women, where they worked in a cement factory.

There, they met two women working in the kitchen who had run a restaurant in Sopron. They gave Edith and her sisters food — “a little bread, a little margarine,” Edith remembered — and, in exchange, Edith sewed for them.

In late March 1945, with the Allies approaching, they all were taken to Bergen-Belsen. “It was terrible,” Edith said. As prisoners died in the yard, other prisoners came in groups of four to pull them away, each taking a hand or a foot. “Bodies were stacked up like a house,” she said. “There were so many dead people.”

One day the Germans disappeared, and the Hungarian army took over. The soldiers stood on the guard towers and fired randomly at the prisoners, hitting one woman who was standing next to Edith. “They loved killing. Life was very cheap,” Edith said. After a day or two, the Germans returned. 

The next day, April 15, 1945, the British liberated the camp. Edith and her sisters were so weak they couldn’t talk. The British cooked soup and set up showers for the freed prisoners.

Edith and her sisters were later moved to the Belsen displaced persons camp, a former German army barracks nearby, where, Edith said, they had a beautiful kitchen and beautiful rooms. Edith and Olga both were sick with typhus, but they didn’t tell anyone, as they didn’t want to be hospitalized. Their sister Piri took care of them. 

Then, on May 8, the day Germany surrendered, Piri arrived at their room with food. She announced that she was very tired, lay down on the bed and died. The doctor later said she had been suffering from dry typhus.

Piri was buried in a mass grave. Edith ordered a gravestone, paying the craftsman with sugar and flour. Two Englishwomen from the Jewish Brigade helped Edith and Olga install it. 

It wasn’t until December 1945, that Edith and Olga left the displaced persons camp. They didn’t go home, as they knew everyone was dead, so they headed to Palestine by ship in April 1946, with Aliyah Bet, as part of the first illegal immigration. They eventually settled in Tel Aviv, where Edith worked as a dressmaker.

In February 1947, Edith met Meir Jacobs, who had come to Palestine in 1938 and who had lost all his family, except one sister. Edith and Meir married on May 20, 1947, and settled in Holon, where their daughters were born — Miriam in 1948 and Esther in 1950.

Life in Israel was difficult, however, and in December 1958, the family immigrated to the United States. After a short stay in Florida, they moved to Los Angeles in May 1959.

Meir opened a furniture refinishing business, and Edith worked as a seamstress. Around 1965, Meir brought Brown’s Wilshire Bakery and, later, the J&T Bread Bin in the Farmer’s Market. He retired in 2009.

Although she’s 87 now, Edith still works as a seamstress. She also enjoys spending time with her family, including her two children, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Edith never talked about the Holocaust, even to her family, until 1995, when she was among the survivors interviewed by the Shoah Foundation. And then she spoke only minimally because it was too painful. 

To this day, she said, “I sleep with it, and I wake up with it. You cannot even tell how horrible it is.”

Hungary recognizes involvement in Holocaust, vows to fight anti-Semitism


Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics said the country’s leaders recognize Hungarian involvement in the Holocaust and vowed the state will combat anti-Semitism and racism.

“We know that we were responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary. We know that Hungarian state interests were responsible,” he said Tuesday at the opening session of “Jewish Life and Anti-Semitism,” a two-day international conference in Budapest sponsored by the Tom Lantos Institute.

More than 550 people from more than 50 countries attended the meeting in Hungary’s parliament building. The conference focused mainly on the political aspects of Jewish life, anti-Semitism and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Participants gave a standing ovation to Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Kyriakos Gerontopoulos when he described his government’s crackdown on the ultranationalist Golden Dawn party. Navracsics was standing in for Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who conference organizers said could not attend because he was recovering from a recent injury.

Several speakers, including Hungarian Foreign Minister Zsolt Nemeth, noted the significance of a conference taking place in the very hall where Hungarian legislators passed anti-Semitic laws decades ago. In his address, Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Ilan Mor thanked Nemeth for voicing strong support for Israel.

Speakers stressed the need for education to help combat Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. To this end, the Hungarian government has declared 2014 as Holocaust Remembrance Year, with an array of initiatives marking the 70th anniversary of the deportation of at least 450,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in 1944.

Mor and Hungarian Jewish leader Andras Heisler stressed the importance of a new national high school curriculum that will teach about Jewish history and the Holocaust. The curriculum is being developed in consultation with the Jewish community, the Israeli embassy and Jewish educators.

Budapest to receive $22 million Holocaust memorial center


Budapest will erect a $22 million memorial at a train station from which many Hungarian Jews were deported during the Holocaust.

Janos Lazar, the Hungarian prime minister’s chief of staff, said the memorial will feature an educational center and will be opened by spring next year at Budapest’s Jozsefvaros train station, the Hungarian news agency MTI reported Thursday.

That timing coincides with the 70th anniversary of the deportation of 437,000 Hungarian Jews, which began in the spring of 1944.

Some 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Many of them were deported to Auschwitz from the Jozsefvaros station, which hasn’t been used since 2005.

Balazs Furjes, a government commissioner who heads the commemoration project, told MTI that the center will cover four acres, including a park and a parking lot. The exhibition space will be underground and the old station building will be preserved, he said.

In a meeting earlier this week of the Hungarian Holocaust-2014 Memorial Committee, Lazar said that the government plans to set up memorials at as many locations as possible throughout Hungary next year.

Child victims of the Holocaust will receive special commemoration and an emphasis will be placed on Hungarians who saved Jews during the Holocaust, MTI reported.

Additionally, the government will allocate a little over $6.5 million toward setting up a fund for Hungarian Jewish public organisations, civil organizations and educational institutions to finance local projects that help remembrance, Lazar said.

Last year Hungary announced plans to double pensions paid to Holocaust survivors by 2014.

Alex Friedman, 93


Alex Friedman, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to America after the 1956 Hungarian uprising, died Aug. 18. He was 93.

Friedman was born Sándor Friedman on March 21, 1921, in Kiskunfélegyháza, Hungary, to Mihaly and Rachel Friedman. He was the youngest of six children in an Orthodox family. 

On March 19, 1944, Germany invaded Hungary, and by April all the Jews in Kiskunfélegyháza were ordered to wear yellow stars and relocate to the ghetto. Friedman, 19 at the time, and his parents moved into one room. “Everybody was thinking — though no one was saying it out loud — that they brought us to the ghetto to kill us,” he told the Journal in a 2012 interview. 

In November 1944, Friedman was taken to Dachau and then sent to Mühldorf, a Dachau subcamp. He remained there for five months, until the camp was liberated by American troops on May 1, 1945.  

Friedman spent three months in the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp. 

In August, Friedman returned to Kiskunfélegyháza and moved into his sister’s house. She and all his siblings, as well as his parents, had been killed in Auschwitz, with the exception of his brother Naftoli, who was liberated from Mauthausen and who lived with Friedman until Naftoli’s death in 1987.

It was in Kiskunfélegyháza that he was introduced to Eva Goldman, who had spent more than a year in Auschwitz. The couple married on Dec. 4, 1945. Their son, Andrew, was born on April 26, 1947.

After the communists came to power in 1949, the family settled in Budapest. But on Dec. 4, 1956, after the Hungarian uprising, they walked all night until they reached Austria. In January 1957, they arrived in Los Angeles with little money and no English.

Friedman found work as a typewriter repairman. He saved money and, after two years, began buying convenience stores, accumulating seven. In 1978, at 57, he retired, renting out the stores and making other real-estate investments. His wife died in 1998.

Friedman was the president of numerous L.A. synagogues, including Congregation Machzikei Hadas and Congregation Anshei Sfard. He was also the heart and soul of Congregation Bais Naftoli, which was named after his brother. 

Friedman is survived by his son, Andrew, four grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

Hungarian war criminal Laszlo Csatary dies at 98


Hungarian war criminal Laszlo Csatary has died while awaiting trial for torturing Jews and deporting thousands of them to their deaths during World War II.

According to the French news agency AFP, Csatary died in a hospital in Budapest on Saturday of complications connected to pneumonia. He was 98.

Csatary, a former police commander of the Kassa internment camp in Slovakia, was sentenced to death in absentia for his crimes in 1948 by a Czechoslovakian court after he fled to Canada. He was deported back to Hungary in 1997 and arrested last year in Budapest, the capital, after the Sun daily newspaper in London published his picture and whereabouts.

“The fact that a well-known war criminal whose Nazi past was exposed in Canada could live undisturbed for so long in the Hungarian capital raises serious questions as to the commitment of the Hungarian authorities to hold their own Holocaust criminals accountable,” the director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, said in a statement Monday.

Last month, the Metropolitan Tribunal of Budapest suspended Csatary’s trial three weeks after it began, citing double jeopardy because of the 1948 conviction.

Slovakia had asked that Csatary be extradited to face additional charges, but Hungary declined the request.

Survivor: George Berci


In October 1942, George Berci, then George Bleier, was ordered to report for forced labor. Along with 1,600 young men, the 21-year-old was transported from Budapest to a camp near Bereck, Hungary, near the Romanian border. During the day, in his assigned group of 400 men, George was marched into the mountains, more than an hour’s walk, where he dug anti-tank trenches from sunup to sundown, especially arduous in winter when the ground was frozen. At night he slept with his group in a large, cold cement bunker, using small branches he had collected in the forest as a mattress.

On one occasion, for some arbitrary transgression, Hungarian guards tied his hands behind his back and hoisted him up with a rope that had been thrown over a heavy branch. His feet lifted off the ground, and his arms bore all his body weight. George believes he became semi-conscious. “I couldn’t lift my arms for days,” he said. “It was terrible.” 

George Berci was born on March 14, 1921, in Szeged, Hungary, the only child of Alexander and Ella Bleier.  The following year, his father was hired as the assistant conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and the family, including George, his parents, maternal grandparents, uncle and great-aunt, moved into a two-room apartment in Vienna.

George’s father left for India in 1924, while the family remained in Vienna. George was made to begin violin lessons at age 4, and by the time he was 10 he was playing concertos. 

In 1935, the political climate in Vienna shifted to the right. With no explanation, George’s non-Jewish friends stopped associating with him. And in his public school classrooms, he and other Jewish students were relegated to the back row. 

That same year, his maternal uncle, who supported the family, lost his job with Electrolux in Austria, but was offered a position in Stockholm. George’s grandmother, however, vetoed the idea, and in 1936 the family moved to Budapest. George’s parents were divorced by this time.

At 16, forbidden to attend public high school, George was accepted into a private Jewish school. He financed his education by washing cars on weekend evenings, even in winter, and graduated in 1939. 

Unable to attend university, George apprenticed for one year in an electrical shop and then worked for two years as a mechanical engineer.

George’s uncle was called into the military around 1940 and later killed in Russia. His father disappeared in 1941. 

After spending more than two years at the labor camp near Bereck, wearing the same clothes throughout, George and the other prisoners were taken by train in January 1944 to a large railway center near the Polish-Czechoslovakian border. There, they unloaded ammunition from German trains and transferred it onto trucks. 

According to George, they handled some highly explosive ammunition, casually tossing it to one another, assembly-line style. “What I remember is that the guards became very nervous. But I was coming to this phase in my life where I don’t care about life,” he said. 

In June 1944, George and the remaining prisoners were put on a train headed to a concentration camp. The train, however, stopped to change engines in Budapest, where American forces were dropping bombs.  The Hungarian guards, fearing the train would be hit, suddenly disappeared. “We disappeared, too,” George said. 

Through Catholic cousins living in Budapest, George tracked down his mother, who was living in a “yellow star” apartment. George moved in.

Soon after, while looking for work, George was approached by a man who recognized his Viennese accent and led him to a hideout for the Hungarian underground. They produced false papers — such as birth certificates and employment papers — for Jews hidden throughout the city, and George was tasked with delivering these documents. “It was dangerous work,” he said.

During this time, Budapest’s Jews were forced into a ghetto. With his Red Cross papers, George was able to enter the ghetto, find his mother and bring her to his apartment. 

Late in December 1944, with the Russian army surrounding Budapest, the Germans couldn’t transport Jews to concentration camps. Instead, they marched them to the Danube River, lined them up on its shore, and machine-gunned them, letting the bodies fall into the water.

In early January, fearing he and his mother would starve, George announced, “We are going to Szeged.” They went to a station for Russian military trains, the only available means of transportation, and, George, wearing a Red Cross armband and carrying a doctor’s bag, offered a soldier there two packages of sulfa drugs in exchange for a ride. Because gonorrhea was rife among the Russian military, his bribe was accepted. 

On the train, George told his mother he wanted to be a symphony conductor.  “You’ll be a doctor,” his mother answered. And on Jan. 5, 1945, with the Russians controlling the city, George enrolled in the University of Szeged’s medical school, changing his name to Berci to deflect anti-Semitism. To finance his education he cleaned instruments in the physiology department. 

In Szeged, George’s mother met and married Frank Breszlauer. 

George graduated from medical school summa cum laude in 1950. He then worked as a resident at the University of Szeged’s surgical clinic.

In 1954, George became an assistant in surgery at Postgraduate School of Medicine in Budapest, where he was very interested in experimental surgery and instrumentation. 

Then, in October 1956, the Hungarian Revolution broke out. Two weeks later, a large Soviet force entered the city, opening fire on demonstrators in Parliament Square and severely injuring 250 of them. Casualties were taken to a hospital, where George and other surgeons operated day and night. 

After that, George decided to leave Hungary. On Nov. 26, 1956, George, his mother and stepfather boarded a train, disembarking one stop before the Austrian border. They came to a cornfield where, in a group of 30 people, they set out on a three-mile walk in rain and snow to the border, which was guarded by Russian soldiers. 

After they’d walked for a mile, falling to the ground whenever searchlights scanned the area, George’s mother gave up, insisting on returning to Budapest. But George dropped everything he had, including a small briefcase with some money, and, although he was barefoot because his shoes had become stuck in the mud, he carried her the rest of the way, an all-night journey. 

They made their way to Vienna. There, George was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship and promised a job in Boston. But, as he believed the United States and Russia were on a collision course, he opted to go “as far away as possible from the next war” and chose Australia. 

George settled in Melbourne, working as a technician and studying English, memorizing 100 words a day. Then, from 1957 to 1962, he joined the surgery department of two Melbourne hospitals, continuing his work in experimental surgery and optical technology. 

In 1968, George came to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as a visiting professor and never left. Today he is recognized as the pioneer who developed the techniques that serve as the foundation of all endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeries.

At 92, he is senior director of Minimally Invasive Endoscopic Research at Cedars-Sinai. In addition to teaching and researching, he enjoys classical music. He has been married to Barbara (Weiss) Berci since 1988 and is the father of three children from previous marriages — Kitty, born in 1950; Winton, 1955; and Nina, 1969. He has six grandchildren.

George said he doesn’t “beat his chest” that he’s a survivor. And he doesn’t talk about the Holocaust much, except to his children and grandchildren. “I’m very keen that the next generation should know about it,” he said.

Co-founder of Hungarian ruling party made anti-Semitic statements, court finds


Hungary’s highest court found that a co-founder of the country’s ruling party had made anti-Semitic statements.

In the June 26 ruling, the Kúria, Hungary’s highest judicial body, rejected a libel suit by Zsolt Bayer, a columnist and one of the co-founders of the Fidesz center-right ruling party.

Bayer sued the radio station Klubrádió and Peter Feldmajer, the former president of the Mazsihisz, the Hungarian Jewish umbrella organization, following the airing of an interview in which Feldmajer said Bayer had made anti-Semitic comments.

In 2011, Bayer published an article on in the newspaper Magyar Hírlap decrying what he described as foreign influence in Hungary. He referred to such people as “human excrement named something like Cohen.”

The high court said the language was “by logic” anti-Semitic and offensive. Bayer was appealing an earlier ruling against his lawsuit.

More recently, Bayer wrote in the Jan. 5 edition of Magyar Hirlap that Roma “are not suitable for being among people. Most are animals, and behave like animals. They shouldn’t be tolerated or understood, but stamped out. Animals should not exist. In no way.”

Amid calls urging Fidesz to distance itself from Bayer, party spokeswoman Gabriella Selmeczi said at a news conference Jan. 8 that the party would not take a position on the basis of an opinion piece.

Fidesz has condemned the ultranationalist opposition Jobbik Party for its anti-Semitism, but Jewish leaders and U.S. officials have said that the rejection of the phenomenon by the party and its leaders has not been forceful enough.

Hungarian man, 98, charged with World War II crimes, prosecutors say


Hungarian prosecutors on Tuesday charged a 98-year-old man who tops the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center's wanted list with war crimes, saying he had helped to deport Jews to Auschwitz in World War II.

Laszlo Csatary was found guilty in absentia in 1948 of whipping or torturing Jews and helping to deport them to the death camp while serving as police commander in the Nazi-occupied eastern Slovak city of Kosice in 1944.

He was sentenced to death and lived on the run for decades until Hungarian authorities detained him and put him under house arrest in Budapest in July last year. He has denied any guilt.

In March, a Slovak court commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment.

“He is charged with the unlawful execution and torture of people, (thus) committing war crimes partly as a perpetrator, partly as an accomplice,” said Bettina Bagoly, a spokeswoman for the Budapest Chief Prosecutor's Office. She said Csatary's case would go to trial within three months.

The Wiesenthal Center named Csatary their most wanted war crimes suspect last year.

In April his detention terms were changed to a ban on leaving Hungary, but prosecutors have now applied to put him back under house arrest, Bagoly said.

In a statement, the prosecutors said Csatary had regularly hit Jewish prisoners with a dog-whip in 1944 when he was a police commander overseeing a detention camp in Kosice, which was then part of Hungary and is now in Slovakia.

Around 12,000 Jews were deported from Kosice to various concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz.

“With his actions, Laszlo Csatary … deliberately provided help to the unlawful executions and torture committed against Jews deported to concentration camps … from Kosice,” the prosecutors' statement said.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Bronfman Prize goes to leading disability rights innovator Eric Rosenthal


Eric Rosenthal, founder and director of Disability Rights International (DRI), who has focused world-wide attention on the inhumane institutionalization of children and adults with disabilities, has been awarded the 2013 Charles Bronfman Prize for his global leadership in the field of human rights, advocating for those most vulnerable to abuse.

The prestigious Chares Bronfman Prize, accompanied by a $100,000 award (a portion of which Rosenthal will donate to DRI) is given annually to a humanitarian under the age of 50 whose work is informed by Jewish values and has a global impact that changes lives and inspires future generations.

For the past 20 years, Rosenthal, 49, has traveled around the world, documenting abuses against children and adults with disabilities in two dozen countries in North and South America (including the United States), Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia.

He and his team have been first-hand eyewitnesses to horrific abuse, such as in Hungary, where adults with disabilities who had behavioral challenges were placed into cages and left there, naked, for days on end. DRI has documented children with disabilities tied down in cribs or beds for years, often malnourished, denied medical treatment and exposed to filthy, freezing conditions. Many of the children don’t survive. During a phone conversation, he said that some of what he’s seen done to people with disabilities is “out of Auschwitz.”

A key focus of DRI is stopping institutionalization of children with disabilities, who are often placed in orphanages even though they have loving parents who are alive and want to care for them at home but lack the resources to do so.

As DRI says on its website: “There is now ample evidence that all children – including children with mental disabilities – can thrive in the community where family support programs are established. Despite this, many international charities continue to fund placements in orphanages, psychiatric institutions, and nursing homes at the expense of needed programs in the community.”

The son of a career diplomat, Rosenthal was raised in Washington D.C. and in Africa. His time in Africa gave him a global perspective and a connection to the Jewish community that motivates him as a human rights activist and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

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His interest in this field first started with mental health issues because his grandmother was diagnosed with manic depression, and then grew to human rights more generally. While at Georgetown University in the early 1990s, he learned that many people with disabilities were still living in shameful conditions in institutions.

“Segregation is by itself a violation of human rights,” Rosenthal said in a telephone interview. This was unfortunately not the prevailing public policy when he first began his pioneering work, but one that has grown into acceptance, both in the United States and internationally.

The 1999 landmark United States Supreme Court Olmstead decision requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and to insure they receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the their needs.

On the international front, Rosenthal’s work has helped create a new United Nations Disability Convention ratified by 130 countries. This convention details the rights of persons with disabilities and creates standards for implementation. It calls on all nations to recognize “that all persons are equal before the law, to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee equal legal protection.”

“Throughout his career, Eric has taken action to bring an end to one of the greatest human rights tragedies taking place in the world today: the abuse of millions of children and adults with disabilities in closed orphanages and state institutions,” wrote Norman Rosenberg, former executive director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, as well as  former director of the New Israel Fund and Rosenthal’s nominator for the Charles Bronfman Prize.

“The impact of Eric’s work is real and tangible, and has created a new field of international human rights advocacy for a population that had been entirely overlooked.  Eric’s exposés and the international media coverage they have garnered have forced countries to undertake drastic reforms.”

Rosenthal hopes his selection as the 2012 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize will increase public awareness, and that more will be done to end institutionalization and segregation of people with disabilities. He hopes that the Jewish community will help lead the charge.

“As Jews one generation from a Holocaust, we should understand why we must not allow any group of people or any person to be excluded or be dehumanized or be put away and allowed to die,” he said. “The promise I made my grandmother to remember is very much core to the work that I do.  We must not only remember the six million who perished in the Holocaust, we must also act to protect the 10 million children left behind in orphanages and other custodial institutions.”

Jewish groups ask Kerry to fight anti-Semitism in Hungary


A dozen Jewish organizations sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressing their concern over the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary.

The May 14 letter commended Kerry for his offices’ recent human rights report that detailed the rise of the xenophobic and anti-Semitic Jobbik party and encouraged Kerry “to keep the issue of intolerance and discrimination squarely on the U.S.-Hungarian bilateral agenda.”

The Jobbik party has called for the creation of a list of Jewish public officials and labeled Jews a national security risk, according to the letter, which also asked Kerry to raise this issue personally in any dealings he has with Hungarian officials.

There have been attempts toward “rehabilitation and glorification of World War II-era figures, who were openly anti-Semitic and pro-fascist,” the Jewish leaders wrote.

“We view U.S. leadership as indispensable to the advancement of human rights,” the letter continued.

Signers of the letter included representatives from Agudath Israel of America, American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Hadassah, HIAS, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Federations of North America, NCSJ, the Rabbinical Assembly, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Simon Wiesenthal Center, World Jewish Congress and World Jewish Restitution Organization.

There are more than 100,000 Jews living in Hungary today.

Ghosts of Communism


Two weeks ago, my wife, Ann, and I completed our first trip to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Everywhere we went, our local guides proudly pointed out the progress that has been made since the fall of communism, and we could readily see for ourselves the affluence, elegance and style that are on display in the places that the tourists like to visit.

But we also saw the bullet holes and shell damage that have been left unrepaired to memorialize the ravages of World War II, and we were reminded of the price that the Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians paid when they defied the will of their Soviet masters in the 1950s and ’60s. In Bratislava, for example, we saw one heroic monument that honored the Red Army as the liberator of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and another monument that honored three Slovak victims of Soviet gunfire during the uprising known as the Prague Spring in 1968. Indeed, we always detected a certain kind of emotional scar tissue in the guides themselves, many of whom are survivors of one or both of these world-historical eras.

It is this same layered complexity that Yale historian Marci Shore has succeeded in bringing to life in the pages of “The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe” (Crown, $27), a courageous and imaginative effort to measure how the Nazi and Soviet regimes impacted the private lives of real men and women.

“All historical drama is acted through the lives of individuals,” she announces. “The eclipsing of private space was among totalitarianism’s deepest violations. In this way the totalitarian state was unlikely its merely authoritarian or monarchical predecessors: it distinguished itself — it made itself — by caring what lovers said in bed.”

Here is a surprising and even revolutionary way to write history. To be sure, historians have debated in what ways Nazi and Soviet atrocities were qualitatively different from both earlier and later outrages, but the conversation has usually focused upon the origins, mechanics and goals of mass deportation, mass imprisonment and mass murder. Shore, by contrast, focuses on the intimate emotions and inner emotions of the human beings who are the raw material of history.

Consider, for example, the fate of a young Czech woman named Jarmila. She was the youngest person to sign Charter 77, the manifesto of the liberation movement in Czechoslovakia, but she did so against the will of her parents, who were fearful that it would attract the ungentle attention of the secret police to the rest of the family. “Eventually they denounced her to the secret police,” Shore reports, “and so began a long series of arrests, detentions, interrogations, beatings.” She was forced to go into hiding at her grandmother’s home: “I love her,” the grandmother later told Shore, “she’s my sunshine.” But the whole family understood and accepted that denunciation of a child was a survival strategy under the communist regime.

When Shore sees anti-Semitic graffiti and evidence of criminal violence in Warsaw, she is offered an explanation by a Polish graduate student called Mikolaj: “Envy, insanity, racism and hooliganism,” he muses, “the pillars of Polish reality.” Yet she also allows us to understand the contemporary Poles are put off by Jewish tourists who come only to see the death camps: “They didn’t know about the heroic Polish underground,” Shore explains. “They didn’t know that Poles had also died in Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”

Not many Jews remain in Poland, of course, but the precious remnant is marked in strange ways. A woman named Tamara weeps over the fact that she was condemned to grow up under communism because her grandfather refused to make aliyah after the war ended. “She could not escape from this moment of her grandfather’s refusal to cross the border, this moment of decision, the moment when her life might have been a different one,” Shore writes. “She could not forgive her grandfather for having misunderstood History, for having made the wrong choice — and so, having thrown Tamar from the current of History.” 

“A Taste of Ashes” is rich with incident, recollection and conversation, a memoir of the author’s long endeavor to understand in human terms the ideas and events that are the raw material of intellectual history. Every page is alive with face-to-face encounters between Shore and her friends and colleagues. Ultimately, however, a dark fatalism suffuses the whole effort, and the hard truth is captured in a conundrum that she hears from a man who once edited a prominent Yiddish newspaper in Warsaw: “You already know too much,” Chaim Finkelstein told her, “too much and not enough, and nothing.”

I carried a copy of “The Double Eagle” by Stephen Brooks on my recent travels in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, a travel memoir that was written shortly before the fall of communism and has something in common with “The Taste of Ashes.” Next time, however, it will be Shore’s book in my carry-on, a masterpiece that will enrich the experience of being there precisely because the author looks both forward and backward in time, and because she offers a glimpse of history as seen through the eyes of the people who lived it.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Survivor: Eva Katz Brettler


Arrow Cross soldiers banged on the front door. Eva Brettler, then Eva Katz, hid behind her grandmother as the soldiers, members of Hungary’s fascist party, ordered Eva’s grandmother and aunt to quickly pack and prepare to leave. “Chavelah, you have to listen and you have to hide,” Eva’s grandmother told her, adding that she was to make her way at nightfall to the rabbi’s house, where his caretaker still lived. “I don’t want to stay alone,” Eva protested, crying. But she dutifully found a hiding spot amid the tall corn stalks where she watched the soldiers lead away her grandmother and aunt, along with other Jews of Tasnad, Hungary. Eva was 7; it was 1944.

Eva was born Nov. 29, 1936, in Cluj, Romania, the only child of Alexander and Margit Katz. Her father worked for a printing company and her mother was a hat maker. They were very religious and lived comfortably. 

In 1940, however, Hungary reannexed Northern Transylvania, and Cluj, Romania, became Kolozsvár, Hungary. Persecution of Jews increased, and in 1941 Eva’s father lost his job. The family moved to Budapest, where they lived in one room of a three-room apartment managed by a Mrs. Grosz. 

Eva was later sent to stay with her grandmother and aunt in Tasnad, Hungary (now Romania), in a beautiful country home with vegetable gardens and fruit trees. 

A few days after the roundup of Tasnad’s Jews, in April 1944, Eva’s father, who had been granted a furlough from his work camp, fetched her from the rabbi’s house. As they walked separately to the railroad station, two Hungarian policemen arrested him. She returned to the rabbi’s house, where her father, who had been beaten, came for her the next day. This time they safely reached the station. 

When they arrived in Budapest, Eva ran all the way to the apartment. “I wanted the comfort of my mother,” she said. Her father returned to the labor camp. 

As Budapest’s Jews were being relocated to designated apartment buildings, Eva’s mother obtained false papers for them. When the Swedish safe house they lived in was being evacuated, Eva’s mother hid her in a straw basket atop an armoire. A few hours later, her mother, who had ducked into an elevator shaft, retrieved her. As they quietly left the building, a Hungarian policeman standing nearby said, “Move very quickly. I don’t see you.” 

They went to the apartment of an acquaintance’s brother. The next day, Eva’s mother enrolled her in school under her false name, Eva Nagy. But as they returned to the apartment, two men stepped from behind a kiosk and arrested them.

They were eventually taken to a brick factory on the outskirts of Budapest. They had only lightweight summer clothes, and Eva’s mother was wearing heels. They had little food.

A short time later Eva and her mother were lined up and sent on a march with other prisoners. Most days Eva rode in a wagon with other children, meeting her mother at each night’s stopping place. One morning, Eva’s mother, whose feet ached from walking in heels, begged to ride in the wagon. Instead, she was taken away. A short time later Eva heard gunshots. 

That evening, Eva waited and waited for her mother. Another woman comforted her, holding onto her all night long as Eva saw lights from falling bombs flash in the sky. “I tried not to cry too much. I was afraid the woman would get rid of me,” Eva recalled. 

Soon Eva and the woman, along with other marchers, were loaded into cattle cars and taken to Ravensbruck, a women’s camp in northern Germany. Eva was separated from the woman.

The prisoners were ordered into a room and told to undress. Eva, who was raised Orthodox, covered herself with her hands. An SS woman then struck her with a whip, forcing her to drop her hands. Her hair was shaved and she was given a uniform. 

As Eva exited the room looking bewildered, another woman befriended her. The woman, whom Eva believes she called Tante, “aunt,” shared a top bunk with her. She also prayed with her, told her stories and kept her arms wrapped around her. During the day, Eva stood in line for roll call for hours at time, frozen and petrified.

One night, Eva heard a baby cry and learned a woman had miraculously given birth in the barracks. A few nights later, Tante died. 

In March 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, Eva and other prisoners were shipped to Bergen-Belsen. “All you could see was a tremendous amount of corpses,” Eva said. She was assigned a barracks, but, with no available beds, she slept on a concrete floor. During the day, prisoners were marched around aimlessly in the extreme cold. 

Behind the kitchen was a fenced-off area where potato peels were stored for the pigs. Some women enlisted Eva to crawl under the fence to steal food for them. As Eva exited with her hands full of peels, the women immediately grabbed them from her. On subsequent forays, she ate her peels before crawling back out.

One day, with the bright sunlight obscuring her vision, Eva heard a motor stop nearby, frightening her. Then a British soldier suddenly picked her up and gave her a chocolate bar. It was April 15, 1945, and the camp had been liberated. 

Eva was sick with typhus. On her way to the hospital she saw her former landlady, Mrs. Grosz, who offered to take her to Budapest. Eva said she was certain her parents were dead and was going to Sweden. She arrived there in July 1945 and lived in an orphanage. 

More than two years later, Eva’s father, who returned to Budapest, discovered through Mrs. Grosz that Eva had survived. In January 1947, Eva was reunited with her father, who had remarried and had a baby son. 

Eva attended an Orthodox school and then public school. After eighth grade, she began working in a factory and later studied chemistry at night school. 

In October 1956, sensing growing anti-Semitism with the Hungarian Revolution, Eva decided to leave. She escaped across the border at Bosarkany and made her way to Vienna, where she sent for her father and stepmother and her brother. 

Eva quickly received a visa and arrived in the United States in January 1957, settling in California. Her parents and brother followed three months later.

During Shavuot, Eva was introduced to another survivor, Marten Brettler, and they married on Aug. 11, 1957. They have four children — Rodney, born in 1958; Jeffrey, 1961; Linda, 1963; and Sandra, 1966 — and nine grandchildren.

Eva returned to school, obtaining a degree in psychology from UCLA. She was a social worker for Jewish Family Service from 1983 to 1996. 

Marten died on Dec. 24, 1987. “He was so proud of me. He helped me grow up in ways I didn’t have when I was younger,” Eva said.

Eva speaks regularly at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, at the Museum of Tolerance and in various schools. 

“I couldn’t have survived without the kindness of total strangers. I try to practice that in my life,” Eva said.