‘Almost’ a Beginning in Paris

Most boy-meets-girl movies end when the happy pair stands under the chuppah. After all, it’s not terribly dramatic what happens when they pick up the routine of daily married life.

It’s a bit like that with Holocaust films: The protagonists are either killed or liberated, but if they survive, we do not see how they get back to "normalcy" and cope anew with everyday life.

The modest, low-key French import "Almost Peaceful" ("Un Monde Presque Paisible") remedies this omission.

The year is 1946 and the setting is the old Jewish quarter of Paris, where Monsieur Albert and his wife Lea have re-established their pre-war ladies tailor shop.

They employ seven men and women, all scarred in one way or another by the war years and the Holocaust, but almost content with their steady jobs and harmonious workplace.

At first, the talk about customers and problems with the kids is quite normal, laced with a few Yiddish expressions. Only occasionally is there an almost inadvertent allusion to past experiences.

Leon, who is studying to become an actor, remembers that on the day Paris was liberated, he heard among the jubilation a few French patriots yelling, "Kill the Jews."

"The fascists are still here," Leon remarks, and young Joseph, the official shlimazel of the shop, confirms the observation when he goes to the police for a residence permit. He recognizes the inspector, as imperious as ever, as the same man who arrested and deported his parents.

The most deeply wounded worker is Charles (superbly portrayed by veteran actor Dennis Podalydes), who is still hoping for the return of his wife and children from concentration camps.

When a woman declares her love for him, Charles can only say, "Love is dead. It can no longer be spoken or experienced."

Director Michel Deville concludes the film with a picnic for all of Albert’s employees and their spouses and children, complete with sack races, laughter and much feasting.

The scene is as rustic and carefree as a Monet painting, but on the side sits a little boy obsessively playing with a vest pocket watch. Explains a guest, "That’s the watch his father left him when he was deported."

"Almost Peaceful" opens Oct. 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (310) 274-6869.

You Gotta Be in it to Win it

Want to win a full day school scholarship? Or maybe free synagogue membership?

Now you can, in the new Jewish community raffle, Arie Katz, chair of the Jewish Community Scholar Program (CSP), created the raffle to raise awareness of adult Jewish learning in Orange County and what he calls the “amazing infrastructure in our Orange County Community.”

Synagogues and Jewish institutions will help sell tickets, which can be purchased via credit card through The Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Funds raised from raffle sales will go to a variety of local institutions, including Jewish day schools, the Jewish Community Center, local synagogues and day camps. The bulk of the funds will go toward expanding CSP, which brings the world’s leading Jewish thinkers, scholars and artists to Orange County for a series of lectures, workshops and classes. Funds from the raffle will also partially underwrite the costs of a May 2004 community retreat and a proposed community Shabbat celebration in June.

“If the raffle is successful, then the whole community wins,” Katz said.

Tickets for the raffle, which will go on sale from Sept. 1 through Nov. 12, will cost $100. The winner, which will be selected Nov. 14., will be published in the December issue of The Jewish Journal of Orange County. For more information about CSP and the raffle, visit www.occsp.org or call (949) 682-4040.

Even Bullies Go to Summer Camp

Directors at three of California’s Jewish sleep-over camps describe them as nurturing environments where every child is made to feel safe and part of a caring community. Campers, they say, generally meet the high expectations for mensch-like behavior.

But despite everyone’s best intentions, camps occasionally see aggressive or exclusionary behavior, and each camp has a policy to firmly and fairly discourage bullying.

“Our mission is to create a community of living Judaism within a holistic vision of physical, spiritual and emotional safety for all,” said Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ (UAHC) Institutes for Living Judaism, which runs Camp Swig in Saratoga and Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.

“Our culture fosters shalom bayit [peace in the home],” he added. However, Arquilevich as well as directors of Camp Tawonga near Yosemite National Park and Camp Ramah in Ojai said they are prepared to deal with unacceptable behavior, too. “We acknowledge that certain behaviors appear in a group setting, and there are always a handful of cases every summer,” Arquilevich said.

“Although we don’t believe in the concept of a ‘camp bully,’ at some time we all exhibit bullying behavior. We see it as an opportunity at camp to identify, respond and give the bully and the other kids a lesson in how to be the best person they can be, a life lesson in conflict management that they can take home.”

Ken Kramarz, executive director of Camp Tawonga, described his camp as “a place of peace.”

Tawonga is a group-centered camp, where each cabin has its own identity and strong group ethic. Kramarz said each cabin has a personalized set of “10 commandments” and a cabin schedule that accommodates every camper’s individual needs.

“The entire culture is about getting along. The counselors are with the kids continuously and focused on the children’s interacting with each other,” Kramarz said.

Nevertheless, “the children bring with them the templates of behavior extrinsic to the camp environment,” he said, and in the rare case where a child becomes disruptive or mean, the director will sit with him or her and create a personalized written behavior contract. The parents will be notified that the child is “on contract” and may be sent home.

“But the kids really want to be here, and when the consequence is that they are not going to be here, the behavior is likely to improve,” Kramarz said.

Camp directors say expectations run high that campers will treat each other with respect, cooperation and inclusion.

Before youngsters head off to camp, parents receive handbooks that outline the rules of appropriate camper behavior. “The parents are asked in advance to engage their children in a conversation about the tone and culture the camp strives for, and they sign off that they will contribute to the environment in a positive way,” Arquilevich said.

He said that inappropriate behavior might first be noticed by a counselor or might be reported to a counselor by a camper. The counselors are trained to facilitate the kids working out the issue among themselves within their own cabin group.

“We are careful in judging and getting the broad story. The kid in the most pain is the one exhibiting the inappropriate behavior,” Arquilevich said, adding that the first step might be to ask what precipitated the behavior, followed by encouraging the cabin group to talk about it. Once they understand each other, they can work toward something positive.

In the rare case where hurtful behavior continues or even escalates, consequences ensue. Parents might be notified, and an agreement of understanding might be written up. If such a behavior contract is broken, the child could be dismissed from the group or the camp; however, such serious measures are necessary only about once every two years, Arquilevich said.

Brian Greene, executive director of Camp Ramah, said his counselors are taught to watch for inappropriately aggressive children and channel the aggression in a positive direction.

“What we really want to do is get to the bully and find out what’s behind the lack of self esteem. The child wants to feel powerful and important, but can fulfill that need in better ways than pushing other kids around,” Greene said. “We won’t let anyone ruin anyone else’s time and won’t tolerate a child hurting another child.”

Greene added that he believes bullying is a bigger problem at schools than at summer camps.

“When camp is at its best, a united feeling takes over and becomes dominant. Everybody counts.”

The Scent of Controversy

Ronald Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, philanthropist and conservative political activist, has been unanimously selected by a nominating committee to become the next chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The decision has ignited a furor among heads of liberal and labor-linked groups that make up nearly half the conference’s 55 members. Critics include most leaders of the two largest factions in Jewish life, the Reform and Conservative movements. Prominent activists call the choice “an outrage,” “a disaster,” “ludicrous” and other terms unfit for print.

Critics say Lauder’s right-wing views make him an inappropriate spokesman for American Jewry and would put him needlessly at odds with the Clinton administration — and perhaps with the next Israeli government. They say his close ties to the Netanyahu government will make it hard for him to play the crucial role of conciliator and consensus-builder in the sharply divided Presidents Conference. And they say that his reputedly weak communication skills won’t help.

“The key to being an effective conference chairman,” said Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, “is to be somebody who will listen carefully, and will be astute enough and talented enough to build a consensus in a very divided conference. And to remain silent when no consensus exists. Obviously, I hope he’ll be an effective chairman. But we’ll be watching.”

And, yet, true to the byzantine ways of Jewish organizational culture, most critics say that they will vote for Lauder when his name comes before the full body in February. Even in the nominating committee, Reform and Conservative representatives who had opposed Lauder agreed to vote for him once his nomination became inevitable. The goal, they say, is preserving unity in the Jewish community and its chief representative body. “To weaken the conference doesn’t help the Jewish community,” said committee member Stephen Wolnek, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Lauder’s defenders call the opposition sour grapes. “Everyone would like their own representative to be chosen,” said Orthodox Union president Mandell Ganchrow, who was himself a candidate but calls Lauder a good choice. “I think he’ll do credit to the organization.”

Though scarcely known to the public, the Presidents Conference is generally recognized in government and diplomatic circles as the senior voice of American Jewry on international affairs. Operating with a tiny staff and a yearly budget of less than $1 million, it has succeeded for four decades, largely because community leaders and successive U.S. administrations have wanted it to.

In the last decade, though, the conference has lost clout, paralyzed by left-right divisions. Compounding the tension is liberal mistrust of the staff director, Malcolm Hoenlein. A staunch conservative, he is sometimes accused of shortcutting decision-making processes and taking hawkish positions without full conference approval.

The current chairman, New York attorney Melvin Salberg, has won high marks for his dogged efforts to follow procedure and build consensus. But the tedious discussions have left all sides exasperated.

Lauder, 54, is generally seen as Hoenlein’s personal candidate. But some observers say that he could surprise everyone.

The younger son of cosmetics magnate Estee Lauder, he left the family business in 1983 and joined the Reagan administration as an assistant secretary of defense. He later served briefly as U.S. ambassador in Austria.

In 1989, he mounted an expensive, spectacularly unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New York City. He ran under the banner of the small, right-wing Conservative Party, charging that Republican Rudolph Giuliani was too liberal. The race won Lauder little beyond ridicule for his wooden speaking style.

Since then, Lauder has devoted most of his energy to his Ronald Lauder Foundation, an acclaimed, multimillion-dollar program that runs Jewish summer camps and day schools in formerly communist Eastern Europe. He also serves as treasurer of the World Jewish Congress and chair of its commission on stolen art.

The presidency of the Jewish National Fund was offered to Lauder in 1997, in a move widely seen as positioning him for the conference chairmanship. Under Lauder, the fund, which was wracked by financial scandals, has dramatically recovered. He brought in new personnel and renewed morale. He also fulfilled a pledge to the right by ending the fund’s 30-year ban on spending American donations in the administered territories.

Israeli press reports regularly name Lauder as a major financial backer of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Some reports say that Lauder donated the services of conservative American media guru Arthur Finkelstein to the Netanyahu campaign.

In his interview with the Presidents Conference nominating committee on Jan. 7, Lauder denied any financial role in Israeli politics. Still, the issue was touchy enough to hold up his nomination for two days, while staffers looked for proof of his donations. None was found.

In the end, Lauder emerged from a field of six candidates as one of two finalists, along with former American Jewish Committee President Robert Rifkind. Committee members said that Lauder impressed them with a strong command of issues and a sincere commitment to pursue consensus. Most of all, though, members said that it was Lauder’s resumé — his JNF leadership, his foundation work, plus his wealth and prominence — that made his candidacy irresistible. “Name recognition does count,” said committee member Marlene Post, president of Hadassah.

As for Lauder’s political views, several committee members recalled the role of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the Reform movement leader, who chaired the conference in 1977, when Menachem Begin became prime minister. Schindler’s embrace of the Likud leader helped pave the way for American acceptance of Begin. Lauder, they say, could similarly be a bridge-builder.

The comparison only angered liberals. “Schindler was a liberal speaking for a liberal Jewish community,” said one veteran conference member. “Lauder would be a conservative speaking for a liberal community to a liberal administration. What sense does that make?” In fact, he noted, no liberal has headed the Presidents Conference since 1982.

Indeed, some said that Lauder’s nomination seemed to mimic the current crises in Washington and Jerusalem, where right-wing minorities are successfully imposing their agendas on liberal majorities that are not effectively organized.

Lauder has worked hard to soothe his critics in recent days, promising in meetings to listen and govern from the center. Most significant, he has reportedly agreed to consider creating an executive committee. That would give the conference, for the first time, a decision-making tool that is nimble yet disciplined.

If he keeps his pledges, liberals say, he could breathe new life into the organization. If not, they warn, the body will simply continue its drift to irrelevance.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

Wiesenthal Report:

Jewish refugees fortunate enough to make it into Switzerlandduring World War II, were, in most cases, interned in forced-laborcamps, required to perform hard physical labor under primitive livingconditions, and separated from their families.

By 1944, the Swiss had established about 100 such camps, manysurrounded by barbed wire, which held some 22,500 refugees, most ofwhom were Jewish.

The charges were presented Tuesday in a press conference by Dr.Alan Morris Schom, an American historian, who attributed in hisjust-completed report the harsh treatment of Jews to “a pattern ofconsistent anti-Semitism” by Swiss officials.

Schom’s report, “The Unwanted Guests: Swiss Forced Labor Camps,1940-1944,” was prepared for and presented at the Simon WiesenthalCenter.

In his report and presentation, Schom identified 62 camps by nameand added the following charges:

* Men up to 60 were forced to work on road gangs and in forestswith shovels and pickaxes, from dawn to dusk, in summer and winter.

* Women and girls were assigned to institutions and privateresidences to perform the most menial labors.

* Camp commandants separated men from their wives, and mothersfrom even infant children.

* Recalcitrant refugees were sent to one of two special”punishment” camps or taken to the border and handed over to FrenchVichy police or German officials.

Throughout the war, Schom said, Switzerland maintained a two-trackpolicy for Jewish and Christian refugees. While the Swiss governmentprovided for Christians, the small Swiss Jewish community andAmerican Jewish relief organizations were required to pay the entirecost of maintaining Jewish refugees.

In addition, a special “Jew tax” was imposed on all wealthy Jewishrefugees, who also had to divulge full information on any bankaccount they might hold.

Schom also charged that throughout the Hitler era, the presidentof the Geneva-based International Red Cross, Dr. Max Huber, profitedfrom arms sales to Italy and Germany and owned a manufacturing plantin southern Germany run by the SS and employing slave labor.

In a letter to Swiss President Flavio Cotti that accompanied thereport, the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier asked that thetreatment of Jewish refugees be investigated by the BergierCommission of eminent historians.

If the charges are validated, Hier said, Switzerland should offerapologies and compensation to former camp inmates. Hier alsoemphasized that the forced-labor camps, though harsh, could not becompared to Nazi concentration camps, and that many individual Swisscitizens sought to succor the refugees.

Schom received a doctorate in history but is not affiliated withany academic institution. He lives in France and has written fourbooks, put out by respected publishing houses, on aspects of Frenchand British history.

In a brief interview, Schom said that he had talked to one formerSwiss camp commandant but had received no cooperation from otherSwiss officials. The historian said that he had been in contact withthree German Jews, now living in London, who had been interned by theSwiss, and he had researched recently declassified British wartimedocuments.

“As a historian, I fit together bits and pieces until I find apattern,” he said.

In Switzerland, meanwhile, a government spokeswoman, MarieMarceline Kurman, said that the Schom study was littered withhistorical inaccuracies and that the existence of work camps forrefugees has long been documented by Swiss historians.

Of various former camp inmates interviewed by The AssociatedPress, some praised their treatment by the Swiss, while otherscomplained of harsh conditions and anti-Semitic incidents.

However, some of Schom’s charges were endorsed by an unscheduledwitness. Annette Glazman, herself a wartime Belgian refugee inSwitzerland, testified that her first husband had been interned in aSwiss camp, where “he was treated like a slave,” and where mothersand children were separated.

“The Swiss were very anti-Semitic, and they treated people asbadly as they could,” the 77-year-old Glazman, a Camarillo resident,said. “We knew exactly when Germany began to lose the war, becausethe Swiss attitude toward us changed radically.”

During daylong sessions at the Wiesenthal Center, state InsuranceCommissioner Chuck Quackenbush took testimony from six witnesses whoaccused European insurance companies, particularly in Italy andGermany, of failing to make good on policies taken out by parents andrelatives.

Quackenbush warned the only insurance company representativepresent at the hearing that he and commissioners of other stateswould use their regulatory power over American subsidiaries of theEuropean companies to see “that justice is done.”

At another session, a Belgian and a Russian art expert relatedtheir labyrinthine efforts to track down art and literary workslooted by the Nazis.

For instance, Jacques Lust of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts inBrussels told of finding a rare book in Amsterdam in 1996 that hadbeen originally confiscated by the Nazis from a wealthy Belgian Jew.In tracing the book’s journey over 50 years, he found that it hadchanged owners in Berlin, Silesia, Minsk, Moscow and Amsterdam.