Film-maker Polanski relieved after court rejects U.S. extradition request in child sex case


Oscar-winning film-maker Roman Polanski said on Friday he was grateful and relieved after a Polish court rejected a U.S. request for his extradition over a 1977 child sex conviction.

The case of the Polish-born Polanski, now 82, remains an international cause celebre nearly four decades after the crime, with some demanding harsh punishment and others urging that extradition efforts be dropped.

A judge in a Polish court in the southern city of Krakow ruled against the extradition, saying the U.S. judiciary had violated Polanski's rights in the past and that he would be subject to infringements if handed over now.

“The extradition is inadmissible,” judge Dariusz Mazur said.

“The case is over, at least in Poland, I hope. I can sigh with relief. It's difficult to describe how much time, energy and effort this costs, how much suffering it brought on my family,” Polanski told a news conference in Krakow. 

“It's simple. I pleaded guilty, I went to prison. I served my punishment. It's over,” he said.

Polanski pleaded guilty in 1977 to having sex with a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot in Los Angeles. He served 42 days in jail after a plea bargain but later fled the United States fearing a lengthy jail time if the deal was overruled. 

In 2009, he was arrested in Zurich on a U.S. warrant and placed under house arrest. He was freed in 2010 after Swiss authorities decided not to extradite him.

The United States requested Polanski's extradition from Poland after he made a high-profile appearance in Warsaw in 2014. 

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has long insisted that Polanski remains a fugitive and subject to immediate arrest in the United States because he fled the country before sentencing. It says his case cannot be resolved until he returns to California to face justice.

“Our position on this matter remains the same,” Shiara Davila-Morales, a spokeswoman for the D.A., said on Friday, declining to comment further.

Since fleeing the United States, Polanski won an Oscar for best director for The Pianist, a film based on a memoir of a famous Polish Jewish pianist and composer who survived the Holocaust. Polanski, who holds both French and Polish citizenship, lives in Paris but also has an apartment in Krakow and regularly visits Poland.

REPEATED VIOLATIONS

Mazur said it was clear Polanski was guilty and deserved to be punished. But he said Polanski's right to a fair trial and right of defence had been “grossly and repeatedly violated” over the years by several U.S. judges and prosecutors, including when the first bargain deal was annulled.

The decision is not legally binding and prosecutors can appeal.

The judge said extraditing Polanski would lead to him being held in harsh conditions for weeks or months in the United States while his case was being processed and would violate his human rights, potentially putting Poland at odds with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

He said the defendant's rights had often been curtailed, judges had failed to live up to standards of judicial independence and Polanski had already been sufficiently punished.

Polanski's U.S.-based lawyer Chad Hummel on Friday declined to comment on the Polish decision. The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment.

Samantha Geimer, the victim in the case, has long made clear she believes Polanski's long exile has been punishment enough. 

Geimer, now in her 50s and living in Hawaii, said in a series of posts on her Facebook page ahead of the Polish ruling that Los Angeles prosecutors should abandon their efforts.

“The message is they will use a teenage rape victim until their dying breath to get some PR, and justice is NOT something they seek for victims,” she wrote.

Polanski's defence lawyers said the film director's fame had made him a target for some U.S. judges and prosecutors who wanted to build a reputation out of the case.

“Roman Polanski's fame has been a burden,” said defence lawyer Jan Olszewski. “There will always be someone who wants to promote themselves on a case attracting wide attention.”

Olszewski expressed disquiet at comments by some members of Poland's conservative Law and Justice party, which has just won an outright majority in parliament, suggesting that Polanski was getting undue lenient treatment.

Polanski appeared, too, to refer to this, saying: “If any decision were to be based on facts, there are so many elements in the case that are in my favour, that I see no risk. But, should it be a political decision – I should be worried.”

Politics, Putin cast shadow over Auschwitz liberation anniversary


When they announced the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Polish officials insisted that at this year’s event, “the eyes of the world will be focused” on about 300 Holocaust survivors whose presence Tuesday at the former Nazi death camp near Krakow may be the last gathering of its sort.

The generation of Holocaust survivors, after all, is dying out.

Yet critics are charging that politics and tensions between Russia and its neighbors are nonetheless eclipsing the focus on the survivors and even muddling the historical record. Many believe that behind the main event, at Auschwitz, was an organized effort to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending — a reprisal of sorts for Russia’s annexation last year of Ukrainian territory.

Putin in his earlier stint as president attended the 60th anniversary ceremony in 2005. This time, a tentative invitation was extended to the Russian Embassy but not to Putin directly.

An attempt to keep out Putin was “a serious failure in commemoration because it was Russian troops who liberated the camp,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the human rights organization. “This attempt to erase the Russian people’s contribution to defeating Nazism is casting a shadow on this commemoration and creating a vacuum in which untruths flourish.”

One such distortion: On Jan. 21, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told a local radio station that Ukrainians, not Russians, liberated Auschwitz, citing the fact that the Red Army unit that reached Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front. And on Jan. 8, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that the Soviets “invaded  Ukraine and Germany,” when, in fact, it was the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union. His spokesman later explained that Yatsenyuk had in mind the carving-up of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.

These historical inversions “show the level of hatred that exists for Russia for the moment,” said Peter Feldmajer, a vice president of the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz.

In addition to the event in Auschwitz, the camp’s liberation was scheduled to be commemorated in Prague on Jan. 26 and at the United Nations General Assembly on Jan. 28.

But Putin’s presence would have been an especially sensitive matter in Poland, where anger over Russian aggression in Ukraine is mixed with bitter memories of Russian domination during and predating the Soviet era and fears of its return.

Polish officials denied that Putin was deliberately disinvited or discouraged from attending, noting that no other head of state had been officially invited, owing to the policy of focusing on survivors.

Many, however, doubted this argument, as the list of attending dignitaries at the Auschwitz event grew. Among others it included French President Francois Hollande and his German and Ukrainian counterparts, Joachim Guack and Petro Poroshenko, as well as the Dutch and Belgian premiers, Mark Rutte and Charles Michel, respectively.

Putin, however, had been invited to attend an event near Prague co-organized by the European Jewish Congress that brought hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries to commemorations of the Auschwitz liberation and to the nearby Terezin Memorial for the Theresiendstadt concentration camp.

EJC’s Russian-born president, the industrialist Moshe Kantor, set up the event near Prague with the Czech government to provide a commemoration ceremony where Putin would feel welcome, according to Peter Brod, a board member of the Jewish Community of Prague’s foundation.

“The feeling was that the Russian contribution to the liberation should be honored and commemorated in some way, and this led to the event,” said Brod, a former BBC journalist.

But Arie Zuckerman, a senior EJC official, said the event near Prague — which featured debates about anti-Semitism today and legislation to curb it — were never meant to serve as an alternative to the Auschwitz event, “which, unlike our event, is only about commemoration.”

Marek Halter, a well-known French Jewish author who survived the Holocaust in his native Warsaw before escaping to Russia, said he and his generation “have a responsibility to protect [the] historical record for as long as we can.” The record, he said, “is in danger of being lost in the politics of the new cold war we are entering between the United States and Russia.”

Putin’s attendance at Auschwitz, he added during an interview with JTA, “should have been facilitated to defend against this sort of obfuscation.”

Serge Klarsfeld, a Romania-born Jewish Nazi hunter who survived the Holocaust in hiding in France and whose father died at Auschwitz, said he “could understand the Polish state of mind regarding Putin,” but that he should have been invited.

“It’s not, as some Poles claim, that the Russians liberated Auschwitz because it was en route to Berlin,” he said. “They came to free Auschwitz, and the survivors will never forget the Red Army’s arrival there.”

Still, Halter said he could think of no place more appropriate than Prague and Terezin to commemorate the Holocaust.

“Prague was the only old Jewish city that the Nazis left intact because they wanted to turn it into a Jewish Jurassic Park, a museum to an extinct people,” he told JTA. “Convening hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries is a powerful response.”

But how the message is carried is changing as the last generation of Holocaust survivors passes on, Frans Timmermans, a vice president of the European Commission, told JTA at the Prague’s Municipal House, where Czech President Milos Zeman welcomed leaders of European Jewry and politicians with a brief address.

“We are at a critical point in European history because living memory is becoming history,” Timmermans said. “Soon there will be no more people with numbers on their arms to tell the story, and the tendency to beautify a terrible record is tempting.”

In Auschwitz, one of the survivors who is still telling his story is Ernst Verduin, 87, who lived in hiding in the Netherlands before he was deported to the death camp with his family. Verduin arrived at Auschwitz suffering from a severe lung infection and was sent immediately to the gas chambers.

“As we said goodbye, my sister wished me a quick death,” recalled Verduin, who survived because he left the gas chamber group and snuck to the group of men sent to work.

Survivors gather for historic anniversary at Auschwitz


Holocaust survivors gathered in Krakow on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz amid unease regarding the safety of Jews in Europe.

Some 100 survivors from 19 countries — each with a child, grandchild or companion — are expected to attend official ceremonies on Tuesday at the site of the former concentration camp in Oswiecim. The journeys of the guests — most of them in their 80s and 90s – were sponsored by the World Jewish Congress and the USC Shoah Foundation.

Ronald Lauder, president of the WJC, is to address the ceremony, which was organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council. Among the thousands of expected guests are state leaders as well as film director Steven Spielberg, founding chair of the Shoah Foundation, Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban and others.

In Germany, where International Holocaust Remembrance Day events and ceremonies were to be held across the country, Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Monday that Jews would always remember the Holocaust, but that non-Jews in Germany had a duty to remember, teach and learn about it.

“At the same time, unfortunately, the threat to Jews around the world has increased,” Schuster added, alluding to the recent terrorist attack in the Paris kosher supermarket in which four hostages were killed. “Attacks by extremist Muslims have become an increased danger to the Jewish community. We must not turn a blind eye.”

Making cookies … And a difference


Left destitute overnight when the Nazis confiscated his life savings in 1941, Ben Lesser’s father, Lazar, used a 100-pound bag of flour and some salt — a housewarming gift from a friend — to bake pretzels for the local bars in Niepolomice in southern Poland. 

While his family of seven subsided on wheat husks, normally fed to the pigs as waste, Ben Lesser’s father went on to became the town baker, and the family was able to support themselves in spite of the country’s harsh anti-Semitic laws.

Lesser’s parents and three of his four siblings did not survive the Holocaust, but the lessons he learned in his father’s kitchen did. The 85-year-old survivor of multiple concentration camps — who spoke about his experiences last month at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) — founded Papa Ben’s Kitchen, which makes five varieties of kosher mandelbread, in 2011. 

The company, whose products became available in stores last year, doesn’t just exist to satisfy the American sweet tooth; Lesser created it, in part, to support the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, a nonprofit he founded in 2009. It provides pins that read zachor in Hebrew (“remember”) to audiences at Holocaust education events. (More than 30,000 pins were distributed in just its first few months, according to its Web site.)

“We give pins with the message that now you are responsible for the story you have heard today,” said Lesser’s daughter, Gail Lesser-Gerber, president of Papa Ben’s Kitchen.

Lesser was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1928, to a middle-class family involved in the production of kosher wine, syrup and chocolate. The family left for Niepolomice in 1941, according to Lesser’s Web site, to avoid joining the Krakow ghetto, where most of his extended family would perish. 

Two years later, at age 14, Lesser escaped to Hungary — his parents were reported by a neighbor and shot before they could join him — only to endure the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the labor camp Durnhau, a night at Buchenwald, and then Dachau, as well as a death march that lasted at least two weeks in February 1945. Upon liberation, he fell into a starvation-induced coma that lasted about eight weeks. 

After the war, Lesser was reunited with Lola Lieber-Schwartz, his only surviving sibling, and settled in the United States. He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where he met his wife and went on to become a real estate agent. Now a great-grandfather who has retired to Las Vegas and written a book about his life (“Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream”), Lesser gives speeches about his Holocaust experiences at universities, libraries, prisons and government institutions across North America.

Despite having no formal training in cooking or baking — and no written recipes from his father — Lesser has baked from memory throughout his life, using the smell and texture of the dough as his guide. He brought the treats to card games with buddies, and passed them out as party favors at his 80th birthday party. Friends kept asking why the family wasn’t selling Lesser’s mandelbread, remembers Lesser-Gerber.

“Everyone loved my dad’s cookies,” she said. 

The family needed to cover the cost of Lesser’s unsubsidized speaking engagements and the Zachor foundation. They finally decided to take their friends’ question to heart.

The result is Papa Ben’s Kitchen, for which Lesser and his family developed multiple recipes. Available at Whole Foods and Gelson’s, the cookies come in various flavors: original family recipe, minty dark chocolate, chocolate espresso bean, lemon blueberry with poppy seeds, and spicy chipotle with ginger and dark chocolate.

A pastry chef prepares their products at a bakery in Costa Mesa, Calif., in Orange County. 

Lesser-Gerber remembers her father, with his old-fashioned mentality, proposing he knock on the door of Ralphs grocery stores with some of his mandelbread and ask if they wanted to buy some.

During his recent visit to speak at LAMOTH, Lesser read from his book while a diverse crowd listened with rapt attention to stories of beatings, intimidation and executions, but also of human dignity and courage.

Lesser recalled how he bribed the cook at Durnhau with diamonds he had smuggled in his shoes to get his uncle a kitchen job rather than the hard labor forced upon other prisoners — breaking apart boulders to make gravel. This experience, he said, taught him the importance of saving valuables for emergencies, and of making personal connections. Both of these were lessons he would find important later in life as a businessman in America.

Most of all, he learned from the concentration camps that to succeed, he had to understand what was expected of him, and simply get it done no matter the difficulties. He said he remembers thinking: “Ben, if you want to live, you have to do it exactly the way they want you to do it.”

And once in the United States, he knew that he had to work harder than others to be the best — his own education had been halted at age 11. So when he was working for UPS at one point, for example, he learned everything about the company so his employers knew they could count on him to do any job, at any time, including holidays. For a time, he worked two jobs and went to night school. 

“Figure out how to be the best at your profession,” he told the LAMOTH audience. “Don’t be a clock-watcher. Give yourself all the way.”

Despite his difficult life, Lesser-Gerber said her father always managed to keep a positive outlook on life.

 “[He] wanted to live his childhood through us,” she said. “He could not pass up a roller coaster without taking us.” 

Lesser never spoke about his experiences until asked by his grandson to appear at an elementary school event. 

“The kids are so grateful,” Lesser said. “They had no idea … most of them are not being taught about the Holocaust.” 

Lesser said that his talks emphasize the importance of mutual respect and living peacefully. He said listeners go home “new, different people” who do not take their families for granted.

At each of his presentations, Lesser passes out Zachor pins to the audience, paid for by the skill his father taught him over 50 years ago. As Lesser-Gerber said about her father’s company, “It’s about making cookies and making a difference.”

March recalls liquidation of Krakow ghetto


Some 400 people made a remembrance march in Krakow to mark the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Polish city's Jewish ghetto.

The marchers on Sunday walked from Ghetto Heroes Square to the site of the former concentration camp at Plaszow.

“There are voices in the world that say it was all not true, that it was impossible to kill 6 million people,” Israeli Ambassador to Poland Zvi Rav-Ner said during the ceremony. “Therefore, it is important to remember what happened. From this square in Krakow should go out into the world the message that such crimes cannot happen again.”

Tadeusz Jakubowicz, the president of the Krakow Jewish community, said the Nazis wanted to humiliate the Jewish community and started the liquidation of the ghetto on a Saturday, a few days before Passover.

The Krakow ghetto was among the largest in Poland's general government, which was under Nazi rule from 1939 to early 1945. In March 1941, 17,000 people lived there. The Nazis transported them to the camps at Belzec, Plaszow and Auschwitz.

Israeli tourist suffers ‘anti-Semitic abuse’ in Polish taxi


An Israeli tourist visiting Poland reportedly filed a complaint with police against a taxi driver for making anti-Semitic remarks.

The tourist, Clila Bau, visited Poland last week with her sister, Hadas, according to the online edition of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

The two came to Krakow to attend an exhibition of the works of their father, Joseph Bau, a Jewish artist who survived the Holocaust in Poland thanks to Oskar Schindler.

After the Oct. 16 event at Krakow’s Schindler Museum was concluded, Cila Bau boarded a taxi cab belonging to the company Mega Taxi.

When the driver learned she was from Israel “the journey turned into hell,” Clila Bau is quoted as saying.

She said the driver “yelled” that in Israel, Jews stole land from Arabs, and the Jews should be thankful to Poles for “taking them in when everybody else threw them out.”

When they reached the destination, the driver threw her suitcase out of the car and told her to “get out and never come back,” according to her account in Gazeta Wyborcza.

The online edition of Gazeta Krakow quoted the driver as denying that he hurled anti-Semitic insults at Bau. “We had a discussion on ideology,” the paper quoted him as saying.

Boaz Pash, the chief Orthodox rabbi of Krakow, said that anti-Semitic incidents in Krakow are “unusual and less common than in other European countries.”

Pash said that in six years of living in Poland, he has received very few negative reactions. “This incident sounds very unpleasant, but you can find hooligans anywhere,” he said.

Letter from Krakow: When is anti-Semitism not anti-Semitism?


A troubling recent incident in the heart of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, has raised questions anew about the scope and impact of anti-Semitism in the age of instant response and interactive social media.

The incident involved a waiter (or waiters) at a popular cafe, Moment, who rudely refused service to a group of about a dozen would-be patrons—foreigners and Poles, Jews and non-Jews, some wearing kippot—late at night shortly before closing time.

Accounts differ, but at some point during a heated encounter the wait staff reportedly called the group “F—-king Jews” and told them to “f off” to Israel (or, according to some accounts, to go back to Warsaw or to another cafe down the block). Ironically, among them was the German writer Uwe von Seltmann, the grandson of a Nazi SS man, who was in town to promote a book he wrote with his Polish wife, whose grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz.

The incident was reported to the police, picked up by the local—and international—media, and spread like wildfire on Facebook.

But was it “really” anti-Semitism, or more a case of ugly words unleashed in an angry confrontation that got out of hand?

Disturbing as it was, it was clearly not a pre-meditated attack on Jews. Nor did it approach the scale of recent anti-Semitic incidents in other countries, where Jews have been deliberately targeted, physically attacked—or killed, as in Toulouse, France, last March.

When considering anti-Semitism, though, do such diversities matter?

“Even the simple expression of anti-Semitic views in public discourse can have a corrosive effect over time and may lead to very real security concerns,” Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish relations, told me.

Several particular factors made the Moment incident the talk of Jewish Krakow for days. For one thing, it occurred at a time and place that many found inconceivable.

Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, thrives on a lively and multifaceted interaction between Jews and non-Jews – everything from tourism, study programs, cultural events and religious observance.

The would-be cafe patrons at Moment had just attended the annual Jewish Culture Festival‘s exhilarating open-air “Shalom” concert, a seven-hour love-fest that saw 15,000 people of all ages, religions and ethnic backgrounds dancing and cheering to Jewish music in the Jewish quarter’s main square.

What’s more, Moment cafe had been known as a venue particularly open to Jews and other minorities, including gays.

“I go there a lot, and I have never detected even a whiff of anti-Semitic or prejudiced behavior, nor has anyone I’ve been there with,” Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the Krakow JCC, told me.

In many ways, I found the aftermath of the Moment incident much more troubling than the original episode. Articles about it posted on Polish websites unleashed hundreds of odious – and absolutely unambiguous—anti-Semitic comments, along the lines of “Bravo for the waiters. Give them a prize” and “I hate Jews; finally they are treated as they should be.”

At the same time, from the other direction, a Facebook group calling for a boycott of the “anti-Semitic Moment Cafe” amassed more than 320 members and also ran outspoken comments before it was taken offline after two days.

And Moment itself was spray-painted on its outside walls with graffiti calling it “Nazi” and “fascist.”

All of this made me consider the dynamics of anti-Semitism. What makes an incident – or turns an incident – into something anti-Semitic? How can local and national contexts influence the way episodes, events and intentions are viewed, experienced or even defined?

I’ve suffered plenty of rude behavior from waiters in my day – even last week in a touristy part of Krakow. But if someone in an argument would call me a “f—-king American” or “stupid woman,” would that mean he or she was anti-American or anti-woman per se? Or just a loud-mouthed idiot?

This is Poland, though, with its history of prewar anti-Semitism and Holocaust destruction, not to mention postwar pogroms and persecution of Jews under communism.

“It is Poland where we come from and where we were born, and any anti-Semitic, even only verbal, attack will break my heart more than what happens to French Jews,” Daniela Malec, one of the Jews who was part of the group involved in the Moment cafe incident, told me in an email a few days later.

“This is the case for the many Jews born in Poland,” she wrote. “We have our own trauma and it cannot be compared to traumas of different places. And we react to any manifestations of anti-Semitism via this trauma.”

Poland in fact has done much in recent years to ease relations with the Jewish world, cement links with Israel and promote Jewish communal and cultural revival. But many—possibly most—Jews worldwide don’t trust this.

Given history, there is even something of a “gotcha” aspect to any anti-Semitic manifestation here.

As it happened, with crowded venues, open doors, huge public Shabbat dinners and little overt security, the 10-day Jewish Culture Festival had gone on in Krakow without a hitch. And the Euro2012 Soccer cup, too, recently concluded without incident, despite prior fears of anti-Semitism in the stadiums.

But for many, the Moment incident—and much more so the hate-filled aftermath on the web—confirmed the distrust.

It made newspaper columnist Wojciech Pelowski rhetorically throw up his hands.

“I would rather defend a pulsating multicultural Kazimierz,” he wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza in a column calling for a crackdown on Internet hate. But, he added, “I cannot—and this is why.” And he simply listed some of the barrage of racist and anti-Semitic comments that had appeared online after the Moment incident.

Krakow waiters made anti-Semitic remarks, Jewish patrons allege


A group of Jews patronizing a restaurant in Krakow said they were verbally and physically attacked by waiters.

The anti-Semitic and racist comments allegedly were made over the weekend at the Moment restaurant during the Polish city’s Jewish Culture Festival. The group was from Poland, Israel and Germany.

Uwe von Seltmann said his group came to meet friends who were sitting at a table in front of the restaurant.

“Immediately after our arrival I heard the words ‘f***ing Jews’ and something like ‘we’ll not serve you’ spoken by a waiter,” von Seltmann said. “The four members of staff were in general very unfriendly, and their body language showed that they would not serve us.”

A member of the group went inside the restaurant to complain about the slurs, which led to a verbal confrontation, von Seltmann told JTA. Following the complaint, a waiter threw an object at a female member of the group.

The group then left the restaurant and, according to von Seltmann, someone told them to “Go back to Israel.”

Moment manager Sebastian Wojnar said he would punish the staff involved in the altercations.

“We are an open place that promotes dialogue between cultures and nations,” he said.

The incident was reported to the police.

Krakow JCC head says BBC misrepresented him in anti-Semitism report


The “furious” director of the JCC in Krakow says the BBC manipulated his comments in order to bolster a “sensationalist” report on anti-Semitism and racism in Poland and Ukraine.

The report, a half-hour documentary called “Euro2012: Stadiums of Hate,” was aired last week ahead of the European Soccer championships, which are taking place in Poland and Ukraine this month. It showed graphic footage of Polish soccer fans insulting a black player and chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and Ukrainian soccer hooligans beating up Asian fans.

In an angry statement sent to The Economist magazine Wednesday, American-born Jonathan Ornstein called the program “tendentious.” He said he was “furious at the way the BBC has exploited me as a source.” The BBC, he said, had used him and others “to manipulate the serious subject of anti-Semitism for its own sensationalist agenda; in doing so, the BBC has insulted all Polish people and done a disservice to the growing, thriving Jewish community of Poland.”

He added that the BBC had “knowingly cheated” its audience by “concocting a false horror story about Poland. In doing so, the BBC has spread fear, ignorance, prejudice and hatred.”

Ornstein said that he was interviewed for about an hour by a BBC correspondent and had emphasized that the “small number of football fans in Poland engaging in anti-Semitic and racist behavior do not represent Polish society as a whole.” The BBC, he said, had “completely disregarded anything positive I said and aired only comments critical of Poland.”

He said he had suggested that the BBC reporters interview two Israeli members of a Krakow soccer team, but “the reporters responded that this line of inquiry ‘didn’t fit their story,’ a response which perplexed me at the time.”

The BBC rejected Ornstein’s allegations.

A BBC spokesman said: ‘It was made clear to Mr. Ornstein that the interview was being carried out in the context of football-related racism and anti-Semitism in Poland and his contribution was clearly placed in this context in the film. The program stated in commentary that he believes that most Poles happily accept other faiths but that football hooligans are yet to catch up with wider Polish society.”

The spokesman said the programs producer and reporter denied “refusing the offer to interview two Israeli footballers playing in Poland because it did not fit the story, in fact they would have jumped at the chance of interviewing them.”

Seven Krakow synagogues to open—for one night


Seven historic synagogues in Krakow that are closed for most of the year will open for one night.

The synagogues will open June 2 as part of the the second annual 7@nite-Synagogues By Night, an evening of exhibitions, music concerts and fashion shows by young artists from Poland and around the world.

The free event is sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, JCC Krakow and the Krakow Jewish community.

Among its highlights, Geva Alon, an Israeli singer and songwriter, will play with his band in Tempel Synagogue in his first concert in Poland.

At the Kupa Synagogue, Piotr Kulisiewicz of the Warsaw Jewish community will exhibit his posters from important Jewish events. At the Remuh Synagogue, Slawomir Pastuszka will show his exhibition about Jewish architecture.

The Old Synagogue will host a fashion show titled “Jewish Dress Code,” while “In Motion,” a multimedia trip around the world, will be shown at the High Synagogue.

At the Izaak Synagogue, Majk Hercberg will show his handmade mezuzahs. At the Popper Synagogue, guests will decorate a model of the synagogue.

The Galicia Museum will feature a concert by Jacek Kabzinski, as well as Israeli folk dancing.

The JCC will be open for meals or to meet with local rabbis.

Opinion: Krakow’s Jewish community celebrates, mourns


For Krakow’s Jews, this past week has truly been “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

On Saturday evening, March 3, about 200 people gathered in the city’s ornate Tempel Synagogue for a Havdallah service that marked the bat mitzvah of 12-year-old Estera Derkowska.

It was a happy milestone for the tiny community — a ceremony believed to be the first ever bat mitzvah for a local Krakow girl.

“This is a special day not only for Estera and her family but also for the entire Jewish community of Krakow,” Jonathan Ornstein, the American-born director of the Krakow Jewish Community Centre, told me. “The bat mitzvah of a local girl demonstrates that our Jewish community is a living, vibrant community with a bright future.”

No one knew it at the time, but while Estera, her family and about 100 guests were celebrating at a reception after the service, a young Jewish activist from Krakow lost her life in the head-on train collision that killed 16 people in southern Poland.

Maja Brand had just turned 30 on Feb. 22. Her death became known only Monday.

“I had gotten to know Maja over the past few years,” Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich wrote in a Facebook post announcing the news. “Maja was full of energy and excitement. She was dedicated to what she was doing and had great integrity in whatever she did. May her memory be for a blessing.”

Maja, her friends said, was active “in all things Jewish” in Krakow.

She was involved with the JCC and the Association for Christian-Jewish Dialogue, and in 2004 she had co-founded Czulent, Krakow’s independent Jewish youth association, which has played a major role in outreach.

In the summers, she worked with the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, often translating for visiting musicians.

“She was my translator for a number of years, plus she helped me with a Polish song at one point,” veteran American klezmer artist Jeff Warschauer told me. She was a “brilliant, dear friend … truly a likhtike neshome.”

“Saturday night the Jewish community of Krakow celebrated the historic bat mitzvah of a bright young girl,” Jonathan Ornstein posted on his Facebook page, “and a few hours later one of our brightest young women was taken away from us far too soon.”

The simultaneous fact of Estera’s joyful coming of age and Maja’s tragic death highlighted how the Jewish world of Krakow has changed, and is changing.

Over the past 20 years, the city’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, has developed from a haunted slum to one of the liveliest neighborhoods in the city.

It’s a place where kitsch and comprehension both collide and coexist.

But it’s also a place where Jewish-themed tourism, retail, entertainment and educational infrastructure provide a unique matrix for the strengthening of the Jewish experience. Where new realities and authenticities create new ways that Jewishness is defined and new ways that Jewish lives are lived.

Maja was studying for her doctoral degree at the new Centre for Holocaust Studies at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, inaugurated in 2008. She was writing her dissertation on the ban of shechitah, or ritual slaughter, in Poland between the two world wars. Friends said she was supposed to have flown to Israel on Monday to continue research.

Estera had attended Sunday School classes at the JCC since it too opened in 2008, and had studied with the local orthodox rabbi, Boaz Pash, for a year to prepare for her bat mitzvah.

Pash, bearded and dressed in a long black capote, and guitar-strumming, red-haired, Reform rabbi Tanya Segal both took part in her bat mitzvah; it was just a few days before Purim, and Estera read from the megillah of her namesake, Esther.

Last summer, Jonathan Ornstein declared to me that it was “never better” to be a Jew in Krakow.

“When we say ‘never better,’ it’s not in terms of numbers, or the amount of things in Jewish life, or the synagogues that are functioning and all that,” he said, but “in terms of the way the Jewish community interacts with the non-Jewish community and the direction that things are going, I think that there’s never been a more optimistic time to be Jewish in Krakow than there is now.”

Last weekend, before he learned of Maja’s death, Ornstein e-mailed me pictures of Estera’s bat mitzvah to prove his point.

The digital snaps of slightly gawky pre-teens demonstrated something quite revealing and perhaps even more important in the context of Jewish revival than the actual fact of the “first bat mitzvah” itself.

What they showed was normalcy.

Estera’s dad found this worthy of note.

Estera’s Jewish identity, he told the congregation, was not very different from that of a girl growing up Jewish anywhere else in the world. Her school friends know she is Jewish, he said, and it is “not a big deal.”

The bat mitzvah, he said, symbolized the “normalcy of Jewish life today in Krakow.”

Until quite recently, “normalcy” was a concept utterly alien to the Jewish experience in post-Holocaust Poland.

Has it really never been better in Krakow for Jews?

I don’t know.  

But to feel “normal” surely marks an important step in that direction.

Young Jewish activist killed in Poland train crash


Maja Brand, a Jewish activist from Krakow, was among the 16 people killed when two trains collided in southern Poland.

Friends said Brand, who turned 30 on Feb. 22,  was active “in all things Jewish” in Krakow. The head-on collision occurred Saturday night.

Brand was working on her doctorate at the Center for the Study of the Holocaust at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, writing her dissertation on the ban of shechitah, or kosher slaughter, in Poland in the 1930s. She reportedly was to have flown to Israel on Monday to carry out further research.

She was involved with the Krakow Jewish Community Center and also with the Association for Christian-Jewish Dialogue. Brand also worked with the annual Krakow Jewish Culture Festival and served as a translator for visiting musicians. In addition, she volunteered at an orphanage in Tbilisi, Georgia.

“I had gotten to know Maja over the past few years,” Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, wrote Monday in a Facebook post announcing her death. “Maja was full of energy and excitement. She was dedicated to what she was doing and had great integrity in whatever she did. May her memory be for a blessing.”

Timeline: Jewish life in Poland from 1098



Recently released color footage of the Warsaw Ghetto.WARNING GRAPHIC IMAGES

1098: Information on Jews in Poland begins to appear in Polish chronicles

1241: A new era of colonization in Poland begins and Jewish immigrants are sought

1264: Polish Prince Boleslaus issues the Statute of Kalisz, the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland

Early 1300s: Fewer than 1,000 Jews in Poland

1407: Jews in Krakow are attacked by mobs

Late 1400s: More than 60 Jewish communities are known in Poland; population is thought to be 20,000 to 30,000

1515: Rabbi Shalom Shachna founds Poland’s first yeshiva in Lublin

1525-1572: Rabbi Moses Ben Israel Isserles lives in Krakow, where he founds a yeshiva and writes a commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law

1573: Confederation of Warsaw of 1573 guarantees religious tolerance in Poland

1500s and early 1600s: Some Jews expelled from Spain move to Poland; Jewish social, cultural and economic life flourishes; population estimated at 80,000 to 100,000

1648-49: Chmielnicki revolt and massacre brings 30 years of bloodshed and suffering to Jews in Poland; golden age in Poland ends

1700-1760: Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, founds modern Chasidism

1764: Jewish population about 750,000; worldwide Jewish population estimated at 1.2 million

1772: Partitions of Poland begin between Russia, Prussia and Austria

1791 -Russian government restricts Jews to the Settlement of Pale, which includes lands formerly in Poland

1800s: Tremendous growth of Jewish population (in 1781, 3,600 Jews in Warsaw or 4.5 percent of population; in 1897, 219,000 Jews in Warsaw or 33.9 percent of population)

1862: Jews are given equal rights

1897: 1.3 million Jews in Poland

Early 1900s: On eve of World War I, strained relations between Poles and Jews, with decline of influence of Jewish assimilationists and rise in Jewish nationalism

1918: Major pogrom in Lvov, part of general reign of terror against the Jews

Post-World War I: Poland becomes sovereign state

1921: Jewish population 2,989,000, making up 10.5 percent or more of Polish population

1930: Rabbi Meir Shapiro founds Hachmei Yeshiva in Lublin; it is destroyed by the Nazis and its synagogue reopens in 2007

Late 1930s: Rise of Hitler in Germany and new round of pogroms in Poland

1939: Jewish population more than 3.3 million, with almost 400,000 in Warsaw, or one-third of the city’s total population

Sept. 1, 1939: Invasion of Poland and outbreak of World War II

April-May 1943: Warsaw Ghetto uprising

June 1945: About 50,000 Jews survive in Poland, an additional 100,000 return from the camps and another 200,000 return from the Soviet Union

1944-1950: Mass emigration of Jews from Poland continues to deplete population, leaving about 57,000

1946: Post-war pogrom in Kilce, killing 37 and injuring more than 80

By 1950: Stalinization of Poland instigates anti-Semitism

1956: Wladyslaw Gromulka comes to power; new wave of anti-Semitism results in some 30,000 to 40,000 Jews leaving country

1968: After Six-Day War, a major outburst of anti-Semitism ensues, with more Jews allowed to immigrate to Israel

1970s and 1980s: About 6,000 Jews live in Poland

2007: Jewish population 5,000 according to official counts but estimated at 30,000 or more by Jewish leaders


Dancing to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut at the Izzak Synagogue in Krakow


Texas rabbi Neil Katz talks about his second tour of Poland

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 16. Steinlauf, Michael C., “Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust,” Syracuse University Press, 1997. Maciej Kozlowski, a historian and ambassador-at-large for Polish-Jewish relations for Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. http://www.diapozytyw.pl/en/site/slownik_terminow/demografia/.

Letters


One Proud Teacher

I’m a teacher at Shalhevet Middle School. I’ve been teaching the Holocaust to my eighth-grade students for the past three years.

Over a two-month period we tackled questions such as: “How was it possible for Hitler to gain such power?” “Where were the American Jews?” “Would Israel be in creation today had the Holocaust not happened?” and much more. My students also write a 10-page research paper on a topic relating to the Holocaust and become mini-experts on their topics.

I’m writing to you in order to thank you for publishing Adam Deutsch’s article “Fading Numbers” (Tribe, April 7) regarding Holocaust education. After reading the article, I realized that I could do even more. I went to my principals and proposed that next school year, instead of teaching eighth-grade history four times a week, I teach regular eighth-grade history three times a week, and a class on the Holocaust once a week. I told them about your recent article and that Holocaust education will become more prominent in the schools over the next few years. They were thrilled with the idea!

So, I just wanted to let you know of the difference that your article is already making. You should feel proud.

Ilana Zadok
Shalhevet Middle School

Miss Israel

I love Israel and its many beautiful places and people. I feel proud when The Journal has a cover story on Israel (“Beautiful Israel,” May 5). But if you want to be a community newspaper, then have some sensitivity and do not put an immodestly clothed woman on your cover so Orthodox Jews are uncomfortable bringing the paper into their homes. I somehow feel you could have saluted Miss Israel and Yom Ha’Atzmaut in a more tasteful way for all in the community to enjoy and be proud.

Pearl Taylor
Sherman Oaks

The Poland Scoop

Your article “The Shadows of Another Time” (April 21), states that Rachel Kadish went to Poland to reclaim real estate owned by her family. According to the report, her last look at Poland was in 2001. Then she published her original piece claiming that there are no Jews in Krakow, only non-Jews trading in Jewish merchandise. It appears she does not speak the language and does not seem to have made a real effort to make contact with the Jews of Krakow. Those Jews today number in the thousands.

If the Jews in Poland depend on the support of Catholic Poles, this is in some measure due to the fact that the international Jewish community has largely ignored the existence — and therefore the needs — of Jews living in Poland.

I would like to extend to Kadish an invitation to come to Poland again and feel the renewed spirit of Jews in Warsaw, in Lublin and in Krakow. I promise her that she will leave better informed and reassured that Judaism in Poland is alive and well. Then her report might appear in an anthology with a different title: “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Optimism.”

Severyn Ashkenazy
Beit Warszawa
Warsaw, Poland

Mixed on March

Theodore Bikel complains of the “tunnel vision” of American Jews. which prevents them from appreciating the “scores” of young Jews in Poland who are rediscovering Jewish culture (Letters, April 28). While one, of course, appreciates the small communities that have been established in Poland and elsewhere, it is sad beyond words to remark the difference between these communities and what was destroyed. The March has placed the emphasis where history has mandated that it be placed.

Stephanie London
Beverly Hills

More on Munich

Three words for [“Munich”] are powerful, powerful, powerful (“Weisz Gets Gold; ‘Munich’ Out in the Cold” March 10). [Steven] Spielberg should be given a medal for bringing this piece of history to the screen. Too many people today have no knowledge of that tragedy. It needed to be documented on film. Stop nit-picking.

Barbara Sommer
Los Angeles

To read more letters this week, visit www.jewishjournal.com.THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

 

Power of the Past


My son Zack, 17, is celebrating Shabbat dinner tonight at the Bohema Restaurant in Krakow, Poland.

In fact, not only is he celebrating Shabbat, but he and his group — 15 students from Milken Community High School in Los Angeles and 140 students from Tichon Chadash High School in Tel Aviv, plus teachers and parent chaperones (including my husband, Larry) — are practically doubling Krakow’s Jewish population, estimated at 200. It is a population that, at its height in the late 1930s, numbered more than 60,000.

"If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past," the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza once said.

In Poland, the past stretches possibly to the 11th century and, certainly, back to the 13th century, when a huge influx of Jews, fleeing persecution in Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, settled there, and, ironically, were afforded greater freedom. A past that boasts the Baal Shem Tov, Shalom Aleichem and Arthur Rubinstein. A past that now epitomizes evil in the form of the Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.

And so this group of American and Israeli teenagers from sister schools paired by the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership 2000, has come to study the past. In a program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, sister schools have exchanged students, ideas and ideologies for more than three years.

"This trip, while powerful and sobering, is also, perhaps surprisingly, uplifting," Yoav Ben-Horin, director of Special Projects at Milken, who is organizing and accompanying the American group, told me.

Indeed, the thought of busloads of exuberant American and Israeli teenagers touring Poland, giving Hitler’s Final Solution another kick in the teeth, is certainly cause for rejoicing. The Americans, with their strong connection to ritual and religious tradition, and the Israelis, with their primarily secular but visceral attachment to the land, represent the two strongholds of Judaism in today’s world.

Additionally, changes are slowly occurring within Poland. Five years ago, for example, the Polish government officially apologized for the Kielce Pogrom of 1946, in which 42 Jews, who had survived World War II, were killed and another 50 wounded.

And there are signs of a burgeoning Jewish community — synagogues and schools, clubs and kosher restaurants — for the estimated 8,000 or more Jews currently living in Poland. And while I have doubts about the wisdom and practicality of rebuilding Jewish life in Eastern Europe, I’m heartened that it’s possible.

Zack has been in Poland four days now. He has visited the Lodz ghetto and synagogue, the Warsaw ghetto and the Majdanek camp. He has walked in the footsteps of 3 million dead Polish Jewish souls.

I wonder if he’s feeling, as he susrmised he would before his trip, "intense sadness during the day and intense joy, being with his friends, at night."

This night, at the Bohema Restaurant, he and his friends will be reading letters from home, letters parents were asked to write, unbeknownst to our teenagers.

In our letter, Larry and I remind Zack that he, like every living Jew, is responsible for preserving and honoring the memory of those who perished. That he has an obligation not only, as "Deuteronomy" 30:19 tells us, to "choose life" but also to improve life, to perform tikkun olam, to repair the world.

We remind Zack to thank his great-grandparents, who left shtetls and families in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s to make difficult voyages to the United States, Canada and South America. Who struggled with new languages, new cultures and menial jobs. Who wanted a better life for themselves, their children and their descendants.

And we warn Zack that this trip to Poland will elicit big questions, existential questions about life and death, good and evil and the existence of God. And ethical questions about subjects such as racism and eugenics.

But these are not questions that pertain merely to the past. The United Nations World Conference Against Racism, scheduled to begin Aug. 31, is dealing with anti-Zionist pre-conference resolutions that accuse Israel of being "an apartheid, racist and fascist state." Clearly, and this is only one example, anti-Semitism is alive and dangerous.

And in the worldwide debates about cloning and stem-cell research, there are fears that parents might want to create genetically engineered designer children, eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ desire to breed a master race.

These American and Israeli teenagers, about to begin a rigorous last year of high school, about to make serious decisions about their futures, will have much to ponder. I hope that this journey to their past, this "sober and powerful and uplifting" visit, will continue to disturb, enlighten and motivate them for the rest of their lives.

I hope that this journey will make them realize that, in the words of Israel’s former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who left Poland in 1906: "Our past is not only behind us, it is in our very being."

From Krakow to Pico


When Pavel Vogler left Krakow for Southern California in 1992, he brought almost 100 of his favorite paintings. The darkly shaded oil works in blue, black and purple show Vogler’s vision of his hometown and its medieval Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, filled with empty synagogues. Moonlight, twilight and the glow of streetlamps illuminate Vogler’s Polish works, where ghosts of a Jewish history haunt cobblestone streets.

Vogler’s first solo exhibit in the United States, now on view at A Shenere Velt Gallery, displays a range of the artist’s styles and settings. In “Past and Present from Poland to Pico: Memories and Paintings,” Vogler displays four series of work, created in Poland and his new home in West Covina. The paintings include “Shadows,” the last painting Vogler completed in Krakow, and “The Sign” (left) a brightly colored, swirling print of a man holding a Torah, the first of Vogler’s California works and a striking contrast to the dark Polish images.

The breadth of the artist’s talent is evident in the series titled “Family and Friends,” six portraits ranging from the agitated study in motion of “My Father” to the serene “La Paloma.” Unlike much of his work, many of the portrait subjects are not Jewish. “I just love working with people,” Vogler says.

Though the 38-year-old Vogler has exhibited his paintings widely in Europe, he is best known in America for his film work. Vogler’s films include “Three Stories,” based on the life of his father, Henryk, a well-known Polish author who was among the few Jews to return to Krakow after years in WWII concentration camps. Vogler is currently developing another film, “Moloch,” based on one of his father’s novels.

The artist hopes that this exhibit will lead to an opportunity for large-scale projects. “I’d love to do a series on Los Angeles,” he says, “a whole exhibition on how Jewish cultures are crisscrossing and thriving here.”

Through Aug. 31. A Shenere Velt Gallery, 1525 Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 552-2007 or visit www.fluxfire.com/pv.n

‘Three Stories’: From Krakow to L.A.


The world was a different place for writer-director Pavel Vogler when he arrived here from Poland six years ago.

“It was very hard,” Vogler says. “There were no friends or family or supporting circle…. I started from zero…. A couple of years ago, I decided to start to make my own films.”

Since that decision, Vogler completed his first project, “Three Stories,” which has been nominated for the International Documentary Association Achievement Award. “Three Stories” will screen at the Beverly Hills Library next week.

Before moving to Los Angeles, Vogler lived in Krakow, where he directed and produced documentary films. His life as a Jew in Poland was rather sedate.

“I didn’t experience anti-Semitism,” Vogler says. “When I look back at my school years, I think I had a pretty happy childhood.”

Vogler’s initial reason for coming here had nothing to do with career aspirations. His daughter, Sara, had what doctors called Tara Syndrome — she was born with a radius absent from each forearm. Shriners Hospital in Los Angeles elected to treat her.

However, along the way, Sara set in motion the impetus for Vogler’s film.

“My daughter asked me one day why my father was still in Krakow,” Vogler says. A good question and a good premise for a film, considering her grandfather’s history.

Vogler’s father, Henryk, survived four years in and out of German and Polish concentration camps, where his bride, his parents and his sister perished. Following World War II, Henryk remained in Krakow. More than a few people, including Vogler himself, questioned this decision.

“When I asked him why,” says Vogler, “he answered, ‘Because Polish was my language before the war, and I am a writer, and this is the only way I can express myself as a writer.”

Vogler now lives in West Covina with his wife, Ivona, and their two daughters, Esther, 6, and the aforementioned Sara. After much correctional surgery, Sara, now 12, is attending Atid Hebrew Academy and looking forward to her bat mitzvah. Vogler’s next film will center around Sara’s saga and the important role Shriners Hospital played in her recovery.

As for his first film, Vogler believes that its narrative transcends personal family record, and viewers will derive inspiration from the miracles, large and small, presented in “Three Stories.”

“Somehow [my father] is still in Krakow,” says Vogler, “and somehow the culture is still there…. After all the pain [Sara] went through, she is here, growing up. Life goes on.”

“Three Stories” will screen on Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Beverly Hills Library, Community Room, 444 N. Rexford Dr., Beverly Hills. For more information and advance reservations, call (310) 471-3979.