Merkel says Germans can never forget death camp horrors


Germans will never forget the “unfathomable horrors” that the Nazis inflicted at the death camps, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich.

In a moving speech to 120 elderly survivors from 20 nations and six U.S. soldiers who helped liberate the camp, Merkel said Dachau and other death camps freed near the end of World War Two stand as eternal reminders of the Nazi regime's brutality.

“These former concentration camps have come into public focus in recent weeks with the passing of the 70th anniversaries of the liberation of one camp after another,” Merkel said in a sombre ceremony at Dachau, now a memorial with 800,000 annual visitors.

“There were unfathomable horrors everywhere,” said Merkel, who in 2013 became the first German leader to visit Dachau. “They all admonish us to never forget. No, we will never forget. We'll not forget for the sake of the victims, for our own sake, and for the sake of future generations.”

The Nazis set up Dachau in March 1933, weeks after Adolf Hitler took power, to detain political rivals. It became the prototype for a network of camps where 6 million Jews were murdered, as well as Roma, Russians, Poles and homosexuals.

More than 200,000 people were being held in the camp when U.S. troops liberated it on April 29, 1945. Television footage from Dachau, showing starved inmates and piles of bodies, was among the first images the world saw of the Holocaust.

“It was a terrible shock, but we will never forget your excitement as you hugged us and brought out a hand-sewn American flag you hid for the occasion,” said a former U.S. soldier, Alan Lukens. “The Nazis could not crush your spirit.”

Jean Samuel, a French resistance fighter, said he felt like a human again on the day the Americans arrived. “It was the best day of my life,” he said. “The nightmare was finally over.”

The main gate with its cynical slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) was rebuilt by a local blacksmith after the original was stolen last year. Merkel said it was alarming that the gate was never found. She also lamented that Jewish institutions need round-the clock police protection in Germany.

“These camps keep our memories alive, despite all the adversity out there,” Merkel said. “There are unfortunately incidents again and again such as the theft of theDachau gate last year that are disturbing.”

In a recent opinion poll, some 42 percent of Germans said they want to draw a line under an intense focus on the Nazi past in German media. 

At Bergen-Belsen memorial, warnings and worry on Holocaust remembrance


At the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, hundreds of survivors, along with their children and grandchildren, stood together last weekend under gray skies on a ground alive with memories doing their part for the future.

“I ask young people to please take the right decisions in your life,” said Anastasia Gulei, 89, a Ukrainian who was imprisoned at the camp in northern Germany.

“There are people living today who admire [Nazi propaganda chief Joseph] Goebbels, and these people can push the buttons for nuclear weapons,” she added. “And this is terrible.”

“It is not enough to commemorate,” said Ariel Yahalomi, 91, a Polish Jew who now lives in Israel. “We have to warn the younger generation.”

Sunday’s gathering commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, where an estimated 37,000 prisoners died between May 1943 and April 15, 1945. The event was part of a string of major commemorations at former Nazi camps this year. Among those in attendance were Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president; Stephan Weil, prime minister of Lower Saxony, the state where the site is located; Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress; and other dignitaries.

Seven decades after troops liberated Nazi camps across the collapsing Third Reich, such ceremonies have grown heavier with speeches from politicians and religious leaders, and lighter on the contribution from the eyewitnesses themselves.

With most survivors well into their 80s and 90s, some observers worry that Holocaust remembrance, even in Germany, is becoming empty and perfunctory. Some have suggested that German leaders are merely going though the motions, glad when they can go home. In some cases there have been suggestions that survivors are disrespected.

Recently, several young German volunteers complained that dignitaries attending a commemoration at the former Ravensbrueck camp were served meals on fine dishes, while visiting survivors ate from plastic plates. One volunteer told the German newspaper Die Zeit last week that there were no wheelchairs for the infirm, no kosher food available and not enough interpreters.

“We noticed a major difference between what was said in speeches and presented to the world, and the way in which survivors were encountered and treated,” the volunteer was quoted as saying, with another adding, “I was really ashamed.”

Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, told a group of survivors and their children at a weekend gathering prior to the official ceremony that he was worried about the future of remembrance.

“Whatever we are going to do,” Rosensaft said, “we have to do ourselves.”

At the Bergen-Belsen memorial, staff and volunteers appeared to go out of their way to make the hundreds of visitors comfortable, handing out umbrellas, plastic rain ponchos and even thermal blankets.

The commemorations have been given an added urgency by what some perceive as a potential threat against Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran.

The next war could “make World War II look small in comparison,” said Lauder, speaking in the shadow of the giant obelisk memorial erected by the British in 1952. “You cannot leave here and do nothing.”

In private conversations throughout the weekend, children of survivors shared their parents’ testimony second hand – something Aviva Tal, born in the nearby DP camp, called an honor and a duty. Carrying her parents’ memories “has never been a burden,” she told JTA. “It has always been a matter of pride, of identity.”

On Sunday, visitors walked along pathways between mounded mass graves in the former concentration camp, stopping to place tulips or Israeli flags on stone markers. Later they ate lunch in the former German barracks that had housed the postwar DP camp where Tal was born and ever since has been a British military base. The facility is about to be handed back to the German armed forces, so Sunday’s full military ceremony with bagpipes at the base cemetery was the last of its kind. Thunder rumbled in the distance as a final Mourner’s Kaddish was recited.

Yaffa Singer and Isaac Zinger — the first twins born in the DP camp — had come from Israel with several family members, including their grand-niece Lihi Tal, 16.

Tal, an aspiring filmmaker, said she would share video from her visit with schoolmates. Usually this history “seems like a movie, it’s not really felt,” she told JTA. “My job is to wake up my friends.”

He witnessed — and filmed — the horror of the Holocaust


In early April 1945, Arthur Mainzer, barely 22, was a United States Army Air Forces cameraman assigned to documenting the war in Europe; he’d been serving for three years, and, so far, World War II had not been a horrific experience for him. In fact, it had been exciting. He’d had adventures, suffered no injuries and fallen in love. Already, the Allies were sensing victory, the Nazi military was clearly in its death rattle, and Mainzer was looking for the war to be over so he could marry Germaine, the French woman he’d fallen for, and bring her back with him to the States.

Mainzer, who is Catholic, was born in Canada, and when he was very young, his family moved to Chicago, where he grew up in a neighborhood with people of various races and religions, including Jews. As a youth, he kept up with the war news, and in 1942, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces. 

He’d been a film hobbyist in high school, so the Army sent him to technical school in Denver, where he learned the ins and outs of film cameras. He was then assigned to a unit in Culver City, working on military training films with an actor named Ronald Reagan.

By November 1943, Mainzer was assigned to be a combat cameraman in Europe. There, in a film unit headed by Capt. Ellis Carter, he accompanied many bombing missions; archival footage of his unit’s work shows bombs, sometimes as tracer-like streaks of light, hitting — or missing — their target.

In June 1944, soon after D-Day, Mainzer’s unit filmed bombing runs in Normandy and beyond. In the spring of 1945, three weeks before victory was declared in Europe, Mainzer was called upon to handle a special mission: He and his superior officer, Carter, were told to drive deep into Germany to a town called Weimar, where, they were told, a nearby labor camp had just been liberated. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered the soldiers in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army — who had entered that camp the day before — not to touch anything until the area was thoroughly filmed, and that was the job assigned to Mainzer and Carter. 


“It took a long while for me to get over this. It’s something you never want to see. … You never want to see again.” — Holocaust cameraman Arthur Mainzer

So the two, traveling by jeep, made the six-hour trip across Germany. As they drove, they talked about technical matters: They discussed how to handle their recently acquired 16-millimeter color Kodachrome camera, and they talked about their lack of a tripod, which would force them to do hand-held shots using heavy rolls of 100-foot film, whose weight would make it difficult for them to brace themselves.

On April 15, 1945, the two cameramen arrived at Buchenwald. Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw — and smelled and felt — when they stepped into the camp. Just inside, they were greeted by a large sign that read: “JEDEM DAS SEINE,” a German expression that literally means, “To each his own,” but really means: “Everyone gets what he deserves.”

In the film “Shooting War,” Mainzer is quoted on camera: “As a soldier in the American army, I had no knowledge of these [concentration] camps. I had not heard anything about it. It was horrible. There were bodies stacked up like cordwood.”

 

Mainzer, now 92, lives in Agoura Hills, north of Los Angeles, and his heart-wrenching concentration camp footage captured that April day and afterward went on to be used as damning evidence during the Nuremberg Trials. It has been archived by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Veterans History Project and has appeared in at least two documentaries: the recently aired “Night Will Fall” and “Shooting War” from 2000, both of which include on-camera interviews with Mainzer. A 20-minute YouTube clip of camp horrors that he filmed has been viewed more than 25,000 times.

Today, Mainzer is gentle, good-humored and still — as the Irish say — a fine figure of a man. He was friendly and forthcoming during a visit by a Journal reporter, but he suffers from the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes it hard for him to give coherent answers to questions. Fortunately, he also gave interviews years ago, some of which are in the public record, and those accounts, along with the interview done this past week by the Journal, provide a personal dimension to the shattering images he captured on film.

“There was an awful stench,” he told the Journal of that first shocking visit to Buchenwald. “I shot almost all the footage because Carter just couldn’t do it — it was too much for him. He was sick; he couldn’t stand the sight of it, so he loaded the camera, and I shot. I didn’t feel so good either, especially in the close-ups.”

 Scenes captured by young combat cameraman Mainzer immediately following the Allies’ liberation of Buchenwald

Mainzer’s footage shows huge numbers of dead bodies, skin-and-bone, piled haphazardly on a flatbed truck or lying on the ground. For each shot, he focused the camera on a single scene, as steady as he could for a long time, as much as 25 to 30 seconds for a single image. As the camera focuses on, or pans slowly across, bodies of people who have starved to death, 30 seconds can seem an eternity.

Then, often, the camera zooms in for a close-up. Even now, some 70 years since it was made, to watch the film is still unbearable.

Just as Mainzer was shooting, Eisenhower ordered the Third Army liberators to go into nearby Weimar and gather all the adult residents. In an interview carried out by the USC-Shoah Foundation, Leo Hymes, an American soldier from Idaho who helped liberate the camp, describes how he and his fellow GIs brought the local Germans into Buchenwald to witness what was there. “We marched everyone in that town through the camp, and we made sure they dug the graves,” Hymes said.

Mainzer filmed that event, too, in color. “German civilians from Weimar were paraded through a tour of the camp to show them the atrocities, to show them what the Germans had done,” Mainzer said in his interview in “Shooting War.” “Many of these locals wouldn’t even look at the … bodies. Some were crying or had their mouth and nose covered with a handkerchief. … In the film, you can see that they did this [only] because they were required to; they weren’t too interested in looking at the atrocity.”

“In my mind’s eye there’s an image burned,” Hymes said in the Shoah Foundation footage, “of this big, strapping woman in an SS uniform, with her sensible shoes, carrying this broken, naked skeleton of a body over her shoulders, with her mouth covered with her handkerchief as she takes this body to be dumped into the mass grave on top of thousands of other bodies.”

Benjamin Ferencz is a Jewish, Hungarian-born American lawyer sent by Patton to investigate Buchenwald after its liberation. He, too, was there when Mainzer was filming the camp. In Ferencz’s interview for “When Night Falls,” he says: “It was like peering into hell.” As an eyewitness to the horror, Ferencz would later serve as one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg.

There are images that, once seen, can never be unseen. Near the beginning of Mainzer’s YouTube footage, a dark-bearded man lies on the ground on his back, his head turned to one side. His eye sockets appear empty. His arms are placed over his chest in such a way that the fingers of his thin and delicate hands are laced, palms on his chest. A close-up of his forearm reveals a large “slave labor” tattoo: 126747. 

The camera pans across piles and piles of twisted, emaciated bodies. The effects of disease, torture and starvation are obvious.

In an interview for the Veterans History Project, Mainzer described the scene: There “were areas where bodies were stacked up; they didn’t have time to burn them or bury them because the Allies were approaching. The Germans were getting ready to cremate some, but they didn’t have the time; they could hear the warfront approaching, so the SS guys [who ran] the camps just took off.”

The footage also shows human beings barely hanging on to life, some dressed in the now-familiar uniforms with wide vertical stripes. One man holds his hands clasped in front of him, as if in prayer, but the gesture is clearly meant as a thank-you to the liberators. There’s also a young man, legs much too weak and withered to hold him up, leaning against a doorway. And there’s a 4-year-old child amid the silent color footage, trying to smile — but the only expression he can manage is tears.

Opinion: All in


Two years ago, before our very eyes, a liberation movement of great courage and hope began to unfold halfway around the world. Blood ran like water in the streets of distant capitals, and still people fought, flesh against tanks, citizens against infantry, poets against police.

How could we not see the parallels to the Passover narrative, how could we not embrace their calls for liberation as our own?

Oh yeah, because they’re Arabs.

Because those uprisings have taken place in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, the collective Jewish response has been more teeth-gnashing than hand-clapping. Yes, we want people to be free — that, at face value, is our central communal narrative, the one we’re about to gather and read this weekend at our seder tables. But … but … but what about Israel? 

Our worries over how these sweeping changes will affect Israel dull our reflexes and dampen our humanitarian impulses. Sure, freedom is good, but what about the Muslim Brotherhood? We’re all for an end to torture, but what about the peace treaties? We applaud nonviolent resistance, but what if it sweeps into the West Bank?

Tunisia and Libya are one thing, but Egypt and Syria are something else. The closer the Arab Spring blooms to Israel, the greater our allergic reaction.

The great shame in all this is that American Jews, with their power, their voices and their skills can do much, much more to come to the aid of the Syrian rebels and help bring about the end of the Bashir Assad regime.

The most immediate thing we can do is tell our good friends Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to step up and act boldly. I don’t mean Iraq III.  I mean something closer to Kosovo II.

The parallel to Syria, as Fouad Ajami pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, is Bosnia. There another Clinton hesitated to use military action to thwart the murderous march of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair steeled the American spine, and Clinton ordered a NATO air campaign against Serbia. Congress supported it — as I’m sure it would a concerted, well-planned action against Assad — and the paper tiger crumbled and ran away.

“We could, with some moral clarity,” writes Ajami, “recognize the Syrian National Council as the country’s legitimate government, impose a no-fly zone in the many besieged areas, help train and equip the Free Syrian Army, prompt Turkey to give greater support to defectors from Syrian units, and rally the wealthy Arab states to finance the effort.”

With some moral clarity. That’s the operative phrase here. Passover is a time of moral clarity. The Children of Israel were freed with “an outstretched hand,” the story goes, but with no guarantees of what happens next.

The realists among us warn that Syria, smack in the middle of every ethnic and religious tension in the Middle East, is better left to stew in its own juices. Israel doesn’t need the headache of another unstable nation on its border, with the possibility of an extremist Muslim takeover. 

But Syria is already unstable, and some of its most radical elements, like Hamas, given shelter by the Assad regime, have wisely departed, before being run out. 

The truth is, if we don’t help now, we may forfeit the ability to influence the direction of the coming crack-up.

“If the international community doesn’t arm them [the Syrian rebels] and provide logistical support, ‘everything’ the world fears from the fall of Assad will come to pass,” a Syrian rebel leader told Foreign Policy magazine.

“The people will get weapons, one way or another, so help us,” the leader said. “If you give us weapons, we can control them. We want the fall of the regime, not the fall of the state. If the international community helps us, we’ll help them. If it doesn’t, our people offer no guarantees.”

It sounds like a threat, but it’s really desperation. Nothing in the history of the Assad regime, father or son, can lead one to believe Syria will honor commitments to the current U.N. ceasefire efforts, or to the longer-term interests of its people. We who come together each year to celebrate the gift of freedom, the miracle of liberation, should know that better than anyone. Pharoahs can’t be persuaded. Pharoahs can only be beaten.

“There are risks to be run, no doubt,” concludes Ajami, “But at present we have only the shame of averting our eyes from Syrian massacres. If we act now, President Obama, when he pens his memoirs, could still claim vindication, or at least that he gave Homs and Hama and Deraa his best.”

The Syrian people have decided to outstretch their own hand — the question is whether we will reach out to grab it.

 

To send an e-mail to Secretary of State Clinton, click here.

Unspeakable Acts, Incredible Pictures


A large, striped blue-and-white flag bearing the phrase, “Liberation!” greets visitors at the Museum of Tolerance exhibit, “Liberation! Revealing the Unspeakable,” about the Allied soldiers and the starved, dying and dead Jews they discovered while liberating concentration camps.

In a hallway there is a row of photographs of soldiers who became the saviors of survivors. Then, down a set of stairs to the main exhibit area, one gallery wall features a 1945 poem written by an unnamed survivor upon learning of Hitler’s death:

I have outlived the fiend
My lifelong wish fulfilled
What more need I achieve
My heart is full of joy

Such a bitter jubilation captures much of the exhibit’s poignancy; the photos show the relief of being rescued by American and British soldiers, and the agony of the just-ended genocide. There are photos of Japanese American soldiers helping camp survivors through the German snow, and of African American troops proudly standing near the artillery used to gain ground to, unknowingly, liberate camps. There is also a photo of four smiling U.S. rabbis at the bimah of a bombed-out German synagogue.

The exhibit includes a review from the late Susan Sontag’s 1977 book, “On Photography,” in which she wrote that “some limit had been reached, something went dead” in the Bergen-Belsen camp photos.

“The text is kept to a minimum; the photos speak for themselves,” said museum director Liebe Geft.

She said the museum’s many high school visitors learn more from photos than long text.

Most of the black-and-white photos are from military archives but some are soldiers’ snapshots: one group of shots has a photo of the Alps near Ebensee, Austria, followed next by shots of the Ebensee concentration camp.

The Museum of Tolerance is home to more than 50,000 artifacts, though less then 10 percent ever are on public display. The “Liberation!” exhibit opened May 8, V-E Day, and closes in late September.

“There are very few liberators and survivors that are amongst us,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Museum of Tolerance and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “When we celebrate the next anniversary, let’s say the 70th anniversary 10 years from now, there were will be very, very few.”

Hier said the “Liberation” exhibit speaks to the ongoing war on terror because, like totalitarian fascists of decades before, today’s terrorists “prefer death over life. How do you reason with such evil men? You waste your time trying to talk to Al Qaeda out of its evil. There are tough choices that generations have to make. The choice is either to confront them or to give up civilization as we know it, and yet in a world of terrorism today there are some who have a sort of na?ve notion that you can sort of talk down the bad guys.”

Los Angeles has hosted other recent Holocaust and Shoah-related exhibits. In the third- floor hallway of the UCLA Hillel, there is a long row of photos of Danish Jews and their rescuers. The black-and-white shots show weathered faces of elderly Danish clergy, journalists, clergy resistance members and, above all, fishermen who during two weeks in September 1943 ferried virtually all of Denmark’s 8,000-member Jewish community to neutral Sweden. The exhibit, “Humanity in Action; Resistance and Rescue in Denmark,” are portraits taken mostly in the 1990s by photographer Judy Ellis Glickman.

At the University of Judaism’s Platt/Borstein Gallery, the white walls have been hosting the stark photo series, “Polish Jewry Before WWII: Warsaw, Cracow and New York.” The five-week exhibit closes July 17; the photos by Roman Vishniac, Jacob Riis and Arnold Eagle are unforgiving in their scenes of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe’s Jewish poverty, such as peasants in the Ukraine or a tiny basement Polish apartment. But amid this shetl misery there are also smiles; a grinning yeshiva teacher in 1938 Russia and men chatting outside a synagogue court in 1938 Lithuania. In the gallery’s comment book, a Valley Village woman wrote, “Beautiful + sad.”

At the Museum of Tolerance, a security guard recounted how he recently escorted an elderly Jewish couple through the “Liberation!” photos. So distraught did the couple become that the guard quietly helped them leave the exhibit, and in doing this he found himself choked up, too.

“Liberation!” runs through Sept. 30 at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. $7-$10. For more information, call (310) 553-8403 or visit

MY IRAQ


All talk of Jewish neocons aside, there’s nothing innately Jewish about the invasion of Iraq. Among Jews, opinions vary regarding the war, to say the least. But like all U.S. citizens, American Jews have much invested in the enterprise’s ultimate success. And those Jews involved “in country” face particular danger if captured by insurgents, because of anti-Semitism and hostility towards Israel.In this package of articles, readers will meet six Jews who’ve been inside post-invasion Iraq. The central story is that of a Marine from Southern California who supports the war effort, but found his faith challenged. There also are anti-war perspectives from a former soldier and a college professor. Other narratives come from a military chaplain, a civilian attorney and a military attorney.If there is a consistent theme, it may be that no one can enter a war zone without being changed or without confronting the sacrifice, trauma and tragedy of armed conflict. And perhaps that anyone expecting easy or consistent answers won’t find them in Iraq.These are American stories with a Jewish twist — indeed, all the persons profiled see their understanding of Judaism expressed in their experience of and reaction to the war.It’s not a complete picture, but a mosaic, whose pieces are still falling into place.

War and Faith: Iraq Tests Jewish Marine

by David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Sgt. Kayitz Finley with local Iraqi citizens.

When a Marine finds himself in a ditch or an abandoned house, suddenly under fire, having to decide where to shoot and who to kill, it may not much matter if the Marine is Jewish. It was before and after the firefights in Iraq that Marine Corps Sgt. Kayitz Finley remembered and confronted his belief.

The war in Iraq cost Finley his faith for awhile. It also took away 11 buddies — including a close friend — men on whom he’d depended to get home in one piece. Still, for Finley, the conflict was never the wrong war, the wrong place or the wrong time. For him, the Iraq War was as advertised — a war of liberation, a war keeping faith with the American principle of bringing freedom to those lacking it.

“Every Marine out there was for the cause,” said Finley, who served two combat tours in Iraq. “I believe in the cause, and I wanted to continue what I was doing.”

About 1.5 percent of the U.S. Marine Corps is Jewish, roughly corresponding to a 2 percent Jewish presence in the entire U.S. military. Finley signed on after graduating in 2000 from Grant High School in Van Nuys. He just wasn’t ready for more classes. His ex-Marine father, Rabbi Mordechai Finley of the independent Westside congregation, Ohr Ha Torah, encouraged his son’s military interest.

Kayitz Finley’s enlistment test scores qualified him for a post in intelligence or logistics, but he preferred infantry, side by side with the grunts, including hillbillies from Appalachia and gangbangers — people who had never met one Jew before arriving for basic training at Camp Pendleton in north San Diego County.

“I was the only Jew there,” said Finley, who spoke with The Journal at his mother’s home in Conejo Valley. “People from other parts of the country — Indiana, Alabama — never even had met a Jew before. They said, ‘Really, you’re Jewish?’ and started poking me.”

Yes, poking — as in taking an index finger and poking at Finley’s chest. “Sometimes it was serious. It was a trip, all those white guys,” he said. “For the first year, I sensed a lot of animosity from other Marines — maybe about half of them. They’d always make jokes.”

There were occasional scuffles, too, part of the corps’ off-duty roughhouse culture. On occasion, Finley would hear rednecks say things about Jews that they’d never get away with saying about other minorities.

In late 2001, Finley saddled up for the invasion of Afghanistan. His unit never deployed and instead, he spent seven and a half months waiting offshore on an aircraft carrier.

Without seeing action, Finley returned to Camp Pendleton, from where he regularly zoomed up to Los Angeles to visit his folks. A few months later, he got his orders to Iraq.

Finley was in an invasion column, walking on the land of his traditional ancestor, Abraham, on that March day two years ago, when President Bush told the American people: “At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”

He remembers the first time he fired his weapon for real, near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, in a blur of a firefight.

“It was early, early in the morning, around 5 a.m.,” Finley said. “We had stopped the convoy to get a quick stretch, a smoke break and to glance down at our maps just to make sure everything was set before crossing into the city.”

“I remember standing and talking with a buddy of mine, and from the north, we heard a very faint ‘crack’ sound,” he continued. “We saw a little black dot getting larger and larger toward us, and within seconds, we noticed it was a projectile. It was an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] — and it was flying so closely above our heads that we could actually see the engravings on it. It soared right over us and landed about 200 meters behind us in some field.”

“Everybody just stopped what they were doing for a second … and wondered, ‘Did we just get fired at?'” Finley said. “And just like this, like the flick of a switch, we went into combat mode — jumped into our vehicles, got off the main road, sent platoons forward from all sides.”

“It was a rush,” he said. “When you go in, of course, you’re scared at first. You got bullets flying by your head, and you don’t know what to do for a second. But you just re-group, and you breathe in, take a deep breath. You just wipe the sweat off your brow, and you just go for it. You’ll be all right. Use all the training that you’ve learned. Keep calm.”

The firefight was over in 15 minutes, Finley said. But it took more than an hour to check for wounded civilians or still-living insurgents. With practice, they got faster at replenishing ammunition, refilling gas tanks and sending out Marines to check combat zones for living Iraqis — enemy or friendly.

Finley does not talk about the first time — in a different battle — that he was certain he’d killed someone, someone who might otherwise have killed him.

On April 2, 2003, Finley became part of the Marines’ historic Tigris River crossing into Baghdad, cutting off the escape route of an Iraqi Republican Guard division.

Passover found him in Baghdad, but the young soldier knew of only two other Jews in his battalion landing team in the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit of the Marine Expeditionary Force, 1st Division.

Navy Cmdr. Irving Elson (See page 13), the only rabbi assigned to the entire Marine Corps, found Finley’s unit camped at an old headquarters building for Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party.

“It was the first day of Pesach, so we had a Passover seder, him and I and two other Marines in the lobby of the theater of the compound,” Elson said. “We didn’t have much, but I had matzahs. And we had horseradish, and we had grape juice. And the four of us had a wonderful time.”

After staying in Baghdad until late April 2003 — where Finley’s battalion occupied a building that was home to Iraq’s Sumer cigarette company, “equivalent to our Marlboro,” he said, the unit went to Al Hillah. In the sleepy city, 60 miles to the south, Finley’s unit found restaurants and homes that welcomed the Marines as liberators and called them honored guests. Finley made friends with an Iraqi policeman, Mohammed, and he told Mohammed that he was Jewish. Photos of Finley with Iraqis show Finley’s unloaded rifle resting nearby.

Finley and the other young Marines oversaw the creation of Al Hillah’s new fire department, plus the opening of Hussein-free public schools. He helped teach Iraqis the basics of police work: arrests, takedowns and how to handle prisoners humanely. Because Hebrew is linguistically close to Arabic, Finley quickly picked up Arabic phrases to help his squad communicate.

Finley was in Iraq from January to September 2003. He volunteered for a second stint that lasted from May to December of 2004. He went back, he said, because “all my buddies were still over there.”

All told, he endured a t least nine weeks of combat

It was on that second Iraq tour that his unit took the most casualties — Finley knew 11 Marines who lost their lives. August 2004 saw the peak fighting in Najaf between U.S. forces and insurgents.

“The whole month was a complete firefight,” Finley said. “The whole place was chaotic.”

The routine was two days on the frontline, then four or five days to recuperate, but “sometimes I was out for four days and came back for one, or just 12 hours.”

During house-to-house fighting, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded about five feet away from him.

“The whole area just shook for 15 minutes.” he recalled, “It was just nuts. You couldn’t see anything. You couldn’t do anything. Everything was dust, rocks — everywhere.”

His ear felt the explosive charge. His mouth tasted it. However, he escaped unharmed.

By now, there were no anti-Semites among his fellow Marines; Finley’s comrades included all races, religions and backgrounds. He formed an especially strong bond with Sgt. Moses Rocha, a Latino from East Los Angeles, who bunked beside Finley. They were both Lakers fans, and Rocha had a Jewish fiance back home.

Rocha, at 33, was the oldest of the young guys, and he looked after them. Rocha got his men good food, decent bedding and made sure that officers doled out guard duty fairly; sometimes Rocha would pull a shift to give his men more downtime.

On the Aug, 5, 2004, the unit was transporting supplies when snipers struck. The Marines returned fire. Rocha, the unit’s senior sergeant, headed up to the Humvee’s mounted machine gun. He paused to reload, instantly making himself vulnerable.

“He got shot, took a round to the chest from a sniper,” Finley said. “It’s like — it happens, just like that. He was a leader amongst leaders. He always stuck up for the guys. He always defended the guys no matter what.”

The Marines made a small patch of Najaf into a chapel — one without walls, bimah or seats, but not without Kaddish (a prayer for the dead).

“A few of us close buds were together, and we’re all kind of saying a few words, prayers,” Finley recalled. “And I said, ‘Listen guys, you know I’m Jewish and everything. I’m gonna say a quick prayer.’ And I said it real quick, and they listened, bowed their heads. And that was that.”

In the middle of all this bloody combat, Finley lost his longtime link to God: “I felt a little disconnected. It was tough. It hurt me. It was very tough for me.”

He turned to his father, Rabbi Finley. Through e-mail exchanges, Finley said his father advised: “Stay calm, be cool, have faith. It’ll come back to you. Don’t worry about it. It happens to a lot of people.”

A clogged 101 Freeway is Finley’s biggest danger these days. He’s doing a little construction work this spring, while preparing for a summer-long trip to Israel — his first. Next fall, he plans to attend a local community college, then transfer to a UC campus. He wants to become a physical therapist — or return to the Marines as a pilot.

The war medals are stashed in his bedroom along with his uniform. He’s got two Marine Corps bumper stickers on his black Toyota Corolla, and he’s still got his Marine physique.

He looks back on his service in Iraq as tikkun olam, his personal attempt to heal and free a country from a tyrant and his rape squads: “Forget about the weapons of mass destruction — we got rid of Saddam Hussein.”

Finley knows there’s another way to look at this war, but those questions are not for a Marine — not now at least, not at 23 with life, Israel, a girlfriend and college waiting for him.

“If I started to question,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of thoughts I’d come up with.”

A few months at home have begun to restore his faith. “Just now, being out of the Marine Corps,” Finley said, “it’s finally coming back to me, which I’m very thankful for, because for awhile there it was missing.”

Soldier for Peace Haunted by War

by Stanley David, Contributing Writer

Alex Ryabov of Iraq Veterans Against The War. Photo by Jeff Patterson, Not In Our Name

Before deploying for the U.S. invasion of Iraq with his Marine artillery unit in 2003, Alex Ryabov was relatively untouched by religious observance. He’d been given a Star of David in his bar mitzvah year, but rarely wore it. And he had little use for prayer.

Iraq changed all that.

Today Ryabov, 22, holds closely to the small Jewish star that, he believes, kept him out of harm’s way. He prays before most meals and tries to observe Jewish dietary laws.

He also travels throughout the United States speaking against American policies on behalf of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group he co-founded.

“The war is a complete waste for both sides,” asserted the man who went there and came home changed. “There is absolutely no reason for Iraqis and Americans to be dying.”

Ryabov didn’t always feel so strongly. Back in Brooklyn, where he went to high school, in fact, he didn’t think much about anything at all; the main attraction of the military, he says, was that of a well-paying job.

“I saw most adults working at jobs they hated because they had to,” he recalled. “Here were all these benefits and a uniform. I figured: Cool — you get to blow things up and get paid for it.”

Two weeks after graduation he was in boot camp. And three years after that, he was in Iraq.

Ryabov’s unit — for which he served as ammunition chief — miraculously never got into major firefights. And, he added, it came home without casualties.

But along the way he saw things that disturbed him, such as obliterated vehicles with charred bodies inside.

“That made me feel very uneasy,” Ryabov said, given that any one of those bodies could be his. And once he came within six inches of being decapitated by the barrel of a big gun that came crashing through his truck’s windshield.

Wearing the once-forgotten Star of David close to his heart “definitely made me feel safer and more protected,” he said.

He believes that what may have saved him from that gun barrel was a silent prayer he’d sent up to God an hour earlier.

Mostly, he kept his head low.

“Our job was to kill Iraqis or they would kill us,” Ryabov said. “You don’t have time to stop and deal with things as they occur, so you end up blocking the stuff out and you just keep on going.”

Few things, however, can be blocked out forever.

When Ryabov returned stateside, he seemed OK for a while — then the nightmares began. He couldn’t sleep. He experienced anxiety, stress and flashes of uncontrolled anger. He felt depressed. The diagnosis: post traumatic stress disorder, for which he remains in therapy and on medication.

“I can pretty much function,” said the former soldier, who attends Brooklyn College with an undeclared major. “Some days are worse than others — it’s not predictable.”

His return to the religion of his parents has helped. “I definitely feel that God protected me,” Ryabov said.

What’s helped even more, though, is his activism.

Last year, Ryabov was among war veterans who staged protests at the Republican National Convention. In January, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inaugural procession, during which “a lot of us turned our backs on Bush and Cheney as they passed by.” And whenever he can, the anti-warrior said, he speaks to high school students, does local television shows and gives interviews.

Is any of this informed by his newfound Judaism? Ryabov said simply: “I’ve just realized how precious and important life is.”

Professor Sees Iraq War as ‘Disaster’

by David Finnigan, Contributing Writerr

Iraqi citizens Marching to anti-US and anti-Jewish chants, Baghdad, March 19, 2004.

The words, “utter disaster,” leave the lips of professor Mark Levine with all deliberate speed when discussing his absolute opposition to the war in Iraq, which he visited last year.

But during that visit, when a virulent anti-U.S./anti-Israel protest played out in front of him, his thoughts contracted to a foxhole mentality.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, how do I get out of here alive?'” said Levine, 38. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m here in the land where Abraham walked.’ I didn’t tell anybody I was Jewish. I’m not Jewish if anyone asks. I’m Buddhist if almost anyone asks.”

The friendly, long-haired, bespectacled Levine is associate professor of Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies at UC Irvine. The father of a preschool son and infant daughter, he also played guitar on Mick Jagger’s 1993 solo album, “Wandering Spirit.”

He toured Iraq in March 2004 with academics and journalists brought together by the anti-war Occupation Watch Information Center. Levine’s an advisory board member.

“I went to Iraq because I grew up reading the Prophets,” said Levine, who researched a book while there and met with religious leaders, officials from nongovernmental agencies and local Iraqis.

A concern for social justice runs in the family. His Conservative father worked to desegregate schools in Patterson, N.J.

At the tense street protest, U.S. soldiers were on hand to keep order.

“They were not happy to be there,” Levine recalled. “They were not happy I was there. They figured if I’m there, I’m there against them. And if I’m there, they have to worry about me.”

Levine compared the Iraqi lawlessness to what he saw five months earlier in the West Bank town of Nablus.

“I was struck by how some major Palestinian towns have been descending into this kind of level of chaos,” Levine said. “Young people running around with guns … ordering people around. And then in Iraq, it was like Nablus on steroids.”

“People are doing these car bombings, because they think they’re achieving some kind of strategic goal with it,” he said.

He thinks the best course for the United States in Iraq is to “first of all, apologize for invading; second, agree to pay reparations for the damage done by the invasion and occupation; third, help organize a U.N.-administered international peace-building force to replace U.S. forces; and fourth, leave.”

Levine, who’s unaffiliated but raising his children as Jews, does not keep company with the far-left, pro-North Korea/anti-Israel group, International ANSWER, which he said does more harm than good to the anti-war movement. The ANSWER group makes it easy for the Bush administration to ridicule the antiwar movement, Levine implied.

“How can someone sitting in America or the U.K. call for divestment from Israel, when the occupation of Iraq has killed far more Iraqis and done far more damage to that society in two years than Israel has done to Palestinian society in more than a century? Or China: How horrific the occupation and the genocide of Tibet has been. Sudan? Hello!

The radical anti-Israel, anti-war groups “can’t look holistically, so they blame everything on Israel and the U.S. And you’re just handing the U.S. or mainstream society a gift, because they don’t have to take you seriously.”

Luxury, Fear Mix in Posting to Baghdad

by Paula Amann, Washington Jewish Week

District lawyer Linda Lourie, left, in a military vehicle in Iraq, with an unidentified member of the U.S. Armed Forces. Photo courtesy of Linda Lourie/Washington Jewish Week

Linda Lourie had a palace of an office, yet slept in a trailer at night. She had access to a gym, a swimming pool and a half-dozen restaurants, but could not travel safely outside her neighborhood.

The daily soundtrack of mortars reminded her that she lived in the middle of war.

Lourie, a Washington, D.C., attorney in her late 30s, spent several months last year living in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where U.S. officials and their allies make their headquarters.

On detail to the Pentagon from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Lourie was part of a team that revised Iraq’s legal code.

“A modern Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors is good for the world and certainly good for Israel — and I like adventure,” Lourie said.

Fronting the Tigris River in the heart of Baghdad, the four-mile-square compound where she lived comprises the Republican Palace, a convention center, ad hoc trailer parks and even a residential Iraqi neighborhood, all secured by 15-foot concrete walls, barbed wire and checkpoints at entrances.

Lourie, an intellectual property specialist, resided in a trailer. Her workplace, an office of some 15 people, was inside a Saddam Hussein palace, a gaudy hodgepodge of Italian marble in red, gray and black.

“He had more money than taste,” said Lourie, citing chandeliers with plastic crystals and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. “Everything has the appearance of luxury, but in fact, it’s all a fake.”

Lourie took part in a Friday-night minyan of 12 to 20 people in the former palace of a dictator known for his persecution of Jews, among other ethnic and religious groups. When Lourie attended Friday night services, she said, she would peer nervously over her shoulder to make sure nobody was watching.

Her pride in her heritage notwithstanding, Lourie went to great lengths to hide her Judaism from most people. She said she feared becoming a kidnapping target or worse. That’s why she never told her Iraqi translator she was Jewish, although, she said, “I trusted him with my life.”

Keeping kosher in Baghdad was another challenge, Lourie said.

“Nobody has ever seen vegetarians before,” she said, noting that her diet consisted of salad, tuna and military-issue MREs (meal ready to eat).

During her stay, Lourie had the satisfaction of removing legal language requiring compliance with the Arab economic boycott of Israel.

“In order to apply for a patent, you had to sign an affidavit that you were respecting the boycott against Israel” under the old regime, she said.

Lourie said she has profound respect for the Iraqi lawyers who have served as translators.

“They are risking not only their lives, but the lives of their families in coming to work for us, and we couldn’t do it without them,” Lourie said.

Asked about polls suggesting that most Iraqis want the United States to leave their country, she attributes the hostility to “a nationalistic interest in having complete control of their country.”

She knows Americans who organized sports activities and obtained textbooks for universities, but she fears the average Iraqi knows little of these efforts.

“There are thousands of stories about people doing really good things for Iraqis, but they don’t get into the newspapers,” Lourie lamented.

Despite her New York University master’s degree in medieval Islamic art, she didn’t see much art, with travel so dangerous.

Meanwhile, places of Jewish interest, like Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, and Nineveh, noted in the biblical book of Jonah, also were off limits, as U.S. forces coped with the continuing insurgency.

The “biggest frustration” is that she wasn’t able to see “the biblical and archeological sites in the country,” Lourie said.

Reprinted from Washington Jewish Week. Additional reporting by Journal senior writer Marc Ballon.

Rabbi Feels Most Useful in Combat

by David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Navy Comdr. Irving Elson holding services for troops in Iraq.

Navy Cmdr. Irving Elson is the only Mexican American rabbi in the U.S. armed forces. That background came in handy when he hunched his shoulders, bent his head and walked low across a runway to meet an arriving medevac aircraft bringing home a wounded Marine from Iraq.

It was in early March at San Diego’s Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, not long after the rabbi’s own service in Iraq. The wounded soldier was Venezuelan American and Jewish. His parents spoke little English, but he really wanted them to know he was OK.

Shouting over the loud whine of the jet engines, the Mexico City-born-and-reared chaplain said: “Son, this is your lucky day.”

Elson spent eight months in Iraq with the Marines during and after the U.S.-led invasion. He was a ship’s chaplain in the first Gulf War and also ministered to Marines in Bosnia.

In Iraq, “for the first couple of months that I was out there, I was the only rabbi in country,” said Elson, whose service included a three-week stretch during which he was under fire almost constantly.

“You’re always hungry,” said Elson, 44. “You’re always tired.”

“You’re scared,” he added, “but in a strange sort of way it’s wonderful, because you’re really doing what you’re trained to do as a chaplain, and you’re there when people are asking the hard questions of life. You’re there when people are ready to interact with their faith. It’s the time that I felt the most useful.”

Elson said one of the big existential questions that Marines asked him was, “Why did my buddy die?”

His part in the actual fighting was to, “get my head down and stay the hell out of the way.” Beside Elson during the firefights was an armed naval chaplain’s aide charged with protecting him, a young man from Northern California described by Elson as, “a very, very devout evangelical Christian and a strong supporter of Israel.”

His service at home at Miramar was perhaps more difficult than his ministry under fire. Elson was tasked with visiting several families, including one in Orange County, with a Marine Corps casualty assistance officer — telling parents that their son or daughter had been killed in combat.

“Combat is a little more predictable,” he said. “As far as how civilians react, you never know how people are going to react.”

In June, Elson finishes his Marine Corps tour and becomes deputy command chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He’ll be on hand for the September opening of the privately funded, $12 million Uriah P. Levy Center, the Naval Academy’s first dedicated Jewish chapel for midshipmen.

“We were the last service academy not to have a dedicated Jewish chapel,” Elson said.

The Navy chaplain extols the Marines he knew for being “willing to put himself or herself in harm’s way for some esoteric concept like freedom.”

“If you give people a little taste of freedom,” he added, “that taste stays with them. It’s really a matter of justice: feeding the hungry and liberating the oppressed. What can be more Jewish than that?”

“My only regret is that people are continuing to die. Little by little, I’m waiting for the Iraqi people to start stepping up to the plate.”

Palace Event Brings War Zone Revelation

by Stanley David, Contributing Writer

Elan Carr lighting a Chanukiah in Saddam Hussain’s palace in Baghdad.

lan S. Carr experienced a revelation while observing Chanukah in 2003.

The place was Baghdad, where 1st Lt. Carr, 37, an Army reservist, was assigned to anticipate and frustrate terrorist attacks, as well as to prosecute those who carried them out.

In a former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein, Carr was leading a holiday candle-lighting ceremony, what he describes as the “the first Jewish event ever to take place in that place.”

The revelation: That, as an American Jew, he was exactly where he needed to be.

“This was the very building in which unspeakable terror was perpetrated on the people of Iraq,” the officer recently explained. “We felt that to express ourselves Jewishly in a place like that — a place that had been so unspeakably evil — was profoundly moving, and none of us will ever forget it.”

There’s a lot about Iraq that Carr won’t forget.

Born to an Iraqi Jewish family that had immigrated to the United States in the pre-Saddam era, the Hebrew-speaking Carr is fluent in the Iraqi dialect of Arabic that is the language of that country’s court and street. A commercial litigator by profession, he was sent to Iraq initially as part of an anti-terrorism assessment team assigned to travel throughout the country to prevent terrorist attacks. Later, as a military judge advocate, his job was to prosecute insurgents and other “unlawful combatants” in their own language before the Iraqi court.

“I was awed even to be there,” Carr said of his time in the ancestral homeland that once had a thriving Jewish community. “I very deeply believe in what we are doing in Iraq.”

“I believe we are changing the Middle East by helping Iraqis create a free, democratic, pluralistic, tolerant, Arab polity in the heart of the Middle East,” he continued. “And that will change the world, I have no doubt.”

What he will remember most, though, are the people — children on the corner and policeman on the beat — Iraqis, he said, ranging from powerful administrators to the humblest street cleaners.

“These are people who’ve been broken by oppression and subjected to decades of the most virulent anti-Western and anti-Semitic propaganda we can imagine,” he said. “It’s going to take some time before they shed the baggage of the Saddam and pre-Saddam eras.”

Most didn’t know Carr’s faith — a secret that for security reasons he kept from all but his closest friends and co-workers. When, by chance, the subject of Israel came up, Carr said, many ordinary Iraqis expressed the surprising view that “this hatred of Israel has got to go.” And when, as sometimes happened, they discovered he was Jewish, some took pains to reassure him that, though they’d never met one before, they’d been told that “Jews are the nicest people.”

Never having met a Jew is hardly unusual in a city with a Jewish population of 27. That number has dwindled through emigration to about 13.

Carr came to view his service in Iraq as an elemental expression of his Judaism, saying, “I believe in what we’re doing there in large part, because of Jewish teachings about the human soul and human nature. Those views — which form the Jewish world view — lead me to believe that all people are capable of wondrous goodness.”

And so his mind drifted back to that Chanukah — a celebration of freedom and light — in Saddam’s former palace, which once epitomized darkness and oppression. By the time he left Iraq, Carr said, he and other Jews in uniform were celebrating Shabbat and Pesach there as well — a practice, he’s told, that continues.

“It’s all about the battle between good and evil, the nature of the human soul and the proper role of a citizen in a society that works,” he said from his Los Angeles home. “So much of the story of the Exodus involves creating a society. It’s not just about liberation, but about nation building.”

While it’s one thing to read Exodus or celebrate the Passover story, it’s quite another to do such work in the present, with the outcome in doubt and lives always at risk.

“The seder I attended a year ago was in the presidential palace, where we sat around talking about wonders and miracles,” the Jewish soldier recalled.

One day, Carr believes, the story of Iraq, too, will be told with reverence.

 

Moving Forward Passover


 

I was sitting at lunch with my best friend the other day discussing life. This is her tsuris at the moment: she is involved with a guy who loves her very much, accepts her unconditionally, is cute, bright, Jewish, healthy, loyal. But she knows that he is not the one. She is so afraid to leave him — because she doesn’t want to hurt him, because she doesn’t want to deal with the pain of loss, because she dreads the feeling of loneliness, because she hates to be single, because she doesn’t know where she will meet someone else, because he is “good on paper” and she is afraid if she leaves him she will end up alone forever — doomed to become a spinster.
Then there is her job. She is headed upward in her field; in three years time, she will be at the top of the totem pole. Yet she finishes every day wishing she didn’t have to go back. She feels disconnected from her peers, tied down to obligations and expectations imposed on her by the higher-ups, creatively unfulfilled. But she is so afraid to quit — because she dreads the feeling of being unemployed, because she has no idea what her true calling is, because she hates the idea of being out of work, because the job will pay off in the long run, because she is afraid if she leaves it will be a mistake — leaving her doomed to become an unemployed spinster.
The list goes on: living situation, health, social life.
I can identify with her kvetching. Let’s face it: life can get pretty unsatisfying at times. The dissatisfaction comes from being stuck, from perceiving ourselves as limited to certain parameters of existence — enslaved by these limitations and by the fear of making a change.
Enter Passover.
Just when we were ready to stuff down our feelings with another double chocolate chip cookie in bed with the TV on, wondering why everyone on “Friends” seems so fulfilled and happy, comes a holiday that says: “Stop! Put down that leavened cookie immediately. Wake up!” It is time to face our circumstances of limitation, entrapment and enslavement and clear them out. Just as we physically left Egypt, so, too, must we emotionally, intellectually and spiritually leave behind us the situation of servitude that we have made our reality. From a place of servitude — of being stuck — we are never going to reach the Promised Land.
Egypt exists beyond its place in the folklore of our history. It also represents any outside force to which we give the power of enslaving us and directing our lives. It is the element that shapes our realities in every moment that we succumb to fear, doubt, laziness and unconsciousness in our daily existences. It is our addictions, our unexpressed emotions, our vanities, our prejudices, our materialism.
As long as we remain constrained in our lives, we only pretend to be living. We choose to exist half-asleep in a futile effort to have stable and safe lives. We define stability by not moving, changing or confronting things that will in any way shake up the tenuous circumstances of our servitude. Eventually, we find ourselves totally stuck: immovable and subjugated by our fear of the unknown. As Rabbi Ted Falcon of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle explains, “The paradox of slavery is that we are safe; there is security in being able to blame the external world for the problems we experience.”
It demands our greatest courage and our strongest faith to choose freedom. With freedom comes true life — a moveable, powerful, transformational state of being. It is freedom from the conviction of our limitations.
Were my friend to give up her enslavement, she would find herself truly alive again. She would exist from a space of courage and power rather than fear, and in this state of freedom, she would have the possibility of creating the perfect relationship and livelihood for herself.
On Passover, we relive the story of our physical liberation. We tell of the gathering of our ancestors in an act of courage and commitment in defiance of the limitations imposed on their lives. We remember how they left their comforts and their attachments behind and marched forth, with the fierce Egyptian army following them, into the Sea of Reeds.
Filled with panic and remorse at the shores of the water, they finally recognize that they will not live if they do not continue to move forward. And so, in the face of a seemingly impossible obstacle, they finally relinquish their hold on the past and the fear of their future and step into the ocean. With the sounds of the Egyptian army quickly approaching, they immerse themselves in courage and faith and nothing else and wade deeper in the water. Washed away of the pretenses of life that defined their servitude, they feel the exhilarating, magical feeling of being truly alive; with the water up to their nostrils they smile in total faith in life, and the waters part. A miracle to greet a miracle.
And while my friend may kvetch and moan on her journey toward completing her limitations, I know that, in the end, she will also walk into the water — with faith and courage and joy — to greet her true life.
May you all be blessed with courage, faith, empowerment and clarity; may you be blessed with freedom.

Karen Dieth is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

Auschwitz Memorial Marks ’45 Liberation


The last time Trudy Spira was in Auschwitz, she was 12 years old. The day of liberation “is my second birthday — I was reborn on that day,” said Spira, who came from Venezuela with her son, Ernesto, 48, to show him the place that robbed her of her childhood.

Ziggy Shipper, 75, and his grandson, Elliott Stern, 16, arrived together from London.

“He will never forget till the day he dies that he came here with his grandfather,” Shipper said.

Ted Lehman came from the United States, wearing the cap he was wearing when he was liberated 60 years ago.

“How does a 16-year-old boy explain that in one moment I was all of a sudden alone?” he asked.

Spira, Shipper and Lehman were among about 1,000 survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp who returned for ceremonies Jan. 27 marking the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, in what may be the last major ceremony to include significant numbers of survivors.

Close to 40 heads of state and foreign ministers attended, together with liberators of the camp from the former Soviet army. Some 7,000 people attended the memorial — about the same number still imprisoned there when Soviet soldiers liberated the camp six decades ago.

Despite the presence of so many dignitaries, it was the survivors who took center stage.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav praised the survivors “for returning to life, for daring again to feel that you belong to the world, for finding the inner strength to again raise families, for again believing in man.”

After he spoke, an unidentified woman took the microphone in an unscheduled move and spoke briefly. The woman said she was born in Poland and had been imprisoned in Auschwitz.

Taking off her jacket despite the frigid weather, she showed the number on her arm. The Nazis had taken away her name and given her a number, she said, and they had brought her to Auschwitz naked. But now she has her name back, she has a country and she has a president.

The ceremony ended with Cantor Joseph Malovany of New York singing the El Malei Rachamim prayer.

Other speakers at Auschwitz included Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski; Russian President Vladimir Putin; survivors Wladyslaw Bartoszewski of Poland, a Righteous Gentile; Simone Veil of France, president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah; and the Jewish-born Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of France, who read an address from Pope John Paul II.

Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of Germany Sinti and Roma, spoke on behalf of the 220,000 to 500,000 Gypsies killed in the Holocaust.

Guests included Vice President Dick Cheney, French President Jacques Chirac, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Polish Culture Minister Waldermar Dabrowski and Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

The nearby city of Krakow was full of formal and informal conversations, press conferences and receptions dedicated to anniversary events. Education was a key theme at all events connected with the memorial.

Before the Auschwitz ceremony, an educational program for teachers on the Holocaust’s lessons was launched in Krakow at the “Let My People Live!” forum organized by the Polish Ministry of Culture, the European Jewish Congress (EJC) and Yad Vashem, together with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

“The fact that so many leaders of the world are gathered here today demonstrates the continued importance of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and offers the promise of a better tomorrow,” said Moshe Kantor, chief organizer of the forum and chairman of the EJC’s board of governors.

The forum included speeches by Cheney; Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel; Israel Singer, World Jewish Congress governing board chairman; and Yona Metzger, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

The official ceremony at the camp began with the symbolic blast of a train’s horn.

“May today our common cry sound from this place,” Kwasniewski said, “the cry for a world without hatred and contempt, without racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, for a world in which the word ‘human’ will always ring with pride.”

Putin, remembering “the immortal heroic deed of the allied armies that broke the backbone of the fascist beast,” turned to the memory of more than 1 million victims whose ashes were buried or scattered at the site.

“We must ensure that everything that happened here will never repeat again,” he said.

By many accounts, Poland has undergone a major transformation in its view of its role in the Holocaust since 1995, when survivors gathered for the 50th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Today, Poles not only celebrate the heroism of citizens who risked their lives to rescue Jews but have begun to accept that some Poles participated in the killing — and that most Auschwitz victims were Jews.

Approximately 1.3 million people died in Auschwitz, about 1 million of them Jews. In 1995, however, the Polish government was still so uncomfortable about stressing Jewish suffering at the camp that at first it barred a group recitation of the Kaddish, recalled Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

This year, the program was organized by Jewish groups and included prayers. Moreover, Baker said, “10 years ago, there was no Israeli president here.”

He also called Kwasniewski, the Polish president, “one of the most eloquent voices on Polish-Jewish relations.”

Kwasniewski publicly apologized for the events at Jedwabne, Poland, where Poles helped Germans murder the local Jewish population. The story of Jedwabne was uncovered in 2001 and threw Poland into turmoil.

“Jedwabne opened up a very bad wound in Polish society with regard to their share in the murders,” Yad Vashem’s Shalev told JTA. “President Kwasniewski believes that coming to terms with the truth is an essential part of building a democratic society.”

From the time they arrived in Krakow from points around the world, survivors were gripped with a fever of remembering something that most had tried hard to forget.

Not all were liberated here. Some were sent on death marches to other camps, where they worked as slaves until the end of the war. But all shared a profound need to return to Auschwitz — and then to walk out again.

“How is it possible that such a maddening system like this worked so well?” asked Mel Mermelstein, 78, who was sent on a death march from Auschwitz on Jan. 18, 1945. Standing in front of the former crematorium, his son, David, at his side, Mermelstein said, “The civilized world should come here and see what man can do to man.”

David Hermann, who had come from London with Shipper and Berek Obuchowski, 76, recalled arriving at Auschwitz when he was 16.

“The train came to a standstill,” he said. “It was silent. Suddenly, I heard soldiers marching and dogs barking. They pulled the doors apart, and it was pitch black.”

“The cold air hit us,” Hermann continued. “And then the lights came on. I saw SS men lined up all along the platform with dogs, and guns pointing at us. Everybody was frozen. Nobody wanted to move.”

A Jewish prisoner advised Hermann in Yiddish to lie about his age and to say he had a trade, so Hermann told camp doctor Joseph Mengele that he was 18 and a carpenter. Hermann and his four siblings all survived the death camp and found each other after the war.

Toward the end of the ceremony, a small elderly man stood alone, singing a mourning prayer along with Malovany. With shaking hands, he took a small prayer book from a zippered pouch.

“I am a Jew, and so I pray,” said Chaim Ziderer, 86, of Bytom, Poland, whose family died at Auschwitz. He was spared their fate because he was in the Polish military. Putting the prayer book back in the pouch, he said, “Today I am alone.”

“[Nazi Germany] gave prizes to scientists and engineers for finding a better way to kill people, and faster,” Spira said. “It never happened before, and we hope it will never happen again.”

She said people asked her “how come I was willing to come to the place where my childhood was robbed.”

“I am coming of my own free will,” was the answer she gave.

“I brought my son,” Spira explained, “because before, no one had the chance to walk out of their own accord. And today we can.”

Groups Celebrate Seders With a Cause


At Jewish Family Service’s Freedom Seder, participants read
from a haggadah that was just a little bit different. Instead of reading of the
four sons, those at the Freedom Seder read about the “four community members.”

“The wise community member asks, ‘How can we, as
individuals, and a community, address domestic violence?'”

“The wicked community member asks, ‘Why don’t they just
leave?'”

The focus of the Freedom Seder was liberation from domestic
violence, and it was one of several seders in Los Angeles that celebrated not
the exodus from Egypt but liberations of different kinds.

As one of the most elaborate rituals in the Jewish
tradition, many groups have co-opted the seder’s ceremony and traditions to
express their own personal freedoms — be it from violence at the Freedom Seder
or bigotry at the Interfaith Alliance’s Breaking the Silence
Muslim-Jewish-Christian seder. At the Jewish Deaf Community Center’s (JDCC)
10th annual community seder at Temple Adat Ari El, participants celebrated
being able to observe the Jewish tradition in a manner that was accessible to
all.

The Freedom Seder was held March 30 at a secret location. It
was closed to the public to protect the identity of its participants, most of
whom were women, both Jewish and not, who had been or were still in violent
relationships.

The participants took the traditional haggadah and added
their own narratives to it, like the poem, “From Withered to Freedom,” by
Marlys Nunneri, whose husband physically and emotionally abused her for 40
years and in June of 1999 shot her point-blank in the chest. Nunneri, who
survived, wrote:

 

“My eyes were all red,

My body black and blue.

He would always blame me,

For things I didn’t do.”

 

“Whether these women are Jewish or non-Jewish, they are all
celebrating the same thing,” said Kitty Glass, JFS’ outreach coordinator, who
was careful to point out that Nunneri’s case was an extreme example of domestic
violence. “They are free from being hostages in their own homes, which is how
many of the women describe it.”

A few days earlier on March 28, Rabbi Steven Jacobs from
Congregation Kol Tivkah; Dr. Nazir Khaja, president of the Islamic Information
Service; the Rev. Ed Bacon, All Saints Church in Pasadena, and Rabbi Joshua
Levine Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple Center, hosted Breaking the Silence: A
Passover Celebration Seeking Peace and Reconciliation Seder at Kol Tikvah for
members of their respective congregations.

Like the Freedom Seder, Breaking the Silence used a revised
haggadah, one that contained excerpts from the Torah, the Quran and the
Christian Bible. One-hundred-and-eighty participants of different faiths sat
together. The aim of the seder was to show that the message of Passover is one
of reconciliation and peace, and that religion does not have to be governed by
bigoted extremists.

“Tonight’s commemoration of the seder together,” wrote Khaja
in the haggadah, “gives us the unique opportunity to come together, not blinded
by emotions and passions that have kept us divided but truly as a people moving
forward towards liberation from cynicism, mistrust and doubt.”

At the Jewish Deaf Community Center’s seder held on the
second night of Passover, the celebration was on being able to enjoy the
ceremony without the inconvenience caused by disability. The JDCC’s seder was a
multimedia one, with a video service projected onto large screens. The service,
which was hosted by deaf Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, featured
voiceover narration, captions and sign language.

“For years, deaf people have had to look at their haggadah
books and try to follow the leaders or sign-language interpreters,” it says on
JDCC’s Web site. “JDCC decided to develop a user-friendly seder, allowing us to
focus on the screen without having to worry about what page we are on.”

Sharon Ann Dror, president of JDCC, communicating with The
Journal through use of a teletext telephone, said that she developed the seder
because of a lack of religious services for deaf Jews.

“The Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA] provides equal
access for deaf people. For example, at the Mark Taper Forum, they need to show
captioned movies once a week. When my kid takes a class at the park, they need
to find the money for sign-language interpreters. But the Jewish community is
not affected by the ADA, because of the separation of church and state,” Dror
said.

Dror said that she started her organization when she saw the
way her three deaf children were being denied religious education and religious
participation because of a lack of funds.

Religious organizations “complained that there was not
enough money to pay for interpreters, so I decided to solve my own problem and
start my own program,” she said.

For more information about the Family Violence Project, call
(818) 789-1293.

For information about Breaking the Silence, call (818)
358-0670.

For information about Jewish Deaf
Community Center, visit www.jdcc.org
.

Food for Thought


The motive driving suicide volunteers is revenge. They have stopped fighting to liberate Palestine.

They have suspended the dream of a state. They now dream of killing as many Jews as possible, of revenge, of making life in Israel impossible — and they truly believe they can do it.

Let me, as accurately as I can, describe a conversation I had with a Palestinian peace activist over dinner in a European capital one Friday night in mid-June. We have known each other for quite a few years, and I have always had deep respect for his views, hence the importance I attach to what he said that night, despite the three glasses of wine that went down with his meal.

The Zionist experiment, he told me, is over. The Palestinians have discovered a strategic weapon: suicide bombers. Once anathema, they are now considered heroes. The shahids (martyrs), once seen as religious fanatics, are now nationalist freedom fighters. Moreover, he continued, they are growing in legitimacy all the time. The Arab world understands them and even some Europeans seem to. The Israelis have F-16s; the Palestinians, suicide bombers. The equivalency is obvious to all.

Now, he continued, there are thousands out there waiting in line to kill as many Israelis as they can, to make your lives hell on earth. They belong to no organization, but want revenge and are prepared to die for it. You think you are going to stop them by punishing their parents. You are wrong. You won’t even know who they are or where they came from.

We are going to hit you everywhere we can: gas stations, theaters, parks, wedding halls. It will be one funeral after the next.

And then, while you are reeling, the 1.5 million Palestinian allies, the Israeli Palestinians, our brothers and your enemy, will rise up as well. They are just waiting for a sign from us. They know you better than you know yourselves. They speak your language and know every street in every one of your cities. And they will join at the right time. Make no mistake about it.

And then what does Israel do? Transfer? Can you imagine CNN and the BBC reporting live as the Jews transfer truckload after truckload of Palestinians over the border? Your country will lose all legitimacy. The Arab world will go to war against it. You will be a pariah, worse than South Africa under apartheid. Your generals will be tried for war crimes. The world will impose sanctions. Your F-16s will run dry of fuel.

Your people will leave in droves, especially professionals. The Zionist experiment is over.

That, in essence, was what was said. Was he entirely serious? Who knows? Was he trying to ruin my meal? Perhaps. But there are several harsh truths there and, in tune with the old adage that when wine goes in, secrets come out, I took note of the following: Advertisements in the Palestinian press against suicide bombings signed by several hundred Palestinian intellectuals notwithstanding, suicide bombings have the full support of the Palestinian people, including some intellectuals. It has become almost politically correct. Soldiers die in battle. The suicide bombers are soldiers, their deaths are legitimate and the killing of civilians is legitimate, they say. Israelis do it with tanks all the time.

The strategy is to push Israel into responding in a way that would turn it into another South Africa, a pariah state. The goal is no longer to draw international intervention, which the Palestinians have been trying to do since the outbreak of the current conflict, but to achieve Israel’s international isolation — to strangle the country diplomatically, economically and morally while managing, with great dexterity and skill, to maintain the image of the Palestinians as victims.

If this thinking has indeed penetrated serious Palestinian circles, we are in for a long and hard period. But it will not follow the outlined scenario. Israel will build a fence, increase its vigilance, take security measures, exile the families of suicide bombers, maintain a constant presence in Palestinian-controlled territories if suspected terrorists are there, maintain the stranglehold it has over the cities and the roadblocks that makes it impossible to move from point to point. There are a million steps between suicide bombers and transfer and yes, there will be casualties. But Palestinian suicide bombers are not going to defeat the state of Israel. And, incidentally, there are gas stations on both sides.

Exploring Faith’s Price


“Love and Liberation: When the Jews Tore Down the Ghetto Walls” by Ralph David Fertig (Writers Club Press, $17.95)

On Jan. 9, 1807, Prince Jerome of Prussia decreed that the fortifications of the ancient city of Breslau could be destroyed. After 540 years of isolation, the Jews of Breslau tore down the ghetto gates. Under Napoleonic law, they were now free to pursue their religion while becoming citizens of the state.

For some, this meant breaking away from the strictures of Orthodoxy and embracing a new religion; for others, it meant a splintering of Judaism’s moral authority. Nothing would ever be the same again: under the new guard, freedom brought justice, but with it, a loss in faith.

It is exactly the price of this faith that author and retired judge, lawyer and civil-rights freedom fighter Ralph David Fertig dissects in his new historical novel, “Love and Liberation.” The story of three Jewish protagonists is played out against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the collapse of the Roman Empire, the emergence of capitalism and the birth of Reform Judaism. Like any satisfying puzzle, the pieces of this book intertwine through fiction and historical fact to give us a bird’s-eye view of the forces that ended feudalism and ushered in the Age of Enlightenment.

Like “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant, a biblical fiction about Dinah, “Love and Liberation” reveals more truth than historical fact. We feel, along with the characters, a time when the spirit of revolution was fueled by new movements in literature, philosophy and religion: how some Jews held on, desperate to maintain the old, familiar ways of the ghetto, while others, like Fertig’s protagonists, became energized in the discovery of change.

Despite some overly long expository dialogue that works against the flow of narrative, the book is finely written, bold and direct. It dishes up such a wealth of interesting historical accounts and believable characters that we feel rewarded and entertained. Fertig is a fresh voice in Jewish historical fiction.

Purim Pastries


Purim, sometimes called the Feast of Esther, is one of the happiest of all Jewish holidays. It marks the liberation of the Jews from the cruel prime minister, Haman, through the heroism of the beautiful and good Queen Esther. The story states that she was a vegetarian while in the king’s court in ancient Persia. Yes, before it was the fashion, Queen Esther was a connoisseur of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, but poppy seeds were said to be her favorite. It is in her honor that on Purim, poppy seeds find their way into salads, kugels and pastries.

Hamantaschen are the traditional dessert served on Purim. These three-cornered pastries represent Haman’s hat, pockets or ears, depending on which tale your bubbe told you. These delicious confections are served throughout Purim. They can be filled with a variety of mixtures, apricot, prune, or even peanut butter and jelly, but on Purim the preference is unequivocally poppy seeds. The hamantaschen recipes that I have included are my creations. One is based on a rich poppy seed cookie dough, flavored with orange peel. The other uses filo pastry as a wrapper for the fillings. After baking and while hot, a sugar syrup is poured over them, similar to the technique used for the Persian pastries called baklava.

When baking for Purim don’t forget the ancient tradition of mishloach manot, which suggests that we share the holiday foods with the community. Arrange a batch of assorted hamantaschen in a pretty box or basket to take to friends and also share with others. You’ll enjoy both the good deed and the compliments you receive.

Poppy Seed Hamantaschen

1/4 pound unsalted butter or nondairy margarine, softened

1/2 cup sugar; 3 eggs; Grated zest of 1 orange; 2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder; 1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon poppy seeds; 3 8-oz. cans poppy seed filling or variety of fillings (recipes follow)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until well blended. Beat in two of the eggs and the orange zest, blending thoroughly. Add flour, baking powder, salt and poppy seeds and blend until dough is smooth.

Transfer to floured board and divide dough into three or four portions for easier handling. Flatten each portion with the palm of your hand and roll it out 1/4-inch thick. With a scalloped or plain cookie cutter, cut into 3-inch rounds. Place one heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of each round. Fold the edges of the dough toward the center to form a triangle, leaving a bit of the filling visible in the center. Pinch the edges to seal them.

Place hamantaschen 1/2 inch apart on a lightly greased foil-lined baking sheet and brush with the remaining egg, lightly beaten. Bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to racks to cool. Makes 5 to 6 dozen.

Filo Hamantaschen

1/2 pound unsalted butter or nondairy margarine

1/4 cup oil; 1 package (1 lb.) filo sheets; 2 cups finely ground

almonds; 1/4 cup sugar; variety of fillings (recipes follow)

Honey-Sugar Syrup (recipe follows)

Heat butter and oil over low heat in medium saucepan. Place a damp towel on work area and cover with wax paper. Work with one sheet of filo at a time, keeping the remaining filo covered with wax paper and damp towel.

Combine almonds and sugar and set aside. Cut standard sheets of filo evenly into 2-inch strips. Work with each strip on top of a large sheet of wax paper placed on top of damp kitchen towel. Brush them with butter mixture and sprinkle with almond mixture. Place teaspoon of filling 1-inch from the short edge of each strip. Fold one corner over the filling. Fold up filo, flag fashion, in a triangle along its length to make a neat triangular package. Repeat with remaining strips and filling.

Brush baking sheets with butter mixture; place hamantaschen on baking sheets, 1/2-inch apart. Brush with butter mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown and crisp. Remove from oven and spoon syrup over each triangle. Cool on racks. Makes about 6 dozen.

Honey-Sugar Syrup

1 cup sugar; 1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon lemon juice; 1 tablespoon honey

Bring sugar, water and lemon juice to boil in heavy saucepan, stirring with wooden spoon until sugar dissolves. Boil briskly for five minutes. Stir in honey. Pour into heatproof pitcher.

Fillings for Hamantaschen

Apricot-Coconut Filling; 2 cups apricot preserves; 1/2 cup

shredded coconut; 1/2 cup toasted chopped walnuts or pecans

Grated peel of 1 lemon

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Makes about 3 cups.

Chocolate Filling; 1 cup cocoa; 1 cup sugar; 1/2 cup milk, cream

or coffee; 2 cups toasted chopped almonds

In a large bowl, combine the cocoa, sugar, milk and almonds and blend thoroughly. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

Caramel-Pecan Filling; 3/4 cup sugar; 1/4 cup water; 2 cups

toasted chopped pecans; 7 tablespoons margarine; 1/2 cup

nondairy creamer; 1/4 cup honey

In heavy saucepan, bring sugar and water to boil, mixing with wooden spoon until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add pecans, margarine and nondairy creamer. Return to heat, stirring constantly, and simmer for 10 minutes or until thick. Remove from heat and stir in honey.

Transfer to ovenproof glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set. This will keep for at least one week.

Applesauce Filling; 6 golden or red delicious apples, peeled,

cored and cut into chunks ; Juice of 1 lemon; 2 to 3 tablespoons

sugar; 1/2-inch cinnamon stick or pinch of ground cinnamon

In a large saucepan, toss the apples and lemon juice. Add sugar and cinnamon. Cover and cook slowly until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and mash or puree the mixture. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and chill. Makes about 4 cups.

Quick Prune Filling; 1 15-ounce jar cooked pitted prunes,

drained, or 2 cups pitted stewed prunes; 1/4 cup sugar; 1/2 cup

toasted chopped walnuts or pecans; 1 teaspoon orange juice;

1 teaspoon lemon juice

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.