Santa Monica High School students act out a scene from Erika Fabian’s story on March 22. Photo by Eitan Arom.

High school pupils enact scenes from survivor stories

“David Lenga?”

Gavin Graham, 17, stood up.

“I am David,” he said.

The other student, playing a Nazi trooper — a tall, bespectacled girl in an overcoat with a felt swastika band around the upper arm — looked him over.

“Run,” she said. “Just run and don’t come back.”

It would have been a tense scene to act out in any theater — perhaps the most fraught moment in the Holocaust story of a man who never saw his younger brother again after being sent away, mysteriously, miraculously, from the deportation center where they were being held.

But the scene was made all the more nerve-racking for the teenagers bringing it to life due to the fact that there, in the second row, among the almost 150 who gathered in the theater of the Santa Monica High School (Samohi) Humanities Center to watch the show, sat David Lenga, in the flesh.

“It was definitely a ton of pressure,” Graham said after the show.

The “Voices of Survivors” performance on March 22, the first of its kind in Los Angeles, was the culmination of an eight-week collaboration between Samohi’s theater department and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). The project paired four Holocaust survivors with groups of students who acted out scenes from their harrowing stories of survival.

“It was heart-wrenching,” said Lenga, a spry 89, of watching his story performed. “When I saw it depicted here, it really all came back.”

But he said it was worth it, for the sake of teaching the students to be vigilant against the creeping signs of dictatorship and tyranny even in the modern age. And in the end, despite the minimal props and stage elements and the students’ lack of acting experience, he felt they did well.

“I had my doubts they could carry it out, because it’s so difficult and so wrenching,” he said, holding a bouquet of flowers they presented to him after taking their final bow. “But they really did a good job. They really did.”

Preparation began eight weeks earlier when the 35 students in Samohi’s introductory acting class, most of whom are  not Jewish, visited the museum to learn about the Holocaust and how to interview survivors. The following week, over three days, they met with the four survivors — Lenga, Avraham Perlmutter, Edith Frankie and Erika Fabian — to hear  their accounts.

“As a high school teacher, I very rarely see that kind of silence from students,” Samohi theater director Kate Barraza said of the encounter.

LAMOTH furnished educational material while a mentor from Writer’s Room  Productions, a writing education organization, assisted each of the four groups in scripting their scenes. Students wrote, directed and eventually performed each story, handling the details down to lighting
and sound.

“It really came entirely from the students’ hearts,” LAMOTH creative programs director Rachel Fidler, who headed up the museum’s participation, said at the event.

The performances drew on some of the more tense scenes from each survivor’s account, such as Fabian unsuccessfully trying to cross the border from communist  Czechoslovakia into Austria after World War II with her mother and sister, and Perlmutter jumping from a moving van to escape Nazi captivity.

The program was meant to have students not just hear from survivors but also engage with their stories.

“You can see the numbers and the pictures, but to have the guy in front of you that it happened to — that’s really an experience,” Graham said.

Frankie, 85, is so used to telling her tale to students and other groups, that it didn’t faze her to see it performed.

“It was pretty true to my story,” she said of the performance.

Clutching the bouquet the student performers had presented to her, she sat outside the theater with LAMOTH special projects coordinator Michael Morgenstern dutifully manning her wheelchair as she waited for her son to drive her home.

“I always say, ‘If I touched only one student with my story, then I did my  purpose.’”

Old Town in Lublin - Marketplace, the Crown Tribunal. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Polish court accuses Minnesota man, 98, of Nazi war crimes

A Polish court has issued an arrest warrant for a 98-year-old Minnesota man it accuses of Nazi war crimes.

The warrant issued Wednesday by the regional court in Lublin is the first step toward requesting the extradition of Michael Karkoc, The Associated Press reported.

Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance–Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation said in a statement on its website that Karkoc was one of the commanders of the SS Galicia Division, also known as the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion, a unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians during World War II. He is accused of playing a role in the murders of civilians in the villages of Chłaniow and Kolonia Władysławin in July 1944.

The AP first identified Karkoc by name.

Karkoc did not mention his Nazi past when he entered the United States in 1949, which would have prevented him from entering the country, the AP reported.

He now lives in a nursing home in Minneapolis, according to The New York Times. Its report cited family members as saying that he is innocent of the charges, and that he has dementia and is not fit to stand trial.

In a Ukrainian-language memoir published in 1995, Karkoc said he helped found the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion in 1943 in collaboration with Nazi officers to fight on behalf of Germany and against the Soviet Union, The New York Times reported.

Karkoc must appear in court in Poland since the country does not recognize trial in absentia, according to the AP.

The twisted tale of ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ and the Nazis

Adam and Eve are in the news again, or at least two medieval paintings of the biblical progenitors of the human race are.

The paintings’ ownership has been contested for a century by noble families, national governments, museums and batteries of lawyers. The tall, seductive paintings of Adam and Eve, on two separate 6-foot-tall panels, are the work — from nearly 500 years ago — of the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Another chapter in the paintings’ stormy history was added in mid-August in Los Angeles, when U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter ruled that the two paintings, now valued at about $24 million, rightfully belong to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, where they have been on display since 1971.

In an extensive front-page article on Aug. 23, the Los Angeles Times reviewed the peregrinations of the case, while adding one more odd Nazi angle to the story.

Picking up in the early 1900s, “Adam” and “Eve” were owned by an aristocratic Russian family, but were seized after the 1917 Russian revolution by the Soviet regime.

In 1931, the Soviets, strapped for foreign currency, sold the Cranach and other paintings at a Berlin auction to the Dutch-Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. When German armies invaded Holland in 1940, Goudstikker had to flee, leaving behind more than 1,000 works of art.

No less an art collector than Hermann Goering, the Reich’s No. 2 leader, grabbed “Adam” and “Eve” to display in his country estate near Berlin. After World War II, Allied forces recovered the pair of paintings and returned them, along with other artworks, to the Dutch government.

At this point, the Russian nobleman reappeared and reclaimed the Cranach paintings, which he sold in 1971 to Jewish industrialist and art collector Norton Simon, for his museum.

Goudstikker, the Dutch-Jewish art dealer, died in an accident while fleeing the Nazis, leaving behind a son, Edward von Saher. The latter married Marei Langenbein, a German woman and professional ice skater.

The Von Sahers moved to Greenwich, Conn. After the death of her husband, Marei von Saher entered a court battle in the late 1990s to recover the Cranach painting forcibly taken from her late father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker.

Moving to the present, earlier this year a surprising angle was added, the Los Angeles Times reported, when lawyers for the Norton Simon Museum dug up records showing that the father of plaintiff Marei von Saher had been admitted to the Nazi Party — after affirming that he was neither a Jew nor a Communist — and had fought in the German army at Stalingrad.

Whether an earlier discovery of this information might have influenced the outcome of the case is a matter of speculation. What is certain is that Judge Walter’s ruling in favor of the Norton Simon Museum will be appealed by Von Saher, keeping the controversy alive at least for another few years.

Perhaps the only recent looted art case to approach “Adam” and “Eve” in complexity is the nearly decade-long battle by the late Maria Altman and her attorney E. Randol Schoenberg to recover the Gustav Klimt portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. That case was dramatized in the 2015 movie “Woman in Gold.” n

Lithuanian city defends recreational events at former Nazi concentration camp

The city of Kaunas in Lithuania defended the operator of a former concentration camp where recreational events are held near the graves of thousands of Jews killed by Nazis and local collaborators.

Deputy Mayor Povilas Maciulis made his defense of the Seventh Fort this week following an article published last month by JTA about summer camps, barbecue parties, treasure hunts and camping activities there. In 2009 the city privatized the site, which is run by a nongovernmental organization, the Military Heritage Center, headed by 37-year-old amateur historian, Vladimir Orlov.

“Yes, there are activities carried out in the museum, however, they are exclusively educational and pertaining to the museum’s purpose,” Maciulis wrote in a statement that he sent to several people a few days after the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, asked the mayor to intervene to have festivities banned from the Seventh Fort – a former military complex that was turned into a camp in 1941.

During a July 12 visit to the Seventh Fort, JTA documented children playing and dancing near the barbecue corner at the entrance to the camp. Asked whether one could have a wedding reception at the site, Orlov told a JTA reporter: “This is not a problem, it sometimes happens here,” and said he would send a price quote in an email, which never arrived.

Zuroff and the Lithuanian novelist Ruta Vanagaite independently confirmed the holding of recreational activities at the Seventh Fort in a Lithuanian-language book they coauthored and published earlier this year. Following the JTA expose, the news portal Lrytas published photos of a camping activity on the grounds.

On Friday, the city posted on its website an interview with Orlov in an unsigned article titled “Journalistic provocation didn’t work out: Kaunas respects and cherishes the memory of Jewish people.”

In it, Orlov is quoted as saying: “No wedding party has even been hosted in the territory of the Fort,” though “on several occasions newlyweds applied … with a request to arrange photo shoots at the Fort, in the museum, surrounded by historic items.”

Orlov said a mass grave for those who died at the camp – which is commemorated only by a pole — accounts for only 2 percent of the camp and that no festivities are held there. According to the book by Zuroff and Vanagaite, Orlov exhumed bones found on the premises that had been reburied there in 2014 with help from the Jewish Community of Lithuania.

The community said in a statement that it has complained to authorities in the past about the absence of commemoration and the festivities.

According to a 2011 report by the Delfi news agency, Orlov has received European Union subsidies that make up part of a $160,000 budget for maintaining the Seventh Fort.

In the interview with Orlov, the city said it had “made a resolution to put in order the place of the Jewish massacre at the Seventh Fort” and that “this autumn the stairs will be arranged close to the mass grave, a place to have a seat and rest.” A “memorial stone will be erected in the location,” it added.

Zuroff told JTA he hoped the city would follow through but that the official reaction so far “is a cop-out.”

The failure to reply to his letter, he said, is indicative of a larger lack of motivation on the part of authorities in Lithuania to commemorate Holocaust victims seriously.

“Instead of treating the problem,” Zuroff said, “the municipality denies its existence.”

Report from Jerusalem: The continuing struggle for Holocaust justice

Seventy-one years after the end of World War II, the struggle for Holocaust justice continues. Germany still prosecutes aging Nazi perpetrators, though they are now in their 90s. In just a few years, however, this part of Holocaust justice will end. The last of the perpetrators living today will be gone – and children do not inherit the guilt of their parents.

But there is another aspect of Holocaust justice that can and must continue. The genocide of the Jews of Europe involved not only mass murder but also mass theft. And though the beneficiaries of such theft may soon be gone, the continuing injustice of their children and grandchildren holding on to former Jewish property can still be remedied.

Late this spring in the United States, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Florida), Senator Chuck Shumer (D-New York) and other senators introduced bi-partisan legislation to address the recovery of stolen art. Actress Dame Helen Mirren – who portrayed Maria Altmann, the claimant of five Nazi-looted Klimt paintings in the 2015 film Woman in Gold – testified at a Senate committee hearing this month in support of the law. If passed, the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act would set a six-year statute of limitations on claims for Nazi-era stolen art, which would begin upon actual discovery of the art. This is a major step for art restitution efforts and the most significant the US has seen so far. It is this kind of progressive policy that leads to true justice for victims, but sadly we do not see these initiatives across the.

The latest efforts to reaffirm commitments to Holocaust justice worldwide saw ambassadors and special envoys, non-profit organizations, interested observers and other stakeholders convene at an International Forum on Holocaust Restitution in Jerusalem in June. Organized by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Social Equality, the Forum focused on the commitments made exactly seven years ago through the Terezin Declaration, a directive issued by 46 states at the conclusion of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague and Terezin in June 2009. Issued on the site of the Terezin concentration camp, the international community agreed in the Terezin Declaration to continue efforts to right the financial wrongs committed against the European Jews and other minority groups during World War II.

The 1990s brought a slew of conferences on how to deal with unresolved issues from the Nazi era, beginning with the 1996 London conference on disposition of the remaining reserves of recovered Nazi gold held since 1946 by the Tripartite Gold Commission. Nazi Germany looted approximately $580 million of gold from the central banks of 15 countries (equivalent to approximately $7.62 billion in today's funds). In London, 41 nations agreed to use the gold not yet restituted to help needy Holocaust survivors.

What made Prague Conference unique was that the convening nations also created a body, the Prague-based European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), to monitor how faithfully were nations honoring the solemn commitments made at Terezin in 2009. The Jerusalem Forum offered a preview of the Immovable Property Restitution Study, to be issued by ESLI later in the year and presented to the EU in Brussels. The Study will be the first-ever comprehensive repository of all legislation passed by 46 states over the last seven decades to deal with the return of land and businesses stolen from the Jews of Europe and other persecuted minorities during the war.

An unfortunate fact that the Study has already revealed is that immovable property restitution and a quest for restorative justice as a tool for promoting cultural tolerance and combatting racism and intolerance in Europe still has a long way to go. It also revealed that ordinary laws dealing with restitution of garden-variety stolen property in ordinary times simply cannot adequately deal with the extraordinary thievery of Jewish property that took place upon the Nazis coming to power in 1933 and continued to the last days of World War II in 1945. Ordinary property laws are written for ordinary experiences, not for the extraordinary times when the largest theft in history took place during the Holocaust.

The inadequacy of ordinary legislation is best illustrated by the case of Poland, home to the largest pre-war Jewish community in Europe. Jews in pre-war Poland constituted a significant segment of the commercial class in the country. Jews were owners of factories, shops and land – both large and small. With the murder of 90% of the 3.3 million Polish Jews, formerly Jewish-owned property came into the hands of both private citizens and the state – and has remained so ever since. The end of Communism in 1989 led to privatization of the Polish economy, with the consequence that former Jewish property nationalized by the state now returned to private hands. But not to the hands of the pre-war Jewish owners or their heirs. Everywhere in Poland, land and businesses owned by the Jews before the war is now owned by others.

Poland is the only country in the European Union that has yet to enact laws dealing with restitution of private property, both taken by the Nazis and later the Communists. Some restitution has taken place, both of the actual properties and through monetary compensation. Successful claimants have relied on a patchwork of Polish laws enacted since 1945 and long-standing provisions of the Polish Civil Code and of the Polish Administrative Procedure Code. Even then, successful claimants have been only those who have demonstrated that their property was nationalized contrary to the letter of the Communist legislation, meaning there is currently no recourse for property “legally” nationalized under then-existing laws.

One-half of pre-war Jewish communal property, where once synagogues and Jewish cemeteries stood, has yet to be restituted. And since such a significant portion of Polish Jewry perished, there remains the issue of heirless property: private Jewish property for which there are no heirs. Under legislation enacted by Poland right after the war, such “abandoned” properties simply became property of the Polish state.

Restitution is not just about the repairing the injustices of the past. Restorative justice that addresses the wrongs of yesterday creates tolerance and affirms civil society. This is what progressive policies like the bi-partisan HEAR Act meaningfully sets out to do, and is an example that others should follow. Restitution supports reconciliation. Holocaust justice by means of restitution of what was stolen from the Jews of Europe can still be accomplished today. Jewish property can be returned to Jewish families and to the Jewish communities from whom such property was taken.

Attorney Kathryn Lee Boyd is Project Co-Director, ESLI Immovable Property Restitution Study. Attorney Kristen Nelson is Project Manager of the Study. Both just returned from Jerusalem where they participated in the International Forum on Holocaust Restitution.

Munich state museum profited from Nazi-looted art, investigation shows

A state museum in Munich profited from art looted by the Nazis at least until the 1990s, a new investigation has revealed.

In a joint probe, the Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the British NGO Commission for Looted Art in Europe found that the Bavarian State Galleries and many other such institutions have been sitting on art that was forcibly “purchased” from Jewish collectors under the Nazi regime.

The museums have tried to disguise the origin of the artworks, and even sold some of them without seeking the rightful owners or their heirs, according to the investigation.

The deception began as soon as American authorities handed over the restitution task to the Bavarian administration in 1949, according to the report. Thousands of artworks were in question.

Reportedly, German authorities kept some and sold others at deflated prices, including to members of prominent Nazi families such as the widow of Hermann Goering and Henriette von Schirach (nee Hoffmann), the wife of Hitler’s district governor, or “Gauleiter,” in Vienna.

The newspaper traces the story of how von Schirach came by one small painting, “Picture of a Dutch Square,” by Johannes van der Heydes that originally belonged to a Czech-Jewish couple, the consul general to Vienna, Gottlieb Krause, and his wife, Mathilde. The Krause family fled to the United States in April 1938, putting their possessions in storage.

But the property was later confiscated by the Gestapo and artworks were sold to, among others, the planned “Führermuseum” in Linz, Austria, and to the father of von Schirach, Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s official photographer and an art collector.

After the war, the painting was among the thousands of works to be returned to rightful heirs. But the Bavarian State Galleries sold it back to von Schirach for 300 Deutschmark, and she promptly auctioned it off for 16,000 Deutschmarks to the Xanten Cathedral Association; it was on display in the cathedral until 2011.

Meanwhile, the paper reported, the great-grandson of the Krauses, John Graykowski, has been seeking restitution of the family’s collection in vain.

Half-Jews outlast Nazi regime in ‘The Kaminsky Cure’

It is to the great credit of Christopher New, the author of the “The Kaminsky Cure” (Delphinium Books), that one is able to laugh, if not out loud, at least to smile sadly, while utterly immersed in a story that takes place in Europe during the most shameful time in our not-so-distant history. A time when “a frothy stream of anti-Semitism had begun to flow into the village like s— from the leaking sewer, except that there wasn’t a sewer to get leaks in yet.” 

Perhaps no sewers existed at the time in the small Austrian village in which our young narrator’s life unfolds, but in the Aryan Führer’s rotten mind, a malodorous sewer has been frothing for years, leaking a stream of fecal conspiracies aimed at annihilating the Jewish race.

The frightening developments of Hitler’s plan, from 1939 until his defeat at the end of World War II, is narrated by the son of the Jewish Gabi, who has converted to Christianity, and her husband, Lutheran minister Willibald Brinkmann, who is proud of his Aryan heritage. At age “five and three-quarters,” the youngest of four Brinkmann children breathes life into the story with a wonderfully ironic, humorous and heartbreaking voice, as he attempts to understand the constantly changing Nazi laws regarding his family. Who amongst them is Aryan? Who is a Jew that carries tainted blood, and who is half-Jewish? The answer, of course, is that Willibald is the pure Aryan, although he displays none of the courage the Jewish Gabi displays, and their children, then, are considered “privileged” half-Jews. 

While, one by one, the most basic of rights are snatched away, first from Jews, then from half-Jews, the Brinkmann children — Martin, Ilse, Sara and, eventually, our narrator — are barred from attending school, but not from receiving private education, although that restriction will come, too. So Gabi embarks on selling her jewelry, furniture and anything that would bring in some money for her children’s education. No matter her conversion to Christianity, Gabi remains Jewish at heart, and her children will receive an education, even if the family has to suffer cold and hunger and illness in exchange for private lessons from Frau Kaminsky. And it is Frau Kaminsky, who in an effort to protect Gabi from herself, suggests the “Kaminsky Cure” of the title. She advises Gabi to hold water in her mouth so as to stifle her dangerous tendency to blurt out what she really thinks about the Nazis, who are tightening their claws around her family’s throat.

As the story progresses and Hitler boasts of one triumph after another, the once privileged half-Jews are no longer immune from Nazi atrocities. Laws are in constant flux, as are loyalties of friends and family. The situation becomes unbearable, and mouthfuls of water prove inadequate in curbing Gabi’s rage from spilling out, so she gets into the habit of stuffing a balled handkerchief in her mouth or swallowing scalding coffee. 

Yet, despite all the inflicted horrors, not only by the Nazis but also by Gabi’s self-serving husband and his theatrical outbursts, Gabi manages to retain her humanity. She is naïve, optimistic and hopeful to the extent of declaring that “they do things by the book in Germany, so her name is not on the list yet, no one’s going to touch her,” and, as such, there is no danger in her accompanying the Jewish Frau Professor Goldberg to the train station, which is, of course, destined for the camps. This, when it is dangerous to be seen with a Jew and constant disappearances remain unexplained, adding terror to her son’s fertile mind, as does the “imploring voice” of Great-Aunt Hegwig before her disappearance, “Remember us!” And always that most terrifying of all childhood fears: What if mother disappears like the rest?  A logical fear that adds tension to an already tense situation.

The war ends, cartons labeled CARE arrive at the Brinkmann home from America, once full-fledged Nazis suddenly deny any affiliation with the party, friends turned enemies spin like Chanukah dreidels and become supposed friends again. They smile, bow to the Brinkmann family, have the audacity to look them in the eye and declare, “How pleased they are that everything turned all right.” The truth, as we all know it, is that nothing is the same and, “what was there is gone and cannot be replaced.”  

Toward the end of this gripping and intelligent novel, I found myself slowing the pace of my reading, savoring the artistry of New’s narrative and meditating on the internal journey of the characters rendered on the page with such admirable insight. This is a novel well worth reading, not only because of the fresh, poignant manner through which it brings to life the struggles of a family during the reign of the Third Reich, or because it reminds us that no matter how long ago Hitler’s atrocities might have occurred, if they fail to illicit horror and disbelief, then we have ceased to be human. “The Kaminsky Cure” is also admirable for its attempt to answer the often-asked question of why millions of Jews followed orders without resisting, even when they knew the trains they boarded were speeding toward crematoriums. 

The answer, according to New, at least for the half-Jews, is that they believed that any resistance on their part would endanger the lives of the rest of their loved ones, whose names were not yet on the Gestapo’s list. 

DORA LEVY MOSSANEN is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Her latest book is “Scent of Butterflies.”

Helen Mirren urges Senate to pass bill that would assist recovery of stolen art

Helen Mirren testified to the U.S. Senate about the importance of restoring art stolen by Nazis to its rightful owners.

Mirren, the Oscar-winning British actress, appeared Tuesday at a hearing on a bill that would grant claimants more time to reclaim stolen art works.

Mirren said she became steeped in the issue while playing Maria Altmann in the 2015 film “Woman of Gold.” Altmann battled the Austrian government for years until in 2004 she recovered works stolen from her family by the Nazis.

“Victims of Nazi theft should not have to demonstrate the boldness and capacity that Maria Altmann had to reclaim what was rightly theirs,” Mirren said.

“When the Jewish people were disposed of their art, they lost their heritage,” she said. “To have no memories is to have no family.”

Mirren was testifying before a joint meeting of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittees on the Constitution and on Oversight, chaired respectively by Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Texas Republicans, who together with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are sponsors of the bill.

The bill, introduced in April, would reset the statute of limitations, making it six years from the date that the art in question is identified and located, and from when the claimant has shown evidence of possession of the art. In some cases, defendants were able to avoid restitution because states had statutes of limitations as short as three years.

The full committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said during the hearing he would expedite consideration of the bill.

Also testifying at the hearing were a number of experts on stolen art, including Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress and the chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization

“Make no mistake, this crime continues to stain the art world,” Lauder said, referring to the wholesale theft of Jewish-owned art by the Nazis.

Welcome the refugees

In the 1940s, politicians and the State Department saw the war ravaging Europe and said only Christians could enter this country as refugees, and only a select few at that. No Jews welcome here. A favorite argument for turning away Jews fleeing Europe was that they somehow had been infiltrated by Nazis.

With ISIS on the rampage and war devastating Syria, among other places, many politicians today are singing a similar tune. Only a select few refugees can come in, and they must all be Christians, say Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush.

“No Muslims welcome here” is the theme frequently invoked in the name of national security.

No Syrian refugees in my state, said 26 governors — all but one Republicans — who refuse to admit any Syrian refugees, whatever god they worship. That includes Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Florida’s Rick Scott, whose states have some of the country’s largest populations of Muslims and Arab-Americans.

Christie said not even “orphans under the age of 5 should be admitted.” Taking care of them would be too much of a burden, he complained.

Jewish-American leaders are struggling with the question of refugees. Many organizations have been raising money for humanitarian groups, particularly in Jordan, helping Syrian refugees, reports New York-based The Jewish Week, but when it comes to admitting them to this country, they urge caution.

Rabbi Mark Dratch of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America told The Jewish Week that Muslim countries should be pressured to take greater numbers. He’s right. Jordan and Turkey are overwhelmed with refugees, but the others could and should do a lot more.

But that does not mean our own doors should be slammed in their face, and Jewish leaders, more than most, should know that.

HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is virtually alone among Jewish organizations supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to admit 10,000 refugees by the end of 2016.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that although Israel has treated some 1,000 wounded Syrians, it will not take in any Syrian refugees because the country is “too small.” Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog disagrees. “Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven.”

Some Republicans who aspire to be the leader of the free world sound like bigoted xenophobes. Most conspicuous are ones whose own parents were refugees from brutal dictatorships or are married to immigrants.

Their rationale is that some jihadi terrorists may sneak in with the refugees (one apparently who did was among those in the French attacks on Nov. 13), so all refugees should be banned. 

Critics like to point to the 9/11 hijackers to justify anti-immigration attitudes. Sen. Marco Rubio, who favored immigration reform before he was against it, said “some” of the hijackers “had overstayed [their] student visas.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said all 19 were here on expired student visas.

Neither presidential wannabe did his homework. All 19 had entered the country legally; only one on a student visa, which he did not overstay, and the others on tourist or business visas, according to

The only Jew running for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), pledged to stand against Islamophobia and racism and backed Obama’s decision to admit some 10,000 refugees. So have his two Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, both of whom suggested raising the number to 65,000.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said, “We can protect our safety and our humanitarian values,” and we shouldn’t “slam the door on them.”

But that’s exactly what Republicans want to do.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would shut down the government in order to keep them out. Presidential candidates Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee have written to Speaker Paul Ryan demanding he block all funding for Syrian refugee resettlement.

Donald Trump, warning that Syrian refugees could be ISIS’ “Trojan horse,” said if he were president, he’d consider closing American mosques that have radical clerics and limiting civil liberties for all Americans.

Sen. Cruz (R-Texas), the son of a Cuban immigrant, said we should permit only Christian refugees because, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.”

Has no one told Ted or Jeb about Dylann Roof, who killed nine worshipers at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C.; neo-Nazi Frazier Glenn Cross, who got the death penalty last week for killing three people in 2014 in Kansas who he thought were Jews; Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; or the Unabomber?

Or about those law-abiding folks of the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation, the Army of God and the Phineas Priesthood?

And what about the mass murderers responsible for shootings at Newtown, Conn.; Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colo.; Centennial, Colo.; and Roseburg, Ore., to name only a few?

Ted and Jeb, there wasn’t a foreigner among them. No Muslims, as far as I could learn. All Christians.

Obama said, “We don’t have religious tests to our compassion. That’s not who we are.” He may not, but many of those who want his job do, and that should scare a Jewish community that remembers — or should — what it’s like to be shut out when the alternative is discrimination and maybe death. 

Douglas Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist; Washington, D.C., lobbyist; and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Remembering the November 1938 pogroms known as ‘Kristallnacht’

What’s in a name?

November 9, 2015, marks the 77th anniversary of the 1938 pogroms launched throughout Germany, a nation that, after March 1938, also included Austria. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were ransacked and looted and more than 30,000 Jewish men ages 16-60 were arrested and sent to newly expanded German concentration camps that, for the first time, held a majority of Jewish prisoners.

The pogroms were given the name Kristallnacht, the Night of Crystal, which is often mistranslated as the Night of the Broken Glass. The name itself is misleading. Crystal, as my wife often reminds me, is delicate and beautiful, and to use such a term beautifies and thus falsifies the events of 1938. German historians now refer to it as the November pogroms or the Reich’s pogroms, using a far less aesthetic term but one that at least connotes violence and lawlessness.

Even the term “pogrom” is quite misleading. Pogroms were generally regarded by Jews as acts of mob violence, lawlessness either sanctioned by the authorities or not significantly opposed by them as outlaw phenomena. But, in this case, the violence of Nov. 9-11, 1938, came at the instigation of the Nazi authorities and with their blessing. 

Just before midnight on Nov. 9, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Muller sent a telegram to all police units letting them know that “in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.” Rather, the police were to arrest the victims. Fire companies stood by synagogues in flames with explicit instructions to let the buildings burn. They were to intervene only if a fire threatened adjacent Aryan properties.

The precipitating event was the attempted assassination of a minor German embassy official in Paris at the hands of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish youth who had received a note from his sister describing the conditions of his parents, Polish Jews living in Germany who had been expelled from Germany to Poland. Because Poland refused to accept Jewish citizens, Grynszpan’s parents were stranded in limbo. From the border town of Zbaszyn, they wrote to their son in desperation. His immediate response was to seek revenge. 

Germany had previously overlooked other assassinations, but the timing of Grynszpan’s attack coincided with the annual celebration by Nazi officials of their failed 1923 putsch against the government, which brought the party’s top leadership to Munich.

The date

The date was important to the perpetrators, as it also represented Hitler’s first — and failed — attempt to gain national power, as well as the emblem of the movement’s growth and maturation from the fringes to the mainstream. Sixty-six years later, in 1989, Nov. 9 again entered German history as the day the Berlin Wall fell. German citizens again took to the streets, this time to celebrate freedom and the reunification that was soon — and sure — to follow. Young marchers said: “This is a date that shall forever enter German history,” seemingly unaware that it had already entered German history, in 1923 and 1938.

The target

The attack on synagogues was far from accidental. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, synagogues became the public face of the German-Jewish community. Often built in prestigious downtown locations, they were near the great cathedrals of Germany and represented the arrival of the Jews within Germany’s economic, cultural and religious life. Some were modest facilities, others were grandiose, commissioned by the wealthiest Jews and designed by some of Germany’s finest architects. Just as Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles was set on Los Angeles’ finest boulevard and is surrounded by grand churches, and Temple Emanuel in New York was built on Fifth Avenue in the tony Upper East Side, Germany’s synagogues were meant to be seen and to connote the power and public face of the Jewish community. They were less the locus of prayer than a symbol of affluence and influence.

More significantly, during the early years of the Nazi regime, the role of the synagogues was dramatically transformed. 

We must recall David Marwell’s important admonition: “Just because Jews were powerless, does not mean that they were passive.” 

Synagogues became the center of Jewish activity, the lifeline of an embattled Jewish community.

Excluded from German society, many Jews turned inward, toward the Jewish community, toward one another. The synagogues responded accordingly. Persecuted throughout the city, synagogues became an oasis of tranquility and support for the Jews. They also became a hub of activity.

When Jews were excluded from public schools, synagogues housed Jewish schools, staffed by professors who, since April 1933, had been banned from teaching at universities and gymnasiums. It was in the synagogue classrooms that education continued, and not only Jewish education or secular education, but also vocational education to acquire the portable and linguistic skills necessary for emigration. Mobile professions were taught: agriculture and plumbing, electrical repair and mechanics. Music and architecture also are mobile professions, while the practice of law is not. Filmmaking — Hollywood so benefited from the German émigrés — is a mobile profession that can be practiced elsewhere. Nurses are more useful than doctors because the requirements for licensing the former are much less restrictive than the latter.

On a Monday, for example, a synagogue might house a welfare office and a soup kitchen. On Tuesday evening, the Philharmonic might play a concert under the tutelage of one of Germany’s finest conductors who was unable to perform for an “Aryan” audience. Wednesday evening might be the occasion for a theater performance organized by the Jewish Kulturbund, directed by some of Germany’s finest directors and featuring some of their greatest actors, who had been excluded from their profession. These performances were not only good for the morale of the community, but also indispensable for the economic survival of the performers. Each day, the synagogue would also serve as a center for information on emigration, as a place that assisted Jews searching for visas to countries near and far and information as to which countries were least inhospitable to Jews — the double negative is deliberate. Few were hospitable, and none in the numbers that were needed.

Jewish life was far from neglected. Martin Buber, Germany’s most prestigious Jewish theologian, led the efforts on adult Jewish education, preparing his community for the long and arduous spiritual struggle ahead. Jewish history was of interest, as was Jewish philosophy. Spiritual and religious struggles were the companions of life’s struggles. Nathan Glatzer, who later headed the Near Eastern and Jewish Studies Department at Brandeis University, recalled that German Jews were on the verge of a renaissance on the eve of their destruction. Persecution turned people inward. Many who had previously been indifferent to their Jewish roots turned to Jews and Judaism for solace and inspiration.

The synagogues were full on Friday evenings and Shabbat mornings. Prayer was a form of spiritual resistance and also a means of instruction. In his memoirs, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a fiery orator who was a community rabbi in Berlin before he immigrated to the United States in late 1937, recalled that the Nazis prohibited him from preaching, so he asked the Gestapo agent whether he could lead prayers, at a time when prayer was still allowed in Nazi Germany. Granted permission, he had his congregation read aloud, again and again, in a chant, the lines from the private meditation after the Amidah: “And all who think evil of me, speedily frustrate their counsel, undo their designs.” His congregation got the message and recited the verse with greater and greater enthusiasm. Afterward, the Gestapo agent is reported to have said, “Your prayers are more dangerous than your preaching.”

The end of one stage, beginning of another

From 1933 onward, once the Nazis came to power, they imposed conditions on the Jews that would cause them to emigrate. The killing process did not begin until 1941, but the Nazis reasoned that if they made it impossible for Jews to live as Jews in Germany, they would leave. Two conditions made this plan unrealizable: No country was willing to receive the Jews in the numbers that were necessary, and the Reich kept expanding, so that with every expansion more and more Jews came under German rule. Between 1933 and 1938, some 150,000 Jews had emigrated from Germany, yet in March of 1938, when Germany incorporated Austria, more than 200,000 Jews came under Reich domination. With the annexation of the Sudetenland, its Jews came under German control. So, too, when, in 1939, Germany conquered the rest of Czechoslovakia, And in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and Poland was divided between the Soviet Union and the Reich, more than 2 million Jews came under German control. This vast a number of Jews could not be handled by emigration, not even to reservations or to islands, as the Nisko and Madagascar plans suggested.

So from 1933 to 1938, Jews faced severe discrimination in Nazi Germany. The goal of Nazi policy was a two-fold expropriation of Jewish property and possession, followed by forced emigration. The November pogroms intensified this policy and finalized the exclusion of Jews from German society. 

After Nov. 9, 1938, most Jews were without illusions. Jewish life in the Reich was no longer possible. Many committed suicide. Most desperately tried to leave. Unwanted at home, Jews had only a few havens abroad. They could not stay. Yet they had nowhere to go. 

Germans, too, had learned important lessons. Because of the bourgeois sensibilities of the urbanized Germans, many opposed the events of Kristallnacht. The sloppiness of the pogroms and the explosive violence of the SA, the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, were soon replaced by the cold, calculated, disciplined and controlled violence of the SS. They would dispose of the Jews outside the view of most Germans.

Violence was not the last word. Violence was followed by rational, disciplined planning.

On Nov. 12, 1938, Field Marshal Hermann Goering convened a meeting of Nazi officials to deal with the problems that resulted from Kristallnacht. Historians are fortunate that the stenographic records of that meeting survived, for few documents reveal more candidly or more directly German policy toward the Jews at this transitional moment. Joseph Goebbels, a Ph.D. from Heidelberg and Hitler’s minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, attended the meeting. Several ministries had urgent matters, including justice and economic ones, and one industry in particular had much at stake in the outcome of the meeting — the insurance industry, which stood to lose huge sums of money if it were to pay claims from those whose property had been destroyed, yet risk losing credibility and customers if it did not pay for the losses.

Goering was clearly disturbed by the damage of the two-day rampage — not to the Jewish shops, homes and synagogues, but to the German economy. It’s insane to burn a Jewish warehouse and then have a German insurance company pay for the loss, he said. We suffer, not the Jews.

The idea was introduced to solve the Jewish problem once and for all, but in 1938, that meant in economic terms. Only later, in 1941, would the language be genocidal.

There was still the concern for “legality,” for maintaining the stability of the economy. Thus, while the economic elimination of the Jews could not be done all at once, the change in direction of policy is clear. Jews were to disappear even more from German economic life. When concerns were raised about foreign Jews, the Foreign Ministry expressed interest, not willing to surrender its authority or pre-eminence. Its concerns were assuaged, but not fully satisfied. The ministry would be consulted only for important cases, but not for every case.

There was much give-and-take at the meeting and some brainstorming. Several concrete results were achieved, all economically lethal to the Jews. The community would be fined 1 billion reichsmarks ($400 million); Jews would be responsible for cleaning up their losses and would be barred from collecting insurance. The insurance companies could offer to pay, but Jews could not collect.

Apartheid was introduced. Jews were barred from theaters; they would travel in separate compartments on trains; they would be denied entry to German schools and parks. By Jan. 1, 1939, Jews were forbidden to operate retail trades.

Concern was expressed not for those who were looted from, but for their possessions — the booty in furs and jewels belongs to the state, not to individuals. In the end, Goering expressed regrets over the whole messy business: “I wish you had killed 200 Jews and not destroyed such value.” He concluded, on a note of irony, “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!”

Through a series of policy decisions, the Nazis transformed these pogroms into a program eliminating Jews from German economic life.

On Nov. 15, Jews were barred from schools. Two weeks later, authorities were given the right to impose a curfew. By December, Jews were denied access to most public places. 

The November pogroms were the last occasion for street violence against Jews in Germany. While Jews could leave their homes without fear of attack, a lethal process of destruction that was more effective and more virulent was set in place.

No event during the first years of the Nazi regime brought as much protest from abroad. Americans were united in their condemnation — religious freedom was a core American value. Clergy of all denominations protested, as did politicians of all points of view. The president of the United States called back the U.S. ambassador to Germany, one step shy of severing diplomatic relations. Yet while more than nine in 10 Americans opposed the attacks on synagogues in Germany, this did not translate into support for immigration to the United States.

What are we to learn from the events of the November pogroms? We live in a world in which synagogues, mosques and churches continue to be blown up. When we see them set aflame, we must ask: What did this institution mean to those who regarded it as sacred? What does setting these buildings aflame say about the perpetrators and their intentions? What is next? And what is to account for the rage?

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. 

Study: Nazi propaganda had lifelong effect on many Germans

Germans who grew up during the 1930s are far more likely than their younger countrymen to have negative attitudes about Jews, according to a new study of anti-Semitism in Germany.

The study, released Monday by American and Swiss researchers, found that anti-Semitic views were particularly strong among Germans raised in regions of the country that were known for anti-Semitism even before Hitler came to power, The Associated Press reported.

According to the researchers, who analyzed surveys conducted in 1996 and 2006, the findings indicated that Nazi propaganda was highly effective, especially when it confirmed existing beliefs.

“It’s not just that Nazi schooling worked, that if you subject people to a totalitarian regime during their formative years it will influence the way their mind works,” Hans-Joachim Voth of the University of Zurich, one of the study’s authors, told AP. “The striking thing is that it doesn’t go away afterward.”

Voth added that the propaganda was particularly effective when “the overall environment where children grew up was already a bit anti-Semitic. It tells you that indoctrination can work, it can last to a surprising extent, but the way it works has to be compatible to something people already believe.”

Nazi refuge discovered in Argentine jungle, archaeologist says

A team of archaeologists and researchers discovered what they believe was a refuge for Nazis in an Argentine forest near the border with Paraguay.

It is believed that the Nazis prepared the hideout in the first half of the 1940s as a place to flee should World War II not go in their favor, but they did not use the refuge.

The director of the Urban Archaeology Center of the Buenos Aires University, Daniel Schavelzon, is leading the investigative team that is working at Misiones National Park in Teyu Cuare, a province in the northeastern cone of Argentina.

His team discovered German coins minted between 1938 and 1941, and porcelain dishes made by the German Meissen Company between 1890 and 1949.

“We found here an extraordinary type of construction, rare,” Schavelzon told Argentina’s Clarin newspaper. “We have not yet reached a final conclusion, but our first explanation, or idea, is that we have found a refuge for the Nazi hierarchy. The building is very exceptional, with objects and characteristics of building that are not from the region.”

Supporting the theory, he said, is the fact that the walls of the hideout were 10 feet thick and it was located in an inaccessible location.

In a video interview from the excavations, Schavelzon said he rejects the theory that Nazi official Martin Borman, who served as Adolf Hitler’s private secretary, had lived there.

When the Nazis did enter Argentina, they reportedly did so with the blessing of Argentine President Juan Peron and thus did not need the hiding places and the plans to spirit them there.

“We think that we found a huge refuge that ultimately they didn’t use,” said Schavelzon, who also is a researcher on the National Scientific and Technical Research Council, or CONICET.

Misiones province is located on the frontier between Argentina and Paraguay, which is populated by a large number of European immigrants. In 1940, Misiones had a population of 190,000, including 80,000 immigrants — 14,000 from Germany,

“It is very interesting scientific research and we believe that full transparency is crucial to understanding the scope of the Nazi presence in Argentina and South America,” Sergio Widder, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for Latin America, told JTA. “I believe that the enthusiasm should be balanced with a professional approach, which seems to be the case. It is important to note that Schavelzon makes clear that no secret hiding plans were needed in Argentina, since the protection of the Nazis was out in the open.”

The welcome enemy: Nazis in the U.S.

One of the bitter facts of history is that the United States’ immigration quota for Germany and Austria went unfilled during the 1930s when hundreds of thousands of Jews were clamoring to escape the Third Reich. And further, when the war against Germany was finally won in 1945, thousands of Nazis — and not just Wernher von Braun and his rocket-builders — were welcomed to the United States.

This shameful story is told by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lichtblau in “The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a shocking and important story that is mostly left out of the celebratory histories of the “Good War.”

“Visas to America, especially in the early months and years after the war, were precious and few; with more than seven million people across Europe left stateless, only forty thousand people were admitted to the United States in the first three years after the war, despite calls for America to open its shores,” Lichtblau writes. “Yet Nazi collaborators and even SS members in Hitler’s reign of persecution, men who had proudly worn the Nazi uniform, were often able to enter the United States as ‘war refugees.’ ”

Lichtblau concedes that some of these Nazis managed to enter the United States by “gaming” the immigration system. But others were assisted by high-ranking officials in the CIA, the Pentagon and other government agencies who were convinced that men with experience in Nazi Germany “could help vanquish the Soviet menace.” Former Nazi spies were valued no less highly than Nazi rocket scientists, and for the same cynical reason. “No one hated the Soviets more than the Nazis, officials liked to say,” Lichtblau explains, “and they wanted to exploit that enmity.”  

But Lichtblau insists that something more than expedience was at work in the courtship between a victorious United States and the defeated Nazis. George Patton, a celebrated war hero who ran the camps for survivors (euphemistically known as Displaced Persons), betrayed his own anti-Semitic impulses when he described the congregants in a makeshift synagogue where Yom Kippur was being observed as “the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen.” President Harry Truman himself, writes Lichtblau, “was known privately to deride ‘kikes’ and ‘Jew boys.’ ”  

Lichtblau points out that the Vatican and the Red Cross were “complicit in helping the fleeing Nazis gain shelter, travel documents, and escape routes,” but he reveals that aid and comfort were also available from the American government. “The United States, fabled refuge for the world’s tired, its poor, and its huddled masses, was a beacon for Nazi war criminals as well,” he writes. “Even as the United States was casting blame on the Vatican for shepherding Hitler’s minions to freedom, it was doing much the same itself, creating a safe haven for the Nazis in America.”

“The Nazis Next Door” is a history book that often reads like a thriller. “The unholy alliance … began with an ambitious American spy chief in Europe, a brutal Nazi general, a bottle of Scotch, and a secret fireside chat at a Swiss safe house,” he writes by way of introduction to the first encounter between CIA Director Allen Dulles and SS Gen. Karl Wolff, a conversation conducted in German for the convenience of the Nazi officer. But Lichtblau is always ready to show us the real-world consequences of back-room intrigue: “In the coming years, Dulles and America’s spy services would put to work hundreds of former Nazis as spies and operatives in both Europe and the United States as part of the new Cold War ethos.”

Nazis were put to work in every theater of conflict, including the Middle East, where a former SS officer called Tscherim (Tom) Soobzokov was recruited to monitor Soviet activity in Jordan, where he was then living, and elsewhere around the Arab world. The fact that he had blood on his hands was irrelevant: “We are not at all interested in any criminal, moral or other similar lapses in his past,” his CIA handler was told, “and such things will not be covered in the tests and interviews.” Soobzokov was dismissed only after years of service to the CIA and only because he was found to be “an incorrigible fabricator,” and not because of the wartime record that the CIA had helped to conceal.

More often, however, the loyalty of the CIA to its Nazi assets was more durable. Otto von Bolschwing, for example, worked with Adolf Eichmann in the notorious Jewish Affairs office and authored “what amounted to an official Nazi white paper on waging anti-Semitism.” When Eichmann was discovered by the Mossad and taken to Israel for trial, both von Bolschwing and his handlers in the CIA feared that his wartime exploits would be revealed. But Eichmann himself was a matter of no interest to the American government: “Prosecution of war criminals is no longer considered of primary importance to U.S. Authorities,” an Army intelligence official wrote as early as 1952. Von Bolschwing’s spymasters agreed “not to give him up to the Israelis,” and offered him “what he wanted: silence and protection,” Lichtblau writes. “Von Bolschwing’s dark secrets were safe with the CIA.”

Eventually, at least some of these secrets came to light because of the efforts of the courageous journalists, prosecutors and legislators who are the real heroes of the story Lichtblau tells. But they, too, were forced to confront the inertia, indifference and active resistance of a government that refused to hold itself or its Nazi colleagues accountable. Pat Buchanan, for example, then an aide to Ronald Reagan, denounced the “hairy-chested Nazi hunters” in the Justice Department and declared that the U.S. “had better things to do than ‘running down seventy-year-old camp guards.’ ” Very few of the Nazis next door were ever called to account, and even fewer were punished in any meaningful way.

Indeed, what is most remarkable about Lichtblau’s book is the tenacity of the U.S. government in protecting the Nazis in its hire. When George H. W. Bush, then serving as CIA director, was asked by a reporter about the relationship between the CIA and one suspected Nazi collaborator, he answered: “If it were in my knowledge, I’m not sure I’d tell you.” And, for that reason alone, Lichtblau is to be praised for speaking an ugly truth to power. 


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Witnesses to Kristallnacht

On a Wednesday evening in late 1938, the sounds of broken glass shattered the quiet streets of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over the next 24 hours, Nov. 9-10, rampaging Nazi mobs would torch more than 1,000 synagogues; vandalize Jewish homes, businesses and cemeteries; and kill nearly 100 Jews. As many as 30,000 Jews were arrested and carted off to concentration camps. These coordinated attacks, which came to be known as Kristallnacht —  the Night of Broken Glass — mark the beginning of the Holocaust.

Survivors who lived to tell the story of the terror of Kristallnacht  — some quite young at the time — remember vividly the horrors of that night. These four, who share their memories on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, are among the lucky ones whose families were able to escape and who, eventually, made their way to Los Angeles. 

Herbert Jellinek, Vienna

Late on the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, Herb and his father, Leo, were walking home from their weekly visit to the public baths,when from a distance they saw the Turner Temple in flames. Only a year and four months earlier, Herb had become a bar mitzvah at this Vienna synagogue, but now Nazi Brownshirts, also called SA or Stormtroopers, were standing around with the local police, watching the building burn, and a crowd of Austrians had gathered and were cheering the sight. Herb and Leo stayed in the shadows. “We were very afraid,” Herb said. “We tried to get home as quickly as possible.”

They arrived at their apartment on Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, around noon to find Herb’s mother, Irma, in tears. Later that afternoon, Herb peeked out of their living room window and saw hordes of Brownshirts going from building to building, breaking the windows of apartments and stores where Jews lived and shopped. He also witnessed the Brownshirts roughing up Jewish men, dragging them out of their apartment buildings. Herb’s family fully expected the Nazis to come to their door to take Leo, and possibly 14-year-old Herb. They sat on the couch, wearing their overcoats because the apartment didn’t have central heat, and waited. 

Suddenly the doorbell rang. Irma opened the door and was surprised to find their electrician standing there, responding to their call from several days earlier to repair a broken radio. “I can’t understand what’s going on,” he told the Jellineks. “It’s ridiculous.”

Herb and his parents waited the rest of the night, listening to their newly repaired radio and staying quiet so as to not draw attention to themselves. They learned later that their concierge had steered the Nazis away, informing them no Jews lived in the building. 

The next day, Herb’s parents resolved to leave Austria. 

The situation had been deteriorating, especially since the Anschluss on March 12, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Three days later, Hitler had entered Vienna, the climax of a triumphant tour of Austria. Despite a warning over loudspeakers that anyone leaning out a window or leaving curtains open would be shot, Herb peered out to see Hitler riding in an open car with his hand raised. He heard people cheering and saw buildings adorned with swastika flags and banners. “It was like everyone all of a sudden became Nazi,” he recalled. 

Shortly after, Herb was forced to transfer from public school to a Jewish school, an hour’s streetcar ride, and at least weekly he found himself fighting members of the Hitler Youth. 

But Kristallnacht was the turning point for the Jellineks, and the following week Herb accompanied his father to the American consulate, where Leo filed an application to immigrate to the United States. But the waiting list was long, as it was at other consulates they visited. Weeks later, they learned that only Shanghai, which the British had established as a treaty port in the 1840s, would take them without a visa. With difficulty, Leo secured second-class tickets on an Italian passenger ship, departing Trieste in the spring.

In June 1939, Herb and his parents left Vienna. As they crossed the border into Italy and an Italian customs official entered their train car, they felt great relief. 

“A lot of people forget. You can’t forget what we went through,” Herb said. 

Rita Feder, Berlin

As evening fell on Nov. 10, 1938, Rita heard a huge crash outside her family’s apartment on Berlin’s Metzer Strasse. She looked out the front window and there, next to the entrance to their building, she saw four or five Brownshirts throwing cement blocks through the windows of the stores that occupied the ground floor. Rita’s mother, Fanny, started screaming. She dragged 10-year-old Rita away from the window and closed the drapes. 

 The Atterman family in Berlin in 1938. From left, mother Fanny, brother Jona (Heinz), Rita, brother Bill (Willy) and father Max

The family gathered in the living room, in the center of the apartment and away from the front windows and the back staircase. Rita sat in the dark with her parents and older brother, Bill (Willy). Her middle brother, Jona (Heinz), had immigrated to Palestine several months earlier. Time moved slowly. “I was so scared. It was the only time I was almost traumatized,” Rita recalled. While Max Atterman, her father, thought the Nazi hysteria would pass, Rita believed this was the end.  

The next day, Rita saw the store windows had been boarded up and the owners were sweeping up shattered glass. “There was not one store that wasn’t hit,” she said. Rita went to school that day, but no one talked about what had happened. 

Life had become increasingly unhappy for Rita as Hitler gained power. A gymnast and a sprinter, she had dreams of participating in the Olympics and desperately wanted to attend the 1936 Berlin Games. But Jews were not allowed. Her father did take her, however, to watch the men’s 50-kilometer walk, which took place along city streets.

About a year later, in 1937, Rita and her mother were walking near Alexanderplatz when the crowd began buzzing that Hitler was approaching. Everything quickly came to a standstill, and Fanny warned her daughter, “You better raise your hand now and scream, ‘Heil, Hitler.’ ” Rita shouted the salute as the Führer rode by in his open car, his arm raised. “I felt terrible,” Rita recalled.

Kristallnacht convinced Fanny that it was time to leave Germany, but Max wanted to stay. He thought again, however, as people around them began making plans to emigrate. Then, after visiting various consulates in Berlin, he discovered the world was blocked off to Jews. 

One day, a family friend came to visit. “We’re getting out of here, and you are, too. We’re going to China,” she told Fanny and Max. Max thought she was crazy.

In December 1938, Max made arrangements to send Rita to live with his niece in Antwerp, Belgium. When the smuggler came for her, Rita was frightened. “You have to go. It’ll save your life,” her mother told her. The man, who was Jewish, delivered Rita to her relatives. “They were wonderful people,” she said. 

In July 1939, the niece’s husband brought Rita back to Berlin, and a week later, Rita, her parents and her brother Bill boarded a train to Italy. “A stone fell off my parents’ hearts. They were getting away,” Rita said. They took a passenger ship to Shanghai, and in 1947, she and Bill immigrated to Los Angeles. 

“I have to give back to God and my country. I’m so fortunate,” Rita said.

Tom Tugend, Berlin

From his family’s second-floor apartment on Berlin’s Greifswalder Strasse, during the late-night hours of Nov. 9 or very early on Nov. 10, 1938, Tom heard the crashing of glass as bricks or rocks were heaved through the windows of the street-level shops. Tom’s mother, Irene Tugendreich, hustled Tom, 13, and his older sister, Brigitte, into her bedroom, and then his usually undemonstrative mother lay down and cuddled her children in the dark room. 

Tom Tugend, 14, and his mother, Irene Tugendreich, in 1939 in Philadelphia, their first year in the United States. 

At one point, the doorbell rang. The owner of the stationery store on the building’s ground level stood in the hallway, deathly pale and shaking. “Can you hide me?” he begged. The gentile landlady, who had answered the door and who also lived on the second floor, was too frightened to take him in; her Jewish husband had been sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp just a few days earlier. But she allowed the man to run through Tom’s apartment and out the back door. Tom didn’t feel particularly frightened at the time, he said, but, “I always remember his face, that absolutely horror-stricken face.”

Tom, his sister and mother returned to the bedroom. Tom continued to hear the shattering glass and the shouting mob. The three of them were grateful that Tom’s father was in the United States, as he undoubtedly would have been arrested.

The following day, Tom went to school. He remembers seeing the shattered glass on the streets and the stores being boarded up. But in a few days, life returned to what was then normal. He was riding his bike to school and playing soccer, the activity that mattered most to him at the time. 

His father, Gustav, a highly respected pediatrician and a World War I medical officer, had believed for a long time that Hitler was an aberration. But by 1937, when Gustav was no longer permitted to treat non-Jewish patients and when the family was forced to move from their upper-middle-class apartment to a smaller one in a working-class neighborhood, Gustav realized it was time to leave. Plus, he was likely influenced by Irene’s more pronounced sense of urgency. But by that time, most countries had closed their borders, and it was impossible to obtain visas.

Gustav, however, had tracked down the American and British Quakers, with whom he had worked in Germany in 1919 feeding hungry children. They found an immigration law exception for academicians and secured Gustav a one-year lectureship at the University of London in 1937-38 and one at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania the following year, thus qualifying him for a non-quota visa. Meanwhile, after the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and again after Kristallnacht, Gustav had been writing the family urgent letters from the United States, begging them to depart as soon as possible.

Finally, on April 20, 1939, with flags bedecking the city to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday, Tom, Brigitte and Irene boarded a plane from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to London. They then traveled to Southampton and sailed by passenger ship to New York. 

Tom cautions that the trouble with writing history is that you see it through the lens of what has happened since. “Nobody could imagine at that time, even after Kristallnacht, that the Holocaust could happen,” he said.

Since 1955, Tom has lived permanently in Los Angeles. He has been writing regularly for the Jewish Journal since 1993 and serves as a contributing editor.

Risa Igelfeld, Vienna

Before Kristallnacht, and even before the Anschluss, when Risa witnessed Nazi soldiers singing and marching along the streets, she saw many Viennese turning to Nazism. “They came up like cockroaches. It was a frightening time,” she said.

Risa Relles Igelfeld, center, in Vienna in 1928 with her older sister, Edith Relles, and half-brother, Paul Knie. The girls were given the maiden name of their mother, who died when Risa was 1. 

Risa was asleep in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 1938, when the sound of boots kicking the front door of their house awakened her abruptly. “Where’s the money?” she heard the intruders shout. Risa, 21, and her older sister, Edith, who shared a bedroom, heard them enter their parents’ bedroom. “You’re coming with us,” they ordered Risa’s father, Ruben. The girls got out of bed and started dressing. “I was shaking like a leaf,” Risa recalled. The Brownshirts burst into their bedroom, searching for money, then left with Ruben. Risa and Edith stood together, holding onto one another. “I was so scared, just so scared,” Risa remembered.

About an hour later, Risa ventured into the living room. Daylight had broken, and she looked out the window onto Favoritenstrasse, one of Vienna’s main streets, to see other Brownshirts pulling away in Ruben’s first-ever new car. She kept pacing back and forth to the window. At one point, she saw SS and Brownshirts marching up and down the street, singing. Another time, she glanced at the window of the house across the street to see a neighbor sticking out her tongue at her. 

The following night, Risa’s half-brother, Paul Knie, managed to cross Austria’s border and head for Belgium. Then on Sunday, Risa was walking alone when she was stopped by the Brownshirts, who forced her to eat grass. She also saw elderly Jews she knew, on their hands and knees cleaning the sidewalks. “That was very upsetting for me,” she recalled.

The family did not learn Ruben’s fate until a month later, when they received a letter from him. He had been taken to Dachau and then Buchenwald. 

In early January 1939, Risa, following in her sister’s footsteps, left for London on a domestic visa sent by an English family looking for a servant. Soon after, she was promoted to the position of nanny for the couple’s two young children. 

Back in Vienna, Risa’s stepmother went to Nazi headquarters and bribed an SS official, who agreed to release Ruben with the stipulation that the couple leave Austria immediately. They boarded a boat to Palestine but were refused entry. Other ports were also closed. They finally landed on the island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, where they were imprisoned for three years. 

Before Kristallnacht, Paul had gone to the American consulate to search its telephone books for people with their surname, Knie, writing letters pleading for help. A couple in Chicago, Max and Tesse Knee, who were not related, responded, offering affidavits for all the family members. “They were just good people,” Risa said. Her parents arrived in New York around 1944. Risa and her husband, Gershom Igelfeld, whom she married in London, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949. 

Why some Nazis are collecting Social Security

On October 20, 2014, AP issued its Big Story with the sensational title “Millions in Social Security for expelled Nazis.” The story was picked up by major news outlets in the United States and around the world. Written in the form of an exposé, it presents the shocking fact that the United States government has paid out millions of dollars in Social Security benefits to Nazis who immigrated to the United States after the Second World War and then became naturalized American citizens by hiding their Nazi pasts.  Upon their discovery, these geriatric former Nazis either almost immediately returned to their home countries, where they continued to collect Social Security, or struck a deal with federal prosecutors not to fight deportation and leave voluntarily, but with their Social Security benefits intact.  The impression created was that government prosecutors and other federal officials either stupidly allowed this to happen or wrongly arranged for former Nazis to continue collecting such benefits.

This impression is simply wrong. And to understand what really happened, historical context is necessary.                   

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and concomitantly one of the greatest criminal trials in history: the prosecution by the victorious Allies in the German city of Nuremberg of the twenty-two highest ranking surviving German Nazi leaders for war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against peace and conspiracy. The main Nuremberg trial came about primarily as a result of  American leadership and efforts. It was followed by twelve subsequent Nuremberg trials, where American prosecutors put on trial second-tier Nazis: German generals, industrialists, judges and politicians.

The enterprise of prosecuting Nazis, however, did not end at Nuremberg. For the last sixty-nine years, various countries have put on trial Nazis in their midst, either German perpetrators living in postwar Germany or local collaborators in countries conquered by the German war machine, such as France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Poland and other Eastern European states.

But another category of perpetrators also needed to be brought to justice: Germans, Austrians and others who fled Europe to make new lives in North America, South America, Australia and anywhere else they could hide or be immune from prosecution. Adolf Eichmann's postwar flight to Argentina is the most notorious example.  

To end such impunity, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in the 1970's began searching for such Nazis who immigrated to their shores after the war and  permitted entry by hiding their Nazi past.

The most successful program was conducted by the United States. Beginning in 1979, through an act of Congress passed called the Holtzman Amendment (after its chief sponsor, Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman of New York), the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) was created within the Department of Justice to ferret out these secret Nazis. Some were German, but most were Nazi collaborators from Eastern Europe who came to America as refugees after the war alongside the thousands of Jewish survivors.

Unfortunately, the Nazis found in America could not be prosecuted for their crimes in American courts. The murders and other crimes committed by these individuals occurred in Europe, and so United States courts had no jurisdiction for these crimes. And even if Congress passed a law extending such jurisdiction, the law would undoubtedly be found unconstitutional since it would cover acts that occurred prior to the passage of the law, and so would run afoul of the ex post facto prohibition of the U.S. Constitution.

Another means had to be devised. The route taken was to strip these hidden Nazis of their naturalized American citizenships and then deport them as aliens to any country that would take them. This was the 1978 Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, ordering the deportation of aliens  who had “ordered, incited, assisted or participated in persecution because of race, religion, national origin or political opinion” in connection with the Nazi regime.

To date, OSI (which in 2010 merged with another office within the Justice Department) has succeeded in denaturalizing or expelling over one-hundred such individuals. Some of these, upon their discovery, did not fight the deportation and left the country.

A recent example involved Elfriede Rinkel, an 86 year-old widow who worked as a female guard in Ravensbrück, a concentration and extermination camp in Germany primarily reserved for women (shades of the role played by Kate Winslet in the film The Reader). Rinkel came to San Francisco after the war, married a Jewish survivor and even had a plot waiting for her in a Jewish cemetery next to her husband (who apparently never knew of her Nazi past). Discovered by OSI in 2006, she did not challenge her denaturalization and quietly left the country to live out her remaining years in Germany, where she is yet to be charged for any crime.

At the other end of the spectrum was John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian serving in the Red Army who was captured by the Germans in 1941. Demjanjuk went on to serve as an SS guard in Sobibor, one of the five extermination camps that the Germans built in occupied Poland, where arriving Jews were immediately murdered upon arrival. Demjanjuk moved to Cleveland after the war, where he worked for many years at a Ford auto plant. The legal saga to denaturalize and deport Demjanjuk and then try him for his Nazi past began in 1977 and lasted over thirty years. It was not until 2009 when he was successfully deported to Germany and tried in a Munich courtroom as an accessory to 27,900 counts of murder, one for each person who died at Sobibor while he was working there as a guard. Found guilty in 2011 and given a five-year sentence, he was freed pending appeal. Demjanjuk died in March 2012 at a retirement home in Germany at aged 91, while awaiting the fate of the appeal.

The drawn-out legal proceedings against Demjanjuk shows the difficult road that needs to be taken to get former Nazis found living in the U.S. to account for their crimes. And that is why the AP story is so unfair.

It was perfectly proper for the Justice Department to strike deals with accused Nazi war criminals discovered to be living in the United States to leave voluntarily and waive denaturalization and deportation proceedings (DDPs)– and in turn be allowed to keep their social security benefits. DDPs are lengthy and subject to appeal all the way to the US Supreme Court. There is no guarantee that they will be successful. And there is the risk that the accused — now elderly— might die restfully in his/her sleep in their home in America while the proceedings drag on.

Let us be clear: We are not defending Nazis who slipped into the US after the war. We think that they should not only be deported but also prosecuted for their wartime acts. And in a perfect world, they would be prosecuted in American courts for their crimes, rather than just being stripped of their US citizenship; but the ex post facto prohibition prevented such prosecutions. The Holtzman Amendment allowing denaturalization and then deportation was the most practical solution to the problem of finding Nazis living in America.

The AP story is a calumny, unfairly besmirching the fine work OSI and others in the Justice Department who doggedly pursued Nazis found living among us. No other country outside of Germany has prosecuted so many Nazis.

Our concern is that the AP “investigative report” story tarnishes the legacy of OSI and the entire enterprise of Nazi-hunting in the United States. In so doing, it also makes it less likely that future OSIs will be created by the federal government to go after other genocidaires who sneak into the U.S.

We hope that those organizations and individuals now calling for a change in federal law by Congress to both prospectively and retroactively deny Social Security to Nazi war criminals also make clear that they support the work done by OSI for the last thirty five years. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has awarded every year an “A” grade to the United States for its efforts to bring Nazis to justice. The “A”s are well-deserved and still stand — even after these unwarranted accusations made by the AP story.

Michael Bazyler is professor and The 1939 Society Scholar in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies at Fowler School of Law, Chapman University and co-author of the just- published book Forgotten Trials of the Holocaust (NYU Press 2014.)

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

U.S. spy agencies hired at least 1,000 Nazis, new book alleges

U.S. spy agencies hired at least 1,000 ex-Nazis during the Cold War, a new book reports.

According to Eric Lichtblau’s “The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men,” excerpted Monday in The New York Times, the CIA and other American agencies employed large numbers of Nazis as spies and informants and through the 1990s protected from deportation and prosecution some who were living in the United States.

Citing newly disclosed records and interviews, Lichtblau reports that the FBI and CIA knowingly recruited officials who had occupied high positions in Nazi Germany, including some known to be guilty of war crimes. One such spy was involved in the Lithuanian massacre of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust; another worked closely with Adolf Eichmann. Several spies were rewarded with U.S. citizenship.

On several occasions, the book notes, U.S. intelligence officials refused to cooperate with the Justice Department’s Nazi hunters and urged them to drop investigations for fear of exposing their ties to American spy agencies.

The true story of how scientists battled Typhus and sabotaged the Nazis

By now, of course, we know full well that the Holocaust is a bottomless pit. More than a half-century after the liberation of the last camp, new and wholly unsuspecting tales of both suffering and redemption continue to reach us. “The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis” by Arthur Allen (Norton: $26.95, hardcover) is one such remarkable book.

At the heart of the saga is the humble but also much-hated insect known as Pediculus humanus humanus or, more colloquially, body lice, the transmitters of deadly typhus, a now-unfamiliar disease that was the source of dread over the centuries. Rudolf Weigl, the eccentric Polish scientist whose name appears in the book’s title, experimented with lice in order to come up with the world’s first effective vaccine against typhus — “a disease,” writes Allen, “that terrorized the world, inspired the creation of Zyklon B gas, and provided the pretext for the worst crimes in history.”

One of Weigl’s assistants was a young Jewish biologist named Ludwick Fleck, now best known as
a philosopher of science. Fleck ended up in Buchenwald, where his scientific training prompted the Nazis to spare his life and exploit his knowledge in the camp laboratory, where typhus germs were cultivated and vaccines were developed under the direction of German doctors.

The bitter irony that suffuses “The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl” is found in one of the commonplaces of Nazi propaganda. “Nazi ideology had identified typhus, which is spread by lice, as a disease characteristic of parasitic, subhuman Jews,” the author explains. “Learned German doctors convinced themselves that it was better to kill the Jews than to allow them to contaminate others.” Both Weigl and Fleck were doomed to play roles in what Allen calls “a theater of medicine gone wrong.” 

Much of the book is devoted to the long and dreadful history of typhus and the pioneering efforts to eradicate the disease.  Then, too, Allen conjures up life in the Polish city then called Lvov (which Allen spells “Lwow”), where “learned unemployables” resorted to spending long afternoons at cafes and coffee houses because it was the only available venue to “intellectual cross-fertilization.” Fleck availed himself of the cafe life after leaving Weigl’s lab until a favorable marriage at last enabled him to set up his own private laboratory.

Weigl, by contrast, enjoyed considerable success in scientific circles. “By the late 1920s, Weigl’s lab had become a mecca for serious typhus researchers,” Allen writes. “The endless supply of typhus germs he could offer visiting scientists was well worth the eight-hour train ride from Warsaw or the two-day trip from Vienna.” Later, he employed some 50 workers at the task of raising and processing lice by the millions in order to manufacture a typhus vaccine. The process, described in lurid but also lighthearted detail in the book, is the stuff of a horror flick.

The real horror begins in 1939, when Poland was conquered by Nazi Germany (and, from the east, the Soviet Union), and the likening of Jews to lice turned from a political metaphor into mass murder on an industrial scale. “Jews – Lice – Typhus” was the message on a German poster displayed in occupied Poland, which displayed the image of a louse and a bearded Jew. Both Weigl and Fleck, each in his own way, were recruited by the Nazis to address the authentic public health issue of typhus, but for Fleck, the venue was a concentration camp, where the metaphor took on life-or-death implications for the Germans, too.

“The Germans were indifferent to the suffering of the camp inmates, and encouraged death by overwork, beatings, torture, starvation, exposure, dehydration, diarrhea, and other diseases,” Allen writes. “But there was one illness that Nazis did not want inmates to contract, and that was typhus. They feared that typhus would infect SS men, or Germans outside the camps, and they feared the spread of lice.”

So the camp inmates encountered both literal delousing and, sometimes, the use of delousing as a method of crowd control: “Delousing was so routine in the Nazi realm, in fact, that at Auschwitz it could be used as a pretext to get Jews peacefully to remove their clothes and enter the gas chambers — which were equipped with fake shower heads.”

The ordeal of Weigl and Fleck is narrated with compassion and discernment by Allen, a journalist and historian whose previous work includes “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver.” Each man found ways to resist and subvert his Nazi masters, sometimes in astounding ways. The Weigl Institute, for example, became “a mysterious labyrinth of science and deception,” and protection from Nazi oppression was available to the lucky souls who were willing to strap cages full of hungry lice to their thighs: “Anyone who needed saving became a louse feeder,” reports one of Weigl’s assistants.

Fleck, for his part, was ultimately consigned to a particularly tragic circle of hell where typhus was studied within the confines of Buchenwald. Inmates accustomed to the starvation diet of camp rations were offered lavish meals without being told that the food was doused with typhoid cultures. Fleck himself contrived to perform experiments that were intentionally inconclusive out of fear that “if he ever finished the work … he’d be killed.” Daringly, Fleck and his comrades produced a total of 600 liters of useless vaccine that the Nazis intended to use to inoculate SS men and German soldiers while also producing six liters of effective vaccine to be used inside the camp itself — “a bold act of vaccine sabotage,” as Allen puts it.

At the end of Allen’s wholly surprising and affecting story, we are introduced to a man whose father always kept a small wooden louse cage as a keepsake of his work for Weigl. Only because he served as a louse feeder did he manage to survive the war. “I’m alive because of those lice,” the son says. Exactly here is the genius of Allen’s brilliant book — the moment when we realize how the humblest of creatures and the unlikeliest of human contrivances can change history. 

Czech lawmaker says Catholic Church approved Nazi murders of Jews

A Czech lawmaker who said the Catholic Church collaborated with the Nazis is being called on to apologize.

“The Catholic Church did not suffer during World War II; it was one of the biggest allies of Nazi Germany,” Igor Jakubcik of the Social Democrat Party said during a debate June 20 in the Chamber of Deputies. “The Catholic Church approved of the transfers and murders of Jews.”

Jakubcik also said the church helped Nazi war criminals leave for South America after World War II, the Prague Post reported.

His statements came a day after the Chamber of Deputies recommended to Czech Republic President Milos Zeman to award the Medal for Heroism to Lidice priest Josef Stemberk, who was executed by the Nazis on June 10, 1942, along with many of the males of Lidice.

Lawmakers from opposition parties who called on Jakubcik to apologize said his statements were “unfortunate and ill-advised,” and “not corresponding with historical fact.”

Reclaiming the swastika

A swastika banner will fly over New York City and appear in other major cities around the world this Saturday.

No, the Nazis aren’t invading. This Saturday marks the fourth annual World Swastika Rehabilitation Day, organized by the International Raelian Movement. Founded in 1974, the movement claims more than 70,000 members in 104 countries who believe, according to the group’s website, that “thousands of years ago, scientists from another planet came to Earth and created all forms of life, including human beings, whom they created in their own image.”

The name of that alien race, by the way? Elohim.

The swastika features prominently in Raelian imagery, particularly in the religion’s symbol – a swastika interlocking with a Star of David. The swastika stands for infinity in time, while the two triangles making up the star represent infinity in space.

One of the movement’s goals is to reclaim the swastika, which was primarily a symbol of peace and good luck in many Eastern religions prior to the rise of the Nazi party, according to the ProSwastika Alliance. Swastika Reclamation Day events will be held Saturday in New York, Los Angeles, Switzerland, France and Australia. Because of Shabbat, the Raelians will mark the day in Tel Aviv today.

“We want to fully rehabilitate this symbol that’s so dear to billions of people,” said Thomas Kaenzig, Raelian guide and president of the ProSwastika Alliance in a statement. “It’s been used for thousands of years as a symbol of wellbeing and good luck, so when Westerners interpret it as meaning something ugly just because the Nazis used it, our society denies millions of people the right to live their religion freely.”

The character Alan Harper on the CBS show “Two and a Half Men,” after having a Hitler mustache drawn on his face once, commented that it was actually a good look, but “one guy had to ruin it for everyone.” Clearly, Kaenzig and company refuse to accept that.

Survivor: Robert Geminder

In the early morning of Oct. 12, 1941, German authorities ordered the Jews of Stanislawow, Poland, to report to the town square. Six-year-old Robert (Bob) Geminder huddled there with his mother, grandmother and brother, George. The group of approximately 20,000 Jews was then marched to the nearby cemetery. Bob and his family, among the early arrivals, were shoved toward the cemetery’s back wall, where they crouched down. “If you stood up, they would shoot you,” Bob remembered. Meanwhile, people in the front were marched forward toward large pits in the ground, then shot. As they fell into the gaping earth, more Jews were ordered forward. This systematic killing continued all day, until falling snow and darkness halted the massacre of 12,000 or more.

When the Germans released the remaining Jews, pandemonium broke out. In the melee, Bob and his brother were separated from their mother and grandmother and knocked to the ground, where they lay unconscious. As their grandmother exited, she too was pushed down. Searching for her scarf, she recognized Bob lying nearby and then found George. The trio returned to the apartment. “My mother was in total unbelievable disarray when she saw us alive,” Bob remembered. 

Bob Geminder was born on Aug. 3, 1935, in Wroclaw, Poland, to Mano and Bertl. George, his older brother, was born May 31, 1933. The family owned five apartment buildings and lived very comfortably. 

But soon after Germany invaded Poland in early September 1939, the Gestapo knocked on the Geminders’ door. They were given half an hour to pack and depart by train for the eastern half of Poland that was then under Soviet control, a result of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact signed on Aug. 23, 1939. 

Bob and his family traveled from town to town, eventually settling in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) in early 1940. They rented an apartment, supporting themselves with the jewelry and cash they had brought and living relatively normally. 

But on June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and by fall 1941 the Germans were bombing Stanislawow, which was under Soviet control. One day, as the family protected themselves from broken glass by stacking mattresses against the windows, Bob’s father suffered a heart attack and died. 

Bob’s family returned to an empty apartment after the Oct. 12 massacre; the place had already been cleaned out by local Poles. All that remained was a bucket of water with a false bottom that Bob’s grandfather had made, inside of which Bob’s mother had hidden her valuables. “It was a key point in my survival,” Bob said. 

In December 1941, the Jews were forced into the ghetto. Bob, George, his mother and grandmother lived in one room in a small apartment they shared with two other families. During this time, Bob witnessed babies thrown against walls and people hanging from telephone wires.

In the ghetto, Bob’s widowed mother became friendly — and later romantically involved — with Emil Brotfeld, a single man living in the building. He had been born in Stanislawow and “was a fantastically brave guy,” Bob said. He helped her obtain a job outside the ghetto, where she cleaned houses and managed to trade jewelry for bread.

One day, Bob’s grandmother peered out the window to see German soldiers with dogs. Knowing they randomly killed children, she quickly hid Bob and George in a closet and stacked wood against the door to mask the boys’ scent. The Germans entered the room, but soon left. “It was the second time our dear grandmother saved our lives,” Bob said. 

In March 1942, Brotfeld learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto. Escape was their only hope, but he worried that Bob’s mother would not leave her mother and other family in the ghetto. They consulted a rabbi, who told them to save the children. Bob’s mother listened, but, according to Bob, “she felt guilty until the day she died.” 

A few days later, Bob’s mother and her best friend, Lola, left the ghetto for work, walking out among hundreds of workers, each of them hiding a boy under her skirt. Bob’s mother hid the boys in a closet, then took them to the train station at night. 

They traveled to Warsaw, where they stayed with Brotfeld’s sister and her non-Jewish husband. In midsummer 1942, however, once the family obtained false papers, they left Warsaw, moving around in various farm areas. “We were always hungry,” Bob said. 

Seeking a better chance for survival, Bob’s mother found a farmer near Krakow who agreed to hide the boys in exchange for one of the family’s apartment buildings.

But some months later, when George put on his hat in church, rather than removing it, there was an immediate buzz in the pews, and the farmer’s wife panicked. She got word to Bob’s mother to pick George up.

Bob stayed, but the couple hid him in a tiny attic, and mostly ignored him. At night, Bob often sneaked out a window to eat the pigs’ leftover food or raw eggs from a single prolific hen. When his mother arrived 10 weeks later, she found him filthy and lice-infested, talking to his shadow. 

The family kept moving. But in early 1944, with the Russians approaching, they returned to Warsaw, to the apartment of Brotfeld’s sister and brother-in-law.

On Aug. 1, 1944, the Warsaw uprising began. But on Oct. 2, when the Germans defeated the Polish resistance, the family was rounded up, along with thousands of civilian Poles and marched to the train station, where cattle cars awaited them. Bob’s mother spied an open boxcar, which the family managed to board. 

A short distance outside Auschwitz, the train stopped suddenly. Brotfeld lifted Bob over the side to unlatch the door, allowing the four of them to escape. “Run, run,” Brotfeld yelled. 

The family hid one night in a farmhouse, and the next day found an apartment, where they remained until January 1945, when Russian troops liberated the area.

They then traveled to Bielsko, the hometown of Bob’s mother, who hoped to find surviving relatives. Only one cousin returned. 

One day, several months later, Bob and his brother saw the movie “Gunga Din.” Afterward, several Polish boys chased them, yelling and throwing stones. When they arrived home, their mother announced they were leaving immediately.

They traveled through Czechoslovakia to a displaced persons camp in Aglasterhausen, Germany, where Bob was introduced to bananas, bubble gum and English swear words, and where his mother married Brotfeld. 

In February 1947, they left for the United States, settling in Pittsburgh. Bob graduated Carnegie Mellon University in 1957 with a degree in electrical engineering. He then joined the U.S. Army, serving in the Army Reserves for seven years. In the spring of 1958, he moved to Los Angeles and worked for an aerospace company. 

Bob married Judy Strauss on Aug. 23, 1959. They have three children: Mindy born in 1964, Ellen in 1965 and Shia in 1969. 

Judy died in August 2011. 

Bob left engineering to work on a teaching credential, which he earned from Loyola Marymount in 2005, at age 70. He took a break from teaching math for an engineering project, but hopes to return to the classroom. 

Bob has spoken about his experiences during the Holocaust at schools and synagogues for the past 30 years. He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and maintains a Web site ( to teach others about what occurred. 

“I attribute my survival first to luck and second to my mother’s smart decisions and bravery, and later my stepfather’s,” he said. 

Rescuers of the ‘50 Children’

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we honor those lost in the Shoah and the few who were saved through circumstance, luck or the efforts of courageous individuals. People like Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and the Bielski brothers immediately come to mind, having been the subjects of books and movies such as “Schindler’s List” and “Defiance.” 

This year on April 8, Yom HaShoah, HBO will premiere the documentary “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” which explores the previously untold story of a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who risked their lives to save the largest group of children allowed into the United States at the time.

Blending historical footage, personal photographs, interviews with nine surviving members of the 50, and narration by Alan Alda and Mamie Gummer (reading from the memoir of Eleanor Kraus — the “Mrs.” of the movie’s title), the film is riveting and suspenseful. It reveals the Krauses battling bureaucracies abroad and at home and racing against the clock to get the children out of Vienna as atrocities escalated in 1939.

The Krauses’ efforts might have remained a footnote lost to history had filmmaker Steven Pressman not read the unpublished memoir written by Eleanor, who died in 1989, 14 years after her husband, Gilbert. 

“It was just lying around the house, hiding in plain sight,” he said. 

His wife, Liz Perle, is the Krauses’ granddaughter, and though she’d “occasionally mention something in passing about them rescuing some kids, I didn’t pay much attention to it until four years ago, when she showed me the manuscript, and I got the idea of making a film,” Pressman said.

A North Hollywood native who studied journalism and political science at UC Berkeley, Pressman is a journalist and author of “Outrageous Betrayal,” about Werner Erhard. He put writing aside to make “50 Children,” his first film. 

He called upon friends and acquaintances for advice and connections, lining up an editor, cinematographer and other crew. With funding raised via “generous individuals and foundations, both Jewish and non-Jewish,” he started making the film in January 2010 and finished two years later. Finally, through a connection from his father-in-law, he got it to HBO, which is co-presenting the documentary with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

Searching through prewar footage, now conveniently digitized and searchable, Pressman obtained video from the database of USHMM’s archives, the Bundesarchiv in Germany and Austrian State Archives in Vienna. 

He also traveled around the country to interview surviving members from among the 50 children, whom he’d tracked down via Google, and many of whom lent him their family photos. With the exception of one woman who was 5 years old in 1939 and had no memory of the rescue, “Nobody turned me down,” Pressman said.

It was an emotional experience for Pressman to talk with these people about what little they remember. For some, it turned out that they had been bidding farewell to their parents for the last time when they were rescued. 

“It was honor for me to be able to capture these memories,” he said. Because they were so young at the time, he added, “most of them never knew anything about Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. I was able to fill in the gaps for them.”

The Krauses were secular Jews, stylishly handsome and comfortable but not wealthy.  But Gilbert, a successful lawyer, was active in B’rith Sholom, a national Jewish fraternal organization headquartered in Philadelphia. The group’s head, Louis Levine, wanted to help European Jews escape, but organizations could not legally sponsor refugees. Gilbert volunteered to help, calling upon a law school acquaintance and Jewish congressman named Leon Sacks, who arranged a meeting at the State Department. 

“Gilbert wasn’t a connected guy, but he knew people who knew people,” Pressman said. 

Once the children were in the United States, they went directly to a B’rith Sholom summer camp, and the organization remained involved, overseeing their welfare.

In addition to survivor testimony, the documentary provides historical context to illustrate what obstacles the Krauses faced. 

“I was shocked as I was doing my research to discover just how much anti-Semitism there was in this country,” said Pressman, noting that even Jewish leaders tried to discourage the couple. “They didn’t want to rock the boat and create even more anti-Semitism.”  

Although the immigration quotas were very restrictive for all Jews, Gilbert felt that he had the best shot at obtaining visas for children, “because people at the State Department might feel a little more sorry for them,” Pressman explained.

 “This was an extraordinary time, and these were two people [the Krauses] who were not powerful, they didn’t hold high positions. They were relatively ordinary people, but they felt so strongly about doing something when nobody else around them was doing anything,” Pressman said.

Once the couple came home from Vienna with the rescued children, “They never talked about it again,” Pressman said. “The Holocaust Museum didn’t know about the story until members of the Kraus family brought it to their attention a few years back.”

Pressman, who grew up in a “Conservative, semi-observant household in the Valley” and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, has no Holocaust stories to tell from his side of the family, as everyone was born in the States, or was part of the earlier migration from Eastern Europe. 

He’s the father to a daughter, Roshann, 22, and stepson, David, 19. His wife appears in “50 Children” and granted him formal permission (as did her uncle) to use Eleanor’s memoir as a source, but otherwise they remained “very hands-off” with the project, he noted.

Since finishing what he calls his “labor of love,” Pressman has turned his attention toward writing a book version to be published next year that, like the documentary, will incorporate the memoir and the testimony of the rescued children. He admits that he has thought about turning the story into a scripted feature.

“But I won’t be the one to do it,” Pressman said. “I’m not going to suddenly become a feature film director. But I’m hopeful there will be some interest. It’s such an incredible story.”

He calls the filmmaking experience “the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. As a journalist, you want to tell a good story, and you want to have an impact on people. I feel good that I’ve accomplished some of that.” 

What happened at Belzec

In the summer of 1993, my father and I visited the site of the extermination camp of Belzec in eastern Poland, where my grandparents were among half a million Jews murdered by the Nazis in 1942.

That visit would change my life. 

I was working on a book about my father’s experiences during World War II — he had survived Soviet Gulag camps, interrogations by the NKVD and the Gestapo, and been severely wounded at the end of the war. (The book, “Guarded by Angels,” was eventually published in 2005 by Yad Vashem.)

After visiting some of the places in Russia where my father had been, I thought it appropriate to finish by paying tribute to his parents, the grandparents I had never known, at the place of their death.

The first unpleasant surprise was that the camp proved difficult to find. There was not a single signpost in the village pointing to it. We stopped a local resident and my father asked him in Polish where the museum was. He shook his head. “Then where is the memorial?” my father persisted. The man shrugged blankly. He was an elderly man, and it crossed my mind that he could well have been here when the daily transports of Jews were arriving. “The place where they killed the Jews,” my father finally asked. A look of comprehension dawned on the man’s face. “Go to the crossroads and turn right. It’s two kilometers down, next to the railway line,” he said.

As we pulled in, we saw a rusty sign, half hidden by trees, next to another larger placard advertising agricultural vehicles. There was no car park. We pulled up next to the gate, outside a private house from which pop music was blaring on the radio. A child was puttering around in the backyard. We were the only visitors.

As we got out of the car, a woman came out of the house to talk to us. “It’s not true they killed children here,” she told us. “They just put up that sign to get people to give money.” To be confronted by a Holocaust denier actually living beside a death camp is a highly disconcerting experience. But when she saw the flowers in our hands, she went into the house and brought us two vases with water to put them in.

My father’s family had come from a small town in southern Poland called Nowy Sacz, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Before the war, around a third of the town’s population of 35,000 was Jewish. On Aug. 23, 1942, all the Jews were told to gather in a central square wearing their best clothes and carrying personal possessions up to a weight of 15 kilograms. About 800 of the youngest and strongest were selected for labor camps. The rest were squeezed into a narrow area where there was no food or water and told to wait. Finally, between Aug. 25 and Aug. 28, they were marched in three batches to the railway station, loaded on cattle trucks and transported to Belzec.

There was little to see at the site of the camp. The Nazis removed most of the evidence when they evacuated the camp, and the Poles had made little effort to maintain the site. A block of granite near the entrance, engraved in Polish, noted that 600,000 Jews, and 1,500 Poles who helped Jews, died horrible deaths here. (Historians later adjusted the figure to 500,000.)

A few yards behind that marker was another memorial, a statue of an emaciated figure supporting another skeletal figure. Its Polish inscription read: “In memory of the victims of Hitler’s terror murdered from 1942 to 1943.”

Behind that, birch trees had grown up. Among them stood a row of concrete blocks, perhaps intended to symbolize the gas chambers. Adjacent to that was a row of giant urns. The overwhelming effect was of neglect. There was not a single Jewish emblem — not a Hebrew word, not a Star of David — although we saw a small statue of the Virgin Mary among the trees. The place was overgrown with weeds, and the symbolic structures were crumbling. I saw two women with shopping bags taking a shortcut home through the camp.

These are the facts about Belzec: 47 miles north of the major city of Lvov, on the railway line to Lublin, the gas chambers were installed in the winter of 1941, and the camp received its first shipment of Jews on March 13, 1942. Within a week or two of coming online, it was handling 5,000 victims a day.

Belzec extermination camp memorial. Photo by Yarek Shalom/Creative Commons

A report by a German officer, written in mid-September 1942, describes how Jews rounded up in their villages were packed 200 to each cattle car. The journey to the camp sometimes took more than a day, but no food or water was provided. Throughout the passage, Jews constantly tried to break away through the walls and ceiling of the train cars. Many succeeded but were shot by soldiers guarding the train or hunted down by police units. On several occasions, the train guards used up all their ammunition shooting escaping Jews before the train reached Belzec and had to resort to stones and bayonets.

“The ever greater panic spreading among the Jews due to the great heat, overloading of the train cars and stink of dead bodies — when unloading the train cars some 2,000 Jews were found dead in the train — made the transport almost unworkable,” the German officer complained. He demanded more guards and more train cars for future shipments.

There were four primitive extermination cells. Carbon monoxide gas was pumped in to kill the victims. SS Lt. Kurt Gerstein left a rare description of a gassing. He described how the Jews were packed into the gas chamber so tight they could not move. When the doors closed, the diesel engine would not work. Finally after three hours, it stuttered to life. “Up till then people were alive in these chambers — four times 750 people in four times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 minutes went by. True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead,” Gerstein wrote. “Finally, all were dead like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to fall.”

On the specific point of whether children died at Belzec, we have the testimony of Edward Luczynski from a 1964 trial of German officers: “After the doors were opened, it was often ascertained that some of the children and adults were still alive. Children on the floor and adults with their faces pressed against cracks sometimes managed to survive. The survivors were killed by the Ukrainians,” he said.

The museum at Belzec. Photo by Yarek Shalom/Creative Commons

Despite its phenomenal killing record, the Germans liquidated Belzec early in 1943. One problem was the lack of efficient facilities for the disposal of bodies, which were dumped in nearby anti-tank ditches. By then, a much more sophisticated killing facility was available at Auschwitz to take up the slack. When the Germans closed Belzec, they tried to erase all telltale signs. Bodies were removed from their mass graves, their bones were crushed with a special machine, the remains were burnt and the ashes scattered. Ethnic Germans were settled on a farm established on the site. Only two Jews survived Belzec, and both were dead by 1954. Few of the Germans who operated the camp were identified or brought to justice. 

For my father, our visit to Belzec was overwhelming. As soon as we entered, he was overcome with great, shuddering sobs. “My mother, my poor mother,” he kept saying. Yet there was nothing there to give a sense of comfort or consolation. Instead, one had the sense of people who had been blotted out, with nothing left behind, not even a simple Magen David, to memorialize their existence and their suffering. 

My own response was more of anger. For the first time in my life, I had a sense of my grandparents as people who had loved and been loved and whose loss had been deeply felt. Their final hours were unbelievably cruel and humiliating, their suffering protracted and unimaginable. Yet the place where they died was overgrown with weeds and debased by pop music. In a grandiose moment, I told my father I would not allow this situation to stand. I promised him I would work to build a new memorial.

When I returned to the United States, I started doing the only thing I could think to do — which was to write. My articles appeared in several different outlets, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Calls began coming in from others whose loved ones had died at Belzec. And then I was put in touch with Miles Lerman, a survivor and the chairman of the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. 

Lerman had himself had grown up near Belzec, and his family had owned a mill within sight of where the camp was established. His own parents died there.

“Your article moved me,” he said. “I have decided that we must work to build a proper memorial there. It will be the last thing that I do, and it will be my legacy.”

So began a long and difficult process to save the site of Belzec and to build a proper memorial. There were many twists and turns along the way, many times when the project seemed stalled with no way forward. Lerman negotiated an agreement with the Polish government to split the costs of the new memorial between Poland and private donations. The Poles insisted that a Polish national would design the memorial. The American side demanded that an international jury decide between the various designs that were submitted.

Eventually, a design submitted by a team of artists led by Andrzej Solyga was selected. But the project kept hitting roadblocks. The government in Warsaw changed several times; there were problems with the regional and local authorities, and at the last moment some ultra-Orthodox Jews launched a lawsuit to stop the project, because they said it would involve disturbing the remains of people buried there. 

It’s true that before construction of the new memorial began, a team of Polish archeologists drilled down into the earth at Belzec and found the locations of 33 mass graves. However, out of respect for these martyrs, the graves were not disturbed. Still, scientists vastly expanded their knowledge of this most opaque of camps, creating a historical record that will stand as a constant rebuke for anyone who would deny the Holocaust.

I worked for Reuters news service at the time, which the Poles paid a lot of attention to. Every so often, I would write another article, trying to keep the issue alive and remind the Polish government that the world was paying attention. I also wrote a novel, “The Nazi Hunter,” with a plot that revolved around Belzec. My aim was not just to entertain readers but also to inform them about this half-forgotten place.

The decision was made not only to build a new memorial, but also a museum there. Today, visitors entering the museum are confronted with a series of large photographs of some of the people who died there — and my grandfather is the second face they see. 

The memorial itself has turned the entire area of the camp into a sacred place. A large field of concrete slabs and rubble renders the site symbolically sterile and dead. A central path cuts through the center, evoking the “tube” which victims passed through on their way to the gas chambers. It slowly descends with walls rising on either side, leading ultimately to a wall built of Jerusalem stone. The deliberately claustrophobic experience of walking down this path symbolically re-creates the horror of the victims who had no escape. This areas is encircled by a path, with an inscription every few steps of European cities whose Jewish communities were destroyed at Belzec. 

Well, finally, the great day came for the new memorial to be inaugurated — June 3, 2004. I had the honor of attending, together with both my parents as well as my wife.

The contrast to our first visit could not have been greater. Then, my father and I had been alone. This time, thousands of visitors and dignitaries attended.

Pope John Paul II sent a personal message, as did President George W. Bush. An Israeli honor guard and marching band were there. Most of the Polish government, the diplomatic corps, and Christian and Jewish leaders attended. The place was crawling with security. Helicopters kept landing with more VIPs. And thousands upon thousands of ordinary Poles from the surrounding region came. Today, the museum is actually a driver of economic growth in one of the more backward areas of Poland, because it draws tens of thousands of visitors to the area.

“This whole Jewish universe of Galicia was wiped off the map and buried in this grave,” Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in a speech before lighting a candle in memory of the victims.

“I trust that as of today the memory of what happened here will not be only Jewish or Polish alone. We should spare no effort to make it part of the collective memory of the whole of Europe and the world at large.”

Few things I have done in my life have been as meaningful as the small contribution I made to building the new memorial at Belzec. It gives me satisfaction — but of course it will never replace the grandparents I never had a chance to know — Adolf and Bertha Elsner. May their memory be for a blessing. 

Alan Elsner is vice president for communications of J Street, an organization that advocates for U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution.

Spielberg directs kids to ‘iWitness’ history

In a video, a Holocaust survivor remembers how he had to kill the family dog as he faced deportation to a wartime ghetto, where there would not be enough food for humans and none for animals.

After watching the testimony and letting it sink in, a New York high school student went to a neighborhood animal shelter to become a volunteer worker.

It was the kind of reaction filmmaker Steven Spielberg hoped for when he and his associates conceived the iWitness Video Challenge, a new effort to engage the public with the vast number of testimonies gathered from Holocaust survivors by the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg created and has supported with the proceeds from his seminal film “Schindler’s List.”

Spielberg came to the campus of the Chandler School, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade private school in Pasadena, to publicly introduce iWitness last week.

“The idea behind the iWitness challenge is the same idea that was behind ‘Schindler’s List’ — that profound changes can occur when one person makes a positive choice,” Spielberg told a roomful of students and media.

“So, students will listen to testimonies from eyewitnesses, and they’ll develop insight as to how to use those testimonies to draw conclusions about how they can better their communities. And then build a video essay telling the story of how they made their community better and how they participated in making the world a better place,” Spielberg said.

A second goal of the project is to give students the tools of “media literacy and digital citizenship in the 21st century,” according to Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation.

The concept underlying iWitness is as old as a teacher making a point by way of example and as new as the latest digital technology.

Instead of textbooks, the program’s basic instructional tool is a Web site,, which holds nearly 1,300 personal histories told by survivors, liberators and other witnesses to the Holocaust, as well as to more recent genocides, mainly in Africa.

From these testimonies — selected from a trove of the nearly 52,000 archived eyewitness accounts gathered by the Shoah Foundation — teachers are encouraged to create their own classroom lessons and homework assignments, and students can dig deep into the material by using 9,000 keywords that enable the user to focus on their specific interests.

Most importantly, iWitness is intended to encourage sixth- through 12th-graders in public, private and home schools to create videos using a special iWitness editor available on the Web site, which enables users to integrate clips from the testimonies with footage from other sources, as well as photos, voice-over audio, music and text.

The iWitness project is a direct descendant of “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie that in 1993 brought about a dramatic awareness of the Holocaust to members of a new generation as well as to their elders who had largely forgotten it.

Spielberg told the gathering a story he has frequently recounted: “After ‘Schindler’s List’ was finished, I would meet Holocaust survivors, and each would say, in so many words, ‘That’s a fine film, but you’ve only told a small part of what happened. Now let me tell you my story.’ ”

Although the filmmaker knew he could not make thousands upon thousands of movies about the Holocaust, he became convinced that each survivor’s story should be preserved in some way.

As a result, within a month after “Schindler’s List” won Academy Awards in 1994 for best picture and director, Spielberg and a small group of advisers launched the Shoah Foundation.

Its goal, seemingly an impossible task at the time, was to permanently record on videotape the testimonies of all Holocaust survivors willing to relive their traumas, as well as the accounts of liberators and other eyewitnesses.

In recent months, the Shoah Foundation expanded its mission to add testimonies from the victims of genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, as well as from descendants of Armenians who survived the mass slaughter of their people during World War I.

Even in mere numbers, the content of the foundation’s Visual History Archive is staggering.

Currently the collection includes 105,000 hours of video testimony, representing interviews with 51,696 witnesses. This massive archive, the largest collection of its kind in the world, is digitized, fully searchable and hyperlinked to the minute.

With the help of such indexing, scholars and students can access any of the material through more than 60,000 keywords, 1.2 million names and 700,000 images, while clips and full-length YouTube testimonies are available for more casual viewers (check

In addition to its historical contribution, the full visual history archive has been awarded 11 patents for digital collection management technologies.

On March 1, 1993, Spielberg started filming “Schindler’s List” in Krakow, Poland. Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of this venture, he announced not only the iWitness Video Challenge, but also the release of a Blu-ray version of “Schindler’s List,” restored from the 35-mm film original.

The limited-edition Blu-ray combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment offers the contents in a variety of formats, including Blu-ray disc, DVD, digital copy and UltraViolet.

Joining Spielberg and Smith at the introduction of the iWitness Challenge, the Shoah Foundation brought in 18 teenagers, students ages 13 to 18 from the Chandler School and from public middle and high schools, representing the ultimate targets and transmitters of the project.

Addressing students individually and as a group, Spielberg defined the highest purpose of his project. “We can use iWitness to show the power of random acts of kindness, the significance of contributions to the community, and the very idea that the best way to teach empathy is with examples of it,” he said.

“So that maybe some day, kindness will be a natural reflex, and not just a random act.”

The students sat around three tables, each facing a laptop computer. Checking out the scene, Kori Street, director of education for the Shoah Foundation, observed, “Today’s students would rather watch than read — that’s the reality. We live in a digital world.”

In that world, in the case of iWitness, students can pick, choose and blend together footage from the program’s 1,300 digital testimonies by Holocaust and genocide survivors.

Street believes this kind of exercise can lead to critical thinking, as well as connection to a specific issue, and finally concrete action by the students inspired by what they have absorbed.

One of the students was Steven Colin, a senior at the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in midtown Los Angeles, who was introduced to iWitness in a humanities class.

Colin, who is of Latino descent, said he has faced subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination. As a result, he said, he felt a kind of bond to the victims of the Nazi regime.

Matthew Culpepper, a seventh-grader at the Chandler School, said he himself has not had to face prejudice and that he could hardly grasp the testimonies on the video screen: “How could people do that to other people?” he asked.

Whether by impact of the iWitness project or inherent decency, Colin and Culpepper said they had recently stepped up and intervened when they saw classmates bullying fellow students.

Already, iWitness has reached about 2,000 educators from 35 countries and all 50 states, and 6,100 of students are involved in the program. And, Street said, China is showing interest as well.

“Our aspiration is to eventually reach 100,000 students,” Street said, noting that “you don’t even need classrooms. You can create your own project at home or in a library.”

Among participating Jewish schools in the Los Angeles area are the Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am and New Community Jewish High School.

All current students will submit projects to their teachers, with each student completing a video, one to four minutes long, tying what she or he has learned from the survivors’ stories to a personal contribution to better their communities.

Street cited the project of a group of students that watched the testimony of one survivor who had “lost his smile” in a concentration camp, but regained it through the love of his family.

Inspired, the group set out to help unhappy or depressed classmates, aiming to “turn that frown upside down” by posting humorous notes and supportive messages around its school campus.

At another school, a student watched the testimony of a survivor who related that despite the horrors of the concentration camp, some prisoners continued to sing to lift the spirits of fellow inmates. The student followed up by organizing a small choir, which then visited retirement homes to serenade the elderly.

Students with the best video entries from six regions, five from the United States and one from Canada, will be recognized, together with their teachers and parents, at another 20th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles. This event, in March 2014, will honor the founding of the Shoah Foundation itself.

Corah Forrrester, a 7th grader at Chandler School in Pasadena, created this video poem using testimony from Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics, given at the USC Shoah Foundation.

The Holocaust just got more shocking

Thirteen years ago, researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began the grim task of documenting all the ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe.

What they have found so far has shocked even scholars steeped in the history of the Holocaust.

The researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945.


Resurrecting Lithuania’s Jewish past

During the course of one month in 1941, most of the thousands of Jewish residents of Utena, Lithuania, were rounded up by the Nazis, taken into the forest and murdered. Only a few dozen managed to escape.

That episode nearly buried the entire history of the centuries-old town, but through the efforts of the nonprofit MACEVA and volunteers like students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, this history is finally being unearthed. On Jan. 23, the entire eighth-grade class at Heschel filled the gym to translate the Hebrew inscribed on recently uncovered gravestones from Utena.

MACEVA, from the Hebrew word for “gravestone” (matseyva), is an organization that aims to preserve evidence of old Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania. Grant Gochin, a member of MACEVA’s international advisory board, came upon the idea of restoring these burial grounds when he visited Lithuania a few years ago, interested in his own family’s history. 

“I realized that these cemeteries had fallen into complete disrepair, and that if we could read the gravestones, we could gain a small look into the lives of these people and help us honor their memory,” said Gochin, 49, a wealth adviser from Chatsworth. 

It quickly became a multinational effort as Gochin got kids here and in Lithuania involved in the restoration and translation project.

“I wanted the students to learn that the Jewish people didn’t just arrive here randomly or disappear abroad without so much as a footprint, but that they came from an immense, majestic history that needs to be understood,” he said.

Efrat Yakobi-Gafni, the middle school Hebrew coordinator at Heschel, saw the project as a way for students to not only use their Hebrew, but to understand Jewish history in a much more personal way. 

“They are learning this history in a very real sense, not just from a textbook,” she said. “It imparts an understanding of the destruction of Jewish communities that they cannot fathom just by reading.”

One of the gravestones. Photo by Julie Bien

In Lithuania, students went into the forests, located the gravestones, cleaned them, photographed them and uploaded the images onto MACEVA’s Web site. Heschel students then accessed the photos online and used their Hebrew skills to translate the names, dates and descriptions on the stones, which were then posted at

Romy Dolgin, a student at Heschel, found that the ability to work hand-in-hand with eighth-graders across the globe was one of the most exciting things about this project. 

“Just knowing that right now, kids on the other side of the world are looking at these tombstones, and it’s connecting us to them, is very thrilling,” she said.

“Obviously,” Romy added, “the most important part of this project is to remember and understand that these people whose names are on these gravestones lived there and had real lives, and their families want to be able to trace back to these villages to find out where they came from.” 

Gochin said that while the Heschel event was just for one day, their involvement with the project doesn’t need to end.

“The students can remain involved after doing this here. And their parents can as well,” he said. “There are thousands of untranslated gravestones that need to be translated. Hopefully, this will help the next generation understand and appreciate the history.”

Jews and guns

It is a given among liberal and progressive Jews that gun ownership among the general population is a bad thing. The ideal is near-universal disarmament with only a handful of individual exceptions and, of course, the police.

The majority of Americans have the opposite view. They believe that gun ownership is a fundamental American right, and that the more law-abiding Americans who own guns, the safer the society. This view is so widely held — even among many Democrats — that few Democratic politicians take anti-gun positions.

Like the great majority of American Jews I grew up in a home with no guns, no hunting, no target shooting or any other use of guns. Moreover, no one I knew had a gun or even knew how to use one. Diaspora Jewish culture is almost pacifist. And the general Jewish view is that non-Jews play with guns, not us Jews. A home with guns is as foreign to a Jewish liberal as gefilte fish is to a Mississippi Baptist.

Over the course of my lifetime I have come to side with the majority of Americans. I would hope that Jews are open to rethinking what has become, like most liberal beliefs, an essentially religious position.

I support gun ownership for two reasons — one American and the other Jewish.

First, I have come to admire the American value of the armed citizen. It is part of the great American value of independence and self-reliance. If I am armed, I can better protect myself, my loved ones and my neighbors.

America is great in large measure because Americans relied much less on the state than any other nation.

Jewish and other progressives see the state as a much more wonderful thing than do Americans who believe in traditional American values such as a small state and gun ownership (it would take a rewrite of American history to deny that gun ownership has been a traditional American value). Of course, the state can and must do good things. You cannot protect a country with armed militias; you protect it with a national army, navy and air force.

Progressives, taking their values from Europe, came to regard the state as the vehicle to a nearly utopian society. Gradually it displaces individual responsibility, parental authority and communal institutions.

But the traditional American view was that the state should do as little as possible, while the individual and the community should do as much as possible — including having the ability to protect ourselves against those who would do us harm. Of course police are indispensable. But the police almost always show up after an innocent has been murdered.

My Jewish reason largely emanates from the Holocaust.

Just as it amazes me that Jews can believe that people are basically good — after the Holocaust and all the other unspeakable evils inflicted on us Jews (and so many others) — it also amazes me that Jews can believe that it is a good thing that the state prohibits any of us from owning arms.

Both beliefs show how dogma trumps reality.

How many Jews the Nazis would have murdered if most European Jews had guns is impossible to know. But common sense suggests that the number would have been much lower. The Warsaw Ghetto revolt was begun with 10 old pistols and very little ammunition. Later a few hundred pistols and rifles and a few machine guns were smuggled into the ghetto. Himmler told Hitler he would quell the revolt in three days. It took four weeks. Many hundreds of German troops — perhaps a thousand — were killed or wounded.

If the Nazis knew that Jews refused to go to roundup areas and that many Jews were armed, awaiting Nazis to enter every apartment, it is difficult to imagine that the Nazi genocidal machinery would have been nearly as effective. And, vitally important, even had the number of Jews murdered been near 6 million (which I doubt), not all ways of dying are equal. There is a world of difference between being gassed or shot to death while standing naked beside the mass grave you were forced to dig and getting killed while shooting a Nazi.

The first thing every totalitarian regime does is confiscate weapons. As long as evil people have guns, good people will need to have them. This is true for nations (which is why it is so important for America and for the world that America have the strongest military) and it is true for individuals.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (

Steindorff artifacts to remain at University of Leipzig

A collection of Egyptian artifacts unearthed 96 years ago by Jewish Egyptologist Georg Steindorff and forcibly sold under the Nazis will remain at the University of Leipzig.

The agreement worked out between the university and the Claims Conference was announced Wednesday.

The decision follows public protests against a recent Berlin court order that the objects be handed over to the Claims Conference, which had fought to reclaim them as stolen Jewish property since the unification of former East and West Germany in 1990, Bloomberg reported.

An heir of Steindorff came forward recently to say the objects should remain in Leipzig.

The university has formally agreed that the collection—including a medical papyrus and a limestone head of Queen Nefertiti—was a loss of property due to persecution, according to a statement issued Wednesday by the Claims Conference.

The university will keep the collection and, instead of paying compensation, will devote time and funds toward a documentation of the life and work of Steindorff, who was appointed chair of the Egyptology department in 1893. The collection reportedly will include Steindorff’s explanatory charts and will detail the persecution Steindorff endured before his emigration in 1939. The university also has pledged to create a Holocaust education program.

Steindorff was born in 1861 in Dessau, Germany. As the university’s chief Egyptologist in 1915, he excavated the objects in question in the Giza plateau. Egyptian law then allowed the excavator to keep half of what was found.

Steindorff retired in 1934. Under the Nazi regime, he was forced to sell his private collection at an artificially low price; the university has owned the collection since 1937.

The agreement follows a Berlin Administrative Court ruling on May 26 that the university must return the collection to the Claims Conference as unclaimed Jewish property.

Following local protests, talks between the Claims Conference and the university resulted in an “amicable agreement” satisfactory to all parties, according to the Claims Conference chair Julius Berman.

Though the objects will not leave Leipzig, the Berlin court judgment “sends a special signal to all museums, galleries and auction houses” that they must research the provenance of their collections, said Roman Haller, director of the Claims Conference in Germany.

“The circumstances under which the cultural assets reached the museums must be transparent; we owe this to the victims,” Haller said.

Steindorff’s grandson, Thomas Hemer, 88, traveled from Nevada to his Leipzig birthplace to argue that the objects should remain at the institute that his grandfather had cherished, Bloomberg reported.

Prior to the agreement, Egyptian Minister for Antiquities Zahi Hawass reportedly also contacted the Claims Conference demanding that the objects be returned to Egypt.

Fox News chief: NPR bosses are Nazis

Roger Ailes, the Fox News Channel chief, called National Public Radio executives “Nazis” and said “left-wing rabbis” make it difficult to use the term “Holocaust” on air.

Ailes made the comments in an interview with the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz, who was canvassing recent controversies about the right-leaning news channel. Ailes hired Juan Williams, a commentator, full time after NPR fired Williams for saying on a Fox News report that he feared seeing Muslims on airplanes.

Williams and NPR long had feuded over Williams’ work on Fox, where he worked as a commentator and tended to express opinions rather than the analytical voice NPR says it expects from its employees.

“They are, of course, Nazis,” Ailes said of NPR executives. “They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view. They don’t even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda.”

Ailes also commented on the recent controversy involving Fox News commentator Glenn Beck and liberal billionaire George Soros. Beck, citing Soros’ writings and interviews, said several days earlier that Soros as a teenager in Nazi-occupied Hungary had helped send Jews to death camps and had confiscated their properties.

A number of Jewish groups complained in Soros’ defense, saying that Beck was using a survivor’s experience of Nazi oppression to incriminate him in Nazi crimes. But Fox has stood by Beck.

In his writings, Soros has described living as a Christian in order to save his life. In one case, he accompanied his Christian protector to a Jewish-owned property to catalog goods; the owner already had fled. In another, he delivered summonses from the local Jewish council to local Jewish lawyers, but on his father’s advice warned the lawyers to flee as the summonses likely indicated deportation.

Ailes also complained to Kurtz that there are “left-wing rabbis who basically don’t think that anybody can ever use the word ‘Holocaust’ on the air.”

Calif. Attorney General Joins Fight to Return Paintings Stolen by Nazis

California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has joined a lawsuit to force the Norton Simon Museum to return two 500-year-old paintings to the heir of a Dutch Jewish art dealer.

At stake are “Adam and Eve,” painted on two wooden panels by 16th century German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. They were looted by the Nazis, then displayed in the home of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s air force chief, and purchased some 40 years ago by the Pasadena museum.

Plaintiff in the case is Marei von Saher, daughter-in-law of art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, demanding the return of the paintings, appraised last year at $24 million.

Brown joined the dispute this week by filing a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, in support of von Saher’s petition to have the case heard by the highest court.

Von Saher, who is not Jewish, lives in Greenwich, Conn., and to the layperson it may appear odd for the California attorney general to side with a nonresident against a California institution. But the underlying legal implications are more complex, explained Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, an international authority on looted art, who is serving as local counsel to the New York law firm representing von Saher.

In contention is a California law that extends to the end of 2010 the statute of limitations for heirs of Holocaust victims to file for restitution.
The law was declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court because it infringed on the U.S. government’s exclusive right to deal with foreign policy matters.

In filing the brief in the von Saher case, Brown argues that the California law is valid because it does not affect foreign policy but rather rests on the state’s right to regulate museums and galleries.

The Norton Simon Museum is contesting von Saher’s claims and in a lengthy statement traced the provenance of the two paintings through ownership by the governments of the Soviet Union, Germany and the Netherlands to a Russian-American family, which sold them to the museum in the early 1970s.

The statement concludes by declaring that “the Norton Simon Art Foundation is confident that it holds complete and proper title to ‘Adam and Eve.’ ”

Music Banned by Nazis Finds New Life With L.A. Chamber Orchestra

If you ask 35-year-old violinist Daniel Hope about his Jewish heritage, make sure you have time. It’s a complicated question.

“On my mother’s side was an incredibly Orthodox Jewish family that goes back to the first rabbi of Potsdam,” he said during a recent late-night cell phone call while in transit to Hamburg, Germany, for a concert the next day.

“They gradually became more assimilated into German society until they converted,” he said, citing a similarity to Mendelssohn’s family in the 19th century.

Hope, widely regarded as one of the finest violinists of his generation, performs the original 1844 version of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, along with Erwin Schulhoff’s Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, arranged by Hope from the original for flute and piano, this weekend with conductor Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

The program, which also offers a Kahane favorite, Kurt Weill’s Symphony No. 2, is linked by the fact that the music of all three composers was banned by the Nazis. Schulhoff died in Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942, and Weill, who was already a prominent Jewish composer (his father was a cantor), fled Germany in March 1933.

The London-raised Hope said he was “an enormous mixture.” He was born in South Africa, but his parents, who criticized that regime’s policy of apartheid, were living under surveillance. After his Irish-Catholic father’s books were banned, the family was forced to leave; Hope was 6 months old.

Hope speaks eloquently of having a “Jewish soul,” and given that he’s spent the past 15 years researching, performing, recording and writing about music banned by the Nazis, that soul must run very deep.

His most recent discs for Deutsche Grammophon include “Air: A Baroque Journey,” the Mendelssohn Concerto and “Terezín/Theresienstadt,”with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and he said his connection to composers like Schulhoff started “completely by chance,” when he was driving home after a concert.

“A string trio came on the radio that sounded a bit like Bartók, Stravinsky and a bit of Janácek,” he recalled. “I pulled over and waited to hear who it was: Gideon Klein. “He was the young motor behind Theresienstadt, who encouraged composers not to give up hope, but to write. And that’s what got me going. The music is what grabbed me. The story behind it is extraordinary, but I didn’t need the story to appreciate the music. The music speaks for itself.”

Klein died in 1945 at the Fürstengrube concentration camp soon after finishing his trio. He was 26.

Hope, on tour recently with von Otter performing Schulhoff’s solo and chamber music, said he was “longing for a piece of his that had an orchestral accompaniment.” Since Schulhoff didn’t live to compose a violin concerto, Hope arranged his score for flute and piano.

Kahane shares with Hope a personal connection to this music (one of Kahane’s relatives died in Theresienstadt, another in Auschwitz), and he first heard Schulhoff’s work a few summers ago. “I was flabbergasted by the depth and profundity of his music,” Kahane said. “Schulhoff left an important and wonderfully diverse legacy.” He called the Double Concerto “evocative and very likable” with a “joyous” last movement. And he places Weill’s “stunningly orchestrated” Symphony No. 2 with the best music being written during the late 1920s and early ’30s.

Hope said he was looking forward to performing the original version of the Mendelssohn concerto with Kahane’s band. Mendelssohn, whose father, Abraham, was responsible for the family converting to Christianity, speaks to Hope on a very personal level. “I’ve always found that Mendelssohn goes back to his Jewish roots,” he said. “I hear that in his music, and that’s what I love about it. My Jewish side is extremely important to me. I feel very much in touch with it in every piece I play, and in the violin itself.”

Hope came to the violin in what he called a “weird and wild coincidence,” when his mother became secretary (and later a manager) to the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin had an immediate impact on his family, and by the age of 4, Hope was hooked on the violin.

“It was one of those small moments in life that changes everything,” he said, citing the “sheer originality of Menuhin’s musical expression.”

“Menuhin was able to look at a phrase and tell you a whole chapter about a piece,” Hope recalled. “I was on tour with him, and he was conducting the Mendelssohn Concerto, and there’s this beautiful song that happens between the violin and orchestra in the introduction to the last movement. And Menuhin likened it to a young man talking to his rabbi — the consoler. The young man asks the question [Hope sings it as Menuhin once did for him], and the rabbi answers [he sings again]. The way he sung and portrayed that … every time I play the piece, I think of him.

“The greatest victory as far as all these composers are concerned is that we’re playing them today,” Hope continued. “The fact that most of them were killed means their music was still stronger — it survived the terrible behavior of human beings. For me, that’s the greatest possible victory.”

Violinist Daniel Hope and pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane perform selected pieces by composers Schulhoff,  Mendelssohn and Weill on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Sunday at 7 p.m. at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Westwood. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.