Jewish Groups Join Quake Relief Efforts

For thousands of young Israelis, the sun-drenched archipelagos of Southeast Asia were the perfect destination to forget the rigors of military service.

But this week, that post-Zionist nirvana became a nightmare. The tsunami that swept India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands on Sunday plunged hundreds of Israeli families into a frenzy of worry over relatives feared lost while touring.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that witness testimony suggested that at nearly 70 of the approximately 500 Israeli tourists still unaccounted for in hard-hit Southeast Asian nations may have been swept out to sea and drowned. At least 33 Israelis are receiving treatment in hospitals in the region, the Foreign Ministry said.

For thousands of families living in or visiting the Indian Ocean region, Sunday’s catastrophe confirmed their worst fears: At least 45,000 people were killed by the devastating earthquake and tsunami, mostly in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.

A Belgian Jewish couple reportedly lost their 11-month-old son in the disaster. According to Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Matan Nassima’s body was found Tuesday near the Thai resort where his family had been vacationing.

Details were not immediately known, but it also was believed that members of the South African, Australian and New Zealand Jewish communities were missing.

Immediately after the tragedy, Israel and Jewish groups swung into action. Israel’s Foreign Ministry set aside $100,000 in aid for each of the countries hit by the tsunami. Four top doctors from Israel’s Hadassah Hospital were dispatched to Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the ministry’s request, Hadassah said. Among them were the hospital’s head of general surgery and trauma, its chief of pediatrics and two anesthesiologists.

On Tuesday, Sri Lanka turned down an Israeli offer to send military personnel to help with search-and-rescue efforts but said it would accept a smaller team.

North American Jewish groups also were participating in the relief efforts. The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) was expecting to send its first shipment of medicine Tuesday to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. It has been coordinating with 23 partner organizations in the region to assess needs on the ground. The group is hoping to receive donations to cover the cost of emergency supplies.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is working with its office in Bombay and elsewhere to coordinate relief efforts. The organization is hoping to provide food, water, clothing and shelter to countries affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Chabad of Thailand responded to the crisis by dispatching a rabbi to Phuket to aid rescue efforts and turned the three Chabad Houses of Thailand into crisis centers where survivors can call home, get a free meal or receive funds for new clothing and medical help.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has established a Southeast Asia Relief Fund. To contribute, call (323) 761-8200, or send a check payable to The Jewish Federation at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048 and write Southeast Asia Relief Fund on the memo line.

For families of potential victims, the waiting for news was excruciating.

At Erez Katran’s home in Haifa, a 24-hour vigil was set up next to the telephone in hopes that he would call. His family hoped Katran’s silence was due to the fact that he was incommunicado while sailing in the Bay of Bengal. Katran was among the Israelis who remained unaccounted for Tuesday, despite urgent Foreign Ministry efforts to track them down.

In addition to delivering bad news, the Israeli communications industry pitched in with the search efforts. Every major Web site set up a page where pictures of missing tourists could be posted in hope that someone would report their location, and one cellphone company offered its Israeli customers in Southeast Asia 10 minutes of free air time to call home.

JTA staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

Relief Donations Sought

The following Jewish organizations are seeking funds to assist in the relief effort:

• American Jewish World Service, ” target=”_blank”>, (212) 687-6200, ext. 889.

• B’nai B’rith, or by mail to the B’nai B’rith Disaster Relief Fund, 2020 K St., NW, Seventh Floor, Washington, D.C., 20006.

• Chabad of Thailand, 96 Thanon Rambuttri, Bangkok, Thailand 10200; For U.S. tax deductibility, checks should be made out to American Friends of Chabad of Thailand.)

Judgment of Herbert Bierhoff

The nightmares have plagued Dr. Sigi Ziering since the Holocaust.

“Of all the many memories of friends and family that I [have] carried with me for over 50 years, the fate of the Bierhoff family… [has] caused me the most sleepless nights,” Ziering says, through a character in his new play, “The Judgment of Herbert Bierhoff.” The play, the first ever written by the 71-year-old businessman and philanthropist, will be performed in a staged reading at the University of Judaism Sept. 15 and 16, and star Jon Voight and Cloris Leachman.

“Bierhoff,” Ziering says, was inspired by a man he knew in the last days of the Jewish ghetto in Riga, Latvia, in the fall of 1943. Herbert Bierhoff was a Jew and a ghetto policeman; his 5-year-old daughter, Ellen, was one of the few children who had survived the repeated “selections,” in part because of her father’s privileged position.

As a ghetto policeman, Bierhoff knew of the shooting of 29,000 Latvian Jews in the Rumbuli forest in 1941; he knew of the daily hangings and beatings, and he knew about the impending liquidation of the ghetto in the fall of 1943.

Thus, Bierhoff took startling action. Just before the liquidation, he poisoned his young daughter — a mercy killing to save the child from an infinitely more brutal death at the hands of the SS.

“Soon afterwards, Herbert Bierhoff was shot by the ghetto Kommandant, and his wife died in the concentration camp, Stutthof,” says Ziering, who survived the war along with his mother and brother.

But Bierhoff’s deed haunted Ziering, and the obsession intensified over the years, with the birth of the survivor’s own children and grandchildren. In Ziering’s dreams, the faces of his children and grandchildren transform into the face of Ellen Bierhoff.

In his semi-autobiographical play, Ziering recounts many of his own remarkable experiences from World War II.

In December 1941, 13-year-old Ziering and 1,000 other Jews from Kassel, Germany, marched under police escort from the Schillerstrasse Gymnasium to the main railway station in town. They were deported to the Riga ghetto, where Ziering lived until he was transported to Kaiserwald and, eventually, to the Kiel-Hasse concentration camp after a forced death march. At Kiel-Hasse, the teenager was saved by a virtual miracle in the spring of 1945.

One day in late April, an SS officer took him to the camp’s morgue. He forced Ziering to remove civilian clothing from corpses and informed him that he would be departing with the Swedish Red Cross the next morning. “We hardly slept that night,” Ziering recalls, “because we expected the worst.” But the following day, white trucks with the Swedish Red Cross flag arrived at the camp, where “the SS was frighteningly civil and even made a farewell speech…as if we were leaving a vacation resort,” Ziering recalls in the play.

Later, the survivor learned that Count Bernadotte of Sweden had negotiated with Himmler to exchange a few thousand Jews for a few million dollars.

Ziering immigrated to the U.S. in 1949; he married Marilyn, an American-born Jew, in 1953, and four years later, he earned his doctorate in physics from Syracuse University. The survivor worked in the aerospace industry before he and Marilyn moved to L.A. and founded their international medical supplies company, Diagnostic Products Corp., in 1971. Ziering, a past president of Temple Beth Am, now serves on the board of the University of Judaism and is co-chair of the L.A. section of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Over the years, however, he never forgot the terrible dilemma of Herbert Bierhoff. “I thought about it for 50 years, and then I decided I must put it in writing,” the survivor says of his play, which seeks to answer Ziering’s owns questions about whether Bierhoff’s actions could be forgiven by God. Writing the play has provided some closure, he says. “But I still dream about it,” he admits.

For tickets, which are $10, call Mindy Cohn at (310) 440-1209.

Dreaming C’s

Either the apocalypse is coming, or I’ve been living in Los Angeles too long. Last night, I woke up from the most vivid dream, the kind that feels like it lasted all night, the kind of dream that feels like a journey through every emotion.

I dreamt that I had gotten a breast enlargement.

In the dream, I agonized over the decision — the size, where the scars would be. When I awoke from surgery, I felt the breasts, a solid C cup, overly firm, scars across the sides. They were heavy, swollen. I pondered the things I could wear, the bikini tops, the low-cut sweaters. I was going to draw attention. Cars would stop as I passed. I had arrived.

Until the thought hit me: What had I done? I was stuck with these things forever. They sat up high and surreal on my chest. Everywhere I went, they would follow. Special bras would have to be bought. I couldn’t run, couldn’t sleep on my stomach. I would have to accommodate and explain these for the rest of my life. A terror gripped me, and I awoke in a sweat.

Smacking the snooze button, I ran to the mirror. The familiar 36B breasts were back. I was relieved, but a little disappointed, too.

Oddly enough, the dream followed the pattern of a recurring nightmare I’ve had for several years, in which I give birth to a child, go through pain, labor and finally elation at this glowing little baby in my arms before the thought paralyzes me: I will be responsible for this thing for the rest of my life, and I can’t take it back.

That nightmare seems normal enough for a woman in her 20s, but the breast dream — what was that all about?

Considering I grew up in California in the era of rampant breast enhancement, I was remarkably free from breast envy, for a girl with an athletic body and a pretty flat chest.

The French say the perfect breast should fit into a a champagne glass, and that saying pleased me well enough. I was never self-conscious, never wanted to buy into another reason for a woman to feel insufficient. I would never have considered risking major surgery to transform my body into some distorted, grotesque male fantasy. It seemed absurd and sad.

But I moved to Los Angeles, and, two years later, the dream.

Jung said a dream is like a letter from the unconscious to the conscious mind, full of symbolism and waiting to be opened. So I thought about it.

It’s always been clear to me that beauty opens doors, but never so obvious as it is here. Any pragmatist can see that beauty, perhaps in the form of a pair of surgically enhanced breasts, eases one’s way through life.

Beauty is within. Bodies of all shapes are beautiful. Our bodies are just the hand dealt to us in a game of gene poker; they don’t represent our spirit or our talents or what we have to give the world. These things I know and have been told about since I was old enough to ask my mother to teach me how to shave my legs. Still, there’s no erasing the inexorable experience of watching a roomful of men become stunned, speechless and momentarily still when a gorgeous winner of the genetic lottery glides into a room.

I think in many women my age there are two warring wants: There’s the desire to make our mark as individuals and be free of the shackles of facials and waxing and the silly search for the perfect lip shade. Underneath lurks the inexplicable desire to stop traffic with the sheer force of a pretty face and a perfect body.

I’ll never forget renting a documentary on Sylvia Plath when I was in college. There were the depressions, the intense inner life, the angry, lyrical poems. But what haunted me were the stills of Plath posing as a model, lithe in Capri pants, for the Smith College yearbook. I was stunned. Plath herself was caught in the same conundrum.

Two women I know, about 10 years older than myself, tell me that there will be stretch marks to come, drooping and the occasional unfortunate hair to be plucked as the breasts age. I will have to steel myself against comparisons with some air-brushed ideal whenever a man sees me naked. It will only get harder to assure myself that breasts are just a feature like any other, designed for a purpose, appealing at any size.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to save my pennies and wake up one day in a recovery room to a perfect rack?

Hence, the dream. The unopened letter is just a note from the back of the brain to say, Guess what, read all the feminist books you want, go as far as your courage and intellect can take you. But make no mistake, the struggle that began in puberty remains.

Junior high. The boys rate the girls in the class, ranking them from one to 10. I don’t know what I want more, to merit a high score on the pretty list or to beat out Moukie Moore in the spelling bee. High school. I know the answer, but I don’t raise my hand in class, because Alan Aranofsky might think I’m a geek or my voice might sound funny when the answer comes out. I scribble it in my notebook. College. I’m working my way through school and getting straight A’s in two majors, but I’m also scooping ice cream and I can’t stay away from the mint chip. I’m chubby and round-faced, and nothing else seems to matter.

Here I am, years later and still hearing the silent ratings from one to 10. As much as I hate myself for it sometimes, I still feel good when I look good, and life comes more easily to me.

I won’t be getting the breast enlargement, but my girlfriends tell me there’s a $72 bra made in Italy that is a magical investment. It lifts and separates. The underwires don’t dig. It looks natural, and with a deftly placed combination of silk and latches and straps, it gives you a slightly better silhouette than your genes may have had in store for you. Best of all, at the end of the day, it comes off.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.