Karen Ulric, who traveled to Germany on a tour of Jewish heritage sites in July, observes a Holocaust memorial in Frankfurt. Photos by Eitan Arom

Seven decades after the Holocaust, can a Jew enjoy a German vacation?

Our gaggle of mostly Jewish, mostly American travelers stepped off a tour bus on the outskirts of Nuremberg, Germany, pointing cameras this way and that and ambling onto a seemingly unremarkable, wide-open expanse of pavement surrounded by parkland.

It was a glorious Sunday in July, and the Nurembergers were soaking it in, gliding by on bicycles and rollerblades, for the most part ignoring the monolithic concrete structure looming over a set of bleachers. Nobody seemed particularly bothered by the fact of what brought us there: About 80 years earlier, Adolf Hitler stood high atop the structure to review a parade of goose-stepping Nazi troops.

As we fanned out across the former parade ground, snapping photos, I thought to myself: This is an odd way to spend a vacation.

I had my reservations about traveling to Germany. I had been to Ukraine and Poland, seen killing fields and the ruins of ancient synagogues, but venturing into the heartland of the Holocaust seemed a daunting prospect. It wasn’t a trip I likely would have taken had I not been invited to go without paying a dime.

In June, I hadn’t given a second thought to accepting an invitation from the Encino-based travel company Uniworld to join a river cruise down the Rhine and Main Rivers on one of its inaugural tours of Jewish heritage sites in Germany.

After all, who says no to a free cruise?

But as my July departure date drew near, my hesitation mounted. I grew up in a home where German cars were strictly verboten. My current bedroom is home to piles of books about the Holocaust, with names such as Elie Wiesel and Hannah Arendt staring at  me from their spines. And as a reporter on the Jewish world at a time when racist ideologies are on the rise, Hitler’s handiwork is never far from my mind.

I decided my trip would be a test. Germany is a modern, beautiful country abounding with history and culture. I would be sailing in style down two scenic and storied rivers. I intended to find out, more than 70 years after the gas chambers were shut down, whether a Jew like me could enjoy a luxurious German vacation.

At first, things looked promising. Our group of writers and reporters met our ship, the River Ambassador, while it was docked near Frankfurt. It was an elegant, elongated vessel, designed to fit precisely through the locks on the rivers. As soon as I stepped on board, a glass of white wine materialized in my hand, proffered by the hyperattentive cruise staff. I then retired to my stateroom to lie back and watch the rolling hills and quaint river towns glide by my window.

Nurembergers cycle past a podium where, about 80 years ago, Adolf Hitler reviewed goose-stepping Nazi troops on parade.


The next day, I awoke from this pleasant dream into a crueler reality.

We disembarked and took a bus to Frankfurt, where Uniworld had arranged for us to meet a member of the local Jewish community, a graduate student active in Hillel International and the Jewish Student Union Germany. Despite his attempt to paint a rosy picture of Germany’s future, he seemed to return constantly to its grim past and uncertain present.

“We have a functioning community,” he reassured us. (Tepid praise if ever I’ve heard it.)

“There is a future in Germany. There’s a young movement coming that wants to change things, that doesn’t want to be afraid to be a Jew in Germany,” he said.

Later, we stood outside the aging hulk of a synagogue used by all three major denominations of Frankfurt Jews, a magnificent edifice that had seen better days. It was closed to the public and looked abandoned but for a few Orthodox men hurrying in and out via side entrances. As we stood shifting our feet, I wrote a sad little poem about the massive shul. It was only Day One of the cruise and Germany already was throwing me for a loop.

The author took a river cruise down the Rhine and Main Rivers on a tour of Jewish heritage sites in Germany. Photo from Wikimedia


After that, it was back to the ship for an evening of sailing, fine dining and drinking at the open bar. Before dinner each evening, the ship’s bartender and sommelier addressed the passengers in the spacious lounge to apprise us of the evening’s fermented offerings.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman, it is wine o’clock,” she said, psyching us up for her nightly pun. “Remember, everything happens for a Riesling.”

The cruise continued in much the same way: Day trips focused on Germany’s painful Jewish past and diminished Jewish presence, followed by evenings of merriment and luxury.

Even in seemingly innocuous locales such as Rothenberg, a walled town of nearly pristine medieval architecture, our tour guides told stories of unthinkable terror visited upon generations of unfortunate Jews.

Emerging from one of the cobblestone alleys into a square, we caught site of what seemed to be a Jewish star hanging at the site of Rothenberg’s first Jewish quarter. But our guide quickly disabused us of any such hope. In Germany, that particular six-pointed star symbolizes beer: An upside-down triangle for water, plus an upright triangle representing fire — in a truly German feat of addition —  means beer. Here in Rothenberg, it signaled the presence of a pub.

The disappointment in our ranks was palpable.

We did learn, however, that the synagogue that once stood in the square was demolished after all 450 Jews who lived in Rothenberg in 1298 were flayed or burned alive.

For the great majority of the 2.2 million tourists who visit Rothenberg every year, the place is a medieval playground of gift shops and sidewalk cafes. For my fellow travelers and me, it was a graveyard.

The trip continued in much the same way, with the members of our little group keeping our chins up as we ambled through centuries of persecution.

The next day, I sat in Nuremberg’s historic main square with a belly full of pork sausage, drinking a shandy beneath a glorious blue sky as a reggae band tuned up for a free concert. Sipping my beer-and-lemonade mixture, I tried — perhaps too hard — to prove to myself that I could have a good time immersed in secular pleasures, Jewish history be damned. 

The author enjoys a shandy in front of the Church of Our Lady in Nuremberg, built on
the site of a synagogue destroyed during a 14th-century pogrom.

Opposite me, a looming Gothic church scowled across the throngs that choked the square. Our guide had informed us as that the Church of Our Lady was built on the site of a Jewish synagogue destroyed in 1349, when Nuremberg’s Jews were burned alive as scapegoats for the Black Plague.

No marker indicated the Jewish significance of the church. But the fact of its origins darkened my mood. I felt doomed to walk like a ghost through a landscape of long-forgotten horrors.

Had I not known about the 1349 pogrom, I wondered, would I have enjoyed my sausage and shandy in peace?

The emotional climax of the trip was a visit to Dachau, the labor camp-turned memorial complex. The morning of our visit, on the second-to-last day of the trip, my stomach tied itself into knots as we stepped off our ship and boarded a bus. The Jewish heritage sites on the trip’s itinerary were optional, with other day-trip options on offer, but nearly our entire group chose to visit the camp.

I moved with practiced stoicism through Dachau’s gravel-strewn complex until we reached the area of the camp’s crematory, a lustrous green clearing in the woods that stood in stark contrast to the hot, barren expanse where the prisoners’ barracks were once located.

In a corner of the clearing was a landscaped patch with bushes and ferns, and a stone monument with a Jewish star bearing an inscription in German, English and Hebrew: “Do not forget.” A footstone read: “Grave of Thousands Unknown.”

The words of the Mourner’s Kaddish jumped into my mind and tears into my eyes.

To visit Germany as a Jew without paying heed to our painful saga there is to miss an opportunity to mourn a deep and staggering loss.

You can ignore history or drown it with a bottle of wine, but like all of life’s challenges, that doesn’t make the horror go away.

Perhaps without the grim reminders from our tour guides, I might have seen Germany’s fairy-tale villages and ancient castles as the quaint locales and proud landmarks that beguile millions of tourists — rather than elements of a multigenerational crime scene.

But I doubt I could ever take it all in without being haunted by the pain and suffering that took place there. I’ve had too much Elie Wiesel in my life, too many visits to Holocaust museums and too many family stories from the grim years of 1939 and 1942 for me to uncritically sip beer and scarf sausages like the average tourist.

If you’ll forgive the pun, that ship has already sailed.

Nazis, newspapers and Nuremberg

Once again, the summer season, noted for youth-oriented blockbusters, manages to include some serious fare aimed at more mature, discerning audiences, including several projects dealing with the World War II era and its aftermath.

The filmmakers of “The Debt,” a Nazi-hunter movie slated to open Aug. 31, could not have planned their release any better. The movie, which arrives on the heels of the American assassination of Osama bin Laden, concerns three Mossad agents who become iconic figures for having hunted down and killed a Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen). The plot cuts back and forth between the 1960s, when the capture and killing is reported to have occurred, and the late 1990s, when the three are confronted by unexpected and unsettling events. “The Debt” is double-cast, with one set of actors playing the Israeli agents during the earlier time period and another set portraying the three some 30 years later. The older version of the central character is played by Helen Mirren, the younger one by Jessica Chastain.

Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) said he was attracted to the material because he felt it had the potential to engage audiences on several levels.

“It has to do with people accounting for sins of the past, as it were — in particular, the pursuit of a Nazi war criminal, and the bringing of that person to justice. So the material is compelling to start with. It’s also an extraordinarily good thriller. It has a great narrative. But, above and beyond that, and this is what’s unusual about it, it has a psychological and emotional complexity, and, indeed, a moral complexity that is unusual to find in contemporary thrillers.” 

Madden continued, “It’s about the relationship between present and past, not just in the whole idea of what does it means to bring somebody to justice some period of time after those events have been supposedly committed. … But, the film is also about moral responsibility.”

The moral and legal responsibility of the major Nazi perpetrators was ultimately determined in the precedent-setting war crimes trial at Nuremberg, which was documented in 1948 by Stuart Schulberg in his film “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today.” The doc consists of highlights from the trial, including the legendary opening and closing speeches by Justice Robert H. Jackson, and presentations by prosecutors from the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The prosecution bolstered its case using footage that Schulberg and his brother, Budd, had helped assemble from the Nazis’ own films and photographs, along with motion pictures taken as the Allies liberated some of the concentration camps, and the documentary interweaves that material with the trial segments.

Although shown in Germany after the war, “Nuremberg” was never released in the United States. Stuart Schulberg’s daughter, Sandra, along with Josh Waletzky, spent some five years restoring her father’s film so it could be shown in this country. 

“If I were not a professional film producer,” Sandra Schulberg said, “it might never have occurred to me to restore the film and try to get it released in the U.S. But, faced with the facts — the fascinating mystery of what had happened to ‘Nuremberg’ after its German release — this seemed to be my schicksal, my fate. ‘If not I, then who?’ I thought. ‘If not now, when?’ ” 

Schulberg also wanted to find out exactly why her late father’s film had been suppressed in this country.

“In the fall of 1949, nearly a year after the German release of the film,” she said, “John Norris, a reporter for The Washington Post, began an investigation. His first story, dated Sept. 19, was headlined: ‘Army Reluctant To Clarify Inaction On Nuremberg Film.’ ”

As part of his article, Norris wrote: “It is known that strong forces in the Army opposed the entire war crimes program from the beginning — or at least after it was decided to try German army chiefs and general staff members. Army Secretary Kenneth Royall and Undersecretary Draper were said to be in this camp and clearly were in favor of rebuilding Germany as a bulwark against communism. Too quickly and with too little regard for a resurgence of Nazism, some said.”

Kristin Scott Thomas in “Sarah’s Key.” Photo by Hugo Production/JulienBonet

Schulberg explained that Norris’ charges were substantiated by a letter from Secretary Kenneth Royall, addressed to Justice Jackson.

“To my surprise,” she said, “the letter is dated November 1948, almost a year before The Washington Post got on top of the story. Royall writes to Jackson: ‘In this country no general release is under consideration. It is my opinion that the theme is contrary to present policies and aims of the government; therefore it is felt that the picture at this time can be of no significant value to the Army and Nation as a whole.’ ”

Now, more than 60 years after it was made, “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today [The Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration]” is being seen by American audiences for the first time.

The documentary has a one-week exclusive engagement, June 3-9, at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, and Sandra Schulberg will appear on June 3 at the 5:15, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. screenings; and on June 4 and 5 at the 12:45, 3, 5:15, 7:30 and 9:45 screenings.

Another film that involves the Nazi era is the French offering, “Sarah’s Key,” scheduled for a June 3 release. As with “The Debt,” this movie goes back and forth in time. It begins in 1942, during the German occupation of France. Ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) is playing with her younger brother Michel (Paul Mercier) when the French police, who are arresting Jews in the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, knock on their door. To protect him from being captured, Sarah locks her brother in a cabinet, tells him not to move until she returns, and keeps the key as she and her parents (Natasha Mashkevich, Arben Bajraktaraj) are taken to a stadium, the Velodrome, where thousands of Jews are held under inhuman conditions. Sarah, desperate to return home and free her brother, is ultimately transported to a camp and housed with other children. She and a friend escape and eventually are given refuge by a couple (Niels Arestrup, Dominique Frot ) who live on a farm. When the couple finally takes her back to her old apartment, now occupied by another family, she makes a devastating discovery.

The present-day story centers on Julia Armand (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist, who is in France compiling a story on the Vel’ d’Hiv. In the course of her research she is stunned to discover that the apartment she and her French husband, Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), plan to occupy was once the Starzynskis’ apartment and was obtained by Bertrand’s family shortly after the Starzynskis were arrested. She then goes on a quest to find out what happened to Sarah, who was raised by the French farmers as their daughter. In the course of her search, which ends in Brooklyn, layers of secrets are uncovered.

During an interview with reporter Gaynor Flynn that appeared in the Australian publication The Blurb, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who is Jewish, said that the story had personal meaning for him because he lost some of his family in concentration camps.

But he stressed in the interview that he wanted Sarah to be a symbol of what can happen to any group, not only to Jews, and he pointed out that such a character could easily be from Rwanda or Palestine, so that anybody can connect with the story.

Nazism is also present in the biopic “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” opening Sept. 2, which chronicles the dissolute life of the famous French-Jewish singer/songwriter/musician Serge Gainsbourg.

The character’s chutzpah is evident when, as a youngster during the German occupation, he demands to be the first to get the obligatory yellow star. The story is essentially about the descent of a brilliant talent given to excess as a smoker, drinker and lover.  Gainsbourg became a huge success for his music, which encompassed jazz, pop, reggae, funk, calypso and disco, among other genres. He had affairs with a series of beauties, including Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta). His third wife was the considerably younger British actress and singer Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon) with whom he recorded “Je t’aime … moi non plus,” a highly erotic duet that, in the film, prompts Gainsbourg’s music producer (Claude Chabrol) to warn that the release could land them in jail.

When Gainsbourg died of a heart attack in 1991, at the age of 62, French President Mitterrand said: “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire. He elevated the song to the level of art.”

Life in postwar Holland, as indicated by the film “Bride Flight,” was bleak, what with floods, housing shortages and very little opportunity for young people. Consequently, there were waves of emigration. The movie, which opens June 10, covers some 50 years and was inspired by the “Last Great Air Race” of 1953 that began in London and ended in Christchurch, New Zealand. The term “Bride Flight” refers to the young women on the plane who were following their fiancés to New Zealand to begin what they hoped would be a better life.

Though the characters are fictional, the events are based on the actual experiences of women who were interviewed by the script’s writer.

The film revolves around three such women and one man who all become friends on the flight; Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), whose family died in a Japanese prison camp and who is looking for a new beginning; Marjorie (Elise Schaap), who makes a happy marriage but is unable to have children; Ada (Karina Smulders), who gets married because she is pregnant, but whose marriage is marred by her attraction to another man; and Esther (Anna Drijver), a budding fashion designer who remains unmarried but gets pregnant and, as a Jewish woman, is adamant that she doesn’t want a Jewish child. “Esther had terrible experiences during Holland’s occupation by the Germans,” director Ben Sombogaart explained. “Her entire family, including her parents and little brother, were taken away from her and killed in the Nazi camps. Then she decided not to have a Jewish child because she wanted to avoid the same thing happening to him or her.”

From the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, a challenge for today

Sixty-five years ago at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, 22 defendants stood in the dock. They represented a cross-section of Nazi diplomatic, economic, political and military leadership, and became the first people in history to be indicted for crimes against humanity.

A tribunal of judges from the victorious Allied countries—the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union—did not convict all of the defendants. While 12 were sentenced to death, three to life terms and four to prison terms of up to 20 years, three were acquitted.

Additional trials were held in the following years. Collectively, all of the proceedings are now commonly referred to as the Nuremberg Trials.

Well before the war ended, the Allies had decided to prosecute Germans who were responsible for crimes against civilian populations. They believed that trials would hold an important place in history. They also hoped that establishing a new legal precedent would extinguish the possibility of the world ever facing these crimes again.

Among its legacies, the military tribunal at Nuremberg codified a new law—crimes against humanity—to protect civilians, and it prosecuted Nazi war criminals for atrocities they committed not only against their own citizens but those of other nations. It rejected the long-standing doctrine of sovereign immunity, which exempted heads of state from prosecution for actions taken while in office, and the doctrine of superior orders, which protected subordinates from being prosecuted for crimes they committed under orders. 

The legacy of Nuremberg in preventing future atrocities has been uneven. The United Nations unanimously adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on Dec. 9, 1948. However, the United States did not become a party to the U.N Convention until 1988, and not until the 1990s were the first international criminal tribunals since Nuremberg established in the wake of the massive failure to prevent genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.

More recently, some encouraging signs that genocide prevention efforts are taking hold have emerged. In 2002, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court established the first permanent judicial body dedicated to trying those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Three years later the World Summit, a gathering of leaders from U.N. member countries, adopted language maintaining that member nations have a “responsibility to protect” civilians anywhere when their own government cannot or will not protect them from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing.

Whether these trends continue will depend on the will of policymakers and the commitment of their constituents to making prevention and punishment a priority.

In addition to its legal legacy, Nuremberg had an enormous impact on our collective understanding of this pivotal era in history. The U.S. chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, made a crucial decision to base the prosecution on the voluminous documentary evidence produced by the perpetrators of genocide themselves rather than eyewitness testimony, in part because he feared the testimony of survivors and other witnesses to Nazi crimes could be dismissed as unreliable or biased.

Jackson’s decision to rely on documentary evidence presented a fuller picture of Nazi atrocities than anyone had previously imagined, and the trial stands as an eternal testament to the magnitude of the Holocaust. Never before or since have the perpetrators of genocide so thoroughly documented their own evil.

Some 3,000 tons of documents, photographs, film footage and artifacts were presented at the first Nuremberg Trial alone, and the prosecutors’ meticulous work provided the foundation for initial scholarship on the Holocaust and much of what we know about that event today. Jackson’s concept of proving “incredible events with credible evidence” probably ended up having as much of an impact educationally as legally.

Interestingly, 15 years after Nuremberg, a new approach to the evidence would be used but with equally powerful public impact.

One of the primary implementers of the Nazi genocide who escaped trial right after the war was Adolf Eichmann. Captured by the Israelis in Argentina, he was brought to trial in 1961. This time, however, the trial would not take place in occupied Germany but in Israel, home to many Holocaust survivors. This would not be victors’ justice but victims’ justice.

Nuremberg precedents invalidating the doctrine of superior orders again would be invoked.  But in addition to perpetrator documents, the survivors of genocide testified, giving a human face to the incomprehensible statistics, massive amounts of official records and countless piles of corpses.

While the primary focus of Nuremberg was to establish the actions of the killers and the facts of the Holocaust, the Eichmann trial put a spotlight on the survivors and established the individuality of its many victims. In the new era of television, the trial was broadcast all over the world, enabling people everywhere to hear searing personal testimony from one survivor after another.

Although the Eichmann trial did not set legal precedents as the military tribunal did at Nuremberg, it dramatically shaped public understanding of the Holocaust by bringing the personal experiences of this history into living rooms around the world. 

The legacies of Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial probably shape our world more than we understand. The question is, will they shape the future?

Recognizing that true justice is never possible in the face of such crimes, we are nevertheless increasingly learning the value of holding perpetrators accountable. But how do we work toward a world where such trials are not necessary?

Today, in this week of Holocaust remembrance, as we honor the memory of the victims, that question should be the challenge we set for ourselves. Responding to that challenge would be the most meaningful tribute to those 6 million innocent men, women and children for whom justice came too late.

Sara J. Bloomfield is the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Lessons From Nuremberg

Their faces stare out in black and white: the defendants of Nuremberg. Today, the rain-spattered images hang outdoors at the Topography of Terror Exhibition and Documentation Center in Berlin.

Sixty years ago, the men behind these pallid masks were tried for crimes against humanity. Many were executed. Some committed suicide in their cells.

The Nuremberg Trials, which opened with the reading of charges against 24 defendants in Berlin on Oct. 18, 1945, and reconvened in Nuremberg on Nov. 20, confronted Germans with the reality of what had been done in their name. It was the beginning of a process of reckoning and repentance that continues to this day.

How do the stories of those men, and the judges who tried them, resonate for Germans now?

The anniversary of the Trials, coming as Germany inaugurates Angela Merkel as its first chancellor born after World War II, has spawned a flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, with interviews, timelines and considerations of the meaning of international courts today.

“At Nuremberg it came out that they planned to kill all the Jews once they took over,” said Ernest Michel, 82, a Holocaust survivor who covered the Trials for a newly reconstituted German press agency and went on to become a pre-eminent Jewish activist with the UJA-Federation of New York. (See sidebar for more on Michel’s experience.)

“It was the most memorable, satisfying day of my life when I was in Nuremberg,” Michel said, “sitting there as a survivor and watching the last German high leaders being brought to justice.”

The public did not always accept the results of the Trials, seeing them as “victors’ justice.” But Nuremberg nevertheless marked “the end of the period of terror and the beginning of a new democracy,” said historian Claudia Steur, curator of the exhibit at the Topography of Terror documentation center.

“The International Court [in the Hague] was born out of the Nuremberg Trials,” she said. “It was the first great trial on German soil against National Socialism, and the first carried out by the four occupying powers. It also was the first time in history” that such a trial was conducted against a state.

Nuremberg also marked “the first time they used the word genocide,” coined in 1944, said Eckard Dietzfelbinger, historian at the Documentation Center of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg.

“Since the Nuremberg Trials, governments or leaders know that their deeds could also be considered in a courtroom,” said Rabbi Andreas Nachama, historian and director of the Topography of Terror center.

Today’s politicians understand these messages, said Michael Wolffsohn, a historian at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich — but the general public barely pays any attention.

Despite the media coverage of the Nuremberg anniversary, “Nobody really cares, frankly speaking,” Wolffsohn said. “[Germans] have practiced democracy successfully. The problem is not overcoming the past of National Socialism,” but facing “the challenges of the present.”

Juliane Wetzel, who is on the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said many young Germans turn away from the subject of the Holocaust.

Particularly this year, with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and of the German surrender, “youngsters say they don’t want hear any more about it,” said Wetzel, who helped create a task force subcommittee on “resistance against Holocaust education.”

The Nuremberg Trials were one of the first lessons for many Germans: In daily news dispatches, they read about atrocities committed on a vast scale. It would take many decades and many more trials before the general German public would understand that not only the top Nazis were guilty.

“The Nuremberg Trials really were instrumental in setting precedents,” said Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But it was clear that the Nuremberg Trials can only relate to the very, very tip of the iceberg of the criminality of Nazi Germany and those who assisted Nazi Germany.”

Zuroff estimates there were 90,000 indictments in West Germany after 1949, and 7,000 people were convicted. East Germany also conducted war crimes trials.

All in all, “a very small percentage of those who participated in the crimes of the Holocaust were indicted,” Zuroff said, because once the allies were no longer in charge of postwar German courts, the will to prosecute was weak.

After the first trial, there was pressure from the U.S. State Department to ease up, said Lawrence Raful, dean of the Touro Law School in New York, which held a conference in Nuremberg’s courtroom last summer.

The U.S. administration’s message was, “We have punished the Germans, and the Cold War has started. We need to win the hearts and minds of the German people, because as bad as the Nazis were, the Communists are worse,” Raful said.

That was a tough message for Holocaust survivors, like his parents, to accept, Raful said.

Meanwhile, the voices of the Trials’ judges and lawyers, and even some of the defendants declaring themselves not guilty, can be heard in Berlin from small loudspeakers at the outdoor photographic exhibit at the Topography of Terror.

“One can hear the original sound,” said curator Steur, who recently accompanied Ernest Michel on a visit to the exhibit. “I have seen parents or grandparents with their children, standing in front of the map of the zones of Allied occupation [of Germany].”

For some, it’s the start of a long-overdue conversation.

“We’re proud that we had the Trials,” Steur said. But “when you know how many of the old Nazis in the German Democratic Republic went back to their old positions — doctors, judges and police — it’s sad.”


Misused by Gibson, Instructor Charges

"It’s all — maybe not all fiction — but most of it is." — Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson’s father, on his opinion that the Holocaust has been exaggerated. Newsweek, March 1, 2004

"I have friends and parents of friends with numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps."

— Mel Gibson to Peggy Noonan in Reader’s Digest, March 2004

At 90 years old, Michel Thomas remains the world’s premier foreign language teacher. Titans of business, foreign ambassadors and the stars of Hollywood readily pay $25,000 for three days of private instruction with Thomas, usually from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. over a single weekend.

The fee includes two days of follow-up with his teachers. In the late 1990s Thomas taught Mel Gibson his weekend Spanish course at Gibson’s home in Malibu.

"I am outraged, absolutely outraged," Thomas thundered over the phone from London, when I interviewed him in late February. He is in England recording the final CDs for his complete courses in French, Spanish, German and Italian for the prestigious British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

"After having twice escaped deportations to Auschwitz, for Gibson to say I had a job in the concentration camp and survived the concentration camp like everybody else. To misuse me, to use me is an outrage," Thomas said.

I asked if he has spoken to Gibson since the quote appeared.

"No. Abe Foxman of the ADL asked me to write Gibson a letter," Thomas replied. "But I don’t know if I will."

Thomas explained that he and Gibson got on very well, and Gibson later brought his two sons to Thomas’ Beverly Hills office to take taped language courses there. They never discussed the Holocaust, but Thomas said, "He knew I was a Holocaust survivor, and I did send him my book. Whether he read it is another thing."

I first met Thomas in the early 1990s, when he approached me at a UCLA seminar about writing a book about a small part of his life — his service with the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). After fighting in the French Resistance, he was assigned in August 1944 as a French liaison officer with the 45th Division of the U.S. 7th Army, serving with combat counterintelligence.

Thomas was nominated for a Silver Star for combat bravery. Later, he became an agent in the CIC, and he established a network of agents behind enemy lines.

On April 29, 1945, Thomas joined the troops in the liberation of Dachau, where he took historic photographs of the crematorium workers. Two days later, he captured Emil Mahl, the "Hangman of Dachau," near Munich.

Around this time, he received a report that a convoy of SS trucks was en route to a paper mill south of Munich. After the liberation of the city, Thomas raced to the mill and prevented a mountain of Nazi documents, including the worldwide membership card files of the Nazi Party, from being turned into pulp. These documents formed the core of the Berlin Document Center, the world’s foremost repository of Nazi personnel documents, which played a vital role at the Nuremberg trials.

In the many weeks and months I spent with Thomas, he let me inspect a mound of historic original documents, many of which he carried constantly with him in a briefcase, never letting them out of his possession.

My book proposal about his wartime experiences made the rounds of publishers. None questioned its veracity, but they felt similar stories had been done, and they would have trouble "breaking it out" commercially.

In spite of his remarkable life, Thomas has remained virtually unknown, remarkable itself, considering that his language students have included business tycoons Edgar Bronfman Jr., Henry Kravis and Saul Steinberg. Grace Kelley, Woody Allen, Barbra Steisand, Otto Preminger, Warren Beatty and Emma Thompson are among the legion of Hollywood luminaries who have studied with him.

Thomas’ revolutionary technique allows no note taking, no memorization drills and no homework. Holding his secrets close to his chest, he talks about dissecting language into minute parts. "It took me many years to see on what basis to reassemble them," he said.

Herbert Morris, a UCLA professor of law and humanities and former UCLA dean of humanities, took the private weekend course with Thomas and said that he retained an equivalent of a year’s instruction from it.

Thomas has always been caught in the tension between seeking the bright lights of recognition and the shelter of privacy, but he has opted primarily for the latter. It is only in the last half a dozen years, after almost five decades of guarding the secrets of his language system, that Thomas allowed his tapes and CDs to be sold commercially.

Previously all students not in private instruction entered his language centers in Beverly Hills or Manhattan and listened to the interactive tapes there. All cassettes were never allowed out of the office.

In 2000, Thomas’ extraordinary life story was finally publicized in "Test of Courage" by British author Christopher Robbins and published by Simon and Schuster. Robbins took a broader and wiser approach than my own, incorporating the language system and Hollywood angle to give it more marketing punch.

The book was favorably reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, then months later, on April 15, 2001, the Times published a long profile on Thomas. Headlined "Larger Than Life," the article cast doubts on the veracity of Thomas’ wartime experiences, clearly implying that Thomas had fabricated or exaggerated them.

Refused a retraction and advised of the long odds of prevailing in a libel case, Thomas nonetheless sued the Times for defamation in October 2001. He has fought the paper fiercely ever since to get it to acknowledge the well-documented facts of his life.

Thomas was denied a trial by a federal judge’s curious pretrial ruling that the article was not defamatory. Although the article, she said, implied Thomas had lied about his past, "no reasonable juror or reader could find that was the message the defendants intended to convey."

Alex Kline, a San Francisco private investigator, helped prepare the defamation case for trial, locating World War II comrades and extensive archival evidence to further bolster the documentation in Robbins’ book. (He created a Web site at www.michelthomas.org that contains the original historical data.)

On Feb. 19, 2004, John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, spoke at a UC Berkeley symposium — "Selling Out the First Amendment: The Collision of News, Entertainment and Politics." For a videotape record of this event go to (webcast.berkeley.edu/events/archive/html).

At the symposium, Kline asked Carroll why neither he nor anyone else at the paper had responded to the nearly 400 letters they have received, which include 130 signatures of members of the 180th Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, Thomas’ regimental association, respectfully requesting that the paper correctly re-report the story of Thomas’s life. Carroll’s verbatim response was:

"I hate to get into this one, but I figure we’re going to since we’re here at Berkeley. We published a story awhile back, by a very clever reporter named Roy Rivenburg, about a man who published his autobiography. And, if you read the autobiography, you’d be amazed you’d never heard of this man, because he pretty much single-handed won World War II for us. It was a preposterous book, and our review of it was an investigative review. It debunked many of the claims in this book and had some fun doing it, had a few laughs at the author’s expense. When you put yourself out in public and make claims that are preposterous, and publish a book on it, you’re like to get a reviewer who will look into that and set the record straight. I’m very proud of that story, we haven’t retracted a word of it, we don’t intend to because it was true."

Rivenburg is primarily a humor and feature writer for the Times.

He currently teaches courses like "The Mechanics of Biblical Journalism" for a Christian Fundamentalist group called The World Journalism Institute (WJI). The WJI’s mission, posted on the Web, reads in part: "In this age of mass secular media, the mission of the WJI is to overcome the eclipse of God by providing counterthrust to the secular media and tepid Christian media."

The Los Angeles Times has printed nothing about the legal skirmish with Thomas.

My guess is that once such a lawsuit is filed against a newspaper, the plaintiff becomes an enemy of the First Amendment, and they circle their wagons. Your concern is not to be fair but to win.

But having won and extracted your legal fees from the pocket of the plaintiff, as the Times did, does your journalistic obligation to tell the truth end? That is a question the Times does not seem to want to address.

Thomas has found himself in the unenviable position of having the Los Angeles Times question the facts of his life, while Gibson appropriated those same facts to diminish the enormity of the Holocaust.

Sounds of Healing

Half of Tina Feiger’s family fled from there in 1938. Barbara Ravitz became so anxious on a visit there in 1969 that she hasn’t been back since. Sherri Lipman, like so many American Jews, has never been there.

On Nov. 25, they will be in Germany, part of a huge, largely Jewish choral ensemble singing music based on a Jewish text, written by of one of the world’s most renowned Jewish composers. They will be not just in Germany, but in Nuremberg, where the Nazi regime generated its restrictive anti-Semitic laws. Not just in Nuremberg, but in a concert hall built over the rubble of the arena where thousands of Germans gathered in the 1930s to affirm Adolf Hitler’s hate-filled rants.

Southern California’s premier Jewish choral group, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale (LAZC), will be joined by several other local ensembles and choirs from Canada and Israel to perform Leonard Bernstein’s ” Symphony No. 3, Kaddish,” in Nuremberg on Nov. 25 and 26.

LAZC and members of the other local groups – the Choral Society of Southern California, the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir, the El Camino Real High School Camerata and the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra – will also perform the symphony at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Nov. 13.

The European trip, billed as Sounds of Healing, includes a performance at the Musica Judaica Festival in Prague on Nov. 19 in a program of pieces composed at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, along with works by American and Israeli composers.

For many of the Jews involved in the tour, the prospect of visiting Germany and performing in the Bavarian city where the Nazis had spewed so much anti-Jewish hate was daunting. In Nuremberg, Hitler wanted to create “a Nazi Orlando, a theme park where Germans could express their love for the Reich,” said Paul Buch, a Zimriyah member who is producing a documentary film about the trip. “We’re doing this concert on grounds that were consecrated by Hitler to be a Nazi Disneyland.”

In addition, on the Czech leg of the trip, participants will have the option of visiting Terezin, which is a 90-minute drive from Prague.

After the Nuremberg concerts, Tina Feiger plans to visit the southern German city of Karlsruhe, from which her mother’s family fled in 1938. “I suppose on some level there is some unfinished business for me, especially since my mother had just died this past year,” she said. “I want to be more able to visualize her life as a young child and adolescent, [but] I’m quite certain I will have many mixed emotions.”

“I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to go to Nuremberg,” said Lipman. “I had never been in Germany due to a long-standing antipathy born of my awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust.”

Because of the potential for anxiety and even trauma among chorale members, LAZC held a session in September led by psychotherapist Esther Hess, herself a Zimriyah member and daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Hess outlined warning signals of possible trauma, such as disturbances in eating or sleeping, depression, nervousness, frequent crying and even numbness, and she said that signals of stress could appear before, during or after the trip.

Hess assured the singers that there was nothing wrong with an emotional response to what they experienced unless it knocked them out of commission. “If you start crying at Terezin, that’s normal,” she said. “If you can’t stop crying three months later, that’s a problem.”

Being able to talk about feelings is key, Hess added. To that end, the tour organizers will have a rabbi, a chaplain, a doctor and a psychologist on staff to talk with anyone who needs help during the trip and also plan to provide opportunities for participants to share feelings with one another.

During the session, Barbara Ravitz told the group that she was overwhelmed by the emotions she felt on a visit more than 30 years ago. “Every time I saw someone who could have been alive during the war, I became terribly anxious, and I had to leave the country,” she said. Ravitz thought about sitting out the November tour, but, she said, one of the chorale’s leaders convinced her of “the importance of Jews going to Germany in a public capacity.”

Hess agreed, saying that the chorale’s highly visible and audible visit to Nuremberg represents a blow against prejudice and hate. “Genocide happens when the world is asleep,” she said.

The impetus for the Nuremberg trip originated with Nick Strimple, music director for LAZC, the Choral Society and Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. Strimple, who was raised Baptist in Amarillo, Texas, has been working with music of the Holocaust since the mid-1980s, an interest that grew out of his doctoral work in Czech music.

During a visit to Terezin, Strimple said, he “got really hooked” on the evocative, emotion-laden works that had been composed there. When word got out that he was interested in Holocaust music, “people started coming up to me with tunes they had heard in the camps,” he said. “I just became kind of a magnet.”

He had also, over the years, been batting around the idea of a large-scale choral concert in Nuremberg with the former director of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra. That project reached “now or never” status a couple of years ago, when the Nuremberg director decided to leave the orchestra and began planning his final season, 2000-01.

They decided the most auspicious time for a concert would be November, which brings together the 10th anniversary of Bernstein’s death, the 62nd anniversary of Kristallnacht and the culmination of Nuremberg’s celebration of its founding 950 years ago. Around the same time, the city will open a new museum about its role in the Nazi era.

Meistersinger Hall, where the “Kaddish” concerts will take place, was built on the site of Luitpold Arena, where Hitler staged his early rallies, a site captured in many newsreels and in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary “Triumph of the Will.” Today, the city has a growing Jewish population, currently numbering about 900, that supports a synagogue and a Jewish community center.

The Los Angeles-based chorales, plus the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir, the Efroni Children’s Choir of Israel and Lachan Jewish Chamber Choir of Toronto, will form a choir of some 200 voices for Bernstein’s haunting work, which combines a number of musical styles, including folk, jazz and neoclassicism. The Nuremberg Symphony’s current conductor, Jac van Steen, will conduct an orchestra that includes members of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. Cantor Ira Bigeleisen of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, one of the LAZC’s directors, will be a soloist in the Prague and Nuremberg concerts.

“Kaddish,” composed in 1963, was not written specifically to memorialize the 6 million Jews who perished in the Shoah, Strimple said, but he considered it an appropriate selection for the Nuremberg concerts not only as a way of remembering the Nazis’ victims but to mark Nurem-berg’s transition from a city best known as the launching pad for the Nazi regime to one that has reinvented itself as a place dedicated to the promotion of human rights.

“To say ‘Kaddish’ in that place,” Strimple said, “sort of reclaims the area.”

Sounds of Healing includes a number of educational components, the most important of which is a 90-minute documentary about the concert in Nuremberg. Delbert Mann, who has won the Academy Award, the Emmy and the Golden Globe for his work in feature films and television and who directed many of Bernstein’s popular television specials, will direct the film.

Mann, 80, is a member of Beverly Hills Presbyterian and has narrated the church’s Christmas program that Strimple directs each year; the Sounds of Healing film project “dragged me screaming and kicking out of retirement,” he said. He also dropped bombs on Munich during the war as a member of the 8th Air Force and remembers, as a college student, hearing radio broadcasts of Nazi rallies. “Hitler’s ranting and raving, distorted by the shortwave transmission, and the
storm troopers shouting ‘Sieg heil!’ is an indelible memory,” Mann said. (One of the choristers, Wilbur Richardson, also flewwith the 8th Air Force, logging 30 mis-sions over Europe in 1944 before being seriously wounded.)

The film will include footage of rehearsals and performances and interviews with concert participants before and during the trip, plus background on Nuremberg today and stock footage of the 1930s rallies. Designed for television viewing, the documentary will be packaged as a video for use by schools, civic groups and other organizations.

Sounds of Healing is also recruiting school groups to attend the dress rehearsal of the UCLA concert the morning of Nov. 13. Participating schools will receive curriculum materials prior to the concert.

The various concerts, the film and scholarships for musicians who can’t manage the cost of the trip, among other expenses, add up to an impressive sum, and Sounds of Healing, which has raised more than $500,000 in cash and in-kind donations since early this summer, still needs another $100,000 to $120,000 to meet its obligations. Operating under nonprofit status, Sounds of Healing has been able to attract some major sponsors, including the Jewish Community Founda-tion of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership, along with other foundation, Jewish communal, civic and corporate support.

Sounds of Healing project manager Judy Fenton, a founding member of LAZC, said about a third of the chorale members have been actively involved in fundraising. The project still needs about $25,000 to cover scholarships for choristers who can’t afford the trip and $20,000 for the orchestra for the Royce Hall concert, plus expenses of bringing the Israeli choirs to Germany.

As the UCLA performance and the departure date for Europe draw near, whatever apprehension individual chorale members feel at this point seems to be subordinated to the excitement of making the trip – and making history. “It became clear to me that the past is a reflection, but the present is where the action is, and I wanted to be a part of the action,” Lipman said. “I wanted to help build a bridge through my music that could open doors and minds to altering patterns of the past.”

Fenton agreed. “I don’t want my grandchildren growing up hating Germans because they’re Germans,” she said. “We need a model, and maybe that model is music.”

Sounds of Healing will present Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 on Mon., Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA. Ticket prices are $100 (two for $180, premium seats), $36 (general), $25 (each in groups of 10 or more) or $15 (students). For tickets or more information, call (310) 825-2101 (UCLA) or (213) 480-3232 (Ticketmaster), or visit the UCLA Performing Arts Web site at www.performingarts.ucla.edu or Ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.com

To receive more information about Sounds of Healing, call Judy Fenton at (310) 670-5080 or visit the project’s Web site,www.soundsofhealing.org