Pogroms interrupted: The era of Jews fighting back


As I’ve been watching images of Hamas rockets falling on Israel, I’ve asked myself: If Hamas had the ability to murder thousands of Jews, wouldn’t they? And if Israel didn’t have a strong army, wouldn’t we surely witness another pogrom? 

Since the destruction of the Second Temple some 2,000 years ago, has there been a more physically abused people than the Jews?

How many Crusades and Inquisitions and pogroms have been recorded where Jews were virtually helpless to defend themselves?

Oh sure, we always managed to survive and pull through. We were strong with our values, our Torah, our culture and our wits in adapting to whatever limits were imposed on us.

But physically? We were always at the mercy of our landlords.

My ancestors in Morocco survived only because they knew their place. You never heard of a Moroccan Jew fighting for the same rights as Moroccan Arabs. Jews were the dhimmis, the second class citizens of the state. And still, there were stories of pogroms against Moroccan Jews.

The physical abuse of Jews reached its darkest and most murderous hour with the Holocaust.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say you have to reach your own bottom before you can turn things around. Well, the Holocaust was our absolute bottom.

Perhaps not coincidentally, within a few years we were blessed with our own sovereign state. What would happen now? Would our enemies still come after us?

Indeed they did, but this time, something weird happened.

The Jews fought back.

A ragtag band of Jews fought mano a mano against five invading Arab armies and won.

That miraculous victory saved Israel and signaled a new era in the story of the Jews.

The era of Jews Fighting Back.

We’ve been in that era now for 64 years, and the truth is, we’ve become pretty good at it.

This has shocked our enemies. After 2,000 years of seeing Jews cower so as not to get slaughtered, they've seen these weak Jews transformed into fighting warriors.

This doesn't seem very “Jewish.”

Even among Jews, this success has created a lot of handwringing and intellectual agony: What shall we do with all this power? Are we using it responsibly? Will it corrupt us?

I have to confess, I’ve had very little agony over this. The Jews’ ability to finally fight back has been a source of great satisfaction for me.

Of course, I’d be a lot happier if we were at peace and didn’t have to fight in the first place– if we weren’t surrounded by enemies trying to destroy us.

I wouldn’t have to shed tears when I’m alone in my car, thinking of Israel at war, or talk to my daughter in Herzliya about bomb shelters.

But if Israel is destined to live, at least in the near term, surrounded by enemies, what are we to make of this dark circumstance?

Is it possible that all this fighting might be serving an additional purpose, beyond the essential one of defending the country?

As I’ve been reflecting on all this, the thought occurred to me that maybe Israel is more than a country.

Maybe it’s also a statement.

An official statement that says to the world: The Jews will never go away.

This statement of strength after 2,000 years of weakness is so astonishing that it needed a singular, dramatic instrument to make the point.

And what better instrument than a strong country?

A country so powerful it has managed to thrive on so many levels despite being virtually under siege for 64 years.

So, that is my Jewish take on all this ugly fighting: Our enemies need to see, once and for all, that the Jews will never go away.

Maybe only then will there be peace.

The other night, at a Technion event at the home of Frank Lunz, our Consul General, David Siegel, said: “Our enemies have tried for thousands of years to destroy us, but they’ve always failed.”

The difference now is that we’re surviving on our own terms, not by cowering but by holding our heads high.

I’m sure some people will find this tone of defiance a little unseemly, not very nuanced.

But there’s no nuance in hatred. There’s no nuance in the desire to murder Jews. There never has been.

The statement that the Jews will never go away is a statement that must be made. We can thank Israel for making that statement in the most compelling way possible, even at the risk of upsetting a world not used to seeing Jews fight back.

At the Technion event, they played a video showing some of Israel’s global accomplishments, such as finding renewable energy, curing diseases and helping crippled people walk.

We can thank Israel for that statement, too: A world in which the Jews survive is not just good for the Jews, it’s also good for the world. 

Memorial to Jedwabne pogrom vandalized in Poland


Vandals have defaced the monument in the eastern Polish town of Jedwabne that commemorates the hundreds of Jews burned alive in a barn there by their Polish neighbors in July 1941.

A decade ago, the publication of Jan T. Gross’s book about the massacre, “Neighbors,” prompted a national debate on Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Photographs in the Polish media Thursday showed anti-Semitic slogans and swastikas scrawled in big green letters on the monument and on the wall surrounding it. One slogan read, “No need to apologize for Jedwabne.”

Media reports said a policeman on patrol discovered the attack Wednesday night.

The monument, which stands on the site of the barn where the Jews were killed, is not lit and stands on its own, away from town buildings.

According to media reports, regional police in Bialystok, who are investigating the incident, are linking this attack to other apparent neo-fascist vandal attacks aimed at minority groups in the past few weeks in eastern and northeast Poland.

These include scrawled anti-Semitic slogans and Nazi symbols found on the former synagogue in the town of Orla on Aug. 10. Vandals also broke into the Islamic Center in Bialystok, trashed the ground floor and attempted to set the building on fire. The next day, bilingual signs in Polish and Lithuanian were found damaged in Punsk, a town near the border with Lithuania.

Them vs. Us


Was it Mort Sahl who said, “Just because I’m a paranoid, doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get me”?

In this week’s parsha, the narrative begins with the drama of Yaakov and his tender flock — two wives, two quasi-wives, 11 sons, a daughter — preparing to meet with an oncoming army, imposingly headed by his anything-but-fraternal “twin” brother, Esav. Yaakov fears the worst, and even as he prays to Hashem for protection and sends gifts to appease Esav, he prepares for war. The brothers meet ultimately, and Esav “ran to greet him, and hugged him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Genesis 33:4).

Rashi, the paramount medieval commentator, notes the two midrashic traditions that discuss what actually happened during “The Kiss.” Because the Torah text is unusually punctuated, with six extraneous dots marking the word va-yishakehu (“and he kissed him”), the rabbis analyzed what happened.

One midrashic opinion is that the kiss was insincere — that Esav actually tried to bite Yaakov’s throat out after deceptively inducing his brother to relax his defenses. The other opinion is that after 20 years driven by relentless hate, Esav laid eyes on his brother, and it all came to him at once: He is my brother, for God’s sake, my brother. And he kissed him with all his love.

For many, that midrashic discussion historically has served as the narrative’s denouement and the ultimate launching pad for distrusting non-Jews, all of them. According to the opinion that Esav tried to bite the neck, not to kiss it, that animus reflects an immutable law of nature, comparable to gravity, only with metaphor attached: “It is a known law that Esav hates Yaakov.”

Metaphorically interpreted: All non-Jews are out to get us.

I was taught that law as a child being schooled in Brooklyn. They all are out to get us.

As for the second interpretation, which bears equal weight in the original midrashic discussion — that Esav kissed his brother lovingly — well, it never was taught to us as kids. We did not even have to know it for the test. I only discovered it years later, when on my initiative I looked at the original source discussion.

Certainly, ours is a history of being targeted by “them” for no reason other than our being “us.” The Christian, en route to liberate the Holy Land from the infidel Muslim Saracens, stopped along watering holes throughout Europe to massacre whole Jewish bystander communities.

Three centuries later, as a bubonic plague took hold throughout Europe, insane justification somehow was found to murder one-third of our people. Three centuries later, Bogdan Chmielnitzki and the Cossack massacres. Three centuries later, Hitler, the Nazis and their European confederates. Not to mention the Inquisition in Spain, the expulsions from lands as gentle as France and England, the persecutions of Mashad, the mellahs of Morocco and the ghettos of Italy and the June 1941 Iraqi Shavuot pogrom after the fall of the Golden Square.

So many times we got caught in the crossfire of other people, insane and crazy with one or another agenda of hate, who stopped by along the way to target us, too. As recently as Mumbai, where goons and thugs fighting over the Pakistan-India Kashmir dispute chose to perpetrate horrific evils against targeted Jewish bystanders while on a murder spree, we have been caught or targeted in their crossfire.

It is easy to see how persuasive the “known law of nature” seems to be: They all are out to get us. Just look at history. All of them are out to get us.

Only, that is not all of our history. From Righteous Gentiles who genuinely risked and sometimes gave their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust to centuries and millennia of next door neighbors who lent us milk or sugar or watered our plants and picked up our mail (yes, an anachronism) when we went on vacation, to non-Jewish employers who hired us and non-Jewish teachers who helped us learn to read and to count, a second law also exists: No, they are not all out to get us.

And despite this country’s shameful moments — Peter Stuyvesant’s governance, Ulysses Grant’s General Order No. 11, the Leo Frank lynching, the 1928 Massena Blood Libel, the years of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford and the 1991 Crown Heights Riots — we have flourished and built Torah institutions, gained huge support for Israel, including financial and military backing and the right to hold dual citizenship with her, and have been able to play a role in every aspect of this land’s culture and enterprise and civilization. We assuredly owe it to our kids to teach them that, no, all of them are not out to get us.

And because the playing field at this time and place in our history is essentially level, it is incumbent on us to conduct our affairs honestly and ethically and to expect and demand the same from those business enterprises that operate in our community or — even if they are out in the sticks of the Corn Belt — that operate to serve our community.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, a Modern Orthodox shul in Irvine. His Web site is www.rabbidov.com.

Poland and the Jews: Is it time to stop hating the country when positive changes are transf



Daniela and Kuba — Jewish in Poland: Two Polish students describe how they came to be interested in Jewish life and culture.

Is it time to stop hating Poland?

Last summer, as Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel, a group of 15 Israeli teenagers from Nahariya were whisked away for two weeks’ respite in Poland. In Israel, they’d spent their time hiding in bomb shelters; in Poland, they became guests of Lodz Mayor Jerzy Kropiwnicki and were treated to horseback riding, rock concerts, sightseeing trips and even Shabbat dinners complete with kosher food.

Many Jews still view Poland as the land of pogroms, persecution and prejudice; a terminally anti-Semitic and blood-drenched country where 3 million Jews were mercilessly murdered during World War II; a land dotted with death camps, desecrated cemeteries and deserted synagogues. What most Jews don’t know is that Poland has changed radically over the past couple of decades, and these days, it is reaching out to Israel and to Jews –and not just socially, either.

As a member of the European Union, NATO and the World Trade Organization, Poland has become a land of economic opportunity. In fact, since the collapse of communism in 1989, many Israelis have been heavily investing in the country.

Elite Coffee purchased Poland’s MK Café brand and has become one of the country’s top coffee producers; Israel’s Elran Group is a major financial partner in the newly opened Warsaw Hilton Hotel and Convention Center; and Israel’s Elbit Systems has engaged in a joint venture with two Polish companies to produce unmanned reconnaissance aircraft for the Polish army and police.

Even Poland’s public radio now broadcasts a daily 30-minute program in Hebrew, partially funded by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Poland is the most pro-Israeli country in the world,” said Jaroslaw Nowak, deputy to Lodz Mayor Kropiwnicki in charge of relations with Israel and the Diaspora.

Yet many Jews harbor a seething, deep-seated hostility toward Poland that won’t dissipate, no matter how many decades have passed since the Holocaust and or how markedly it contradicts the attitudes and behavior of present-day Poles.

“Jews in Poland felt they were betrayed by their neighbors, by people who had been their friends, and that betrayal looms larger than the betrayal by the Nazis, from whom they expected nothing,” said Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust scholar and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism).

Berenbaum also explained that the totality of the violence in Poland — the scope, intensity and speed, with essentially 90 percent of Poland’s more than 3.3 million Jews wiped out in a matter of 14 months — also fuels the intense loathing. And since a majority of the world’s Jews trace their roots to Poland, the impact is personal and enormous.

Additionally, many questions concerning Poland’s role in World War II remain unanswered. What really happened on July 10, 1941, in the town of Jedwabne, where at least 340 Jews were murdered by the local population, about 300 of whom were burned alive in a barn? And what instigated the pogrom at Kilce on July 4, 1946, where, of the 200 Jews who had returned home after the war, a Polish mob murdered 37 and wounded more than 80?

While Poland has passed legislation dealing with the return of communal Jewish property, survivors and heirs remain frustrated that the government still has not devised a way to compensate individuals whose private property was confiscated by the Nazis or later by the communists. And many people believe that anti-Semitism is too embedded in the Polish psyche to ever be overcome.

Still, 62 years after the Holocaust — almost three generations later — and more than 17 years after the fall of communism, Poland is a place where each summer since 1988 the Jewish Festival of Culture in Krakow has attracted thousands of visitors. A new Museum of the History of Polish Jews will break ground this summer, for which the land and much of the $33 million cost were donated by the Warsaw City Council and the Polish government.

And because it is a place where Jewish life flourished and enjoyed relative safety for 800 to 1,000 years, a place that gave birth to the Ba’al Shem Tov and modern Chasidism and a place where more than 60 percent of all Jews can trace their ancestry, there is tremendous potential for tourism. So, naturally, Poland wants the word out.

That was the thinking recently when Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited a group of 11 American Jews — including Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Cantor Roz Barak of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, members of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles and Houston, as well as this reporter — on a trip to explore Jewish life in Poland today.

Accompanied by Los Angeles Polish Consul General Krystyna Tokarska-Biernacik, the trip was designed to show Poland’s vibrant and emerging Jewish life. Its mission was also to dispel American Jews’ stereotypes of Poland and Poles by examining historical fact and fiction, as well as modern misconceptions.

For starters, there is Jewish life in Poland.

Just walk into the Lauder-Morasha Jewish Primary and Middle School in Warsaw, which began as a preschool with seven children in 1989. Today, 240 students, ages 3 to 16, are actively engaged in Jewish and secular learning. Student-made Stars of David and mezuzahs adorn the hallways, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet circle the classrooms like wallpaper borders and the boys sport brightly colored kippahs.

The new head of school, Rabbi Maciej Pawlak, 29, who took the helm in September 2006 and who was educated at New York’s Yeshiva University, is the country’s first young Polish-born rabbi since World War II.

At Beit Warszawa, Poland’s first post-war liberal synagogue, on any Friday night, 50 or more primarily young, casually dressed Jewish Poles welcome Shabbat by singing “Hinej Ma Tow” and “Szalom Alejchem,” among other songs and prayers, the Hebrew words transliterated into Polish.

Books: Kristallnacht’s memory revealed and recovered


Nov. 9, 2006 marks the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogroms throughout Germany and Austria, then incorporated into Germany, that set fire to the synagogues in towns and villages, pillaged Jewish shops, and led to the arrest and incarceration into concentration camps of 30,000 Jewish men aged 16-60.

Kristallnacht marked the end of Jewish life in Germany; a pivotal turning point in what later became known as the Holocaust. From that night onward, the situation of German Jewry went from bad to worse.

The youngest of the survivors of Kristallnacht, those who can actually recall the events give it texture and context, are now in their mid-70s. Soon, all too soon, the generation that lived through these events will be no longer and living memory will be replaced by historical memory.

A generation is passing, but it is a generation that has left behind voluminous records, testimonies and memoirs, video recordings and diaries, letters, notes – the raw stuff from which not only the historical record can be reconstructed but the personal narrative, the very lives that were lived and lost, can be recaptured, at least in part, at least for some.

Four books have recently been published that grapple with the Holocaust and recover lives that would otherwise be lost. Two are memoirs written by Holocaust survivors for whom English is not their native tongue and writing their learned obligation rather than their vocation. The other two are the work of descendants, professional writers who learned of the Holocaust by listening to those who were there and set out on their own journey to encounter the past and it.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” (Harper Collins: 2006) is a gripping story told so very beautifully. Mendelsohn’s grandparents left Europe and came to the United States in the great wave of immigration in the early 20th century. His grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who migrated to Miami, and Mendelsohn was raised on Long Island in a home where Jewishness was venerated but the attachment to tradition and Jewish learning were attenuated. A classics scholar by training, he is more at home in Greek civilization than with ancient Hebrews or contemporary Jews, and yet it is the memory of his grandfather’s brother and his family lost in the Shoah, the unspoken loss within his own family, transmitted only in the most fragmentary of memories, that propels him forth to seek his past and to uncover the family secret. He is haunted by the presence of absence and the absence of presence, and thus sets out on a journey that takes him to Australia and Israel, to Sweden and to Ukraine to Poland and elsewhere, all in search of six people from the small village of Bolechow who were murdered in 1941, 42 or 44 — two of whom were saved for a time and later betrayed. His siblings join him for part of the journey; his friends join him for other parts; and his family, present and absent, looms large in the narrative.

As he confronts his personal past, his search deepens, and he reads and rereads his journey through the legacy of his people as captured in the opening sections of Bereshit (Genesis), and bringing his manifest literary skills to his new study of Torah. The result is satisfying because his talent for storytelling is so evident. And sometimes as the novice, especially one so well trained in reading ancient literature, he brings new insights and a freshness to this very familiar material. His search for just these six people encapsulates the history of the Holocaust, the journey of survivors after the war to the lands of their resettlement and rebirth, and the passage of one Jew forth unto the past and unto himself.

Lech Lecha is the commandment given to Abram, the first demand of a demanding God. Translated “Go forth”, the words literally mean “go unto yourself.” Every journey outward is also a journey inward, as Mendelsohn — and we — soon discover.

His quest takes place just in time. He meets people who will soon be gone, who do not live to read of his discoveries, and he weaves together the distant recollections of dispersed and aging people into a tapestry that is rich and deep and by the end almost complete. He brings the reader along on his quest, making us relive his experience and piece together the fragments of information that he receives as he receives them. We experience his hopes and his disappointments as he experiences them, and we become ever more invested in this journey that soon may also become ours as well. His discoveries are miraculous — seeming coincidences that soon feel like destiny.

Mendelsohn’s begins with dim recollections. He must go forth on his own. In “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story” (Free Press, 2006), Ann Kirschner begins with so much more. She possesses very rare documents; a series of letters written to Sala during her incarceration in seven Nazi slave labor camps by her family and friends, which she scrupulously guarded and saved. Because she was in slave camps and not concentration camps, Sala was able to save the letters. Kirschner only has the letters written to Sala; her responses were not preserved, but Kirschner’s commentary skillfully brings Sala’s story to life.

Meticulously researched and respectfully presented, she seldom intrudes and always illumines so that we come to appreciate Sala’s struggle, her family’s anguish, when she is taken off to camp and they are left behind, and when she volunteers to go instead of her more reserved, less-worldly sister. We learn more of Sala’s friends and their impossible circumstances. For historians, one of Sala’s friends is of particular importance: Ala Gertner, who worked with Moshe Merin, the controversial leader of the Sosnowiec area, who was later one of the four women hung at Auschwitz for smuggling gun powder to the Sonderkommand to facilitate the October 1944 uprising that destroyed a gas chamber at Birkenau. We see a mother-daughter relationship play out in discovery and admiration. Originally conceived as an exhibition for New York’s famed 42nd Street Library that soon resulted in a very satisfying book, “Sala’s Gift” is a singular work that extends our understanding of Jewish women and the manner in which they struggled for survival.

Zenon Neumark’s “Hiding in the Open: A Young Fugitive in Nazi-Occupied Poland” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2006), joins the many stories that have been told in recent years by younger survivors who used their youth as a weapon of survival and escaped living in the “Aryan” world while all that they knew — their families, their villages, their towns and their loved ones — were destroyed. The reader should know that I wrote the foreword to this book and assisted him in finding a publisher, but I have no financial interest in its success.