Photo from Wikipedia

The Izaak Synagogue


In Kazimierz, the old Jewish section of Kraków, Poland
We found the Synagogue on Honey Street
but sweetness didn’t sit beneath our tongues,
not when the only Jew who davened there
was black and white: a life-sized cardboard man,
a Hasid from another century
who bent black-coated toward the missing Ark,
bowing, as if half-risen from his seat
and waiting for a prayer to be sung.
Hard to forget his face. But tourists stared
at him then hurried to their caravans,
rushing perhaps to the next oddity.
A kosher meal? A klezmer band? The dark
locations where the ghetto used to rot?
Hard to forget this place. And yet it’s not.


“The Izaak Synagogue” originally appeared in “The Hardship Post” (Three Candles Press, 2009). Jehanne Dubrow is the author of the poetry collections “The Arranged Marriage” (University of New Mexico Press, 2015) and “Red Army Red” (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Her sixth book of poems, “Dots & Dashes,” won the Crab Orchard Review Open Competition and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press this year. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.

Polish President Andrzej Duda at the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast headquarters in Szczecin, Poland, on Nov. 28, 2016. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

European Jewish Congress slams Poland’s ‘lack of concern’ over anti-Semitism


In an unusually harsh condemnation, the European Jewish Congress said the Polish government has a “staggering lack of concern” about anti-Semitism and a “transparent divide-and-rule tactic” vis-a-vis Jews.

The statement Thursday follows an open feud between leaders of Polish Jewry on whether Poland has seen an increase in anti-Semitic incidents or sentiment since the rise to power of the nationalist Law and Justice Party in 2015.

The EJC statement offers support for the organization’s Poland affiliates, the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and the Jewish Community of Warsaw, in their fight with other Jewish organizations in Poland.

The fight erupted earlier this month when leaders of the affiliated groups blamed the government for allowing, if not encouraging, an alleged increase in anti-Semitism. Other Jewish leaders disputed the claim, saying it constitutes a partisan tactic against the ruling party by the EJC affiliates.

“The EJC notes the staggering lack of concern from the government of Poland to the growth and normalization of anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric in the country in recent times,” the statement read. “The transparent divide-and-rule tactic of senior leaders of the Law and Justice Party in seeking to choose its selected Jewish interlocutors over the heads of official and representative community organizations in Poland leaves us staggered and reminds us of much darker times in Europe when governments chose their Jews.”

The statement referenced a meeting earlier this month hosted by a founder of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, with two Chabad rabbis and Artur Hofman, president of the TSKZ cultural group, which is has offices in 15 cities and is Poland’s largest Jewish organization in terms of membership. An activist for Holocaust commemoration in Poland also attended the meeting.

The meeting, which participants described as friendly and earnest, followed the publication of a critical letter that two leaders of the EJC-affiliated groups sent last month to Kaczynski asserting that there was an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric and pleading with the government to intervene to curb it. The leader of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, Anna Chipczynska, told JTA that Polish Jews have reached a “low point” in their feeling of safety under Law and Justice.

But Hofman said the claims were part of a “political war” by some leaders of Polish Jewry on Law and Justice. Hofman, who was elected to his position by a majority in his group, said the EJC affiliates were exaggerating about a problem that did not really exist.

On Aug. 21, Sergiusz Kowalski, who had alerted the government about anti-Semitism as president of the Polish branch of the B’nai B’rith Jewish group, called the men who met with Kaczynski “court Jews.”

President of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust Paul Nussbaum, during a reflective moment at Auschwitz. Photos by Esther D. Kustanowitz

Jewish life and history are complicated in Poland


“There are no Polish concentration camps.”

I felt our group’s energy shift defensively at our guide’s proclamation. Quickly, there was a clarification: This was not a denial of Auschwitz and Birkenau’s existence, but a semantic edit — they were German Nazi camps on Polish soil, not camps established by Poles.

This is the murky, difficult-to-navigate space of contemporary Poland, a country eager to tell its national story but unsure of how to handle the more challenging stories within its history.

As a first-timer in Poland and guest of the Polish Press Office and the Polish government on a recent trip with seven other West Coast Jews, I had to balance the tales I’d heard of Poland’s anti-Semitism with the country’s contemporary, culture-celebrating face: Who has the right to shape the story of what happened in Poland in the 1930s and ’40s and put it into a contemporary Polish context? How could I acknowledge Polish pain within the deep wound of my Jewish pain? And how would being here inform my relationship with Poland and its people?

Joshua Holo, dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus in Los Angeles and one of the five local people on my trip, explained Polish attempts to present history are “a bit like a three-car accordion mashup.” As he explained, the first car (Nazis) rear-ends a second car (Poles), which then rear-ends a third (Jews). The Poles understand that the third car was damaged but don’t see themselves as responsible.

“In fact,” Holo said, “the Poles braked as hard as they could and heroically tried to avoid damaging the third car, but the violence of the collision proved too much. But the Polish version risks appearing defensive to many Jews and even partially distorted — distorted, that is, where it concerns us most.”

The week before she joined our trip, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, was in Germany and noted how differently the Poles and the Germans handle acceptance of the Holocaust. In Germany, she said, “everywhere you go, there’s testimony to the existence of the Jewish people — memorials, museums, statues. With the Poles, that story is still sort of hidden.” She observed that the Germans are “clearer on their story,” and that “some of their acts of teshuvah (repentance) or reparations is to tell the Jewish story. Poles haven’t yet gotten to the place to say, ‘We were part of this’ because they feel like it was done to them.”

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust President Paul Nussbaum, a trip participant whose Hungarian parents survived Auschwitz, said he believes the responsibility to be vigilant in telling the truth is sacred.

“It is entrusted to us by those who cannot speak their truth themselves,” he said. “So when the truth is hijacked or attempted to be managed for petty political purposes, I am compelled to fight it with all my strength in order to honor my sacred responsibility.”

​Close-up of the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial

Everything we did in Poland had two layers — what is now, and what was and is no longer. And the transition often was an emotional and historical whiplash. For instance, our group took a train from Warsaw to Krakow on a Friday for a 650-person Shabbat dinner and a Jewish culture festival held in Kazimierz, which had been Krakow’s Jewish quarter before the Nazis deported the inhabitants. The following morning, we were at Auschwitz, making the weekend feel like a reductive, sped-up tour of the Jewish European experience: vibrant  Jewish culture suddenly, and drastically, dimmed at a concentration camp.

The trip presented contemporary Warsaw and Krakow as Poland’s current cultural and cosmopolitan face to accompany a troubled history. The Poles — at least those we met in the context of our trip — were fond of saying, “There is no Polish history without Polish Jewish history” —  often before reminding us again that the Poles were victims and that they weren’t responsible for the concentration camps.

It seemed like they were sincere and trying to say, “We’re all in this together.” But equating the Jewish and the Polish experience under Nazi-occupied Poland didn’t sit quite right.

At the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2013 and is built where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood, our guide shared a legend: When the wandering Jews reached Poland, they saw the word “Polin” — Poland in Yiddish — written on a tree. They mistook it for the Hebrew po-lin, “rest here,” and they did for 1,000 years, until 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population was destroyed in the Holocaust. The architecture of the museum entrance was designed to evoke the parting of the Red Sea and also the bridge of history — a rich Jewish life in Poland, disrupted by the Holocaust, and now moving forward.

The question of where Jewish culture and symbols belong in contemporary Poland is complicated. Because the Jewish population was decimated during the war, the Jewish culture has become for the Poles something exotic, somewhere between a fascination and a fetish. And the elevation of Jewish deference, even for celebratory or festival purposes, may still, for some Jews, feel more like anti-Semitism.

On Aug. 9, JTA reported on a fake Jewish wedding, held by a Polish cultural heritage group, involving a group of non-Jewish volunteers dressed in traditional Charedi costumes. Many Polish souvenir shops sell small figures of bearded Jewish men, called “Lucky Jews.” One of our guides said it’s not considered anti-Semitic, explaining that Jews are so rare as to have become the emblem of good fortune.

And then there is the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, a week in June offering workshops, concerts, tours and lectures for thousands of people for the past 28 years. As the brainchild of Janusz Makuch, a non-Jewish Pole, the festival culminates in a massive, multi-act, outdoor, afternoon-to-night klezmer concert on Szeroka Street in Kazimierz. In the background stands the shul of Rav Moses Isserles (the Rema), considered to be the Maimonides of Polish Jewry.

Makuch spoke with us at a Morocco-and-Israel-themed coffee shop called Cheder Cafe, where many patrons spoke Hebrew. The menu offered Israeli snacks, kosher wine and charoset. The finjans (tea kettles) were authentic, Makuch bragged, from Nazareth.

Makuch grew up knowing nothing about Jews until he visited Kazimierz and realized “there had to be young Jews hungry for knowledge of the world we lost.” He credited young musicians for “bringing real Jewish light to this dark place” and expressed pride in the festival’s mostly non-Jewish volunteers.

The culture festival is curated, likely with the best of intentions, initiated by a new generation trying to apply cultural salve to what the wartime generation had wrought. But some Jews see the result as similar to Disney’s Epcot Center’s treatment of different countries: well-intentioned but inevitably displaying little more than cultural tropes and stereotypes. Jews of the world, ingrained with ancestors’ anecdotes over decades, may not always see this a positive, whatever the intent.

Still, what a marvel, I thought, that 70 years after near extermination, Jewish culture had returned to Krakow. And what a strange gloss on history such a vibrant, loud and musical return of Jewish culture to the main square truly is.

In Warsaw, the ground floor of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) resembles a cafe, with a coffee bar and tables. The JCC also hosts films, events, lectures and classes for its 400 members and 1,000 program participants, most of them young families. And in Krakow, the JCC is serving 630 members and actively building the Jewish community of tomorrow. Its preschool, pristine at the time of our visit, opens this fall.

While most online sources indicate that modern Krakow has “a few hundred Jews,” Jonathan Ornstein, a Polish and United States citizen who is the JCC’s executive director, estimates there are at least 100,000 in Poland and a few thousand in Krakow, but admits, “it’s hard to know.”

He painted a picture beyond verifiable statistics and our American-inflected understanding of “who is a Jew.” A Pole discovers, through a family confession or a box of relics in the attic, that she has a Jewish mother. She becomes involved, even religious. Her 12 other relatives are as Jewish as she is but do not care and do not become involved.

Ornstein knows this kind of story from personal experience. The weekend of our visit, he married his fiancée, Kasia, who had learned of her Jewish heritage only several years ago, after which she sought out the JCC to learn more.

“The people who are living there as Jews clearly want to tell their own story,” said Peretz, recalling another woman who had discovered she was Jewish but didn’t want to be told how to be Jewish. “She and her sons are exploring it, while no one else in their family is interested. We have to be willing to let them write their own story.”

Krakow has seven synagogues within walking distance of one another, and the JCC had 100,000 visitors last year, “after the Polin Museum and the camps, the most visitors,” Ornstein said.

“There’s the idea that we have to treat it [Poland] as a cemetery. Now, there’s a rebirth. Hey, March of the Living, come inside and see some Polish Jewish life,” Ornstein said.

As one example, he mentioned the Krakow JCC fundraising program, Ride for the Living, an 8-hour, 55-mile bike ride starting at Auschwitz and ending in the massive, JCC-orchestrated Shabbat dinner that happens during the culture festival.

“Why are we still around as Jews? We developed values and mechanisms for dealing with our tragic past,” Ornstein said. “We are Jewish despite the Holocaust not because of it.”

Nedda Black, an L.A.-based lawyer on the trip, found this future-driven spirit deeply resonant.

“Polish-Jewish children, no less and no more than American-Jewish children, need to feel loved, to laugh, to experience joy and to have a story that is their own,” she said. “I felt honored that so many Polish Jews shared their stories with me and allowed me into their community and homes to light candles, break bread, sing and dance together with them. In the end, we are all looking for the same things in life.”

Players on the Hapoel Petach Tikvah team seen on a security camera after playing a match in Poland. Screenshot from YouTube

Polish soccer fans attack Israeli team after game, two people hurt


A group of soccer fans in Poland attacked an Israeli team following a game.

Two people affiliated with the Israeli team, Hapoel Petach Tikvah, were injured in the incident Wednesday evening in Sochocin, about 45 miles northwest of Warsaw, after the Israelis defeated MKS Ciechanow, 2-0, in an exhibition game.

Following the game, some masked fans broke onto the field trying to beat the members of the Israeli team and its staff.

MKS Ciechanów condemned the incident and stressed that the club and its fans had nothing to do with it.

“First and foremost, we emphasize that our Club regrets the whole situation and strongly condemns the behavior of the perpetrators of this perilous incident, but at the same time we stress that none of the members of our Club-related community had anything to do with the whole situation,” read a statement issued by the club.

MKS Ciechanów said the attackers were fans of the Legia Warsaw team.

The Israelis said the action was planned because attackers waited until police providing security had left the area.

Police from Plonsk and Radom are investigating the incident.

“The information provided to the police shows that in the area adjacent to the hotel where the Israeli team was staying, a group of masked people rushed to two members of the team, beat them and ran away. The victims suffered minor abrasions,” read the statement on the police website.

The Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport said it is working with authorities in Poland to find those responsible for the attack and see they are punished.

Photo from Ivanka Trump/Twitter

Trump slammed for skipping visit to Warsaw Ghetto memorial


The Jewish community in Poland harshly criticized President Donald Trump for not visiting the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes while in town on Thursday. The site is located barely a mile east of the Warsaw Uprising Monument at Krasinski Square, where Trump delivered a speech hailing the Polish heroes during WWII.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“Ever since the fall of Communism in 1989, all US presidents and vice-presidents visiting Warsaw had made a point of visiting the Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto,” Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland, Anna Chipczynska, president of Jewish Community of Warsaw, and Leslaw Piszewski, president of Union of Jewish Communities of Poland, said in a joint statement. “For the Jews of Poland, rebuilding in a democratic Poland their communal life, after the horror of the Shoah and the devastation of Communism, this gesture meant recognition, solidarity and hope.”

“We deeply regret that President Donald Trump, though speaking in public barely a mile away from the Monument, chose to break with that laudable tradition, alongside so many other ones,” the local Jewish leaders said.

The White House noted that Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who serves as a senior advisor to the President in the West Wing, laid a wreath at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes and toured the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews prior to joining Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, at Krasinski Square. “It was a deeply moving experience to visit the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes and the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews,” Ivanka said in a statement. “It was a privilege to pay my respects and remember, with gratitude, those who tenaciously fought against all odds. The monument, erected on the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, symbolizes the fight for freedom. I am profoundly grateful for those who fought and all those who continue to fight today.”

Abe Foxman, Director of Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, said he understands the Jewish community’s disappointment, calling it a “missed opportunity” for the President.

“I am glad Ivanka [Trump] went and disappointed that the President of the U.S. did not,” Foxman told Jewish Insider. “It is a small gesture which makes such an important historical and current statement. I understand the Polish Jewish Community’s disappointment. The visit is more a message to the current Polish government and establishment than it is a tribute to the victims.”

In his speech, Trump acknowledged the Polish Jewish community perished in the Holocaust. “Under a double occupation the Polish people endured evils beyond description: the Katyn forest massacre, the occupations, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the destruction of this beautiful capital city, and the deaths of nearly one in five Polish people,” he said. “A vibrant Jewish population — the largest in Europe — was reduced to almost nothing after the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Poland’s Jewish citizens, along with countless others, during that brutal occupation.”

An undated portrait of Asher Arom, taken in Lizhensk, Poland. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My ancestor vanished in the Holocaust; 80 years later, I went looking for him


“I need to speak with you.”

Meylakh Sheykhet was a vision from the past. I had no idea who he was when he tapped me on the shoulder in the lobby of the Hotel Dnister in Lviv, Ukraine.

Tall and bearded, with sunken eyes, he cut a jarring figure in his ultra-Orthodox garb. Around us, a conference on Jewish life was in full swing. Meylakh had overheard me saying I was an intern with The Jerusalem Post. He wanted to tell me about the deteriorating state of Jewish sites in the city — and his fight to preserve them.

Meylakh’s work is motivated by an enduring respect, a fascination even, with the dead; they are never far from his mind. Meylakh fights long odds to save Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, to uncover and preserve the burial sites of sages and to stave off destruction when developers encroach on houses of prayer or their ruins. He sleeps little and makes plenty of enemies. We sat down together in the hotel lobby, and he began to talk, quickly and frantically.

To this day, I don’t know whether to thank Meylakh or to curse him. His tap on the shoulder launched an investigation into my roots that spanned two years, three continents and five generations.

As it turned out, my trip to Lviv had brought me within 100 miles of where many of my ancestors had lived and died, just across the border in Poland. Soon after, I found myself awake at odd hours, clicking frantically from link to link as I fell deeper and deeper down digital rabbit holes on websites dedicated to Jewish genealogy.

Names and dates began to harbor an outsized significance. I found myself assaulted by a confounding rush of details, illuminating and otherwise. One figure kept emerging out of that chaos, over and over again, capturing my imagination and curiosity. It was my great-grandfather, a holy man from a rabbinical lineage who made Torah his day and night’s labor. Before long, he was the centerpiece of my frenetic journey of discovery.

I knew then I had to take my search offline. I reached out to relatives whose identities I’d learned on the internet. I pestered my dad with questions. I devoured books on life in the shtetl and on the great Chasidic dynasties of Europe.

Months into my search, I came across my first authentic relic: the calligraphic handwriting of my great-grandfather, poetic Hebrew sentences intertwined with Torah verses in letters he’d written to family in Palestine. My eyes widened. The letters were an unbearably human fragment of a vanished and tragic past. He signed with the same Hebrew spelling as my father, Asher Arom, only adding a shin, vuv, bet afterward for shochet u’bodek, ritual slaughterer. Looking at those letters, I knew I had to go back to Eastern Europe.

As Jews, we’re told that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God writes and seals the fate of each living soul. So it stands to reason that in September 1939, He was busy plotting against my forebears in Europe.

At the dawn of the Jewish year 5700, one small town in Poland became the crime scene where the Creator carried out His conspiracy against my great-grandfather’s family, with the Nazis as instruments. I suppose you could say I went there to collect evidence to put Him on trial.

cov-eitan-grgrandfather2

Asher Arom in Lizhensk, Poland, in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My trip came less then two years after I first visited Eastern Europe. After two weeks of traveling with my father in Israel, I took a flight from Ben Gurion Airport to Lviv. From there, a bus took me through a foggy February morning and across the Polish border. Every once in a while, the bus swerved into an improbable clearing in the dark woods to pick up someone. My fellow passengers looked to be straight from central casting. The fat matron in the checkered frock, the cadaverous woman with suspicious eyes, the tall man reeking of cigarettes, with a pockmarked face and a jagged scar from the corner of his lip to his ear — these people all looked like they belonged here. The 22-year-old Jewish boy from Beverly Hills did not.

The bus dropped me off in Przemysl (pronounced PSHEH-meh-sheel), an old Polish city of about 65,000 on the San River, where unimaginative Soviet-era buildings fill spaces left by long-gone synagogues and study halls. The bus pulled up just outside the perimeter of the former ghetto where Asher likely was murdered.

When my guide, Maciej, met me in front of my hotel, he admitted he had been expecting a man twice my age. And indeed, the people I’ve met since who tend to take these forays into pre-Holocaust nostalgia are a generation or two my senior. But to see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

My great-grandfather’s legacy is no exception to the corrosive effect of the years. He was born in Przemysl, across the river from the Jewish quarter in a neighborhood called Zasanie, where his father, Gedalia, had been the head of a yeshiva.

Today, the synagogue in Zasanie stands abandoned and deteriorating behind barbed wire. The inn where Gedalia raised a large flock of children was long ago replaced by a blocky apartment complex, painted in primary colors. The Jewish cemetery, just down the highway from the city, has been covered for eight decades with fallen leaves and broken branches, leaving an overgrown warren of blank monuments, the inscriptions worn away by time. The only trace of my ancestors here is some cursive script in a yellowing Austrian record book in the florescent-lit reading room of the Przemysl National Archive.

Shortly after Maciej and I met, we drove 76 kilometers north through heath and woods to Lizhensk, the shtetl where my great-grandfather lived most of his life, now a drab industrial town of 15,000. A relative of mine had marked Asher’s home in red pen on a hand-drawn map of the pre-war town. We parked nearby, in an open-air lot the map indicated had once been the heart of the Jewish quarter.

A drizzle was falling as we plodded down a muddy slope toward the spot indicated on the map. There, on an unpaved path beneath a slate-gray sky was the low shack Asher had built, abandoned and ill-treated by time, its wood planks bent by years, wintery vines bursting through the eaves.

Lizhensk is best known within Poland for the brewery that took its name. To Chasidic Jews, though, Lizhensk is synonymous with Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, a founding father of Chasidism and the town’s most famous resident, Jewish or otherwise.

Chasidim maintain an active relationship with the dead. At midnight on the death anniversary of a great rabbi — and few are greater than Elimelech — it’s said that the souls of the departed descend to their gravesites and carry the prayers of the living up to heaven. Before World War II, Elimelech’s yarzheit drew crowds from across Europe to worship in the cave-like mausoleum where his remains lie.

The Nazis redrew the geography of Lizhensk’s onetime Jewish quarter, erasing the Street of Synagogues from the map. Now, a large, open-air parking lot stands in its place, ringed by a dreary neighborhood with a proliferation of seedy casinos and 24-hour bars. The cemetery is equally unrecognizable. Bulldozed by the Germans, the monuments dragged away as paving stones, it sat empty and ignored for decades. When Jews began to return in the 1980s — survivors and their families as well as Chasidic pilgrims — they dragged what tombstones they could find back to the graveyard, lining them up in arbitrary rows. Year after year, the crowds worshiping at the sage’s gravesite grew.

These days, in late February or early March, according to the fluctuations of the Jewish calendar, the streets fill with Jews in black hats and headscarves, from Brooklyn, Israel and beyond, in anticipation of the 21st of Adar. By the time I learned about the yarzheit, my picture of Eastern European Jewry was colored by its disappearance: magnificent synagogues reduced to rubble and cemeteries knocked over and built upon. Eastern Europe, to me, meant dead Jews. Somehow, I thought seeing some live ones there would be a comfort.

For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final.

When I arrived, on the last day of February 2016, the city was awash with pilgrims, their tour buses parked up the street from the cemetery. A series of white pavilions had been set up at the cemetery to accommodate thousands, from those hauling cauldrons for kosher stews to opportunistic salesmen hawking Jewish books from folding tables. A public address system had been set up in one of the tents to blast klezmer music. A pair of Chasidim with a microphone manned the PA system through the night, calling passersby to come “have a l’chaim!” with a swallow of schnapps or whiskey. Gaggles of local reporters had come to observe the oddity; one of the more savvy taxi drivers had posted the word monit, Hebrew for taxi, on his driver’s side windows.

On the site where Rabbi Elimelech is presumed to rest in the rebuilt cemetery, a white concrete structure, a mausoleum, of sorts. was built to accommodate prayers. Inside, a monument enclosed in a metal trellis was piled high with scribbled notes of supplication. Even some non-Jews see the site as holy: While I watched the room fill with Chasidim swaying in prayer, a Polish man with graying hair and far-off eyes entered and bared his head — an odd custom under the circumstances — then fell to his knees, clasping his hands together in silent benediction.

Over time, the town has developed an infrastructure to accommodate the annual influx. The building that had housed the mikveh, or ritual bath, somehow withstood World War II; afterward, a group of Chasidim acquired it and added a second story to form the Hachnasat Orachim of Lizhensk, a guesthouse for pilgrims. Worshipers now could find accommodations and a prayer hall — even a functioning mikveh. Soon, the pilgrimage outgrew that long, low barrack of a building, and just up the hill, a planned extension, a massive A-frame structure covered in Hebrew banners, was nearly complete. Between the two buildings was Asher’s home.

As I walked up, rabid barking erupted behind me. I wheeled around to face the largest German shepherd I’ve ever seen, howling at me murderously from behind a chain-link fence. I resisted a momentary urge to run: German shepherds always have conjured images of Nazi attack dogs for me. Instead, I scowled at the beast and turned back to the house, trying to ignore its bloodthirsty snarls.

In pictures I’d seen of the house, it was far from luxurious, but it was the type of place where you’d expect a penurious rabbi in a Polish backwater to live. At least, it looked habitable. On Google Maps street view, in a picture taken in 2012, a sedan is parked expectantly in the driveway. Seeing the place as it now was came as a gut punch.

The blemish on the doorpost where the mezuzah had once been was the only sign of its onetime inhabitants. The windows had been spray-painted white from the inside — for what reason, I can’t fathom, other than to rob descendants of the satisfaction of peering in. The place looked as if a strong gust of wind might take it down.

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

I wanted to see inside but quickly ruled out the idea of climbing through the loft window, which was missing its frame and panes. Instead, I took to the square below to see if I could learn who had the key. One by one, I sidled up to strangers who were milling about in the drizzle. My reluctant informants didn’t seem to know what to make of me. With a camera around my neck and a yarmulke pinned uneasily to my head as a form of self-identification, I fit in with neither the Chasidim nor the Poles. I managed to win some goodwill by pointing to the tumbledown shack up the hill and saying it once belonged to my great-grandfather. Soon enough, I learned the shack was now owned by the same Chasidim who operated the guesthouse. A less welcome revelation: Before long, they planned to tear it down to build more lodgings for travelers. Pilgrim after pilgrim told me to look for someone named Simha.

Simha Krakovski is a wiry man with a scraggly white beard who directs the guesthouse. I cornered him outside an upstairs prayer hall. As we spoke, sweaty yeshiva students with sparse beards and red faces crowded around to see why Krakovski — clearly a busy man at this time of year — was talking to the only non-Chasidic person in the building. As we spoke, some scholar of great importance swept by with a crowd of hangers-on, pressing us against a wall.

To see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

Krakovski indulged me briefly with the story of his early days in Lizhensk, some 25 years ago. “I first came to pray, and when I wanted to use the bathroom, there was no bathroom,” he told me in Hebrew. “I had to pay a gentile woman a dollar to use hers, and it stank.”

I told him who I was and about my ancestor. He told me, yes, they’d acquired the house and were planning to knock it down to expand the accommodations — a dining room, lodgings, he couldn’t be sure, exactly. I asked if the new complex had a name, and why not name it after this pious man, this ghost of mine? He made it clear naming rights could be had — for a price. Come find him tomorrow, he said, and we could talk.

After he left, the young men closed ranks around me, questioning me in English and Hebrew. Did I have money? What did my father do? Is he rich? Suddenly, I felt the flush that was reddening their faces. I was too hot in my wool coat. I stepped outside and back into the drizzle.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t. It made me feel more alone, more abandoned, orphaned by history.

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

I never found Simha Krakovski again. But the next day, I was back inside the guest house, in the office of Krakovski’s colleague, Menashe Lifshitz, a Chasid from B’nai Brak, in Israel. He told me how they’d bought the shack some years back from a Polish woman who lived there, paying her what he assured me was three times the fair price.

When the guesthouse was established, he said, many of the surrounding houses still bore outlines on the doorposts where their onetime inhabitants had fixed mezuzahs. As people got the money to fix up their homes, most were painted over. The blemish where Asher had nailed his mezuzah into the threshold was the last one that remained.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t.

Lifshitz worked out of a small, cluttered office with a twin bed and a small desk on the second story of the former mikveh building. The entirety of the window in the office faces the southeastern wall of my great-grandfather’s home. Before the second story was added, Asher would have had an unobstructed view of the cemetery. He would have been able to watch as the candles burned in Rabbi Elimelech’s tomb through the night.

I asked if I could see the inside of the house. Any other time of year, Lifshitz assured me, it could be arranged. With the pilgrimage in full swing, it would be difficult. He couldn’t be too sure where the key was.

The mikveh building where Menashe Lifshitz kept his office plays a significant part in the story I’ve learned about my great-grandfather.

As it goes, when the Cossacks came during World War I, most of Asher’s family fled. Asher stayed behind so nobody with a chicken or livestock would go hungry for lack of a slaughterer to prepare it. One day, as he was walking outside, a group of Cossacks spotted him and followed. He led them to the mikveh and jumped into the depths, hiding beneath the sacred waters, where he was spared.

But his luck would run out before long. When murderers again came to his town, their fury would be greater and more destructive than the town had ever seen.

The Nazis entered Lizhensk during Rosh Hashanah 1939. On Sukkot, they rounded up the Jews in the market square. A persistent downpour soaked the crowd. The frightened townsfolk were uncertain what fate awaited them — death or deportation, bullets or banishment. Panic ruled.

And Asher was missing.

My understanding of these events is informed entirely by the adolescent memories of his granddaughter, Leah Braude. Leah’s, father, Chaskel Nissenbaum, was a slaughterer and Asher’s student. Later, when Nissenbaum traveled to Germany to ply his trade, returning only for holidays, Asher became something of a father figure to his young granddaughter.

After the war, Leah set down some of her memories from that time in what became the Lizhensk Yizkor Book, a collection of remembrances published in Israel and dedicated to the town’s martyrs. In one of the passages, she described her grandfather, who had “a smile that imparted pleasantness whenever I desired a smile.” This is the last living account of my great-grandfather — but the rest of the Yizkor Book provides a colorful recollection of a vanished world.

The last time Shabbat candles glowed in the windows of Asher’s home, it was earlier in 1939 and the forests surrounding the town were alive with the spirits of the Chasidic imagination.

The cave of Elimelech was just beyond where the town met the woods. The sage’s tomb commanded a view of the Jewish quarter, a slope of wooden homes leading up to Ulica Boznica, the Street of Synagogues.

Lizhensk was a town of a typical European mold: Sledding and ice skating in winter, and sweltering summers. Leading off the market square, where Jewish tradesmen and businessmen mixed with their Polish and Ukrainian counterparts, the synagogue street formed the heart of the Jewish quarter.

Here, Jewish homes abutted schoolrooms and yeshivas, synagogues and study halls. On Shabbat eve, the sexton would knock with his wooden hammer and call, “Jews, Jews, to the synagogue!” as the smell of fried onions and kugels filled the air.

Before the war, Jews and gentiles mixed for good and ill. The Lizhensker Jews were not spared their share of anti-Semitism; Jewish schoolchildren were regularly beaten to cries of “dirty Jew!” Sometimes, one of the nastier teachers would even join in. In spite of all that, here and there friendships grew. Gentiles dropped in on Jewish households for the lighting of Shabbat candles.

What made Lizhensk different from other shtetls, though, was the great rabbi who took its name, and who, more than a century after his death, drew mourners from across the continent to his grave. The custodians of his earthly remains, the Jews of Lizhensk, tended to be an industrious and religious lot, if poor; Asher Arom no doubt fit that mold.

Leah, barely a teenager when war separated her from her beloved Chasid, with his snowy sidecurls and white beard down to his chest, recalled in the Yizkor Book his deep devotion and fervent prayer: “My grandfather made his nights like his days, and studied Torah. His tune in the nights is woven in the depths of my dreams and adds to their sweetness.”

Shortly before death came to the rest of Lizhensk, it visited the home of the ritual slaughterer.

“May the One who consoles Zion and builds Jerusalem offer us a double portion of consolation,” Asher wrote to his son Shmuel in Palestine on the Tuesday after the reading of Parashat Bamidbar in May 1938  — he made a practice of marking the date by the Torah reading. His letters are nearly eight decades years old, but the grief they convey seems fresh, even raw.

Leah’s account had led me to her daughter, Sima Braude Marberg, a kindly woman and a distant cousin of mine who teaches tai chi in the courtyard of her apartment building on a tree-lined street in of Haifa. When I visited, she produced a binder full of old letters in plastic protectors, some of them written in Asher’s practiced, looping script.

The tales from the deathbeds of great Chasidic sages often recount a transformation as their souls hover between this world and the next. These were the terms in which Asher described the death of his wife, born Chaia Rachel Brand, my great-grandmother: “On the seventh day of the month of Iyar” — April 26, 1939 — “early in the morning at 2 a.m., her soul began slipping away from her body until she passed away at 9:30 in the morning,” he wrote to his son in Palestine. “The house was full of men and women.”

The death left her husband disconsolate.

“Rachel, the mainstay of the house, how were you taken to be buried in the ground — where finally your bones could find a resting place — but leave us to our moaning and sorrow?” he wrote. “Who will mend our broken hearts that have been torn asunder and broken into pieces?”

He delivered a eulogy. “By dint of her wisdom she was the principal force, the one who always could advise the proper path, for me and for all those who turned to her for direction,” he told those assembled. “I continued, as is my wont, to expound midrashim and Biblical verses in my eulogy, and the entire congregation broke out in tears, sobbing.”

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The community took Chaia Rachel to be buried, and then Asher led evening prayers. Afterward, he wrote, “I was overcome by a terrible burning sensation. The doctor was called, and I was carried to my bed, where I lay without feeling.”

It must have seemed the world was ending. Two of his sons had earlier abandoned Poland for Mandatory Palestine. Now their mother was gone. Bedridden, Asher was found to have a high fever. Death must have seemed near for him, too. But a week later, after the shiva had ended, he recovered, physically if not emotionally: “I now feel well and have returned to work,” he wrote.

“I ask of you to recite Kaddish throughout the entire year, every day without fail,” he bid his son. “And if there is someone with you in your kibbutz who can study mishnayot [talmudic tractates] with you — even just a few mishnayot — then you can say Kaddish afterward in memory of, and for the benefit of the soul of the righteous woman, Chaia Rachel bas Luria Simcha, of blessed memory. And in this merit you and your offspring be successful. May you find material success and enjoy long lives, and raise your son to every good end. Your father, signing with tears.”

The end for the Lizhensk Jews came quickly, before the townsfolk knew it.

In the martyrs’ book and in video interviews with the USC Shoah Foundation, survivors recount with bitter embarrassment a period of obliviousness, of false security, as the forces of destruction massed just beyond the town’s border. Few had radios in their homes, so a doctor who lived in the market square would place his receiver by a window and raise the volume so people could listen in the street below. One survivor, then a girl of 10, remembered standing in the square and hearing Edward Rydz-Smigły, the marshal of Poland’s armed forces, declaring, “We won’t give away even a button — nothing!” Soon, he had given away everything.

The invasion of Poland began on Sept. 1, 1939. By Sept. 3, German bombs had destroyed the railroad tracks in Lizhensk, the only link between the town and the outside world. When crews came to repair their tracks, aerial machine gun fire chased them off.

Jews left the city in droves, only to return hours or days later after finding the surrounding country in a similar state of pandemonium. Those who returned on Rosh Hashanah eve found German troops in town. The Nazis turned the holiday into a carnival of mockery, cutting beards off of men and forcing them to march in circles around a tree.

The Germans were in the mood for arson when they came to Asher Arom’s house on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. Earlier that night, soldiers had barged into the synagogues, demanding volunteers for work. In a surprising act of mercy, they allowed the congregants to evacuate the synagogues, but their intentions were clear. They brought kerosene and kindling. Then they set the buildings ablaze.

The main concern for many of these Jews, it turned out, was not preserving their property or protecting their families, but finding a place to finish praying. With the ashes of the holy places still choking the air, “it was told to them that grandfather had made his house open for the needs of prayer,” Leah recalled in the Yizkor Book.

Some two dozen Jews gathered at the ritual slaughterer’s home. The Nazis quickly learned what was going on. They chased away the prayer quorum but locked my great-grandfather inside. Soon, they returned with bundles of straw and rags soaked in kerosene. Leah’s sister Sarah, then a girl of 16, begged for her grandfather’s life, weeping. The Germans ignored her, intent on burning the 72-year-old alive. Only when a gentile woman who lived next door joined in Sarah’s protest did the Nazis relent.

“She was afraid her home would catch fire, as well,” Leah wrote. “The Germans returned the key to my sister and removed the flammable material from around the house, and grandfather was again saved from certain death.”

On Yom Kippur, we are taught, the ink is still wet in the Book of Life. Even the hosts of heaven shrink in terror as the Creator ponders fates: “The Angels of heaven are dismayed and seized by fear,” the prayer goes. “The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard.” Was anyone fool enough, or fervent enough, to blow the shofar in Lizhensk that year? Did anybody hear the still, small voice?

By the Day of Atonement in 1939, the Jews of Lizhensk were afraid to walk in the streets for the harassment it undoubtedly would bring. Those still inclined to pray mostly stayed home and found a quiet corner to do so.

For the Chasidim of Lizhensk, the world to come must have seemed nearer than ever. Yet they were not ill-prepared to meet their end. For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final. When sickness or disasters struck, the Lizhenskers would climb the hill of the cemetery to ask the dead to intercede on their behalf. Orphaned brides and grooms would go there to invite their deceased parents to celebrate their wedding. The place abounded with legend.

It was to those old stones that Asher Arom would retire when he could wrest a moment from the demands of work, family and study.

“He would spend hour after hour there cleaning the gravestones and making the inscriptions clearer,” his granddaughter Leah wrote. “When the Messiah comes, each minute will be precious and holy, and it would be a shame if time would be wasted on clarifying the blurred inscriptions.”

Sometimes, he brought Leah to weed the grass around the graves. Once, he explained to her why he did it: “Death is nothing but the natural continuation of life,” he said. “And if we love a life of cleanliness and being cared for, we must give this also to the dead. We must look after the gravestones, just as we look after our home.”

The bitter irony is that his body most likely went up in smoke or was tossed in a mass, unmarked grave.

The circumstances of 1939 gave new meaning to the Yamin Noraim, the Days of Awe — more literally, the days of terror between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “We sat with closed doors and shut windows,” survivor Shaul Spatz recalled in the Yizkor Book. “The silence outside was only interrupted by the occasional thumps of the boots of the German soldiers.”

Soon it was time to erect their sukkot, but the familiar sounds of hammers hitting nails were absent. “That year, all Jewish homes remained exposed without sukkot attached to their walls,” he wrote. “In the Jewish street, fear walks. Apprehension replaced the joy of the holiday.”

You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

Then, the rumors of a roundup came true: The next morning, the Jews were to report to the market square.

“I don’t remember which one of our neighbors told us that we had to leave the house,” Spatz wrote. “We fearfully gathered a few of our belongings.”

Hundreds of Jews already had assembled when Spatz arrived. “It was raining,” he recalled. “Our bundles were wet and their weight increased by the moment.”

Death was the punishment for absence, and yet there was no trace of Asher.

Leah had arrived at the square with her parents and sister. Her mother, Gittel, must have been frantic: Simcha, Gittel’s only son, was away at yeshiva in Lublin. Later, Leah’s daughter Sima told me, Gittel had risked a summary execution and snuck back across the San River to see if her boy had come home to find his family, but there was no trace of him, either.

Tension mounted. Anxiety and anguish boiled like puddles in a hard rain. And still Asher was missing.

“We were unable to search for him without being shot,” his granddaughter wrote. “At the last moment, as we organized into rows for the gloomy march, he appeared next to us, calm and filled with family warmth. He was wearing his clean Sabbath clothing, and had his tallis and tefillin bag with him.”

His family scolded him, but, “He smiled and mocked us: What is all the confusion? For it is impossible to believe these murderers. However, perhaps they indeed intend to kill us. Therefore, I went to the mikveh to purify myself, and now I am ready and prepared if it is the will of our Creator, the Creator of the world who determines the fate of man.”

The march began, 2 1/2 miles to the banks of the San River. “The Jews traveled with their heads down, their eyes toward the ground, as if they were guilty of some terrible deed,” another survivor wrote in the Yizkor Book.

When they got there, the Germans unrolled a sheet and commanded the Jews to drop any valuables onto it, on penalty of death. To show they were serious, they shot one of the Jews on the spot. But when the Jews then were ordered across a makeshift bridge, suddenly they were alone; the opposite bank was Soviet territory. Two years before the Wannsee Conference and the decision to implement the Final Solution, the Nazis seemed content with banishment. “So ceased to be one Jewish community in the first days of the war,” Spatz wrote.

Leah and her family headed east, surviving deportation to Siberia and eventually making their way to Israel. But Asher seemed to resign himself to his doom.

The conclusion of his granddaughter’s recollection is as terse as the rest of it is reverent: “When we crossed the San, we continued to wander in the direction of Przemysl. Grandfather was a native of Przemysl, and he decided to remain there until the storm would pass. After we took leave of him, we never met again. He succumbed to the murderous Nazis.”

Was he murdered when the Germans rounded up and killed the entire Jewish population of Zasanie in June 1942? Was he sent to Belzec some two months later along with 12,500 Jewish residents of Przemysl? Or would he have lived to the very end and been one of the 1,000 murdered behind the Judenrat building, during the final liquidation of Przemysl’s Jews, when the shooting went on for six hours?

What became of Asher Arom remains an intractable and deeply frustrating mystery to me. The only evidence of his death is a small, yellowing scrap of paper on which his son Shmuel, my grandfather, scribbled a contradictory series of Hebrew and Gregorian dates, recorded, probably, from phone calls from family and former neighbors after the war.

But how he died doesn’t interest me quite so much as how he lived. I’m still waiting to stumble on the single detail that will bring events from Lizhensk back to life for me, even just momentarily, in a brilliant flash of transplanted memory. I didn’t find it in Poland. Most of my time in Lizhensk was spent ambling from spot to spot, possessed by a sense of detachment, the drizzle dampening my mood. Even the beards and shawls and the prayerful wailing through the night failed to conjure anything profound.

There’s a disconnect I can’t get past. The removal is too great, the violence too jarring, the years too many. Sitting in the main square in Lizhensk, brooding over a notebook and trying to figure out how to feel, it didn’t really land that this was the same square where the Jews had gathered on Sukkot, where Leah had fretted over her grandfather. Would that it had, I might have decided to hike from Lizhensk to the river, following in the path of my ancestor, letting March showers stand in for fall rain. I didn’t. I’m not sure what I would have gained from it.

My ghosts have become better defined since I went looking for them, but they remain no less puzzling, no less tiresome and my relationship with them no less one-sided. They remain ghosts, dead things, dust and forgotten secrets. You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

To those planning a foray into their family history  by buying a plane ticket to Poland, my advice is: You might want to reconsider. You will find no answers there. Seeing will bring you no more comfort than knowing. Only emptiness and grief remain for the likes of me, and faint traces of a bitter past. Soon, those too will be gone.

David Benson (left) and his brother, Andrew Benson, accompany their grandmother, Holocaust survivor Sidonia Lax, on the 2015 International March of the Living. Photo courtesy of David Benson.

Who will tell survivors’ stories when they’re gone?


In the spring of 2011, David Benson, found himself walking with his grandmother, Holocaust survivor Sidonia Lax, down the “black path” that once led to the crematorium at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was Lax’s fifth trip with the annual International March of the Living as a survivor, with the Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) teen delegation, his first as part of a large family contingent with the BJE Los Angeles adult group.

As they headed toward the massive circular mausoleum that now stands at the end of the path, holding the ashes of some of the approximately 59,000 Jews and 19,000 non-Jews who were murdered there, Benson, then 35, found himself alone with his grandmother, then 83, for the first time during the trip. Something came over him, something that he can’t explain to this day, and he vowed, “As long as you want to come on this trip, I will come with you. And I’ll come in your stead when you can’t anymore.”

Benson’s sacred promise to his grandmother represents a welcome response to a mounting challenge facing museums, historians and educators as survivors of Nazi-era atrocities grow old and die, taking their firsthand accounts with them: How will their memories be kept alive for future generations? More and more, it is the survivors’ descendants — their sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — who are taking on that responsibility, and beyond them, anyone who hears their stories.

It also is spurring wider efforts to record survivors talking about their exploits for posterity, much in the way the USC Shoah Foundation videotaped more than 50,000 testimonies of Jewish survivors between 1994 and 1999 and how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is continuing to expand its collection of more than 12,000 audio and video recordings of Jewish survivors.

Benson is one of the many children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of survivors — known within the Holocaust community as Second, Third and Fourth Generation — who are stepping up to tell the survivors’ stories as educational programs, institutions and museums worldwide prepare for a world without survivors.

For the past five years, Benson has left behind his wife, his two young children and his business for a week to accompany his grandmother to Poland. This year, after 10 March of the Living trips, Sidonia is unable to participate. And although David cannot attend this year because of preparations for Sidonia’s 90th birthday and other conflicts, he already has signed up to lead an adult group next year.


“As long as you want to come on this trip, I will come with you. And I’ll come in your stead when you can’t anymore.”

— David Benson, to his grandmother, on a march of the living trip to Poland


He knows his grandmother’s story intimately, how she and her parents had been crammed into a small cellar bunker with 35 people in the Przemysl ghetto in Poland for three months in the fall of 1943. An escape plan for her family failed, and her mother was captured and later murdered. A few days later, her father slipped out of the bunker in search of a smuggled apple for his severely undernourished daughter. He never returned.

Benson has followed his grandmother inside her former barracks in Birkenau, one of six camps in which she was imprisoned, where she’s pointed and said, “This is the bunk where I slept.”

“There’s nothing like someone, firsthand, standing there and saying that,” said Monise Neumann, director of the BJE Center for Teen Experiential Education, who has led 12 trips with the BJE Los Angeles delegation. “You can’t duplicate that.” Still, she said, “David serves as an amazing kind of figure as we transition from firsthand witnesses.”

Seven decades ago, at the end of World War II, approximately 3.8 million European Jews were alive, according to research by demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, among Jews who were in camps, ghettos or hiding under Nazi occupation, only 100,000 worldwide are alive, including 14,000 in the United States, Amy Wexler, public relations manager for The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, said via email.

In Los Angeles, extrapolating from the 1997 Jewish Population Survey, in which survivors self-identified, demographic researcher Pini Herman estimated the current number of living survivors at 3,000, excluding child survivors, those born Jan. 1, 1928, or later.

But even among the living survivors, many are ill or memory-impaired. And others, especially those born toward the end of World War II, survivors by definition, simply were too young to consciously recall their Holocaust ordeals.

In 2016, the BJE Los Angeles March of the Living delegation had only five survivors, the smallest group since it began participating in 1988. And these were mostly child survivors. This year, six are participating, all child survivors.

Over the years, staff members have become the storytellers for the next generation. Freddy Diamond, a survivor who accompanied the group five times over 10 years, used to stand outside Block 11 of Auschwitz, telling students the story of how his brother Leo, a member of a little-known resistance group, was tortured and hanged in front of 15,000 inmates. When Diamond could no longer attend, Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate director, stood outside Block 11, holding a photo of Diamond and relating his story. Now Neumann tells it.

“Look, it’ll never be the same,” Neumann said. “But because of the way the stories are being told, people will tell you that they’ll always remember them.”

In more recent years, Neumann and others have recorded survivors recounting their stories at different locations in Poland. Staff members carry these narratives on their digital devices.

Neumann also enlists the help of Third and Fourth Generation survivors who are March of the Living participants. In 2015, Caroline Lowy, then an 18-year-old student at Milken Community Schools, stood near a cattle car on the Auschwitz-Birkenau tracks and talked about how her great-grandfather Hugo Lowy arrived at Auschwitz in April 1944. He was dispatched to a line of men selected to work, but he refused to part with his tallit bag, which a guard grabbed and threw to the ground. When the guard turned his back, Hugo retrieved the bag, refusing to go anywhere without his tallit and tefillin. The guard beat him to death.

Caroline had attended the dedication of the cattle car in 2010, which had been restored and donated to Auschwitz-Birkenau by Hugo Lowy’s son, her grandfather Frank Lowy. She felt honored to retell the story to her peers, though it was difficult. But, she said, “I have a duty as a young Jewish person to keep telling the stories.”

Survivor John Adler and daughter Eileen Eandi speak at the Museum of Tolerance last June. Photo by Jane Ulman

Survivor John Adler and daughter Eileen Eandi speak at the Museum of Tolerance last June. Photo by Jane Ulman

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened in 1977, the organization sent survivors into the community to share their stories. And survivors have been speaking at the Museum of Tolerance, the Wiesenthal Center’s educational arm, since it was opened in 1993. Currently, the museum boasts a roster of 45 survivor speakers.

“There really is a difference when it is the survivor standing up and telling their own testimony,” said Elana Samuels, director of museum volunteer services at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

When survivor John Adler, now 93, came to Samuels more than three years ago, he said with tears in his eyes, “I can’t speak anymore. I have to retire.” Samuels suggested they approach his daughter, Eileen Eandi.

Eandi, 67, had wanted to become involved with the museum. Plus, she said, “I wanted to do this for my father. I wanted to be involved in carrying the story forward.”

Eandi researched her father’s experiences, putting together a timeline and selecting photographs, and then worked with Samuels and Emily Thompson, a Museum of Tolerance intern at the time, to present the story in a creative but compassionate way.

In her presentation, Eandi focuses on her father’s growing up in pre-Holocaust Germany as a child and teenager. Adler’s family moved to Breslau in 1933, where they lived on a main street that contained the headquarters of the local chapter of Nazi stormtroopers, who emerged every morning marching and singing. They then hung out in the cul-de-sac where the Adler family’s apartment building stood, forcing Adler to pass them on his way to school every morning.

In 1937, when Adler was 14, the Jewish school he attended closed. No longer able to use its sports field, Adler and his best friend went to a local public field, where one day they were accosted by three Nazi youths on bicycles. Adler and his friend bloodied their noses and the young Nazis hastily retreated. But several visits later, the boys were met by older Nazi youths who punched Adler, breaking his glasses and his bicycle. He limped home.

After this experience, followed by Kristallnacht in November 1938, Adler joined a hakhshara, a kind of kibbutz where he learned agricultural skills necessary for immigration to Palestine.

Adler’s parents left for Shanghai in February 1939, and Adler, not quite 16, left for Palestine on Aug. 30, 1939, two days before Germany invaded Poland. He joined a kibbutz, and at 18, he enlisted in the British army.

At the end of every presentation, Adler rises and answers questions. “The mood changes totally when my father stands up. There’s nothing like having this person in front of you,” Eandi said, adding that people want to hug him, shake his hand and be photographed with him.

Eandi doesn’t know what she’ll do after her father no longer can accompany her, unsure how effective her talk will be without him. But Adler’s plan is that his daughter will speak for him for a long time, followed by his grandson, Matthew Eandi. “I don’t ever want [the Holocaust] to be forgotten,” Adler said.


“The mood changes totally when my father stands up. There’s nothing like having this person in front of you.”

  Eileen Eandi, daughter of a holocaust survivor


Using the experience of Eandi and Adler as her model, Samuels reached out to other Second and Third Generation descendants to form a group called Looking to the Future, which first met in November 2013. And while some of the participants are working with various media to carry forward a parent’s or grandparent’s legacy — including film, photography or memoir projects — Samuels wants to make sure that storytelling remain the centerpiece of these efforts.

“Clearly, the most important program we offer is our witness to truth testimony, where every day we are open, visitors have the opportunity to sit in a room and hear primary testimony,” she said.

As the Looking to the Future group envisions a future without survivors and focuses on building the next generation of speakers, Samuels acknowledged that it’s also important to incorporate compelling video testimony, such as footage from a USC Shoah Foundation interview. “You need that emotional connection,” she said.

These Holocaust eyewitnesses, who are now revered, were shunned in the first two decades after World War II, sociologist Arlene Stein writes in her book “Reluctant Witnesses.” Even those who wanted to speak were told to keep quiet and move on with their lives. Only the survivors — and there were few — who had fought in wartime resistance were celebrated.

But by 1962, as survivors testified at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann trial, revealing the enormity of the horrors they suffered, the world became more receptive to hearing their stories. Through the 1970s, the Second Generation, whose lives had been overshadowed by the Holocaust, came of age. And as they sought to carve out their own identities amid the social and political upheaval in the United States, they prodded their parents to talk about their Holocaust pasts.

In 1993, the film “Schindler’s List” opened to wide acclaim. “It made the Holocaust more accessible to the general public and it gave the average survivor greater confidence to be able to speak,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Today, survivors are viewed as heroes. They have taken on a mantle of moral authority as, even in their 80s and 90s, they continue to share their narratives, to testify to what really occurred, to thwart Holocaust deniers and to encourage people to love, hope and create a better world.

And Holocaust museums and organizations worldwide are stepping up their programs to provide them with speaking opportunities. Last month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began a program called “First Person, Conversations With Survivors.” It includes two sessions a week with survivors and continues through Aug. 10.

Survivor Pinchas Gutter answers questions during filming of USC Shoah Foundation’s “New Dimensions in Testimony” project. Photo courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation

Survivor Pinchas Gutter answers questions during filming of USC Shoah Foundation’s “New Dimensions in Testimony” project. Photo courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation

“I tell my story for the purpose of improving humanity, drop by drop by drop,” said Pinchas Gutter, an 84-year-old survivor originally from Lodz, Poland.‭ ‬But for decades after the war, Gutter was silent, afraid to burden his children with his sad stories. Then in 1992, historian Paula Draper approached him in Toronto, where he has lived since 1985, convincing him of the importance of giving testimony.

“I cried. I was shaking. It was very, very difficult,” he recalled. It wasn’t until 10 years later, when Gutter was the subject of a documentary called “The Void: In Search of Memory Lost,” filmed in Poland and directed by Smith before his tenure at the USC Shoah Foundation, that he could talk more easily about his time in the Warsaw Ghetto and in six concentration camps, including Majdanek, where his twin sister, at age 10, and his parents were murdered. “It was cathartic,” Gutter said of his participation in the film. Since then, he has spoken and continues to speak, all over the world.

And now, thanks to a USC Shoah Foundation project called “New Dimensions of Testimony,” Gutter will live on as an interactive survivor, in a life-size, three-dimensional video display in which he presents his story and then answers direct questions, making eye contact with the audience. “That never existed before in any other context before this project,” said Smith, explaining that the project uses automatic speech recognition software to access a databank of more than 1,500 questions that Gutter has previously answered.

But what’s missing in these interactive encounters, Smith explained, are the nuances of conversation, both in body language and in personalization. Still, Smith believes the audience engages with the witness, not the technology. “What we’re trying to create is something that is a little more natural in terms of how we inquire about the past of an individual,” he said.

The project is still in the trial phase, with the interactive Gutter, currently in a two-dimensional format, now on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie as well as Holocaust museums in Toronto, Houston and Terre Haute, Ind. Twelve additional English-speaking Holocaust survivors and one Mandarin-speaking survivor of the Nanjing Massacre, which occurred Dec. 13, 1937, through January 1938, have been interviewed, a process that takes days. Those videos have yet to be edited.

Gutter hopes many more survivors will be able to participate. He doesn’t want the Holocaust to become just an academic endeavor, with possible distortions and inaccuracies. “When you see a documentary, it doesn’t have the same effect on you,” he said. “I’ve watched people interacting with me [on the two-dimensional projected image] and, believe me, the effect it has on them, they will never forget it.”

The USC Shoah Foundation, always has been focused on preparing for a time when there will be no survivors. Over the years, foundation officials have learned, Smith said, to trust audiences with the stories, sharing them on social media and entrusting students and teachers with the testimony. “The more we trust them to own the story, the more likely they are to tell the story to their own generation,” Smith said.

Currently, the USC Shoah Foundation is in the second year of a five-year project called the Visual History Archive Program, in which it will share and augment 53,000 video testimonies, including survivors of other genocides, with scholars, educators, descendants of survivors and organizations. “This gives us an opportunity to work with multiple audiences on figuring out how they best want to use this content or contribute to this content in the future,” Smith said.

Currently, 1,815 USC Shoah Foundation testimonies can be accessed online at vhaonline.usc.edu, and in Southern California, the full collection can be viewed at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), Chapman University and the USC campus.

Additionally, with what Smith called “a tight deadline,” the USC Shoah Foundation is continuing to work with survivors to find other ways of telling their stories, engaging them in the process so that it’s a partnership in figuring out the best ways to enable their voices to live on. “That’s very much at the heart of the mission and something we share with the survivors themselves,” Smith said.

Beth Kean, executive director of LAMOTH and herself a Third Generation survivor, is uncomfortable talking about the loss of survivors. “Yes, that’s a fact,” she said, “but there are hundreds, probably thousands, alive right now, so let’s do whatever we can to engage with them even more.”

Survivors always have been at the heart of the museum’s mission. In fact, it was a group of survivors, who were then calling themselves former German prisoners, who met at Hollywood High School while taking English classes and  founded the museum in 1961. It was to be a place where they could tell their stories and a place that charged no admission.

That hasn’t changed. Today, there are about 35 core survivors who speak in the Sunday Survivor Speaker Series and whenever a school, law enforcement or teacher education group comes to visit.

Over the past several years, the museum has reached out to more survivors, particularly child survivors, and worked to connect all of their survivors with as many students as possible in a variety of what LAMOTH calls “Art and Memory Programs.” In these activities, students and survivors interact in less traditional, more informal settings.

Children and grandchildren of the survivors also play an important role in keeping memories alive.

3G@LAMOTH is a program founded in 2013 by Third Generation survivors Rebecca Katz and Caitlin Kress. The members, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, work on ways of carrying forward their grandparents’ legacies, meeting regularly for narrative workshops, film screenings and other events.

Marissa Lepor, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, and her grandmother, survivor Sarah Jacobs, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Marissa Lepor

Marissa Lepor, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, and her grandmother, survivor Sarah Jacobs, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Marissa Lepor

Marissa Lepor, 23, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, found strength confronting her life challenges — although not comparable, she pointed out — by learning about her grandparents’ Holocaust travails. Her grandmother, Sarah Jacobs, now 92, was 3 when her mother died in childbirth and 15 when she lost the grandmother who raised her. Three years later, Jacobs was taken to Landeshut and then Peterswaldau, both subcamps of Gross-Rosen concentration camp. After the war, in 1950, she and her husband, Max Jacobs, immigrated to Los Angeles, where they raised a family.

Now Lepor brings together 3G members and other interested millennials to an event she calls Startup Stories, which began in the summer of 2015. There, Lepor briefly recounts her grandparents’ stories and interviews two or three Holocaust survivors about how they dealt with the challenges of rebuilding their war-torn lives.

“Learning from [the survivors] is really a privilege,” Lepor said.

“It’s really important today for the 2Gs and 3Gs especially to be stewards of that history. We have this responsibility to retell our parents’ and grandparents’ history,” Kean said.

Other programs at LAMOTH are aimed at young people who may not have a familial connection to the Holocaust.

L’Dough V’Dough, launched in 2012, brings together students elementary school age and older, as well as adults, to braid and bake challah while sharing stories and sometimes personal artifacts. “It’s transformative for these students,” Kean said.

And in Voices of History, students in various high schools and colleges reflect on and retell survivors’ testimony, which they condense into short films that are used in teacher-training workshops on the Holocaust and in school classrooms.

In the summer of 2015, for example, students in a digital storytelling workshop at Harvard-Westlake School toured the museum and later filmed survivor Dana Schwartz as she related her story. The students then produced an eight-minute, mostly animated film, “The Story of Three Rings,” depicting Schwartz’s life as a 6-year-old confined with her parents in the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, in November 1941. When deportations began four months later, the family hid in a cramped hole. Then, with false papers her father had procured, Schwartz and her mother escaped to a nearby town, posing as non-Jewish Poles until the war’s end.

Students also interpret these narratives through music, photography and theater.

This year, LAMOTH teamed with students from Santa Monica High School’s theater department to present “Voices of Survivors,” in which students performed some of the more chilling scenes from the lives of four survivors. During the eight-week project, the 35 students visited the museum, where they learned about the Holocaust and then met with the survivors in preparation for scripting their scenes, with help from Writer’s Room Productions, and performing them on March 22.

What does it mean for an elder who was a child in the worst possible moment of Jewish modern history to be connected to a child who’s living in a time and place of unprecedented prosperity?” That was the question Samara Hutman, director of Remember Us: The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project and The Righteous Conversations Project, asked.

And that became the genesis of The Righteous Conversations Project, which began in 2011, connecting teenagers with Holocaust survivors. Since then, the two generations have come together at various synagogues and schools for discussions, filmmaking and other creative workshops, and social justice work, which includes relating the survivors’ experiences to current issues and filming more than 60 public service announcements on subjects such as bullying, Islamophobia and racial discrimination.

“The central piece is the reciprocity of the exchange,” Hutman said, explaining that the students then become the stewards of the survivors’ stories, finding a way to honor and carry forward the their words. “There’s love and memory that doesn’t leave.”

Survivor Helen Freeman, 95, who has taken part in Righteous Conversations Project workshops since the organization’s founding, understands the power of these intergenerational encounters.

At the culmination of a summer 2012 workshop, Freeman told participant Trey Carlisle, then a 13-year-old student at Aveson Global Leadership Academy in Altadena, something that she has continued to tell students at subsequent workshops:

“Because of the way you have listened to me and because of the work you have done hearing me,” she said, “I now feel that I can die in peace.”

American Jewish Committee returns to Warsaw


The American Jewish Committee returned to Warsaw after eight years.

AJC on Monday opened a new office in the city dedicated to serving Poland and six other Central European countries: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia.

“Welcome home!” Andrzej Folwarczny, founder of the Forum for Dialogue and recipient of AJC’s Jan Karski Award, said at an evening ceremony at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Folwarczny, who is not Jewish, has been cooperating with AJC for more than 20 years, organizing study visits of opinion leaders from Poland and the United States. The groups travel to the U.S. to address issues of concern in Polish-American and Polish-Jewish relations. Folwarczny’s best-known project is School of Dialogue, which helps young people living in small Polish towns to learn about their local Jewish community’s history.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a statement marking the event, said he sees the depth of symbolism in the fact that the ceremony coincided with the launch of NATO forces’ presence in Poland.

“In the period when Poland, having regained her sovereignty after the collapse of the communist regime, strived to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the American Jewish Committee proved to be our valuable ally,” he wrote in a letter read to gala participants.

Jonathan Ornstein, director of JCC Krakow, told JTA that the opening of AJC’s office in Poland will give a boost to its growing Jewish community and help Poland strengthen ties with the Jewish world. He said the choice of Warsaw is yet another sign that world Jewry recognizes Poland as a growth area and a bright spot in Europe.

“We at JCC Krakow are excited to cooperate with AJC and eager to access their experience in community building as our Krakow Jewish community continues to develop and reemerge after the fall of communism,” he said.

In 1997 David Harris, who has led AJC since 1990, testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of NATO admission for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. AJC was the only Jewish organization to do so.

In a partnership with the Polish government, AJC helped protect and memorialize the site of Belzec, a German death camp located in southeastern Poland, where approximately 500,000 Jews were murdered in less than a year.

Michael Karkoc, far right, has been accused of being a member in the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion, a unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians during World War II. Photo is a screenshot from YouTube.

Son of Minnesota man, 98, accused of Nazi war crimes, calls for release of evidence


The son of a Minnesota man, 98, accused by a police court of Nazi war crimes, has called for the evidence against his father to be released.

Andriy Karkoc, son of the Minnesota man first identified by the Associated Press as Michael Karkoc, called on Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, the two Democratic senators from Minnesota, to intervene in his father’s case “on legal and humanitarian grounds” and to investigate the source of the evidence against him, the AP reported Saturday. Andriy Karkoc reportedly says the evidence was fabricated by Russian intelligence.

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

“My father was, is, and remains an innocent man,” his son said Saturday.

Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance–Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation said in a statement on its website that Michael 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.

He 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.

Andriy Karkoc said his father served “honorably” with the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, and that he cannot be judged by the actions of other people in the unit.

Michael Karkoc 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, Michael 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.

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

The Associated Press said that it stands by its reporting of Michael Karkoc.

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.

Visitors to the memorial for the victims of the Kielce Pogrom in “Bogdon’s Journey.” Photo courtesy of Menemsha Films.

‘Journey’ a quest for understanding over postwar Polish pogrom


“Everything good in me comes from my faith.”

The words, spoken by Bogdan Bialek, a Catholic Polish psychologist, are heard at the beginning of a documentary film that confronts one of the bloodiest and most fiercely debated episodes in Poland’s history: the Kielce Pogrom of 1946. By the end of “Bogdan’s Journey,” the faith of its remarkable protagonist feels almost beside the point. Bialek speaks to Jews and Poles alike, bringing them together in the interest of healing.

Unity appears to be a common bond where this tale is concerned. The film’s two co-directors — a Jewish American and a Catholic Pole — spent 10 years assembling footage for the story they thought they were going to tell. Two years into the filming, after encountering Bialek, the documentary that originally was going to be titled “The Burden of Memory” became “Bogdan’s Journey.”

“After we did our second interview with Bogdan, we realized that he is a revelation,” said Michal Jaskulski, the Catholic, who began as the cinematographer and eventually became the film’s co-director and producer. “He can be a voice. He was not presenting either a Polish or Jewish view. He was thinking about people as people, with empathy for everyone.”

“I see this film as an important gateway to understanding something that I think is profound,” added co-director Lawrence Loewinger. “There would be no Jewish life in Poland today if there wasn’t some core of Poles who are interested in fostering Jewish life.”

Jaskulski and Loewinger will take the stage for a Q&A session following a screening of the film at 7 p.m. on March 8 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. They will be joined by professor Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University. Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland will moderate.

Bialek, no relation to the rabbi despite the similarity of their names, is making his first visit to Los Angeles. He also will join the panel, but Beliak doesn’t expect the film’s soft-spoken title character to hold forth.

“The role of being the center is not what I think he set out to do. I think he meant to be a facilitator, a conduit for people to talk,” the rabbi said. “In many ways, Bogdan has already said his piece; the film in many ways speaks for him. I’m glad he’s coming, but I think he will feel a little superfluous in the conversation.”

As “Bogdan’s Journey” recounts, when the subject is the history of Jews in Poland, and specifically the events of July 4, 1946, the conversation is not always civil. Amid postwar anti-Semitism in Poland, townspeople in Kielce murdered more than 40 Jewish survivors who were trying to take shelter in a building; 40 more were injured. Even with memorials and annual ceremonies in Kielce honoring the dead, there still are suspicions that the Nazis or secret police caused the uprising or that the incident never happened.

The film depicts angry Kielce residents denouncing the suggestion that their home could have been the site of such an atrocity and demanding why anybody would want to “open an old wound.”

Beliak, who has participated in events commemorating the Kielce pogrom, understands the climate in which the film was made. The Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, a Beverly Hills-based advocacy group, has contributed money to the movie’s Kickstarter campaign, and Beliak calls himself a “fan producer.”

“There are pockets of good will in the Polish community and the Jewish community that want to find a way to come to understanding and reconciliation, and there are pockets of people who, for whatever reason, are highly nationalistic and feel that Poland has been treated shabbily by history,” Beliak said. “Not looking at the historical record is not something that is unique to Poland. So I think this film highlights that part of the Polish population that is largely willing to confront the past and to try to move together to an understanding about it.”

Chief among the “looking forward” faction is Bogdan Bialek, himself, a psychologist who moved to Kielce in the 1970s and made it his lifelong mission to educate people about the pogrom in healing and nonjudgmental ways. The film uses archival footage and photographs and re-creates scenes from the pogrom to chronicle its devastation. In the present, we see attempts at healing as Bialek talks — and listens — to all sides, bringing survivors, relatives of survivors and others from all over the world to Kielce for commemorative events, tours and discussions.

On the anniversary itself, he leads a walk to the Jewish cemetery, where he reads the names of the dead and lights a candle for each of them.

“It’s always very important to remember every person who was murdered that day,” he said in a separate interview. “It’s always very spontaneous and sometimes the program is made very last-minute.”

Bialek has attended screenings of “Bogdan’s Journey” in New York and in Poland, both inside and outside of Kielce. In the discussions that follow, he frequently detects a sense of catharsis among audience members. His own experience watching the film for the first time was quite different.

“For me, of course, it’s different, first of all, because I take so much time on the screen,” Bialek said. “This journey was 20 years for me, so watching it for the first time was more a kind of spiritual experience.”

“Bogdan’s Journey” will screen at 7 p.m. on March 8 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

Survivor Michele Rodri: Shuttled from place to place until danger passed


On a Thursday afternoon in April 1942, Michele Rodri (née Rosenberg) was playing hopscotch with three non-Jewish girlfriends outside her family’s home in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine when two SS officers approached them. 

“That’s a beautiful child,” one of them said, lifting Michele’s chin. 

Danke schoen,” answered the 7-year-old, who was fluent in German, French and Yiddish, which was her first language — and who also was wearing a yellow star.

The officer then blew a whistle, summoning a German military truck with a canvas-covered cargo bed that pulled up beside them. As the soldier hoisted Michele over the truck’s tall tailgate, she glimpsed the silhouette of her mother in their living room window being steered away from the partially opened drape. 

The truck was packed with adults and some children, crowded together on benches lining the sides or on the floor, many of them crying. “They were making a roundup, a razzia,” Michele said. A woman came over and held her. “Don’t cry,” she told her in Yiddish. But Michele did not feel reassured. “I was very scared,” she said.

Michele was born on March 26, 1935, to Chaim and Hana Rosenberg, who had moved to Paris from Krakow, Poland, around 1920. She had three older brothers: Abel, born in 1922, David in 1923 and Maurice in 1925. 

Chaim owned a business manufacturing threads. “He was very kind and generous but very strict in terms of behavior,” Michele said. Hana cared for the family. “She was an angel,” Michele said. “She could do anything.” 

The family, who was comfortably middle class and religiously observant, lived in a two-story house in a quiet, residential neighborhood, with a garden in back. The neighbors, who were mostly Christian, knew the Rosenbergs were Jewish, but, Michele said, “Everybody lived very harmoniously.” Her family was well-respected, and her father and brothers were especially friendly with the town’s police commissar, Monsieur Sigean.

Everything changed, however, when Germany attacked France on May 10, 1940, eventually entering Paris on June 14. 

Soon after, Michele’s older brothers, Abel and David, joined the Maquis, the French resistance. “They were very patriotic,” Michele said of her brothers, though she didn’t know their destination at the time. Her youngest brother, Maurice, remained at home to help the family. 

The few Jewish students who attended Michele’s public school began being harassed. Other children refused to sit with them or accused them of killing Jesus. Michele, however, was never physically harmed. 

In 1942, when the German military truck transporting Michele pulled up to Drancy, an internment camp in a northeast Parisian suburb of the same name, she and the others were led into a large hall, with the children clustered in one area. They were fed coffee and a piece of worm-infested bread in the morning — “I picked [the worms] out,” Michele said. “I had to eat the bread” — and in the evening, “horrible” soup with rutabaga or potato peelings. During the day, they were allowed outside in the yard, where they played ball. 

Michele talked only to a 5 1/2-year-old girl named Nicole, the daughter of a non-Jewish political prisoner, whose mat lay next to hers. The girl constantly wept, but, Michele said, “I felt a little humanity.” 

One day in July 1942, after Michele had been at Drancy for three months, she saw her oldest brother, Abel, walk in, wearing an SS uniform. “He looked at me — he had these beautiful green eyes — and I knew I was not supposed to move,” Michele recalled. “Schnell, machen,” Abel said in perfect German to the SS soldier following him, one who worked at the internment camp. “Let’s do this quickly.” Abel pointed to Michele and Nicole. “I want these two children,” he said.

Michele and Nicole followed Abel and the SS soldier outside, where what looked like an official German car awaited. “Get in,” the driver ordered, pushing them a bit roughly into the back seat. Abel sat in the front, silent. Finally, after they had driven several kilometers, he turned to face the girls. “I’m going to take you to safety,” he said. 

They drove to a convent, which Michele believes was near Grenoble. There, she and Nicole lived with the nuns, attending public school in the town, though Michele didn’t talk to other girls, afraid she would divulge her identity. At the convent, Michele sang in the choir, which she loved. But she refused to kneel, as she had heard her father say, “Jews don’t kneel,” and she feared something terrible would happen. Meanwhile, the nuns, who were otherwise mostly kind, punished her for each transgression, lashing her lightly with a martinet, a leather whip, which she found embarrassing. 

One day her youngest brother, Maurice, visited her. “It was really dangerous,” Michele said. He had come without wearing his yellow star or telling their parents. But he brought her a pair of roller skates, something she had long coveted, that he had purchased on the black market. “They were so beautiful,” Michele recalled. 

Then, after 13 months at the convent, Michele and Nicole were picked up by a man who drove them to a small villa in Épinay-sur-Orge, a village about 20 miles south of Paris, where they lived with Monsieur and Madame Godignon, an older couple who had agreed to take the girls in exchange for money from Chaim, Michele’s father. 

Madame Godignon was very strict, slapping the girls if they broke a glass and feeding them meager portions, even though Chaim had paid handsomely for their room and board. “I was always hungry,” Michele said. And while Michele found extra pieces of bread at the bakery when she was sent there on errands, she also suffered stomachaches from eating unripe fruit from the backyard trees. “You dirty Jews have all the money,” Madame Godignon taunted her on a daily basis.

Monsieur Godignon, however, showed the girls kindness, such as tucking them into their beds every night. “He had a heart,” Michele said. And one day in fall 1943 or spring 1944, he took Michele to the train station to see her mother, who had undertaken the dangerous journey to visit with her daughter for only the few minutes the train was stopped. Hana hugged and kissed her — “My whole neck was full of tears,” Michele said — and also brought her a meatloaf sandwich, Michele’s favorite. 

In late August 1944, Michele was listening to the radio when she heard Winston Churchill announce that Hitler had capitulated and American troops had reached the outskirts of Paris. Soon after, her parents and two older brothers came to fetch her.  

Once home, Michele looked everywhere for Maurice, thinking he was playing hide-and-seek. She then learned that he had been picked up while riding the train to school in May 1943. A non-Jewish friend who had been riding with him reported to Chaim and Hana that the Germans had boarded the train, ordering all the males to drop their pants. Maurice and the other Jewish men were rounded up and taken to Drancy. 

After Maurice’s capture, Monsieur Sigean, the police commissar, protected Chaim and Hana, who hid in their house behind blacked-out windows. He also brought them food that he bought on the black market with money Chaim gave him. 

After the war, the Rosenbergs, who had changed their name to Lambert, learned that Maurice had been murdered in Auschwitz. Michele’s parents never recovered from that news. Hana lit a yahrzeit candle for Maurice every day for the rest of her life. And, Michele said, “There isn’t a day that I don’t think about him.”

In addition to Maurice, Michele lost 207 relatives in the Holocaust, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and first and second cousins. Her two grandfathers, who lived in Krakow, were hanged, separately, by the Nazis because they were Orthodox. 

In 1956, Michele traveled to Los Angeles to visit her brother David, who was living there at the time, and stayed. The following year, she married Robert Lazaruk, and their son, Kirk, was born in December 1958. The couple divorced in 1960. 

On July 4, 1962, Michele married Jack Cohen-Rodriguez (aka Rodri), a survivor from Holland who had been imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen. She helped Jack in his various businesses, including representing sports figures and running a medical oxygen company. 

Jack died in 2004, preceded by Chaim in 1972, Hana in 1984 and David in 1996. Abel died in 2014. For Michele, now 81, her family members, including her son, daughter-in-law and grandson, are most precious to her.

Around 2009, Michele began talking about her Holocaust experiences, first at the Stephen Wise Religious School and later at various public and private schools as well as the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “I want to speak as long as I’m here,” she said. 

Michele encourages the young people she addresses to speak up, as citizens of the world, if they see something that is not right.

“Being silent,” she said, “is the most terrible thing.”

First cousins who thought entire family died in Holocaust united in Israel


Two pairs of Polish Jewish siblings, who each believed their entire families died in the Holocaust, met for the first time at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

The tale started earlier this year when one of the siblings, Fania Blakay, found a testimony in the Yad Vashem database about her father. The testimony had been filled out by her father’s brother-in-law, who Blakay had been told had died.

The brother in-law, it turns out, had actually survived the Holocaust and immigrated with his wife and daughters to Israel. The daughters — Blakay’s cousins — were living in Israel.

On Tuesday, Blakay and her brother Gennadi Band — both of whom also live in Israel — were united with their first cousins Henia Moskowitz and Rywka Patchnik.

“I am deeply moved and very happy,” Blakay said, according to a statement. “My father always searched for members of his family and dreamed of finding them. He was alone. But ultimately, in this meeting today, his dream has finally come true.”

Moskowitz said that when she initially received a call from Yad Vashem, she did not believe the news.

“At first, I thought this news was a mistake. However, today when we met, I felt a connection at first sight; my family has grown overnight,” Moskowitz said. “Thanks to Yad Vashem, we discovered that we are not alone.”

Though the family was originally from Warsaw, it turned out that the cousins, all of whom were born in 1924-1942, and their parents had all fled to the Soviet Union during the war.

‘Demon’ arises from Poland’s past


So much of Jewish life is about remembering, keeping Shabbat, yahrzeit dates and who in the family slighted whom, that when it comes to a movie about forgetting, such as the Polish and Israeli film “Demon,” we may be at a loss. But as we peer through the edgy gloom of this production, which takes place in an isolated farmhouse in Poland, and see that what some of the film’s characters want to bury is crucial to our collective memory, we have eerie reckoning to the theme, as if taken possession by its message.

This is not a typical horror picture — there are no slashings, screams or chainsaws — yet “Demon,” directed by Marcin Wrona, frightens with a more modern form of horror: that of forgetting the lasting impact the Holocaust has had in Poland.

Stalking this film with a gaunt presence, a groom-to-be, Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran), arrives from England into the Polish countryside on the eve of his wedding to inspect a deserted farmhouse and barn that he and his fiancée, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), have been given as a gift by her parents. Mysteriously drawn to a spot on the surrounding property, he discovers a pile of human bones, which in the rain seem to swallow him into the ground. We are not sure what effect this accident might have (though the film’s title provides a heavy hint) until after the couple’s very Polish church wedding. The first clue comes after the ceremony, when Piotr, by custom, is supposed to dash a shot glass against the wall but instead places it on the floor and prepares to step on it. Is that he is becoming a Jew the horror?

“It is the first sign he is in a different culture. He doesn’t know who is,” the film’s producer, Olga Szymanska, said.

The screenplay, written by Pawel Maslona and Wrona, is loosely based on the play “Adherence” by Piotr Rowicki, a story of a dybbuk: in Jewish folklore, a wandering, often malevolent spirit that takes possession of a living person. In film, “the dybbuk theme has not been touched in Polish culture for 80 years,” Szymanska said, referring to S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk,” later made into a movie, in which a bride is possessed.

The word “dybbuk” is derived from the Hebrew verb dabak, meaning to adhere or to cling, but it is not until late in the film that we discover what — or who — is doing the clinging.

As Piotr’s behavior grows progressively more erratic, and the wedding party, sometimes humorously, devolves into the reception from hell, the father-in-law tries to cover up things by plying his guests with more and more alcohol. After Piotr collapses to the floor in what looks like an epileptic seizure, a doctor and priest (both are guests) are summoned to consult on his condition.

“There are no special effects in the film,” Szymanska said. Yet a special chill, unfortunately known to many Jewish viewers and based on the fog of history, creeps in. When the dybbuk is questioned by a local elder, a teacher who is Jewish, she reveals (speaking through Piotr) that her name is Hanna. She is a local, young Jewish woman who mysteriously disappeared in the pre-World War II era, explains the teacher, who even remembers her.

Speaking in Yiddish, Hanna talks about a promised husband and returning to carry out what “death interrupted.”

As rumor quickly spreads through the party that the groom is possessed, the father-in-law’s fear that the reception will be ruined spins out of control. For him, this is the real horror story. Standing, play-like on a stage, he regales his inebriated guests, saying, “We must forget what we didn’t see here.” When he tries to explain away the groom’s possession as a “collective hallucination,” the film itself is taken over by the dybbuk of history.

“The whole movie is not about the Holocaust,” said Szymanska, who feels it is more about “the past” in which, for centuries, “both Poles and Jews lived together.” Yet, it is the forgetting and remembering of that side-by-side neighbor relationship between Polish Christians and Jews that currently has Poland possessed.

Since the publication of “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” by Jan T. Gross in 2001, a book that details a July 1941 massacre in which, Gross says, 1,600 Polish Jews were murdered (later estimates give a lower number) by a group of non-Jewish Poles, the issue of whether Poles collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust has erupted into a painful national debate. Even though the country has a National Institute of Remembrance to investigate such charges, just this year, the country’s right-leaning government has proposed a new law, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “that would authorize a three-year prison sentence to anyone who claims that Poland collaborated with Nazi Germany.”

“Demon,” released in 2015 in Poland into this atmosphere, got caught up in this national debate. “There were some right-wing people who didn’t like it, and said it was this kind of wave of movie that’s anti-Polish and accuses Poles of killing Jews during the second world war,” Szymanska said.

Sadly, Wrona, who was married to Szymanska, will not be able to participate in the discussion his film might spark here, as on Sept. 19, 2015, at the time of the Gdynia Polish Film Festival, where “Demon” was being shown in competition, he took his own life in his hotel room.

Explaining what she thought drew her husband to the film, Szymanska recalled that “Marcin was very attracted to mysticism.” In the film, he “found an intersection to recall our two nations’ pasts,” she explained. He was interested “in what a modern dybbuk would tell us.”

“Demon” opens Sept. 9 at Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Demonstration by Polish soccer fans features burning Jews in effigy


Several dozen soccer fans in Poland hung a banner containing anti-Semitic language at a train station in Lodz at a demonstration that featured the burning of Jews in effigy.

Approximately 50 men were photographed on a bridge at the Lodz Kaliska station on Aug. 26 with a banner reading “19.08, today the Jews got a name. Let them burn,” followed by an obscenity, the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported.

The message referenced to the ŁKS Łódź team, which was founded in 1908 and many Poles associate with Jews because of the rich Jewish history of Lodz. The city in central Poland had a large Jewish population before the Holocaust, partly because it was a capital of the local textile industry.

The fans, some wearing balaclavas, set fire to at least three puppets hanging from the bridge and are understood to symbolize burning Jews.

Police are looking for the demonstrators, who are suspected of incitement to racial hatred and intimidation, the daily reported.

European Union allocates $1.5 million to expand Lodz train station museum


The European Union allocated $1.5 million for the expansion of the museum at the Radegast train station in Lodz, from which Jews were shipped to death camps during the Holocaust.

The money will be used to modernize the building and construct a multimedia model of the Lodz Ghetto, which existed from April 1940 to August 1944.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis sent Jews from the ghetto to death camps from the Radegast station. After the war the station fell into disrepair and appeared to be forgotten. A museum was opened there 10 years ago.

The multimedia model of the Lodz Ghetto, or Litzmannstadt Ghetto, as it was known in German, will be made on a scale of 1:1400 and will show the ghetto as it appeared in May 1944.

“Through multimedia, visitors will gain an opportunity to meet and listen to the witness of history,” according to Piotr Machlanski, director of the Museum of Independence Traditions in Lodz, which owns and operates the museum at the Radegast station.

The work at the station is expected to be completed in 2019.

Nazi ‘gold train’ dig in Poland may finally separate fact from fiction


Treasure hunters in Poland will start digging Tuesday for a hidden train long rumored to be filled with Nazi gold from the end of World War II.

Andreas Richter and Piotr Koper, who a year ago said they had located the train using ground-penetrating radar, will lead 35 volunteers on the privately funded dig in southwestern Poland.

“The train is not a needle in the haystack — if there is one, we will find it,” project spokesman Andrzej Gaik told Agence France-Presse.

The team should know by Thursday whether there is a train at the site, which is located near old railway tracks between the cities of Wroclaw and Walbrzych, Koper told Polish television. Three 300-foot-deep holes are to be drilled with special equipment. The dig is to be live-streamed online.

According to local legend, as German forces fled the Soviet army in 1945, they hid the train containing gold, gems, weapons and valuable art in a secret tunnel near Wroclaw. Despite decades of rumors and amateur searches, the train’s existence has never been proved.

Richter and Koper last year reported finding soil anomalies that hinted at the train’s existence. A study by the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow found no such evidence, but concluded there may be a tunnel at the site.

“If we find a tunnel, then that is also a success. Maybe the train is hidden inside that tunnel,” Gaik told AFP.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis melted down jewelry from Jews and other prisoners sent to concentration camps. As Allied forces advanced at the end of the war, the Nazis sent the gold back to Germany. According to experts, not all the gold has been found.

Poland proposes to jail users of term ‘Polish death camps’


The Polish government proposed a bill that would make the use of terms like “Polish death camps” a crime punishable by jail time.

The bill, which the government put forward Tuesday, would prohibit assigning blame to Poland for the actions of Nazi Germany. Historians and artists would be exempt in their work.

Drafted by the Justice Ministry, the measure also would criminalize accusing Poland of international war crimes or crimes against peace or humanity. The punishment would be a fine or up to three years in jail.

“Diplomatic actions to counteract the falsification of our history and protect the good name of Poland and the Polish people have proved ineffective,” the government said in a statement Tuesday. “There are still comments, especially in the foreign media, suggesting the participation of Poland and Poles in the crimes of World War II.”

Anti-Russian sentiment is fueling a nationalist revival in Poland, where some historians, politicians and activists are engaged in a campaign to absolve their countrymen of any wrongdoing during World War II and the Holocaust, which at time shades into revisionist history. In March, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum created software that lets journalists know when they have used the offending term “Polish death camp” and corrects it to read “Nazi death camp in Poland.”

Officials of the Law and Justice Party, which rose to power last year, have honored Poles who saved their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. But historians who have looked into Polish complicity have been branded traitors by far-right activists.

Jan Gross, a Polish-American historian who wrote about the slaying of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne in 1941, is the subject of a criminal investigation in Poland opened earlier this year for “insulting the Polish nation.” Gross wrote that Poles killed more Jews during the Holocaust than they did Germans.

Pope: I felt the presence of the souls of murdered at Auschwitz


Pope Francis said during his silent visit last week to the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau that he felt the souls of those murdered there.

“The great silence of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was more eloquent than any word spoken could have been,” he said Wednesday during his weekly public audience at the Vatican.

Francis visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, now a memorial museum, on Friday during a four-day trip to Poland to mark the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day. He chose not to make a speech or public statement there, but to visit in silent prayer.

“In that silence I listened: I felt the presence of all the souls who passed through that place; I felt the compassion, the mercy of God, which a few holy souls were been able to bring even into that abyss,” he said. “In that great silence, I prayed for all the victims of violence and war: and there, in that place, I realized more than ever how precious is memory; not only as a record of past events, but as a warning, and a responsibility for today and tomorrow, that the seed of hatred and violence not be allowed to take root in the furrows of history.”

Visiting Auschwitz, the pope said, made him pray to resolve the evils of today’s world.

“Looking upon that cruelty, in that concentration camp,” he said, “I thought immediately of the cruelties of today, which are similar: not as concentrated as in that place, but everywhere in the world; this world that is sick with cruelty, pain, war, hatred, sadness; and this is why I always ask you for the prayer: that the Lord give us peace.”

Jedwabne mayor calls for exhumation of Jewish mass grave


The mayor of a Polish town where locals killed and buried hundreds of Jews added his voice to a growing chorus of officials seeking to exhume the bodies from a mass grave to see if German soldiers were the killers.

Michael Chajewski, the mayor of the town in northeastern Poland, told Gazeta Wyborcza late last week that he supports exhumation. His backing of exhumation comes amid an uproar over a noncommittal statement by Poland’s education minister on television saying that even though state historians and leaders have blamed locals for the pogrom on July 10, 1941, she did not know who killed the Jews of Jedwabne 75 years ago.

“Yes. I’m going to do it,” Chajewski is quoted as telling the paper when asked if he would sign a petition calling for the exhumation. “You need to determine how many people were killed and by whom to finally dispel doubt.”

Poland’s state-owned Institute of National Remembrance determined several dozen locals killed at least 340 Jews at Jedwabne, some of whom they burned inside a barn. The incident, one of at least 20 pogroms against Jews by Poles during or immediately after the Holocaust, was largely unknown in Poland prior to the 2001 publication of a book by historian Jan Gross.

But the institute “said that at the crime scene, dozens of bullets were found. It’s not all that clear,” Chajewski said. Revisionist historians say the bullets mean German troops were likely responsible for the killing because Poles were prohibited from carrying guns in July 1941, when the German army was already present – though not fully controlling – the area. But dozens of testimonies by witnesses and survivors speak of the killing as done by willing locals.

The historical record on Jedwabne is highly controversial because many Poles perceive their nation, where Nazis murdered 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones, as a victim of Nazi genocide. The Jedwabne discovery forced many to readjust this perception to include also some acts by local perpetrators.

Some forensic excavation was already carried out at Jedwabne in 2001 until it was stopped for fear it violated Jewish religious laws on disturbing graves unnecessarily. But calls to exhume the bodies have intensified since the election last year of Poland’s right-wing president, Andrzej Duda.

Duda acknowledged the role of Poles in killing Jews earlier this month. But last year he attacked his predecessor for apologizing in 2011 for Jedwabne and denied that such events actually occurred.

“We did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said in a 2015 televised debate. “Lord knows that Poles didn’t take part in the Holocaust.”

The Jedwabne petition, which is being circulated by Ewa Kurek, a far-right historian from Lublin, received coverage in Polish media amid other articles about revisionist tendencies on Jedwabne, including at the Institute of National Remembrance.

Piotr Gontarczyk, a deputy director at the institute, said last week that “it is difficult to pursue a debate on the topic without a complete exhumation.”

Marek Chrzanowski, a historian with the institute who is running for its presidency, said Monday: “I also believe that you must reconfigure the exhumation and get to the truth because this case harms the image of Poles.”

Queried by JTA, an institute spokeswoman said her organization does not support exhumation as a matter of policy, though some of its historians may take a different view.

75 years after Jedwabne pogrom, Poland wrestles with evidence of complicity


As German army troops invaded eastern Poland, Ichak Lewin’s family fled their town of Wizna.

On July 10, 1941, the Lewins approached the nearby town of Jedwabne, where hundred of Jews lived and had the means to shelter other Jews. But  the Lewins soon realized they had come to the wrong place.

“We were on the cart when we smelled a fire and another bad smell,” said Lewin, recalling the day 75 years ago that has changed how millions in Poland and beyond think of the Holocaust years in that country.

Lewin was 10 when Jedwabne residents massacred hundreds of their Jewish neighbors, including three of Lewin’s uncles and most of his classmates. The townspeople, led by their mayor, rounded up at least 340 Jews and burned them alive inside a barn.

“When the smell reached us, so did word from non-Jewish passers-by that the people of Jedwabne burned the Jews,” Lewin said.

Known to few people in post-communist Poland prior to the 2001 publication of a book about it, the Jedwabne massacre was one of about 20 anti-Semitic atrocities during or immediately after the Holocaust perpetrated by Poles. It prompted the country’s previous president, Bronislaw Komorowski, to “beg forgiveness” for the actions of “perpetrators among the nation of victims,” as he said in 2011.

But in a country where anti-Russian sentiment is fueling a nationalist revival, historians, politicians and activists are engaged in a campaign to discredit the inconvenient accounts from Jedwabne and those who exposed them.

Lewin, who survived the war because he was rescued by Polish villagers, recalled the massacre at Jedwabne on Sunday to some 150 visitors who attended a low-key ceremony commemorating its 75th anniversary.

None of the villagers participated in the memorial event, which the mayor could not attend due to a previous engagement.

Sobbing, Lewin addressed his remarks in Yiddish to a photograph of his classmates, including one of his cousins, who were burned alive.

“I made a life for myself in Israel, but know that I think of you all the time,” he said at the ceremony, which was attended by Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and Poland’s undersecretary of state, Wojciech Kolarski.

Kolarski, who chose not to speak at the event, told JTA that the Poles who killed Jews “damaged an ancient tradition” of coexistence in Poland. Poland’s right-wing president, Andrzej Duda, conveyed a similar message when he spoke earlier this month at the site of another pogrom, committed in 1946, against Jews in the town of Kielce.

But before Duda was elected president last year, he attacked his predecessor for apologizing in 2011 for Jedwabne and denied that such events actually occurred.

“We did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said in a 2015 televised debate. “Lord knows that Poles didn’t take part in the Holocaust.”

He has since changed his tune, at least publicly.

At Kielce, vowing to reject anti-Semitism, Duda said: “Also ordinary people were involved in the attack. I leave it down to historians and sociologists to determine how it happened and why it happened, why people reacted in this particular way.”

A senior state historian this week offered one answer to the questions raised by Duda: He blamed Jews of brutality against non-Jews before the 1941 German invasion, when the part of Poland that included Jedwabne was controlled by Russia.

“Poles took part in the crime” at Jedwabne, but pro-communist sympathies by Jews and “hateful acts perpetrated by Jews” stoked hate against Jews, Piotr Gontarczyk, a deputy director at the Institute of National Remembrance, said in an interview that Radio Poland published on the 75th anniversary.

The 2001 book “Neighbors” by the Princeton University historian Jan Gross, which exposed the Jedwabne massacre, has statistics and accounts that “don’t add up,” Gontarczyk said. Gross, he added, “is no historian.”

Gross, the Norman B. Tomlinson ’16 and ’48 professor of war and society and a history professor at Princeton, migrated to the United States from Poland in 1969.

Two “criminal ideologies are responsible for the events in Jedwabne,” Gontarczyk said in the interview: communism and Nazism. To determine what happened at Jedwabne, the bodies must be exhumed, he added – a scenario many Jews oppose on religious grounds.

Revisionist statements among officials such as Gontarczyk are a new development, according to Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“Progress was made under previous governments toward confronting the Jedwabne massacre, which is emblematic of other pogroms by Poles against Jews,” Zuroff said. “The current right-wing government wants to turn back the page and rewrite it as it used to be.”

But he said historical documentation exists not only about Jedwabne – where witnesses said one Jewish girl was raped and decapitated by people who playfully kicked around her severed head – but also about 20 other cases of mass murder of Jews by Poles during or shortly after the Holocaust.

At least 1,500 and possibly 2,500 people died in the pogroms, Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said.

Jonathan Greenblatt, left, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, conferring at a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre, July 10, 2016. 

One of the incidents occurred a month after the Jedwabne killings in the nearby village of Bzury, where Polish prosecutors in 2013 said 20 Jewish women were raped and then butchered by locals. In another massacre in Wasosz, axe-wielding villagers hacked and buried hundreds of their Jewish neighbors.

For Poland’s Law and Justice party, Zuroff said, fully acknowledging these events “puts at stake their whole national identify because it changes the perception of Poland as a victim nation.”

Non-Jewish Poles certainly suffered in the war. The Nazis killed 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones and, as “lesser humans” under the Nazi racial code, Poles were not invited to collaborate in the same way as Hungarians, Romanians and the people of Baltic nations.

And like the people of other countries controlled by Russia during communism, Poles also suffered oppression and atrocities directed from Moscow – a trauma that has left widespread anger toward Russia and is helping the right wing garner votes in reaction to President Vladimir Putin’s current expansionist politics.

For Duda’s right-wing government especially, the discussion about Jedwabne clearly touched a nerve.

In recent months, Polish authorities began pursuing a criminal investigation of Gross, who exposed the massacre. Police questioned him in April for allegedly violating Poland’s law against “insulting the Polish nation” because he said in an interview recently that more Jews than Germans died at the hands of Poles during World War II.

In February, Duda’s office ordered an examination of the possibility of withdrawing a state honor given to Gross.

In parallel, the Polish government has led efforts to highlight the actions of 6,600 Poles who saved Jews, including by opening a museum in their honor this year and erecting three monuments for them in Warsaw alone. Poland has the highest number of saviors in absolute terms, though other countries have a higher proportion of non-Jews who saved Jews.

While Polish saviors deserve recognition, Gross said, in the current atmosphere there is a fear that “it’s an attempt to create an alternative narrative, to distract,” he told JTA.

If that is true, the effort is not going very well. Last year, the Jedwabne debate was rekindled following the publication of an English translation of a book written in 2004 in Polish by historian Anna Bikont that puts the Jedwabne death toll at double the 340 estimate of state historians. It also alleges that locals shot Jews trying to escape.

“I was saved by Poles to whom I owe my life,” Lewin said at the Jedwabne monument, a black stone whose center features a charred barn door. “But on July 10,” he said of that infamous day in 1941, “we were safer with the Germans.”

Locals absent at ceremony in Poland marking postwar atrocity


Some 150 people attended a commemoration on the 75th anniversary of a massacre of hundreds of Polish Jews by their neighbors in the country’s northeast.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, also attended Sunday’s ceremony in the town of Jedwabne, whose history is controversial in Poland because it involves complicity in the Holocaust by members of a nation that many perceive primarily as a victim of the German Nazi occupation.

Commemorating the victims in Jedwabne “grounds our work, which is to fight anti-Semitism, bigotry and racism,” Greenblatt said.

At Jedwabne, a few dozen perpetrators burned alive at least 340 Jews.

The mayor of Jedwabne did not attend the event, citing previous engagements. Nor did any of the townspeople, according to Henryk Zandek, 90, a non-Jewish man who lived in Jedwabne for years after World War II.

Ichak Lewin, an 85-year-old survivor who lives in Israel, sobbed when he recalled how the entire Jewish population of his village near Jedwabne was “taken to the barn and burned alive,” he said. Warned by locals, his family escaped the roundup in nearby woods, where a Polish family hid them. Lewin said he later worked in a German army kitchen.

Under Poland’s Communist governments, which blurred sectarian divides and at times displayed anti-Semitic tendencies, Jedwabne’s Holocaust-era record was little known until 15 years ago, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told JTA at the event.

In 2001, the publication of a book on Jedwabne by Princeton historian Jan Gross triggered a public debate on the issue.

In a nation where the Nazis killed 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones, “some found it, and some find it, difficult to accept the very bitter truth” about Jedwabne, Schudrich said. But since then, polls suggest that today approximately half of Poles have come to accept their compatriots’ role at Jedwabne, Schudrich said.

Polish Undersecretary of State Wojciech Kolarski represented Polish President Andrzej Duda at the event, where he laid a wreath at the monument for the victims.

“To be clear about what happened here: Polish citizens killed their own Polish compatriots of Jewish origin in a way that damaged a long tradition of living side-by-side,” Kolarski told JTA. “There can be no justification for that.”

At least 1,500 Jews died at the hands of Poles during the Holocaust or immediately after it, Schudrich said.

Some Polish politicians in the past denied that Poles killed Jews in Jedwabne, including former senator Jadwiga Stolarska, who in 2001 stated in Parliament that Germans were behind the killings and that “there was no way a Pole could kill a Jew.”

In 2011, Poland’s then-president, Bronislaw Komorowski, said of the centrist Civic Platform: “I beg forgiveness” for what happened at Jedwabne. In a nation of victims, he said, “there were perpetrators.”

Duda, the current president of the center-right Law and Justice party, last year attacked Komorowski’s statement in what some observers considered a step backward from acceptance of the role of Poles in the massacre at Jedwabne.

“I believe it is extremely important for us that we did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said at a televised debate last year. “The Lord knows that the Polish people did not take part in the Holocaust.”

Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths commemoration group, said the event “shows us how seriously Polish society takes this matter,” citing Kolarski’s presence and that of the national media. Unlike some of its neighbors, he said, Poland is “standing up to its sometimes difficult past and not shirking from often painful truths.”

Jewish artifacts in glass decanter of valuables found in Polish town


A backhoe operator working on a construction site in Poland dug up a glass decanter filled with valuables, including Jewish artifacts.

Among the objects discovered inside the decanter found June 15 in Minsk Mazowiecki were kiddush cups, silver cutlery, a gold pocket watch and gold coins. The owner of the objects, whose material value was estimated to be about $10,000, was not identified.

The discovery was reported Thursday on the website of the city, which is located about 25 miles east of Warsaw. Minsk Mazowiecki, in central Poland, was the site of a Jewish ghetto that was liquidated in July 1942.

Officials at the Museum of Minsk Mazowiecki said the arrangement of the objects shows that they were buried in a hurry and the owner intended to return for them.

The Provincial Conservator Office will decide where the items will go; the local museum would like to keep them in the town.

Belarusian Nobel Prize laureate accuses Poles of persecuting Jews in Holocaust


A Belarusian Nobel Prize laureate has stirred controversy in Poland by saying that many Poles, including priests, participated in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.

Svetlana Alexievich, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, made the accusation last month during a visit to New York, the news website WPolityce reported earlier this week.

“You know what the Poles did with the Jews,” Alexievich was quoted as saying on June 12 at the Brooklyn Central Library during a meeting with readers. “Poles were worst of all in how they treated the Jews. Priests directly called for killing Jews in their sermons.”

 

The statement touched a nerve in Poland, where the government is engaged in a campaign that seeks to counter claims of Holocaust-era complicity by Poles and highlight efforts to save Jews.

Poland’s right-wing government is advancing legislation that would criminalize the use of the term “Polish death camps.” In February, Poland’s deputy justice minister, Patryk Jaki, told reporters in Warsaw: “Stop attributing to Poland the role of Holocaust author.”

Polish citizens are said to be responsible for the direct killing at least 1,500 people in pogroms that took place directly after the Holocaust. Thousands more died at the hands of Poles during the Holocaust and because of Poles who betrayed them to the Germans, according to Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland. Three million non-Jewish Poles were murdered by the German occupiers.

Jan Gross, a well-known Poland-born historian from Princeton University, is currently the subject of a criminal investigation in Poland for saying that more Jews died at the hands of Poles during World War II than at the hands of Germans. He is suspected of violating a law against “insulting the Polish nation.”

In absolute numbers, Poland has the highest amount of any nation of Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who have been recognized by Israel for risking their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Poland has 6,620 righteous gentiles, followed by the Netherlands’ 5,516.

Relatively seen, however, Poland would have had nearly 120,000 righteous gentiles if it had the Netherlands’ ratio of saviors per Jews in 1940.

The government-operated Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum opposes even mentioning that the former death camp is in Poland, urging journalists to change the geographical characterization to “German-occupied” territory.

Maciej Świrski, founder of the Polish League Against Defamation – a nongovernmental body devoted to “prevent the vilification of the Polish People,” as it is described on its website — wrote Alexievich an angry letter challenging her assertions.

It is regrettable, he wrote, that some people “propagate a false thesis about ‘terrible Polish anti-Semitism’ for their own career, applause, and then stupidly think that they are brave and progressive.”

No priests in Poland called for the murder of the Jews, he added in the open letter.

“It is simply a lie. What is this based on? Can you name one Polish priest who called for murder, and where?” Swirski asked. “You are repeating unproven lies, and this is not befitting a documentarist of your class.”

Alexievich wrote extensively about the reality of life for people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

Marking 70th anniversary of Jewish massacre, Polish president slams anti-Semitism


The president of Poland strongly condemned anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and xenophobia in leading the commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Jews after World War II.

Andrzej Sebastian Duda spoke Monday in the southeastern town of Kielce, where communist police and a mob killed 42 — nearly all Jews — on July 4, 1946.

“In a free, sovereign and independent Poland, there is no room for any form of prejudice, for racism, for xenophobia, for anti-Semitism,” Duda said, according to remarks carried by the Polish news agency PAP, The Associated Press reported.

Coming so soon after the Holocaust, the killings — spurred by a false rumor that returning Jews had attacked a local boy — sent a wave of fearful Jews out of Poland and left those remaining afraid of living in their homeland. Poland had an estimated 250,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors in a pre-World War II Jewish population of 3.5 million.

In recent months, Duda has strongly condemned anti-Semitism and xenophobia several times after sending mixed messages on matters of prejudice since the election last year that brought his coalition to power, AP reported.

A day earlier, the prime minster of Poland in a message to a Kielce commemoration said there is no place for racist violence in her country.

Andrzej Bialek, the vice president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, which organized the commemoration, read aloud a letter from the prime minister, Beata Szydlo, to the gathering of some 200 people.

“Seventy years ago, shortly after the devastating war and the Holocaust drama, in Kielce again flowed the blood of innocent people,” the letter said.

Szydlo said there was no provocation that can be an used as an excuse for anti-religious and racist violence. She said the tragedy is still being studied by historians.

Anna Azari, the Israeli ambassador to Poland, also spoke at the ceremony, saying “We have to act together against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”

Bogdan Bialek, the Karski Foundation official who organized the ceremony, spoke of a world without violence and hatred.

“We do not gather here in this place against anyone, even against those whom we think in our minds as our opponents, and perhaps – God forbid – as enemies,” Bialek said. “We gather here for us, for all people, for a better future.”

The Jan Karski Educational Foundation, named for the Polish underground fighter and righteous gentile who was among the first to report the dimensions of the Nazi genocide, promotes Catholic-Jewish interchanges and seeks to instill Karski’s example in young people.

Jacob Bresler: Riding out tribulation and making it to liberation


Mid-morning on Sept. 1, 1939, Jacob Bresler was playing at the one-pump gas station near his family’s apartment in Uniejow, Poland, rolling the metal rim of an automobile wheel with a wire stick, when a bomb suddenly exploded at the town hall, diagonally across the street. As Jacob took cover under the gas station canopy, he saw several German Stuka dive bombers streak past, dropping bombs on the city, and the Polish peasants fleeing eastward with their wagons and livestock. 

Ten minutes later, when the bombing subsided, the 11-year-old ran home along a street strewn with dead bodies and mangled animals. Inside the family’s apartment, now filled with shattered glass, Jacob’s father gathered the family together. “We are not safe here,” he said. “We have to leave the city.”

Jacob was born in Uniejow on July 3, 1928, the fifth of six children — four sisters and an older brother — born to Chaim and Rachel Bresler. The Modern Orthodox and musically gifted family lived in a one-room apartment, so in 1937, Chaim rented a second room nearby, where Jacob and three of his siblings lived. 

Chaim ran a general store and supplied textbooks to the town’s schoolchildren. He also served as a representative of the kehillah, tending to the welfare of Uniejow’s 500 Jewish families. 

Jacob attended public school as well as cheder. At age 9, he also began working evenings as an apprentice for his uncle, making leather shoe uppers and riding boots for the wealthy.

While anti-Semitism was always present, the situation worsened after 1933, as his father’s store began losing customers and the book franchise was confiscated. So, on Sept. 2, 1939, the day after the Stukas bombed Uniejow, the family fled by foot, unsure where to go. Still, Jacob said, “We thought we would soon be back.” 

The family walked all night, finally finding space in an overcrowded barn. A few days later, at Chaim’s suggestion, Jacob and Rachel returned alone to Uniejow to check on the situation, discovering that the store and their primary apartment had been stripped bare. 

On their second night back, Polish forces attacked the Germans. But when Jacob and others went out to greet the temporarily victorious Polish troops, they found the town square littered with hundreds of massacred men — Polish and Jewish hostages the Germans had released and then machine-gunned before departing. Soon after, the Germans recaptured the town.

Jacob and Rachel rejoined the family, but a week later, with Polish troops no longer attacking the occupying German forces in Uniejow, they all returned home, moving everyone into the children’s apartment. And with both his father and brother, Josef, emotionally paralyzed, the burden of supporting the family fell on 11-year-old Jacob. 

Jacob found work in a Polish restaurant, and he supplemented the food he received as payment by collecting cigarette butts discarded by German soldiers and bartering the tobacco.

In January 1940, the Germans asked Chaim to collaborate with them on Jewish affairs, essentially helping to implement their decrees. He refused and soon after was transported to the Poznan labor camp. 

In March 1941, the Jews of Uniejow all were relocated to a ghetto, where Jacob lived in a small room with his family. He was permitted to work for his uncle, making riding boots for the German army. 

Then, in late October 1941, the Jews were resettled in the Jewish Colony, comprising six villages confiscated from the Poles. 

In May 1942, Jacob’s sisters Hinda, 18, and Golda, 16, on the advice of Hinda’s fiancé, reluctantly volunteered to be part of a female transport to a labor camp. Jacob later learned they had been shipped to the Poznan camp but were later gassed at Chelmno. 

When the Jewish Colony was liquidated on July 28, 1942, Jacob and his remaining family were marched to Nowy Swiat, where a selection landed Jacob, then 14, with the women and children. He was looking to escape when a column of men, including Josef, walked by. “I’m going with my brother,” he told his mother, slipping into the line.

Jacob was among a small group selected to clean up the Jewish Colony, going house to house bundling up the inhabitants’ possessions. “It tore our hearts out,” he said. 

Afterward, he was sent to the Lodz ghetto, where he lived with Josef and was assigned to cut wood in a factory. But he was caught stealing and was transferred to another factory, which produced wood shavings used to stuff mattresses for the German army. Jacob continued to steal whatever he could, trading the items for food.

On March 14, 1943, Jacob met a transport arriving from Poznan, on which he hoped to find his father. As the prisoners were marched through the gates, he ran among them. “Are you Chaim Bresler? Are you?” he asked. Finally a man said, “I’m Chaim Bresler; who are you?” Jacob identified himself, falling into his father’s arms. 

After being initially jailed, Chaim lived with Jacob and Josef, who shared their food as Chaim was not allotted a ration card. About two weeks later, Jacob returned from work to find his father gone. “I cannot eat up all your bread. I am going back to the prison,” Chaim’s note read. 

The next day, on March 30, 1943, Jacob went to the prison, speaking to his father through the wire fence, pleading with him to reconsider. But Chaim was adamant. “Do everything in your power to survive. For me, it is too late,” he said, adding that they were being shipped out the next day. Father and son kissed through the fence. Heartbroken, Jacob vowed to survive. 

Jacob’s next job was delivering wood to the ghetto’s elite residents, who rewarded him with food for performing extra chores. He also stole wood. “We were not hungry or cold,” Jacob said. 

After the ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, Jacob and Josef found themselves in the second transport headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, after being processed, Jacob and other male prisoners were marched outside naked and ordered to wait. Twenty-four hours later, they were given uniforms and taken to a barracks where they slept on the floor, too crammed to stretch out. 

After 14 days, Jacob, Josef and others were shipped by cattle car to Kaufering VII, a Dachau subcamp being constructed in the Bavarian forest. They lived in underground earthen huts, spending 12-hour days building latrines and gravel roads. 

Three weeks later, they were transferred to Kaufering IV, where they worked building underground factories for Messerschmitt jet fighters. Jacob was assigned to carry 50-kilogram sacks of cement up a ramp for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. After working one day, he realized the job would kill him and he managed to hide during all his remaining shifts.

Three months later, Josef was transferred to Kaufering I, the first time since 1941 the brothers were separated. Jacob saw Josef only once, admonishing him to keep on living. “If this is life, I don’t want it,” Josef responded. He died shortly before liberation.

In November 1944, Jacob was sent to Kaufering III, then Kaufering XI and the following month to Landshut. At the end of January 1945, he was transferred to Muhldorf, where he was again forced to carry heavy cement bags up a steep ramp and again found hiding places.

Jacob, along with two boys, was then transferred to work at a convent, a 5-kilometer walk each way, working for nuns who ran a home for the mentally disabled. There, for the first time in six years, he was shown compassion.

In mid-April, the Muhldorf prisoners were loaded on a cattle train, which finally, on the morning of April 29, stopped at Tutzing, 25 miles southwest of Munich. Amid rumbling in the distance, someone screamed, “Americans!” The train doors opened, and Jacob, too weak to walk, crawled toward the approaching American troops, kissing the steel tracks of their tanks.  

That evening, the prisoners were transported to the Feldafing displaced persons camp, where, three weeks later, Jacob was hospitalized for two months with typhoid fever. 

In September, Jacob moved to the Landsberg am Lech DP camp. There, he learned that Dora and Sam Samuels, friends of his parents, were searching for him. With their help, he immigrated to New York, arriving on Dec. 25, 1947. “That family became my loving family,” he said. 

In 1950, Jacob, then 22, was drafted and sent to Germany as part of the NATO occupation force. Discharged in 1952, he attended Hunter College, majoring in television and theater. From 1955 to 1960, he lived in Vienna, where he studied music and film and where, on May 24, 1960, he married Edith Antonides. Jacob and Edith moved to New York, but returned 20 months later to Vienna. There, Jacob co-produced an Austrian television show and sang opera. 

In 1968, Jacob and Edith moved to Los Angeles, where Jacob opened three Italian restaurants, which he ran successively until retiring in 1985. Their daughter, Rachel, was born in September 1971. Jacob and Edith now have two grandchildren. 

Since 1985, Jacob has devoted himself to writing books. His autobiography, “You Shall Not Be Called Jacob Anymore,” the title taken from Genesis 32:28-29, was published in 1988 and is available on Amazon. He also returns to Vienna annually and has lectured about the Holocaust in both Austria and Germany. 

Jacob was also featured in the BBC radio documentary “Lost Children of the Holocaust,”  which first aired in May 2015. 

In his 1995 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Jacob said, “People are repeating history. They haven’t learned a thing.” Twenty-one years later, he said, he believes nothing has changed. 

Leader of Poland’s largest political party honors victims of synagogue burning


The leader of the largest political party in Poland took part in ceremonies commemorating the burning of a synagogue in Bialystok during the Holocaust.

In his speech at the Great Synagogue of Bialystok, Jaroslaw Kaczynski stressed German responsibility for the Holocaust, the dangers of anti-Semitism, and the need for cooperation with Israel.

“The Holocaust was the fault of the German state and the German people who supported Adolf Hitler,” said Kaczynski during Monday’s ceremony. “German elite were unable to get into any real opposition.”

On June 27, 1941, German troops marched into Bialystok murdering some 2,500 Jews. About one thousand Jews were burned alive in the city’s synagogue.

Kaczynski, who is a leader of the Law and Justice Party, stressed that the representatives of the other nations of Europe, including Poles, also committed crimes during the war, but it would not have been possible without the aggression of Germany. He also stressed that in Europe today there is a new anti-Semitism directed against Israel.

“We have to keep talking about what leads to anti-Semitism in any form, including the present day, hidden under the term anti-Zionism,” he said.

Torah scroll that sat in home closet 15 years donated to Polish museum


A Torah scroll that sat forgotten in a closet of a home in Poland for 15 years was donated to a museum in the country.

Waldemar Sawicki, the owner of a home in the western Polish city of Zielona Gora, gave the scroll to the Museum of Lubusz Region, also in western Poland. His brother originally had found it in a pile of garbage.

“I thought that this was an Old Church Slavonic record brought by our neighbors from the East,” Sawicki told Radio Em in an interview on Wednesday. “I took this document with the thought that someday I will meet someone who will be able to read these letters. I hid it in the closet, along with wallpaper rolls, and it just lay there for almost 15 years.”

 

During a recent renovation of his house, Sawicki remembered the scroll. He contacted the museum, which informed him that the object was a Torah scroll.

It is not known how the Torah scroll made its way to Zielona Gora or why it was in the trash.

Polish government wants to take over, upgrade Treblinka museum


Poland’s government offered to take over from a local authority the responsibility for preserving the grounds of the former Nazi death camp Treblinka, where 870,000 people were murdered.

The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage made the offer in a letter it sent last week to the regional government of Mazovia, the Rzeczpospolita daily reported Sunday.

The takeover could open up new funds for upgrading the small museum in Treblinka, whose grounds in the 1960s were turned into a Polish national monument featuring hundreds of stones inscribed with the names of the countries and places from which the victims had originated. It also has a room-sized museum displaying some objects, mostly work tools, found at the site.

 

Before retreating, the Nazis largely destroyed the facilities of the relatively small camp, which was spread across nearly 57 acres, including the southeastern extermination area with its brick building containing three gas chambers, each measuring 170 square feet.

From the Depths, an organization that deals with Holocaust commemoration in Eastern Europe, welcomed the move, which comes amid a government-led campaign that is widely seen as designed to highlight Polish victimhood during World War II and counter claims that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust.

“It is very promising to see that the Polish government, along with the public international campaign against calling the death camps ‘Polish Death camps,’ have also stood to take further responsibility for those sites on current-day Polish soil,” From the Depths founder Jonny Daniels told JTA. He has criticized Polish authorities for perceived neglect of some Holocaust sites.

Poland’s right-wing government is advancing legislation that would criminalize the use of the term “Polish death camps.” In February, Poland’s deputy justice minister, Patryk Jaki, told reporters in Warsaw: “Stop attributing to Poland the role of Holocaust author.”

The government-operated Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum opposes even mentioning that the former death camp is in Poland, urging journalists to change the geographical characterization to “German-occupied” territory.

Treblinka, Daniels said, “has been mismanaged by regional authorities, with little funds going into security or upkeep of the site and visitors were unable to get a true understanding of what happened there.”

Separately, From the Depths this week facilitated a deal with a Polish Jewish group, TSKZ, in which it will house the new offices of the Polish Society of the Righteous Among the Nations, whose members were recognized for risking their lives to help Jews survive the Holocaust. The society’s previous office, on the second floor of a suburban building without an elevator, was inaccessible to some of the elderly members.

Polish adman creates buzz with his pro-Jewish graffiti


Anti-Semitic graffiti is so common in Poland that it hardly makes the news, except maybe when it’s on Holocaust sites or Jewish cemeteries.

But huge philo-Semitic slogans painted in the national colors and confessing a sense of loss over the destruction of Polish Jewry in the Holocaust are somewhat more remarkable. Which is why Polish media is abuzz this week with reports about a graffito reading “I miss you, Jew” that an artist painted on a main street in Lodz.

Rafał Betlejewski, who is not Jewish, coordinated with local Jews and others before painting the attention-grabbing inscription on June 11 on Piotrkowska Street, a main artery. The graffito was part of a series he began in 2005. The founder of an advertising firm, Betlejewski, 48, has painted or helped paint the message dozens of times at sites with a special place in the history of Polish Jewry.

One such site was Brzeska Street, which used to form one of the boundaries of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. Another, in 2010, was Jedwabne, where local Poles killed hundreds of Jews in 1941. Betlejewski also set up a display there of a burning barn in memory of the Jews who were burned alive by their Christian neighbors. It was this dark episode in Polish history — the epicenter of the acrimonious debate in Poland over Holocaust-era complicity — that got him thinking about Polish-Jewish relations in the first place, he said in interviews about his work.

In April, in the Warsaw neighborhood of Powiśle, unidentified parties blacked out the word “Jew” in Betlejewski’s graffiti, prompting him to call on fans to “counter hatred” by continuing to write the word on the wall every time it gets blacked out. Though he had permission from the owners of that wall, he has in the past had legal problems over his “I miss you, Jew” inscriptions, which municipalities saw as vandalism.

“I want to reclaim the word ‘Jew,’ snatch it from anti-Semites, who are in this country are the only ones using it freely,” the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper quoted Betlejewski as saying in 2010 about his campaign and the Jedwabne action especially. “I aim to build a platform used to express positive emotions towards the people known as the Jews.”

The Lodz operation was less controversial, but the site selected for the artwork is no less symbolic. Forbidden to Jews when it was first built in the early 19th century, Piotrkowska Street was finally opened to some Jews of means in 1825. During the German occupation of Poland, it was renamed Adolf Hitler Street. Jews were rounded up, shot and beaten on its cobblestones during various pogroms.

People dining at the Jaffa Israeli restaurant in Lodz, Poland, June 11, 2016. Photo by Courtesy of Rafal Betlejewski

The city in central Poland, about 80 miles from Warsaw, was historically home to one of the country’s most vibrant Jewish communities and one of the largest ghettos during the Holocaust. But Jewish life all but disappeared from Lodz in 1944.

Nearly all of the ghetto’s 164,000 residents were murdered in the Holocaust, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, along with 90 percent of Poland’s pre-Holocaust Jewish population of 3 million.

Despite this tragic legacy, Betlejewski said he enjoyed working there, compared to past experiences in Warsaw.

“Lodz was a very nice change,” Betlejewski wrote on his blog. “Maybe it’s because we painted in a semi-private space, maybe because the wall was ready, and I went there at the invitation of the people who wanted this inscription. Everyone ate a delicious hummus served by the Israeli Jaffa restaurant.”

Jonny Daniels, the founder of From the Depths, a nonprofit that works on commemorating the Holocaust and building bridges between world Jewry and Poland, said that, despite occasional expressions of hostility to Jews there, “The number of those with a positive attitude toward Jews far outweighs those with negative attitude.” Thousands of non-Jewish Polish volunteers engage with From the Depths, he told JTA, while the Polish government maintains a keen interest in “issues connected to the Jewish past.” In March, Polish President Andrzej Duda opened a museum for the Righteous among the Nations, non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, some of the Polish government’s interest in Jewish issues — like the criminal investigation into a Princeton University professor who has explored Polish culpability during the Holocaust — has not gone down very well internationally. Jan Gross, a Polish Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1969, is suspected of violating Poland’s laws against insulting the nation by saying during an interview recently that Poles killed more Jews during World War II than they killed Germans.

Poland also shows little interest in offering restitution for property that belonged to Jews before the genocide. The “current government, leading a tough nationalist line, is not likely to agree to this painful process,” wrote Dina Porat, head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry in Tel Aviv, in an Op-Ed in Haaretz earlier this week.

But back in Lodz, Betlejewski was staying positive, noting that to him, it was “important that there were young Polish Jews there. Young Lodz Jews. People who are trying to rebuild the Jewish of community.”