When the office is a death camp

Seventy years ago this month, Germany evacuated 58,000 prisoners from the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, burning documents and blowing up gas chambers and crematoria. On Jan. 27 — the day now celebrated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day — the Soviet Red Army arrived, liberating several thousand sick prisoners left behind.

Two years later, the camp that has since become nearly synonymous with the Nazi attempt to eradicate European Jewry became a museum. Last year, 1.5 million people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, most of them from Poland, Italy, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The visitors generally come for a day, but dozens of people come to Auschwitz every day — the conservators, researchers and curators who work to disseminate new information about the Holocaust and preserve the museum’s legacy for future generations.

“For me, Auschwitz is a place of reflection and meditation,” said Piotr Kadlcik, the former president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and a board member of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which raises money for the museum. “I think it is important for many people who come here to work. They cannot really imagine that they could work elsewhere. They are somehow shaped by this place.”

Below are short portraits of several employees of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Margrit Bormann, 34, is a conservator from Germany who works in the building where newly arrived prisoners were registered. Through the window is a clear view to the nearby cell blocks behind the barbed wire.

In 2005, as a university student in Cologne, she participated in a two-week educational program at Auschwitz, helping preserve objects in the museum. She returned later for a six-month internship.

“This stay has changed everything in my life,” Bormann said. “I got to know the place and its history even more. I knew a lot about the Shoah, but now I got to know the testimonies of Polish prisoners, about whom in German schools very little is said.”

After graduation, she went to work full-time at the museum. Two years ago she was asked to take care of the maintenance of six baskets of shoes that once belonged to prisoners.

“I wanted to be close to this place, these objects, but with shoes I felt afraid,” she said. “There was some bad energy. When I returned home from work, my whole body hurt.”

Bormann would pick up a shoe and stare at it. One seemed to have been repaired multiple times by a cobbler. Maybe the owner walked in it to work, perhaps wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Such thoughts would occur often, but Bormann would try to inhibit them and focus on the object at hand. One day she began to cry.

“I knew the story, the facts, the number of victims, the memories of former prisoners,” she said. “It brought me sadness, but I never cried so hard. I acted that day like I was at a funeral. When I cried for the victims, something was passing from me and I could get back to work.”

Piotr Setkiewicz, 51, the head of the museum’s Research Center, has worked at Auschwitz since 1988. His uncle died in the camp, and his grandmother was an employee of IG Farben, the chemical company that supplied the German army’s war needs. A plant producing gasoline and rubber was located at Auschwitz, and 20,000 prisoners worked there.

“During the school years I had no awareness of the uniqueness of this place,” Setkiewicz said. “That changed when I started working here.”

Setkiewicz is involved in efforts to disseminate new historical information about the camp. Occasionally he hears people asserting that there is nothing more to learn about what transpired there, but Setkiewicz says it’s not true. With advances in research and the emergence of new historical sources, there is always more to learn.

Several years ago, Setkiewicz caused a mini-crisis in Polish-Russian relations when he pointed out to a journalist errors in an exhibition about Soviet prisoners at Auschwitz prepared by the Russians. His comment led to claims in the media that Setkiewicz was denying the suffering of the Russian people. Shortly after, Russia stopped importing Polish pork.

“They began to connect me with this, as the one who stopped the delivery of Polish meat to the east,” Setkiewicz said. “To this day, on Google you can find several thousand hits on the subject.”

Pawel Sawicki, 34, works in the museum’s spokesman office. Among his duties is the photographing of personal items that belonged to the prisoners — shoes, glasses and other personal effects.

The photos show the scale of the tragedy that occurred at Auschwitz, but also its human dimension — what Sawicki calls “the power of a single personal experience” as reflected in individual objects.

Sawicki is also the compiler of “Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Place Where You Are Standing,” a photo album that juxtaposes archival photographs taken by the Germans in 1944 with contemporary shots of the same spots.

“Taking these photos, more and more I felt a special emptiness,” Sawicki said. “I missed the people who were the essence of the photo album. Today, those people are not here anymore. Only the place where most of them were killed still exists.” 

Piotr Cywinski, 43, has been the museum director since 2006. A historian whose interest was the Middle Ages, he was asked several years ago by his professor, a former camp inmate named Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, to help in the work of the International Auschwitz Council. When his predecessor retired, he was asked to take over.

Cywinski says it’s easier to work at Auschwitz than to visit. Visitors come for their own purposes, he says, while the museum employees work on behalf of others. At night he dreams of the camps and the war, though he prefers not to discuss the details.

“This place is impossible to ignore,” he said. “It is a turning point in human history. Nothing that preceded it will ever return. Ethics, morality, law, faith, science, enlightenment, positivism — all died here. A man lost his sense of innocence that he cherished and found so comforting.”

Cywinski is mindful of the survivors and their stories. He knows they will soon pass away and only the museum will remain, which will have to carry their stories forth for future generations.

“There will be no great silence,” Cywinski said. “We are too many and we know too much.”

Warsaw to restore 1,000 Jewish tombstones used for construction

The City of Warsaw has agreed to return and preserve 1,000 Jewish headstones that were used to construct a recreational facility inside one of the city’s parks.

The headstones, which are currently part of a pergola and stairs at a park in Warsaw’s Praga district, will be returned in the coming months to the Brudo Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, according to a statement Friday by From the Depths, the international commemoration nonprofit that led talks on the subject with city officials.

The city allocated a budget of $180,000 for the project, according to Jonny Daniels, From the Depths’ U.K.-born, Israel-based founder.

The pergola at Praga district is one of countless sites scattered across Poland in which Jewish tombstones were used as construction material, according to Daniels, whose group earlier this year brought dozens of Israeli lawmakers to a meeting with counterparts from Poland and other countries, and a visit to the Auschwitz death camp on the 69th anniversary of its liberation.

“In the 1950s, the communists were in full swing of building structures and monuments out of matzevas, which they often broke into pieces,” Daniels said, using the Hebrew word for a Jewish tombstone.

From the Depths’ involvement in the subject is part of the organization’s Matzeva Project, which aims to restore an estimated one million gravestones hidden in buildings and urban spaces. The Jewish Historical Institute and the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, are official partners of the project.

An effort to locate headstones will begin this month with help from volunteers from the University of Warsaw.

“Since we’ve started being interested in the question of matzevas used as a building material, there was a noticeable influx of information,” Daniels said, adding that his group is receiving calls and emails on a daily basis with information about tombstone and fragments that were used to make roads, walls, knife sharpeners and even toilets.

Britain giving $3.4 million to Auschwitz site preservation

Britain will contribute about $3.4 million to help preserve the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp memorial.

The donation to the foundation for the preservation of the former death camp site will be used for restoration and preservation.

“I am determined that the government should take an active approach to preserving the memory of the Holocaust,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is a searing reminder of the horrific consequences of intolerance and hatred. It should never be forgotten.

“I am proud that the UK is able to play a part in commemorating the millions of victims who died there, educating future generations of the evils of that period in history and ensuring its preservation for many years to come.”

More than 3,000 British students visit Auschwitz-Birkenau each year through the British Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.

“Just as we collect and preserve the stories of eyewitnesses, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that Auschwitz-Birkenau stands as a perpetual reminder of the pain and destructive force of hate,” Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said Thursday at the Jewish Museum in London, which he toured with the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and the Polish ambassador, Barbara Tuge-Erecinska. “We must ensure that the lessons from the Holocaust are taught today and to future generations.”

More than 1 million people visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau site each year.

Scrolls for sale

The calligraphy on the coffee-colored parchment is crisp and clear, with delicately ascending crowns adorning the Hebrew letters. But rather than being unfurled on a bima and read by a proud bar mitzvah boy, this water-stained fragment of a Torah scroll from Turkey — thought to be about 300 years old — is spread out on a drafting table in the backyard studio of Sam and Debbie Gliksman.

The Gliksmans have recently launched Spiritual Artifacts, a business that preserves, frames and sells fragments from decommissioned Torah scrolls.

“We really love the concept of taking something that was discarded and giving it a place of honor in someone’s home,” said Sam, who is a software developer and director of educational technology at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills.

Spiritual Artifacts offers a selection of scrolls from around the world — Germany, Poland, France, Morocco, Iraq, Libya. Debbie, a designer now working in landscape, found a way to custom frame each portion on acid-free board covered in raw silk inside a Plexiglas box. She uses chemical-free Japanese hinges to preserve the lumpy topography of the parchment, in hues and textures ranging from the paper-like ecru of the Eastern European scrolls to the leather-like brick red of scrolls from Yemen and Tunisia.

They range in price from $350-$1,100, depending on the number of columns in the fragment, the beauty of the calligraphy, its age and its origin.

The scrolls come from scribes or from attics and basements around the world, where they have been discovered, musty and worn, and put up for Internet auction. The oldest ones the Gliksmans have are about 500 years old, but most are about 200-300 years old, nearly all from communities that have been displaced.

“My parents went through the Holocaust and Debbie’s family is from Iraq, where there is no community anymore, so I guess we have this real appreciation for what the scrolls represent,” said Sam.

The Gliksmans, members of the Conservative Temple Beth Am, consulted rabbis before they began.

Jewish tradition treats kosher Torah scrolls with ritualized respect — the letters cannot be touched, the scroll may not lie on the ground, and when a scroll is in motion, everyone in the vicinity must stand. When damage builds up — letters rub off, the parchment becomes worn, the hand-stitched seams rip — the scroll is rendered pasul, no longer fit for use. At that point, it has traditionally been buried in a special section of a Jewish cemetery, called the geniza.

The Gliksmans see their endeavor as rescuing scrolls from that fate — a notion that traditional rabbinic authorities upheld, especially after the Holocaust, to allow scrolls to be displayed in museums.

Still, the idea of further cutting up fragmented scrolls, using the scrolls for a business venture, and allowing the scrolls to fall into the hands of young teenagers rubs Orthodox rabbis as demeaning to the Divine texts.

“It’s one thing for a community synagogue or museum to have it in glass on display for the public’s edification,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park, “it’s another for little Joey the bar mitzvah boy to be expected to put it on display in his living room instead of keeping it with his baseball card collection in the bottom of the closet.”

Korobkin maintains that just as burial is the most dignified end for a deceased human body, likewise a pasul Torah scroll, which no longer can perform the living function for which it was meant, should be buried.

But Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at the American Jewish University and vice chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, countered with another human life comparison. Unused frozen embryos already would be discarded, but using their stem cells allows the embryos to perform a Godly mission of medical advancement that might save human lives.

“This process makes sure that the scrolls are honored, and not just discarded,” said Dorff. “You are using them for a sacred purpose to instill a sense of honor and respect to the Torah, and to put it in a place in the home where it will be a constant reminder of the Torah and all it represents — our values, our history, our hopes and our beliefs.”

For more information, visit http://www.spiritualartifacts.net/

Hancock Park Infighting Escalates

Update September 25, 2007: City Building & Safety inspectors briefly interrupt Kol Nidrei services at Hancock Park shul.

Smoldering tensions between the Orthodox community and other Hancock Park residents, many of them also Jewish, are heating up anew, as a battle over neighborhood architecture has divided along lines of religious affiliation.

Residents of the upscale neighborhood are weighing whether it should become a designated Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which would establish a process of scrutiny for any changes to the outside of homes. Opponents of the measure are mostly Orthodox Jews, who own an estimated 20 percent of Hancock Park’s 1,250 homes. A decision on this issue will be made by the City Council with neighborhood input, perhaps as early as this summer.

The latest battle comes nearly a year after Orthodox Jews and other residents faced off in an ugly election for control of the neighborhood council, when competing accusations of corruption and religious bias tore apart the community.

But even as halting peace efforts are under way to heal those wounds, the HPOZ fight is once again pitting Jew against Jew and neighbor against neighbor.

Proponents say the neighborhood needs to become an HPOZ to protect the 1920s and ’30s Spanish, Tudor and Mediterranean revival mansions from aesthetically dubious remodels that tamper with the historic look of the neighborhood. They also say it would improve property values. Opponents say the measure would infringe on homeowners’ rights, make improvements too costly and cumbersome and thereby hurt property values.

The fight is playing out on the wide, winding streets of this urban oasis, where orange anti-HPOZ signs and green pro-HPOZ signs have sprouted on impeccably landscaped lawns.

In the middle of the night on April 2 and 3, about 200 pro-HPOZ signs were uprooted and carted off, according to Jolene Snett, who is heading up the preservationist effort. Opponents say many anti-HPOZ signs have also been stolen.

At a March public hearing before Los Angeles’s Department of Planning, about 300 people came to voice their support or opposition to the ordinance. Nearly all of the measure’s opponents, including all of the speakers for the opposition, were Orthodox.

On May 11, the city’s Planning Commission will meet to hear a report on the public hearing, take recommendations from staff and hear more public comments. The Planning Commission will then send a recommendation to a subcommittee of the City Council, and the full council will have the final vote on whether to adopt an HPOZ ordinance for Hancock Park. That vote is expected over the summer.

The Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, The Los Angeles Conservancy and Councilman Tom LaBonge all have gone on record supporting a HPOZ for Hancock Park. The opposition is headed by the Hancock Park Residents Association, founded several years ago by Orthodox activists Michael Rosenberg and Stanley Treitel to fight against the HPOZ.

Preservationist Snett estimates that about 80 percent of Hancock Park residents support the HPOZ, while Treitel calls it a toss-up.

If established, control of the HPOZ board, which reviews proposed changes to property, would fall directly into the hands of local residents. The board would be made up of five members, three of whom live in the area, and some would have expertise in architecture or construction. Board members are appointed by the mayor, the area’s City Council member and the Cultural Heritage Commission, with the input of the local neighborhood council.

The grass-roots nature of the issue has made it tinder for the ongoing religious flare-ups in the neighborhood.

Some vocal Orthodox Jews say HPOZ is one in a long list of issues — from opposing synagogues to giving Jewish schools a hard time — whereas established neighbors have worked to keep the burgeoning Orthodox community at bay.

“The Orthodox typically have large families and want to be able to make these homes useful with expansion to accommodate the families, and they are concerned that that they will be stopped from doing this,” said Fred Gaines, an Encino lawyer who is representing a group of Orthodox residents opposed to HPOZ.

To David Rubin, chairman of Yeshivat Yavneh, a 450-child day school in Hancock Park, the issue is trust.

“Although I support the concept of preservation, I don’t support the process of local empowerment on this issue in our community,” Rubin said. “We can’t have an HPOZ controlled by a small group that has developed a double standard.”

Rubin says neighbors are much tougher on Yavneh than they are on Marlborough School, a private girls’ school in the area.

Neighbors say Marlborough is a 120-year-old school that was grandfathered in, and that Yavneh is simply expected to adhere to conditions it accepted on moving to the neighborhood in 1999.

Those conditions were brought to a Zoning Board hearing in City Hall on April 6, at which Yavneh requested permission to erect an 8-foot perimeter fence for security, and to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Saturdays from only students and their families to include alumni, board members and others associated with the school.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association opposed both requests, which would change the school’s original conditional use permit. The zoning board is expected to hand down a decision by late April.

The us-versus-them atmosphere in Hancock Park has been festering over the past decade. Residents have been locked in a 10-year legal battle over a synagogue built on a residential lot at the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, which neighbors say violates local zoning laws. Congregants argue religious freedom allows them to pray in the new building, which they constructed after tearing down a home.

Snett, the preservationist, hopes that the city’s decision on the HPOZ can be separated from the religious disputes and seen for what it is: an effort to preserve the architecture of a beautiful and historically significant neighborhood. She is banking on the preservation plan, to be put together by the city, which allows residents to individualize the terms of an HPOZ.

But the preservation plan won’t be presented until after the city council approves the HPOZ, and opponents are skeptical.

“It is unfortunate that rather than sit down and compromise, there is an insistence to keep pushing forward and having a situation where neighbor is pitted against neighbor, and the city will end up in litigation,” said Gaines, the attorney for the opponents.

Latkes That Last

Finally! You can now say goodbye to those weird frozen triangles of premasticated potatoes that pass for latkes after Chanukah has ended and the frying pan and grater have been packed up. Scientists at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa have come up with an alternative way to preserve food, which promises to keep latkes frying-pan fresh — even months later — without extreme heat, chemicals or freezing. Instead, they zap the food with pulsed shockwaves — a process that takes a second, but kills microbes, harmful enzymes and bacteria. Since no chemicals are used, the flavor of the food remains the same, but its shelf life is increased exponentially.

"There is really a great need for alternative preservation methods in order to get safety and shelf life," said Dr. Hadassa Zuckerman, a lecturer in food engineering and biotechnology at the Technion, who helped develop this system. "There are many materials that cannot be preserved by heat or other methods because then they lose their functional properties."

Latke eaters are not the only ones who are going to be able to welcome this procedure. Shockwaves are also being used to preserve biological materials such as blood and plasma. "Without this system, it takes approximately one week to preserve plasma," Zuckerman told The Journal. "Our method takes a few seconds."

Zuckerman called this preservation method "revolutionary" and said that they are still testing its uses.

"We were convinced that latkes were only worth eating fresh out of the oven," she said. "Now we may all have to reconsider that notion."