A Turkish Muslim perspective on Yom HaShoah

When people of reason and conscience look back on the subject of Shoah (otherwise known as the Holocaust) today, it is common to hear questions like: “How could a nation of philosophers, composers of classical music, technology, poets, in this seat of the Enlightenment itself, suddenly give vent to savagery not seen since the Dark Ages? How could such dreadful, inhumane impulses seize every apparatus of a nation and cause it to commit such atrocities?”

In looking at the subject of the Holocaust violence, we can see the obvious influence of pseudo-scientific thought as well as a reversion to a far darker philosophy in human history. Arguably, the roots of anti-Semitism in Europe run quite deep, and found their most lethal expression in the Shoah itself; when some six million innocent Jewish men, women and children were done to death on the edge of mass graves in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia or had their lives systematically snuffed out at factories of mass murder such as Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chelmo and Belzec, names that shall forever be remembered as grim testaments to hatred. While it is not my intention to go too in-depth on the roots of European anti-Semitism, it must be touched upon in order to illustrate how prejudice led to disdain, then to hatred, and finally to genocide.

Anti-Semitism in Europe has a long and tragic history. For many centuries, this dislike of the Jewish people of the Diaspora was confined to the religious and social sphere; indeed, it's all too easy to recall such events as the massacres of the First Crusade in 1096, the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the assorted pogroms in Russia and Ukraine; the list is long and horrific. This awful situation persisted as recently as 1959, when a reference to “… perfidious Jews” was finally dropped from the Good Friday Liturgy of the Catholic Church (it must be said here that the Roman Catholic Church has made enormous strides in its relations with the Jewish people, most notably beginning with Vatican II and the later efforts of Pope John Paul II; and let us not forget the many Catholics – and others – who risked, and in some cases, lost their lives to save innocent Jews from Nazi terror).

Until the 19th century, European anti-Semitism was largely confined to the religious sphere (and to a lesser extent, the socio-economic sphere as well). Then, by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, it began to change in tone and style. Anti-Semitism became no longer a matter of theological difference, but rather a matter of biological differences. This was the introduction of so-called “scientific racism” through the introduction and application of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which had gained widespread acceptance by the end of the Nineteenth Century. And with this, the argument among European anti-Semites changed from, “Let us convert the Jews” to “Let us rid ourselves of this infectious and invasive species” (May God forbid). Simply put, an openly exterminationist sentiment had arisen, based on pseudo-scientific reasoning. The Jewish people had gone from being “the Other” to being “the Subhuman”, “a bacillus”, “a virus”. Surely they are beyond this defamation.

Darwinism, and its false implication that human beings are mere animals, classified as “superior”, “inferior” or “non-human” is the basis for the pseudo-science of racism. When Hitler said, “Take away the Nordic Germans and nothing remains but the dance of apes”, he was referring to the falsehood of Darwinist ideas. (Carl Cohen, Communism, Fascism and Democracy, Random House, New York, 1972, p. 408-409) While certainly, there are differences between people, to suggest that a group of people is inherently superior to another, and therefore has a right or moral imperative to subjugate the other, is a grossly mistaken idea.

As a result of such pseudo-scientific fallacies and and neo-romanticist fantasies, six million Jews, innocent men, women and children over a vast swath of the European continent were dehumanized, corralled into ghettoes and exterminated by the conquering Nazis. According to their racial delusion, the Nazi herrenvolk would rule over a vast empire of slaves, with the conquered peoples being the hewers of wood and drawers of water, and with the Jewish people (not to mention anyone else who failed to measure up to the Nazis exacting Darwinian standards) having been eliminated from the face of the earth itself. The Nazis' crude interpretations of Darwinism – influenced by agricultural practices such as animal husbandry – and their outlandish views of history such as Ariosophy, are all too familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary education, and there is no need to comprehensively explain their overall ideology. There are indeed people alive in Israel today, and many other countries, who survived this darkest period of human history, who can easily attest to the horrors they witnessed and experienced.

As Muslims, we bear a special obligation to confront the anti-Semitism that has infected the Muslim world. We must not traffic in discredited ideas and unbecoming stereotypes or proclaim, as truth, notorious forgeries such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (it has been well known for almost a century now that this tract was a forgery by the Czarist Secret Police in order to justify pogroms in Russia). We must not subscribe to pseudo-scientific notions such as racism, nor allow ourselves to succumb to pseudo-historic nonsense such as Holocaust Denial. When it comes to anti-Semitism, we must confront it. We must educate against it. And most of all, we must repudiate it utterly.

We can also look to the recent past and remember how Turkish diplomats worked to save Jews from persecution and extermination during the Second World War. Although it is neither as emphasized or as well-known as the stories of Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, it is a fact that Turkish diplomats provided official documents such as citizenship cards and passports to thousands of Jews. Just to give one example, the Turkish ambassador Behiç Erkin -in order to save the Jews- gave the Nazis documents certifying that their property, houses and businesses, belonged to Turks. In this way, many lives were saved. Yet another example is that of the Turks who organized boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey. My intention in mentioning this is that Muslim Turks' attitude for centuries has demonstrated that Turks and Jews have continued to help each other in times of great crises and God willing, it will continue to be this way, no matter what happens.

For hundreds of years, Jews have known suffering, pain, and have never been at ease. Since the Diaspora, they have been expelled from almost every place they ever went for centuries. And now there are some who say they want the Jews to leave Israel also. The question arises, “Where are they supposed to go?” The Jews, the people of Israel, have the right to live in the Holy Land, in peace and security; indeed, it is so commanded by God Himself in the Qur'an: “And thereafter We said to the Children of Israel: 'Dwell securely in the Promised Land.'” (Surah Al-Isra, 104) Therefore, no one who professes submission to God and heeds the Word of God can oppose their existence in the Holy Land. And as Turks, as Muslims as much as we want the welfare of humanity, we want Jews to live in peace as well. We will always make our best efforts to ensure this goal. To do otherwise is to stand in defiance to the Will of God Himself.

The author is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV. She is also the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization. She can be reached on http://www.facebook.com/sinemtezyapar and https://twitter.com/SinemTezyapar.

Survivor initiative to thrive on common cents

Sixty-eight years after being liberated from the horrors of the Holocaust, many aging survivors are living another nightmare — poverty without hope.

“Every single one of them came to this country destitute, with zero resources, and had to start from the beginning,” Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education said in an interview. And although “some have lived the American dream,” Smith added, “it’s only a very small minority that are able to achieve that.”

Many survivors lack money to pay for the most basic needs, including food, housing, medical bills, legal bills or some combination of these. But, as Smith pointed out, living through the Holocaust made many of them survival-oriented and independent, meaning that they may not ask for help, even if they are desperately in need. “If you don’t have the support of the community around you, [if it] doesn’t understand the depth of your experience, you become very lonely.”

So Smith is among a group of community leaders and organizations trying to send a message to survivors who are financially struggling: “We want to support you in your old age and let you know that you are cared for by everyone,” he said.

To that end, the Shoah Foundation has joined an effort organized by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles called the “Six Million Coins” initiative, an innovative project hoping to engage people from throughout the region to contribute funds — in small and large sums — for struggling Holocaust survivors. 

The project, which aims to collect 6 million coins in specially designed tzedakah boxes, will be introduced at a Yom HaShoah commemoration at Mount Sinai Simi Valley on April 7.

Mount Sinai hopes to distribute 25,000 tzedakah boxes across Southern California before Yom HaShoah next year, according to general manager Len Lawrence, who came up with the idea for the initiative. Lawrence said the plan is to collect enough coins to honor each of the 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust.

Anyone can request a tzedakah box for free at the initiative’s Web site (sixmillioncoins.org). Each box, Lawrence said, comes with five coins adding up to 18 cents, which is also the numerical equivalent of chai, the Hebrew word for life.

The coins are attached to a card, and Lawrence’s hope is that when people remove those coins and place them in the small box, they will become the first of many that they drop in. With 25,000 boxes, Mount Sinai would be providing 125,000 coins toward the final tally, adding up to $4,500.

A virtual counter on the bottom of the initiative’s homepage indicates that even before the official kick-off, Mount Sinai, which also has a memorial park and mortuary in the Hollywood Hills, already had collected more than 115,000 coins, adding up to $1,150 (100 pennies per dollar donated online) as of April 1. Anyone can make a donation online or deliver their coins to Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location.

All of the proceeds will be handled by Federation and distributed to six different charities, five of which support survivors who need financial assistance. The other — the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous — does the same for non-Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, usually at great personal risk. 

Although Lawrence’s goal is to reach 6 million coins, he emphasized that Mount Sinai is “not going to stop” if there is a demand for this initiative once the 6 million goal is reached.

“As long as there are survivors who need help, Mount Sinai will keep supplying tzedakah boxes” to people who want them, Lawrence said.

The USC Shoah Foundation, established by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in 1994, collects video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. Smith said he has personally interviewed numerous survivors who are currently in financial distress. A 2008 study by Federation estimated about 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in the Los Angeles area, about half of whom are low-income or poor. 

“The truth is many survivors are struggling,” said Jay Sanderson, Federation president and CEO. “This particular tzedakah box is going to help those survivors in need.”

At the April 7 event, beginning at 10 a.m. at Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location, Lawrence will unveil an 8-foot-tall tzedakah box, in which people can place money, including the coins collected in their personal tzedakah boxes.

The ceremony will be followed by a Yom HaShoah memorial service. A noon ceremony, to be streamed live on the initiative’s Web site, will include a reading of some of the names of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, followed by a 2 p.m. roundtable panel discussing the work of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped rescue tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Andrew Stevens, a Holocaust survivor who assisted Wallenberg’s efforts, will make an appearance.

Mount Sinai also will provide a 4-foot-tall tzedakah box for public use. It will travel across Southern California to schools, synagogues and other organizations that want to host name-reading commemorations. Synagogues as far south as Santa Ana and as far north as Sacramento have scheduled ceremonies. 

Of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, about 4 million names are known. Lawrence hopes that every one of them will be read during the lifespan of this initiative. He said that Mount Sinai “will set up at any place, at any organization that wants to read names,” providing the 4-foot tzedakah box, the list of names and any other needed equipment.

Joining Mount Sinai and Federation and the Shoah Foundation in organizing and promoting the initiative is TRIBE Media Corp., which publishes the Jewish Journal. 

Reliving the Holocaust

“They’re going to come with the dogs. They’re going to start beating me.” Pola Lipnowski spoke in Yiddish, an expression of sheer terror on her face. She turned to her daughter, Hendel Schwartz, for protection. 

But Lipnowski was not in Poland. She was in her room at Emmy Monash Aged Care, a residential facility in Melbourne, Australia. “You’re safe. I’m here,” Schwartz reassured her.

Still, in her mind, Lipnowski, who was born June 1, 1920, was back in Jedrzejow, Poland, where her family — her husband and son, her parents and her seven siblings and their families — were relocated to the ghetto in spring 1940. “They’re going to start taking people away. They took away my parents,” she told Schwartz.

This time it was her dementia and not the Nazis that imprisoned her, returning her to the Jedrzejow ghetto where she was forced to cook and launder for the German soldiers, to a labor camp in Czestochowa where she operated machinery and incurred a cut that traversed the length of her left arm, and to a death march to Auschwitz, where, ill with typhus, she was liberated by the Russian army on Jan. 27, 1945. Lipnowski was the only member of her family to survive.

Schwartz, who lives in Los Angeles, had asked her mother to move to California years earlier, before the dementia set in. But Lipnowski was adamant about remaining in Melbourne with her tight-knit Jewish community, most of whom were Yiddish-speaking survivors from Poland. In 2005, she moved to Emmy Monash, and in 2009 she was transferred to the dementia unit. Schwartz spent weeks at a time with her, staying by her side from morning to evening, speaking to her in her native Yiddish and trying to comfort her as her dementia destroyed her short-term memory and reawakened traumas suffered in the Holocaust. 

Andy Meisels with his wife, Vera, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Vera Meisels

Schwartz also noticed other behaviors she attributed to her mother’s war experiences. Lipnowski hid bread and an occasional banana. She wanted to save any food left over from her meals. And when Schwartz tried to take her for a walk outside the building, Lipnowski stopped at the door and demanded, “Take me back.”

Then, in 2011, Lipnowski’s memories turned to an earlier period in her childhood — she talked about the family bakery and her sister — and her nightmares ended. Eventually she stopped eating and died on June 27, 2012. 

“I lived with this for so many years, but nobody talked about it,” said Schwartz, adding that the staff at Emmy Monash “were aware and not aware.” Because Schwartz grew up in a community where her generation had no grandparents, they also had no knowledge of old people.” “I had to learn my way through it,” she said.

Historically, the distinct effects of dementia on Holocaust survivors were not recognized until long after World War II ended. For one, those who survived the horrors of the Nazis tended to be younger and did not fall prey to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia until decades later. Also, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Alzheimer’s was even identified as a disease and not part of the normal aging process. 

But, for survivors, growing old is not necessarily a normal experience, as life events can awaken Holocaust memories, according to Shoshana Yaakobi, a senior social worker and Holocaust Resource Program coordinator at Baycrest, a health sciences center focused on the aging in Toronto. For example, older survivors spend more time visiting doctors, and in the camps, doctors weren’t to be trusted. When they get sick, which was a death sentence under the Nazis, or suffer the death of a spouse, the experiences bring back all the losses they endured during the Holocaust. 

In 2003, Baycrest published “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors,” a manual that for the first time presented comprehensive information and strategies for caring for this specific and often challenging population.

In the 10 years since the manual was published, the behaviors of the survivors have not changed, according to Yaakobi, but health professionals have learned more, especially in understanding what can trigger certain behaviors. 

Genia Burman at the Los Angeles Jewish Home in 2007.  Photo by Steve Cohn, courtesy of the Los Angeles Jewish Home

“There are triggers you can anticipate — things like loud voices, sounds of steps like boots, dogs barking, certain smells, like disinfectants,” Yaakobi said. Other triggers are less obvious. One survivor told her that the sound of a train always evokes memories of the train that took her to Auschwitz. Another survivor with severe dementia pointed to a standing pole used for IV drip bags and said, “Don’t you see the cross? They’re going to kill us.” 

In addition to suffering dementia, older survivors are generally particularly frail. And they are prone to conditions such as osteoporosis, impaired vision and cardiac issues resulting from experiencing prolonged malnutrition and other traumas in the camps.

For Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles, this translates to an increased need for home care, which includes help with cleaning, cooking, laundry, bathing, grocery shopping, medical appointments and errands.  

JFS currently assists approximately 2,000 of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles County, according Susie Forer-Dehrey, JFS chief operating officer. (This number, which has not changed in more than 10 years, is questioned by Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips & Herman Demographic Research, who estimates the total number of survivors as closer to 4,200, excluding child survivors.) 

JFS funds its services to survivors through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, and the Abner D. and Roslyn Goldstine Fund for Holocaust Survivor Services. The agency also expects to provide additional help through the Fund for Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need, a grass-roots effort recently initiated by The “1939” Club.

“We find that the survivor clients want to stay in their homes and in the community as long as possible,” Forer-Dehrey said. 

This is certainly true for Andreas (Andy) Meisels.

“Please leave me alone. Stop hitting me. I didn’t see anybody.” Andy Meisels, 85, is in the early stages of dementia. But in his nightmare, he is back in the former Warsaw Ghetto.

In June 1944, Meisels was transported from Auschwitz to a work detail in the Warsaw Ghetto, which had been liquidated and destroyed. His job was to gather bricks from the demolished buildings and cart them away. At one point, several prisoners in his detail wandered away, leaving Meisels alone. A kapo, or supervisory prisoner, appeared and demanded the names of those missing. Meisels claimed he did not know. The kapo hit him several times with the wooden handle of a hoe, threatening to break the handle over his back. Meisels remained silent.

Born on July 19, 1927, in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia, Meisels was the youngest of six children and one of only two family members, along with his brother Erno, to survive.

Today, Meisels is a retired computer engineer and technical writer who speaks nine languages, six of them fluently. With his dementia, however, he forgets what day of the week it is, although he can tell you that Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, which was a Sunday. 

But dementia is only one of the challenges Meisels faces, according to his wife, Vera. He also suffers internal bleeding, as well as other health problems. 

Meisels is a client of Bet Tzedek Legal Services though its Holocaust reparations program. The family is also working with Nicholas Levenhagen, an Equal Justice Works fellow, a position sponsored by Greenberg Traurig LLP, and the first full-time attorney at Bet Tzedek dedicated solely to providing elder law and end-of-life services to Holocaust survivors.

For survivors with dementia, Levenhagen helps families figure out how to pay for increasing care needs through various state and private programs. Also, if necessary, he helps them with powers of attorney, health care directives and statutory wills before the dementia becomes debilitating.

Levenhagen recently referred Meisels to Jewish Family Service. Vera, who is his primary caregiver, said she will accept help when she needs it. 

“He’s deteriorating,” she said. “But I will never, ever put him in a home. I love him. I cannot express how much I love him.” 

For others, however, a residential facility is often the best option.

Genia Burman was recently sitting in the garden of the Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village Campus in Reseda. “This area was a DP camp,” Burman told her daughter Barbara Bloom. “And before that, it was a Nazi camp.” 

Burman, 92, has talked about the war and her family of origin, all of whom perished, for as long as Bloom can recall. “But she now has dementia and only remembers the tragedies,” Bloom said. 

Bloom had wanted her mother to move to Flagstaff, Ariz., where she lives, but Burman insisted on staying in Los Angeles. She moved to the Jewish Home in 2004 and remarried in 2005. But after her husband died in March 2011, she started becoming forgetful. Eventually Burman, who also suffers from congestive heart failure and macular degeneration, was moved to the Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center for residents with dementia, where Bloom frequently visits her.

According to Susan Leitch, community manager of the Factor Nursing Building and Goldenberg-Ziman, seven of the approximately 60 Holocaust survivors at the Jewish Home suffer from dementia. 

Burman, the youngest of five siblings in an extraordinarily poor family, was born Dec. 2, 1920, in Turka, Ukraine. At 17, she moved to Lvov and later Olesko, Poland. Then, in June 1941, when Germany invaded Russia, Burman escaped to the east, arriving in Uzbekistan in November 1941. She worked on collective farms, contracting malaria and often going hungry.

Burman has made several attempts to leave the Goldenberg-Ziman building, ostensibly to find her family. “Maybe I should have stayed with them. I could have helped,” she said.

“Genia is all about saving food and saving people,” Bloom said. She saw people starving and also is haunted by her imaginings of the fates of her sister and brother and their families. Bloom believes they likely starved to death in the Lvov ghetto.

Distractions can take Burman away from the war, and Bloom often drives her to a park in Reseda. “She spends an hour or two feeding the birds. She loves that,” Bloom said.

With the passing years, the number of Holocaust survivors continues to decrease. According to Hillary Kessler-Godin, director of communications for the Claims Conference, only about 500,000 survivors remain alive worldwide, including survivors from the former Soviet Union who fled eastward or endured the Siege of Leningrad. 

But with nearly half of all people aged 85 and older suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia to some degree, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of people now vividly reliving their Holocaust horrors is substantial.

“It’s unimaginable what these people had to go through,” Hendel Schwartz said. “And to have to repeat the process is so unfair,
so hard.” 

Spielberg directs kids to ‘iWitness’ history

In a video, a Holocaust survivor remembers how he had to kill the family dog as he faced deportation to a wartime ghetto, where there would not be enough food for humans and none for animals.

After watching the testimony and letting it sink in, a New York high school student went to a neighborhood animal shelter to become a volunteer worker.

It was the kind of reaction filmmaker Steven Spielberg hoped for when he and his associates conceived the iWitness Video Challenge, a new effort to engage the public with the vast number of testimonies gathered from Holocaust survivors by the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg created and has supported with the proceeds from his seminal film “Schindler’s List.”

Spielberg came to the campus of the Chandler School, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade private school in Pasadena, to publicly introduce iWitness last week.

“The idea behind the iWitness challenge is the same idea that was behind ‘Schindler’s List’ — that profound changes can occur when one person makes a positive choice,” Spielberg told a roomful of students and media.

“So, students will listen to testimonies from eyewitnesses, and they’ll develop insight as to how to use those testimonies to draw conclusions about how they can better their communities. And then build a video essay telling the story of how they made their community better and how they participated in making the world a better place,” Spielberg said.

A second goal of the project is to give students the tools of “media literacy and digital citizenship in the 21st century,” according to Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation.

The concept underlying iWitness is as old as a teacher making a point by way of example and as new as the latest digital technology.

Instead of textbooks, the program’s basic instructional tool is a Web site, iwitness.usc.edu, which holds nearly 1,300 personal histories told by survivors, liberators and other witnesses to the Holocaust, as well as to more recent genocides, mainly in Africa.

From these testimonies — selected from a trove of the nearly 52,000 archived eyewitness accounts gathered by the Shoah Foundation — teachers are encouraged to create their own classroom lessons and homework assignments, and students can dig deep into the material by using 9,000 keywords that enable the user to focus on their specific interests.

Most importantly, iWitness is intended to encourage sixth- through 12th-graders in public, private and home schools to create videos using a special iWitness editor available on the Web site, which enables users to integrate clips from the testimonies with footage from other sources, as well as photos, voice-over audio, music and text.

The iWitness project is a direct descendant of “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie that in 1993 brought about a dramatic awareness of the Holocaust to members of a new generation as well as to their elders who had largely forgotten it.

Spielberg told the gathering a story he has frequently recounted: “After ‘Schindler’s List’ was finished, I would meet Holocaust survivors, and each would say, in so many words, ‘That’s a fine film, but you’ve only told a small part of what happened. Now let me tell you my story.’ ”

Although the filmmaker knew he could not make thousands upon thousands of movies about the Holocaust, he became convinced that each survivor’s story should be preserved in some way.

As a result, within a month after “Schindler’s List” won Academy Awards in 1994 for best picture and director, Spielberg and a small group of advisers launched the Shoah Foundation.

Its goal, seemingly an impossible task at the time, was to permanently record on videotape the testimonies of all Holocaust survivors willing to relive their traumas, as well as the accounts of liberators and other eyewitnesses.

In recent months, the Shoah Foundation expanded its mission to add testimonies from the victims of genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, as well as from descendants of Armenians who survived the mass slaughter of their people during World War I.

Even in mere numbers, the content of the foundation’s Visual History Archive is staggering.

Currently the collection includes 105,000 hours of video testimony, representing interviews with 51,696 witnesses. This massive archive, the largest collection of its kind in the world, is digitized, fully searchable and hyperlinked to the minute.

With the help of such indexing, scholars and students can access any of the material through more than 60,000 keywords, 1.2 million names and 700,000 images, while clips and full-length YouTube testimonies are available for more casual viewers (check sfi.usc.edu).

In addition to its historical contribution, the full visual history archive has been awarded 11 patents for digital collection management technologies.

On March 1, 1993, Spielberg started filming “Schindler’s List” in Krakow, Poland. Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of this venture, he announced not only the iWitness Video Challenge, but also the release of a Blu-ray version of “Schindler’s List,” restored from the 35-mm film original.

The limited-edition Blu-ray combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment offers the contents in a variety of formats, including Blu-ray disc, DVD, digital copy and UltraViolet.

Joining Spielberg and Smith at the introduction of the iWitness Challenge, the Shoah Foundation brought in 18 teenagers, students ages 13 to 18 from the Chandler School and from public middle and high schools, representing the ultimate targets and transmitters of the project.

Addressing students individually and as a group, Spielberg defined the highest purpose of his project. “We can use iWitness to show the power of random acts of kindness, the significance of contributions to the community, and the very idea that the best way to teach empathy is with examples of it,” he said.

“So that maybe some day, kindness will be a natural reflex, and not just a random act.”

The students sat around three tables, each facing a laptop computer. Checking out the scene, Kori Street, director of education for the Shoah Foundation, observed, “Today’s students would rather watch than read — that’s the reality. We live in a digital world.”

In that world, in the case of iWitness, students can pick, choose and blend together footage from the program’s 1,300 digital testimonies by Holocaust and genocide survivors.

Street believes this kind of exercise can lead to critical thinking, as well as connection to a specific issue, and finally concrete action by the students inspired by what they have absorbed.

One of the students was Steven Colin, a senior at the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in midtown Los Angeles, who was introduced to iWitness in a humanities class.

Colin, who is of Latino descent, said he has faced subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination. As a result, he said, he felt a kind of bond to the victims of the Nazi regime.

Matthew Culpepper, a seventh-grader at the Chandler School, said he himself has not had to face prejudice and that he could hardly grasp the testimonies on the video screen: “How could people do that to other people?” he asked.

Whether by impact of the iWitness project or inherent decency, Colin and Culpepper said they had recently stepped up and intervened when they saw classmates bullying fellow students.

Already, iWitness has reached about 2,000 educators from 35 countries and all 50 states, and 6,100 of students are involved in the program. And, Street said, China is showing interest as well.

“Our aspiration is to eventually reach 100,000 students,” Street said, noting that “you don’t even need classrooms. You can create your own project at home or in a library.”

Among participating Jewish schools in the Los Angeles area are the Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am and New Community Jewish High School.

All current students will submit projects to their teachers, with each student completing a video, one to four minutes long, tying what she or he has learned from the survivors’ stories to a personal contribution to better their communities.

Street cited the project of a group of students that watched the testimony of one survivor who had “lost his smile” in a concentration camp, but regained it through the love of his family.

Inspired, the group set out to help unhappy or depressed classmates, aiming to “turn that frown upside down” by posting humorous notes and supportive messages around its school campus.

At another school, a student watched the testimony of a survivor who related that despite the horrors of the concentration camp, some prisoners continued to sing to lift the spirits of fellow inmates. The student followed up by organizing a small choir, which then visited retirement homes to serenade the elderly.

Students with the best video entries from six regions, five from the United States and one from Canada, will be recognized, together with their teachers and parents, at another 20th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles. This event, in March 2014, will honor the founding of the Shoah Foundation itself.

Corah Forrrester, a 7th grader at Chandler School in Pasadena, created this video poem using testimony from Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics, given at the USC Shoah Foundation.

Germany should award pensions to ghetto survivors, Jewish body says

Germany's main Jewish body is calling on the German government and parliament to step in on behalf of survivors of World War II ghettoes who have not yet received a German pension for their work.

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement March 1 that political leaders should not allow the “wrong and fatal impression” that they are playing with time, waiting for survivors to die. Noting that the average age of the survivors is 85, Graumann said that “every day the circle of possible recipients is growing ever smaller. So now is not the time for petty arithmetic, but rather for speedy action.”

Germany's Federal Social Court had granted the survivor pension entitlement back in 2009 after the Bundestag unanimously approved pension payments for former ghetto workers in 2002, retroactive to 1997. But the German Pension Insurance Organization reportedly awarded pensions to only a small fraction of those who qualified, critics have said.

One hurdle is that German social law only allows for four years of retroactive payments.  Three German parties – the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party – have put in a formal request that the government make up the difference for the survivors.

According to the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, State Secretary Ralf Brauksiepe, of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union Party, said on Feb. 27 that the federal government had not yet made a decision as to whether and how back payments to ghetto workers could be made for those years in which red-tape prevented them from receiving any pensions for their labor. There was also no indication of a timetable, the report noted.

“For years, about 22,000 individuals – by now quite elderly – have been waiting for the retroactive payment of their pension,” Graumann said in his statement. Payments would also be a form of recognition of their endless suffering during the Nazi period – a moral duty on Germany's part, he indicated. “Every single day they wait is a day too many,” he said.

Survivor: Harry Magid

“The Jews are going to be taken from the ghetto and killed.” Harry Magid — known then as Herschel — urged his mother to escape with his younger brother, Alex. Harry had learned from a Ukrainian friend of his father that 300 horse-drawn wagons had been ordered to transport the approximately 2,500 Jews in the Stepan ghetto to the forests outside Kostopol, where large pits had been dug. Harry’s mother disguised herself as a Ukrainian and slipped out with Alex through a few loose boards in the ghetto wall. “I’ll come later,” 12-year-old Harry promised. But Ukrainian police began shooting at escapees, and Harry retreated to their ghetto house.

The next day, as the roundup began, Harry hid in a large hole in the ground that served as an outhouse, covering himself with branches. But the smell forced him back inside, to the attic. A Ukrainian policeman later discovered him, demanding a gold watch for not reporting him. Harry complied. The next day, however, a German soldier appeared with a gun. “Raus, schweinehund” (Out, bastard), he shouted. Harry jumped into a wagon headed for the Killing Field, as it was later called.

Herschel “Harry” Magid was born on July 17, 1930, in Stepan, a village in the Wolyn province of Poland (now Ukraine) to Joseph and Frieda Magid. His brother, Alex, was born in 1935. Joseph owned a flourmill, and the observant family enjoyed a comfortable existence.

Harry attended the Hebrew-language Tarbut school from 1936 until September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and Eastern Ukraine, including the Wolyn province, was handed over to the Soviet Union. Jews were forbidden to attend school, and Jewish businesses were confiscated, though Joseph continued to work at the flourmill as an employee. 

In June 1941, Germany broke its Nonaggression Pact with the Soviet Union, and German soldiers entered Stepan. In August 1941, they ordered the Jews into a ghetto, allowing them to take only what they could carry. Harry shared a room with 10 relatives, sleeping on the floor and eating a small portion of bread and “soup that was mostly water” each day. A few skilled workers were allowed to live and work outside the ghetto, including Harry’s father.

Harry worked from sunup to sundown, carrying buckets of sand from the Horyn River to a work site where a road was being constructed with sand, water and broken gravestones from the Jewish cemetery. “I often got whipped for not working fast enough,” Harry recalls. Harry also often slipped out of the ghetto to visit his father at the flourmill. That’s where he heard about the impending roundup.

As Harry’s wagon headed to the Killing Field, the sand from the road swirled heavily, clouding the air and obstructing visibility. Harry saw his chance to escape when the wagon passed two barns on the side of the road. He jumped and hid in a potato field between the barns, waiting until all was quiet.

Harry made his way to the flourmill and hid with his father under the floorboards. They then walked to the farm of a Ukrainian friend, who hid them in a haystack in the cold and rain. A few weeks later, learning of Frieda and Alex’s whereabouts, they joined them in Komarivka, a village 30 kilometers away. Together, the family hid in a forest by day and slept in a barn at night. 

One day, three Ukrainian policemen with rifles and dogs discovered them in the forest. Harry quickly ran and ducked under some bushes. Harry’s father offered them three 10-ruble gold coins that had been sewn into Harry’s pants. “Herschko, come out,” his mother called. Harry stayed put, but his mother found him and took the gold pieces to the policemen. As they left, Harry, still hidden in the bushes, heard one say, “We’ll come back tomorrow and pick them up.” 

Harry and his family immediately left, walking 20 kilometers to Kamariske, where another Ukrainian farmer agreed to hide them for money. He put them in a barn with hay and pigs. But it was very cold — 20 below zero, Harry estimates — and they dug a 6-foot square pit in the dirt floor, covering it with wood and straw, for some warmth.

They lived in the barn for six months, with little food and water. They made drinking water by melting icicles and stole the raw potatoes that the farmer fed to the pigs. The farmer was paid by a Ukrainian family friend with money and other valuables that Harry’s father had buried. 

One night, in June 1943, the farmer ordered them to leave. The next day, they later learned, Germans burned down the barn. But Harry’s family had found lodging with another Ukrainian, Gordey Kondratuk, who hid them in his barn, feeding them as best he could and trying to convert them to the Baptist religion.

In late 1943, the Ukrainians, determined to establish an independent country, evicted the Germans and invited the remaining Jews to return to Stepan, especially professionals and skilled workers. Joseph returned to the factory. Harry remained in hiding with his mother and brother.

Some weeks later, with the Russian Army advancing, the Ukrainians rounded up the 50 Jews who had returned to Stepan, including Joseph. They shot them and threw them into the Horyn River, destroying witnesses to the atrocities they had committed. 

The Russian Army liberated Stepan in March 1944. Harry had been in hiding 19 months, wearing essentially the same clothes the whole time, rags that now hung on him, and using flour sacks tied with string for shoes. He had typhus, weighed 70 pounds and almost died. 

Harry, his mother and brother stayed in Stepan until 1945. From there, they eventually made their way to Ulm, Germany, where they stayed in several displaced persons camps, including Donabastion, for three years. Then, sponsored by relatives in the United States, the three arrived in Detroit on July 17, 1949, Harry’s 19th birthday.

Harry worked selling ice cream from a truck. In March 1958, he met Eva Lung, a Hungarian survivor, and they married on Oct. 26, 1958. They moved to Chicago in 1962, and then to Los Angeles a year later. Harry sold ice cream, worked in construction, and, in 1972, he and Eva bought a small grocery, Stan’s Market, on Third Street and Witmer, near downtown Los Angeles, retiring 10 years later.

Harry and Eva have three children: Joseph, born in 1959; Vera, born in 1962; and Benjamin, born in 1972.

Harry was active in the Wolliner Society of Los Angeles, composed of “landsmen” from the Wolyn province who raised more than $1 million for Israel and, in addition, purchased three ambulances for the Jewish state. Although the organization disbanded in 2000, “We had 400 members at one time,” Harry said.

Harry is now 82 and still manages some real estate properties he owns. He is a member of B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson and enjoys playing cards once a week. 

“There’s nothing but luck,” Harry says of his survival. Then, he adds, “I was never afraid for anything.”

Resurrecting Lithuania’s Jewish past

During the course of one month in 1941, most of the thousands of Jewish residents of Utena, Lithuania, were rounded up by the Nazis, taken into the forest and murdered. Only a few dozen managed to escape.

That episode nearly buried the entire history of the centuries-old town, but through the efforts of the nonprofit MACEVA and volunteers like students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, this history is finally being unearthed. On Jan. 23, the entire eighth-grade class at Heschel filled the gym to translate the Hebrew inscribed on recently uncovered gravestones from Utena.

MACEVA, from the Hebrew word for “gravestone” (matseyva), is an organization that aims to preserve evidence of old Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania. Grant Gochin, a member of MACEVA’s international advisory board, came upon the idea of restoring these burial grounds when he visited Lithuania a few years ago, interested in his own family’s history. 

“I realized that these cemeteries had fallen into complete disrepair, and that if we could read the gravestones, we could gain a small look into the lives of these people and help us honor their memory,” said Gochin, 49, a wealth adviser from Chatsworth. 

It quickly became a multinational effort as Gochin got kids here and in Lithuania involved in the restoration and translation project.

“I wanted the students to learn that the Jewish people didn’t just arrive here randomly or disappear abroad without so much as a footprint, but that they came from an immense, majestic history that needs to be understood,” he said.

Efrat Yakobi-Gafni, the middle school Hebrew coordinator at Heschel, saw the project as a way for students to not only use their Hebrew, but to understand Jewish history in a much more personal way. 

“They are learning this history in a very real sense, not just from a textbook,” she said. “It imparts an understanding of the destruction of Jewish communities that they cannot fathom just by reading.”

One of the gravestones. Photo by Julie Bien

In Lithuania, students went into the forests, located the gravestones, cleaned them, photographed them and uploaded the images onto MACEVA’s Web site. Heschel students then accessed the photos online and used their Hebrew skills to translate the names, dates and descriptions on the stones, which were then posted at litvak-cemetery.info.

Romy Dolgin, a student at Heschel, found that the ability to work hand-in-hand with eighth-graders across the globe was one of the most exciting things about this project. 

“Just knowing that right now, kids on the other side of the world are looking at these tombstones, and it’s connecting us to them, is very thrilling,” she said.

“Obviously,” Romy added, “the most important part of this project is to remember and understand that these people whose names are on these gravestones lived there and had real lives, and their families want to be able to trace back to these villages to find out where they came from.” 

Gochin said that while the Heschel event was just for one day, their involvement with the project doesn’t need to end.

“The students can remain involved after doing this here. And their parents can as well,” he said. “There are thousands of untranslated gravestones that need to be translated. Hopefully, this will help the next generation understand and appreciate the history.”

Leon Leyson, Schindler survivor, 83

Leon Leyson, the youngest Jew to be saved by Oskar Schindler and his famous list during the Holocaust, died Jan. 12 in Whittier, following a four-year struggle with lymphoma. He was 83.

Called “Little Leyson” by the German industrialist who saved him and 1,100 other Jews, Leyson was born Leib Lejzon and grew up in northeastern Poland. He moved with his family to Krakow, Poland, nine years later, just before the German invasion. When the family was ordered into the ghetto, Leyson helped keep his family fed by running errands for the elderly.

Schindler hired his father and brother to work for no pay but allowed them to leave the ghetto and get scraps of food. The family eventually was divided in various deportations and two of Leyson’s brothers were killed.

Some members survived, however, in the Plaszow labor camp, because Schindler put them on his list, bringing them to his factory in Czechoslovakia, from where they were liberated in 1945. While at the factory, Leyson — then 13 years old — was so short that he had to stand on a box to reach the machinery.

Leyson had high praise for Schindler.

“He put everything on the line,” he told the Fort Collins Coloradoan in 2010. “Even to treat us as human beings was against the law. … He did it because he was a decent human being.”

In a displaced persons’ camp, Leyson finally resumed the education he’d been forced to abandon when he was 10, and when the family moved to the United States in 1949, he earned a high school diploma and college degree. He studied industrial arts at L.A. City College and California State University, Los Angeles, and went on to receive a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.

Leyson worked for 39 years at Huntington Park High School, where he taught machine shop and was a guidance counselor. But he was quiet about his war experiences for decades. 

“The truth is, I did not live my life in the shadow of the Holocaust,” Leyson told the Portland Oregonian in 1997. “I did not give my children a legacy of fear. I gave them a legacy of freedom.”

This reticence changed after the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Schindler’s List.” Afterward, Leyson began taking on public speaking in schools and universities across North America.

“I can recount dozens of times where if I had stepped … to my left I would have been gone, or if I happened to step to my right,” Leyson once told the Los Angeles Times. “It wasn’t anything like being smart or clever or anything like that.”

He is survived by his wife, Lis; daughter, Stacy; son, Daniel; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren. A public memorial will take place at noon Feb. 17 at the Chapman University chapel in Orange.

Survivor: Regina Hirsch

“Leave your possessions. We will bring them to you,” a Jewish commando greeted the trainload of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. He pointed to Regina Landowicz’s mother: “Too old.” And to her sister Lillie: “Too young.” Sally, another sister, took scissors from her rucksack and quickly trimmed their mother’s hair and lopped off Lillie’s braids as German soldiers shouted, “Raus, raus!” (Out, out!) On the platform, a German soldier tried to grab Lillie from their mother’s arms, but their mother clutched her tightly, even as he beat her. “Ma, ma,” Regina, Sally and another sister, Ruthie, screamed. A soldier whipped the girls, separating them from their mother and Lillie. “Where you’re going you don’t need a mother,” he told 16-year-old Regina. 

Regina, Sally and Ruthie were processed and taken to Block 25, which housed 1,000 women. “We lay on the floor like animals,” Regina said. From the open door, they saw the entire sky glow red from fire and later learned their mother and Lillie had been gassed and cremated. 

Regina was born on June 29, 1928, in Lodz, Poland, to Ajzyk and Esther Landowicz, the third-to-last child in an observant family of eight girls and one boy. Only Regina and three sisters survived the Holocaust.

Regina’s father had been a wealthy businessman. The family lived in a large apartment and spent summers in the country. Regina remembers that every Shabbat her father brought an oyrech — an impoverished guest — to dinner. In the early 1930s, Regina’s father lost his money and opened a small grocery store.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, occupying Lodz seven days later. The Germans immediately cut off food supplies to the city’s approximately 230,000 Jews, instituted curfews and confiscated property. Jewish men were carted off to labor camps. In December, all Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars. Regina’s five older siblings fled to Warsaw and points east. (Of those five, only Judy, who escaped to Siberia, survived.) 

“Everybody was scared,” Regina said. She and Ruthie often stood in line all night in the snow and cold for a loaf of bread. One time, in the early morning darkness, a German soldier approached Regina and yelled, “Jude, raus” (Jew, out). He beat her up. Ruthie later returned home with bread. 

As rumors of a ghetto began circulating, Regina’s parents, with $50 from an American uncle, purchased a room from a Polish family. Regina and Ruthie dragged a sled carrying household items, including a wooden bathtub and their father’s Hebrew books, there, making several trips. By February 1940, all Jews were ordered into the ghetto. 

On April 1, Regina, who had contracted typhoid, was taken to a small ghetto hospital. She awoke the next morning semi-conscious in a bathtub of ice. “You’re the luckiest kid in the world,” a woman told her.  The previous day the Gestapo had rounded up all the doctors, nurses and patients and shot them. 

In spring 1940, the Jews began working in exchange for food. Regina wove shawls by hand on a loom. Later she made boots out of straw for the German soldiers. “My hands were full of pus from that work,” Regina said. Her last job was making wooden cribs. Regina stopped working toward the end of 1943, as deportations to Auschwitz increased. 

One day, Regina and her family hid in the attic of a burned-out factory. German soldiers with dogs later searched the building but didn’t discover them. 

Another time, in June 1944, their mother took Regina and Lillie (Sally and Ruthie were still working) to a field, where they hid in a tepee-shaped bundle of hay. They lay there all day, until Regina lost a boot and her mother decided to leave. German soldiers later machine-gunned everyone hiding there. 

“Miracles. Unbelievable miracles. I myself don’t believe them,” Regina said.

For the next two months, Regina and her family spent their days hiding in the large Jewish cemetery and their nights in a nearby shack. One day they heard gunfire ring out for hours. The next day Regina, her three sisters and her mother were captured and shipped to Auschwitz. Regina never learned her father’s fate. 

After two months in Auschwitz’s Block 25, 250 girls from the Lodz ghetto, including Regina, Sally and Ruthie, were transferred to A Lager. During the night, German soldiers burst in and took out 50 girls. Regina and her sisters lay huddled on a top bunk, hearing the others’ screams.

“If I live to be 100 years, I cannot describe Auschwitz. Unbelievable. Hell on earth,” she said. 

From Auschwitz, the girls were taken to a munitions factory in Oederan, Saxony. Upon arrival, they were led into a dining room, where bowls of soup awaited them. “A spoon. They gave us a spoon,” Regina recalled. Subsequent meals were less lavish, but they had food, slept five to a bunk and were given hot water every week to wash up.

In the factory, Regina worked 12 hours a day drilling holes, one at a time, into German bullets. “I tried to make the hole on the side, but the foreman was measuring constantly,” she said.  

In late April 1945, the girls were sent to Theresienstadt. There, with “unbelievable hunger and not a drop of water,” Regina said, they lived outdoors. 

On May 8, Soviet troops liberated the camp.

After several months, Regina and her sisters found themselves at a DP camp in Landsberg am Lech, Germany, where Regina studied design and pattern making through ORT. More than four years later, in 1949, Sally and Ruthie were each married and had immigrated to the United States. Regina followed, arriving in Los Angeles in August 1949.

In early 1950, Regina met Phillip Hirsch, a landsman from Lodz and a Bergen-Belsen survivor. They married on March 11, 1951. Their son, Mark, was born on Jan. 4, 1952, and daughter, Laurene, on Sept. 28, 1956. Phillip died on June 1, 2008.

Today, Regina, now 84, lives in Westwood. She enjoys spending time with her family, including her son, daughter, son-in-law, two grandsons and sisters Ruthie and Sally. 

Regina began speaking out about the Holocaust in 1949, a time when “nobody wanted to listen,” she said. She was one of the first speakers at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and continues to speak there every Thursday. She also talks to college students and the U.S. military.

“While we’re here, we have to talk, we have to teach. What else is there to do?” she said.

Survivor: Gitta Seidner Ginsberg

Gitta Seidner—known at the time by the Christian name Jannine Spinette—was abruptly awakened around 4:30 a.m. by a large commotion outside her farmhouse bedroom in Waterloo, Belgium. “No, no, no. What do you want with my goddaughter?” she heard her godmother, Alice Spinette, say. SS soldiers then kicked open the door and pulled the crying girl from her bed. “She’s not Jewish,” Alice insisted. The soldiers didn’t listen. They ordered Alice to get Gitta dressed and drove them to SS headquarters in Brussels.

There, despite her godmother’s protests, Gitta was led down a staircase to a pitch-black cellar and was locked in a cell. Gitta grabbed the cell bars, shaking them, and screamed, “Pourquoi je suis ici?” “Why am I here?” Gitta heard a man’s voice coming from another cell. “Meidele, veine nicht, meidele,” he said in Yiddish. “Little girl, don’t cry, little girl.” But the words only made her cry harder, until finally she fell asleep. She was 6½ years old. It was the fall of 1943.

Gitta was born in Vienna, Austria, on April 28, 1937, the only child of Regina and Shloime Seidner. Her father worked in a factory that recycled old clothes. The family was poor.

In May 1938, two months after the Anschluss, in which Germany annexed Austria, and the same month in which the Nuremberg Laws were enacted in that country, Gitta’s father and uncle fled for Belgium. Gitta and her mother followed a month later, along with Gitta’s grandmother, aunt, two teenage cousins and another uncle.

In Brussels, Gitta and her parents lived in a small apartment. At age 3, she began nursery school, and her grandmother picked her up every afternoon, always bringing a cookie. Many Friday evenings, Gitta walked with her grandmother to synagogue. “It was nice in Brussels,” Gitta remembers.

Things changed in May 1940, when Germany invaded Belgium and began instituting anti-Jewish laws. Gitta’s aunt and uncle, their two teenage sons and another uncle accepted the Germans’ offer to work in the east. Gitta, her parents and grandmother watched as they and other Jews climbed into trucks parked in one of Brussels’ large squares. “Come with us,” one uncle said. “No, we’re staying here,” Gitta’s father answered. Her grandmother was crying.

In fall 1941, as the situation worsened, Gitta’s parents sent her to live with a well-to-do Christian woman who wanted to save a Jewish child. Gitta’s father explained to her that this was “make-believe,” like in the storybooks she loved.

Gitta liked Alice Spinette, a single woman in her 50s. She was also impressed by the apartment—it had marble and mirrors and the first bathroom Gitta had ever seen.

Gitta called the woman “Marraine,” godmother, and selected the name Jannine for herself. She went to church and to a Catholic nursery school and saw her parents every few weeks. “I had a very nice life,” she recalled.

One day, Spinette took Gitta to her parents’ apartment to tell them Gitta needed to be baptized. Gitta’s father refused. But Gitta’s grandmother, sitting in her usual chair by the window reading her prayer book, said, “Yes, she should be baptized.”

Alice had friends living on a farm in Waterloo, whom she and Gitta sometimes visited overnight. One time, when the friends had other guests, they stayed with acquaintances. It was the daughter of those acquaintances who revealed Gitta’s Jewish identity to her SS boyfriend.

Eventually, the SS released Gitta, although she does not know how long she spent in jail, only that she cried and screamed the entire time. She was placed in an orphanage in Linkebeek, outside Brussels, one of several orphanages operated by the Association of Jews in Belgium, but established by the Germans and used to perpetuate the myth that older family members were being relocated in work camps in the east. Later, Gitta was moved to an orphanage in Wezembeek, also outside Brussels.

In August 1944, learning that the Nazis planned to liquidate the orphanages, the Belgian resistance woke the children in the middle of the night, put them on trucks and delivered them to various convents. Gitta was taken to a convent boarding school near Bastogne, in the south of Belgium.

One day the Mother Superior marched all the children into town, giving them little Union Jacks and sitting them on the sidewalk. They waved their flags, chanting “Vive la liberté” as British soldiers, who had helped liberate Belgium in September 1944, rode by in jeeps and tanks.

A few days later, the Mother Superior returned with the children. This time they were given American flags to welcome the American soldiers.

Gitta’s parents, meanwhile, traveled from convent to convent searching for her. Finally, they found her and brought her with them to the orphanage in Aische-en-Refail where they were working. It was late 1944; Gitta remembers celebrating Chanukah with some Jewish GIs.

She returned with her parents to Brussels around March 1945. Several times they went to the square when truckloads of Jews returned from the camps, looking for their relatives. Gitta believes they were killed in Auschwitz.

Gitta’s parents immigrated to Israel in April 1949, but the adjustment was difficult, and a year later they returned to Brussels. The family immigrated to the United States in July 1952.

Gitta met Sidney Ginsberg at New York’s 92nd Street Y in 1955, and they married on October 16, 1957. Their son Michael was born on July 24, 1961. They moved to Los Angeles a year later, and a second son, Stewart, was born on Sept. 12, 1965. Gitta and Sidney subsequently divorced. She has two granddaughters.

Gitta later did administrative work both for Jewish Family Service’s Valley Storefront and for the Los Angeles Unified School District, retiring in 2009.

Today she volunteers one morning a week at Adat Ari El. She is also president of the California Association of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, founded in 1995.

In 2011, at the invitation of Vienna’s Jewish community, and accompanied by her sons, Gitta visited Vienna. There they attended Shabbat services at City Temple.

“Never did I think I’d be sitting in synagogue in Vienna, looking down [from the women’s balcony] and seeing my two sons praying. And I started crying,” Gitta said.

Conference tackles Shoah survivors’ needs for next decade

Holocaust survivors are rapidly dying off and will soon disappear, according to perceptions held by the international Jewish community. But a conference in Los Angeles devoted to caring for victims of Nazi persecution in North and South America, which took place from June 22 to 24 demonstrated otherwise.

Not only are survivors alive in large numbers — estimated at 700,000 worldwide, with about 85,000 in the United States — but they are projected to be a part of Jewish society for another 10 to 15 years, and even longer for child survivors.

“There are survivors. But they’re getting older and sicker, and they need more,” said Greg Schneider, chief operating officer of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which finances most of the social welfare programs for survivors globally.

The Claims Conference sponsored the international seminar, “Caring Across Continents: Working with Jewish Nazi Victims in the Americas,” in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. It was held at The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, with 120 social workers and program directors attending from the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America and Australia.

The conference focused primarily on providing specialized communal services for needy and vulnerable Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, a field that has come to the forefront only in the last 13 years. Previously some survivors received — and some continue to receive — only individual compensation, primarily from the German government.

“There was no recognition of the special needs of the survivors,” said Schneider, referring to such services as case management, subsidized home care, emergency-assistance funding and socialization programs like Café Europa, a Holocaust survivors’ support group.

That changed in 1994 when the Claims Conference became the legal successor to unclaimed private and communal Jewish properties in former East Germany and began receiving money from the sale of those properties or compensation for formerly Jewish-owned properties that couldn’t be returned. A year later, the Claims Conference began partnering with Jewish Family Service and other social service organizations in major cities to use those funds to develop programs for disadvantaged survivors.

Currently the Claims Conference designates $125 million a year for such programs, with up to $18 million of that total set aside for Shoah education.

“There’s no fixing what was broken, and everyone here understands that. But you can try to make a difference,” Schneider told the participants, conceding that the needs of the survivors far surpass what the Claims Conference is able to provide.

The conference, the first of its kind held on the West Coast, afforded participants the opportunity to network and share expertise and to hear about new strategies and interventions in such areas as bereavement, dementia and socialization. Additionally, they were able to replenish their own resources in a job that can be psychologically depleting and, for those living in small communities, isolating.

For social workers and program directors from South America, who work with small populations of Jewish Nazi victims, networking was clearly helpful.

“We are all together trying to take care of survivors, quality and quantity,” said Rosa Ana Silberman Jait, program coordinator of Fundación Tzedaká in Buenos Aires.

Much of the challenge lies in the fact that survivors have very different needs depending on their country of origin, where they spent the war years — in ghettoes or concentration camps under Nazi domination or in flight to eastern territories of the Soviet Union — and where they lived after the war.

In a session on working with Jewish Nazi victims from the former Soviet Union, Marina Berkman, director of Jewish Family Service’s West Hollywood Comprehensive Service Center, addressed the fact that the Holocaust was never mentioned by Soviet Union officials until Perestroika in 1985.

“People talked about the heroes of World War II but not about the survivors, so there was a shame,” she said.

And when Jewish agencies dealt with resettling the Russian émigrés in the 1990s, no one asked about their Holocaust history, said Ruth Paley, client services director at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis.

“We played into the conspiracy of silence,” she said.

Now, however, there are Russian-speaking social workers serving this population and a greater understanding of their culture and needs. Still, Berkman said, you could devote a whole conference to this huge issue.

In a session on forming innovative partnerships with government agencies, foundations and other programs, participants were solidly committed to doing whatever it takes to assist survivor clients.

“If they don’t have money for Shabbos dinner, we’ll go out on the street and beg for money,” said Rizy Horowitz, senior coordinator for Nachas Health and Family Network in New York City. “We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again.”

And while begging sounds extreme, the reality is that funding for these programs is expected to end in five years, when the East German unclaimed properties are all sold or restituted.

Claims Conference COO Schneider, however, is hoping that further funding will be available through an agreement with Poland on restitution of individual or private property. While Poland is the only former Soviet Union block country that has not helped Jews recover stolen private property, Schneider reported that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk promised an agreement by year’s end.

In the closing session, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at Los Angeles’ American Jewish University, validated the important responsibilities of social workers in attending to survivors’ intense and often critical needs as they reach the last stage in their lives, the only one ending naturally.

Those efforts include offering care and concern, giving them deep respect for both their personal and historical story and finding ways of bridging the loneliness and isolation that causes what Berenbaum called “death before dying.”

But those obligations clearly extend beyond the scope of committed and often overstretched social service professionals.

In a statement addressed to the larger Jewish community, Claims Conference COO Schneider said, “We judge our parents’ generation that they didn’t do enough. But our children will judge us by how we handle the last chapters, by how we help these people live the last years of their lives with some dignity.”

“That’s our responsibility,” he said.

New Shoah pension deal gives survivors ‘recognition of suffering’

For Aviva G., the significance of last week’s announcement that more Holocaust survivors like her will be eligible for pension payments from the German government was not about the money. It was about principle and the notion that a certain degree of justice may now be done.

Aviva, 71, says there is no true compensation for years in ghettos, but she sees the new deal as a “recognition of suffering.” Aviva asked that her family name be withheld.

After extensive negotiations with the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Germany eased some eligibility requirements so more low-income survivors like Aviva can receive so-called Article 2 pension payments.

The agreement, which adds $250 million to the pension fund over 10 years, may be one of the last and biggest breakthroughs in the area of reparations to survivors, according to the Claims Conference.

The deal affects survivors whose income levels made them ineligible for payments in the past. Until now, those with annual income above $16,000 were excluded from the payments.

Under the new deal, income received from other pension sources, including governmental pensions, disability payments, retirement plans and the like, or a spouse’s income, will not be counted toward the $16,000 total.

The change effectively enables thousands more low-income survivors to collect pension payments from Germany. The funds will be distributed starting Oct. 1 and continue for 10 years.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said in a telephone interview with JTA. “It will make a big difference for a lot of people worldwide.”

Taylor said it took “a long battle” and months of negotiations to reach the agreement.

The Claims Conference will be launching a major advertising campaign to reach those who might be eligible, he said. Information about how to apply is available at Claims Conference offices and on its Web site, www.claimscon.org. There is no deadline for applications, according to Taylor.

The decision to lower the bar for eligibility comes just as Germany has enacted a law granting pensions to victims of the German Communist regime. For these victims, too, pensions and income from spouses will not count against eligibility.

The Law for Support of Victims of the Socialist German Dictatorship, the third post-reunification law aimed at compensating victims of World War II, was enacted Aug. 29. Low-income applicants who were imprisoned under the Communist regime for at least six months may receive 250 euro per month.

The additional payments for Holocaust survivors will be from the Claims Conference Article 2 Fund pension program, which currently distributes pensions to 51,000 survivors. The new rules will lead to a 10 percent increase in those who qualify for payments, or about 6,000 people, the Claims Conference estimated.

Aviva might be among the younger ones. Born in 1938 in Boryslaw, then part of Poland, she was a small child when German troops wrested the region from Soviet control in the summer of 1941. Most of the town’s Jews were killed, but Aviva’s mother managed to hide her in the ghetto while most other children were deported.

“When my mother found out that all the women and children and nonworking old men would be deported, we left the ghetto and hid in the woods, and then in the home of a Ukrainian woman who had worked for us,” Aviva said.

Her brother, who later was killed, gave the woman money to hide them. For a while, Aviva and her mother lived in the space behind a wardrobe pushed against a corner.

The woman “slipped the food to us from below,” Aviva recalled. “I could not be loud. I could not laugh, cry or shout. And afterward, for months I could only whisper.”

They were liberated by Russian troops at the end of 1944.

Aviva met her husband, Juergen, an engineer, in Israel, and returned with him to his native Germany in 1958. They had two daughters and now have five grandchildren who live in Israel.

For decades, Aviva was a social worker for the Frankfurt Jewish community. She and her husband are retired.

She said she received a small reparations payment from Germany of 5,000 Deutschmark in the 1950s — that’s worth about $3,500 today — “but that is nothing for the fact that I basically lost my childhood.”

She applied for Article 2 payments in 2000 but was told her income was slightly over the limit.

“That disappointed me a lot,” she said. “Thank God, I am financially not so dependent. It is more a moral issue. This suffering I experienced as a child was never recognized.”

Proposal Advocates Shoah Forgiveness

Sam Oliner wants to help an estimated 200,000 Jewish survivors worldwide free themselves of their psychological bondage. The time, he believes, has come.

In the 1970s, several years into teaching Holocaust-related studies at Humboldt State University, Oliner, now 75, experienced his own dark night of the soul. A German student tearfully told him that she was dropping his course because she could no longer stand her guilt at what her ancestors had done.

Unwittingly, she helped move Oliner toward his own epiphany.

Had he, he wondered, unfairly pushed onto this woman his rage from when the Nazis murdered his family in Poland? Had he forgotten how Balwina Piecuch, a Catholic peasant, had taken him in, saving his life?

Through these memories, Oliner turned a personal corner to come up with an admittedly controversial proposal. It is time, he says, for Jews to collectively forgive the new generation of Germans for their parents’ atrocities.

No, Oliner is not advocating forgetting Nazi atrocities, which would be contrary to the spirit of the Holocaust Memorial. Rather, he wants to find ways to forgive the younger generation of Germans, who have acknowledged their nation’s collective responsibility and made bona fide reparations. This, he contends, would allow survivors to finally let go of a bitterness eating at their own souls.

Oliner’s personal turnabout resulted in studies, which still continue, at his Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt. From there, Oliner and his wife, Pearl, have interviewed more than 500 rescuers who risked everything to save others, while seeking no personal reward.

What, he wondered, makes these altruists, spanning from the Holocaust to Sept. 11, different from the rest of us? Are they happier, more at peace with themselves? And what can we learn from them?

Oliner was surprised that neither high self-esteem nor degree of religious observance correlated with altruistic behavior. Rather, rescuers tend to be exceptionally empathic, including fascists driven by visceral outrage at witnessed inhumanity, their private empathy overpowering their public ideology.

Rescuers also tend to have been raised in integrated neighborhoods and tend to identify less with their own ethnic group and more with humanity at large. Their families also usually stress reason over physical punishment in discipline, allowing for development of a more nuanced sense of right and wrong and lesser fear of authority.

They share strong social skills, allowing them to work well in networks. One Polish rescuer estimated that saving a single individual required an underground network of at least 10 others to feed, transport and house their charge.

Rescuers also share a strong moral sense, which enables them to lie, as needed, to authorities to safeguard their charges. Yet, they also valued family and truth. Rescuers, then, could see the grays and maintain a balance between when to tell the truth and when to shade it. And yes, rescuers also like themselves better and tend to be more successful at business.

After publishing his initial findings in “The Altruistic Personality” (Free Press, 1988), Oliner co-sponsored dozens of inter-group reconciliations, developing his model calling for victimizers to publicly acknowledge their wrongs and make restitution. The final part of his model calls for victims to grant collective forgiveness.

He recently helped lead an intergroup reconciliation in Humboldt County, where whites in 1860 slaughtered more than 100 Native Americans on Indian Island, off Eureka, in a land grab. At the reconciliation meeting, white civic leaders expressed remorse and, with money they had raised, deeded part of the island back to Indian descendants who, in turn, granted this new generation forgiveness. It wasn’t perfect. But it represented considerable progress.

Not everyone buys into Oliner’s model. His former mentor, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, calls it “ill timed and ill conceived. Only the brutalized people have the right to forgive. It’s wrong for others, even their children, to do so in their name.”

Instead of one people forgiving another, he said, each people should promote its own rescuers from within its own ranks, thereby modeling healthy behavior.

David Harris, executive director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee, which co-sponsored Oliner’s studies, endorses the model in principle. Still, he acknowledged, “It is impossible for some survivors to let go of their anger. And so, it is up to their children to look at a changed world with new eyes.”

Harris, whose father fled Berlin in 1933, reopened the committee’s Berlin offices eight years ago with his father’s blessing.

“I was convinced that Germany has made a good faith effort to face its past directly, and to indemnify those hurt,” he said.

Like Oliner, Harris sees the five-acre Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which opened last May just a stone’s throw from Hitler’s bunker, as another step in putting the past behind. Having turned their personal corners, each now sleeps better. This is the gift they would bestow upon their own people.

Joseph Hanania is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently writing, “The Baghdad Blues,” a memoir of growing up as a Jewish Iraqi American.


Oprah … Shoah … Shoah … Oprah

This is how naive I am: I never understood why Primo Levi killed himself. I’d long admired and devoured the works of the Italian chemist who wrote of his experiences surviving the Holocaust. When he committed suicide in 1987, at the age of 67, I couldn’t fathom it. Hadn’t he survived the worst? Hadn’t he transformed his suffering into art? Hadn’t the worst memories softened over time, the worst scars healed?

That’s the American way of grief: stuff happens, you get over it.

Maybe for some people, in some situations, that’s true. But the Holocaust is different, too, when it comes to memory. Its shadows darken and lengthen; its pain grows more, not less intense.

This may be the result of the process of recovering memory, something writers like Levi must feel compelled to do. When historian Iris Chang also took her life in 2004, at the age of 36, she left a note blaming her immersion in the horrid details of the Japanese occupation of China, which she chronicled in “The Rape of Nanking.”

But it’s not just a professional hazard. A study published in Israel in August found that elderly Holocaust survivors are “at an increased risk for a reactivation of the symptoms of trauma, depression and suicide.” The study of patients at a psychiatric hospital in Tel Aviv found nearly 25 percent of the Holocaust survivors studied attempted suicide compared to 8.2 percent among those with no World War II experience.

Or, as Elie Wiesel said at the news of Primo Levi’s death: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later.”

Just a month before Auschwitz Liberation Day, which takes place on Jan. 27, Oprah Winfrey selected “Night,” Wiesel’s own memoir of his internment in Auschwitz, as one of her Book Club books, guaranteeing that slim, searing volume a new audience of millions of people whose exposure to the Shoah might, until now, not extend beyond those clips of nominated documentaries they show during the Academy Awards. Boy, will that ever change.

I walked into Barnes and Noble on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade last Sunday afternoon and was confronted by a stack of “Night” a yard tall. And that’s the beginning: Oprah will accompany her Book Club selection with a televised visit to Auschwitz, guided by Wiesel, discussions on air with survivors and experts, plus additional readings and segments on the Holocaust.

Good for her, really. People are ascribing all sorts of nasty motives to Oprah for picking “Night,” such as the need to choose a real, factual memoir when her last pick turned out to be, at best, faction. Any way you can get the Holocaust and its lessons down the gullet of an anti-historical nation, good. Her challenge, I suppose, will be how she can she give her audience a taste and still leave them, as shows like hers must, with an ultimately uplifting, life-affirming and commercial-selling message. In an age and a format where every sorrow must have its silver lining, every tragedy its release, the Shoah is stubborn: there’s nothing therapeutic about confronting the Holocaust.

Last week I had dinner with Hannah Lessing, the woman in charge of the Austrian government’s reparation funds to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Lessing is vibrant, young, quick-witted (that means she laughed at my jokes) and articulate.

Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, who with his wife, Susan, hosted Lessing, began his toast to her by repeating an old, tongue-in-cheek aphorism: “It used to be said that Austrians are Germans who don’t apologize.” But thanks to a series of proactive measures by the Austrian government — beginning with a much-belated statement of apology to Shoah victims in 1991 and continuing on to this week’s much-belated decision to return priceless paintings to their rightful Jewish owners (see story on page 14) — that perception has changed.

And for that Weiss also credited Lessing, the Viennese-born granddaughter of survivors. For more than 10 years she has traveled the globe, meeting with Austrian Holocaust survivors, collecting and processing their claims, hearing their stories.

Lessing said that success takes its toll. She and her staff of more than 100, “almost all non-Jews,” undergo regular therapy. Generations removed from the horrors of those years, they often find themselves unable to shake the darkness to which they’ve been exposed.

In “The Truce,” Primo Levi wrote of a recurring dream, in which he wakes up to find that his normal life is but a dream, and the reality is he is still in Auschwitz.

“I am in the Lager once more,” he writes, “and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, Wstaw?ch.”

I’ve found the more I read about the Holocaust, the more survivors I speak with, the less I get it. This is what the Holocaust is for the rest of us: a journey into sadness, with no end, no meaning, no exit. Welcome, Oprah’s Book Club members. Hope you enjoy the show.

To link to more information on Hannah Lessing and the Austrian claims process, see this article at www.jewishjournal.com.

L.A. Visit Excites Shoah Survivors


For Israeli Shifra Fyne, 83, this week’s journey to Los Angeles will be her first time leaving Israel in 56 years, and her first trip ever on an airplane.
Yehuda Goldstein is making the same trip. He hopes to reconnect with John Gordon, an L.A. resident he met last year in Israel. They think they grew up in the same pre-World War II neighborhood in Budapest.
Avi Levie, originally from Slovakia, hopes to find his sister, Erna Muhlstein. They were separated after the war and he thinks she might be living in the United States.
Fyne, Goldstein and Levie are among 20 travelers coming to Los Angeles in association with Cafe Europa, an international social club for Holocaust survivors that started in Los Angeles with funding from Jewish Family Service and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Last year, a group from Los Angeles made its first voyage to Israel to meet with Cafe Europa members there. This year, a group from Israel is making the trip to Los Angeles, also for the first time.
Cafe Europa’s weekly meetings, held in a variety of settings, allow survivors to recapture the joy that was brutally taken from their youth. On a recent sunny Sunday in Tel Aviv, some 75 Cafe Europa members gathered at the elegant and spacious Golda and Yehuda Zucker Senior Citizens’ Day Center, with its outdoor fountain and garden that could have been drawn out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Participants included Helen Segev, a 76-year-old grandmother with red-tinted hair, who stepped outside the noise of the dance hall to recount what happened to her at age 14. Segev, the middle of three daughters, was grabbed by the Gestapo while her mother — powerless to help — hastily escaped with the rest of the family. She rolled up her sleeve, showing the number tattoo she received in the concentration camp.
“Most of the people here are survivors that had been hidden,” she said in English with a Flemish accent. “Most hadn’t survived the camps like me.”
The tattoo near her elbow has faded to a soft blue over the years, and the numbers have merged together.
Segev prefers to look forward, especially to the L.A. trip.
“I am beyond excitement,” she said.
“Varda!” she yelled, pointing to a woman across the courtyard, “She’s another one I convinced to go to L.A.”
Cafe Europa began in Los Angeles in 1986. The Tel Aviv club opened in 2001 to serve that city’s 30,000 Holocaust survivors. During its inaugural weeks, the Tel Aviv club scheduled lectures and various talks, but that didn’t last long, because the seniors preferred to dance, said Marilyn Fefer, projects coordinator for the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, which sponsors Cafe Europa.
For three and a half years, the Los Angeles and Tel Aviv clubs communicated face-to-face by videoconferencing. Then, last year, the L.A. group sent 14 survivors plus staff and lay people to meet with their Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv. There they toured Masada and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as part of their weeklong visit.
Not long after, the Israelis were asking when they could go to Los Angeles — even though the average age of the would-be travelers was 75. Group members are paying most of their expenses, although outside organizations are helping, just as they do with regular Cafe Europa events.
In Los Angeles, the visitors will be hosted at Jewish homes. Over their nine-day stay, they’ll meet with schoolchildren, tour museums and rekindle memories with their L.A. counterparts — as well as visit area attractions such as Universal Studios.
“Café Europa is about life,” says Susie Forer-Dehrey, associate executive director of Jewish Family Service, the agency that brought the two groups together. ”It allows survivors to learn from each other and gives them a comfortable place where they don’t have to explain the past. Everyone in the group understands.”
The two groups will commemorate Yom HaShoah, including a visit to the Holocaust memorial by artist Bernard Baruch Zakheim at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuaries. This year’s remembrance will mark 60 years since the Russian army entered the Auschwitz death camp and shut it down.
Those dark years contain dark memories for 75-year-old Channa Dercin. She resisted talking at first, preferring instead to listen to the singer at the mid-April Tel Aviv social. Dercin’s story was tough. One brother left to Lodz ghetto as a volunteer laborer for the Nazis, thinking that would save his family. He was never heard from again. Her father died in the ghetto of starvation — he gave his food rations to the children. All the remaining family members ended up in work or death camps or both. Dercin’s mother died just after liberation.
As for Dercin, she’d injured her knee while collecting logs in the forest near the Bergen-Belsen death camp. A Nazi SS officer saw her limping and threw her to the ground, knocking her unconsciousness. Some time later, two men picked her up and threw her into a wagon while on their rounds collecting the dead. She was dropped off among the dead and dying at an infirmary. There she met a local Polish woman who would later help reunite Dercin with her family members. One of Dercin’s brothers survived, but she never saw her four other siblings again.
Dercin had been willing to share her story, but she was more interested in watching the chicken dance and the kissing dance, in which a man held an unfolded napkin and waved it in the air. He then danced around several women and dropped the napkin in front of one woman. They both went down to their knees and kissed. Then, the woman took the napkin, and began dancing around the men.
Maybe these seniors haven’t found eternal youth, but for these survivors life is something to make the most of.
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First Steve, Then Bill


When those people at the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation put on a fundraiser, they don’t fool around.

After Sheryl Crow sang, the event’s host, Steven Spielberg, spoke. And after him, 20 minutes of stand-up by Robin Williams (“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Temple Beth Pravda…This evening’s meal will be milchidik, fleishadik, and sushidik.”) Then more comments from the evening’s emcee, Tom Cruise. And a keynote address by the evening’s Ambassador of Humanity honoree, President Bill Clinton.

A huge tent goes up on the Universal back lot — a grand structure featuring dozens of massive chandeliers suspended above 750 guests paying $1,500 per plate. The stars come out: John Travolta, Lance Armstrong, Sharon Stone, Scarlett Johansson. I’m not even bothering to mention the name-brand TV celebrities scattered around the room like less-potent fundraisers might use helium balloons.

Needless to say, the obligatory video presentation is of fairly high quality.

Spielberg used profits generated by his 1994 movie “Schindler’s List,” to establish the foundation. As its primary mission, it has collected nearly 52,000 videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. The foundation is now developing a state-of-the-art system to bring these testimonies and other learning tools to educational institutions worldwide.

All this costs a lot of money, and the obvious question is why Spielberg needs other people’s. Contribution implies ownership, a foundation officer told me, and the director wants the widest possible sense of communal responsibility for the foundation’s mission.

Fundraising, at least in our day and age, also implies dinner and entertainment. Yet there is always something discordant about award banquets on behalf of the shoah. Several years ago at a major Holocaust organization’s dinner, I watched tables full of survivors and rabbis go pale listening to Chris Rock, who was then a relatively unknown comedian.

Rock was a last-minute replacement for an ailing Garry Shandling. After his routine on jailhouse sex met with gasps, Rock stopped, looked out into the sea of shocked faces, and said, “I warned them. I don’t have a dinner act. This is my act.”

I know there are dinners on behalf of incurable diseases and even dinners to end world hunger — but even on this score the Holocaust is unique:

The joyous chatter of friends and colleagues dressed up and out together, interrupted by speeches about extermination;

People grabbing for appetizers and drinks as videos play newsreel footage of Auschwitz;

People who once were a crust away from starvation being served plates of seared salmon and roasted vegetables, groaning as if they’re being punished when the molten chocolate soufflés appear;

People being exposed to horrific tales of murder and survival, then stopping to complain when some free lipstick was missing from their swag bag;

People who just 60 years ago were begging for the world’s attention — now basking in it.

None of this is wrong, just interesting. How do you mesh something as evil and tragic as the Holocaust with something as banal as the rubber-chicken circuit? How do you honor memory and get them to the valet by 10 p.m.?

The Shoah Foundation somehow manages all this. This year I finally understood how: it’s not just about the Holocaust.

It’s about genocide.

Each banquet honors the memory of the witnesses and survivors by invoking whatever current tragedies challenge us not to repeat the same sins of omission. This year it was Clinton’s turn to remind us.

The former president recalled President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s refusal in 1939 to admit more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the German ship St. Louis. He called it “one of the darkest chapters in United States history.”

He then went on to acknowledge his own culpability for not responding to the genocide in Rwanda in a timely fashion.

“No one in my administration thought to call a meeting on it, and I never asked anyone to,” he said.

After he left office, Clinton went to Rwanda to ask forgiveness of the survivors, and to hear their stories. The 1994 genocide claimed an estimated 800,000 victims in a three-month period.

The Rwandan genocide led Clinton to speak about the Darfur province of Sudan. There, some 220,000 black Africans have been slaughtered in a campaign of ethic cleansing by government-backed Muslim militias. The death toll is estimated to rise by 10,000 per month — this month, next month, the month after. One day in the future, Clinton asked, will we have to go to Sudan and apologize for what we didn’t do, but could have done, now?

The president left the stage, but his point was clear. The 52,000 videotaped testimonies are not just a monument to Jewish suffering, but a call to Jewish conscience. If the Holocaust was truly unique, then we are uniquely obligated to speak out, to donate, to write our representatives, to act.

That way we can have our dinner, and enjoy it, too.

Learn more about the Shoah Foundation at www.vhf.org. Help stop the Sudanese genocide at www.savedarfur.org.


African Shoah Lives in ‘Hotel Rwanda’


When British actress Sophie Okonedo portrayed the wife of a hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 people during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, she worked with 10,000 extras — including Rwandan refugees living in Johannesburg. Some agreed to be in “Hotel Rwanda’s” harrowing scene showing Rwandan women naked, caged and cowering, waiting to be raped.

“Some of those women had been through that. You don’t quite think about your film in the same way,” said Okonedo, born in England to a Nigerian father and Jewish mother.

The two-hour, PG-13 film, which opened Wednesday in Los Angeles, tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan hotel manager who, in April 1994, sheltered 1,268 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus marked for death by Hutu extremists. The extremists were responsible for the machete murders of almost 1 million Rwandans, a slaughter that world leaders ignored.

A British-Italian-South African co-production, “Hotel Rwanda” earned a People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, plus three Golden Globe nominations. It was screened earlier this fall at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Financing for the film’s $20 million production budget came partly from Israel’s Bank Leumi, and one-third of the funds came from government financing in South Africa, where most of the film was shot.

As Rwanda’s genocide progressed, the United Nations and the Clinton administration downplayed the genocide, dismissing news reports of mass slaughter and delaying the dispatch of troops to stop it. Unlike the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide was broadcast worldwide, and “Hotel Rwanda” has re-ignited decade-old feelings of shame among European and U.S. film patrons over how their nations refused to intervene.

“We have seen this film before. It could have easily been Poland in 1940 with Jews,” said Rachel Jagoda, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust director who saw an advance screening of the film. “The faces, the ethnicities, the landscape change, but the story is the same.”

“The biggest difference, of course, is the rate at which the genocide occurred,” Jagoda said. “It took 12 years to murder 6 million Jews in Europe. It took 100 days to murder almost 1 million people in Rwanda.”

Okonedo agreed, saying, “It wouldn’t have taken very much to stop the genocide. These people were slaughtered with machetes.”

Character actor Don Cheadle plays Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu whose compassion turns the elegant, Belgian-owned Hotel des Milles Collines into a rare Tutsi haven. His performance earned him a Golden Globe best actor nomination, alongside nominations for best dramatic picture and original song.

“Hotel Rwanda” executive producer Hal Sadoff, whose great-grandparents fled Ukrainian anti-Semitism, worked on the film’s financing with fellow executive producer Martin Katz, a Jewish Canadian.

“It’s a topic that has not really been publicized in the U.S.; people are ready today to look at it,” said Sadoff, who also handled financing for “House of Sand and Fog.” “There are a lot of Holocaust scripts around. But this script — it was so well written and so commercial and although it was set within this horrible tragedy — it was really about human relationships.”

Known to independent film audiences for her role in 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things,” Okonedo’s prominent “Hotel Rwanda” part as Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, is key. Her simple desire to save her family gives filmgoers a way to comprehend the seemingly superhuman compassion of her otherwise ordinary husband.

“The biggest leap for me was to become a Rwandan housewife, because it was completely opposite my upbringing,” Okonedo told The Journal in a telephone interview.

The real Paul Rusesabagina fled Rwanda with his wife, three children and two nieces and resettled in Belgium, where he runs a trucking company and served as the film’s consultant.

Okonedo, who researched her role at the Berlin Holocaust Museum, said meeting the couple was “quite overwhelming at first, and it was quite frightening. He’s almost a kind of an accidental hero. These people were still living and getting on with their lives. It’s always extraordinary when you see survivors.”

Despite the horrific subject matter, the film’s singular focus is on Rusesabagina, an ordinary hotel manager, trying to protect his family and 1,200-plus people. Because of this emphasis, Okonedo finished the film with some hope.

“These people, Paul and Tatiana, they just kept going through all this mayhem, and they didn’t fall apart,” she said. “So many of the films at the moment are about superpeople, superlawyers, superdetectives and spies. I’m just quite interested in the ordinary Joe, and the ordinary often has extraordinary tales to tell.”


New Releases Keep Shoah an Open Book

“The secret of redemption is remembrance,” as a sign announces in Israel’s Yad Vashem, an institution dedicated to remembering the Holocaust. Books, too, are in service of memory, inspiring readers to think again and anew — and to fight forgetfulness. As Yom HaShoah approaches, the call to memory resounds.

Despite the many thousands of books on the subject, there’s still much about the Holocaust that hasn’t previously been written about and published. This season, there are important new works by scholars analyzing newly available material, journalists uncovering little-known episodes, artists with new interpretations, survivors telling their own stories for the first time and more.

In “Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust” (Yale, 2003) scholar Nechama Tec, who is herself a Holocaust survivor, tackles a topic that has been rarely discussed: the effects of gender on experience during the Holocaust. Through interviews conducted over a decade, she analyzes patterns of behavior in terms of women’s and men’s self-esteem and coping strategies.

“Even though the Germans were committed to sending all Jews to their deaths, for a variety of reasons women and men traveled toward that destination on distinct roads,” Tec writes. Recognizing that gender is a complex and sensitive issue, she looks at the issue from different vantage points and in various settings. She finds differences between how people reacted in the ghettos and concentration camps and those fighting in the forests, as well as social differences in each setting. She explains that those in the upper classes had “farther to fall” and seemed to have a harder time enduring constant humiliations.

Some anti-Jewish measures were gender specific. She shows how for many men, ruthless assaults led to the loss of their abilities to perform their roles as providers and protectors for their families, and also to their becoming demoralized and depressed. Many women, used to being in supportive roles, began to take on some of the traditional male roles with their families, as well as with people in the larger community.

The author of several award-winning books on the Holocaust and a professor at the University of Connecticut, Tec is a member of the Council of the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Holocaust: A History” by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt (Norton, 2003) is a remarkable work, a detailed and scholarly one-volume history that’s highly accessible for general readers. The authors, who previously collaborated on the award-winning “Auschwitz,” place the Holocaust in the context of European history and are mindful of the stories of individuals. Included are 75 illustrations and 16 original maps.

Dwork is the author of “Children With a Star” and a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University, where she is founding director of their Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Van Pelt, who was born in Holland, is professor of cultural history at the University of Waterloo and author of “The Case for Auschwitz.”

In his eighth book on a Holocaust theme, Sir Martin Gilbert presents inspiring stories of Christian and Muslim people — farmers, priests, soldiers, diplomats and other extraordinary “ordinary” people — in every occupied country, who risked all to save Jews from deportation and death. “The Righteous: The Unsung History of the Holocaust” (Henry Holt), draws on 25 years of research. In these true stories, “righteous acts testified to the survival of humane values and to the courage of those who save human life rather than allow it to be destroyed…. Six million Jews were murdered, but tens of thousands were saved.”

The author, a historian and the official biographer of Winston Churchill, is the author of eight books on Holocaust themes. This is the first to focus on altruism. Gilbert quotes Abraham Foxman, who was saved as a child by his nanny in Vilna, “Even in hell, even in that hell called the Holocaust, there was goodness, there was kindness, and there was love and compassion.”

“The Hidden Life of Otto Frank” by Carol Ann Lee (Morrow, 2003) is a penetrating, robust biography of the man turned into a legend by the publication of his daughter’s diary. The author breaks new ground in naming the man, a member of the Dutch Nazi party, who betrayed the Franks and their friends in 1944. The book was published to much acclaim and controversy when it was released in the Netherlands last year, and since then, Lee has gotten new information, included in the American edition. The English-born author, who previously wrote a biography of Anne Frank, lives in Amsterdam.

Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins bring to light the story of the largest maritime loss of civilian life during World War II, when the Struma, a ship filled with Jewish refugees with hopes to get to Palestine, exploded on the Black Sea, near Istanbul. About 800 people were killed in this little-known 1942 episode, including more than 100 children. One man survived; he is one of the sources in the compelling, well-written narrative, “Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II’s Holocaust at Sea” (Ecco). The authors piece together the facts, and also recount recent attempts to locate the Struma at the bottom of the sea, a search initiated by the grandson of two victims. An appendix lists the names and ages of the victims. Frantz is the former Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times, now investigations editor for the newspaper, and his wife, Collins, has covered Turkey for the Chicago Tribune.

In 1941, when 16-year old Lena Jedwab left her Bialystock home for summer camp in Russia, she expected to return in a few weeks. But that was not to be, and she was stranded, separated from her family, after Germany invaded the former Soviet Union. “Girl With Two Landscapes: The Wartime Diary of Lena Jedwab 1941-1945” (Holmes & Meier, 2002) is the diary she began keeping that summer in a children’s home, translated from the Yiddish by Solon Beinfeld, with an introduction by Jan T. Gross and a foreword by Irena Klepfisz. The book is a powerful document by a young woman of intelligence, enthusiasm and moral strength, with much to say about themes of home and exile, as well as daily life. The author, Lena Jedwab Rozenberg, now lives in Paris.

The title, “Here There Is No Why,” Rachel Chencinski Roth’s memoir (translated from the Polish, with a grant from Yad Vashem), is Dr. Joseph Mengele’s response to the author and millions of others. The book is the fulfillment of a promise the author made at Maidenek, when she told a young friend she would tell the world of the horrors they experienced. The daughter of a journalist, she writes of her teenage life in the Warsaw Ghetto, her participation in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and her transports, along with her aunt, to several concentration camps.

The themes of the Shoah are taken up artistically by Judith Weinshall Liberman, who has just published a collection of her work, “Holocaust Wall Hangings” (Schoen Books, 2002). The artist was born in then-Palestine in the ’30s, and aware — as much as a teenager might be — of the Holocaust as people close to her were losing loved ones. In 1947, she moved to the United States to pursue her education, earned four university degrees and chose to pursue her artwork after lecturing and writing about law. Since 1988, she has been creating art, mostly on fabric, with a Holocaust theme, and many of her works are exhibited in the United States and Israel. She uses color expressively, although in limited ways, and also employs embroidery and beading, and repeated imagery like boxcars and views of Anne Frank. Included are essays by art historians and curators and explanations of each color plate.

Newly available:
Back in print, after Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for literature are two of his novels, “Fateless,” his first and perhaps best-known novel about a Hungarian Jewish boy’s experiences in concentration camps and after the war, and “Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” the story of a Holocaust survivor taking stock of his life in middle age, both translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Hydra/Northwestern University Press).

Hollywood, History and the Holocaust

Two celebrations took place in Los Angeles recently, and "Max," a new film about the young Adolf Hitler, opens today.

In a peculiar way, all three events are related.

The first celebration seems straightforward enough — at least on the surface. Sara and Charles Levin, who preferred not to give their real names, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in November, along with their three children, their spouses, their grandchildren and about 40 friends.

The guests, aside from sharing their affection and pleasure at being together for the anniversary, were silent about a central fact: Sara Levin and her husband are survivors. When Sara was 13, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Dr. Josef Mengele stood at the receiving line scrutinizing each person; some he sent directly to the gas chambers, others to the work force.

It is a story whose details Levin sometimes shares with schoolchildren and other visitors to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, where she volunteers three days a week as a docent. But it is a story she has never told her three children. She came close years ago when her oldest son, then 10, was watching a television drama about the Holocaust. "That could have been your mother," she told him, pointing to the screen; she was horrified when he burst into tears.

She and her husband decided never to tell the children a word about those dark teenage years in Europe. Instead, she recounts it in a low, calm understated voice to strangers — keeping the memory alive of those who survived, as well as of those who perished.

The second celebration is also a personal story, but in quite a different vein. On Dec. 5, the Shoah Foundation and founder Steven Spielberg celebrated the foundation’s eighth anniversary with a grand dinner that raised more than $500,000.

Today, Spielberg is both Hollywood’s most influential director and one of the city’s leading Jewish figures. It is no exaggeration to say that his film, "Schindler’s List," had a tremendous impact on his own life. He used the profits to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 which videotapes and preserves the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

The foundation also produces documentaries — eight thus far, including the Oscar-winning "The Last Days" (1998).

Ironically, Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List," along with other American portrayals, has turned out to be the most effective educational narratives produced about the Holocaust — even though the U.S. relationship was a distant one, while the European connection was far more direct and involved. Nevertheless, such American films as "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," and the television miniseries, "Holocaust," have been far more influential and have made a much deeper impact, here and abroad, than any European film.

"There is a sense, and the reception of Spielberg’s film confirms this, in which one thing doesn’t have reality in this culture until Hollywood says it does," Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor, told a television interviewer.

Years ago, Elie Wiesel registered his objections to the American films about the Holocaust: The experience had been too horrific, and television and movies only led to banality. He denounced the television miniseries, "Holocaust," as soap opera, but then was shocked to discover that a New York Times poll (later declared inaccurate) had shown that 22 percent of American adults had doubts about the genocide. Better to establish the Holocaust as a cultural fact in the American landscape than worry about trivializing it, he concluded.

But now we have a new film, "Max," which presents us with a portrait of Adolf Hitler as a young German war veteran struggling to become an artist in 1918, befriended by a fictitious Jewish art dealer, named Max Rothman.

Historians have objected to the portrait as being sympathetic because it concentrates on Hitler’s personal anguish as a young rejected artist, and not on the destruction he left behind in Europe, or the genocide that followed from his commands. "Max" seems to explain his subsequent behavior and, in the process, comes to rationalize it. Others have complained that the film only serves to distort history and to trivialize the past.

The process of changing Nazi history in films and television actually began some time ago in films and television. From Chaplin’s "The Great Dictator" to "Hogan’s Heroes," from Ernst Lubitsch’s "To Be or Not to Be" to "The Grey Zone," World War II and the Holocaust have been told almost solely from the point of view of the victors and the victims.

Now the story is beginning to shift once again, in a way that is disturbing, but perhaps inevitable. Films like "Max," and the planned CBS miniseries on Hitler’s life, will examine the Holocaust from the point of view of the perpetrators. We, the consumers of mass culture, undoubtedly will have to learn to live with this fact.

The cultural reality of our lives is that we must learn to come to terms with Sara Levin and the Shoah Foundation’s eyewitness tapes, no less than the dramatic Hollywood fictions that inevitably fight to replace history itself.

Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.

Support Group Helps Second Generation

As the only child of two Holocaust survivors, Dr. Morry Waksberg was always under enormous pressure to succeed — to carry out the dreams that his parents never had the opportunity to realize.

"It made it hard to be a kid," Waksberg said. "How could I complain about some little adolescent thing when they had lost their families and been through so much?"

But when his childhood friend, also the son of survivors, hung himself at 14, Waksberg began to realize that he wasn’t the only one living a conflicted childhood. Other children of survivors shared a similar experience.

Some 41 years later, Waksberg has not forgotten his childhood friend, nor has he forgotten his past. He serves as vice president of Second Generation Los Angeles, an organization that aims to address the unique and often overlooked issues faced by the adult children of Holocaust survivors.

The organization, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which was stagnant for a little over a year, has recently been reestablished under the leadership of Waksberg and founder and current president Klara Firestone, daughter of Renee Firestone, one of five Hungarian survivors who appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 documentary, "The Last Days."

Second Generation Los Angeles is one of hundreds of organizations that supports children of survivors, but the only one of its kind in Los Angeles.

"Now that many children of survivors are 40 and 50 years old, the effects of their past are more manifest, and they’re now caring for their parents in many cases and not being cared for themselves," Waksberg told The Journal.

"They often aren’t married and don’t have relationships where they have a support system, and there isn’t even much sympathy for them, because they didn’t go through [the Holocaust]," said Waksberg, who himself never married. "I really wanted to help a group that I felt so close to."

Waksberg believes that children of survivors usually follow one of two paths in life: "Either they become very empathetic and go into the ‘helping fields,’ or they put up a wall and become very unfeeling to anyone’s pain, because they stopped themselves from feeling at an early age."

He chose the first option. Today he sits behind a desk stacked with medical charts in his ophthalmology office in Beverly Hills. He decided to become a doctor because of his childhood experience.

"Children of survivors were born into an environment where our parents were depressed and had gone through so much trauma and emotional upheaval," Waksberg said.

Waksberg was born in 1947 in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. His mother survived Auschwitz, and his father survived Dachau.

As a child, he said, his mother used to hold back tears as she lit the Shabbat candles, and his father often got lost in his own thoughts, becoming visibly angry. Waksberg only discovered when he was older that his father’s first wife and three sons were murdered in the Holocaust.

Waksberg said he was shocked when he found out, "but in my case and the case of most children of survivors, you couldn’t really be angry, because your parents were such victims of this horrible treatment, that you felt guilty being angry at them — and at the same time you had issues that created frustration or anger or disappointment."

"So you were always in a cognitive dissonance, struggling between the emotional reaction to what happened that you didn’t like and your empathy and love for your parents," Waksberg said. "You couldn’t even own your own emotions. So you learned to suppress emotions and kind of make the best of things and keep moving forward. It’s not a very healthy way to grow up."

Children of survivors often don’t seek help for the issues that they face as adults, and as a result, there is very little scientific study on the subject. Of the little information that does exist, much of the research comes from Rachel Yehuda, founder and director of the Specialized Treatment Program for Holocaust Survivors and Their Families at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"Adult children seem to have a greater prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder," Yehuda reported in a study.

With a recent grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Yehuda hopes to study the physical and emotional health of the second generation.

"Our goal is to study why some children feel relatively unscarred, while other offspring complain about depression and anxiety and often experience post-traumatic stress disorder," she said.

However, Yehuda has encountered great difficulty finding people to participate in the research. "There is this pervasive feeling in society that research is exploitative, but it is the only chance we have in being able to help people in the short and long run," she said.

Waksberg said Second Generation provides a much-needed service, judging from the volume of e-mails, faxes and phone calls he receives from children of survivors, who are looking for help. Currently the organization has approximately 200 members and nearly 1,000 names on its mailing list.

"Every day, I meet people who either have friends who are children of survivors or are themselves, and didn’t know that there was someplace to go," Waksberg said. He does not believe that traditional psychologists and social workers understand the dynamics of second generation.

Second Generation Los Angeles gives the children of survivors a place to go, he added. "Our goals are to make the lives of children of survivors better and to make sure that the message of the Holocaust has communicators."

In an effort to further both causes, Second Generation offers a wide range of activities, including Project Remembrance, an oral video testimony project documenting family histories; an ongoing psycho-social support group and dialogue with the German community; an annual citywide Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event, and an educational outreach program for primary and secondary schools affiliated with the Martyrs’ Memorial Museum of the Holocaust.

Past speakers have included Leopold Page, the man who brought the story of Oscar Schindler to Spielberg, and Douglas Greenberg, chairman and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.

Perhaps most beneficial is the social outlet that the organization offers the children of survivors. "A lot of people don’t want to face the pain and they want to have fun," Waksberg said. "We do our missions and have fun and develop relationships — there’s a sense of family. A lot of survivors don’t have much family. We’re very much there for each other, and we offer activities people look forward to."

Q & A With Steven Spielberg

Prior to the Shoah Foundation’s annual banquet on Dec. 5, Contributing Editor Tom Tugend conducted an e-mail interview with its founder, director Steven Spielberg.

Tom Tugend: Why have there been so many Holocaust-themed books and films in recent years?

Steven Spielberg: I think with the passing of time, and with current world events, survivors of the Holocaust are compelled to share their stories. Racism and terror are not isolated to World War II Europe, and atrocities continue to occur around the globe.

I think Americans came to realize this on a much more personal level after Sept. 11. I remember many people saying, "Why would they do this to us?" The Jews said the same thing back in the 1940s.

I hope that each book and film about the Holocaust brings us closer to understanding why such horrific events continue to take place, and how to prevent them in the future.

TT: Do you feel the success of "Schindler’s List" helped pave the way for these projects?

SS: "Schindler’s List" introduced the Holocaust to a new generation of filmgoers, and for this I am grateful. I’m delighted that films, as well as television miniseries, can continue to examine this part of history. There has also been a string of independent films produced in Europe about the Holocaust, and these films have also been well received throughout Europe, as well as in the U.S.

TT: Is there a danger that too many such films will cause people to become uninterested in the subject?

SS: Every time these films are shown, they reach a whole new audience — children, teens and adults. They encourage young viewers to ask questions, and this leads to dialogue.

There is a term called "Holocaust fatigue," which is slightly offensive, but I understand it. Most of us don’t want to hear about things that are disturbing and upsetting. On the other hand, the stories of survivors are hopeful stories … of people triumphing over oppression and racism and rebuilding their lives.

TT: What are you proudest of vis-à-vis the Shoah Foundation?

SS: I had no idea the Shoah Foundation would evolve into such an amazing global organization. We have collected almost 52,000 eyewitness testimonies around the world, and I am inspired by the courage these individuals have shown by sitting in front of a camera and reliving these events. To have this archive is, indeed, a gift to all of us.

And, I have seen students watch testimonies and become transformed by the experience. This is very rewarding. To affect one person at a time. To change a life in even the smallest way, so that they might stop and consider the consequences of their actions or choices. This is why the Shoah Foundation exists.

I want the Shoah Foundation to make a difference in the world. I want to someday look back and be able to say, "The survivors came from the ashes to change the world."

At the foundation, we continue to index the testimonies so that they will be available for research, and we are currently disseminating the archive in a variety of ways: through collections in museums and other institutions and through educational products, such as documentaries and educational CD-ROMs.

It is vital the testimonies be returned to the countries and communities from which they came, and we are establishing partnerships with institutions across the globe to do this. Our President and CEO, Douglas Greenberg, has just returned from Australia, where he met with potential partners and supporters to help bring the Australian collection to that community.

TT: Are you concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in places like Eastern Europe and in the Arab world? Do you feel this means people have not learned from the example of the Holocaust?

SS: Everyone should be concerned about anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred throughout the world. That’s why the mission of the Shoah Foundation is to work toward understanding among all people, so that hatred and bigotry can be diminished.

TT: Is the Shoah Foundation planning to do anything to reach out to people in the Arab world?

SS: The Shoah Foundation’s mission is to bring its message of tolerance to underserved populations throughout the world. We are currently focusing on communities throughout Europe and parts of the United States, and this is a mammoth task to undertake. While there are no current plans, I’m sure there will come a time when the foundation will reach out to the Arab world.

TT: Do you have any plans to revisit the Holocaust in a future feature film project?

SS: I think the global educational work of the Shoah Foundation is the most effective way I can reach an audience about the history of the Holocaust and the consequences of hatred and violence.

"Schindler’s List," while based on facts and historical incidents, is a feature film with actors and sets. There is nothing more powerful than watching a survivor look the camera — and you — in the eye and recall the personal events that occurred in his or her life.

TT: What is the Jewish content of your life today?

SS: We observe the High Holidays and the prime holidays throughout the year. My wife, Kate [Capshaw], bakes challah for the Sabbath, which is something the whole family observes to honor our tradition.

Last year, one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life was my son Theo’s bar mitzvah. Kate and I and our family are looking forward to other joyous celebrations.

TT: Have Jews in Hollywood been outspoken enough in support of Israel at this time? If not, please explain your theories as to why they have not been outspoken enough. How do you personally feel about the situation in Israel?

SS: We know there is a crisis that has been devastating to innocent victims, but it would be inappropriate for me to make a generalization about the Jews of Hollywood.

‘Living’ in Chitown

From my seat on the stage of the ornate Grand Ballroom at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, I look out from behind a beautiful bouquet of purple and red flowers at the assembling audience of nearly 1,000 people. I study the faces of Shoah survivors, sitting with their sons, daughters and grandchildren.

As I wait for the opening ceremony to begin, I think back to my awakening identity as a daughter of survivors. I grew from a carefree child to a person with a mission. I spent the next 25 years reaching out to other descendants, encouraging them to acknowledge the gifts, not only the burdens, of growing up with survivors.

Two and a half years earlier, Michael Zolno, president of a descendants group in Chicago, telephoned me with a vision: a family-focused, multigenerational gathering — descendants joined by their children and parents. The conference would emphasize small-group discussions, rather than large impersonal lectures. Soon, he said, the opportunity for three generations — survivors, their children and grandchildren — to meet, would pass. Could we make it happen? I immediately agreed to try. Descendants of the Shoah, a global organization I had co-founded, would be a sponsor. Chicago 2002: Living the Legacy sprang to life, and the journey that led me to this stage began.

From my position near the podium, I hear babies babbling amid the soft hum of chattering adults. The fourth generation is here. The program opens. Lisa Lipkin, a storyteller from New York, breaks my reverie with lighthearted comments about growing up with a survivor mother and American father — just like me. She is followed by an inspiring performance of “Will of a Thousand Men,” a piece written by Charlie Lustman, the owner of the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood, for his survivor father. Gazing out, I see that his heartfelt song has touched each person in the room. I am moved by the realization that survivors, their children — and especially their grandchildren — are sharing the intensity of this moment together.

My thoughts turn to my speech. My job is to close this program and send everyone off with a positive understanding about why we are here — to welcome the third generation as our partners in carrying on our legacy.

I hear my name and step up to the podium. “The good news is that I am the last speaker. But before I send you off, I want to take a minute to talk to you about the three generations who are here.”

My eyes come to rest on my two tall, handsome teenage sons, Michael and Ethan, sitting together. As I speak, my heart is filled with joy. They are here, third-generation participants in this incredible gathering, witnessing for the first time what I love to do best.

The next three days are a blur of sessions, workshops, meeting old friends, making new ones. In a packed room, survivors’ sons and grandsons share experiences in “Standing on the Shoulders of the Men Who Came Before Us.” Mother-daughter teams stay behind after the conclusion of a session on their relationships, engaged in first time ever, meaningful conversations. Three generations participate in storytelling together. A feeling of satisfaction washes over me as I see the dynamic interaction among people of different ages.

At the last minute, I agreed to co-facilitate a multigenerational workshop on intermarriage. Entering the room, I am shocked to see all of the seats filled. What was planned to be a small group had expanded to 40 people, mostly second and third generation with a few survivors. One young woman states that her second-generation mother is living her unfilled life through her. I am immediately taken back 20 years when I said the same thing about my mother. It’s devastating to think that our children have experienced the same mishegoss with us as we did with our parents.

Throughout the conference, I sit among activists discussing creation of a structure for Descendants of the Shoah as an international congress. My excitement grows with this new energy for addressing our goals of mobilizing descendants worldwide, promoting Jewish continuity, and acting on threats to Jewish survival — carrying on our heritage.

On the morning of the third day, it is time to pass on the legacy. Rabbi Holly Cohen, the granddaughter of survivors, calls all grandchildren to the stage to read the descendants legacy pledge. More than 20 young people ages 8-32, fill the stage. Together they recite, “I am proud of the strength and courage of my ancestors. I am a descendant of the Shoah. I am here to remember and continue the legacy.” Tears flow as we realize that our legacy is being brought forward into the future.

Darlene Basch co-founded Descendants of the Shoah in 1997. For more information, visit

A Shoah Story: The Aftermath

The most unusual pair of lovers of this last century are my wife’s parents, Mirek and Blanka Friedman. They met, courted and pledged themselves to each other in a Nazi camp: Dachau 3 b, also known as Muhldorf.

Dachau-Muhldorf was perhaps the only camp in Germany where men and women were not strictly segregated at work — the Nazis were building a jet attack plane there which they hoped would “turn the war around.” Men and women had to work together, but under penalty of death if they made personal contact. At the time, the heroes were budding young — she was 19, he 24. Not even death could discourage their romance. Their story is filled with the most incredible gentleness, depth of feeling, and romanticism mixed with constant danger. The young lovers exchanged notes written on paper torn from cement stacks. Blanka gave Mirek a pair of mittens she knitted from yarn pilfered from the camp’s effects room, and he brought her a flower one night — an artificial flower he stole from the Munich radio station where he was loaned out from the camp to work as an electrician.

There is a “Romeo and Juliet” twist to this love story: Mirek, a member of the Czech underground, had fake papers, and was deported not as a Jew but as an enemy of the Reich. For fear that their liaison might be discovered and Blanka might be tortured, Mirek did not tell her his secret until they reunited after the war — he escaped from camp one month before the collapse of Germany, while Blanka and other Muhldorf prisoners were liberated by the U.S. 99th Infantry Division in April 1945.

“I thought Mirek wasn’t Jewish, which mattered a lot, for I was raised in a very religious family — and yet it mattered not at all,” Blanka said.

Paradoxically, their daughter, Iris, married a man of different faith, me; thus, the “Romeo and Juliet” theme seems to continue from one generation to another. We raise our kids Jewish to honor the lost blood; but the truth is, deep at the core, just as in Mirek and Blanka’s story, we were never different.

After exactly 18 years of knowing them, Blanka and Mirek allowed me to tell their story in the form of a book. I just finished writing it — “The Oasis.”

That oasis was their love, of course, in the parched desert of the camp. I feel so grateful, almost chosen by fate to be the writer of such a story, meant for everyone. Love equalizes people, if it is real love; its tests of mutual understanding and trust can be as challenging in peace as they are in war.

‘Last Days’ of Innocence

“There was no magic to our survival. It was sheer, pure, unadulterated luck, for men and women infinitely more worthy perished,” Congressman Tom Lantos said at an advance screening of “The Last Days.” “Life is unfair, and there is no more dramatic example than the lottery of death we call the Holocaust.”

The “lottery” favored Lantos and four other Hungarian Jews, who relive their intensely personal stories of survival, and ultimate regeneration in America, in the wrenching film.

Presented as the first feature documentary by Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, “The Last Days” premières tonight in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, before opening in cities across the United States in subsequent weeks.

The film’s title refers to the final phase of World War II, when Germany had clearly lost the war on the battlefield. Instead of husbanding every resource and man for the defense of his shrinking Reich, Hitler redoubled his efforts to complete the extermination campaign of European Jewry. Hungary’s Jewish community, the last one still intact in occupied Europe, was his final major target. As an Axis ally, Hungary had more or less managed to protect its 825,000 Jews, until German troops marched in on March 19, 1944.

Racing the clock against advancing Soviet forces, Adolf Eichmann and his cohorts deported, within three months, 440,000 Jews to Auschwitz, where almost all perished. Ultimately, 565,000 Hungarian Jews did not survive the Holocaust.

Among those who did survive are five men and women whose testimonies were collected by the Shoah Foundation, alongside the video records of 50,000 other surviving Nazi victims.

Charting a

The Holocaust has been the professional focus of Dr. Michael Berenbaum’s life for 30 of his 51 years — as student, teacher, scholar, author, journalist and administrator.

To survive, mentally and emotionally, he has learned one lesson: “The only way to deal with death is to be immersed in life.”

For the last six months, he has been immersed in learning and shaping his new job as president and chief executive officer of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

The foundation was established three years ago by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, following his life-changing experience in directing “Schindler’s List,” to videotape eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and to create the largest multimedia archive of survivor testimonies ever assembled.

The foundation’s accomplishments so far are impressive: Close to 32,000 interviews, each averaging two hours (but some last up to five hours), have been completed in 29 languages and 44 countries. Some 400 new interviews are being added each week.

Yet the massive project is falling short of its proclaimed goal — the completion of 50,000 interviews by the end of this year.

Berenbaum accepts responsibility for the shortfall, ascribing it to changes in interviewing techniques that he has initiated and to pushing beyond the boundaries set originally.

“We have retrained our interviewers,” says Berenbaum, who cites one example in which a slight change in approach can yield surprising results.

“We are currently interviewing people in their 60s, who were children during the Holocaust,” he says. “In talking to one woman, we might have asked, ‘What was your family life like before the war, when you were a 7-year-old girl?’ We would have gotten an answer, but it would have been from the perspective of a mature adult looking back on her childhood.”

Instead, the interviewer shifted the perspective by requesting: “Take me around the family table during a Shabbat dinner. Where did your father sit? Where did your mother sit?”

Suddenly, Berenbaum recalls, the woman’s face took on the radiance of Shabbat; she started sounding like a 7-year-old as she relived the actual setting and experience.

The foundation is also seeking out interviews among survivor groups that, until now, have been reluctant to participate, such as fervently Orthodox Jews and those in some surprising new areas.

“For instance, in the Belzec extermination camp in Poland, 600,000 Jews were killed within 10 months by a staff of 42 Germans and 102 Ukrainians,” says Berenbaum. “There were only five survivors of Belzec, and they are all dead. The only witnesses left are the Polish laborers who worked in the camp. I was in Poland last month to arrange for interviews with them.”

Two weeks later, Berenbaum was in New York, trying to make some inroads among Orthodox communities that have been resistant to all approaches.

“They are deeply suspicious,” says Berenbaum. “They don’t know who Spielberg is; they distrust Hollywood.”

Berenbaum managed to persuade one of the “great Chassidic masters” to talk to him, and their first session lasted more than five hours.

“The most painful thing for him to talk about was the first time he had to violate the Shabbat by being on a train taking him to Auschwitz,” says Berenbaum. “But he also spoke with great warmth about a Reform Jew, a Hungarian and fellow inmate, who managed to make potato soup for him each day so that he could keep kosher.”

In what he calls his “expansion category,” Berenbaum is also turning to other groups of Holocaust victims, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, and German male homosexuals.

“Through these witnesses, we can learn what was singular to the Jewish experience and what we shared in common with others,” he says.

Given the more intensive internal and external outreach, Berenbaum’s staff of more than 200, modestly housed in converted trailers on the Universal Studios lot, expects to have 42,000 interviews completed by the end of this year, with the remaining 8,000 scheduled for 1998.

What will happen next will be decided by the foundation’s board of directors this fall. “I think there will be a temptation to keep the interviews going until we have reached the last living survivor, but that decision will also depend on funding and other factors,” says Berenbaum.

Even should the interviews stop in 1998, digitizing and cataloging them through a highly sophisticated computer operation will take another three to five years, Berenbaum estimates.

In the meantime, he is planning projects and throwing out ideas as if there were no tomorrow.

“You have to realize, we are pioneering another way of doing history, a people’s history; we may change the way of teaching the Holocaust, all the while pushing the envelope of computer technology,” he says. “We are keeping our options open — our possibilities are unbelievable.”

Berenbaum was a central figure in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and he drew a comparison between his previous and present workplaces.

“A museum is a place to which you bring people,” he says. “Here, our task is to bring experience to people. We are a placeless place.”

Among the realities and possibilities on Berenbaum’s full plate are:

* Speed up the process by which much of the present material can be transmitted to five designated repositories in Israel and the United States (including the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles), starting between this fall and early next spring.

* Develop a video oral-history companion to a high school text on the Holocaust so that students can read, see and hear the material at the same time.

* Link up with other interested groups — such as survivors of major disasters or grave diseases — to share experiences with those in similar situations. Another category might be Israel’s surviving founders or veterans of Israeli wars.

* Create a documentary, following the earlier award-winning “Survivors of the Holocaust,” that will focus on the last year of the war. Included will be the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, the death marches, and the Nazis’ race to win their war against the Jews before losing to the Allies.

* Develop separate teaching curricula on the Holocaust for public schools, Catholic parochial schools, and fervently Orthodox yeshivas.

In the latter, says Berenbaum, “we would seek to reinforce their values, such as self-sacrifice, but also stress the love of Jews for each other. An example might be the mutual friendship and respect of the Chassidic master and the Reform Jew in Auschwitz.”

Thanks to the polyglot spread of the foundation’s interviews, the same material can be adapted to any number of languages.

After raising $45 million, the foundation is now launching a $50 million fund drive.

“To reach the goal, we have two enormous assets and one enormous liability,” says Berenbaum. “The first asset is the path-breaking nature of our work, and the second is the name and standing of Steven Spielberg. Our liability is also Spielberg, with people asking why they need to contribute if he is around.”

Berenbaum’s answer is that the Shoah Foundation must have broad-based support to retain its credibility. (All of Spielberg’s personal profits from “Schindler’s List” are going to another project he established — the Righteous Persons Foundation.)

However, Spielberg has put his private resources, as well as a great deal of time and energy, into the Shoah Foundation.

“This year, Steven is busy with three feature films,” says Berenbaum. “Next year, he has promised to dedicate his time to his family and the Shoah Foundation.”

Berenbaum alluded earlier to the strains of a Holocaust-centered life. One escape is through his writing, which has already yielded 12 books and an earlier stint as editor of the Washington Jewish Week’s opinion page.

Although most of his past output has been on Holocaust themes, he is now deliberately turning to other topics. One of his current works in progress is on theology. A second reflects his persona as a rabid baseball fan who has never forgiven the Dodgers for deserting his native Brooklyn. The title of the upcoming book is “Who Rules New York — Willie, Mickey or the Duke?”

A lifelong resident of the East Coast, Berenbaum has been pleasantly surprised by Los Angeles, both professionally, at the foundation, and personally.

Before taking his present job, he had heard occasional criticism questioning whether the foundation’s interviewers had sufficient scholarly and psychological depth to handle their sensitive tasks effectively.

“I have been deeply impressed by the staff, by the interview system in place, and by the emphasis on quality controls and feedback,” he says.

On the personal level, he says that he finds Los Angeles “a very pleasant and genuinely nice place, with a wonderful climate. I haven’t had to put up the top of my convertible since coming out.”

He is delighted, curiously, by the widespread valet-parking services. “In Washington, I took cabs 10 times a week because you couldn’t find a parking place and nobody to take over the car and park it for you,” Berenbaum says.

On the state of Judaism in his adopted city, he praises it as “alive, vibrant and diverse.”

His wife, Melissa Patack Berenbaum, formerly chief counsel to the chair of the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, has just started a new job here as vice president and general manager of a motion picture association.

Daughter Ilana, now working for the American Jewish Committee in Washington, will come out next fall to enroll as a rabbinical student at the University of Judaism.

Only son Lev will remain at his post in Washington as a student at Georgetown University.