Exposing the anguish of making ‘Shoah’


Halfway through the 12 years Claude Lanzmann worked on his epic documentary “Shoah,” he decided to take a brief break by taking a swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

As the Israeli coastline receded from view, his arms became very tired, and he realized he couldn’t make it back. Just as he reconciled himself to drowning, a stronger swimmer came to his aid and helped the filmmaker back to shore.

“I wasn’t happy I was saved,” Lanzmann recalled, because that meant he would have to continue the Herculean task he’d undertaken of shooting some 215 hours of film, then editing the footage to the 9 1/2 that make up the final version of “Shoah.”

This brush with death represents one of the filmmaker’s more dramatic recollections in the 40-minute film “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” which is up for an Academy Award in the documentary (short subject) category at the ceremony on Feb. 28.

Lanzmann set out on his long trek in 1973, when he was challenged by a high Israeli government official to make a documentary “not about the Shoah, but that is the Shoah.”

To come to grips with the enormity of this request, Lanzmann walked for an entire night through the streets of his native Paris, then decided to accept the challenge.

After seven years of interviewing and filming, Lanzmann devoted another five years to editing the enormous mass of footage, but even after he decided “Shoah” was ready for screening, he felt little sense of relief.

“Making the film was total war against everything and everybody,” Lanzmann recalls in “Spectres of the Shoah.”

“I was proud of what I had achieved, but it didn’t relieve me of my anguish. … I was left with a sense of bereavement, and it took me a long time to recover.”

Given his state of mind, Lanzmann had no desire to participate in a biographical documentary, especially because the most persistent requests came from a young journalist with no experience as a film producer or director.

That man was Toronto-based journalist Adam Benzine, now 33, a writer mainly about films and music. 

In 2010, Benzine saw “Shoah” for the first time and was blown away. As he began to look into Lanzmann’s background and the making of “Shoah,” he was amazed to discover that no one had tried to make a documentary film about the man and his historic achievement.

Over the next two years, Benzine petitioned Lanzmann intermittently, and unsuccessfully, for an interview, while continuing to research the filmmaker’s life and work.

Finally, in 2013, Lanzmann relented after Benzine produced a letter from the BBC, indicating the British broadcaster’s interest in rebroadcasting “Shoah,” together with the proposed documentary by Benzine.

In July 2013, the two men met for the first interview and, Benzine said in a phone interview, the first question Lanzmann asked him was, “Are you Jewish?”

No, Benzine responded, and explained that his British mother and Algerian father had met while students at England’s Essex University. The paternal lineage turned out to be a plus, because in the 1950s, Lanzmann had been an outspoken advocate of Algerian independence from France.

Lanzmann, now 90, fought, at 17, in the French resistance against the Nazis, as did his father.

“Spectres of the Shoah,” with Benzine as producer, director, writer and fundraiser, is studded with dramatic moments, but two stand out in particular.

In one segment — an outtake from “Shoah” — Lanzmann recalls hearing of a Jewish barber whose job in Treblinka was to cut the hair of women going into the gas chambers.

After some effort, Lanzmann tracked down the man, Abraham Bomba, and persuaded him to be interviewed at work in a New York barbershop. While snipping at a customer’s hair, Bomba first talks of his Treblinka assignment in a cold, neutral voice.

Finally, Lanzmann asks Bomba, “What were your feelings while you were doing this work?” Bomba bites his lips but refuses to answer, until Lanzmann finally tells him, “We have to do this.”

Another dramatic scene evolved through Lanzmann’s insistence on interviewing some of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He knocks on the door of former SS officer Heinz Schubert and gains entrance by representing himself as a member of an organization making a film on the achievements of the Wehrmacht during World War II.

Schubert agrees, and while Lanzmann interviews him, an assistant films the scene surreptitiously through a hidden camera, shooting through a hole in her carrying bag and transmitting the footage to confederates in a truck parked outside.

However, Schubert’s wife becomes suspicious, and two husky Nazis enter the room. The upshot is a beating that hospitalized Lanzmann for one month.

Benzine was able to review more than 200 hours of film shot by Lanzmann that didn’t make it into the final cut of “Shoah,” which are now preserved at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Also intriguing are scenes featuring Lanzmann with two close French friends and supporters, existentialist philosophers and writers Simone de Beauvoir, who lived with Lanzmann for a considerable time, and her other longtime paramour, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Benzine hopes his documentary will lead not only to an Oscar, but also to a revival of Lanzmann’s original nine-plus hourslong “Shoah,” with the two films shown in tandem. Swedish television has already done so, and the BBC and Israel’s Channel 1 may do likewise.

For American viewers, HBO will air the 40-minute documentary May 2

Holocaust lessons brought live to classrooms


“When you see injustice, stand up.” 

That’s the message Paula Lebovics wants her audiences to remember. On May 13, the 81-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp shared her story in person with three young students at USC, but their discussion went much further — it was streamed live to 4,000 middle and high school classrooms worldwide, with students and teachers posing questions on Twitter using the hashtag #PastIsPresent.

The hashtag refers to the title of the event, “Auschwitz: The Past Is Present.” Hosted by Hall Davidson of Discovery Education, the program included Lucia Wiedeman, 15, a freshman at El Segundo High School; Anna Hackel, 15, a freshman at Polytechnic School in Pasadena; and Gabe Hackel, 11, a sixth-grader at Polytechnic. The three students had traveled to Poland in January as part of a group of 25 teachers and 10 students. Also on the panel were Arkansas teacher Karen Wells and Kori Street, USC Shoah Foundation’s director of education.

The program was designed to introduce students who have never met a Holocaust survivor to do so virtually, and to see themselves in the stories being told. Lebovics was an 11-year-old inmate at Auschwitz when the camp was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945. She lost her father and sister at the camp, and vividly remembers the cold January day when the Soviets marched into the abandoned complex, with only traumatized children remaining. 

“They have to know,” Lebovics said of today’s youth, “because our generation is on its way out. The next generation won’t have any more survivors taking them anywhere or telling them their stories. And they have to know, so maybe by them knowing, they can help the world to maybe eradicate those kind of crimes that took place.”

Co-sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education, the program also took students on virtual tours of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto. It is part of Discovery Ed’s Virtual Field Trip series, which in the past has included online visits to an egg farm in Illinois and a NASA space research laboratory in Maryland.

“Auschwitz: The Past Is Present” also included footage from the commemoration ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, held Jan. 27 at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Some of the older students in the group were allowed to attend because of the graphic nature of the atrocities. For Gabe Hackel, seeing even a few images from Auschwitz was frightening.

“It was intense. I know that was only just a glimpse of it, but I was still terrified of it, and I couldn’t imagine what it would actually be like for the actual people,” he said. 

Gabe said his most memorable stop on the Poland trip was the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, where he saw that many gravestones are now crooked or falling over, and realized it’s because the people who would have cared for the graves were killed in the Holocaust. 

“Standing in the cold, it kind of transported me back in time, and I still couldn’t imagine the terror they must have gone through in the Holocaust,” he said. 

When Lebovics and the students visited the recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, they found an image of her at Auschwitz — a gaunt 11-year-old girl standing in a group of identically dressed children; the photograph was taken a few days after the camp was liberated.

Lucia Wiedeman said she felt a “gravitational pull” toward Lebovics as she watched her testimony, and agreed that visiting Auschwitz with her had added an entirely new dimension to their trip.

“It’s a whole different feeling when you know someone is with you and you know someone, and then just going there and not knowing anyone,” Lucia said. “It’s as if you were at a funeral, and you don’t know the person, and it’s still saddening. And when you know the person who died, then it demonstrates a whole different type of emotion.”

Anna Hackel added that she was especially moved to hear Lebovics describe the big family dinners she’d had before the Holocaust, when she would sing at the top of her lungs to compete with a younger brother for their family’s attention. Anna said she could relate, because her own younger brother, Gabe, is also very energetic.

“Before I met Paula, I got a chance to listen to her testimony on iWitness [the USC Shoah Foundation’s online video testimonials], and being able to put a face to a Holocaust survivor made everything so much more real than the facts that were just taught in school,” Anna said.

Speaking with survivors or listening to their testimonies online helps make the stories of the Holocaust come to life, the Shoah Foundation’s Street said.

“The interaction with a survivor helps students develop their curiosity, their questions, their dialogue capacities, but it also makes history human. It gives it a human face,” Street said. “And what we find is, whether it’s a connection with a survivor in person or a survivor on the screen through iWitness, we’re getting very similar results in terms of their developing respect, critical thinking and empathy.”

Among the questions sent in by students and teachers, some wanted to know how Wells would teach the Holocaust differently after the trip to Poland. Wells responded that she would teach students about their responsibility in a global society and incorporate more survivors’ testimonies into her lessons. She recalled telling Lebovics that she didn’t understand what she had gone through, and Lebovics responded that she didn’t have to, and that her responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students know to speak out against injustice. 

“Their responsibility is to stand up, because with knowing comes responsibility,” Wells said.

One middle-school teacher wrote in to ask about how the Holocaust compares to what’s happening today with the Middle East and the terror group ISIS. Street cautioned against comparing historic events to “things that are present, that are unfolding as we go.”

But, she said, one parallel between the Nazis and ISIS is their reimagining of ancient texts, religion and history to justify murder. Another is the use of hate to galvanize and scare their followers.

“When I listen to the testimonies at the USC Shoah Foundation, people like Paula remind me that hate isn’t something we should be cultivating,” Street said. 

Davidson gave Lebovics the final word in the broadcast, and her parting message to her international audience was: “Silence is not an option.”

The entire broadcast of “Auschwitz: Past Is Present” is available at

Letter to Japan: Why we mourn, what we lost


Many people I meet in Japan ask, why we Jews revere the memory of Chiune Sugihara. The obvious reason is that this man, along with his wife, through their bravery and steadfastness, saved thousands of Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis during the WWII Nazi Genocide, known as the Shoah.

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center had the honor to host Mrs. Sugihara in Jerusalem, on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, I had the honor to accompany her to a Beit Midrash—the study hall of the Mir Yeshiva—the very Judaic academy whose students and teachers the Sugihara had been saved by supplying Japanese visas in 1940. “You and your husband not only saved Jewish lives”, I told her as she shared astonished looks with 2,000(!) young religious scholars. “You see Mrs. Sugihara, you also helped save and insure the continuity of Jewish life and the spiritual and humane values of our Torah (written laws) and Mesorah (Oral traditions).

Indeed, Judaism places parents and teachers on the same plane, with the child/student taught to respect and love them both for their nurturing and caring for their physical and spiritual growth.

That is why the entire “House of Israel” is in mourning. The four brilliant, saintly, peaceful scholars, who were butchered while praying in a holy synagogue, are mourned not only by four wives, many children and dozens of grandchildren, but by all their spiritual offspring—including me.  

When word first came that the terrorist attack took place in the Har Nof neighborhood—an area home to many fellow Americans—we feared that there would be numerous personal connections to the tragedy—and there were. Our hopes were quickly dashed.  Of the three American rabbis who perished, my colleagues and I at the Simon Wiesenthal Center learned that we had fairly close ties to all of them.

In the early 1980s Kalman Levine studied at our Yeshiva for two years where he began his journey of scholarship and piety, before leaving for the Holy city of Jerusalem. After a few more years of study at successively more intense schools, he joined the faculty of a Yeshiva there. His love for learning was so deep that his son told reporters of his father sleeping only a few hours a night. He raised a family. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife, ten children, and five grandchildren. 

Aryeh Kupinsky stood at 6 feet, 3 inches tall. His friends called him the “Gentle Giant.” Some called him the nicest person they had ever met. He was the kind of person you didn’t ask for help, because he volunteered it before you could ask. Before his marriage, he was the study partner and good friend of the eldest son of one of my colleagues. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife and five children.

Moshe Twersky was a public figure whose scholarship and gentle guidance touched the lives of many Jews on both sides of the Atlantic.  As such, his loss was experienced as everyone’s loss. His grandfather, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, was one of the most important figures in 20th century Orthodoxy as a Talmudist and philosopher. One of his daughters married Dr. Isadore Twersky, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard.  His son, Moshe, blessed with the intelligence of his parents, became the head of Toras Moshe yeshiva in Jerusalem—an academy founded by a former colleague from Los Angeles. Rabbi Twersky had many students. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife, five children, and ten grandchildren.

I hope that these details offer a glimpse into the deep sense of loss felt by millions of Jews from Tel Aviv to Toronto, to Tokyo.

There are of other dimensions to this barbaric attack. It could sound the death knell for—the “Two-State Solution” , where after negotiations, Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority would eventually lead a new (peaceful) state—abutting the Jewish State of Israel.

But many Israelis no longer view Abbas’ PA as a reliable negotiating partner. In recent weeks, Abbas himself has incited Palestinians with the false claim that Israelis are “desecrating” the Al Aqsa Mosque. According to the New York Times, Abbas condemned the brutal murders of the rabbis only after US Secretary of State John Kerry forced him to do so. His colleagues in the Palestinian Authority actually celebrated the murders and the murderers. Genocidal Hamas distributed sweets to children in Gaza, as the Jewish families were burying the fathers and husbands. In Amman, legislators held a moment of silence—not for the innocent religious scholars but for their brutal executioners!

Last Friday, I attended a conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Instead of using the rostrum to call for an end to recent violence, including the murder by a Palestinian terrorist who used his car to mow down a three month old Israeli girl in her stroller, Palestinian speakers –diplomats and legislators— unveiled a new lie: That Israelis’ continued “desecration” of Muslim Holy sites threatened to transform the struggle to a religious war.

The opposite is true. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that protects the religious rights of all faiths, including Muslims. It seems that the genocidal religious doctrine of Hamas and the thuggery of ISIS are influencing too many Palestinians, in word and brutal deed. It is they who threaten to morph a political dispute into a religious conflict. If that happens, the Palestinian leadership will plunge their people into an abyss from which there will be no exit.

Bonham Carter, Rabbi Mirvis named to British Holocaust panel


Actress Helena Bonham Carter and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis were among those chosen for the new British Holocaust Commission.

Members of the commission, which will investigate ways to educate Britons about the Shoah, were announced Monday by Prime Minister David Cameron, the London Jewish Chronicle reported.

The commission was set to meet on Monday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, with more than 50 Holocaust survivors at a reception at the prime minister’s residence.

Cameron called on the public to provide evidence of Nazi atrocities and survivors’ artifacts to the commission through the end of May.

He announced plans for the commission last September at the Holocaust Educational Trust’s 25th anniversary dinner, according to the Chronicle.

The commission’s findings are expected to be presented to the government in time for the 70th anniversary of the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 2015.

Bonham Carter’s grandfather, Eduardo Propper de Callejon, was posthumously recognized for helping to save hundreds of Jews during World War II.

“I am very honored to be asked to join this commission and do so in particular memory of those members of my family who died in the Holocaust and as an inherited responsibility to my grandfather who made a significant personal sacrifice to save hundreds of lives,” the actress said in a statement. “It is our generations’ legacy to create a living memory that will survive the survivors and forever remind future generations of the inhumanity man is capable of committing to its own kind.”

Nazis’ stooge or well-meaning Jew?


When the French director Claude Lanzmann completed the editing of his eight-hour epic documentary, “Shoah,” in 1985, he still had stashed away nearly 11 hours of interviews with one man.

That man was Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto, and the only Nazi-installed “Elder of the Jews” not killed during the Holocaust.

Lanzmann has now compressed those interviews, conducted in 1975, into the more-than-three-and-a-half hour documentary “The Last of the Unjust.” The film reveals a then-70-year-old man, who, in Lanzmann’s estimation, was highly intelligent, ironic, didn’t lie, was hard both on others and on himself, and who was blessed with total recall.

Murmelstein also displayed a sardonic wit, upending the title of Andre Schwarz-Bart’s novel “The Last of the Just,” into the self-designated “Last of the Unjust,” which Lanzmann has adopted as the title for his film.

The roles played by the Elders of the Jews in the Nazi-controlled ghettoes of Lvov, Warsaw, Vilna and Lodz are still the stuff of debates, books and plays. Were these men stooges who did the Nazis’ dirty work to save their skins and to allow them to enjoy the illusion power? Or were they brave, well-meaning men who sacrificed themselves in the hope of saving at least some of their fellow Jews?

Murmelstein, like most humans, comes across as a mixture of motives, hopes and ambitions, though apparently more intelligent and self-aware than other ghetto leaders.

A Viennese rabbi and deputy to the Jewish community president, Murmelstein first met Adolf Eichmann in 1938, after the Nazi takeover of Austria.

Eichmann ordered Murmelstein to organize the forced emigration of Austrian Jews, and even his detractors acknowledge Murmelstein’s role in helping more than 120,000 of Austria’s 200,000 Jews flee the country.

Over the next seven years, until the end of the war, the Viennese rabbi and the Nazi Holocaust organizer met and sparred again and again, and, arguably, Murmelstein got to know Eichmann better than any other Jewish leader.

As such, Murmelstein thoroughly demolishes philosopher Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann as a mere bureaucrat carrying out orders and the personification of “the banality of evil.”

In reality, Murmelstein testifies, Eichmann was a “demon,” and a thoroughly corrupt one at that, who was also a fanatical and violent anti-Semite, participating directly in the burning of Vienna’s synagogues during Kristallnacht.

Director Claude Lanzmann

Murmelstein lambasts Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem as “a poor trial run by ignorant people,” and approvingly quotes a newspaper critic on “the banality of Mrs. Arendt’s own conclusions.”

While obviously trying to cast his own role as ghetto “Elder” in as favorable a light as possible, Murmelstein, under sharp questioning, acknowledges his own shortcomings.

He owns up to enjoying a sense of power and, oddly, even of adventure, as well as to his reputation among his Jewish “subjects” as tough and mean.

But, mainly, he sees himself as a pragmatist among the self-deluded, noting that “if a surgeon starts crying during an operation, the patient dies.”

In general, he holds a high opinion of his importance, arguing that “I had to save myself to save the ghetto.”

After the war, Murmelstein, who held a diplomatic passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross, easily could have fled Europe. Instead, he chose to remain in Czechoslovakia and stand trial on allegations of collaborating with the Nazis. After 18 months in prison, he was acquitted of all charges. He died in Rome in 1989, at 84.

“The Last of the Unjust” is, above all, a fascinating examination of the human condition in extremis, especially in clinging to hope when every escape seems barred.

For example, when Eichmann and the Nazi propaganda initially painted Theresienstadt as a lovely spa that lucky Jews could enjoy if they turned over all their money to the “Eichmann fund,” 40,000 elderly Jews eagerly signed on.

In a lengthy interview with Lanzmann in the production notes for the film, the director notes that even Murmelstein, who had no illusions about Nazi cruelty and trickery, “said he didn’t know about the gas chambers, and that’s absolutely true.

“In Theresienstadt, the Jews were afraid of deportation to the East, but they couldn’t imagine the reality of death in the gas chambers,” Lanzmann noted in the interview.

Lanzmann illustrates the desperate longing for survival in the ghetto by quoting one inmate, who said that “he who wants to live is condemned to hope.”

And in words all latter-day analysts of Jewish action and inaction during the Holocaust might take to heart, the film concludes, “The Elders of the Jews can be condemned, but they cannot be judged.”

“The Last of the Unjust” opens Feb. 7 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Town Center in Encino, as well as the Regal Westpark in Irvine.

At Auschwitz, Israel’s Netanyahu says Jews still threatened


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz on Thursday, said the Jewish state would act — alone if necessary — to prevent a repetition of the Holocaust.

Netanyahu's speech at the camp in southern Poland where the Nazis killed some 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, was filled with indirect references to what Israel views as present-day threats to its existence, including from Iran and its allies.

“The Allies knew about the Holocaust, they could understand, but they did not act,” Netanyahu said through an interpreter.

“For us Jews, this clearly shows that we cannot wait with folded arms for someone to do something for us. We have to act alone. Did the attitude to Jews really change? Yes, but hatred still persists,” he said.

“Sixty-five years after the Holocaust, the talk is still about wiping out Israel from the world map. But today we have a strong army that allows us to stop such intentions … What really changed is the determination to defend ourselves and not to allow the Holocaust to be repeated.”

Netanyahu was at the camp, built by the Germans near to the Polish village of Oswiecim, to open a new exhibition entitled “Shoah,” the Hebrew word for Holocaust.

The exhibition is curated by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. The aim, the curators say, is to give visitors to Auschwitz a sense of the wider Holocaust across Europe. One exhibit is of fragments of drawings by Jewish children who were killed.

David Feuerstein, an Auschwitz survivor who was assigned camp number 160068 by his Nazi captors, said the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer ritual, at the opening ceremony.

Now 88 and living in Chile, he said he had come to preserve the memory of those who died, and to “to talk about the fact that the rebirth of the ideologies that led to the Holocaust is dangerous to the modern world.”

The visit to Poland has personal significance for the Israeli prime minister because his father was born in the capital, Warsaw, before emigrating to Israel.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, at a joint news conference in Warsaw on Wednesday, ended his opening remarks by turning to Netanyahu and saying, in Polish, “Welcome home.”

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Writing by Adrian Krajewski and Christian Lowe; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

A suit and a story from a Holocaust survivor


It had been a tough week. The more news I read about the Boston bombing, the less I understood. Who were these young men, full of grievance, using a fresh start in America to maim and kill innocents?

In the midst of the mess, I decided to finally buy myself a new suit. I have just one, which I bought 10 years ago from an elderly Jewish man downtown.

I had a vivid memory of him, but I didn’t know his name. So I called Roger Stuart Clothes on Los Angeles Street and asked if the elderly man with the accent still worked there.

“Max?” the man on the phone said. “No, I’m sorry.”

“I guess I waited too long,” I said. Charming little old men don’t live forever, I thought.

“Just come tomorrow,” the man went on. “Max only works Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.”

Before the man hung up, I just had to ask him: How old was my salesman? Where was the accent from? What’s his story? 

“Max? He’s 94. A Holocaust survivor. From the camps.”

I told him I’d be in that week — for a suit and a story.

“Should we talk, or do you want to first look at suits?” Max Leigh was just like I remembered him: maybe 5-foot-4, sturdy, with a good head of graying hair, a crisp blue dress shirt, gray slacks and a flowered tie. His face was kindly, bespectacled — like a doctor who makes house calls. A Yiddish accent.

Max looked at me: “42 long. What color? Every man should have a navy blue, a black and a gray.”

He handed me a black suit; I tried it on. Perfect. I had him pick me out a shirt, a tie — and I was good for another 10 years. I paid, then Max took me to the back, to a couple of chairs near a dressing room.

I pulled out my notebook and digital recorder.

“Oh, my story,” Max sighed. “I told it to Steven Spielberg. Can you get it from him?”

He was talking, I assumed, about testimony he must have given to the USC Shoah Foundation, which the film director established. I couldn’t understand Max without listening to those testimonial tapes — which I later did — but the tapes, and their sad, brutal memories, only tell part of his story.

Max was born Max Leschgold in Dresden, Germany. When Max was a child, his parents moved with him and his two younger sisters back to their native Warsaw to be with relatives. 

Max was 19 when the Nazis came to Warsaw. He was taken to a series of camps, including Auschwitz. After the war, he learned that his parents had starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto. One sister died fighting in the ghetto. Another was shot dead in the arms of her boyfriend after their hiding place was discovered.

Max’s Shoah testimony is a recitation of horrors — starvation, mock executions, beatings. On the tapes, he tells the story with distant matter-of-factness. The only time he chokes up is when the interviewer asks whether he ever had children.

“My wife had a child killed by the Nazis,” he finally said. “We have the picture in the other room.” 

With the help of Jewish organizations, Max came to Los Angeles after the war as a penniless refugee who spoke four languages, but not English.

They put him in a hotel in Boyle Heights. He didn’t want to be on welfare, so he took the first job he could, at a fishing line factory. His hopes of a professional education destroyed by the war, he became a machinist, working in the aerospace and computer industries. When he was downsized at the age of 52, he and a friend opened a suit store downtown. 

“I didn’t even know what size suit I wore,” he said. “But I went into business, and I started a company, and I was successful, and here I am.”

Max travelled around the world, including five visits to Israel. He said he has paid back in donations “a thousand times over” whatever money the Jewish organizations donated to help him get on his feet.

After he sold his company, he began working at Roger Stuart, in 1981 — that’s 32 years.

“I don’t need the money,” Max said. “If I wouldn’t like it, I wouldn’t work. I like people.”

Max was married to his first wife, Rosaline, for 54 years — they met just after the war, and she died not long after he made his video testimony in 1997. His second wife, Inna, is 66. Inna’s son and grandchildren are like his own, he said.

“I have family now, I didn’t have any before. I lost my whole family.”

I asked Max how he managed to deal with such terrible memories. Did faith help, I asked, a belief in God?

Max shook his head.

“I saw too much to believe in all that bulls—,” he said. “I had these discussions with rabbis, and they couldn’t give me an answer. You explain to me why 1 1/2 million children got killed without sins. I lost whatever faith I had, and I didn’t have much to start with.”

Yet, Max moved forward. He didn’t lash out. He didn’t stay bitter at having his family and his dreams destroyed. He was 19 when his life fell apart — the same age as one of those Boston bombers — and he rebuilt his life; he stitched it back together like a suit.

“Am I bitter?” Max said. “Yes, however, you can’t live that way all your life. If you’re going to live with it all your life, then you don’t have a life at all.”

There are a million stories in the naked city — and in the fully clothed city, too. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Nazi role-playing at Santa Monica High School causes stir


Generally, expert advisers counsel against teaching about the Holocaust by having students do exercises that re-create the experience. Role-play activities can reinforce negative views, stereotype group behavior and are pedagogically unsound, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Yet some teachers leading classes on the Shoah have used such techniques, including re-creating the experience of being transported in cattle cars by having students cram into a small space, or holding the better-known “blue eyes-brown eyes” activity, with the teacher giving fewer privileges to the students with brown eyes. 

Two weeks ago, a class at Santa Monica High School was asked to participate in an exercise in which students were instructed to create propaganda posters and campaign speeches on behalf of the Nazis, and to present their material to the class.

“Your job is to get people to join your organization,” the assignment stated.

Shannon Halley-Cox, a ninth-grade social studies teacher, gave the assignment to about 40 students during an April 12 class as part of the freshman seminar standards, which encourages students to “confront the complexities of history” by analyzing such topics as the Holocaust, the American eugenics movement and racial tensions in Los Angeles, according to the Santa Monica High Web site. Santa Monica High School, one of three high schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, has a student population of 3,100 in grades nine through 12. 

This assignment — first reported on lukeford.net, a blog by Luke Ford that focuses on the Los Angeles Jewish community — echoes an incident that had occurred earlier this month at a high school in Albany, N.Y. There, an English teacher instructed students to write essays convincing the Third Reich of their loyalty by arguing why Jews are evil, based on Nazi propaganda.

According to The New York Times, which reported on the incident, the Albany high school teacher is facing disciplinary action. 

The Santa Monica High case prompted the teacher, Halley-Cox, to apologize to Ethan Milius, the parent of a student who complained about the assignment. Milius e-mailed the Journal copies of the assignment and the apology. 

Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, said Halley-Cox’s “assignment specifically prohibited students from using any negative words about those that were persecuted or words that would promote violence or hatred.” Deloria denied that “students [were] asked to act out, role play or simulate being a part of these groups.”

By having students create their own Nazi propaganda, Halley-Cox sought to answer the question of why Germans in the 1930s were either bystanders or sympathizers to Nazi atrocities, the teacher explained in an e-mail exchange with Milius.

“The point of the assignment is to answer the question, ‘How could German citizens sit back and let the Holocaust happen?’ ” Halley-Cox wrote in an e-mail.

Milius’ daughter, Stephanie, is Jewish and a student in the seminar class where the assignment was given. Milius said that he understands the teacher’s intentions, but he does not think the assignment accomplished its stated purpose. 

“What possible lesson does an impressionable 15-year-old derive from pretending to be a Nazi German and telling her fellow students to pretend to have racist beliefs that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews?” he said in an interview with the Journal. “There’s nothing you can learn from that.” 

Next year, students in the school’s freshman seminar class won’t be developing their own propaganda, Deloria says. “Upon reflection, the freshman seminar teacher team feels they can accomplish the same learning outcomes next year by having students view primary sources of historical propaganda,” Deloria said.

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.

Israel stops to remember victims of Holocaust


Israel came to a standstill as a siren sounded for two minutes in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Following the siren Monday morning, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participated in a wreath-laying ceremony in the Yad Vashem Hall of Remembrance as part of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Kerry then joined Israeli President Shimon Peres for the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” ceremony held each at the Knesset, where Peres read out the names of his relatives who were victims of the Holocaust. Names of Shoah victims also were read by the chief rabbis, ministers, Knesset members, former Knesset members, members of the Yad Vashem administration, members of youth movements, soldiers, world association representatives, and delegations from abroad.

Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday night at the national Yom Hashoah ceremony at Yad Vashem that the hatred of Jews is still strong more than 70 years after the Holocaust began.

“The map of Europe still contains local stains of anti-Semitism,” Peres said at Sunday night's ceremony in Jerusalem, his voice breaking with emotion. “Racism erupted on that land in the last century and dragged it down to its lowest point. Ultimately the murder which came from her, damaged her.”

“Not all the flames have been extinguished. Crises are once again exploited to form Nazi parties, ridiculous but dangerous. Sickening anti-Semitic cartoons are published allegedly in the name of press freedom.”

Netanyahu said in his address to Holocaust survivors and their families, “Hatred of Jews has not disappeared. It has been replaced with a hatred of the Jewish state.”

He followed his assertion with quotes of anti-Semitic statements made by Iranian religious and political leaders.

Six Holocaust survivors told their stories in a prerecorded video before they lit the six torches representing the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The ceremony was broadcast on all Israeli television channels and on several radio stations. On Yom Hashoah in Israel, places of entertainment are closed and Holocaust themed-movies and documentaries are shown on television channels. Memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country.

On Monday, the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael held a joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust. The ceremony took place in the Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza.

The ceremony recalled the rescue activities of Otto Komoly, president of the Zionist Federation in Hungary and the chairman of the Hungarian Jewish community’s clandestine Rescue Committee, and later director of the International Red Cross' “Department A” responsible for rescuing Jewish children.

On Sunday, Israeli military chief Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz left for Poland with an Israel Defense Forces delegation to the March of the Living in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gantz will lead the March of the Living — the first time the march was led by a current IDF chief of general staff. Some 10,000 people from all over the world are participating in the march.

Gantz also was scheduled to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, where a military service will take place.

On the weekend prior to Yom Hashoah, dozens of young Poles who recently discovered their Jewish roots came together in Oscwiecim, the site of the Auschwitz camp,  for a weekend educational seminar under the auspices of Shavei Israel.

The last generation


All my adult life, I have felt a burden to live more than one life. I am a child of survivors and a mourner of many who did not survive. In 1944, my grandparents and more than 700 others were murdered in a little-known massacre in Kremnicka, Slovakia. This, after Max and Alzbeta escaped the town in which they prospered for many years and hid in caves like animals to avoid capture. They had already lost three of their children in Auschwitz and lost track of the other three, one of whom was my father. They were betrayed, arrested and, on one cold foggy night, they were dragged from jail to a forest, where they were shot in the head by drunken Slovaks from the local town. They fell into their shallow tank-trench graves along with hundreds of other Jews, including 211 women and 58 children.

I am also a child of the ’60s, and in my soul I carry many natural and acquired beliefs from both my own religion and other Western and Eastern thought that enlightened us in those decades of abandon and experimentation. I respect the Christian concept of turning the other cheek, and Buddha’s teachings about surrendering oneself; I believe in karma and trying to live from my higher chakras. I try to be generous in my heart when it comes to forgiveness, and I am no stranger to prayer and other spiritual practice.

And yet, when I think of my grandparents on that cold night facing the last seconds of their shattered lives — all their dreams broken, their children murdered and lost, I am no longer a man who believes in anything, not even God himself. Those who exterminated our grandparents, uncles and siblings have left many of us with a crippling and burning fury in our hearts and minds. I am incapable of finding any religion or spiritual guidance that could budge me away from the pain and anger I feel when I think of the base, inhuman acts that have been perpetrated upon my people, my family. So, I have carried this wild, injured, vengeful animal inside of me for many years. This beast that was born of the terrors of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and the thousands of other killing fields where my relatives suffered and died, has destroyed many of the more tender sides of me, but it has also kept me steadfast, and it has also given me the will to remember. It awakens inside me and wants me to make others remember that not so long ago there were acts committed that cannot and should not be excused or forgotten, or even forgiven. I am not alone in carrying this beast inside me. But now, in my early 60s, I am reminded that I am part of a dying breed. Many of our parents have died and those who remain are old and the only few eyewitnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust. And we, the children of survivors, are the last generation to have witnessed and heard their stories and felt their pain directly.

Generations ahead face the unique and difficult task of educating their children to remember and to tell this story of millions of unthinkably cruel acts, a story of incomprehensible brutality of man to man. No amount of archived testimony will replace a sense of outrage and indignation in one human heart. The beast may die with my generation, but the rage must be saved and even nurtured in our children’s hearts and minds when they are old enough to know. Because only by remembering, understanding and feeling the magnitude of such terror can we succeed in our efforts to prevent it from happening again.

I have tried to live as much as I could to fulfill not only my dreams but those of my grandparents and my uncles and aunts who could not fulfill theirs. I have preserved my heritage for me and for them. I have taught my children the unbearable truth for me and for them; and I write these words for me and for them. Their lives were very much like ours here, today. They were not any more deserving of hatred, persecution and killing than we are — but they are more deserving of our compassion and our effort to remember them because they were innocent victims whose lives were cut short with such shocking disgrace. Even if they were strangers, my heart would bleed for them. But these were my own flesh and blood and that of my children and their children and all the generations after them. 

George Kalmar, born in Slovakia, is a local sculptor and writer and founder of IES, an organization promoting US colleges worldwide. You can contact him at kalmarworks@yahoo.com.

Shoah: Breadcrumbs of life


The Holocaust is really too big and too dark to fathom. It’s larger than life, larger than death, even larger than evil. The human mind can’t quite comprehend an evil that wants to destroy a whole race of humans — and succeeds in destroying about a third of it.

No matter how many documentaries we may see, how many Holocaust museums we may visit or how many survivors we may meet, we still can’t fully absorb the reality that 6 million Jews — approximately the number of Jews living in Israel today — were murdered in a few short years.

My initial encounter with the trauma of the Shoah came after my family moved from Morocco to Montreal in the mid-1960s, when I first met Ashkenazi Jews. It’s one thing to hear about a nightmare; it’s a whole other thing to meet survivors and hear their stories. These stories put a human light on what was for me a deep and mysterious darkness. 

Over the years, my relationship with this singular darkness has been uneven. At times, I have found it debilitating. I’d see images of Jews in concentration camps and imagine what it would be like to witness the agony and death of your own child — and I would recoil at the thought. Trying to imagine this kind of pain on a scale of millions was too much for my brain to handle, let alone my heart.

At other times, I would meet a survivor like the late Eva Brown — who lost 69 family members in the Shoah — and I would marvel at her resilience and love of life.

I would marvel at how she always accepted invitations — to join my family for Shabbat and holiday meals; to accompany me to the Maimonides Academy trustees dinner; to speak in schools, synagogues and at the Museum of Tolerance; to see a movie or attend a lecture; or to engage in any activity that would keep her busy and alive.

I would marvel at how, despite two bouts of leukemia during the last few years of her life, she continued to accept invitations; and how, when she spoke about her dark past, she would always end on a high note.

You could see this high note in the sparkle of her eyes, a sparkle that never left her, even when she was sick and in pain.

It was a sparkle that said: Despite all the pain of my life, it’s still the only life I have.

If you were down or in a funk, she was the best therapist in town. Spend a few minutes with her in her 1950s bungalow in West Hollywood, catch her positive vibes, recall that she went to 10 concentration camps in one year at the age of 16, and I dare you to still be in a funk.

For anyone who knew her, it was virtually impossible to be unhappy in her presence. It’s as if one message constantly floated above her: “Who are you to be down on life when this survivor is still so madly in love with life?”

This very love of life interrupted my somber mood last Sunday morning when I visited a Holocaust museum in Montreal, where I’ve been spending the holidays with my family.

After about an hour of seeing the familiar mementos of Shoah misery, I came across a short film on the Jewish ghetto of Lodz in Poland, which included testimony from survivors who ended up in Montreal.

Again, the images were hard to take. They were the ubiquitous Holocaust images we have all seen, of decrepit life and fearful faces.

But then, a survivor said something that cracked through the ice of my somber mood: “We were hungry,” he said, “but we had a symphony. We were hungry, but we had a theater.”

As he spoke those words, there was an image of Jews in the ghetto entering a theater. It was an impossible image: human misery meets high culture. 

I’m not sure what it means that I remembered that one image above everything else I saw that morning.

It could be that I simply prefer good news to depressing news, or that Holocaust suffering is so overwhelming that I need a coping mechanism, something to reignite my faith in life.

Whatever it is, it gave me a tingle of Jewish pride. No matter how horrible their lives became, the hungry Jews of the Lodz ghetto still found time to gather a few breadcrumbs of life.

Maybe that was Eva Brown’s way of honoring the memory of her 69 family members and her 6 million Jewish brethren who lost their lives — she savored every precious breadcrumb of life that came her way.

That very idea is larger than life. 

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Rescuers of the ‘50 Children’


On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we honor those lost in the Shoah and the few who were saved through circumstance, luck or the efforts of courageous individuals. People like Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and the Bielski brothers immediately come to mind, having been the subjects of books and movies such as “Schindler’s List” and “Defiance.” 

This year on April 8, Yom HaShoah, HBO will premiere the documentary “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” which explores the previously untold story of a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who risked their lives to save the largest group of children allowed into the United States at the time.

Blending historical footage, personal photographs, interviews with nine surviving members of the 50, and narration by Alan Alda and Mamie Gummer (reading from the memoir of Eleanor Kraus — the “Mrs.” of the movie’s title), the film is riveting and suspenseful. It reveals the Krauses battling bureaucracies abroad and at home and racing against the clock to get the children out of Vienna as atrocities escalated in 1939.

The Krauses’ efforts might have remained a footnote lost to history had filmmaker Steven Pressman not read the unpublished memoir written by Eleanor, who died in 1989, 14 years after her husband, Gilbert. 

“It was just lying around the house, hiding in plain sight,” he said. 

His wife, Liz Perle, is the Krauses’ granddaughter, and though she’d “occasionally mention something in passing about them rescuing some kids, I didn’t pay much attention to it until four years ago, when she showed me the manuscript, and I got the idea of making a film,” Pressman said.

A North Hollywood native who studied journalism and political science at UC Berkeley, Pressman is a journalist and author of “Outrageous Betrayal,” about Werner Erhard. He put writing aside to make “50 Children,” his first film. 

He called upon friends and acquaintances for advice and connections, lining up an editor, cinematographer and other crew. With funding raised via “generous individuals and foundations, both Jewish and non-Jewish,” he started making the film in January 2010 and finished two years later. Finally, through a connection from his father-in-law, he got it to HBO, which is co-presenting the documentary with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

Searching through prewar footage, now conveniently digitized and searchable, Pressman obtained video from the database of USHMM’s archives, the Bundesarchiv in Germany and Austrian State Archives in Vienna. 

He also traveled around the country to interview surviving members from among the 50 children, whom he’d tracked down via Google, and many of whom lent him their family photos. With the exception of one woman who was 5 years old in 1939 and had no memory of the rescue, “Nobody turned me down,” Pressman said.

It was an emotional experience for Pressman to talk with these people about what little they remember. For some, it turned out that they had been bidding farewell to their parents for the last time when they were rescued. 

“It was honor for me to be able to capture these memories,” he said. Because they were so young at the time, he added, “most of them never knew anything about Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. I was able to fill in the gaps for them.”

The Krauses were secular Jews, stylishly handsome and comfortable but not wealthy.  But Gilbert, a successful lawyer, was active in B’rith Sholom, a national Jewish fraternal organization headquartered in Philadelphia. The group’s head, Louis Levine, wanted to help European Jews escape, but organizations could not legally sponsor refugees. Gilbert volunteered to help, calling upon a law school acquaintance and Jewish congressman named Leon Sacks, who arranged a meeting at the State Department. 

“Gilbert wasn’t a connected guy, but he knew people who knew people,” Pressman said. 

Once the children were in the United States, they went directly to a B’rith Sholom summer camp, and the organization remained involved, overseeing their welfare.

In addition to survivor testimony, the documentary provides historical context to illustrate what obstacles the Krauses faced. 

“I was shocked as I was doing my research to discover just how much anti-Semitism there was in this country,” said Pressman, noting that even Jewish leaders tried to discourage the couple. “They didn’t want to rock the boat and create even more anti-Semitism.”  

Although the immigration quotas were very restrictive for all Jews, Gilbert felt that he had the best shot at obtaining visas for children, “because people at the State Department might feel a little more sorry for them,” Pressman explained.

 “This was an extraordinary time, and these were two people [the Krauses] who were not powerful, they didn’t hold high positions. They were relatively ordinary people, but they felt so strongly about doing something when nobody else around them was doing anything,” Pressman said.

Once the couple came home from Vienna with the rescued children, “They never talked about it again,” Pressman said. “The Holocaust Museum didn’t know about the story until members of the Kraus family brought it to their attention a few years back.”

Pressman, who grew up in a “Conservative, semi-observant household in the Valley” and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, has no Holocaust stories to tell from his side of the family, as everyone was born in the States, or was part of the earlier migration from Eastern Europe. 

He’s the father to a daughter, Roshann, 22, and stepson, David, 19. His wife appears in “50 Children” and granted him formal permission (as did her uncle) to use Eleanor’s memoir as a source, but otherwise they remained “very hands-off” with the project, he noted.

Since finishing what he calls his “labor of love,” Pressman has turned his attention toward writing a book version to be published next year that, like the documentary, will incorporate the memoir and the testimony of the rescued children. He admits that he has thought about turning the story into a scripted feature.

“But I won’t be the one to do it,” Pressman said. “I’m not going to suddenly become a feature film director. But I’m hopeful there will be some interest. It’s such an incredible story.”

He calls the filmmaking experience “the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. As a journalist, you want to tell a good story, and you want to have an impact on people. I feel good that I’ve accomplished some of that.” 

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.” 

What happened at Belzec


In the summer of 1993, my father and I visited the site of the extermination camp of Belzec in eastern Poland, where my grandparents were among half a million Jews murdered by the Nazis in 1942.

That visit would change my life. 

I was working on a book about my father’s experiences during World War II — he had survived Soviet Gulag camps, interrogations by the NKVD and the Gestapo, and been severely wounded at the end of the war. (The book, “Guarded by Angels,” was eventually published in 2005 by Yad Vashem.)

After visiting some of the places in Russia where my father had been, I thought it appropriate to finish by paying tribute to his parents, the grandparents I had never known, at the place of their death.

The first unpleasant surprise was that the camp proved difficult to find. There was not a single signpost in the village pointing to it. We stopped a local resident and my father asked him in Polish where the museum was. He shook his head. “Then where is the memorial?” my father persisted. The man shrugged blankly. He was an elderly man, and it crossed my mind that he could well have been here when the daily transports of Jews were arriving. “The place where they killed the Jews,” my father finally asked. A look of comprehension dawned on the man’s face. “Go to the crossroads and turn right. It’s two kilometers down, next to the railway line,” he said.

As we pulled in, we saw a rusty sign, half hidden by trees, next to another larger placard advertising agricultural vehicles. There was no car park. We pulled up next to the gate, outside a private house from which pop music was blaring on the radio. A child was puttering around in the backyard. We were the only visitors.

As we got out of the car, a woman came out of the house to talk to us. “It’s not true they killed children here,” she told us. “They just put up that sign to get people to give money.” To be confronted by a Holocaust denier actually living beside a death camp is a highly disconcerting experience. But when she saw the flowers in our hands, she went into the house and brought us two vases with water to put them in.

My father’s family had come from a small town in southern Poland called Nowy Sacz, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Before the war, around a third of the town’s population of 35,000 was Jewish. On Aug. 23, 1942, all the Jews were told to gather in a central square wearing their best clothes and carrying personal possessions up to a weight of 15 kilograms. About 800 of the youngest and strongest were selected for labor camps. The rest were squeezed into a narrow area where there was no food or water and told to wait. Finally, between Aug. 25 and Aug. 28, they were marched in three batches to the railway station, loaded on cattle trucks and transported to Belzec.

There was little to see at the site of the camp. The Nazis removed most of the evidence when they evacuated the camp, and the Poles had made little effort to maintain the site. A block of granite near the entrance, engraved in Polish, noted that 600,000 Jews, and 1,500 Poles who helped Jews, died horrible deaths here. (Historians later adjusted the figure to 500,000.)

A few yards behind that marker was another memorial, a statue of an emaciated figure supporting another skeletal figure. Its Polish inscription read: “In memory of the victims of Hitler’s terror murdered from 1942 to 1943.”

Behind that, birch trees had grown up. Among them stood a row of concrete blocks, perhaps intended to symbolize the gas chambers. Adjacent to that was a row of giant urns. The overwhelming effect was of neglect. There was not a single Jewish emblem — not a Hebrew word, not a Star of David — although we saw a small statue of the Virgin Mary among the trees. The place was overgrown with weeds, and the symbolic structures were crumbling. I saw two women with shopping bags taking a shortcut home through the camp.

These are the facts about Belzec: 47 miles north of the major city of Lvov, on the railway line to Lublin, the gas chambers were installed in the winter of 1941, and the camp received its first shipment of Jews on March 13, 1942. Within a week or two of coming online, it was handling 5,000 victims a day.

Belzec extermination camp memorial. Photo by Yarek Shalom/Creative Commons

A report by a German officer, written in mid-September 1942, describes how Jews rounded up in their villages were packed 200 to each cattle car. The journey to the camp sometimes took more than a day, but no food or water was provided. Throughout the passage, Jews constantly tried to break away through the walls and ceiling of the train cars. Many succeeded but were shot by soldiers guarding the train or hunted down by police units. On several occasions, the train guards used up all their ammunition shooting escaping Jews before the train reached Belzec and had to resort to stones and bayonets.

“The ever greater panic spreading among the Jews due to the great heat, overloading of the train cars and stink of dead bodies — when unloading the train cars some 2,000 Jews were found dead in the train — made the transport almost unworkable,” the German officer complained. He demanded more guards and more train cars for future shipments.

There were four primitive extermination cells. Carbon monoxide gas was pumped in to kill the victims. SS Lt. Kurt Gerstein left a rare description of a gassing. He described how the Jews were packed into the gas chamber so tight they could not move. When the doors closed, the diesel engine would not work. Finally after three hours, it stuttered to life. “Up till then people were alive in these chambers — four times 750 people in four times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 minutes went by. True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead,” Gerstein wrote. “Finally, all were dead like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to fall.”

On the specific point of whether children died at Belzec, we have the testimony of Edward Luczynski from a 1964 trial of German officers: “After the doors were opened, it was often ascertained that some of the children and adults were still alive. Children on the floor and adults with their faces pressed against cracks sometimes managed to survive. The survivors were killed by the Ukrainians,” he said.

The museum at Belzec. Photo by Yarek Shalom/Creative Commons

Despite its phenomenal killing record, the Germans liquidated Belzec early in 1943. One problem was the lack of efficient facilities for the disposal of bodies, which were dumped in nearby anti-tank ditches. By then, a much more sophisticated killing facility was available at Auschwitz to take up the slack. When the Germans closed Belzec, they tried to erase all telltale signs. Bodies were removed from their mass graves, their bones were crushed with a special machine, the remains were burnt and the ashes scattered. Ethnic Germans were settled on a farm established on the site. Only two Jews survived Belzec, and both were dead by 1954. Few of the Germans who operated the camp were identified or brought to justice. 

For my father, our visit to Belzec was overwhelming. As soon as we entered, he was overcome with great, shuddering sobs. “My mother, my poor mother,” he kept saying. Yet there was nothing there to give a sense of comfort or consolation. Instead, one had the sense of people who had been blotted out, with nothing left behind, not even a simple Magen David, to memorialize their existence and their suffering. 

My own response was more of anger. For the first time in my life, I had a sense of my grandparents as people who had loved and been loved and whose loss had been deeply felt. Their final hours were unbelievably cruel and humiliating, their suffering protracted and unimaginable. Yet the place where they died was overgrown with weeds and debased by pop music. In a grandiose moment, I told my father I would not allow this situation to stand. I promised him I would work to build a new memorial.

When I returned to the United States, I started doing the only thing I could think to do — which was to write. My articles appeared in several different outlets, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Calls began coming in from others whose loved ones had died at Belzec. And then I was put in touch with Miles Lerman, a survivor and the chairman of the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. 

Lerman had himself had grown up near Belzec, and his family had owned a mill within sight of where the camp was established. His own parents died there.

“Your article moved me,” he said. “I have decided that we must work to build a proper memorial there. It will be the last thing that I do, and it will be my legacy.”

So began a long and difficult process to save the site of Belzec and to build a proper memorial. There were many twists and turns along the way, many times when the project seemed stalled with no way forward. Lerman negotiated an agreement with the Polish government to split the costs of the new memorial between Poland and private donations. The Poles insisted that a Polish national would design the memorial. The American side demanded that an international jury decide between the various designs that were submitted.

Eventually, a design submitted by a team of artists led by Andrzej Solyga was selected. But the project kept hitting roadblocks. The government in Warsaw changed several times; there were problems with the regional and local authorities, and at the last moment some ultra-Orthodox Jews launched a lawsuit to stop the project, because they said it would involve disturbing the remains of people buried there. 

It’s true that before construction of the new memorial began, a team of Polish archeologists drilled down into the earth at Belzec and found the locations of 33 mass graves. However, out of respect for these martyrs, the graves were not disturbed. Still, scientists vastly expanded their knowledge of this most opaque of camps, creating a historical record that will stand as a constant rebuke for anyone who would deny the Holocaust.

I worked for Reuters news service at the time, which the Poles paid a lot of attention to. Every so often, I would write another article, trying to keep the issue alive and remind the Polish government that the world was paying attention. I also wrote a novel, “The Nazi Hunter,” with a plot that revolved around Belzec. My aim was not just to entertain readers but also to inform them about this half-forgotten place.

The decision was made not only to build a new memorial, but also a museum there. Today, visitors entering the museum are confronted with a series of large photographs of some of the people who died there — and my grandfather is the second face they see. 

The memorial itself has turned the entire area of the camp into a sacred place. A large field of concrete slabs and rubble renders the site symbolically sterile and dead. A central path cuts through the center, evoking the “tube” which victims passed through on their way to the gas chambers. It slowly descends with walls rising on either side, leading ultimately to a wall built of Jerusalem stone. The deliberately claustrophobic experience of walking down this path symbolically re-creates the horror of the victims who had no escape. This areas is encircled by a path, with an inscription every few steps of European cities whose Jewish communities were destroyed at Belzec. 

Well, finally, the great day came for the new memorial to be inaugurated — June 3, 2004. I had the honor of attending, together with both my parents as well as my wife.

The contrast to our first visit could not have been greater. Then, my father and I had been alone. This time, thousands of visitors and dignitaries attended.

Pope John Paul II sent a personal message, as did President George W. Bush. An Israeli honor guard and marching band were there. Most of the Polish government, the diplomatic corps, and Christian and Jewish leaders attended. The place was crawling with security. Helicopters kept landing with more VIPs. And thousands upon thousands of ordinary Poles from the surrounding region came. Today, the museum is actually a driver of economic growth in one of the more backward areas of Poland, because it draws tens of thousands of visitors to the area.

“This whole Jewish universe of Galicia was wiped off the map and buried in this grave,” Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in a speech before lighting a candle in memory of the victims.

“I trust that as of today the memory of what happened here will not be only Jewish or Polish alone. We should spare no effort to make it part of the collective memory of the whole of Europe and the world at large.”

Few things I have done in my life have been as meaningful as the small contribution I made to building the new memorial at Belzec. It gives me satisfaction — but of course it will never replace the grandparents I never had a chance to know — Adolf and Bertha Elsner. May their memory be for a blessing. 

Alan Elsner is vice president for communications of J Street, an organization that advocates for U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution.

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. 

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.

A day of Holocaust memories


When 89-year-old Max Stodel arrived for a Feb. 17 program at the Skirball Cultural Center marking the run-up to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) 20th anniversary in April, he didn’t come alone.

In addition to his daughter, Betty Lazarus, the survivor of the Shoah who was interred in nine camps in Germany and the Netherlands brought notes he secretly wrote on cement bags while working as a foreman in a camp requesting that cigarettes, rice and beans be smuggled inside. He also arrived with displaced-person forms and prisoner papers that were drawn up upon his liberation.

It was part of a program called, “Rescuing the Evidence,” in which survivors and their families gave personal artifacts from the Holocaust to museum curators so that the items could become a part of the Washington, D.C., museum’s collection. Stodel, who had been up since 3 a.m. cleaning out his apartment of artifacts in preparation for the event, said he was “overwhelmed” by the curator’s response. 

“It made me feel good that the world will know more from a survivor,” said the member of Temple Akiba in Culver City. 

The daylong celebration and commemoration at the Skirball attracted more than 1,200 people, in addition to 225 survivors and 50 World War II veterans. It was open to the public and featured panel discussions, the screening of rare historical film footage, opportunities to conduct research about survivors and their families, and more.

Los Angeles represented the second stop of a four-city national tour undertaken by the museum as a lead-up to its anniversary. The itinerary already included a visit to Boca Raton, Fla., and upcoming stops will be in New York and Chicago. These communities were chosen because they have the largest survivor and World War II veteran populations, according to Andrew Hollinger, director of communications at USHMM. A national tribute dinner will take place April 28 in Washington.

“We wanted to thank all the communities that helped create the museum and make it such a great success in the last 20 years, and certainly Los Angeles was very prominent in that regard,” USHMM director Sara J. Bloomfield told the  Jewish Journal. 

Throughout the day at the L.A. event, attendees engaged in education and remembrance. In the Skirball courtyard, survivors and American military veterans marked where they were when World War II ended, placing pins on a blown-up map of Europe and North Africa. Nearby, families browsed the museum’s online archive for Holocaust documents that might contain evidence of what their parents and grandparents experienced during the war.

Elsewhere, panel discussions explored topics such as “Collaboration and Complicity: Who was Responsible for the Holocaust,” “From Memory to Action: Ending Genocide in the 21st Century” and “The World Memory Project,” a collaboration between the museum and Web site Ancestry.com that recruits the public to help build the world’s largest online resource for information about individual victims of Nazi persecution. 

Broadcast journalist Warren Olney, host of KCRW’s “Which Way, L.A.?” and “To the Point,” was among those who spoke during an hour-long tribute ceremony for Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans. 

“The fragility of freedom, the nature of hate, the danger of indifference, the [Holocaust] survivors endured an unimaginable horror, they were tormented by their persecutors, betrayed by their neighbors, abandoned by the world,” he said. “The [United States Holocaust Memorial] Museum’s work is to share those stories.”

The tribute ceremony kicked off in the Skirball’s Ahmanson Ballroom with a presentation of the flags of the U.S. Army divisions that have been certified as liberating divisions. Bloomfield, who was followed by Olney, then addressed a packed room concerning the importance of the museum’s mission. As every seat in the room was filled, the ceremony was simulcast on video screens all over the Skirball. 

Cantor Herschel Fox of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino led the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Zog Nit Keynmol,” or “The Partisans’ Song.” Afterward, 34 children and young adults — ages 10 to 20 — approached survivors and veterans and attached memorial pins to their clothing, while a composition by musician Leon Levitch, a survivor of an Italian concentration camp, played.

The 34 are current or former participants of Remember Us, which runs Righteous Conversations (a project that organizes teens and survivors to speak out about injustices) as well as a b’nai mitzvah project that invites young people to use the occasion of their bar and bat mitzvahs to commemorate children who were killed in the Holocaust before they could have their own bar or bat mitzvah. 

Levitch, 85, who was in attendance, told the Journal that these sorts of events make him “feel that was it was all worth it to survive, that it wasn’t for nothing.”

Late in the day, parents with children sitting on their laps informally gathered around survivor Avraham Perlmutter as he shared his story. During the war, Perlmutter said he hid, with help from Dutch families, under piles of coal, underneath a latrine and buried beneath hay in a horse stable, among other places.

Eventually, he made his way to the British military front and began working with them as an interpreter. He immigrated to Israel and, later, to the United States. As a young adult, Perlmutter studied at the Georgia Institute of Technology and at Princeton University, then started his own aeronautics company.  

“You’ve done so well,” said a woman listening. “Mazel tov.”

The event concluded with an invitation-only fundraising dinner, where  Los Angeles philanthropist Max Webb, a major donor to the museum, was among the guests.

Kapesh Patel, 37, a non-Jewish self-described history buff who took part in the commemoration at the Skirball, said it was a unique opportunity for him to be around Holocaust survivors.

“Where I hear [survivors’] stories, it’s just like, wow,” he said. “There is always something to be gained, especially from firsthand accounts of survivors.” 

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.”

Naples to open Jewish library


Naples is getting a Jewish library, one of three in all of Italy.

An exhibition called “Judaism and the Shoah in 500 Books from Five Centuries” opened Wednesday in the local Tucci library.

The Italian Jewish portal Moked reported that when the exhibition is over, the 500 books will remain to form a Judaica section of the library.

The books are in various languages, including English, French and Hungarian, in addition to Italian.

The oldest book in the collection dates from 1632, but most of the others deal with the Holocaust period, according to Moked.

Moked reported that this will be the first Jewish library open to the public in southern Italy and only the third in the country, after libraries in Rome and Milan. Naples is home to a small Jewish community.

Holocaust’s enduring lessons


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) will be transplanted, at least in part, from Washington, D.C.’s National Mall to Los Angeles on Feb. 17.

In a daylong commemoration and celebration at the Skirball Cultural Center, marking the run-up to the museum’s 20th anniversary in late April, visitors can participate in interactive workshops and panel discussions, watch rare historical film footage, and conduct research on survivors and their families.

In addition, an hour-long tribute ceremony will honor Southern California’s Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans, followed by a fundraising dinner.

“Twenty years after the founding of the museum, the timeless lessons of the Holocaust — the fragility of democracy, the nature of hate and the consequences of indifference — are more relevant than ever,” said USHMM director Sara J. Bloomfield.

In a phone interview, Bloomfield expanded on the theme, noting that the Holocaust teaches us that “the unthinkable is always thinkable.

“Almost 70 years after the Holocaust, we are still asking how this could happen and in one of the most educated and sophisticated countries in the world. Is hatred of ‘the other’ an unchangeable part of human nature?”

What we do know, she added, is that Holocaust denial is continuing, that the generation of survivors and war veterans is dying, and that freedom can never be taken for granted.

Bloomfield became the USHMM director in 1991, even while it was still in the process of creation, and she cited some of its accomplishments.

Last year, the museum hosted 1.7 million visitors, part of 35 million visitors since its opening. About one-third of all visitors are school children, 12 percent hail from foreign countries, and an astonishing 90 percent are non-Jews.

In 2011, the museum’s budget was $81.2 million, of which $51 million was the responsibility of the federal government, and about $31 million was raised through private donations.

USHMM’s Internet outreach is even larger, clicking in 38 million visitors from more than 100 countries in 2010, including half a million from countries with Muslim majorities. To accommodate such a large number of interested foreigners, the museum’s Web site offers information in 13 languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Chinese.

One of the museum’s most ardent Los Angeles supporters is Deborah Oppenheimer, executive vice president of NBC Universal International Television Production.

While working as a television producer at Warner Bros. in 2000, Oppenheimer won an Academy Award for producing “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.”

The children’s transport brought about 10,000 Jewish children between the ages of 2 and 17 from Nazi-dominated Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to safety in Great Britain, but on condition that they leave behind their parents.

Oppenheimer’s mother was on one such transport in 1938 and, like 90 percent of her fellow evacuees, never saw her parents again.

When Oppenheimer was researching material for her Kindertransport documentary, she turned to the Holocaust museum for help. “I was tremendously impressed by the museum staff, the extreme care it took in protecting, handling and archiving the material, much of it entrusted by survivors.”

For her film, Oppenheimer was especially interested to show examples of the few items the children had been allowed to take along as links to their past and their parents. Included were a pocket watch given as a bar mitzvah present; a sweater crocheted by a grandmother; and, from Oppenheimer’s mother, a pen-and-pencil set.

Los Angeles is the second stop in the museum’s tour of four cities with large numbers of survivors; the tour started in December in Boca Raton, Fla., and, after Los Angeles, continues to New York and Chicago.

The Feb. 17 panel discussion and workshops at the Skirball will probe such questions as, “Who was responsible for the Holocaust?” “What if Hitler had access to the Internet?” and “Can we make ‘Never Again’ more than a promise?”

Panelists will include Bloomfield, radio host Warren Olney, editor Peter Hayes, director Dan Schnur of the USC Unruh Institute of Politics, screenwriter-producer Eli Attie and author Philip Zimbardo.

USHMM’s 20th anniversary will climax April 28-29 with a national tribute to survivors and veterans at the museum, headed by Elie Wiesel, the museum’s founding chairman.

Admission to the Feb. 17 events at the Skirball is free, except for the tribute dinner, but advance registration is required.

 

To register, call (866) 998-7466 or go to ushmm.org/neveragain. That Web site provides information on all 20th anniversary activities and suggested actions by individuals to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.  

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.”

French Rapper Booba ‘Cyber-lynched’ for Mentioning Shoah


Dozens of anti-Semitic messages were left on the Facebook page of the popular French rapper Booba for vowing in a new song to avenge the victims of the Holocaust.

Booba, the son of a Muslim father from Senegal, raps in a song titled “Master Yoda” that was posted Feb. 2 on his Facebook page, “We’ll avenge like victims of slavery and the Shoah.”

Among the 4,340 comments left on his post were comments denying the Holocaust and calling for a new genocide against the Jewish people, in violation of French law on hate speech. Some comments used pejoratives against Booba, the stage name of 36-year-old Eli Yaffa, for mentioning the Holocaust.

A user identified as John Ken’Nabii wrote, “F**k the Shoah, invented by Zionists to legitimize Israel.” And from another user, Bassim Abir: “F**k your mother, you and the Shoah, we piss on all the Arabs that listen to you.”

JSS News, a French Jewish news site, termed the statements “cyber-lynching.”

Dozens of comments contained the phrase “shoananas,” a combination of the Hebrew name for the Holocaust with the French word for pineapple. Coined by the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne, it is used as a code word for denying the Holocaust seen to be too vague to violate France’s law forbidding it.

On Jan. 24, a French court ordered Twitter to divulge details of French users who made similar comments.

The post containing “Master Yoda” received 1,413 “likes” on Facebook. Booba has sold more than 1 million albums in France.

‘Lore’ sees Holocaust through German teen’s eyes


To help us grasp the enormity of the Holocaust, we have the testimonies of survivors, of liberators, even of bystanders, but what about the perpetrators and, even more, their children, who grew up worshipping Adolf Hitler?

“Lore,” the movie, grapples with that complex question from the perspective of the title character, a 14-year-old girl (impressively played by Saskia Rosendahl), daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his equally fanatical wife.

As Germany collapses in the spring of 1945, the Allies arrest Lore’s father as a war criminal, as well as her mother. Before her mother departs, she charges Lore to take her four younger siblings, the youngest one little more than a baby, across the rubble-strewn fatherland to her grandmother’s farm in Bavaria.

Along the way, Lore and her charges get a lift from American soldiers; she is almost raped by a German farmer; she sees a brother shot dead by a Red Army guard and trades the family jewels for a loaf of bread.

She also encounters a cross section of her countrymen and women, barely able to comprehend what has happened to their fatherland and fuehrer, and confronted for the first time with the crimes of the Nazi regime.

As one who has lived through and participated in a good part of this history, I can attest that the reactions of many of these solid burghers ring absolutely true.

Shown the first photos of a death camp, an elderly woman averts her eyes and moans, “If the fuehrer had known what was going on, he would have put a stop to it.”

A man looking admiringly at a framed photo of Hitler blames the German people for letting the fuehrer down and admonishes the volk for “breaking his heart.” Still another patriot informs bystanders that the emaciated prisoners in an Auschwitz photo are actually actors hired by the Americans.

Lore angrily tears down the American “propaganda” poster but soon faces a more personal problem.

Thomas, a strange young man, attaches himself to the young refugees and becomes their self-appointed protector and food scavenger. Lore is drawn to Thomas (Kai Malina) emotionally and physically, until he produces his ID papers at a checkpoint.

The documents, and the tattooed numbers on his arm, identify him as a Jewish concentration camp survivor, a member of that race Lore has been taught to despise from infancy.

She threatens Thomas that her father, the imprisoned SS officer, “will deal” with him and lashes out that “all you filthy Jews are liars.” But is the young man actually a Jew or only impersonating one?

Toward the end of the film, Lore is still confused and torn, but gradually begins to question the deeds of a father and fuehrer she once adored and trusted unquestioningly.

In some respects, the film is a curious one. Young Saskia Rosendahl in the title role gives an impressive performance, and the portrayal of the average German confronting the collapse of his world is spot on.

At the same time, director Cate Shortland depicts the wandering of the five kids in a nightmare world at an oddly slow, at times static, pace.

Oddest, however, is that “Lore” was submitted into this year’s Oscar competition for best foreign-language film by Australia.

The Aussies can hardly be considered “foreign” (meaning non-English) under the rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Actually, the movie is entirely in German, with a cast of German actors. What makes it “Australian” is that director Shortland was born and bred Down Under.

During Shortland’s visit to Los Angeles to boost her film’s Oscar chances (it didn’t make the cut), the Journal asked her how she came to make a movie in a language she hardly speaks, and her answers were quite intriguing.

 “I have always been interested in the effects of living in a totalitarian society, and especially what that does to children,” she said.

Shortland also has given considerable thought to the issue of national guilt, noting that “Australians are still in denial [over] what their ancestors did to the Aborigines in settling my country.”

Her interests became even more personal when she married a Jewish man whose family had left Berlin in 1936 and settled in Sydney. Four years ago, she converted to Judaism, observing, “I am no longer Cate the shiksa.” The couple has added more diversity to their family by adopting two black children.

All these factors fused when she read “The Dark Room,” a novella written by Rachel Seiffert, whose protagonist’s experiences closely resemble those of the film’s Lore.

“I was terrified when I started out to make this film,” Shortland confessed, partly because of the language problem in interacting with the cast and crew, but also her fear that the film could be taken as an apology for the Nazi regime. 

The fear is unfounded. The Nazi indoctrination of German youth was intense beyond belief, and an acknowledgment that the German people — guilty or not — suffered greatly during the war in no way diminishes the unspeakable crimes committed by them and in their name.

“Lore” opens Feb. 8 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino, as well as at Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine.

‘Freud’s Sister’: Abandoned by her brother to the Nazis, a story of childhood love and betrayal


books@jewishjournal.com.

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.

Artists from inside the concentration camps


The Nazis gassed and murdered 1 million prisoners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex, but they could not kill the human urge to create and leave behind a sign of their existence for future generations.

Some 20 examples of the prisoners’ artistic legacy are on display in the exhibition “Forbidden Art,” continuing through Jan. 31 at UCLA Hillel and the neighboring St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.

These works — miniature sculptures, drawings and pages of diaries — represent “ ‘art as a message in a bottle’  sent from the grave to future generations,” said Todd Presner, director of the UCLA Jewish Studies Center.

The art here was more than a figure of speech; prisoners actually inserted their messages into bottles and jars and buried them throughout the campgrounds.

Presner will speak on this topic at a symposium at 4 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Hillel building. Art historian Lisa Saltzman of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania will give the keynote address on “Images in Spite of All,” and Elzbieta Cajzer of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum will explain the exhibition’s origin.        

Artists have been persecuted for their works throughout history, but the prisoner artists in this exhibition risked the death penalty, if caught. Against this background, the works are truly remarkable. A 5-inch sarcophagus holds a human figurine made of a partly burned human bone. A tiny sculpture of a prisoner was whittled from the leg of a chair.

Appended to the portrait of an inmate is the request by the subject that it be smuggled to the outside to reassure his family that he “still looked like a human being.”

A miniature figure of a devil, made from tape and a piece of wire, did double duty because its hollow leg was used to smuggle messages between barracks.

Franciszek Jawiecki, panel detail: “A Portrait of Piotr Kajzer,” 20×14 cm, paper, pencil, crayon, KL Buchenwald, 1944. Photo courtesy of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies

Polish prisoner Franciszek Jazwiecki made drawings of 114 fellow inmates, which, after being discovered by the SS, drew a relatively “mild” sentence of three months in an especially harsh penal colony.

The artist said that his defiance of the Nazi rules required no great bravery on his part, because it allowed him “to stay and create in my own world.”

Some prisoners put out of their minds the brutality of their existence by creating escapist fare, such as books for children, caricatures of their oppressors and an album of drawings for women held at an Auschwitz subcamp depicting romantic scenes in rustic settings.

These idealized scenes were particularly ironic, since almost all women prisoners at Ravensbrück and other camps were disfigured by ulcerations, furuncles and festering wounds.

All works here are shown through photographs of the originals, which remain at the Auschwitz memorial.

Each image is framed by a massive wooden display case, as if looking out from the door of a camp barracks. The sheer size of the exhibition led Hillel artistic director Perla Karney to seek additional space from the Rev. Susan Webster Klein, rector of the neighboring St. Alban’s Church.

Klein readily assented, observing, “This exhibition is a powerful reminder that the presence of God — and the beauty of the human spirit — can be found everywhere.”

This first-time joint endeavor between these Jewish and Christian institutions in Westwood is complemented by other collaborations to underwrite the transfer and setting up of the exhibition, Presner said.

For example, sponsors include the Polish and German governments, UCLA’s history and German language departments, the “1939” Club of Holocaust survivors, the Gilbert and Goldrich foundations, and the Wolfen family.

“Forbidden Art” is open for viewing 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday through Jan. 31 at Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., and St. Alban’s, 580 Hilgard Ave. Admission is free. 

Speakers at the Jan. 17 symposium will also include Hillel’s Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Polish Consul General Joanna Kozinska-Frybes, German Consul General Bernd Fischer and Jacek Kastelaniec, director general of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. Patrons planning to attend the symposium must pre-register by phoning (310) 267-5327 or by e-mailing cjsrsvp@humnet.ucla.edu.

Parking is available for $11 at UCLA Structure 2, Westholme and Hilgard avenues.

Tracing Jewish genetics


The single most hotly debated (and often heartbreaking) issue of Jewish identity is whether and to what extent we carry our Jewishness in our blood. It’s a question that took on life-and-death implications during the Spanish Inquisition and again during the Shoah, but it still arises in Israel today when it comes to whether a man or woman is entitled to be married there or to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

For Harry Ostrer, a professor of pathology and genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, it is question that can be answered by the science of DNA, as he explains in “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People” (Oxford University Press: $24.95).

“It was my effort as a medical geneticist to bring the benefits of contemporary human genetics to my own people and to understand my Jewishness,” he explains. “For me, the work with various aspects of Jewish genetics provided a new framework for thinking about Jews.”

Yet Ostrer himself acknowledges that early reports of his work in Jewish genetics prompted a fierce and combative response in some circles. One commentator, for example, declared that “Hitler would have been pleased by our findings.” Indeed, Ostrer’s stated purpose in recasting his scientific research into a book for a general readership is to “tone down the debate into a more thoughtful realm.”

The story begins with the observation that certain diseases seemed to occur more often in Jewish patients, an issue that was investigated in the early 20th century by anthropologist Maurice Fishberg. He found that diabetes was not “a racial disease” — contrary to the belief of some German doctors who called it Judenkrankeit, that is, a Jewish disease — but he pointed out that the condition then known as “amaurotic family idiocy” (now known as Tay-Sachs disease) “occurred almost exclusively among Jews.”

Fishberg, as it happens, suffered from many of the same misconceptions that have always plagued the subject of Jewish identity, including the notion that someone can “look Jewish.” He also concluded that “Jews were not a pure race but a racial composite, having mixed with surrounding populations during their long history,” a statement that hints at scientific truth, even though it relies on the unfortunate terminology of race. Fishberg had glimpsed something that Ostrer would later prove: “ ‘Looking Jewish,’ ” explains Ostrer, “should reflect the common geographic origin of contemporary Jewish people with evidence of a shared genetic legacy among themselves.”

While it is treacherous to treat the Bible as a work of history, it is true that the Jewish population of ancient Israel was dispersed by various foreign conquerors. Over two millennia of exile, the Jewish genetic profile came to include an “admixture with other populations,” as Ostrer writes. Diversity, rather than purity, is a fact of Jewish identity, both culturally and genetically. But Ostrer wanted to know if some genetic evidence links a contemporary Jewish man or woman to the Jews of biblical Israel.

The answer, as it turns out, is yes. He acknowledges the differences in various Jewish communities — Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Iranian and so on — but he points out that Jews around the world share a genetic heritage that points to a common point of origin in ancient Israel. “All of the populations, with the exception of the Indians and Ethiopians, had mitochondrial genomes that were of Middle Eastern origin.”

Some of Ostrer’s surmises are truly shocking.  He argues that the dating of genetic mutation “provid[es] to genetics what carbon dating has provided to archaeology and paleontology,” and suggests that the increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer, Parkinson’s disease and hemophilia entered the Jewish genetic profile during or shortly after the reigns of David and Solomon.

On the yearnful aspirations of contemporary Jews who regard themselves as lineal descendants of David and Solomon, however, Ostrer is less encouraging. Indeed, he characterizes the effort to find a “Davidic Y-chromosomal lineage” to be “a flop.” And he warns that the search for one’s origins is not always an uplifting enterprise: “Some men will walk taller when they learn about shared ancestry with the Cohanim,” he warns. “Others will be surprised to learn about their ancestral skeletons in the closet.”

Ostrer acknowledges the sharper edges of the debate in Israel and the Diaspora over “who is a Jew” and what it means for the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. But he insists that it is wrong to assume that Jewishness is essentially self-defined as a religious or cultural affiliation. “The evidence for biological Jewishness,” he insists, “has become incontrovertible.”

“[T]he Jews can be said to be a people with a shared genetic legacy,” he sums up, “although not all Jews share the same genes, nor is having part of that legacy a requirement for being Jewish.”

Ostrer approaches the whole subject from a scientific stance, and he has something provocative but also important to say to any reader who has wondered about what it takes to be an authentic Jew. But there are some other consequential implications to his assertion that Jews carry “a 3,000-year genetic legacy,” if only because it soundly repudiates the claims of Ahmadinejad and his fellow thinkers in the Muslim world that Jews are only newcomers and interlopers in the place that was the site of biblical Israel.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Shlomo Venezia, who survived being an Auschwitz Sonderkommando, dies


Shlomo Venezia, a Holocaust survivor who wrote about his experiences in an Auschwitz Sonderkommando unit and spent years bearing personal testimony to the Shoah, has died.

Venezia, who was born in Salonika (Thessaloniki), Greece, died Sept. 30 in Rome at the age of 88.

Deported to Auschwitz in 1944, he was one of the few survivors of the notorious Sonderkommando units – teams of prisoners forced to move and cremate the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers. His mother and two sisters were killed in Auschwitz. He wrote about his experiences in a memoir, “Sonderkommando Auschwitz,” published in 2007.

Venezia was very active speaking about the Holocaust at schools, public events and in the media, and he accompanied Italian student groups on study trips to Auschwitz.

His death “leaves a vacuum and great pain,” said Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno.

Nicola Zingaretti, the president of Rome province, said: “It is difficult today, and it has always been difficult, to find the words to thank Shlomo for all that he has given us and all that he has taught us, and it is difficult, maybe impossible, to comprehend the depth of his suffering, his courage and his generosity.”

The Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also paid tribute. “Shlomo Venezia was an exceptional and tireless witness of this dark period of history,” she said in a statement. “He dedicated many years of his life telling his story in Italy and throughout Europe to serve as a warning for the future. He influenced a whole generation of young people, teachers and historians, thanks to his deep loyalty to the memory of the deceased. All those who knew him were struck by his modesty and his strength of character,” she said. “His death is a call to intensify efforts for educating and transmitting the history of the Holocaust around the world.”