Auschwitz survivors urge a troubled Europe not to forget


Auschwitz's last survivors urged the world not to forget the horror of the Holocaust 70 years after the Nazi death camp was liberated in the final throes of World War Two, an anniversary that finds Europe again confronted by intolerance.

European Jews warn of a growing under-current of anti-Semitism, fuelled by anger at Israeli policy in the Middle East and social tensions over immigration, inequality and increasing economic hardship under austerity policies that have contributed to a rise of far-right political movements in Europe.

With deep snow blanketing the Polish countryside, some 300 aging survivors and a host of world leaders gathered on Tuesday under a tent at the brickwork entrance to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, the railway tracks that bore more than a million European Jews to their deaths illuminated in gold.

“Seventy years later, the daily cruelty is still etched in my mind,” former prisoner Roman Kent told the gathering.

The commemoration marked perhaps the last major anniversary that survivors of Auschwitz, the youngest of them in their 70s, will be able to attend in notable numbers.

It was held in the shadow of war in neighbouring Ukraine, a spate of assaults on Jews in Europe and a recrudescence of open anti-Semitism even as memories of the Holocaust fade with the passing of those who lived through it.

“To remember is not enough; deeds are crucial,” said Kent. “It is our mutual obligation – the survivors and world leaders – to install an understanding of what happens when prejudice and hatred are allowed to flourish.”

A string quartet played the work of Szymon Laks, a Polish Jewish composer who led the prisoners' orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau and managed to survive the war. David Wisnia, an 88-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, sang a funeral prayer of the Ashkenazi Jews, moving some of those present to tears.

Seated among them were the heads of state of Germany, France and other nations. France's Francois Hollande made the trip less than three weeks after 17 people, four of them Jews, were killed in Paris by Islamist gunmen in attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly newspaper and a kosher supermarket.

Speaking earlier in the day at the Paris Shoah memorial, Hollande addressed France's 550,000-strong Jewish community:

“You, French people of the Jewish faith, your place is here, in your home. France is your country.”

'I WANT TO CRY IT OUT'

Around 1.5 million people, mainly European Jews, were gassed, shot, hanged and burned at the Nazi German death camp in southern Poland, before the Soviet Red Army entered its gates in the winter of 1945 during its decisive advance on Berlin.

Auschwitz has become probably the most poignant symbol of a Holocaust that claimed six million Jewish lives across Europe.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germans had an everlasting responsibility to fight all forms of anti-Semitism and racism. “We've got to expose those who promote prejudices and conjure up bogeymen, the old ones as well as the new,” Merkel said on the eve of the anniversary, in apparent reference to the right-wing grassroots PEGIDA movement in Germany.

The camp's victims included, among others, Roma, homosexuals and all shades of political opposition to the Nazis.

Notable for his absence was Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support of pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine has helped drive Western-Russian relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War ended 25 years ago.

Poland has been one of the most vociferous critics of Russia's March 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and its support for Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Keen to avoid a domestic political furore, Poland did not send a full diplomatic invitation to Putin, sources told Reuters.

“It would be hard to imagine, in this situation, hosting Russia's president. Albeit informally, Russia is taking part in this (Ukraine) conflict,” Polish Justice Minister Cezary Grabarcyk told Polish ZET radio.

NATO says Russia has sent men and armour to aid the separatists. Putin denies this, but risks new sanctions when European Union foreign ministers meet on Thursday.

Among those who made the return trip to Auschwitz for the first time on Tuesday was 84-year-old Susan Pollack, who made Britain her home after the war having lost her mother to the camp's gas chambers.

Pollack told Reuters: “If at all possible, I'm hoping maybe some relief will come. And I want cry it out, because back then crying in the camp meant weakness, and weakness meant death.”

World leaders join last survivors in recalling Auschwitz


World leaders joined around 300 Auschwitz survivors at the site of the former Nazi death camp on Tuesday to mark 70 years since its liberation by Soviet troops, an anniversary held in the shadow of war in Ukraine and a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe.

Tuesday's gathering in southern Poland marks perhaps the last major anniversary that survivors of the camp will be able to attend in numbers, given the youngest are now in their 70s. Some 1,500 attended the 60th anniversary.

Around 1.5 million people, mainly European Jews, were gassed, shot, hanged and burned at the camp in southern Poland during World War Two, before the Red Army entered its gates in winter 1945. It has become probably the most poignant symbol of a Holocaust that claimed six million Jewish lives across Europe.

The presidents of Poland, Germany, France were among hundreds attending the commemoration in a giant tent erected over the brickwork entrance to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, part of the complex that is now a museum.

The railway tracks that bore Jews in wagons from all across Europe to their deaths were lit up gold, the countryside around covered in deep snow.

France's Francois Hollande made the trip less than three weeks after Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris in attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly newspaper and a kosher supermarket.

Four French Jews were among the dead, the latest victims of a recent spate of armed attacks on Jews in Europe.

Speaking earlier in the day at the Paris Shoah memorial to French Jews who died at Auschwitz and elsewhere during World War Two, Hollande addressed France's 550,000-strong Jewish community.

“You, French people of the Jewish faith, your place is here, in your home. France is your country,” he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in a statement, said the Paris attacks were a “painful reminder of our obligation to condemn and combat rising anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust.”

MERKEL: 'MUST BE ON GUARD'

European Jews warn of a growing under-current of anti-Semitism, fuelled by anger at Israeli policy in the Middle East and social tensions over issues of immigration, inequality and economic hardship that have contributed to a rise of far-right political movements, notably the grass-roots PEGIDA movement in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germans had an everlasting responsibility to fight all forms of anti-Semitism and racism.

“We've got to expose those who promote prejudices and conjure up bogeymen, the old ones as well as the new,” Merkel said on the eve of the anniversary.

The camp's victims also included, among others, Roma, homosexuals and all shades of political opposition to the Nazis.

Notable for his absence was Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose backing of pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine has helped drive West-Russia relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.

Poland has been one of the most vociferous critics of Russia's March annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Wary of the domestic political consequences, Poland did not send a full diplomatic invitation to Putin, sources have told Reuters.

“It would be hard to imagine, in this situation, hosting Russia's president. Albeit informally, Russia is taking part in this conflict,” Polish Justice Minister Cezary Grabarcyk told Polish ZET radio.

NATO says Russia has sent men and armour to aid the separatists. Putin denies this, but risks new sanctions when European Union foreign ministers meet on Thursday.

Russia was represented at the commemoration by Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov. Attending a memorial event in Moscow, Putin warned of the “terrible traits” of “claims to world domination”.

“And of course, we all know how dangerous and damaging are double standards, indifference and disregard of the fate of others,” he said. “For example – the case of the tragedy these days in southeastern Ukraine, where for months civilians have been shot in cold blood in the Donbass, Luhansk and other cities and towns.”

David Wisnia, an 88-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, said on Monday the Holocaust was “almost impossible for a human mind to comprehend.” A choir boy as a child at Warsaw's Great Synagogue, which was blown up by Nazi forces in 1943, Wisnia will sing a memorial prayer in Hebrew on Tuesday.

“I pray to God that we as human beings are able to learn something from it,” he said.

Iranian denies plan to attack Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan


An Iranian man arrested on suspicion of planning an attack on the Israeli embassy in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan denies the allegation, an Iranian diplomat said on Thursday.

Hassan Faraji, 31, is the latest in a number of Iranians to be accused of criminal plots in recent years in Azerbaijan, which has tense ties with its larger southern neighbor.

Faraji was detained near the Israeli embassy in the capital Baku on October 31 but his arrest was made public on Wednesday, when state TV showed footage of police raiding an apartment.

“Faraji had a detailed plan of an attack on personnel of the Israeli embassy…He put up a resistance to the police during a detention,” police said in a statement.

A court in Azerbaijan sentenced him to one month pre-trial detention, while Azeri and Israeli media reported that he had connections with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an allegation an Iranian official denied.

“This information does not correspond to the reality,” the Iranian embassy spokesman, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.

Iranian embassy officials met Faraji in custody.

“He denies all charges and believes that his innocence will be proved during an investigation,” he said.

The case is a part of wider diplomatic tensions between the neighbors, which share a religion but have sharply different political systems.

Some 15 percent of Iranians are ethnic Azeris and there are strong linguistic and family ties straddling the border, adding another strain to ties.

Iran has accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israel in the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Azerbaijan, for its part, has arrested dozens of people last year on suspicion of connections with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and of plotting attacks, including on the Israeli ambassador to Baku.

Iranian citizen Phaiz Bakhram Hassan was sentenced last month to 15 years in prison for an attempt to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku. He was arrested last year.

Iran closed two check-points on the border with Azerbaijan this month in response to the closure of another border check-point by the Azeri side after a gunman opened fire from the Iranian side of the border on a tractor, officials said.

Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Putin: First Soviet government was mostly Jewish


Russian President Vladimir Putin said that at least 80 percent of the members of the first Soviet government were Jewish.

“I thought about something just now: The decision to nationalize this library was made by the first Soviet government, whose composition was 80-85 percent Jewish,” Putin said June 13 during a visit to Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Putin was referencing the library of Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The books, which are claimed by Chabad representatives in the United States, began being moved to the museum in Moscow this month.

According to the official transcription of Putin’s speech at the museum, he went on to say that the politicians on the predominantly Jewish Soviet government “were guided by false ideological considerations and supported the arrest and repression of Jews, Russian Orthodox Christians, Muslims and members of other faiths. They grouped everyone into the same category.

“Thankfully, those ideological goggles and faulty ideological perceptions collapsed. And today, we are essentially returning these books to the Jewish community with a happy smile.”

Widely seen as the first Soviet government, the Council of People’s Commissars was formed in 1917 and comprised 16 leaders, including chairman Vladimir Lenin, foreign affairs chief Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, who was in charge of the People’s Commissariat of Nationalities.

Sharansky wins second term as head of Jewish Agency


Natan Sharansky was elected to a second term as chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Sharansky won four more years in the vote Tuesday by the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, which is meeting in Jerusalem.

A day earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called on the board to reappoint Sharansky, calling him a “symbol of Jewish unity and a symbol of the triumph of the Jewish people over adversity.”

Sharansky was a Soviet dissident who was incarcerated for nine years. After his release in 1986, he immigrated to Israel, where he was reunited with his wife, Avital. He served as a member of the Knesset for nine years and as a minister in several government departments, as well as deputy prime minister.

As head of the Jewish Agency, Sharansky has worked to strengthen relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

In December, Netanyahu asked Sharansky to study the situation at the Western Wall and offer recommendations to the government on how to make the site more accommodating to all Jews.

Sharansky said Tuesday during a session at the Board of Governors meeting that he will not present recommendations on women's prayer at the Wall until a new government coalition is in place, Haaretz reported.

Kennedy seen as giant on domestic issues, Soviet Jewry


U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is being remembered in the Jewish community for his huge impact on domestic issues such as education and health care, but also as a giant in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Kennedy “was one of the earliest, strongest champions on behalf of Soviet Jewry,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “He was always proactive and didn’t wait for NCSJ and other organizations to come to him—he was always looking to see where he could make a difference.”

In his 2006 book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” Natan Sharansky specifically mentions Kennedy as the first Western politician to meet with refuseniks “in a midnight meeting that was kept secret from the KGB until the very last moment.”

And Levin noted that whenever Kennedy met with Soviet officials, in Washington or in the Soviet Union, he would bring lists of those he wanted to see released.

“He never forgot we were talking about individuals and families,” Levin said.

Kennedy also will be remembered as a strong champion of Israel. Jewish organizational officials noted that he was a stalwart supporter of foreign aid, opposed arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, and was a strong backer of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He also publicly rebuked President George H.W. Bush when he linked settlements to U.S. loan guarantees for the emigration of Soviet Jews, and was a leading voice in speaking out against the Arab boycott of Israel.

Israeli official rushed to praise Kennedy, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the senator “an American patriot” and “a great friend of Israel,” according to media reports.

And Israeli President Shimon Peres said Kennedy’s death was “a very big loss to every sensitive and thinking person the world over.”

“Kennedy was a clear friend of Israel the whole way, and in every place that he could help us he did help,” he added.

The late senator drew praise from a broad range of Jewish organizations, including both the Orthodox Union and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They noted that he had worked on a vast array of domestic issues over his 47 years on Capitol Hill, from religious liberty bills such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to his efforts on children’s health insurance.

In a statement, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Nancy Ratzan, said: “We were honored to work by his side on so many critical issues: Family and Medical Leave, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, the Americans with Disability Act, hate crimes prevention, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, health care, the increase in the minimum wage, and numerous judicial nominations—to name a few.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement that the “greatest tribute” to Kennedy would be to enact comprehensive health insurance reform.

“On the little stuff and the big stuff, he was always there for us,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Boston JCRC. “There wasn’t an issue he wasn’t on top of.”

Jews laud Boris Yeltsin’s legacy


Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first popularly elected president, made a lasting impact on Russian Jewry, though his legacy included its share of controversy and tragic failures.

Russian Jewish leaders agree that the community should remember Yeltsin, who died Monday at age 76, primarily as the man who ended decades of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Russia.

“With Yeltsin’s passing, a page is closed for the Jewish community, that of revolutionary changes in the life of Soviet and Russian Jewry,” said Borukh Gorin, spokesman for the Federations of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish group.

“Yeltsin was an important figure” for the Jewish community, said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a Washington-based group that works on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

“His opening of the country allowed for the development of Jewish communities throughout Russia. His willingness to create a more open, democratic country certainly had an impact on the Jewish community.”

Both of Russia’s chief rabbis offered their condolences Monday to Yeltsin’s wife, Naina, and daughter, Tatyana.

Mikhail Chlenov, who established Russia’s first legal Jewish group in the early years of Yeltsin’s rule, said Jews should remember Yeltsin as a great figure.

“It was his great achievement that the new Russia came to life without that evil called state anti-Semitism,” said Chlenov, president of the Va’ad of Russia.

Others credit Yeltsin for allowing Jewish life to develop freely in Russia to an extent that was hard to imagine even under his predecessor, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

With American Jewish activists marking the 40th anniversary this year of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, it is notable that meaningful Jewish emigration began under Gorbachev, but it was Yeltsin who really opened the floodgates.

“While Gorbachev made freedom of emigration a reality for Soviet Jews, it was Yeltsin who made possible an unprecedented freedom of Jewish life in the country,” Gorin said. “Jewish schools and new synagogues were opened — it was he who made the impossible possible.”

Yeltsin was much criticized for economic policies that left millions of Russians below the poverty line, but he was the “ultimate Russian president with a very Russian character,” Gorin said. “It’s no exaggeration to say we were blessed to have Yeltsin as president.”

Another leading figure of the Russian Jewish renaissance during Yeltsin’s presidency noted the fundamental changes in civil liberties and economic freedom that Yeltsin helped establish in Russia — changes that ultimately benefited Jews.

“I won’t make a direct connection between Yeltsin’s rule and Jewish life in Russia unless we take into account the maxim that the more freedom there is, the better it is for Jews,” said Alexander Osovtsov, who served as executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress from 1996 to 2000.

But Yeltsin’s legacy also was filled with controversy.

“His resignation did not mean an immediate return of the things he demolished, but I cannot consider it accidental that during his rule, many people with anti-Semitic views came to power,” Osovtsov said.

Osovtsov noted in particular Boris Mironov, an anti-Semitic publicist now on trial for hate speech who served as press minister early in Yeltsin’s tenure.

“This only underscores the controversies of this gigantic figure,” said Osovtsov, who is now a liberal opposition activist.

At the same time, some observers said that controversial policies in the second half of Yeltsin’s presidency — such as the escalating war in Chechnya and his decision to appoint a successor rather than have one elected — paved the rise to power for Vladimir Putin and the slide back toward authoritarianism that has been associated with his rule.

Yet Osovtsov said Yeltsin’s legacy cannot be underestimated, since some of the fundamental changes associated with his reign — including the end of state-sponsored anti-Semitism — have continued long after he left the office.

Chlenov agreed that Yeltsin was a controversial and even tragic figure, which has become even more evident since he stepped down in December 1999 in favor of Putin.

Yeltsin successfully fought the predominance of communist ideology, but was unsuccessful in overcoming the influence of bureaucracy and powerful apparatchiks. Many of the negative trends in Russian political and public life since his resignation are a direct result of the unfinished struggle Yeltsin led, Chlenov said.

“These are these bureaucratic circles who are taking their revenge now,” Chlenov said.

Hollywood and the Holocaust


One wet night 15 years after the end of World War II, in the student union of my university in Northern Ireland, I watched a documentary film made up of home movies taken by Soviet troops at the liberation of the concentration camps. Unlike some similar Allied footage, the Soviets, interested in the propaganda value of the material, had made no attempt to sanitize it for public consumption. They wanted the film to be every bit as hellish as the reality.

I was 18 years old, and it remains the most fearful thing I have ever seen. On that evening I realized the enormity of the evil of the Holocaust. Nothing I saw subsequently on the subject ever equaled its impact. Certainly nothing produced by Hollywood.

When I was growing up in Europe, World War II was simply a part of our everyday consciousness; it was in the air we breathed. It was our parents’ time clock. Everything was “before the war” or “after the war.” It was difficult to find a story on the radio or in British movies that didn’t have something to do with it. And the Holocaust was part of the war; the most important part, if you happened to be Jewish.

America was a different world. The war on this side of the Atlantic was, more often, the battle for the Pacific. Bombs never rained down on American homes. German and Italian prisoners of war weren’t in camps just outside your towns. And Hollywood did its part to keep the subject remote.

In the years since, the American movie industry — founded, organized and to a large extent run by Jews — for the most part scrupulously avoided the subject, except for the occasional film like “Judgment at Nuremberg” or “Exodus,” for which it was a backdrop.

Nobody wanted to look at those barely living skeletons in striped uniforms. The piles of bodies were a real downer, and Hollywood abhorred a downer.

Then in 1993 came “Schindler’s List,” and the movie landscape changed. Suddenly the Holocaust was a resume-enhancer. It had turned Steven Spielberg from the boy wonder with the common touch to the socially conscious heavyweight whose name was intoned in a respectful hush. The camps were suddenly in fashion.

But that alone surely can’t account for the deluge of Holocaust projects currently heading to your home screen in the months to come:

“Anne Frank,” a four-hour miniseries based on the recent biography by Melissa Muller, airs May 20 and 21 on ABC; “Varian’s War,” the story of Varian Fry, the effete American who saved scores of Europe’s leading Jewish artists from the Shoah, plays on Showtime on April 22; and “Conspiracy: The Meeting at Wannsee” about the conference that laid out the template for the destruction of the Jews, plays on HBO on May 19. NBC, moreover, is finishing up a very expensive miniseries, “The Uprising,” directed by Jon Avnet, about the freedom fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.

In February, CBS aired “Haven,” the story of an American Jew, Ruth Gruber, who escorted thousands of Jewish refugees out of Nazi-occupied Europe. The 2001 Oscar for Best Documentary went to “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” the story of European Jewish children sent by their parents to safety with families in England.

Note that these are TV or documentary projects. None are feature movies. In an age when $20-million weekend openings are de rigueur for keeping a studio head in his corner office, executives might risk a World War II picture like “Enemy at the Gates,” but to do another expensive Holocaust epic would be foolhardy. Television, however, particularly cable, is an endless maw ready to gobble up good stories, and the Holocaust has 6 million of them, story being the operative word.

The fact is that at the beginning of the 21st century, World War II and the Holocaust are ancient history to the vast majority of TV-watchers. Thus the Shoah joins the French Revolution, the Civil War and the War of Independence as simply dramatic material rather than the most traumatic event of our times. And Hitler is up there with Genghis Khan and Darth Vader as just another bad guy.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, who produced Oscar-winning documentaries on the Holocaust (“Genocide,” “The Long Way Home”), says the subject fills a need for today’s filmmakers.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, moviemakers were virtually left with two options. They could go into the 22nd and 23rd century with futuristic fantasies about life on other planets, or they could go back to the Second World War and the Nazi Holocaust. It’s a very tantalizing subject.” Some stories have taken 60 years to tell, like “Varian’s War,” a tale that director Lionel Chetwynd is convinced was suppressed for reasons of diplomacy. Varian’s enemy was not the Nazis, but the Vichy French. And until recently in the popular wisdom (and on the screen, with the notable exception of Casablanca) the French were our freedom-loving, resistance-fighting allies, rather than an important part of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews.

Chetwynd suggests another reason for the renewed interest in these stories: the desperate lack of heroes in our time. “This is a canvas with people who were able to perceive evil … and to make a moral choice, and then act upon it at the risk of their own lives, and there just doesn’t seem to be much of that around us [today].”

And something else has changed. The last survivors are dying off. The memories of those who are left are dimming. For filmmakers, this means stories can be manipulated, liberties taken, more or less with impunity. It’s a whole new ball game.

There are, of course, dangers galore here. As those who lived it pass on, as memories fade, and as children get their history from television, if at all, do we really want Hollywood to be the guardian of the story of the central tragedy of the contemporary Jewish world? Do we run the risk of boredom — of Joe Citizen in his fireside chair yelling: “Jeez, Martha, not another one of those damned Holocaust things!”

Rabbi Hier, for one, is willing to take the risk. “Of course there is danger if you tamper with the material too much. There is the danger of its being trivialized. But if it’s a choice between having people talk about it, write about it and make movies about it, or allowing the Holocaust to die a death and putting a gate around it like a sacred cemetery which no one must enter, I would choose the former. If we keep the Final Solution a secret, we have done Hitler’s work for him.”

There’s not much danger of that for now, provided the ratings are high. Of course, if the Holocaust proves a ratings dud, we may have to wait another half a century for these stories to surface once more.

Lighten Up


With the demise of the former Soviet Union and the fall of communism in the early ’90s, the story of Soviet Jewry’s battle for survival appears to be ancient history. Yet one of the truly remarkable books of our time is the autobiography of one of the famous refuseniks, Yosef Mendelevitch, who struggled valiantly for his right to be Jewish in Communist Russia. Mendelevitch titled his autobiography "Mevzah Hatunah," which translates from Hebrew as "Operation Wedding."

Mendelevitch, together with a group of refusenik friends, tried to escape from the USSR in the early ’70s on a plane they had hoped to fly to Israel. But the KGB uncovered their plan, and they were arrested. At the trial they said that they were planning to go to a wedding. That story served as the basis for the book’s title.

Mendelevitch records how, during his prison sentence, he was often sent to solitary confinement in a 3-foot by 5-foot room with no heat or blanket, with a light that never turned off and a slop pail that was only emptied every 10 days. One stint in solitary lasted 90 days, but he sneaked in a Bible. He was caught reading his Bible a few days later, and the interrogator offered him the following deal: "If you give up the Bible, I will reduce your solitary confinement by 30 days. But if you keep it, I will add 30 days." He answered, "With my Bible there is no solitary confinement; without it, solitary confinement is unbearable."

This very thought is found in this week’s Torah portion. At the very start of the reading, the Torah records the commandment about which oil should be used for the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle. After telling us that pure olive oil was needed, the Torah states that it was used "to lift the perpetual light." This expression is most unusual, for we would have expected the word to be "to kindle." The rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 45b) suggest that "to lift" teaches us that the fire for the menorah came from an already existing fire that was continually burning. The Talmud remarks, "A fire about which continually has been stated: It is the one with which they light the lamps of the menorah … from the fire which is on the altar." It was, if you will, lifted from that source and transferred to the menorah, in order to ignite the flames of the candelabrum.

In this piece of ritual information lies a great insight that has profound moral value. Light, in all literature, is a metaphor for gladness, which uplifts the heart of man. Indeed, in all universal languages, every form of fulfillment is compared to light. What the Torah teaches us via this law of the menorah’s lighting is that the source of our happiness is crucial. If there is to be light-happiness in our lives, then it must come from a source of holiness. When this occurs and one’s light-happiness is grounded in the correct source, that person then is "uplifted," and the fire burns eternally.

Mendelevitch found his source of light-happiness in the Bible, and it illuminated the darkness of his prison cell. Our challenge is to find our holy source of light and illuminate our lives accordingly.

Two In Brief


On July 18, 1947, Dr. Ruth Gruber stood on a wharf in Haifa and watched the battered ship Exodus inch into the harbor. The ship had been rammed by British warships determined to keep the 4,554 Holocaust survivors aboard from reaching Palestine.

Previously, Gruber was the only journalist allowed to enter the Soviet Arctic; now she was the only American journalist who followed the Exodus passengers as they were transferred to British prison ships and sent back to Europe. An updated edition of her classic 1948 book on the drama is now in bookstores, retitled “Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation” (Times Books $25).

It wasn’t the first time that Gruber had worked with refugees. In 1944, then-Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes assigned her a secret mission: She was to travel to Italy to bring 1,000 refugees through Nazi-infested waters to safe haven in Oswego, NY. Her subsequent book, “Haven: The Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees” is the subject of a new musical play, “Oswego,” which will have a staged musical reading at People of the Book, The Jewish Book Festival Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m. at the West Valley JCC. Gruber, now 88, will be on hand for a panel discussion after the event, sponsored by the Jewish Center for Culture and Creativity.

On Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m. at the Valley Cities JCC, author Susan Dworkin will discuss her book, “The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust.” The tome tells of Viennese Jew Edith Hahn Beer, who romanced a Nazi party member during the war. He married her, despite her confession that she was Jewish, and kept her identity secret.

For information about the Gruber and Dworkin events, call (818) 464-3300.

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