Photo by Leo Baeck.

Numerous Synagogues, Jewish Day Schools Closed Down Due to Skirball Fire


Several area synagogues and Jewish institutions closed Dec. 6 and removed their Torahs for safekeeping after a brushfire exploded on the east side of the Sepulveda Pass.

Leo Baeck Temple, Stephen Wise Temple, American Jewish University’s Familian Campus and the Skirball Cultural Center all were closed due to what is known as the Skirball Fire.

“The fires were literally right on top of us,” Leo Baeck Rabbi Ken Chasen said after recovering Torahs from his campus on Sepulveda Boulevard early Wednesday morning and bringing them to Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino for safekeeping.

The threat from the blaze — which led Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to declare a local state of emergency — led Stephen Wise Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback to transfer the temple’s Torah scrolls from its Bel Air campus to VBS. Temple groundskeepers hosed down the hill in front of the campus so that it would be less likely to catch ablaze if the winds pushed the fire there.

“We went basically building-to-building, turned off the gas, power and took all the Torah scrolls down to Valley Beth Shalom,” Zweiback said.

VBS also welcomed the Torah scrolls of Milken Community Schools, which was closed.

“There are 25 Sifrei Torah sitting in my chapel right now from three different places,” VBS Rabbi Noah Farkas said.

Numerous Torahs are being preserved from the Skirball fire in Valley Beth Shalom. Photo courtesy of Valley Beth Shalom.

The Skirball Fire is one of several fires that has blazed across the Southland since Monday. The other fires are known as the Thomas, Rye and Creek fires burning in Ventura County, Santa Clarita and Sylmar.

The Skirball fire’s proximity to Sepulveda also resulted in the closure of the Los Angeles Eruv, which uses fences, hillsides and lines through the Sepulveda pass. An eruv is a halachic perimeter that transforms a public area into a private domain for Shabbat, allowing observant Jews to carry items within its boundaries.

Both Sinai Temple in Westwood and Valley Beth Shalom closed their day schools. A large portion of Sinai Temple’s Alice and Nahum Lainer School (formerly Sinai Akiba Academy) faculty is based in the San Fernando Valley, near the fire.

Sinai Temple also has congregants who have been evacuated. “So as of now, we know about 15-to-20 families that have been evacuated,” Sinai Temple Rabbi Nicole Guzik said on Wednesday in a phone interview from downtown, where she was seeking refuge from the poor air-quality in Westwood.

Several emergency shelters have been set up in the wake of the fire, including at Balboa Park in Encino. Sinai Temple has offered itself up as a shelter for evacuees, and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills released a statement of support for those who need shelter or assistance.

Chasen said he received a telephone call on Wednesday morning ordering his neighborhood to evacuate. Speaking on the phone from his colleague Zweiback’s home, he said there was “some minor damage down in the [Leo Baeck] Temple property, but pretty minor. The main buildings were not breached even though the fire pushing up right against us.”

Find Your Favorite Holiday Gift at The Clayhouse


CLAYHOUSE HOLIDAY SALE

The Clayhouse 2017 Holiday Sale

 

Please join me at the Clayhouse for our annual holiday sale! I am honored to again be a part of this sale with this wonderful community of artists. If you are looking for a homemade holiday gift, this is the place fine handmade, one-of-a-kind, affordable gifts including pottery, sculpture, glass and more.

 

WHERE:

The Clayhouse, 2909  Santa Monica Blvd, Santa Monica CA 90404

WHEN:

Friday December 8, 2017 4pm-9pm and
Saturday December 9, 2017 10am-6pm
WHERE:
2909 Santa Monica Blvd, Santa Monica 90404
 310.828.7071
2017 SALE PARTICIPANTS
Alia Ollikainen Joslin * Amy Dov * Amy Kivnick
Cheryl Silver * David Stone * Deborah Levin * Diana Ungerleider
Jamie Hansen * Janet Domino * Janet Grings
Jennica Atkinson * Karin Swildens * Kathy Mudgett
Kerri Price Katsuyama * Kristi Sherman * Linda Flo *Lisa Niver * Loriann Stevenson* Marilyn Haese * Nani Grennell * Narayan De Vera
Polly Osborne * Sam Dixon * Sara Winkle * Sierra Pecheur * Stephanie Sea * Valerie Moreland  * William Pitcher

 

More information:
FACEBOOK
WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

About The Clayhouse Studio & Gallery:

The Clayhouse, established in 1971, is the oldest high fire pottery studio on the Westside. There are fewer and fewer studios of this nature due to limited space and obstacles in using gas-burning kilns. Gas kilns produce rich, beautiful glaze colors and unique visual effects with universal appeal. The unassuming storefront of The Clayhouse on Santa Monica Blvd displays some of the works of its 50 artist members. In the back of the storefront, there is a wide open studio with tables, wheels, kilns and pottery in various stages of completion. Classes are offered during week and weekend.

Take art class with David Stone. Photo by Mark Dektor

Take art class with David Stone. Photo by Mark Dektor

Take a Class:

Wheel classes

Beginning Wheel, David Stone, Sunday  mornings from 10 to 12 noon. Starts Jan. 14, 6 weeks, to Feb. 18.

Beginning Wheel, Diana Ungerleider, Saturday mornings, 10 to 12:30, starts Jan. 20, 6 weeks, to Feb. 24.

Students will learn how to use the potter’s wheel to  “throw” functional items such as mugs, bowls, vases
and more. Glaze instruction is also included.
The class fee is $280 which includes a 25-lb. bag of clay and tools, access to the studio anytime, plus the firing. An advance deposit is required to hold a space in class.
All classes last six weeks and include clay, tools 
firing, glazing and access to the studio. 
Classes are small to allow individual attention. 
Call soon to reserve a spot in a class! 
Advance deposit required.   
call 310-828-7071 for more info or to sign up
 Store hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am – 3 pm
As Henry Moore said, “To be an artist is to believe in life.”
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“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso
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I hope to see you at the Studio! Lisa Niver

Photos from Summer Sale and 2016 Winter Sale

Lisa Niver, Artist and Author Photo by Mark Dektor

Lisa Niver, Artist and Author Photo by Mark Dektor

A sanctuary redesign is planned at Temple Beth Am. Image courtesy of Temple Beth Am

BUILDING BOOM: Is Jewish L.A. defying national demographic trends?


If you have read about recent demographic studies claiming fewer young American Jews are marrying inside the faith and affiliating with Jewish organizations, you might think organized Jewish life in the United States is on its way out.

But Los Angeles donors have a response to those studies: Want to bet on it?

In the last two years, more than $100 million has been dedicated to renovation and construction projects at schools and synagogues across L.A., and much more is expected to be raised through ongoing capital campaigns that aim to build facilities for the next generations of Jews.

Together, these projects represent the collective optimism of a Jewish community unfazed by seemingly gloomy population studies, according to clergy, donors and lay leaders.

The projects currently underway are spread across the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin. They consist of new schools and school expansions, custom-built synagogues and old sanctuaries in need of facelifts. And they are being carried out within the three major spiritual movements: Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, has plans to build a new preschool; Conservative synagogues Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) and Temple Beth Am are constructing new school buildings; and among Orthodox communities, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy is engaged in a $20 million renovation, while Chabad of South La Cienega (SOLA) is building a new, multi-use religious facility.

At Temple Beth Am, synagogue leadership has raised $25 million to renovate its main sancutary and construct a middle school building for its Pressman Academy day school.

“What could reflect more optimism in the school and the synagogue than that kind of effort?” said Temple Beth Am building committee co-chair Avi Peretz, who said he has donated a significant sum.

To Peretz, donations reflect a sense of obligation and a feeling of responsibility to proverbially set the table for the next generation of Jews.

Peretz recalled walking into Pressman Academy on the first day of school for his daughter, who is now 21, and saying to himself, “ ‘Wow, look what somebody built. Somebody built this school that my daughter gets to go to classes in. Somebody built it knowing full well that probably their own kids wouldn’t be the ones that got to benefit from it.’ But the sense of obligation you feel is that other people came before you and did the work that you’re benefiting from. It’s now your turn to do the work.”

The groundwork of breaking ground

Even before construction begins, planning and permitting can be complicated, time-consuming and costly.

Adas Torah, an Orthodox congregation that razed a Pico Boulevard furniture store to open a new synagogue building in September 2016, spent more than $20,000 in permitting fees alone, Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety records show.

“It’s a long process,” said Trevor Abramson, whose firm, Abramson Teiger Architects, has designed a half-dozen synagogue buildings in the past 15 years, including the project currently underway at VBS. “It takes time to draw up plans, to build consensus with the community, to get the plans approved by the community, and then also get approved by the city — and then to raise the money.

“There are some synagogues being built right now in L.A. where the wheels have been in the motions for the last three years or more,” Abramson said.

Pressman Academy’s expansion plans have been in the works for about a decade. Over that period, Temple Beth Am, directly or through its members, quietly bought eight contiguous apartment buildings on Corning Street, directly behind the temple’s La Cienega Boulevard compound. Nine years ago, it converted one building into an early childhood center, and two years ago, it razed two more to create an outdoor play space.

When Erica Rothblum joined Pressman Academy as head of school in July 2014, synagogue leadership had already judged that “the school building was bursting at the seams,” she said.

Rothblum had the idea to build a new middle school that would not just increase retention — class sizes tend to shrink as grade levels increase — but serve as the Jewish day school of the future.

“We’re not building just a prettier version of a traditional school building,” she said. “We’re actually changing how the school looks and functions. In some ways, it’s going to look more like a Google office than the school buildings we’re all used to.”

Buying in and building up

Often, the first step in a construction project is winning the buy-in of parents and congregants. “A house is really just an endeavor for an owner, but when you’re designing a synagogue or a religious building, that’s really for the whole community,” Abramson said.

Abramson’s firm designed a community center now under construction at VBS for dual use by the synagogue and its day school. Plans for that project date back 15 years, according to VBS Executive Director Bart Pachino.

Timing can depend on permitting, donor interest or even the national economy. Construction at VBS was delayed at least five years after the Great Recession as donor funds dried up, Pachino said.

Before Abramson and his employees start drawing on a synagogue project, they gather congregants for a town hall meeting about the needs for a new building.

“We like to listen to what everybody thinks the needs are,” he said. “And it’s super interesting, because some people are worried about where they can park, and some people are worried about the spiritual aspect of the synagogue, and some people are worried about saving the plaque on the wall that’s been there since 1852.”

By the time VBS broke ground in September, it had raised $26 million for the new center and for renovations to its existing buildings.

“That’s the greatest compliment a rabbi can get when somebody says, ‘I’m willing to work with you, and I’m willing to share my resources and time, and I want this to continue past me,’ ” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the Encino synagogue’s senior rabbi. “It’s a great statement.”

Bursting at the seams

The Montessori preschool run by Chabad of SOLA began seven years ago as a mommy-and-me group with eight children. Today, it has more than 80.

Until recently, the children gathered in the same space that served as home to four minyans — Chabad, Sephardic, teens and young couples. That arrangement presented challenges, such as having to take down folding chairs and movable walls each weekend, said Stery Zajac, the preschool’s director.

In December 2014, The Eiden Project — a nonprofit organization set up to build a new community center, mikveh and preschool for Chabad of SOLA — bought a 21,000-square-foot property at Airdrome Street and La Cienega Boulevard for $4.5 million, according to Josh Moorvitch, who runs a mortgage company and sits on The Eiden Project board.

The property was home to two car dealerships in separate buildings, one of which now temporarily houses the preschool. Recently, Chabad of SOLA began renovations to transform the empty dealership into a preschool building, Moorvitch said. After that project is completed, the congregation intends to raze the other building to create a new mikveh for men and women and a synagogue building. Moorvitch said there was a “tremendous demand” for the mikveh, as the closest one is Mikvah Esther, about 1 1/2 miles away.

Another Orthodox Jewish school, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, also is  planning an expansion. Its head of school, Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, recently announced that the Orthodox kindergarten-through-eighth-grade day school would undertake a $20 million renovation.

In recent years, Hillel’s enrollment has increased some 20 percent to 650 students. After a two- to three-year renovation process, including planning and obtaining city approvals, it hopes to have a campus for 700, Sufrin said.

Before its capital campaign went public this fall, the school had quietly raised about $10 million, half of its total goal, he said.

“The project itself brings a certain amount of optimism and hope and joy about the community,” Sufrin said. “People are looking and saying, ‘Wow, I’m going to be a part of sustaining the next 20 or 30 years of the community.’ And that means a lot to these people.”

Money management

Chabad of SOLA and Pressman Academy have taken different approaches to funding their building projects.

“There are schools in this community where they’ve raised 10 percent before they begin construction, and I know heads of schools that want 100 percent,” Rothblum said.

Pressman is somewhere in the middle, having raised $25 million of the $30 million it estimates it will need — enough that it feels confident breaking ground as soon as January, she said.

Sometimes, breaking ground can accelerate the fundraising process.

“We’ve definitely had people say to us, ‘Once I see construction, you can come talk to me,’ ” Rothblum said. “I’ve had other people say, ‘Right here, right now, I’m willing to invest in this and be a leader.’ ”

While Pressman Academy waited to raise more than 80 percent of its needed funds, Chabad of SOLA broke ground on its $1.4 million preschool project after collecting about $600,000. Moorvitch said that decision was based on confidence in the generosity of community members once they see construction underway.

“In breaking ground, our goal was to have the school open as quickly as possible for our families,” he said. “It wasn’t a choice to wait around. We had to break ground, and we have to move this project along. And we’re going to do it.”

Demographics be damned

Schools and synagogues that are literally mortgaging their futures for expansions and renovations face some troubling national trends. A 2013 Pew Research Study of American Jews painted a dismal picture that some analysts have interpreted as a death knell for synagogue life in the United States. In particular, the study focused on the increasing number of “Jews of no religion,” or cultural Jews — those who check “None” when asked about their religious practice. These Jews, in turn, are less likely to affiliate with religious institutions and attend synagogue. Whereas 39 percent of Jews by religion report belonging to a congregation, only 4 percent of those in the secular demographic do, the study found.

But the synagogues and schools working their way through their respective building projects say that overall trend doesn’t apply to them.

“The Pew study is not everybody’s written destiny,” said Temple Beth Am President Susan Hetrsoni. “It’s time to take it on.”

Hetrsoni said that membership at Temple Beth Am has held steady in recent years. Valley Beth Shalom’s membership has increased over the past five years to more than 1,500 families, a fact Feinstein attributes at least in part to a growing need for spiritual connection.

“L.A.’s a funny city,” Feinstein said. “We have these giant block walls that separate our homes from each other. People don’t know their neighbors, so you want to belong to something. You want people to know who you are. People are craving that in this moment of history.”

But L.A. is not the only metropolitan area defying national statistics, he said. His clergy friends in places such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Atlanta report similarly encouraging trends.

“In lots of pockets all over the country this is happening,” Feinstein said. “I wish I could take full credit for it and say it’s the genius of my rabbinate — but it’s certainly not.”

Photo by David Miller

Mina Wilner: Saved by a ‘Remarkable Woman’


Late one afternoon in July 1942, Mina Lejzerowicz, 12, dutifully accompanied her parents and two younger brothers to a spot in the Warsaw Ghetto near the high brick wall that enclosed it.

Mina’s father, Berl, opened a potato sack. The plan was to place Mina inside and toss the sack over the wall. On the other side, a Polish man would retrieve her, handing her over to Jadwiga Gagol, the family’s former nanny, who had bribed him. But Mina’s mother objected. “They’re going to kill my child,” she told her husband. “I don’t want to do this.”

A disagreement ensued. Berl suggested a trial run. He filled the sack with stones and wood, then pitched it over the wall. Immediately, the Germans opened fire. Mina’s parents quietly led her and her brothers back to their apartment.

“I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be with my parents,” Mina recalled.

But Mina knew that Jadwiga was determined to save her and her brothers. “I’m not going to allow for the children to be killed,” she had told Mina’s parents. And while Mina’s mother, Cyla, was afraid her daughter couldn’t survive alone, Berl supported the idea.

In preparation to rescue Mina — her brothers were more challenging to rescue because, as circumcised males, they were easily identifiable as Jews — Jadwiga had rented a one-room apartment outside the ghetto, where no one knew her.

“She loved my parents and the three children,” Mina said.

Mina was born in Warsaw on April 1, 1930. Her brother Eliezer was born in 1931 and Moshe in 1936. The family was well off, living in a four-room apartment in an elegant building.

“I grew up in a happy home,” Mina recalled. Her mother, from an affluent family, was a graduate of the Sorbonne, a dentist who didn’t practice. Mina’s father, who grew up poor, co-owned two butcher shops in Warsaw.

Mina began public school at age 6. But walking there, accompanied by a nanny, she was often accosted by Polish boys who called her “dirty Jew” and more than once pushed her to the ground.

On Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, Mina was at the family’s summer cottage in Michalin, 35 miles southwest of Warsaw, with her brothers and the family’s two maids. Her father sent a driver with a horse and wagon to fetch them.

Back in Warsaw, Mina learned that war had broken out. At night, she and her brothers slept on the floor of their parents’ room, huddling in the basement whenever bombs fell.

By October 1940, the ghetto, in an area that contained their apartment building, had been established. Soon hunger was a constant companion, even though Jadwiga, whenever possible, bribed guards and brought the family food. Other times she threw horsemeat over the wall. Berl retrieved it, cut it up and sold it.

“My parents never ate. Whatever food they had, they gave to the children,” Mina said.

Mina saw skeletal adults walking around in threadbare clothing, and children covered with newspapers on the streets, begging for food. But most horrifying were the dead bodies that piled up, waiting collection by men pulling two-wheeled carts. “You cannot even imagine,” she said.

Mina saw skeletal adults walking around in threadbare clothing, and children covered with newspapers on the streets, begging for food.

When the plan to throw Mina over the wall failed, Jadwiga made arrangements for Mina to walk out of the ghetto with a crew of 20 prisoners who worked for a local farmer. As the farmer headed to lunch that day with his girlfriend, some older prisoners instructed her to run. They pointed to the nearby tram station, where Mina found Jadwiga waiting.

The two returned to Jadwiga’s apartment, where Mina continually cried for her mother. “Take her away,” Jadwiga’s husband insisted. “They’re going to kill all of us.” But Jadwiga refused. “She has to live,” she said.

Mina remained primarily in the apartment, where Jadwiga brought her books and food she purchased with gold pieces and jewelry Mina’s parents had given her.

One morning, Jadwiga came racing back to the apartment. “Quick, hide in the armoire,” she said. Soon, two Germans entered, asking if Jadwiga was hiding a Jewish girl. Mina then accidentally banged her elbow against the armoire, making a noise, and one of the Germans tried to open the armoire door, jangling the keys which Jadwiga had inadvertently left in the lock. But he inexplicably stopped, and they left.

The next day Jadwiga took Mina by train to stay temporarily with her elderly brother and his daughter in Piotrkow Trybunalski, a hamlet 85 miles southwest of Warsaw.

Sometime later — Mina doesn’t know how long — Jadwiga moved her to Sulejowek, a town 12 miles east of Warsaw, to work for an 80-year-old woman. “She was a witch from the witchland,” Mina recalled, although Jadwiga hadn’t known of the woman’s cruel nature. Only through the kindness of two housekeepers who also worked there did Mina receive any food.

In November 1944, the Soviets liberated them. Even then, Mina was afraid to tell people she was Jewish.

One morning, sometime after Jan. 17, 1945, when the Soviets occupied Warsaw, Mina was sent to the city, a 12-mile trek, to find the old woman’s daughter and granddaughter. As she was walking with them, she heard Eliezer calling her name. She hadn’t seen her brother since escaping from the ghetto in the summer of 1942.

At the suggestion of the old woman’s daughter, whom Mina described as “an angel,” Mina took Eliezer back with her to Sulejowek that afternoon.

Eliezer, along with Mina’s parents and younger brother Moshe, had been deported from the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. Mina’s father, at his wife’s suggestion, had thrown Eliezer from the train, and the boy had spent the rest of the war hiding in forests and wandering from farm to farm.

Later, Mina learned from Jadwiga that her parents and Moshe had perished in Treblinka. Jadwiga had traveled there to try to rescue them, but she was too late.

Appreciative of the wood Eliezer chopped for her, the old woman treated him kindly. But Eliezer soon left for the newly established Jewish orphanage in Otwock, outside Warsaw, to attend school. “I don’t want to go as Jews — they’re going to kill us,” Mina had told him.

But soon after, Jadwiga came to escort her there. “I want you to be educated,” she said.

At Otwock, Mina studied and was treated for tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Eliezer escaped from the orphanage, making his way to Palestine.

Eager to reunite with him, Mina joined a group of orphanage children who were taken to a Jewish camp in Verberie, France, outside Paris, and later — Mina is not sure of the date — to Palestine.

Mina married a Polish survivor in 1949. Their daughter, Clilit, was born six years later. The family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1963, and Mina divorced her husband soon after, supporting herself as a manicurist.

On April 25, 1971, Mina married Henry Wilner, a survivor and widower with three sons. “My husband was my life,” Mina said. Henry died in 1997, and Mina, now 87, has two grandchildren, whom she considers “the biggest gift in my life.”

When Mina left Poland, she lost touch with Jadwiga, who she believes died not long afterward. She had no children.

“She was a remarkable woman,” Mina said. “She saved my life.”

Eitan Arom in front of the ramshackle college built by his great-grandfather in Lizhensk, Poland. Photo by Eitan Arom.

Polish Citizenship for This Jewish Boy? Not So Fast


My passport is not much to look at. It’s dog-eared, many of the stamps are fading, and the back has been covered in a sticky film since I pasted a baggage claim tag there about a decade ago.

Yet as soon as I step outside American borders, it becomes my most valuable possession — my ticket back to everything I know and love. And it’s more than that, because that sad-looking little pamphlet is the most tangible link between me and my nationality. Functionally, it’s my stockholder’s certificate in this great big company called America.

These days, many Americans are looking to diversify their portfolio: The evening of President Donald Trump’s election in November, Canada’s immigration website reportedly crashed as a result of increased traffic from Americans — Americans looking for an escape hatch. For many American Jews, the most convenient escape hatch — other than Israel — is to turn to the same countries that spurned their ancestors during the Holocaust.

I was afraid I would somehow acquit Poland of the crimes against my family.

For me, that means Poland. I decided to make a guinea pig of myself and see what the citizenship process entails. That’s where Neil Kaplan came in.

Kaplan is a genial businessman in his middle age who’s held a number of leadership posts in media and internet companies, including president of the Jewish Journal’s board. But his most recent gig is closer to home.

After securing Polish citizenship for himself and his family, he decided to open up shop helping others do the same through his website, PolandPassport.com. It turns out, Poland is willing to accept Jews (and others) of Polish ancestry, but only after making them jump through some bureaucratic hoops that are impossible to navigate without a fluency in Polish legalese. Since launching his business in late 2016, he’s evaluated more than 400 cases, roughly 60 percent of them Jews, by his estimate.

Successful applicants get all the benefits of citizenship in a European Union country, including potential tax and tuition advantages and ease of travel and immigration. What’s more, Kaplan and his team don’t get paid until you get your passport.

What did I have to lose?

The first step was filling out a “qualification quiz” on Kaplan’s website: names, birthdates, places — all easy enough for me given my borderline-unhealthy obsession with family history. As I typed, I fit entire generations into the neat little text boxes on the website, distilling sons and fathers and daughters and mothers into a form digestible by the Polish bureaucracy.

I hit “enter” and a few days later, Kaplan called to tell me I had a good shot at obtaining Polish citizenship. The question now became: Did I really want it?

I dodged the question. Kaplan offered me a friends-and-family discount — he’s a longtime friend of the Journal — but still, I couldn’t bring myself to say “yes.” After all, what would my “yes” mean? Would I be forgiving Poland for what happened to my tribe?

For his part, Kaplan doesn’t kid himself, that Polish citizenship makes up for the Holocaust. But if it offers the “tiniest bit of restitution,” he said, then it’s worth taking.

I still wasn’t so sure, so I called somebody who has thought about it a lot more than I have.

Grant Gochin is a South African-born wealth manager in Woodland Hills and the grandson of Jewish Lithuanian refugees. He sued the government of Lithuania five times before it was forced to grant him citizenship. After citizenship was granted to him, he had no second thoughts about taking it.

I explained my hesitation to him — my discomfort with taking anything from Poland. I was afraid I would somehow acquit Poland of the crimes against my family, delivering absolution I have no right to offer.

Gochin told me I was looking at it all wrong. Poland wasn’t giving me anything. Instead, I was claiming something that is mine by birthright.

But furthermore, I would be creating a birthright for my own future children.

“If you can give your kids a Polish document with their name on it, it personalizes their history,” he said. “It’ll show them what they come from so they can personalize it.”

I can sympathize with Gochin’s “future generations” argument. It’s past generations I’m worried about. Consigned to the silence of the grave, they speak through my words, my actions.

Nationhood is an entanglement with the past and the future. It ties you to national inequities and travesties, historical and ongoing, that you might not care to associate with. By accepting Polish citizenship, it seems to me, I would align myself with the nation of my ancestors’ discontent.

Take this story, for instance: In my grandfather’s hometown, after the war, nine Jews returned and settled in a home together. A short while later, a Polish neighbor tossed a grenade into the home, killing all nine. Mind you, this was after Germany had been beaten back.

Now, I don’t blame today’s Poland for that atrocity. But nor can I so easily move on.

I don’t delude myself that America has no blood on its hands. After all, the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans is not so far in the historical rearview mirror.

But unlike Poland, America is the country of my birth, and the stains of its history are my birthright — mine to tussle with and fight to overcome.

Maybe my family members’ opinions toward Polish nationality are more pragmatic. They are welcome to apply on their own, and I’m sure Neil Kaplan would be happy to help them.

But I can’t see myself running headlong toward the nation where my family members were sold up the river, even if it means I can travel more easily or set up shop in Paris.

Almost 80 years have passed since Poland turned into my ancestors’ personal hell. But sometimes that history still feels close — and raw. Maybe 80 years is still too soon.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Ukraine teens arrested for vandalizing Jewish cemetery


(JTA) — Authorities in Ukraine have identified several teenagers whom police said desecrated at least 20 Jewish graves in August.

The teens, all males younger than 18, were detained last month in connection with vandalism in Svalyava, a city in Western Ukraine that is located approximately 100 miles southwest of Lviv, the news site reported last week. The report did not say whether the suspects admitted the actions attributed to them or what punishments they will receive if convicted.

The teens pushed over at least 20 gravestones, causing some to smash, including the gravestone of the town’s former rabbi, Rabbi Shalom Goldenberg. The cemetery they allegedly vandalized has not been in use for decades.

In 2012, the Council of Europe adopted a nonbinding resolution placing responsibility for the care of Jewish cemeteries on national governments. The resolution was based in part on a report that said Jewish cemeteries are “probably” more vulnerable than other cemeteries.

In addition to frequent vandalism at Jewish cemeteries, including for anti-Semitic reasons, the report also noted instances of cemeteries in Eastern Europe that have been turned into “residential areas, public gardens, leisure parks, army grounds and storage sites; some have been turned into lakes.”

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrim blows a shofar, near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Ukraine arrests three alleged terrorists accused of targeting Jews in Uman


(JTA) — Ukrainian police arrested three men they said were terrorists who, in their efforts to pit ethnic groups against one another, also targeted Jews in the central city of Uman.

The men were arrested earlier this month at a border crossing while carrying explosives, according to the KP news site. Citing unnamed officials from the regional prosecutor’s office, the news site reported that the suspects were planning to blow up a monument for Hungarians in a bid to escalate tensions over legislation in Ukraine that outlaws the use of Hungarian at elementary schools.

The three suspects were also behind a string of anti-Semitic incidents, according to the report, including the hurling on Sept. 21 of a grenade at Jewish pilgrims in Uman, where 30,000 Jews convene each year on Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the Jewish holiday near the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

They are also accused of dousing a synagogue in Uman with red paint in 2016 and leaving a pig’s head there – an incident that many people attributed to hatred of Jews and locals’ growing dissatisfaction with problems associated with the pilgrimage.

They are further accused of spraying the words “death to Jews” on the synagogue in Chernivtsi in November and trying to set fire to the synagogue in Lviv in July. The suspects denied these and other allegations.

Though prosecutors have not said this, the arrests prompted theories that the three suspects were working for Russia to exacerbate social tensions in Ukraine and give the country a bad image abroad.

Russia and Ukraine have exchanged allegations of sabotage after 2014, when a revolution led by nationalists in Ukraine toppled the rule of former president Viktor Yanukovych, whom some critics said was a corrupt Russian stooge. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backs separatists in Ukraine’s east.

The two countries have also exchanged accusations of anti-Semitism in an apparent attempt to discredit each other in the West.

Physicist Rainer Weiss at his home in Newton, Mass., on May 13, 2016. Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Rainer Weiss, scientist who fled Nazis, among Nobel Prize in Physics winners


Three American scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, including one who fled the Nazis with his parents and another whose grandparents were Polish immigrants.

Rainer Weiss, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, both of the California Institute of Technology, were awarded the prize on Tuesday for the discovery gravitational waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time that help scientists explore objects in space.

Weiss won half of the $1.1 million prize, with Barish and Thorne sharing the other half.

The Nobel winners and the late Ron Dreyer, also of Caltech, founded the international collaboration of physicists and astronomers known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. In February 2016, they announced that they had recorded gravitational waves emanating from the collision of a pair of black holes a billion light years away.

Drever died this year; the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.

Weiss, 85, was born in Berlin to a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father. The family fled Berlin for Prague when Weiss was a baby because his father was Jewish and a member of the Communist Party. After the Munich agreement in 1938, the family left Prague for the United States. Weiss earned his doctorate from MIT and in 1964 joined its faculty.

Barish, 81, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Los Angeles, the son of Lee and Harold Barish, the children of Polish immigrants to the United States. He earned his doctorate in 1962 from the University of California, Berkeley, and joined Caltech in 1963.

Thorne, 77, received his doctorate from Princeton University in 1965 and joined Caltech in 1967.

Painting by Anita Brenner.

Anita Brenner: A bridge to mexican art, culture


Anita Brenner might be the most noteworthy 20th-century cultural figure you’ve never heard of but that’s about to change. An exhibition about her, “Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico,” will introduce Skirball Cultural Center visitors to the life and times of a major personality in Mexican art of the last century.

The show opens on Sept. 14 and runs through Feb. 25.

Born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in 1905 to Latvian-Jewish immigrants, Brenner was a key figure in the Mexican art world of the 1920s and 1930s. She was not a painter or sculptor, but she wrote extensively about Mexico’s art and artists — many of whom were close friends of hers — at a time when their art was not well-known. In fact, Brenner coined the phrase “Mexican renaissance” when referring to the innovative Mexican art currents of the 1920s.

Her adventurous life was painted in colors as bold as the art and artists she wrote about and loved. Her book “Idols Behind Altars,” published in 1929 when she was just 24, was instrumental in publicizing the work of artists in her social/political/cultural circle, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, Edward Weston and Jean Charlot.

Like her friends, she was a leftist bohemian who championed indigenous art and culture. The thrust of “Idols Behind Altars” is that if you (metaphorically) look behind Christian altars, you will find traces of the pre-Columbian period, and that the roots of subsequent Mexican art can be seen in the crafts and designs of native civilizations before the Spanish conquest.

Photo of Anita Brenner by Tina Modotti (1926).

Because she was raised in Texas as well as Mexico, Brenner was bilingual, and her interests and published writings — almost always in English — were stunningly wide-ranging. Among other topics, she wrote about what life was like for Jews in Mexico, emphasizing that Jewish immigration to Mexico was good for Jews and good for Mexico. The title of the show, “Another Promised Land,” is taken from a published article she wrote when she was 19.

As a young woman with no college degree, Brenner went to New York and impressed Franz Boas, a prominent anthropologist who had pioneered the idea of cultural relativism. Boas took her on as a student in anthropology at Columbia University, where she received a doctorate five years later.

In the 1930s, Brenner was a freelance foreign correspondent, covering the Spanish Civil War and sending more than 40 dispatches to several publications. In 1943, her book “The Wind that Swept Mexico,” illuminated the Mexican Revolution’s historical context in clear and accessible language. She also wrote children’s books based on Mexican folk tales — illustrated by Jean Charlot, a former beau who remained a lifelong friend and collaborator — and countless travel pieces, trying to promote U.S. tourism to Mexico.

And, by the way, Brenner did all this while raising children. At Columbia, studying with Boas, she met and later married David Glusker, a Jewish physician from Brooklyn, and they had a daughter and a son.

In late 1936, when Leon Trotsky was looking for refuge after his exile from the Soviet Union, Brenner wrote to her friend Diego Rivera, by then Mexico’s most famous artist, asking him to convince Mexico’s president, Lázaro Cárdenas, to grant Trotsky asylum. Exile in Mexico, of course, did not turn out well for Trotsky — he was assassinated in 1940 by a supporter of Joseph Stalin — but at least Brenner tried to help.

“Dance in Tehuantepec / Danza en Tehuantepec” by Diego Rivera (1935) is part of the Skirball exhibition.

“Another Promised Land” has five sections. The first, “A Jewish Girl of Mexico,” traces Brenner’s background and early years and how her parents came to settle in Aguascalientes before she was born.

Laura Mart, a Skirball curator who worked on the exhibition, said Brenner’s parents “didn’t really understand what it meant to be Jewish, so [Anita] had a tough time discovering her Jewish identity when the family was living in Mexico, but it was something she wanted to puzzle out: what it means to be Jewish.”

Because of the turmoil from the Mexican Revolution, the Brenner family moved to Texas when Anita was 11. “In Texas, she was the object of discrimination, first for being Jewish, but also for being Mexican,” Mart said. “That experience led her to want to promote good relations between people, not just between Jews and non-Jews, but also between Mexico and the United States.”

The show’s second section covers Brenner’s impact on art. “Idols Behind Altars” is illustrated with Mexican art — photos of the artwork were taken by renowned photographers Weston and Tina Modotti. The book’s text and illustrations also influenced famed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished film, “Que Viva Mexico!” Still shots from the film are in the exhibition.

Other sections of the exhibition deal with Brenner’s political and travel writing and her return to the Aguascalientes ranch of her childhood, where, in the late 1960s, she became an environmental activist and turned the ranch into a kibbutz-like farm.

“The vision of Anita Brenner and the cultural environment in which she was formed in the early 20th century in Mexico was based on the idea that art is transformative in personal, political and cultural terms,” said the exhibition’s guest curator Karen Cordero, a professor of Latin-American art, based in Mexico City.

Brenner firmly believed art should be admired for its beauty, but that it could also affect people deeply and change their views of the world. “That’s always an important thing to keep in mind,” Cordero said. “She was interested in the symbolic, emotional, even mystical qualities of art.”

Mart said a theme that runs through all of Brenner’s writings is “bridge-building.”

Detail of the mural “The Massacre in the Main Temple, Mexico City” by Jean Charlot (1922-23), which
is part of the exhibition “Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico” at the Skirball Cultural Center.

“The reason we decided to do this exhibition about Anita Brenner is that we see her as someone who spent her life building bridges,” Mart said. “And there are a lot of different ways you can do that. She chose art and culture as ways of promoting understanding and respect of Mexico.”

“Through all her work,” Mart added, “Brenner was saying: [Mexico] is a place of rich culture, rich heritage. And at the time she did this, there wasn’t a lot of information about Mexico in the U.S., so she helped change the conversation. … She was speaking to an American public who didn’t have a lot of contact with people from Mexico, and she was really the bridge between Mexico and the U.S., promoting goodwill and neighborly responsibility between the countries.”

“Take from that what you will,” Mart added, “given the current political context.”

Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico” will be at the Skirball Cultural Center from Sept. 14 through Feb. 25, part of the community-wide initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Southern California, organized and funded by the Getty Foundation. 

Locals in Sighet, Romania, marching in memory of Elie Wiesel on Sept. 10. Photo by Moshe Milner

In Elie Wiesel’s hometown, hundreds protest anti-Semitism by retracing his walk to be deported


More than 70 years after fascists took Elie Wiesel to the train station of this sleepy city in Romania, hundreds of its residents retraced his steps in a march to protest against anti-Semitism.

The march Sunday night, organized by local authorities and the Limmud FSU Jewish learning group, began at the home where Wiesel, arguably the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor and a Nobel prize laureate who passed away last year at the age of  87, was born and ended where in 1944 he boarded with his family a train to the Auschwitz death camp.

The march drew participants, Jews and otherwise, from far and wide. Dozens of them wore traditional clothing in a bid to emphasize that Wiesel is no less a part of the local heritage than its other elements, Sighet Mayor Horia Vasile Scubli said. At the end of the march, the local train station was renamed after Wiesel, a journalist and author whose company and advice was sought by world-renowned philosophers and statesmen alike, including several US presidents.

Occurring amid a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes in Western Europe, the event in Sighet was a “powerful reminder that we are not alone as we used to be,” said Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU. “When fascists marched Elie Wiesel and his family with the knowledge of the local population, they were isolated, branded and silenced. Now we walk united, loud and hand in hand.”

This message resonated with many non-Jews as well.

Mario Golen, a Romanian homosexual man in his 30s, drove for an hour to Sighet the attend the march with his life partner of three years, John. “I’m not Jewish but I could have been on those trains as well, or worse, if I were born when Elie Wiesel was born,” he said, referencing the Nazi murder and persecution of homosexuals. “So the least I can do is come to see where Elie was born and walk a mile in his memory.”

But for many of the Jewish participants of the march through the unlit streets of Sighet, a city of 37,000 that used to be part of Hungary during the Holocaust, the event was also a stark reminder of the scope of devastation of Hungarian and Romanian Jewry during the Holocaust, when the Nazis and their collaborators killed a million Jews from those countries alone.

Romania, once home to 800,000 Jews, now has about 7,000 of them, including a few dozen Jews living in Sighet. In Hungary, which also used to have a close to one million Jews, now live only 100,000. “Nobody speaks of the mass theft, conducted on a state level, by private people, in Hungary today,” said Robert Frolich, the chief rabbi of Hungary for the Federation of Jewish Communities of that country. Although Hungary has been more forthcoming than Romania in offering restitution for Jewish-owned property, there too “the issue is taboo,” Frolich said.

Despite the existence of many events in those countries emphasizing the need to fight anti-Semitism – the march in Sighet was held under a banner reading: “Anti-Semitism led to Auschwitz” – Holocaust denial and revisionism remains a problem in both.

In Hungary, the mainstreaming of anti-Semitic rhetoric appears to be a fait accompli amid a fight for nationalist votes between the ruling Fidesz party and the far-right Jobbik party. And Romania, which has so far resisted offering restitution for countless assets stolen from Jews during and after the Holocaust, the denial of the Holocaust persists even among some politicians and scholars, despite the fact that it is illegal.

It was point addressed by Yair Lapid, a prominent opposition lawmaker from Israel with Hungarian roots who attended the march (Gila Gamliel, Israel’s minister for social equality, was also present at the event.) Mindful of how hatred of Jews has survived and evolved even in places where few people have seen a Jew in real life, Lapid said: “Now as in the 1940s, anti-Semites only understand force. And this event, it advertises our strength – the Jews and non-Jews who oppose it.”

Photo from Wikipedia

The Izaak Synagogue


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Jewish cemetery in Svaliava, Ukraine. Photo from Wikipedia

Belarus court clears way for building of luxury apartments atop former Jewish cemeteries


A judge in Belarus cleared the way for the construction of apartments atop two former Jewish cemeteries.

Separately, unidentified individuals smashed 24 headstones in a Jewish cemetery in Ukraine.

Eduard Dolinsky, the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, in a statement wrote that the incident in Ukraine was discovered Tuesday at the Jewish cemetery of Svaliava in the country’s west. The incident was reported to police, who currently have no suspects.

Earlier this month, a mass grave was discovered during construction near the Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk. Locals initially ignored the find because they assumed the bones belonged to Jews buried in a nearby cemetery, Radio Svoboda reported, but the works were stopped because the bones were thought to be of non-Jews purged by communist authorities.

On Monday, the Tsentralny District Court in Belarus allowed the planned construction of the apartments on the former Jewish cemetery in the eastern city of Gomel, saying it lacks the jurisdiction to take any action, Radio Svoboda reported.

The judge was ruling on a motion seeking an injunction against the construction filed by Yakov Goodman, a Jewish-American activist for the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in his native Belarus. Local authorities last year approved a project for the construction of two luxury apartment buildings on the grounds of a former cemetery on Sozhskaya Street.

The motion also pertained to earthworks already underway in the city of Mozyr at another former Jewish cemetery, as per permits issued in 2015, according to the World Association of Belarusian Jews, which Goodman heads.

Both projects mean that bones of Jews buried in the two cemeteries “will end up in city dumpsters,” Goodman told JTA earlier this week.

Belarusian officials have vowed to protect Jewish heritage sites in Belarus, including cemeteries.

Last year, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makai and Lesley Weiss, chair of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, signed a joint declaration at the World Jewish Congress headquarters stating “Each party will take appropriate steps to protect and preserve properties that represent the cultural heritage of all national, religious, or ethnic groups that reside or resided in its territory.”

Goodman said the signing only encouraged authorities “to further attacks on Jewish heritage sites.”

Before the document was signed, Goodman’s association accused Belarusian authorities under the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, of destroying three synagogues – one in Luban and two others in the capital, Minsk – and at least two Jewish cemeteries in addition to Gomel and Mozyr.

Local activists are “afraid, understandably” to put up a fight in local courts, said Goodman, who was arrested and detained briefly in 2004 in Belarus for his activism.

“Under Lukashenko, Jewish heritage suffered irreparable losses,” said Goodman, who added he may appeal the ruling Monday.

In replying to the motion on construction in Gomel, the city’s urban housing and communal services department told the court, “There is no information about the location of the cemetery in this place.”

But this assertion was disputed by several historians, including Evgeny Malikov, who wrote earlier this year in a report that the planned construction is “strictly prohibited” also by Belarusian laws. Both he and Goodman accused authorities of discriminating against Jewish buildings while showing more sensitivity to Christian ones.

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

Jewish life and history are complicated in Poland


“There are no Polish concentration camps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

​Close-up of the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stray dogs roam the Babi Yar monument on March 14, 2016 in Kiev, where Nazis and local collaborators murdered 30,000 Jews in 1941. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz.

Researchers find Jewish headstones at the Nazi killing site of Babi Yar


Nazi troops dumped dozens of stolen Jewish headstones at the same site near Kiev where they murdered tens of thousands of Jews, researchers in Ukraine discovered.

The Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center last month extracted  50 headstones from the Babi Yar ravine, where Nazis and local collaborators murdered more than 150,00 people, including 50,000 Jews, starting in September 1941.

“The tombstones were removed from a local Jewish cemetery during the Holocaust and thrown into the same ravines where over 150,000 Jews, Roma people and Ukrainians were murdered during the Holocaust,” Marek Siwiec, a former Polish politician and current head of the memorial center, said in a statement earlier this week about the discovery.

With a mandate from the Ukrainian government, Siwiec’s organization, which was set up last year, is heading international efforts to commemorate the Babi Yar tragedy in a manner befitting its scale. Jewish victims arememorialized at the site only by an unfenced six-foot menorah, which is situated near a dumping ground for industrial waste and is vandalized regularly.

“The significance of Babi Yar is of upmost importance, at this horrendously difficult site, the largest single act mass murder of Jews took place during the Holocaust, with 37,771 brutally murdered during a two-day period, it is our duty not just to remember this site but also proactively learn from the darkest days of human history to build a better future,” Siwiec said in the statement about the discovery.

Additional headstones from Jewish graves are scattered in the ravine but they require careful excavations to be extracted intact, according to Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths organization, which promotes the commemoration of the Holocaust in Poland. Daniels visited the site earlier this week to see how From the Depths, which has focused on restoring pillaged headstones in Poland, could assist the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, he said.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police from Plonsk and Radom are investigating the incident.

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

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

Photo from Pexels

Art


Art is like the sleep
a mourner resorts to
on the first night without his beloved.
In the morning he must come back to the world
to empty the closet of her blouses and belts
and give them to strangers.


Yehoshua November is the author of two books of poetry, “God’s Optimism,” winner of the Main Street Rag Book Award and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and “Two Worlds Exist,” a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize.

Photo from Ivanka Trump/Twitter

Trump slammed for skipping visit to Warsaw Ghetto memorial


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

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clayhouse Summer Sale: Art in Santa Monica


The Clayhouse Summer Sale

Featuring Pottery for the Kitchen
Friday July 14th 4pm-9pm and 
Saturday July 15th 10am-6pm
 2909 Santa Monica Blvd, Santa Monica 90404
 310.828.7071
 
Twenty-three Artists from The Clayhouse will be selling hundreds of pieces of Handmade Pottery
Come find your new favorite Platters, Mugs, Espresso Cups, Teapots, Teacups, Bowls, Baking Dishes, Egg Cups, Bread Baskets, Dishes, Berry Bowls, Butter Dishes, Sugar Bowls, Pitchers, Tumblers and more will be for sale.

SUMMER 2017 CLAYHOUSE ARTISTS

Alia Joslin, Stephanie Sea, Amy Kivnick,
Polly Osborne, Kerri Price Katsuyama, Diana Ungerleider,
Lisa Niver, Janet Grings, Erin Wildman, Dianna Linden,
Deborah Levin, John Henderson, Jamie Hansen,
Sam Dixon, Sierra Pecheur, Sara Winkle, Sonja Bolle,
Janet Domino, Nani Grennell, Kathy Mudgett,
Nadine Wells,  Anne Cooper, Karin Swildens
 
More information:
FACEBOOK
WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

Ceramics by Janet Domino

About The Clayhouse Studio & Gallery:

The Clayhouse, established in 1971, is the oldest high fire pottery studio on the Westside. There are fewer and fewer studios of this nature due to limited space and obstacles in using gas-burning kilns. Gas kilns produce rich, beautiful glaze colors and unique visual effects with universal appeal. The unassuming storefront of The Clayhouse on Santa Monica Blvd displays some of the works of its 50 artist members. In the back of the storefront, there is a wide open studio with tables, wheels, kilns and pottery in various stages of completion. Classes are offered during week and weekend.

Take art class with David Stone. Photo by Mark Dektor

Take art class with David Stone. Photo by Mark Dektor

Take a Class:

Beginning Handbuilding class:

Six weeks: July 11 to Aug. 15, 2017
Tuesday mornings, 10:30 am – 12:30 pm.
Instructor: Kerri Price Katsuyama
Students  will learn techniques for working with clay such as coiling, extruding, and slab rolling, to make  bowls, cups, vases, planters and more. Glazing instruction is also included.

Wheel class for beginners

Six weeks: July 23 – August 27, 2017
Sunday mornings, 10 – 12 (first class will be 3 hrs.)
Instructor: David Stone
Students will learn how to use the potter’s wheel to  “throw” functional items such as mugs, bowls, vases
and more. Glaze instruction is also included.
The class fee is $280 which includes a 25-lb. bag of clay and tools, access to the studio anytime, plus the firing. An advance deposit is required to hold a space in class.
All classes last six weeks and include clay, tools 
firing, glazing and access to the studio. 
Classes are small to allow individual attention. 
Call soon to reserve a spot in a class! 
Advance deposit required.   
call 310-828-7071 for more info or to sign up
 Store hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am – 3 pm
As Henry Moore said, “To be an artist is to believe in life.”
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clayhouse summer art sale
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso
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I hope to see you at the Studio! Lisa Niver
Lisa Niver, Artist and Author Photo by Mark Dektor

Lisa Niver, Artist and Author Photo by Mark Dektor

Saved by art: How one man’s skill got him through seven Nazi camps and the difficult years that followed


Kalman Aron is a prolific artist. Even during his internment at seven Nazi camps, he didn’t stop drawing — and his artwork saved his life.

“I probably have in Germany a hundred drawings, drawings of soldiers,” the 92-year-old artist said during a recent interview. “They wouldn’t pay me anything, but I would get a piece of bread, something to eat. Without that, I wouldn’t be here.”

Speaking in the living room of his modest Beverly Hills apartment, Aron was surrounded by his artwork, collected over decades. Paintings are stacked five and six deep against each wall, with more in his bedroom and even more in a basement storeroom.

Aron immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949 and built a life, a career and a circle of friends. They were artists and musicians. Now, apart from his wife and a part-time caretaker, it’s his paintings that keep him company.

“I don’t have anybody to talk with,” he said. “All my friends are gone. I had probably 15 friends. They were much older than me. I was the youngest one. And then suddenly, nobody here. I have drawings of them. A lot of drawings in the back there. Filled that room downstairs, filled up completely.”

Aron was born with a preternatural talent for portraiture. At 3, he was drawing likenesses of family friends in Riga, Latvia. At 7, he had a one-man show at a local gallery. At 13, he won a commission to paint the prime minister of Latvia. He was 16 years old and a student at Riga’s art academy in 1941 when the Germans occupied the country.

Seven camps, four marriages and nearly 80 years later, he’s proven to be a resourceful and dogged survivor. In the long and circuitous course of his life, art and survival have gone hand in hand.

Kalman Aron in his Beverly Hills apartment in June. Photo by Tess Cutler

It began in the ghetto in Riga, when he did a pencil drawing of a guard and showed it to him. The guard liked it enough to spread the word about his talent. The formula repeated itself over and over in the coming years of persecution and hardship.

Still, for a Jew to have writing materials in the camps was considered a risk, so German troops who wanted a likeness would hide him in a locked barrack while he drew them or worked from a photograph to draw their relatives.

“Once I did a portrait and other people liked it, they would do the same thing: lock me in the room, not let me out,” he said.

Aron managed to leverage his skill anywhere he spent a significant amount of time, particularly the Riga ghetto and the labor camps of Poperwahlen in Latvia and Rehmsdorf in Germany. In each place, he attracted a clientele of rank-and-file soldiers and high-ranking officers who rewarded him with scraps of food and pulled him out of hard labor.

What seems like lifetimes later, he believes painting still keeps him alive today.

“Friends of mine, they get old and they don’t know what to do, and they die of boredom,” he said in his dining room, his eyes widening with intensity. “Boredom! And I’ll never die of boredom, as long as I have a piece of paper.”

‘Mother and Child’

Decades before he spoke openly about what he saw during the Holocaust, Aron painted it.

Until 1994, when he was interviewed by the USC Shoah Foundation, he tended not to describe what he had seen. But during those long decades of silence, he produced a number of artworks — in oil, watercolor, pastel and charcoal — depicting his memories of that trying time.

“Mother and Child” (1951), pastel on paper on a board

There was Aron at the head of a line of inmates on a forced march. There was Aron at Buchenwald, sleeping outside with a rock for a pillow. There were haggard portraits of fellow inmates.

But the most well-known of these paintings is “Mother and Child,” which now hangs in the lobby of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Aron moved to Los Angeles in 1949 with a young wife, $4 in his pocket and zero English proficiency after finishing art school in Vienna. In 1951, he had a job illustrating maps in Glendale when one day, he decided to glue two city maps to a board to create an 8-foot-tall canvas.

He brought home the oversized sheet, and after four or five nights of laboring past midnight, he finished a pastel, showing a scene he had witnessed many times in the camps: a mother clutching her child tightly to her face, as if they were one, bound together no matter what abuse they might have to face.

As he worked on the painting, he recalled, “I wasn’t feeling. I saw it happening.”

He went on, “I just said, ‘I’m going to put it on paper.’ I wanted to draw them. That’s why.”

“Mother and Child” sat in his studio for nearly 60 years as he found himself unable to part with it, the glue he used to create the canvas bleeding slowly through the paper to create a brownish tint. Today, it is considered one of his masterpieces.

At the time he painted it, Aron was unable to put his trauma into words. During his later Shoah Foundation interview, as a videographer switched tapes, Aron chatted with the interviewer, a fellow survivor, apparently unaware that audio still was being recorded, and described his difficulty.

“About 30 years ago, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. I would choke up if I did it. I’m fine now.”

Sherri Jacobs, an art therapist outside Kansas City, Mo., told the Journal that art sometimes enables survivors of trauma to express what they otherwise could not. Jacobs has conducted an art therapy workshop at a Jewish retirement home near Kansas City for 15 years, working with many Holocaust survivors. Though they rarely paint explicitly about their Holocaust experience, as Aron has, creative expression nonetheless helps put shape and form to their trauma, she said.

“They can express things in a metaphorical way,” she said, “in a way that it’s leaving their mind, leaving their body and going on paper.”

Painting men and monsters

Drawing in the camps, Aron said he was not thinking of his hatred or fear of his subjects — only of surviving.

In Poperwahlen, for instance, the camp commandant gave Aron a photograph of his parents and ordered him to draw a miniature that could fit in a locket mounted on a ring.

Aron had seen Jews randomly beaten or shot by guards at the camp. More than anything, he was thinking about his own survival  as the commandant locked him in a barrack with a pencil and paper.

“I mean, in my head is, ‘Am I going to be alive tomorrow?’ ” Aron said in his apartment nearly eight decades later. “Watching them killing the Jews was terrible, terrible, terrible. I have very bad nights sleeping here.”

The task could have taken him two days, he said. But he stretched it over more than a week for the exemption it afforded him from back-breaking labor.

It’s difficult for Aron to estimate how many portraits he drew. He knew only that the same interaction repeated itself many times with Nazi troops.

“Wherever I was, I made sure I had a piece of paper and pencil,” he said.

As the months passed, he parlayed his skill into gaining more materials, piecing together a sheaf of drawings that he carried with him. Observing his assured manner and his materials, camp guards mostly left him alone.

“When they saw that, they knew, ‘Don’t touch this guy, he’s doing something for us,’ ” he said.

By the end of the war, his skill accounted for perhaps an extra 5 pounds on his skeletal frame, he told the Shoah Foundation interviewer — a small but critical difference.

“There also were people that were tailors and shoemakers,” he said in 1994. “They would also get fed much better. They were indoors. They would sew, you know. These are the kind of people that had more of a chance of survival than a guy who was digging ditches.”

Reclaiming a world of light and color

Jacobs, the art therapist, said understanding Holocaust survivors as the product of a single experience can be misleading, traumatic though it may have been. And in trying to understand Aron through his art, putting the Holocaust constantly front and center would indeed be a mistake.

Of the hundreds of paintings that line his apartment, relatively few deal with the Holocaust. More often, they are landscapes of the places he’s visited, views from his balcony looking out at downtown L.A. and portraits of the women he’s loved. Prominently displayed is a 2006 oil portrait of Miriam Sandoval Aron, his fourth and current wife, straight-backed, wearing a baseball cap during their honeymoon in Hawaii.

His earliest landscapes in Los Angeles are often devoid of color: A rambling house in Bunker Hill is rendered in shades of gray with no sign of life; a monochromatic landscape of Silver Lake shows not a single inhabitant. But soon enough, he took to painting colorful tableaus of the city at various times of day.

Eventually, he made enough money to rent a West Hollywood studio with high ceilings and northern light, where he hosted parties that lasted until sunrise. Over the years, his art has been exhibited at several museums and galleries, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Art Association and the Seattle Art Museum. He has painted a number of celebrities and public figures, including novelist Henry Miller, pianist and composer André Previn and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California.

For months at a time, he traveled through North America and Western Europe — though never to Germany — stopping whenever he was moved to paint.

His third wife, Tanis Furst, described one such incident to author Susan Beilby Magee for “Into the Light: The Healing Light of Kalman Aron” (2012), a book of Aron’s art, framed by interviews with the artist.

In 1969, driving through Montreal during a trip across Canada, Aron pulled over in a rundown part of town to paint a house where a woman lived with dozens of cats.

“This happened all the time on this trip,” Furst said. “He would drive along and stop: ‘Gotta paint that.’ We had a lot of fun.”

A short while later, Aron’s only son David was born.

“I was a very happy guy when my son was born,” he says in the book. “In fact, it was the happiest day of my life.”

Telling his story

Even in 2003, when Magee first set out to write “Into the Light,” she said she found Aron profoundly ambivalent about telling his story of sorrow and survival.

In an interview with the Journal, Magee said that while part of Aron seemed to be saying “It’s time to tell, the pain of not remembering is greater than the pain of remembering;” another voice was telling him “You survived because you were invisible; do not tell your story; do not be seen; to be seen is to be killed.”

Magee had spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., working in government, before quitting in the late 1980s to pursue hypnotherapy, meditation and energy healing. One thing she was not was a writer.

But that didn’t deter Aron. Sitting down for lunch in Palm Springs in 2003 with Magee and her mother, one of his earliest and most ardent patrons, he suddenly fixed upon Magee with his blue-eyed gaze.

“Completely out of the blue,” she recalled, “he turns to me and says, ‘Susan, will you write my story?’ He is a highly intuitive man, and somehow he knew he could trust me to do it.”

“Self Portrait” (1954); “Self Portrait” (1967), oil on canvas; “Self Portrait” (1994), oil on foam core

Although he had produced numerous paintings dealing with the Holocaust, he had been hesitant to speak about it, even with those closest to him.

“Kalman shared some things about his family and the Holocaust, but not in a great deal of detail,” Furst says in the book.

Nonetheless, after his 2003 encounter with Magee, he consented to 18 hours of interviews with her. Later, she traveled to Europe to retrace his steps. Nine years after she set out, the book was published, with a release party at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Recently, Aron agreed to be featured in an upcoming documentary about his life and art, backed by television producer Norman Lear.

“We’re going for the Oscar on this thing, and you can quote me on that,” said Edward Lozzi, Aron’s longtime publicist who introduced him to the documentary’s director and executive producer, Steven C. Barber.

Aron said he hopes the extra publicity will help him sell paintings and pay rent, which even at his advanced age continues to be a concern. But in general, he’s content to sit at home and paint.

Though Aron sometimes struggles to remember words and names, he remains spirited enough, painting for hours each day and eagerly engaging visitors in conversation. “I can manage six languages,” he said. “But I can’t remember people’s names.”

Magee said she believes that through telling his story, Aron has at long last found peace.

“His willingness to tell his story — to finally remember after suppressing it all those years — gave him that freedom to paint for the joy of it,” Magee said.

These days, his paintings are mainly non-objective rather than representative.

“I used to go to the park,” he said, sitting in an airy corner of his apartment, next to the kitchen, where he keeps his home studio. “I used to meet people. Now, I’m not allowed to drive at my age. So I’m here all the time.”

Lacking subjects for portraiture, Aron paints sheet after sheet of shapes and colors.

“I enjoy the design, the design,” he said, holding up a recent painting, a set of undulating neon waves. “Movement, movement. This moves, it doesn’t stay still.”

Aron considers himself lucky to have a gift and a passion that keeps him occupied into his old age.

“My situation may be a little bit better than some people who came out of the camps,” he told Magee during their interviews. “They may have nothing else to do but watch television and think about those bad days in the camps. I did that in the beginning, but I got away from thinking about it by doing portraits, landscapes, traveling and painting. I think that kept me away from all this agony of ‘How did I survive?’ or ‘Why did I survive?’

“I did, and that’s it.” 

Solomon Souza works on a mural that pays tribute to Arthur “Fishy” Kranzler at Shalhevet High School. The previous work of Souza (inset) and his partner, Berel Hahn, includes murals at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Photo by Avi Vogel

Something ‘Fishy’ going on at Shalhevet with mural honoring community leader


Solomon Souza stands on the roof of Shalhevet High School, looking at his mural in progress, gesturing at the hills that make up the foreground and background and the fish swimming in circles at the center. He then points to the corner of the mural, the only area left unfilled.

“I’m thinking about doing doves there, because you know, fish and birds, they were made on the same day,” he said. He climbs onto the elevated platform and puts on his mask, getting to work.

Souza and his partner, Berel Hahn, came to Shalhevet to paint a mural commemorating Arthur “Fishy” Kranzler, a local community leader, who died in 2015. The project was unveiled on June 14 as part of Shalhevet’s annual Celebration Under the Stars, this year’s event honoring Jason and Rebecca Feld for their years of work at the school. Jason Feld, dean of students at Shalhevet, announced earlier this year he had accepted a job in Washington state.

The spray-painted mural is a rendering of Jerusalem with bright clouds overhead and a few buildings and trees, with a swirling mandala of Jewish stars and swimming fish on its edges.

Souza and Hahn originally hadn’t planned to come to Los Angeles. They were in Chicago, working on a mural for NCSY, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification. In a video about the project, Souza spoke of going elsewhere in the country to do more work. But they hadn’t decided where.

Shalhevet was looking to fill in an unpainted segment on the roof of the school, and Jason Feld  mentioned his appreciation for Souza’s murals in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market. That led Sarah Emerson, executive director at Shalehvet, to reach out.

“We were looking for the right artist and the right image and we didn’t know what it was until we hit it,” Emerson said. “We looked at [his] work, and it was calling [his] name.” But, they were unsure if they could get Souza to come. “They happened to be in Chicago, and we talked about it, and it ended up working out.”

For a mural honoring his father, Fishy’s son Eric Kranzler brought Souza and Hahn an album to provide ideas. Souza studied it and listened to stories about Kranzler’s time in Israel and Los Angeles, which provided a focus.

“Definitely wanted to do something Jewish, something Israeli, something Zionistically inclined,” Souza said. “The hills of Jerusalem, the hills of L.A., the connection between them. That’s what I wanted to do.”

After sharing a sketch with the school, he went to work.

The mural’s location, on the roof of Shalhevet, has similarities in purpose to Souza’s work at Mahane Yehuda. There, he created murals to adorn the shutters of closed shops, using vibrant colors and Jewish influences to add life to the street on Shabbat. At Shalhevet, the roof similarly is a hub of socialization.

“Any day school is in session, you’ll find students up here,” Emerson said. “There are classrooms up here, the teachers’ lounge is up here, the beit midrash, as well. It’s a hub for everyone.”

At the ceremony, Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, addressed the audience of more than 275 as the mural was unveiled. In his remarks, provided to the Journal, he said, “Simply put, Fishy was larger than life … a life guided by his passion for the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland.”

Segal shared more of Kranzler’s story, of how “he moved to Israel in 1949 to literally build and defend the land.” He added, “I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute to Fishy, reminding our students every day of his vibrancy, his passion for Israel, and his enduring legacy.”

The mural was not the only piece by Souza unveiled that night. He also created a portrait as a special gift to honor the Felds for their years of service. Jason was the dean of students for 10 years and Rebecca is a former teacher. “It’s huge and crazy,” Emerson said. “It’s really a shuk piece.”

What’s next for Souza and Hahn? They want to continue traveling the country and making public art like the murals in Chicago and at Shalhevet. Back in Jerusalem, they are working on starting a gallery for artists like themselves. “We’re looking to support artists,” Hahn said, “aspiring or otherwise.” 

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

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


“I need to speak with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cov-eitan-grgrandfather2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Asher was missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The death left her husband disconsolate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  Eileen Eandi, daughter of a holocaust survivor


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Jewish Committee returns to Warsaw


The American Jewish Committee returned to Warsaw after eight years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance–Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation said in a statement on its website that Michael Karkoc was one of the commanders of the SS Galicia Division, also known as the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion, a unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians during World War II. He is accused of playing a role in the murders of civilians in the villages of Chłaniow and Kolonia Władysławin in July 1944.

He did not mention his Nazi past when he entered the United States in 1949, which would have prevented him from entering the country, the AP reported.

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

Michael Karkoc now lives in a nursing home in Minneapolis, according to The New York Times. Its report cited family members as saying that he is innocent of the charges, and that he has dementia and is not fit to stand trial.

In a Ukrainian-language memoir published in 1995, Michael Karkoc said he helped found the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion in 1943 in collaboration with Nazi officers to fight on behalf of Germany and against the Soviet Union, The New York Times reported.

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

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

Old Town in Lublin - Marketplace, the Crown Tribunal. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Polish court accuses Minnesota man, 98, of Nazi war crimes


A Polish court has issued an arrest warrant for a 98-year-old Minnesota man it accuses of Nazi war crimes.

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

Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance–Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation said in a statement on its website that Karkoc was one of the commanders of the SS Galicia Division, also known as the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion, a unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians during World War II. He is accused of playing a role in the murders of civilians in the villages of Chłaniow and Kolonia Władysławin in July 1944.

The AP first identified Karkoc by name.

Karkoc did not mention his Nazi past when he entered the United States in 1949, which would have prevented him from entering the country, the AP reported.

He now lives in a nursing home in Minneapolis, according to The New York Times. Its report cited family members as saying that he is innocent of the charges, and that he has dementia and is not fit to stand trial.

In a Ukrainian-language memoir published in 1995, Karkoc said he helped found the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion in 1943 in collaboration with Nazi officers to fight on behalf of Germany and against the Soviet Union, The New York Times reported.

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

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

‘Journey’ a quest for understanding over postwar Polish pogrom


“Everything good in me comes from my faith.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An exhibition of the artwork of Hadar Goldin, who was killed by Hamas in August 2014. Photos by Bart Batholomew/Courtesy of Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Slain Israeli soldier’s art inspires parents’ mission


Leah and Simcha Goldin are grieving parents. Frustrated, vocal and driven, they have traveled from the Knesset to the United Nations to, just last week, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, bringing with them a traveling collection of their son’s artwork known as “Hadar Goldin: The Final Peace” to bring attention to his plight.

“It is our mission to bring Hadar home,” Leah said with a straight-ahead gaze, her voice shrouded in a thick Israeli accent.

Bring Hadar home.

Leah Goldin has uttered those words too many times since August 2014, when her son first went missing.

When Hadar comes home, they will not embrace, as mother and son ought after being separated for so long. There will be a ceremony and, most likely, a press conference. But Hadar’s remains will be in a coffin with an Israeli flag draped over it. A grave will be filled, topped with tilled soil. This is what “Bring Hadar home” means.

Of course, that’s if Hadar comes home. But to Leah, a doctor of computer science, and her husband, Simcha, a professor at Tel Aviv University, there is no “if”: They have dedicated themselves to make sure that day comes.

“Hadar is a victim of a cease-fire, rather than a victim of a war,” his mother said, nearly three years after that breach of cease-fire, which took her son’s life.

On Aug. 1, 2014, after a flare-up of escalations between Israel and Hamas during Operation Protective Edge, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire. Two hours into that ceasefire, Hamas ambushed Israeli soldiers in the southern border town of Rafas, a raid resulting in Hadar’s death and the kidnapping of his body, which was dragged back to Gaza through a network of underground tunnels. He was a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces at the time.

During that summer conflict, the body of staff Sgt. Oron Shaul also was captured. Both bodies are still in Hamas’ custody, and the Goldins want the international community to pressure Hamas for the return of their son’s body.

So it’s through Hadar’s traveling collection of art — with pieces ranging in style from expressionist paintings to daily life sketches to journal entries — that the Goldins hope to make strides on the matter. They first got the idea to put together a collection while sitting shivah for their son, after being approached by art curators from Ein Hod  (an artists village near Haifa). “And they advised us to put up an exhibition; we didn’t realize we could do it,” said Leah.

In September, the collection was on view at the United Nations in New York during the General Assembly. “Since this cease-fire was brokered by John Kerry, secretary of state, and Ban Ki-moon, general-secretary of the U.N., they should be held responsible. They should be accountable for his return,” Leah said. Neither Kerry nor Ban came to the exhibition, she said.

“And they knew about the exhibition,” Leah added. “I cannot tell you why they did not want to go. You should ask them.”

“It’s a question of responsibility,” Simcha added.

“And accountability,” Leah said. “Sometimes if you don’t face it, it’s a way to say, ‘I don’t know about it. It does not exist.’ But it does exist. It exists with the exhibition, with showing Hadar’s portrait, with his uniform,” she said.

art-parents-exhibitThe Goldins have traveled to New York, Miami and Los Angeles, lobbying for the return of their son’s body.

“We are looking for ways to raise it as an American issue. And by that, getting the support of the U.S. administration to motivate Hamas to bring Hadar home,” Leah said.

At the collection’s opening Feb 15 at the Museum of Tolerance, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, delivered a sermon, referring to a passage from Exodus, where Moses made an oath to carry his ancestor’s bone into the Promised Land.

“We have the obligation to retrieve the bones of our lost brother like Moshe Rabbeinu,” his voice, a desperate plea, echoed through the microphone. “We must do everything we can.”

On Feb. 20, the collection moved from the Museum of Tolerance back to Israel, traveling, yet again, to the Knesset before going  to the Opera Tower in Tel Aviv. The Goldins are asking the community for help.

“We’ll appreciate any advice and any help to resolve it and bring some closure to our case,” Leah said.

Plain and simple, they want to give their son a proper Jewish burial.

Who was Hadar Goldin? He was a son, a brother, a fiance, an intellectual, and an artist. He was a voracious reader, a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and an espresso drinker.

“I used to do still photography until Hadar took my camera when he was a teenager,” his mother said, “and then he was the one behind the camera.”

Hadar observed the world. Ever since he was a kid, he liked to draw and write. He was a doodler, illustrating scenes of daily life, jazz on a street, caricatures of people he knew. He’d draw in pocket notebooks, on scraps of paper, whatever he could find. On the back of an equipment list while stationed near Gaza, he drew his wedding invitation, a scene portraying his fiance and himself in a house, ripened pomegranates in the trees. He painted oil-on-canvas scenes of a man fishing; deer in a pasture; the war-torn skyline.

Hadar Goldin was 23 years old when he died, three weeks before his wedding.

There is a piece in the collection that hangs in Simcha’s study at home when it isn’t traveling with the exhibition.

“You need to see it,” Simcha said. “It’s a long debate whether it’s a bird or something else.”

It looks like a dove, hovering over a lake, its wings stretched out in full extension. An orange sun bleeds into the sky as a girl, doused in a powdery white light, watches from a distance.

“The sad thing is it’s only the potential. He was killed, so you can only see his potential on the walls. It’s very sad. It’s very painful,” Simcha said about his son’s artwork.

“But on the other hand, it’s there. It’s unique. It’s nice,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”


Correction: 3/1 – This story originally said Leah Goldin is a computer programmer – she is a doctor of computer science.

Ukrainian marchers in Kiev chant ‘Jews out’


Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev chanted “Jews out” in German at a New Year’s Day march celebrating the birthday of a Nazi collaborator whose troops killed thousands of Jews.

Thousands attended the event in the center of the Ukrainian capital celebrating Stepan Bandera, a leader of Ukraine’s nationalist movement in the 1930s and ’40s. They held up his portrait while an unidentified person shouted the anti-Semitic slogan on a loudspeaker, prompting many participants to repeat it, a video published by the Federal News Agency showed.

Bandera’s movement included an insurgent army which fought alongside Nazi soldiers during part of World War II. Supporters of Bandera claim they sided with the Nazis against the Soviet army, believing that Adolf Hitler would grant Ukraine independence. Bandera was assassinated in 1959 by Russia’s KGB in West Germany.

Oleksandr Feldman, a Ukrainian Jewish lawmaker and president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, called on authorities to investigate the march and prosecute those responsible for the hateful slogans.

“I still can’t get over hearing it at the rally in honor of Stepan Bandera’s birthday,” Feldman wrote in an emotional post on Facebook Tuesday. “I admit, I’m choking up with tears. I love Ukraine, love the Ukrainians.”

Adding that the chants came from a “gang of a few idiots who don’t represent anyone,” he nonetheless wrote: “I can’t ignore it when I, a man who worked so much for my country and city, created the hundreds and thousands of jobs, am being screamed at by some bastards to leave my homeland.”

Feldman also accused the Svoboda party, a far-right movement whose leaders and followers often have engaged in anti-Semitic hate speech, of being responsible for what he termed “a provocation” during the march.

Bandera is being celebrated across Ukraine as a national hero. In July he had a street named after him, also in Kiev, despite protests from the Jewish community.

Several other Ukrainian nationalists with ties to anti-Semitic acts and policies before and during the Holocaust have been the subject of veneration in Ukraine in recent years, especially after the ousting in 2014 of President Viktor Yanukovych in a bloody revolution over his alleged corruption and ties to Russia.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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