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.

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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.”

The chief of staff behind Portman’s come-from-behind 2016 victory


His father’s first trip outside his small village on the Ukrainian-Slovakian border was when the Nazis shipped him to Auschwitz in 1944. His mother spent the tumultuous years of World War II secretly stored away as a hidden child in Central Europe. Against all odds, this child of two Holocaust survivors, Mark Isakowitz, rose to become the influential Chief of Staff for U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “The idea that a mere few decades after my parents stepped off the boat that I could do jobs like this, I was deeply honored,” noted Isakowitz to Jewish Insider in a wide ranging interview from his Capitol Hill office.

A graduate of Ohio State University and father of three children, Isakowitz played a critical role in one of the most important Senate races of 2016. With the Democrats pushing to take back the Senate, Portman’s seat appeared vulnerable. In the first public poll of the race, the Ohio Republican’s challenger led by nine points, but by the night of November 8, Portman coasted to victory by an astounding 21 percent.  Working with Campaign Manager Cory Bliss, Isakowitz and the team orchestrated a strategy of reaching out to groups generally distant from the Conservative party: achieving a tie with Democrats among millennials and obtaining the endorsements of labor unions. Isakowitz and his staff highlighted the Senator’s work, which they believe directly improved the lives of Ohioans such as combatting heroin addiction and protecting local steelworkers.

Isakowitz cites his father for pushing him towards the Republican Party. With no more than a middle school education, the elder Isakowitz, who was trained as a plumber in Europe, managed to create a small business that lasted his entire adult life. Mark emphasized, “Having an economic system under free enterprise where people have a chance to do that, I think is the greatest kind of system that you could set up.”

In addition to his public sector service, Isakowitz worked as a lobbyist for over a decade as President of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock. When Portman asked him to return to Capitol Hill and run his Senate office, Isakowitz walked away from an almost $7 million salary, according to a Roll Call report. What motivated the Ohio native to abandon such a lucrative salary? Isakowitz explained his passion for public service, but as with many in Washington, relationships are critical. “I was a friend and a huge admirer of Rob Portman, and I always had in the back of my mind that if he asked me to do something for him, I would need to find a way to do it,” he added.

Judaism and Israel remain important elements of his identity. Having visited Israel approximately 20 times, Isakowitz proudly displays pictures with former President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu on his office wall. He is fluent in biblical storytelling. As if recalling details from yesterday’s legislation, Isakowitz enumerates various biblical examples of Jewish leaders from Abraham to heroes of the Purim story positively interacting with local political authorities. Isakowitz cited how Joseph counseled Pharaoh to “make the Egyptian economy work,” which sounded almost like a GOP campaign advertisement.

Colleagues are quick to praise Mark. Vincent Harris, CEO of Harris Media and former Chief Digital Strategist for Senator Rand Paul, highlighted the Chief of Staff’s commitment to public service. “To be involved in politics out of conviction rather than selfish ambition is rare in the Beltway,” Harris noted.  Nathan Diament, Executive Director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, who has collaborated with Isakowitz on Israel and religious liberty issues, praised his Capitol Hill experience. “Mark has a mastery of the politics and policy around the issues. He’s a great partner. “

Off Capitol Hill, Matt Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, emphasized Isakowitz’s lighter side. He recalled the times their joint passion for the sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” watching the comedy show together when on work trips overseas. On a more serious note, “He is an uber-Mensch, the definition of a giving and caring person,” admired Brooks. “Mark represents the very best that Washington has to offer. He is a consummate professional…  and a great listener,” gushed Norm Brownstein, a prominent attorney and lobbyist active in national Democratic politics.

Climbing the ranks and running the Senator’s office, Isakowitz remains staunchly loyal to Portman. “I work for a really good United States Senator,” he asserted when describing the role of Chief of Staff. “I feel that a big part of my job is help set up his day so he can achieve what he wants to achieve.”

First cousins who thought entire family died in Holocaust united in Israel


Two pairs of Polish Jewish siblings, who each believed their entire families died in the Holocaust, met for the first time at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

The tale started earlier this year when one of the siblings, Fania Blakay, found a testimony in the Yad Vashem database about her father. The testimony had been filled out by her father’s brother-in-law, who Blakay had been told had died.

The brother in-law, it turns out, had actually survived the Holocaust and immigrated with his wife and daughters to Israel. The daughters — Blakay’s cousins — were living in Israel.

On Tuesday, Blakay and her brother Gennadi Band — both of whom also live in Israel — were united with their first cousins Henia Moskowitz and Rywka Patchnik.

“I am deeply moved and very happy,” Blakay said, according to a statement. “My father always searched for members of his family and dreamed of finding them. He was alone. But ultimately, in this meeting today, his dream has finally come true.”

Moskowitz said that when she initially received a call from Yad Vashem, she did not believe the news.

“At first, I thought this news was a mistake. However, today when we met, I felt a connection at first sight; my family has grown overnight,” Moskowitz said. “Thanks to Yad Vashem, we discovered that we are not alone.”

Though the family was originally from Warsaw, it turned out that the cousins, all of whom were born in 1924-1942, and their parents had all fled to the Soviet Union during the war.

‘Demon’ arises from Poland’s past


So much of Jewish life is about remembering, keeping Shabbat, yahrzeit dates and who in the family slighted whom, that when it comes to a movie about forgetting, such as the Polish and Israeli film “Demon,” we may be at a loss. But as we peer through the edgy gloom of this production, which takes place in an isolated farmhouse in Poland, and see that what some of the film’s characters want to bury is crucial to our collective memory, we have eerie reckoning to the theme, as if taken possession by its message.

This is not a typical horror picture — there are no slashings, screams or chainsaws — yet “Demon,” directed by Marcin Wrona, frightens with a more modern form of horror: that of forgetting the lasting impact the Holocaust has had in Poland.

Stalking this film with a gaunt presence, a groom-to-be, Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran), arrives from England into the Polish countryside on the eve of his wedding to inspect a deserted farmhouse and barn that he and his fiancée, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), have been given as a gift by her parents. Mysteriously drawn to a spot on the surrounding property, he discovers a pile of human bones, which in the rain seem to swallow him into the ground. We are not sure what effect this accident might have (though the film’s title provides a heavy hint) until after the couple’s very Polish church wedding. The first clue comes after the ceremony, when Piotr, by custom, is supposed to dash a shot glass against the wall but instead places it on the floor and prepares to step on it. Is that he is becoming a Jew the horror?

“It is the first sign he is in a different culture. He doesn’t know who is,” the film’s producer, Olga Szymanska, said.

The screenplay, written by Pawel Maslona and Wrona, is loosely based on the play “Adherence” by Piotr Rowicki, a story of a dybbuk: in Jewish folklore, a wandering, often malevolent spirit that takes possession of a living person. In film, “the dybbuk theme has not been touched in Polish culture for 80 years,” Szymanska said, referring to S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk,” later made into a movie, in which a bride is possessed.

The word “dybbuk” is derived from the Hebrew verb dabak, meaning to adhere or to cling, but it is not until late in the film that we discover what — or who — is doing the clinging.

As Piotr’s behavior grows progressively more erratic, and the wedding party, sometimes humorously, devolves into the reception from hell, the father-in-law tries to cover up things by plying his guests with more and more alcohol. After Piotr collapses to the floor in what looks like an epileptic seizure, a doctor and priest (both are guests) are summoned to consult on his condition.

“There are no special effects in the film,” Szymanska said. Yet a special chill, unfortunately known to many Jewish viewers and based on the fog of history, creeps in. When the dybbuk is questioned by a local elder, a teacher who is Jewish, she reveals (speaking through Piotr) that her name is Hanna. She is a local, young Jewish woman who mysteriously disappeared in the pre-World War II era, explains the teacher, who even remembers her.

Speaking in Yiddish, Hanna talks about a promised husband and returning to carry out what “death interrupted.”

As rumor quickly spreads through the party that the groom is possessed, the father-in-law’s fear that the reception will be ruined spins out of control. For him, this is the real horror story. Standing, play-like on a stage, he regales his inebriated guests, saying, “We must forget what we didn’t see here.” When he tries to explain away the groom’s possession as a “collective hallucination,” the film itself is taken over by the dybbuk of history.

“The whole movie is not about the Holocaust,” said Szymanska, who feels it is more about “the past” in which, for centuries, “both Poles and Jews lived together.” Yet, it is the forgetting and remembering of that side-by-side neighbor relationship between Polish Christians and Jews that currently has Poland possessed.

Since the publication of “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” by Jan T. Gross in 2001, a book that details a July 1941 massacre in which, Gross says, 1,600 Polish Jews were murdered (later estimates give a lower number) by a group of non-Jewish Poles, the issue of whether Poles collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust has erupted into a painful national debate. Even though the country has a National Institute of Remembrance to investigate such charges, just this year, the country’s right-leaning government has proposed a new law, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “that would authorize a three-year prison sentence to anyone who claims that Poland collaborated with Nazi Germany.”

“Demon,” released in 2015 in Poland into this atmosphere, got caught up in this national debate. “There were some right-wing people who didn’t like it, and said it was this kind of wave of movie that’s anti-Polish and accuses Poles of killing Jews during the second world war,” Szymanska said.

Sadly, Wrona, who was married to Szymanska, will not be able to participate in the discussion his film might spark here, as on Sept. 19, 2015, at the time of the Gdynia Polish Film Festival, where “Demon” was being shown in competition, he took his own life in his hotel room.

Explaining what she thought drew her husband to the film, Szymanska recalled that “Marcin was very attracted to mysticism.” In the film, he “found an intersection to recall our two nations’ pasts,” she explained. He was interested “in what a modern dybbuk would tell us.”

“Demon” opens Sept. 9 at Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.

At Senior Center, She Learns ‘Nobody Can Compete With Putin’


Until recently, Nadia Luzina gave lectures on culture and politics to her fellow elderly Russians at a senior center in Mar Vista. 

In one talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his role in the takeover of the Crimea region in Ukraine, she called him “dictator.”

The audience quickly became annoyed with her and accused her of anti-Putin sentiments. One woman warned Luzina, an 84-year-old Russian Jew, that her anti-Putin comments might offend ethnic Russians. Someone called Luzina a traitor. The following week, not a single person showed up at her lectures.

“Everyone turned away from me that day,” she said.

In recent weeks, there has been much talk of the mutual admiration between Putin and Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president of the United States. The annexation of Crimea and prosecution of opposition leaders turned some world powers against Putin and many Americans have expressed dismay at Trump’s laudatory remarks about the Russian president, but not everyone shares that skepticism. 

Among many Russian-Jewish expatriates in Los Angeles, the second most populated Russian-speaking community in the United States, Putin gets high marks.

“Nobody can compete with Putin,” said Leonid Ivanov, who moved to L.A. from Belarus 15 years ago and now lives in West Hollywood. “With him, the unemployment rate went down and many people got a job.”

For decades, the fate of Russian Jews depended on the czar’s will. Before the Bolshevik revolution, they were segregated in the western part of the Russian Empire, known as the Pale of Settlement, terrorized by Cossacks’ pogroms.

Under Soviet control, synagogues were shut down and Jews were banned from any administrative positions. But in recent years, Jews have seen anti-Semitism weakening in Russia, a change many attribute to Putin’s peacemaking efforts.

“With Putin, there is less anti-Semitism,” said Victor Petrov, a West Hollywood resident who emigrated from the Black Sea port city of Odessa 25 years ago. Of course, that could be due to changing demographics, too. “Maybe it’s because there are not that many Jews left,” he added. 

For many Russian Jews who remember economic hardships of the post-Soviet era, Putin symbolizes times of economic stability and growth, when Russia finally got up from its knees.

The country hit rock bottom in the 1990s in the time of financial collapse, political crisis, war in Chechnya, and the bombing of residential buildings in Moscow.

“It’s mind-blowing that someone would want a dictator until you lived through 1990s in Moscow,” said Robert English, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. “If you lived through a decade of President Boris Yeltsin and his efforts to make democracy work, it would make sense. Those efforts produced crime, corruption and criminals.”

Those turbulent times also made many Russians reluctant to support building a Western-style democracy.

“They had such a bad experience in the 1990s that they gave up on democracy,” English said. “A lot of people said, ‘If I have to choose between democracy and freedom of press or stable society with less crime and steady income, I choose the stability.’ ”

Russian-Jewish expatriates also believe Putin protected Russia’s sovereignty by taking over the Crimean Peninsula, historically populated by Russians. 

“Crimea belongs to Russia because everyone speaks Russian there,” said Victor Tankelevich, who moved to Los Angeles from Moscow in the late 1990s, fleeing economic turmoil. “Ukrainians are trying to eliminate Russian culture in Crimea. So why would we need to give it to Ukraine? Crimea has always belonged to us.”

Since the day of the heated discussion, Luzina has stopped giving lectures at her Mar Vista senior center, but has continued the political debates with her 94-year-old Russian Jewish boyfriend, who is a big supporter of Putin.

“He saved Russia from destruction, and I respect him for that,” said Isaac, who asked that his last name not be used. Isaac moved to Los Angeles from St. Petersburg 24 years ago. “Putin was able to keep the country together.”  

Luzina came here from Moscow in 1990 with her husband Lev, who passed away a few years ago. To distract herself from the grief of losing her husband, she started spending hours at her laptop digging into Russian history and politics. A friend suggested she give lectures on politics and culture at the Universal Adult Day Healthcare center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Luzina sat at a table covered with a clear tablecloth, along with four fellow seniors. Sitting next to Isaac, she wore a long black skirt. Her pearl necklace matched white sandals and a white top with large blue leaves and sparkling buttons. 

Their square table was in a long auditorium, and as the group waited for breakfast, their conversation shifted toward Russian politics.

“Putin is a dictator and Russia needs the dictator because it has the slave mentality,” said Anna Z., who declined to give her last name. “Russia needs a person like Putin to keep the country together.”

A woman wearing a brown apron served, and the group started breakfast. Black-and-white plastic jars with signs “coffee” and “tea” sat on the table next to bowls of steamy oatmeal and a glass vase with artificial roses.

A large painting of a fountain decorated the yellow walls. On the opposite wall, a sign that read “Happy Birthday” hung next to an American flag. 

Luzina has been coming to the senior center for several years, but since the beginning of the Crimean crisis, she said, she has had trouble connecting with fellow Russians. 

“I read news on the internet, and those old fools watch Russian channels, which is nothing but propaganda,” she said. 

Demonstration by Polish soccer fans features burning Jews in effigy


Several dozen soccer fans in Poland hung a banner containing anti-Semitic language at a train station in Lodz at a demonstration that featured the burning of Jews in effigy.

Approximately 50 men were photographed on a bridge at the Lodz Kaliska station on Aug. 26 with a banner reading “19.08, today the Jews got a name. Let them burn,” followed by an obscenity, the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported.

The message referenced to the ŁKS Łódź team, which was founded in 1908 and many Poles associate with Jews because of the rich Jewish history of Lodz. The city in central Poland had a large Jewish population before the Holocaust, partly because it was a capital of the local textile industry.

The fans, some wearing balaclavas, set fire to at least three puppets hanging from the bridge and are understood to symbolize burning Jews.

Police are looking for the demonstrators, who are suspected of incitement to racial hatred and intimidation, the daily reported.

European Union allocates $1.5 million to expand Lodz train station museum


The European Union allocated $1.5 million for the expansion of the museum at the Radegast train station in Lodz, from which Jews were shipped to death camps during the Holocaust.

The money will be used to modernize the building and construct a multimedia model of the Lodz Ghetto, which existed from April 1940 to August 1944.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis sent Jews from the ghetto to death camps from the Radegast station. After the war the station fell into disrepair and appeared to be forgotten. A museum was opened there 10 years ago.

The multimedia model of the Lodz Ghetto, or Litzmannstadt Ghetto, as it was known in German, will be made on a scale of 1:1400 and will show the ghetto as it appeared in May 1944.

“Through multimedia, visitors will gain an opportunity to meet and listen to the witness of history,” according to Piotr Machlanski, director of the Museum of Independence Traditions in Lodz, which owns and operates the museum at the Radegast station.

The work at the station is expected to be completed in 2019.

Nazi ‘gold train’ dig in Poland may finally separate fact from fiction


Treasure hunters in Poland will start digging Tuesday for a hidden train long rumored to be filled with Nazi gold from the end of World War II.

Andreas Richter and Piotr Koper, who a year ago said they had located the train using ground-penetrating radar, will lead 35 volunteers on the privately funded dig in southwestern Poland.

“The train is not a needle in the haystack — if there is one, we will find it,” project spokesman Andrzej Gaik told Agence France-Presse.

The team should know by Thursday whether there is a train at the site, which is located near old railway tracks between the cities of Wroclaw and Walbrzych, Koper told Polish television. Three 300-foot-deep holes are to be drilled with special equipment. The dig is to be live-streamed online.

According to local legend, as German forces fled the Soviet army in 1945, they hid the train containing gold, gems, weapons and valuable art in a secret tunnel near Wroclaw. Despite decades of rumors and amateur searches, the train’s existence has never been proved.

Richter and Koper last year reported finding soil anomalies that hinted at the train’s existence. A study by the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow found no such evidence, but concluded there may be a tunnel at the site.

“If we find a tunnel, then that is also a success. Maybe the train is hidden inside that tunnel,” Gaik told AFP.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis melted down jewelry from Jews and other prisoners sent to concentration camps. As Allied forces advanced at the end of the war, the Nazis sent the gold back to Germany. According to experts, not all the gold has been found.

Poland proposes to jail users of term ‘Polish death camps’


The Polish government proposed a bill that would make the use of terms like “Polish death camps” a crime punishable by jail time.

The bill, which the government put forward Tuesday, would prohibit assigning blame to Poland for the actions of Nazi Germany. Historians and artists would be exempt in their work.

Drafted by the Justice Ministry, the measure also would criminalize accusing Poland of international war crimes or crimes against peace or humanity. The punishment would be a fine or up to three years in jail.

“Diplomatic actions to counteract the falsification of our history and protect the good name of Poland and the Polish people have proved ineffective,” the government said in a statement Tuesday. “There are still comments, especially in the foreign media, suggesting the participation of Poland and Poles in the crimes of World War II.”

Anti-Russian sentiment is fueling a nationalist revival in Poland, where some historians, politicians and activists are engaged in a campaign to absolve their countrymen of any wrongdoing during World War II and the Holocaust, which at time shades into revisionist history. In March, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum created software that lets journalists know when they have used the offending term “Polish death camp” and corrects it to read “Nazi death camp in Poland.”

Officials of the Law and Justice Party, which rose to power last year, have honored Poles who saved their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. But historians who have looked into Polish complicity have been branded traitors by far-right activists.

Jan Gross, a Polish-American historian who wrote about the slaying of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne in 1941, is the subject of a criminal investigation in Poland opened earlier this year for “insulting the Polish nation.” Gross wrote that Poles killed more Jews during the Holocaust than they did Germans.

Pope: I felt the presence of the souls of murdered at Auschwitz


Pope Francis said during his silent visit last week to the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau that he felt the souls of those murdered there.

“The great silence of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was more eloquent than any word spoken could have been,” he said Wednesday during his weekly public audience at the Vatican.

Francis visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, now a memorial museum, on Friday during a four-day trip to Poland to mark the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day. He chose not to make a speech or public statement there, but to visit in silent prayer.

“In that silence I listened: I felt the presence of all the souls who passed through that place; I felt the compassion, the mercy of God, which a few holy souls were been able to bring even into that abyss,” he said. “In that great silence, I prayed for all the victims of violence and war: and there, in that place, I realized more than ever how precious is memory; not only as a record of past events, but as a warning, and a responsibility for today and tomorrow, that the seed of hatred and violence not be allowed to take root in the furrows of history.”

Visiting Auschwitz, the pope said, made him pray to resolve the evils of today’s world.

“Looking upon that cruelty, in that concentration camp,” he said, “I thought immediately of the cruelties of today, which are similar: not as concentrated as in that place, but everywhere in the world; this world that is sick with cruelty, pain, war, hatred, sadness; and this is why I always ask you for the prayer: that the Lord give us peace.”

Jedwabne mayor calls for exhumation of Jewish mass grave


The mayor of a Polish town where locals killed and buried hundreds of Jews added his voice to a growing chorus of officials seeking to exhume the bodies from a mass grave to see if German soldiers were the killers.

Michael Chajewski, the mayor of the town in northeastern Poland, told Gazeta Wyborcza late last week that he supports exhumation. His backing of exhumation comes amid an uproar over a noncommittal statement by Poland’s education minister on television saying that even though state historians and leaders have blamed locals for the pogrom on July 10, 1941, she did not know who killed the Jews of Jedwabne 75 years ago.

“Yes. I’m going to do it,” Chajewski is quoted as telling the paper when asked if he would sign a petition calling for the exhumation. “You need to determine how many people were killed and by whom to finally dispel doubt.”

Poland’s state-owned Institute of National Remembrance determined several dozen locals killed at least 340 Jews at Jedwabne, some of whom they burned inside a barn. The incident, one of at least 20 pogroms against Jews by Poles during or immediately after the Holocaust, was largely unknown in Poland prior to the 2001 publication of a book by historian Jan Gross.

But the institute “said that at the crime scene, dozens of bullets were found. It’s not all that clear,” Chajewski said. Revisionist historians say the bullets mean German troops were likely responsible for the killing because Poles were prohibited from carrying guns in July 1941, when the German army was already present – though not fully controlling – the area. But dozens of testimonies by witnesses and survivors speak of the killing as done by willing locals.

The historical record on Jedwabne is highly controversial because many Poles perceive their nation, where Nazis murdered 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones, as a victim of Nazi genocide. The Jedwabne discovery forced many to readjust this perception to include also some acts by local perpetrators.

Some forensic excavation was already carried out at Jedwabne in 2001 until it was stopped for fear it violated Jewish religious laws on disturbing graves unnecessarily. But calls to exhume the bodies have intensified since the election last year of Poland’s right-wing president, Andrzej Duda.

Duda acknowledged the role of Poles in killing Jews earlier this month. But last year he attacked his predecessor for apologizing in 2011 for Jedwabne and denied that such events actually occurred.

“We did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said in a 2015 televised debate. “Lord knows that Poles didn’t take part in the Holocaust.”

The Jedwabne petition, which is being circulated by Ewa Kurek, a far-right historian from Lublin, received coverage in Polish media amid other articles about revisionist tendencies on Jedwabne, including at the Institute of National Remembrance.

Piotr Gontarczyk, a deputy director at the institute, said last week that “it is difficult to pursue a debate on the topic without a complete exhumation.”

Marek Chrzanowski, a historian with the institute who is running for its presidency, said Monday: “I also believe that you must reconfigure the exhumation and get to the truth because this case harms the image of Poles.”

Queried by JTA, an institute spokeswoman said her organization does not support exhumation as a matter of policy, though some of its historians may take a different view.

75 years after Jedwabne pogrom, Poland wrestles with evidence of complicity


As German army troops invaded eastern Poland, Ichak Lewin’s family fled their town of Wizna.

On July 10, 1941, the Lewins approached the nearby town of Jedwabne, where hundred of Jews lived and had the means to shelter other Jews. But  the Lewins soon realized they had come to the wrong place.

“We were on the cart when we smelled a fire and another bad smell,” said Lewin, recalling the day 75 years ago that has changed how millions in Poland and beyond think of the Holocaust years in that country.

Lewin was 10 when Jedwabne residents massacred hundreds of their Jewish neighbors, including three of Lewin’s uncles and most of his classmates. The townspeople, led by their mayor, rounded up at least 340 Jews and burned them alive inside a barn.

“When the smell reached us, so did word from non-Jewish passers-by that the people of Jedwabne burned the Jews,” Lewin said.

Known to few people in post-communist Poland prior to the 2001 publication of a book about it, the Jedwabne massacre was one of about 20 anti-Semitic atrocities during or immediately after the Holocaust perpetrated by Poles. It prompted the country’s previous president, Bronislaw Komorowski, to “beg forgiveness” for the actions of “perpetrators among the nation of victims,” as he said in 2011.

But in a country where anti-Russian sentiment is fueling a nationalist revival, historians, politicians and activists are engaged in a campaign to discredit the inconvenient accounts from Jedwabne and those who exposed them.

Lewin, who survived the war because he was rescued by Polish villagers, recalled the massacre at Jedwabne on Sunday to some 150 visitors who attended a low-key ceremony commemorating its 75th anniversary.

None of the villagers participated in the memorial event, which the mayor could not attend due to a previous engagement.

Sobbing, Lewin addressed his remarks in Yiddish to a photograph of his classmates, including one of his cousins, who were burned alive.

“I made a life for myself in Israel, but know that I think of you all the time,” he said at the ceremony, which was attended by Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and Poland’s undersecretary of state, Wojciech Kolarski.

Kolarski, who chose not to speak at the event, told JTA that the Poles who killed Jews “damaged an ancient tradition” of coexistence in Poland. Poland’s right-wing president, Andrzej Duda, conveyed a similar message when he spoke earlier this month at the site of another pogrom, committed in 1946, against Jews in the town of Kielce.

But before Duda was elected president last year, he attacked his predecessor for apologizing in 2011 for Jedwabne and denied that such events actually occurred.

“We did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said in a 2015 televised debate. “Lord knows that Poles didn’t take part in the Holocaust.”

He has since changed his tune, at least publicly.

At Kielce, vowing to reject anti-Semitism, Duda said: “Also ordinary people were involved in the attack. I leave it down to historians and sociologists to determine how it happened and why it happened, why people reacted in this particular way.”

A senior state historian this week offered one answer to the questions raised by Duda: He blamed Jews of brutality against non-Jews before the 1941 German invasion, when the part of Poland that included Jedwabne was controlled by Russia.

“Poles took part in the crime” at Jedwabne, but pro-communist sympathies by Jews and “hateful acts perpetrated by Jews” stoked hate against Jews, Piotr Gontarczyk, a deputy director at the Institute of National Remembrance, said in an interview that Radio Poland published on the 75th anniversary.

The 2001 book “Neighbors” by the Princeton University historian Jan Gross, which exposed the Jedwabne massacre, has statistics and accounts that “don’t add up,” Gontarczyk said. Gross, he added, “is no historian.”

Gross, the Norman B. Tomlinson ’16 and ’48 professor of war and society and a history professor at Princeton, migrated to the United States from Poland in 1969.

Two “criminal ideologies are responsible for the events in Jedwabne,” Gontarczyk said in the interview: communism and Nazism. To determine what happened at Jedwabne, the bodies must be exhumed, he added – a scenario many Jews oppose on religious grounds.

Revisionist statements among officials such as Gontarczyk are a new development, according to Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“Progress was made under previous governments toward confronting the Jedwabne massacre, which is emblematic of other pogroms by Poles against Jews,” Zuroff said. “The current right-wing government wants to turn back the page and rewrite it as it used to be.”

But he said historical documentation exists not only about Jedwabne – where witnesses said one Jewish girl was raped and decapitated by people who playfully kicked around her severed head – but also about 20 other cases of mass murder of Jews by Poles during or shortly after the Holocaust.

At least 1,500 and possibly 2,500 people died in the pogroms, Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said.

Jonathan Greenblatt, left, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, conferring at a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre, July 10, 2016. 

One of the incidents occurred a month after the Jedwabne killings in the nearby village of Bzury, where Polish prosecutors in 2013 said 20 Jewish women were raped and then butchered by locals. In another massacre in Wasosz, axe-wielding villagers hacked and buried hundreds of their Jewish neighbors.

For Poland’s Law and Justice party, Zuroff said, fully acknowledging these events “puts at stake their whole national identify because it changes the perception of Poland as a victim nation.”

Non-Jewish Poles certainly suffered in the war. The Nazis killed 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones and, as “lesser humans” under the Nazi racial code, Poles were not invited to collaborate in the same way as Hungarians, Romanians and the people of Baltic nations.

And like the people of other countries controlled by Russia during communism, Poles also suffered oppression and atrocities directed from Moscow – a trauma that has left widespread anger toward Russia and is helping the right wing garner votes in reaction to President Vladimir Putin’s current expansionist politics.

For Duda’s right-wing government especially, the discussion about Jedwabne clearly touched a nerve.

In recent months, Polish authorities began pursuing a criminal investigation of Gross, who exposed the massacre. Police questioned him in April for allegedly violating Poland’s law against “insulting the Polish nation” because he said in an interview recently that more Jews than Germans died at the hands of Poles during World War II.

In February, Duda’s office ordered an examination of the possibility of withdrawing a state honor given to Gross.

In parallel, the Polish government has led efforts to highlight the actions of 6,600 Poles who saved Jews, including by opening a museum in their honor this year and erecting three monuments for them in Warsaw alone. Poland has the highest number of saviors in absolute terms, though other countries have a higher proportion of non-Jews who saved Jews.

While Polish saviors deserve recognition, Gross said, in the current atmosphere there is a fear that “it’s an attempt to create an alternative narrative, to distract,” he told JTA.

If that is true, the effort is not going very well. Last year, the Jedwabne debate was rekindled following the publication of an English translation of a book written in 2004 in Polish by historian Anna Bikont that puts the Jedwabne death toll at double the 340 estimate of state historians. It also alleges that locals shot Jews trying to escape.

“I was saved by Poles to whom I owe my life,” Lewin said at the Jedwabne monument, a black stone whose center features a charred barn door. “But on July 10,” he said of that infamous day in 1941, “we were safer with the Germans.”

Locals absent at ceremony in Poland marking postwar atrocity


Some 150 people attended a commemoration on the 75th anniversary of a massacre of hundreds of Polish Jews by their neighbors in the country’s northeast.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, also attended Sunday’s ceremony in the town of Jedwabne, whose history is controversial in Poland because it involves complicity in the Holocaust by members of a nation that many perceive primarily as a victim of the German Nazi occupation.

Commemorating the victims in Jedwabne “grounds our work, which is to fight anti-Semitism, bigotry and racism,” Greenblatt said.

At Jedwabne, a few dozen perpetrators burned alive at least 340 Jews.

The mayor of Jedwabne did not attend the event, citing previous engagements. Nor did any of the townspeople, according to Henryk Zandek, 90, a non-Jewish man who lived in Jedwabne for years after World War II.

Ichak Lewin, an 85-year-old survivor who lives in Israel, sobbed when he recalled how the entire Jewish population of his village near Jedwabne was “taken to the barn and burned alive,” he said. Warned by locals, his family escaped the roundup in nearby woods, where a Polish family hid them. Lewin said he later worked in a German army kitchen.

Under Poland’s Communist governments, which blurred sectarian divides and at times displayed anti-Semitic tendencies, Jedwabne’s Holocaust-era record was little known until 15 years ago, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told JTA at the event.

In 2001, the publication of a book on Jedwabne by Princeton historian Jan Gross triggered a public debate on the issue.

In a nation where the Nazis killed 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones, “some found it, and some find it, difficult to accept the very bitter truth” about Jedwabne, Schudrich said. But since then, polls suggest that today approximately half of Poles have come to accept their compatriots’ role at Jedwabne, Schudrich said.

Polish Undersecretary of State Wojciech Kolarski represented Polish President Andrzej Duda at the event, where he laid a wreath at the monument for the victims.

“To be clear about what happened here: Polish citizens killed their own Polish compatriots of Jewish origin in a way that damaged a long tradition of living side-by-side,” Kolarski told JTA. “There can be no justification for that.”

At least 1,500 Jews died at the hands of Poles during the Holocaust or immediately after it, Schudrich said.

Some Polish politicians in the past denied that Poles killed Jews in Jedwabne, including former senator Jadwiga Stolarska, who in 2001 stated in Parliament that Germans were behind the killings and that “there was no way a Pole could kill a Jew.”

In 2011, Poland’s then-president, Bronislaw Komorowski, said of the centrist Civic Platform: “I beg forgiveness” for what happened at Jedwabne. In a nation of victims, he said, “there were perpetrators.”

Duda, the current president of the center-right Law and Justice party, last year attacked Komorowski’s statement in what some observers considered a step backward from acceptance of the role of Poles in the massacre at Jedwabne.

“I believe it is extremely important for us that we did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said at a televised debate last year. “The Lord knows that the Polish people did not take part in the Holocaust.”

Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths commemoration group, said the event “shows us how seriously Polish society takes this matter,” citing Kolarski’s presence and that of the national media. Unlike some of its neighbors, he said, Poland is “standing up to its sometimes difficult past and not shirking from often painful truths.”

Jewish artifacts in glass decanter of valuables found in Polish town


A backhoe operator working on a construction site in Poland dug up a glass decanter filled with valuables, including Jewish artifacts.

Among the objects discovered inside the decanter found June 15 in Minsk Mazowiecki were kiddush cups, silver cutlery, a gold pocket watch and gold coins. The owner of the objects, whose material value was estimated to be about $10,000, was not identified.

The discovery was reported Thursday on the website of the city, which is located about 25 miles east of Warsaw. Minsk Mazowiecki, in central Poland, was the site of a Jewish ghetto that was liquidated in July 1942.

Officials at the Museum of Minsk Mazowiecki said the arrangement of the objects shows that they were buried in a hurry and the owner intended to return for them.

The Provincial Conservator Office will decide where the items will go; the local museum would like to keep them in the town.

Belarusian Nobel Prize laureate accuses Poles of persecuting Jews in Holocaust


A Belarusian Nobel Prize laureate has stirred controversy in Poland by saying that many Poles, including priests, participated in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.

Svetlana Alexievich, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, made the accusation last month during a visit to New York, the news website WPolityce reported earlier this week.

“You know what the Poles did with the Jews,” Alexievich was quoted as saying on June 12 at the Brooklyn Central Library during a meeting with readers. “Poles were worst of all in how they treated the Jews. Priests directly called for killing Jews in their sermons.”

 

The statement touched a nerve in Poland, where the government is engaged in a campaign that seeks to counter claims of Holocaust-era complicity by Poles and highlight efforts to save Jews.

Poland’s right-wing government is advancing legislation that would criminalize the use of the term “Polish death camps.” In February, Poland’s deputy justice minister, Patryk Jaki, told reporters in Warsaw: “Stop attributing to Poland the role of Holocaust author.”

Polish citizens are said to be responsible for the direct killing at least 1,500 people in pogroms that took place directly after the Holocaust. Thousands more died at the hands of Poles during the Holocaust and because of Poles who betrayed them to the Germans, according to Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland. Three million non-Jewish Poles were murdered by the German occupiers.

Jan Gross, a well-known Poland-born historian from Princeton University, is currently the subject of a criminal investigation in Poland for saying that more Jews died at the hands of Poles during World War II than at the hands of Germans. He is suspected of violating a law against “insulting the Polish nation.”

In absolute numbers, Poland has the highest amount of any nation of Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who have been recognized by Israel for risking their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Poland has 6,620 righteous gentiles, followed by the Netherlands’ 5,516.

Relatively seen, however, Poland would have had nearly 120,000 righteous gentiles if it had the Netherlands’ ratio of saviors per Jews in 1940.

The government-operated Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum opposes even mentioning that the former death camp is in Poland, urging journalists to change the geographical characterization to “German-occupied” territory.

Maciej Świrski, founder of the Polish League Against Defamation – a nongovernmental body devoted to “prevent the vilification of the Polish People,” as it is described on its website — wrote Alexievich an angry letter challenging her assertions.

It is regrettable, he wrote, that some people “propagate a false thesis about ‘terrible Polish anti-Semitism’ for their own career, applause, and then stupidly think that they are brave and progressive.”

No priests in Poland called for the murder of the Jews, he added in the open letter.

“It is simply a lie. What is this based on? Can you name one Polish priest who called for murder, and where?” Swirski asked. “You are repeating unproven lies, and this is not befitting a documentarist of your class.”

Alexievich wrote extensively about the reality of life for people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

Marking 70th anniversary of Jewish massacre, Polish president slams anti-Semitism


The president of Poland strongly condemned anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and xenophobia in leading the commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Jews after World War II.

Andrzej Sebastian Duda spoke Monday in the southeastern town of Kielce, where communist police and a mob killed 42 — nearly all Jews — on July 4, 1946.

“In a free, sovereign and independent Poland, there is no room for any form of prejudice, for racism, for xenophobia, for anti-Semitism,” Duda said, according to remarks carried by the Polish news agency PAP, The Associated Press reported.

Coming so soon after the Holocaust, the killings — spurred by a false rumor that returning Jews had attacked a local boy — sent a wave of fearful Jews out of Poland and left those remaining afraid of living in their homeland. Poland had an estimated 250,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors in a pre-World War II Jewish population of 3.5 million.

In recent months, Duda has strongly condemned anti-Semitism and xenophobia several times after sending mixed messages on matters of prejudice since the election last year that brought his coalition to power, AP reported.

A day earlier, the prime minster of Poland in a message to a Kielce commemoration said there is no place for racist violence in her country.

Andrzej Bialek, the vice president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, which organized the commemoration, read aloud a letter from the prime minister, Beata Szydlo, to the gathering of some 200 people.

“Seventy years ago, shortly after the devastating war and the Holocaust drama, in Kielce again flowed the blood of innocent people,” the letter said.

Szydlo said there was no provocation that can be an used as an excuse for anti-religious and racist violence. She said the tragedy is still being studied by historians.

Anna Azari, the Israeli ambassador to Poland, also spoke at the ceremony, saying “We have to act together against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”

Bogdan Bialek, the Karski Foundation official who organized the ceremony, spoke of a world without violence and hatred.

“We do not gather here in this place against anyone, even against those whom we think in our minds as our opponents, and perhaps – God forbid – as enemies,” Bialek said. “We gather here for us, for all people, for a better future.”

The Jan Karski Educational Foundation, named for the Polish underground fighter and righteous gentile who was among the first to report the dimensions of the Nazi genocide, promotes Catholic-Jewish interchanges and seeks to instill Karski’s example in young people.

Jacob Bresler: Riding out tribulation and making it to liberation


Mid-morning on Sept. 1, 1939, Jacob Bresler was playing at the one-pump gas station near his family’s apartment in Uniejow, Poland, rolling the metal rim of an automobile wheel with a wire stick, when a bomb suddenly exploded at the town hall, diagonally across the street. As Jacob took cover under the gas station canopy, he saw several German Stuka dive bombers streak past, dropping bombs on the city, and the Polish peasants fleeing eastward with their wagons and livestock. 

Ten minutes later, when the bombing subsided, the 11-year-old ran home along a street strewn with dead bodies and mangled animals. Inside the family’s apartment, now filled with shattered glass, Jacob’s father gathered the family together. “We are not safe here,” he said. “We have to leave the city.”

Jacob was born in Uniejow on July 3, 1928, the fifth of six children — four sisters and an older brother — born to Chaim and Rachel Bresler. The Modern Orthodox and musically gifted family lived in a one-room apartment, so in 1937, Chaim rented a second room nearby, where Jacob and three of his siblings lived. 

Chaim ran a general store and supplied textbooks to the town’s schoolchildren. He also served as a representative of the kehillah, tending to the welfare of Uniejow’s 500 Jewish families. 

Jacob attended public school as well as cheder. At age 9, he also began working evenings as an apprentice for his uncle, making leather shoe uppers and riding boots for the wealthy.

While anti-Semitism was always present, the situation worsened after 1933, as his father’s store began losing customers and the book franchise was confiscated. So, on Sept. 2, 1939, the day after the Stukas bombed Uniejow, the family fled by foot, unsure where to go. Still, Jacob said, “We thought we would soon be back.” 

The family walked all night, finally finding space in an overcrowded barn. A few days later, at Chaim’s suggestion, Jacob and Rachel returned alone to Uniejow to check on the situation, discovering that the store and their primary apartment had been stripped bare. 

On their second night back, Polish forces attacked the Germans. But when Jacob and others went out to greet the temporarily victorious Polish troops, they found the town square littered with hundreds of massacred men — Polish and Jewish hostages the Germans had released and then machine-gunned before departing. Soon after, the Germans recaptured the town.

Jacob and Rachel rejoined the family, but a week later, with Polish troops no longer attacking the occupying German forces in Uniejow, they all returned home, moving everyone into the children’s apartment. And with both his father and brother, Josef, emotionally paralyzed, the burden of supporting the family fell on 11-year-old Jacob. 

Jacob found work in a Polish restaurant, and he supplemented the food he received as payment by collecting cigarette butts discarded by German soldiers and bartering the tobacco.

In January 1940, the Germans asked Chaim to collaborate with them on Jewish affairs, essentially helping to implement their decrees. He refused and soon after was transported to the Poznan labor camp. 

In March 1941, the Jews of Uniejow all were relocated to a ghetto, where Jacob lived in a small room with his family. He was permitted to work for his uncle, making riding boots for the German army. 

Then, in late October 1941, the Jews were resettled in the Jewish Colony, comprising six villages confiscated from the Poles. 

In May 1942, Jacob’s sisters Hinda, 18, and Golda, 16, on the advice of Hinda’s fiancé, reluctantly volunteered to be part of a female transport to a labor camp. Jacob later learned they had been shipped to the Poznan camp but were later gassed at Chelmno. 

When the Jewish Colony was liquidated on July 28, 1942, Jacob and his remaining family were marched to Nowy Swiat, where a selection landed Jacob, then 14, with the women and children. He was looking to escape when a column of men, including Josef, walked by. “I’m going with my brother,” he told his mother, slipping into the line.

Jacob was among a small group selected to clean up the Jewish Colony, going house to house bundling up the inhabitants’ possessions. “It tore our hearts out,” he said. 

Afterward, he was sent to the Lodz ghetto, where he lived with Josef and was assigned to cut wood in a factory. But he was caught stealing and was transferred to another factory, which produced wood shavings used to stuff mattresses for the German army. Jacob continued to steal whatever he could, trading the items for food.

On March 14, 1943, Jacob met a transport arriving from Poznan, on which he hoped to find his father. As the prisoners were marched through the gates, he ran among them. “Are you Chaim Bresler? Are you?” he asked. Finally a man said, “I’m Chaim Bresler; who are you?” Jacob identified himself, falling into his father’s arms. 

After being initially jailed, Chaim lived with Jacob and Josef, who shared their food as Chaim was not allotted a ration card. About two weeks later, Jacob returned from work to find his father gone. “I cannot eat up all your bread. I am going back to the prison,” Chaim’s note read. 

The next day, on March 30, 1943, Jacob went to the prison, speaking to his father through the wire fence, pleading with him to reconsider. But Chaim was adamant. “Do everything in your power to survive. For me, it is too late,” he said, adding that they were being shipped out the next day. Father and son kissed through the fence. Heartbroken, Jacob vowed to survive. 

Jacob’s next job was delivering wood to the ghetto’s elite residents, who rewarded him with food for performing extra chores. He also stole wood. “We were not hungry or cold,” Jacob said. 

After the ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, Jacob and Josef found themselves in the second transport headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, after being processed, Jacob and other male prisoners were marched outside naked and ordered to wait. Twenty-four hours later, they were given uniforms and taken to a barracks where they slept on the floor, too crammed to stretch out. 

After 14 days, Jacob, Josef and others were shipped by cattle car to Kaufering VII, a Dachau subcamp being constructed in the Bavarian forest. They lived in underground earthen huts, spending 12-hour days building latrines and gravel roads. 

Three weeks later, they were transferred to Kaufering IV, where they worked building underground factories for Messerschmitt jet fighters. Jacob was assigned to carry 50-kilogram sacks of cement up a ramp for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. After working one day, he realized the job would kill him and he managed to hide during all his remaining shifts.

Three months later, Josef was transferred to Kaufering I, the first time since 1941 the brothers were separated. Jacob saw Josef only once, admonishing him to keep on living. “If this is life, I don’t want it,” Josef responded. He died shortly before liberation.

In November 1944, Jacob was sent to Kaufering III, then Kaufering XI and the following month to Landshut. At the end of January 1945, he was transferred to Muhldorf, where he was again forced to carry heavy cement bags up a steep ramp and again found hiding places.

Jacob, along with two boys, was then transferred to work at a convent, a 5-kilometer walk each way, working for nuns who ran a home for the mentally disabled. There, for the first time in six years, he was shown compassion.

In mid-April, the Muhldorf prisoners were loaded on a cattle train, which finally, on the morning of April 29, stopped at Tutzing, 25 miles southwest of Munich. Amid rumbling in the distance, someone screamed, “Americans!” The train doors opened, and Jacob, too weak to walk, crawled toward the approaching American troops, kissing the steel tracks of their tanks.  

That evening, the prisoners were transported to the Feldafing displaced persons camp, where, three weeks later, Jacob was hospitalized for two months with typhoid fever. 

In September, Jacob moved to the Landsberg am Lech DP camp. There, he learned that Dora and Sam Samuels, friends of his parents, were searching for him. With their help, he immigrated to New York, arriving on Dec. 25, 1947. “That family became my loving family,” he said. 

In 1950, Jacob, then 22, was drafted and sent to Germany as part of the NATO occupation force. Discharged in 1952, he attended Hunter College, majoring in television and theater. From 1955 to 1960, he lived in Vienna, where he studied music and film and where, on May 24, 1960, he married Edith Antonides. Jacob and Edith moved to New York, but returned 20 months later to Vienna. There, Jacob co-produced an Austrian television show and sang opera. 

In 1968, Jacob and Edith moved to Los Angeles, where Jacob opened three Italian restaurants, which he ran successively until retiring in 1985. Their daughter, Rachel, was born in September 1971. Jacob and Edith now have two grandchildren. 

Since 1985, Jacob has devoted himself to writing books. His autobiography, “You Shall Not Be Called Jacob Anymore,” the title taken from Genesis 32:28-29, was published in 1988 and is available on Amazon. He also returns to Vienna annually and has lectured about the Holocaust in both Austria and Germany. 

Jacob was also featured in the BBC radio documentary “Lost Children of the Holocaust,”  which first aired in May 2015. 

In his 1995 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Jacob said, “People are repeating history. They haven’t learned a thing.” Twenty-one years later, he said, he believes nothing has changed. 

Ukraine city names street for Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson


The city of Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine named a street after Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last and most prominent Lubavitcher rebbe, who fled the city in 1927.

Communist agents arrested the rebbe’s father there in 1939.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson Street was unveiled in Dnepropetrovsk Friday morning by its chief rabbi, Shmuel Kaminezki, who is one of the Chabad movement’s most senior envoys to Ukraine. The change came amid a larger national policy to replace the names of Soviet-era figures with Ukrainian national heroes.

“This is a very important event for the city and for the country in general,” Kaminezki said at the renaming ceremony for the street, along which a Jewish school is located.

“I want to note that it is not the Jewish community that initiated this name change: The proposal to name a street after the Rebbe was received from the Ukrainians, who know the history of their city and its country and are proud of it,” he said in a statement published on the community’s website.

Dnepropetrovsk, which is one Ukraine’s most important Jewish hubs and has a Jewish community of 50,000, already has a Sholem Aleichem Street, named for the Yiddish writer. The community owns a giant, 22-story menorah-shaped complex there that was opened in 2012 and cost $100 million to build.

The Jewish community of Ukraine has been less appreciative of other name changes.

Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, last month condemned a plan to name streets for Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, nationalists who are widely believed to be responsible for lethal violence against Jews during the Holocaust.

“My countrymen should know that Bandera and Shukhevych considered me and all of the Ukrainian Jews — children, women, the elderly — enemies of Ukrainians,” he wrote on Facebook.

The director of Ukraine’s Institute of National Remembrance, Vladimir Vyatrovich, said in a statement that Kiev will soon name a street for the nationalists while another street is to be named for Janusz Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, a Polish Jewish teacher who was murdered in Auschwitz.

Bandera and Shukhevych collaborated with Nazi forces that occupied what is now Ukraine and are believed to have commanded troops that killed thousands of Jews. Once regarded by Ukrainian authorities as illegitimate to serve as national role models because of their war crimes against Jews and Poles, Bandera and Shukhevych are now openly honored in Ukraine following a revolution spearheaded by nationalists in 2014. The revolution was against a government whose critics said was under Russian control.

Many in Ukraine view Bandera and Shukhevych and other suspected war criminals as heroes for their opposition to Soviet domination.

 

Leader of Poland’s largest political party honors victims of synagogue burning


The leader of the largest political party in Poland took part in ceremonies commemorating the burning of a synagogue in Bialystok during the Holocaust.

In his speech at the Great Synagogue of Bialystok, Jaroslaw Kaczynski stressed German responsibility for the Holocaust, the dangers of anti-Semitism, and the need for cooperation with Israel.

“The Holocaust was the fault of the German state and the German people who supported Adolf Hitler,” said Kaczynski during Monday’s ceremony. “German elite were unable to get into any real opposition.”

On June 27, 1941, German troops marched into Bialystok murdering some 2,500 Jews. About one thousand Jews were burned alive in the city’s synagogue.

Kaczynski, who is a leader of the Law and Justice Party, stressed that the representatives of the other nations of Europe, including Poles, also committed crimes during the war, but it would not have been possible without the aggression of Germany. He also stressed that in Europe today there is a new anti-Semitism directed against Israel.

“We have to keep talking about what leads to anti-Semitism in any form, including the present day, hidden under the term anti-Zionism,” he said.

Lviv Ghetto memorial vandalized in anti-Semitic attack


A monument to the victims of the Holocaust-era ghetto of Lviv in western Ukraine was vandalized in what police suspect is an anti-Semitic incident.

Unidentified vandals on Friday threw several gallons of green paint on the memorial, which was erected in 1992 in memory of tens of thousands of Jews who were kept in the ghetto after the German invasion of Ukraine in 1941.

“We called law enforcement officers, and later maintenance services in the Shevchenko district to wash away the paint,” Lviv City Council spokesman Roman Dach told the news website Fakty.

In 1939, approximately 110,000 Jews lived in Lviv, where they constituted one-third of the city’s total population, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Nearly all of them were murdered by German soldiers and local collaborators.

Throughout the summer of 1942, 50,000 Jews were sent to Belzec and Janowska, a camp within the city. In September, the remaining Jews were moved into a smaller ghetto, and in November of that year, “unproductive” Jews were either sent to Janowska or other camps to be murdered.

Auschwitz really happened — and this artsy architecture exhibit proves it


It’s been more than 50 years since the Nuremberg trials, yet proving the Holocaust actually happened remains an ongoing project.

Why? For one, the Nazis covered their tracks, deliberately leaving gaps in the historical record. (In the death-camp blueprints that survive, for example, gas chambers were often labeled as morgues or “undressing rooms.”) As the years pass, survivors and eyewitnesses are dying or suffering dementia. Add in social media — including the rise of the “alt-right” — and it creates an ideal environment for neo-Nazis to swiftly disseminate claims that the Shoah is a fiction.

Filling the breach in our understanding of the Holocaust is a relatively new discipline called forensic architecture, which analyzes renderings, documents, videos and photographs of buildings and infrastructure and uses them to re-create atrocities, ranging from drone strikes on apartment buildings in wartime to the gassing of millions of Jews at Auschwitz.

An example of how forensic architecture can be used to set the record straight is on display at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Titled “The Evidence Room,” it runs though Nov. 27.

An exhibit about Auschwitz might seem out of place in an international gathering that typically showcases state-of-the-art architecture and cutting-edge building materials. (The massive show features the work of 88 architects in the main exhibition, plus works by architects representing their counties in 63 national pavilions.) However, this year’s Biennale is titled “Reporting from the Front” and the show’s curator, Alejandro Aravena, indicated that his agenda is to highlight how architecture can be utilized to further humanitarian aims.

Case in point: Robert Jan van Pelt, the curator of “The Evidence Room” and a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo, tells JTA he considers Auschwitz’s crematoria “the most important building of the 20th century.”

But his assessment isn’t based on aesthetic merits. It’s “for the simple reason that it had changed the course of history,” he explains.

“The Evidence Room,” in which van Pelt aims to address the ethical responsibilities of architects, re-creates some of the definitive evidence used in a landmark British court trial 16 years ago that pitted the American Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt against the Holocaust-denying British historian David Irving. The trial — soon to be dramatized in a major motion picture — is viewed as a watershed in the ongoing campaign against Holocaust deniers because it relied on actual physical evidence as opposed to anecdotal accounts.

“The Evidence Room” (Fred Hunsberger)

Some of this evidence is on display in van Pelt’s exhibit, which is located in a 500-square-foot space at the Biennale’s Central Pavilion. The walls are white plaster and adorned with bas reliefs that depict blueprints for the gas chambers, photographs and illustrations based upon eyewitness accounts, including an image of a kneeling naked Jewish woman being shot in the back of the head by a German officer.

What makes the exhibition stand out from familiar Holocaust museum exhibits, however, are three full-scale models of gas chamber apparatus designed by the Nazis. There’s a mechanical gas canister delivery system encased by sturdy metal grillwork; a rough-hewn door with a grill-covered peephole, and a wood ladder propped against a wall with a small, locked hatch. These items, designed and fabricated by University of Waterloo students and faculty based on photos and eyewitness testimony, are also painted white.

The intention is to use this aestheticized architecture exhibit to enable visitors to better visualize subject matter that has been relegated to history books and courtrooms.

“The forensic study of architecture was able to show that Irving had deliberately misrepresented historical evidence,” Aravena writes in his essay on “The Evidence Room” in the Biennale’s catalog.

Van Pelt, who curated “The Evidence Room” with fellow professors Donald McKay and Anne Bordeleau, along with arts producer Sascha Hastings, has spent decades studying the architecture of Auschwitz and gathering physical evidence to show the workings of the Nazis’ systems. Thanks to his research, many myths have been definitively debunked — including that deadly gas emanated from shower heads. (It actually came from gas canister delivery systems like the ones represented in the exhibit.)

Van Pelt, 60, who is Jewish and is named after an uncle who was murdered at Auschwitz, says his initial inspiration to study Auschwitz came in the 1970s, when a line in the film 1955 French documentary “Night and Fog” resonated deeply with him: “The architects calmly plan the gates through which no one will enter more than once.”

A decade later, as a graduate student, he decided that the study of Auschwitz was just as important to the history of architecture as the study of the Chartres Cathedral.

Van Pelt discovered many of the documents and plans for Nazi death camps in archives in Eastern Europe that were opened after the fall of communism in 1989. Later, in 2000, he used some of the materials during testimony he gave as an expert witness in the Irving-Lipstadt trial. Van Pelt’s research subsequently became the basis of his 590-page book titled “The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial,” which Aravena read several years ago and led him to invite van Pelt to the Biennale.

Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor at the University of Waterloo and the curator of “The Evidence Room.” Photo by Siobhan Allman

As it happens, near “The Evidence Room” is another exhibit featuring forensic architecture — this one by Eyal Weizman, an Israel-born professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. Unlike van Pelt’s work, which confirms accounts of events that Jews have long known to be unassailable, Weizman uses tools of the discipline to raise much more controversial questions about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

At the Biennale, Weizman’s exhibit is in part about the impact of Israeli drone strikes on buildings in Gaza and their occupants. His work has been used in investigations by organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International into state-sponsored violence.

Weizman, who coined the term forensic architecture and credits van Pelt as an inspiration, got his start documenting what he calls illegal occupations in Israel. The discipline comes from his efforts to implicate Israeli architects for violations of international law and and human rights.

“Many neighborhoods in the occupied parts of Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank are designed to control Palestinian communities and to generate material harm,” he says.

During a tour of his exhibition at the Biennale’s opening, Weizman explains that forensic architecture has become more critical to documenting contemporary war crimes because modern warfare increasingly involves the targeting of buildings in dense urban environments. As a result, in places like Gaza, “the home has become the most dangerous place for people to be,” he says.

As for van Pelt, his pioneering forensic research on Auschwitz has made him into a world authority on methods of mass murder. Recently he aided Mexican prosecutors investigating the incineration of the bodies of dozens of murdered students. Having studied how corpses were burned in open-air pits at Birkenau — as well as having researched a Nazi unit that was tasked with opening and burning mass graves, with the goal of erasing physical evidence of the Holocaust — van Pelt helped challenge the Mexican authorities’ version of the students’ abduction and murder.

These days, however, aside from assisting in occasional forensic investigations, van Pelt says he’s mostly focused on academic research and educating his students.

He says the history of Auschwitz serves as a warning for architects to be socially conscientious about the impact of the buildings they design. One example: the refugee housing being built in parts of Europe that van Pelt says “is starting to approach concentration camp conditions.”

“Architects should get the equivalent of the oath of Hippocrates,” van Pelt says. “When I teach my class, I tell them the story of Auschwitz — and I say whatever you do with your career, don’t do this.”