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.

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.

 

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. 

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.

Torah scroll that sat in home closet 15 years donated to Polish museum


A Torah scroll that sat forgotten in a closet of a home in Poland for 15 years was donated to a museum in the country.

Waldemar Sawicki, the owner of a home in the western Polish city of Zielona Gora, gave the scroll to the Museum of Lubusz Region, also in western Poland. His brother originally had found it in a pile of garbage.

“I thought that this was an Old Church Slavonic record brought by our neighbors from the East,” Sawicki told Radio Em in an interview on Wednesday. “I took this document with the thought that someday I will meet someone who will be able to read these letters. I hid it in the closet, along with wallpaper rolls, and it just lay there for almost 15 years.”

 

During a recent renovation of his house, Sawicki remembered the scroll. He contacted the museum, which informed him that the object was a Torah scroll.

It is not known how the Torah scroll made its way to Zielona Gora or why it was in the trash.

Polish government wants to take over, upgrade Treblinka museum


Poland’s government offered to take over from a local authority the responsibility for preserving the grounds of the former Nazi death camp Treblinka, where 870,000 people were murdered.

The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage made the offer in a letter it sent last week to the regional government of Mazovia, the Rzeczpospolita daily reported Sunday.

The takeover could open up new funds for upgrading the small museum in Treblinka, whose grounds in the 1960s were turned into a Polish national monument featuring hundreds of stones inscribed with the names of the countries and places from which the victims had originated. It also has a room-sized museum displaying some objects, mostly work tools, found at the site.

 

Before retreating, the Nazis largely destroyed the facilities of the relatively small camp, which was spread across nearly 57 acres, including the southeastern extermination area with its brick building containing three gas chambers, each measuring 170 square feet.

From the Depths, an organization that deals with Holocaust commemoration in Eastern Europe, welcomed the move, which comes amid a government-led campaign that is widely seen as designed to highlight Polish victimhood during World War II and counter claims that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust.

“It is very promising to see that the Polish government, along with the public international campaign against calling the death camps ‘Polish Death camps,’ have also stood to take further responsibility for those sites on current-day Polish soil,” From the Depths founder Jonny Daniels told JTA. He has criticized Polish authorities for perceived neglect of some Holocaust sites.

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.”

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.

Treblinka, Daniels said, “has been mismanaged by regional authorities, with little funds going into security or upkeep of the site and visitors were unable to get a true understanding of what happened there.”

Separately, From the Depths this week facilitated a deal with a Polish Jewish group, TSKZ, in which it will house the new offices of the Polish Society of the Righteous Among the Nations, whose members were recognized for risking their lives to help Jews survive the Holocaust. The society’s previous office, on the second floor of a suburban building without an elevator, was inaccessible to some of the elderly members.

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.”

Polish adman creates buzz with his pro-Jewish graffiti


Anti-Semitic graffiti is so common in Poland that it hardly makes the news, except maybe when it’s on Holocaust sites or Jewish cemeteries.

But huge philo-Semitic slogans painted in the national colors and confessing a sense of loss over the destruction of Polish Jewry in the Holocaust are somewhat more remarkable. Which is why Polish media is abuzz this week with reports about a graffito reading “I miss you, Jew” that an artist painted on a main street in Lodz.

Rafał Betlejewski, who is not Jewish, coordinated with local Jews and others before painting the attention-grabbing inscription on June 11 on Piotrkowska Street, a main artery. The graffito was part of a series he began in 2005. The founder of an advertising firm, Betlejewski, 48, has painted or helped paint the message dozens of times at sites with a special place in the history of Polish Jewry.

One such site was Brzeska Street, which used to form one of the boundaries of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. Another, in 2010, was Jedwabne, where local Poles killed hundreds of Jews in 1941. Betlejewski also set up a display there of a burning barn in memory of the Jews who were burned alive by their Christian neighbors. It was this dark episode in Polish history — the epicenter of the acrimonious debate in Poland over Holocaust-era complicity — that got him thinking about Polish-Jewish relations in the first place, he said in interviews about his work.

In April, in the Warsaw neighborhood of Powiśle, unidentified parties blacked out the word “Jew” in Betlejewski’s graffiti, prompting him to call on fans to “counter hatred” by continuing to write the word on the wall every time it gets blacked out. Though he had permission from the owners of that wall, he has in the past had legal problems over his “I miss you, Jew” inscriptions, which municipalities saw as vandalism.

“I want to reclaim the word ‘Jew,’ snatch it from anti-Semites, who are in this country are the only ones using it freely,” the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper quoted Betlejewski as saying in 2010 about his campaign and the Jedwabne action especially. “I aim to build a platform used to express positive emotions towards the people known as the Jews.”

The Lodz operation was less controversial, but the site selected for the artwork is no less symbolic. Forbidden to Jews when it was first built in the early 19th century, Piotrkowska Street was finally opened to some Jews of means in 1825. During the German occupation of Poland, it was renamed Adolf Hitler Street. Jews were rounded up, shot and beaten on its cobblestones during various pogroms.

People dining at the Jaffa Israeli restaurant in Lodz, Poland, June 11, 2016. Photo by Courtesy of Rafal Betlejewski

The city in central Poland, about 80 miles from Warsaw, was historically home to one of the country’s most vibrant Jewish communities and one of the largest ghettos during the Holocaust. But Jewish life all but disappeared from Lodz in 1944.

Nearly all of the ghetto’s 164,000 residents were murdered in the Holocaust, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, along with 90 percent of Poland’s pre-Holocaust Jewish population of 3 million.

Despite this tragic legacy, Betlejewski said he enjoyed working there, compared to past experiences in Warsaw.

“Lodz was a very nice change,” Betlejewski wrote on his blog. “Maybe it’s because we painted in a semi-private space, maybe because the wall was ready, and I went there at the invitation of the people who wanted this inscription. Everyone ate a delicious hummus served by the Israeli Jaffa restaurant.”

Jonny Daniels, the founder of From the Depths, a nonprofit that works on commemorating the Holocaust and building bridges between world Jewry and Poland, said that, despite occasional expressions of hostility to Jews there, “The number of those with a positive attitude toward Jews far outweighs those with negative attitude.” Thousands of non-Jewish Polish volunteers engage with From the Depths, he told JTA, while the Polish government maintains a keen interest in “issues connected to the Jewish past.” In March, Polish President Andrzej Duda opened a museum for the Righteous among the Nations, non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, some of the Polish government’s interest in Jewish issues — like the criminal investigation into a Princeton University professor who has explored Polish culpability during the Holocaust — has not gone down very well internationally. Jan Gross, a Polish Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1969, is suspected of violating Poland’s laws against insulting the nation by saying during an interview recently that Poles killed more Jews during World War II than they killed Germans.

Poland also shows little interest in offering restitution for property that belonged to Jews before the genocide. The “current government, leading a tough nationalist line, is not likely to agree to this painful process,” wrote Dina Porat, head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry in Tel Aviv, in an Op-Ed in Haaretz earlier this week.

But back in Lodz, Betlejewski was staying positive, noting that to him, it was “important that there were young Polish Jews there. Young Lodz Jews. People who are trying to rebuild the Jewish of community.”

Verdict due in German trial of 94-year-old ex-Auschwitz guard


A German court is expected to announce on Friday its verdict in the trial of a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people.

In what could be one of Germany's last Holocaust trials, the prosecution has asked the court in the western German town of Detmold to sentence Reinhold Hanning to six years in prison for his role in facilitating the slaughter at the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The defense had called for the acquittal of the former SS officer, saying Hanning had personally never killed, beaten or abused anyone in his capacity as a guard at the camp.

Judge Anke Grudda is due to read out the verdict on Friday, the 20th day of proceedings in the four-month trial, with each day limited to just two hours due to Hanning's old age.

The trial included testimony from at least 10 Holocaust survivors, some of them about Hanning's age, who detailed their horrific experiences, recalling piles of bodies and the smell of burned flesh in the death camp.

Hanning remained silent and emotionless throughout much of the trial, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the courtroom.

He finally spoke up the end of April, apologizing to the victims and saying that he regretted being part of a “criminal organization” that had killed so many and caused so much suffering. “I'm ashamed that I knowingly let injustice happen and did nothing to oppose it,” he read from a paper.

Hanning is not charged with direct involvement in any killings. But the prosecutor's office in Dortmund and dozens of joint plaintiffs from Germany, Hungary, Israel, Canada, Britain and the United States accused him of helping Auschwitz to function.

A precedent for such charges was set in 2011, when death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk was convicted. Last year, Oskar Groening, known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, was sentenced to four years in prison after he was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people at the death camp.

Germany is holding what are likely to be its last trials linked to the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed more than six million people, mostly Jews.

In addition to Hanning, one other man and one woman in their 90s are accused of being accessories to the murder of hundreds of thousands of people at Auschwitz. A third man who was a member of the Nazi SS guard team at Auschwitz died at the age of 93 in April, days before his trial was due to start.