October 18, 2018

Survivors Open Up in ‘Destination Unknown’

Ed Mosberg. Photo courtesy of Netflix

In the opening sequence of the acclaimed documentary “Destination Unknown,” Ed Mosberg dons a blue-and-gray-striped jacket emblazoned with the number 85454 and a matching hat. It’s a replica of the uniform he was forced to wear 70 years ago as a slave laborer in concentration camps such as Mauthausen and Plaszow, some of whose inmates were famously saved by factory owner Oskar Schindler.

Mosberg wears the uniform whenever he has a speaking engagement or visits camps-turned-memorials. He had it with him when he attended a September showing of the film at the University of Southern California, sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation.

Mosberg, 91, was the only member of his Polish family to survive the Holocaust, and he’s one of 12 survivors in the film who relate their harrowing experiences during World War II. He wears the uniform “so that people never forget that [the Shoah] did exist,” he told the Journal. “My whole family was murdered. I have to talk because they can’t. This is my duty and obligation. As long as I live, I will be talking.”

The film, 14 years in the making, blends archival footage with testimonies from Jews who survived concentration camps, were in hiding, fought with partisans, or were fortunate to have been chosen for Schindler’s famous list. Many had never spoken on the record before. And half of the participants died either during the film’s production or after its completion in 2016.

“Now there’s the recognition of mortality,” said Llion Roberts, the film’s producer. “They don’t want to take this to the grave.”

In the film, survivors vividly recall incidents of brutal treatment, the last time they saw their families, the kindness of random strangers that allowed them to live another day and, for some, the post-liberation reunions with parents and siblings they had assumed were dead.

Listening to Mosberg and the other documentary subjects tell their traumatic tales took a toll on Roberts. “I found it so intense that I had a nervous breakdown in 2004,” he said. “I had panic attacks in 2015. It cost me too much in time, stress and funding. But I’m glad I met the people I met. It’s been an incredible journey.”

Roberts, who is not Jewish, was deeply affected by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2001. He couldn’t forget seeing a photo of a 13-year-old girl who resembled his daughter, who was the same age at the time. He started doing research and in 2003 began finding subjects and conducting interviews.

“I was doing 14-hour days of listening to them take me through from childhood to liberation,” he said. “I didn’t ask questions. I just let them talk. Some of these interviews would last five hours. This is why I got such intimacy.”

Roberts ended up with 400 hours of footage, and in 2014 brought in director Claire Ferguson to help him finish the film, with “no narration and primary sources only. No experts or historians.”

“As long as I live, I will be talking.” — Ed Mosberg

Roberts believes what sets “Destination Unknown” apart from other Holocaust survivor documentaries is his use of primary sources. “It keeps it authentic,” he said.”

Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, saw the film in 2016 and came aboard as an executive producer.

“The way the film is woven together, with many stories making up a larger one, will appeal to young people because it brings the testimony alive,” said Smith, who plans to build lessons around the film.

With the alarming rise in anti-Semitism and hate groups around the world, Roberts believes the film’s message couldn’t be more timely.

“History is repeating itself,” he said. “You have another generation coming in, making the same mistakes as the previous ones. There’s a correlation between the mortality of survivors and apathy. Once they’re gone, there’s no obligation to talk about them anymore.”

But Roberts emphasizes that his documentary “is not a history lesson. It is about the resilience of the human spirit, and hope,” he said. “Even for people who have experienced the worst kind of trauma, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Destination Unknown” opens Nov. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

How to Stop ‘Neo-Nazi’ from Turning ‘Nazi’

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. August 11, 2017. Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share/ REUTERS.

After 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, his former high school teacher Derek Weimer reported that his student had been fascinated by the Nazis at school. Weimer’s classroom was not where Fields’ fascination began, but where he was able to express himself openly and publicly with pride. The Second World War and the entire period of Nazi power was indeed fascinating, but Weimer realized that Fields’ interests lay in a deeper and darker place.

Weimer touchingly confessed that once he knew of Fields’ leaning towards white supremacy, and did not manage to dissuade him from his unhealthy interest in the Nazis, that he “failed” as a teacher. In fact, we failed Weimer.

Our society has had such a focus on the threat from extreme Islamist terrorism, that white supremacy has been portrayed like some tribute band, reprising dated covers with no contemporary threat and little relevancy.  So much so, the leadership of its ideological cousin, the so-called alt-right, festers in the White House, veering policy down a dangerous path, enabling the far right to believe they can unite.  Unite the Right, the alt-right, and James Fields share the same ideological DNA.  It is an ideology that is always exclusive and ultimately violent.  The labels we use for the various strands of far right groups mislead us. White supremacy, alt-right, neo-fascist, neo-Nazis: There is nothing alternative or new about them. They are self-declared fascists drawing directly from the well of a genocidal past.  To term current-day Nazis as “neo-Nazis,” when in fact they themselves want to emulate the actions of Hitler and consider themselves to be Nazis, is to delude ourselves about their intent and the threat they pose.

Currently, eight states have laws on the books that mandate the teaching of the Holocaust and genocide.  Of those, only five have a state commission or task force to keep genocide education comprehensive and up to date. No states mandate the provision of resources to support teacher education in this subject or the kind of mentorship that would have benefitted Fields’ high school teacher.

To prevent more students treading this dangerous path requires a concerted effort among the U.S. Department of Education, state education boards, school districts, and the many private sector organizations that teach about the Holocaust and the prevention of racism and discrimination. There needs to be support for intervention when a teacher notices a student in a dangerous situation.

The reason we teach about the Holocaust is because hatred as expressed by Nazi ideology is not abstract history. It has real, ongoing power that can rapidly manifest in violence at any time. We do not teach it to engage students in morbid fascination, but to alert them, to prepare them, and to provide them with tools to resist this kind of evil.

A high school recently called USC Shoah Foundation because its football team greeted members of the opposing team who were Jewish with the “Heil Hitler” salute. The school leaders could have ignored it, but in seeking help, they were able to work with a well-equipped organization. The students were brought together and the issue was worked through.  With a safe context and expert support, the gap was closed, and students got to know each other as people, not as stereotypes.  It took some time and was a difficult process, but hate was taken out of the situation and replaced with respect.

We need to worry about what we have seen in Charlottesville.  This is not the last we will see of the far right.  But if we really want to prevent such violence, we need to invest in our classrooms. Otherwise, there will be many more James Fields in the future.

Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Eileen Eandi, daughter of a holocaust survivor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Smith’s quest to find survivor from Bergen-Belsen liberation film

Stephen Smith and Helen Colin

Last summer, I watched the disturbingly iconic reel of black-and-white footage that revealed the shameful truth of Bergen-Belsen.

The grainy footage, which many of us have seen, was taken at the concentration camp in Germany, a few days after the liberation on April 15, 1945. It offered one of the first glimpses into the hell that was the Holocaust. Under the armed command of liberators from the British Army, SS men are seen unloading the skeletal corpses of the Jews they’d murdered from the back of a pickup truck, and carrying them to a mass grave.

I was struck by two things I hadn’t noticed before:

First, the reel shows a woman screaming at the SS men laboring under the gun of the liberators.

Second, in an extraordinary moment of reckoning, a young Polish-Jewish woman named Hela Goldstein — who appeared to be the same woman who’d been screaming in the earlier shot — steps up to a microphone and delivers, in German, a short account of what had transpired at the camp, while standing against the backdrop of a massive open grave.  As I watched her interview — which lasts all of 93 seconds — it occurred to me that this was likely the first audiovisual Holocaust survivor testimony ever recorded on camera.

I wondered if Goldstein was among the nearly 54,000 Holocaust survivors who later gave their testimonies to the USC Shoah Foundation, whose Visual History Archive features a powerful search engine.

Thanks to the remarkably detailed work of the archive’s indexers, I was able to locate a woman in Houston named Helen Colin. Colin had previously been known as Hela Goldstein — and she was liberated at Bergen-Belsen. I called a friend at the Holocaust Museum Houston, who provided contact information for Helen’s daughter Muriel. After connecting with Muriel, I immediately booked a flight from Los Angeles to Houston.

The next day — June 8, 2016 — I arrived at Helen’s house for the purpose of interviewing her for the USC Shoah Foundation again. In her first interview, recorded in 1996, Helen had never mentioned the statement she’d made to the British film crew at Bergen-Belsen, where 50,000 innocents (including diarist Anne Frank) were murdered during World War II.

I filmed the 93-year-old Helen watching her 1945 testimony. Then I asked her what it was like to stand in front of a microphone as a woman in her early 20s and speak about what had happened.

“I was very, very scared,” she said, adding that the British officers had forced the SS men to listen.

Here she was, staring her former captors in the face, with a camera rolling, telling the world what they’d done. Despite the presence of the British Army, she feared reprisal in the form of a sniper’s bullet from the guard tower above. But it was unoccupied.

Helen also confirmed that she was, indeed, the woman who’d been screaming at the SS men, who were grabbing and dragging bodies by the feet. What was she saying?

“I says, ‘You are not allowed to drag on this gravel such a precious people. They may be my family, they may be my mother, father — who knows?’ ”

She ordered the SS men to “immediately” begin carrying the bodies over their shoulders, to afford the victims a shred of dignity. The Nazis complied, as can be seen in the footage.

“They did it because the British were surrounding me,” she said.

April 15, 1945, was not just the day Bergen-Belsen was liberated; it was also Helen’s 22nd birthday. And as it happens, April 15 is my birthday too.

We bonded that day at her home, made even more hospitable by her lovely daughter Muriel, so eager to ensure that her mother’s story be told.  After the interview, Helen and I agreed to get together again, but this time for the purpose of celebrating our birthdays, on April 15, 2017.

That was not to be. Helen died just weeks after our interview. So, in lieu of the party we’d planned, this piece will celebrate her memory.

With Yom HaShoah just a few days away, when we recall the testimony of survivors, Helen Colin’s legacy rebuts a longstanding popular misconception — that Holocaust survivors were silent after the Holocaust. Many did speak, but in fact their words all too often fell on deaf ears.

As that young woman stood in front of her captors with the dead piled up behind her, it took courage to speak. Helen that day was prepared to speak even though she feared lethal retaliation. But survivors have felt other fears: that words may be twisted for nefarious purposes; that their memories might not be respected; that they must re-live the trauma.

Helen, like all the survivors who have shared their stories — who lost her mother, father, younger brother and little sister to the Holocaust — was among the brave. Happy birthday, Helen.

Moving and Shaking: USC Shoah Foundation, Israeli American Council, Danielle Berrin and more

For those eager to rub shoulders with Hollywood royalty, a great place to be was the annual Ambassadors for Humanity gala, benefiting the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education.

Where else could you see Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford and Kerry Washington among many other famous people onstage, while feasting on a dinner catered by Wolfgang Puck as composer John Williams conducted an orchestra in selections from his own work, starting, of course, with the “Star Wars” theme?

The Dec. 8 dinner at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in the Hollywood and Highland Center in Hollywood was a mixture of high spirits and laughs, courtesy of “Late Late Show” host James Corden; appreciation for the Shoah Foundation’s work; and anxious references to America’s future under President-elect Donald Trump (though his name was never mentioned).

The Shoah Foundation is an outgrowth of the phenomenal impact of the movie “Schindler’s List” and, in just one aspect of its work, has collected some 54,000 video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and of the Armenian, Darfur and other genocides.

One of the most eloquent speakers was Mellody Hobson, a leader in finance and education, who was honored alongside her husband, filmmaker and entrepreneur Lucas. She praised the Shoah Foundation for “giving a face to the faceless,” and observed that in America, “we are now frozen in time, waiting to see what happens.”

Despite the foundation’s impressive accomplishments, founder Spielberg, pointing to the endless slaughter in Syria, said, “We have not come far enough.” He ended his remarks with the clarion call, “There can be no more bystanders.”

The more than 700 guests at the event contributed about $3.5 million to the Shoah Foundation, according to Anne-Marie Stein, the foundation’s director of communications.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

From left: Actor Rob Morrow, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Regional Director Amanda Susskind, ADL Humanitarian Award recipients Curtis and Priscilla Tamkin, ADL Jurisprudence Award recipient Gary Roberts and ADL Regional Board Chair Ivy Kagan Bierman. Photo by Michael Kovac

The Pacific Southwest region of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) honored Priscilla and Curtis Tamkin and Gary Roberts during its annual gala on Dec. 6 at the Beverly Hilton.

The Tamkins, who received the Humanitarian Award, are committed to the arts, animal welfare and tikkun olam, according to ADL National Chair Marvin Nathan, who introduced them.

Roberts, executive vice president at Fox Group Legal at Fox Entertainment Group, received the Jurisprudence Award. He spoke of his recent trip to Auschwitz and the need to push back against the rise of anti-Semitism.

Attendees included actor Rob Morrow, who emceed the event, which raised nearly $1 million for the ADL; regional board chair Ivy Kagan Bierman; ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind; former ADL National Executive Director Abraham Foxman; and Jewish Journal President David Suissa.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Jim Gianopulos and attorney Gerson Zweifach served as honorary co-chairs. The Los Angeles Master Chorale provided the entertainment.

The ADL combats anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

From left: Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, Jewish Journal President David Suissa and Julia Grundwerg attend a commemoration for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Photo by Michael Kovac

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles sponsored an event called Commemoration of Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands and Iranon Dec. 8 at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. 

The event highlighted the story of the more than 850,000 Jewish refugees of Arab lands and the need to educate the world about how this story must be recognized in conversation about the State of Israel and the history of the Jewish experience.

The program’s participants included Senior Rabbi Tal Sessler of Sephardic Temple, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg and Jewish Journal President David Suissa. A musical performance featured Yoni Arbel and Asher Levy of Bazaar Ensemble and Baba Sale Congregation chazan-cantor Liran Shalom Kohn.

Nov. 30 is the official day when Israel and the Jewish world remember the fate of the more than 850,000 Jews who were forced out of Arab countries and Iran in the 20th century. This day of memory commemorates the tragedy of people who were forced to flee from their homes and to leave the countries where they had lived for millennia. 

During his remarks, Suissa said the Jewish Diaspora’s support for Jewish refugees underscores how Jews stick together.

“Today is a day of solidarity, and it’s a day that reminds me of how good Jews are at taking care of each other,” Suissa said. “I hope for the day that our Arab neighbors could do as well as we do when it comes to taking care of each other. I want to tell them to look at our story.”

Among the more than 250 attendees were Sephardic Temple President Alexander Rachmanony; Nathaniel Malka, vice president of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA); and Iranian American Jewish Federation President Susan Azizzadeh.

The gathering followed a Dec. 7 commemoration of Jewish refugees from Arab countries at Los Angeles City Hall, where participants included L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz; Israeli philanthropist Adam Milstein and his wife, Gila; Farah Shamolian, Los Angeles program coordinator at JIMENA; Rabbi Raif Melhado of Kahal Joseph Congregation; and Shanel Melamed, executive director at 30 Years After.

— Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

Interacting with a ‘virtual’ holocaust survivor

Those dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust are facing a difficult deadline. Seventy years after the end of World War II, most of the Holocaust survivors still alive were children or teenagers during the war, and soon even they won’t be able to share their experiences directly with the rest of us.

The USC Shoah Foundation recorded 53,000 video testimonies of survivors to help preserve their stories. But educators have found that children learn best when interacting directly with a survivor, whether in a museum or a classroom.

“What we’ve seen is that the connection with that history and the bond that those kids have is completely different than if they had never met a survivor; if they watched a movie or if they just read something,” said Heather Maio, a Holocaust exhibit curator, at the Shoah Foundation’s offices.

“It’s a completely different experience to be in the presence and ask someone your own question and get a response in their own words. So we really felt it was necessary to find a way to replicate that for future generations, so it wasn’t going to be lost,” she said.

Maio has teamed with Shoah and the USC Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT) to create a new genre of film that adds a 3-D and interactive element to the survivor’s life stories. The project is called “New Dimensions in Testimony.”

The first subject is Pinchas Gutter, born in 1932 in Lodz, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and six Nazi concentration camps. He lost his parents and twin sister at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. He was then imprisoned at Buchenwald, Colditz and finally sent to Theresienstadt, where he was liberated by Soviet troops on May 8, 1945. Gutter now lives in Toronto.

It was important, Maio said, to find a survivor with the mental and physical stamina to respond to hundreds of questions, many being only slight variations on others. For the 3-D interview, Gutter was seated on a red chair surrounded by neon green fabric, 6,000 LED lights and 53 cameras. The video is stitched together, then holographically projected to make a virtual image of Gutter that appears like a three-
dimensional person.

“It had never been done before, so we needed someone that we knew would be flexible and patient,” Maio said.

The filming took five days and resulted in about 27 hours of responses. After an initial round of focus group testing, Gutter was filmed for another two days. He was asked approximately 2,000 questions about his thoughts and experiences, ranging from the obvious (“How did you survive the Holocaust?”) to the obscure (“What happened to your best friend?”) to the absurd (“Did you meet Hitler?”).

“There’s nothing edited from the point that he speaks until he finishes. So nothing is touched or manipulated or edited in his responses. That was really important for the integrity of the interview,” Maio said.

Shoah organized focus groups to enable people to witness the technology in action, while also making the technology “smarter” as it better learns how to find appropriate answers for different ways of phrasing questions.

I attended a session on June 11, and listened as Shoah staffers and volunteers asked test questions. Gutter’s image was projected onto a large screen, not in 3-D, but it seemed as though he was listening in a remote location. He was asked whether he has nightmares, what he does for fun, what he remembers of his twin sister and whether he’s worried about anti-Semitism today. For the most part, the projected image of Gutter responded to the questions posed to him coherently and concisely.

Some answers were touching. When asked, “What were your first impressions of Majdanek?” Gutter described seeing a field of sand. When Jews got off the transport trains, they began burying their jewelry and other precious belongings in the sand. He realized later that the Nazis expected them to do that, knowing the Jews wouldn’t have the chance to return and dig up the items.

The project relies on the ICT’s development of a natural language processor, which filters the questions through speech-recognition software and then searches for the most appropriate response. The institute also lent its experience with holographic display to make the survivor look three-dimensional without requiring viewers to wear special eyeglasses.

Gutter’s 3-D image is projected holographically

But there were a few glitches in the program on the day I was there. When Gutter was asked “What was your occupation after the war?” he explained that he’s retired, is a cantor at his synagogue and volunteers to visit people at hospitals and jails. When asked the question again, he explained more directly that after the war he became a credit manager at a finance company in South Africa.

When I asked, “Do you believe in God?” he responded with an answer about the impossibility of forgiving the Nazis. When I asked again, he answered the correct question, explaining that he believes in “a being that watches over us all the time,” though he doesn’t comprehend the full nature of God.

When asked what his favorite subject was in school, he answered, “My favorite food is gefilte fish that I make according to the way that my mother used to make it.” The researchers said they hadn’t asked Gutter about his favorite subject in school.

If someone asks Gutter a question the program doesn’t understand, he’d first ask the person to repeat the question. If the program still doesn’t understand, Gutter might suggest they ask him about something else. Gutter was also allowed to skip answers that he felt were too personal or uncomfortable. If a viewer were to ask such questions, he’d simply explain that he’d prefer not to answer it. 

Maio said viewers seemed just as cautious when talking to a virtual survivor as they did in person.

“As this technology gets more familiar to the public, they’ll be more apt to ask those difficult questions that they wouldn’t necessarily even ask a survivor in person because they don’t want to upset them,” Maio said. 

The team behind the project expects to film a total of 10 survivors using this current process. Meanwhile, they expect that as the technology improves, the interactions will become even more realistic.

“I don’t think you can replace the human interaction, the way human beings look each other in the eye. …  But what we’ve tried to capture here is, what’s the essence of what’s being told?” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. “And how can the content that we’ve collected from these very precious people be stored in such a way that my curiosity, when it’s sparked, can continue to draw from the wealth of their experience? And I think we’ve narrowed the gap on that a little bit.”

For more information about the “New Dimensions in Testimony” project,


With fewer survivors around, Holocaust education is in transition

On a recent morning, a group of seventh-graders in Natick, Massachusetts, was absorbed in a video of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s acceptance speech of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.

“Why did he win?” asked their teacher, Tracy Sockalosky.

She guided the discussion to the importance of remembrance, a theme reflected in Wiesel’s book “Night,” which the class had read earlier in the year as part of an eight-week unit on the Holocaust that Sockalosky co-teaches with a colleague.

Sockalosky, a 39-year-old history and world geography teacher at Natick’s Wilson Middle School, was one of 25 educators from around the world who traveled to Poland in January for the commemoration ceremonies of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The five-day trip, organized by the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation-the Institute for Visual History and Education, in partnership with Discovery Education, included workshops at Warsaw’s new Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, visits to Jewish historical sites and meetings with survivors.

A webcast produced during the trip, “Auschwitz: The Past is Present Virtual Experience,” will be made available to teachers and students in grades 9-12 on May 13 through the foundation’s recent partnership with Discovery Education, a company that streams educational content to teachers and classrooms across the country.

With the last cohort of survivors in their final years, Holocaust education, which once relied heavily on classroom visits from survivors, is in a period of transition.

“We’re on the cusp of a shift,” when it will no longer be easy to find survivors to speak directly with students, says Roger Brooks, president of Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based nonprofit that offers multidisciplinary professional development, curricula and resources for teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Founded in 1976, Facing History, which now has programs in 150 locations around the world including Northern Ireland, Israel, South Africa and China, combines teaching the history of the Holocaust with readings that explore ethics and questions of civic responsibilities. Its Center for Jewish Education, started in 1990, works with educators in more than 750 Jewish educational settings, including about 100 day schools.

While no one knows how many schools in the United States teach about the Holocaust — it’s a topic the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is hoping to study at some point, officials there say — people in the field sense it has become more of a mainstream phenomenon in public, private and parochial schools all over the country, even in communities that lack significant Jewish populations.

Five states — New Jersey, New York, California, Illinois and Florida — have some type of mandate to teach about the Holocaust in public K-12 schools, according to Peter Fredlake, director of teacher education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Others encourage Holocaust education or make curricular recommendations.

But approach, quality and goals vary dramatically, Fredlake and others in the field say, with some schools teaching the Holocaust strictly for its historical significance and others with hopes of imparting lessons about civic responsibility and the dangers of intolerance.

Meanwhile, more than 80 groups throughout the United States offer resources and training for Holocaust educators, according to the U.S. Holocaust museum. A new museum in Brooklyn, the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center, is the first to focus on the experience of Orthodox Jews in the Holocaust.

Many are grappling with how to teach about the Holocaust in a post-survivor age.

For the past 20 years, in anticipation of the shift, USC’s Shoah Foundation has collected more than 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors for its Visual History Archive. More than 1,500 of the testimonies are included in the foundation’s IWitness, a program designed for classroom use that enables students to stream video and audio testimonies and create their own multimedia presentations. The program reaches some 39,000 educators, and the January trip, in addition to seeking to deepen teachers’ understanding of the historical landscape of Poland before and after the Holocaust, sought to promote the use of the IWitness program.

“This is really bringing the power of storytelling in the digital environment,” according to Kori Street, director of education at the Shoah Foundation. “It’s putting a human face to history.”

Testimonies can’t be presented on their own, however, Street and others caution. Instead, they say, testimonies must be supplemented with lessons about the context of anti-Semitism and the history that led to the Holocaust.

By “looking at the small and insidious steps as they unfold, it helps students learn about warning signs, and to recognize and respond to them in their own lifetimes,” says Jan Darsa, director of Facing History’s Jewish education program.

At its best, says Simone Schweber, the Goodman professor of education and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose research has focused on Holocaust education, teaching the Holocaust challenges students to examine their own deeply held ideas.

“It’s really hard to do,” she acknowledges, noting that students don’t always construct the moral lessons that their teachers assume, particularly if they bring in stereotypes and preconceptions that go unaddressed.

Sarah Cushman, academic program liaison officer at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, says, “People assume that if you teach [about the Holocaust], students will understand that they shouldn’t bully. There’s a disconnect between what’s being asked of this history and what students are getting from it.”

“The lessons must be made more explicit,” she suggests.

Sockalosky, the suburban Boston teacher, acknowledges that the material she has presented to her students requires high-level critical thinking skills and can be challenging for seventh-graders. But the experience of standing with survivors at the gates of Auschwitz in January has deepened her commitment to reaching students at the level they are at, she says.

“I have to find a way to make learning about the Holocaust not just another historical event we study,” Sockalosky says. “It’s not just about the history; it’s about the human experience.”

Steven Spielberg announces new genocide research center at USC

A new Center for Advanced Genocide Research at the USC Shoah Foundation — announced today during a press conference at the University of Southern California — represents a milestone for the 20-year-old organization, according to filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg, who established the foundation, said during the event that the center would be a “beacon of hope” for “breaking the cycle that leads to mass violence.”

The center will be a semi-autonomous division of the USC Shoah Foundation where undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty members and late-career faculty — both at USC and elsewhere representing a variety of academic disciplines, from politics to literature — can independently research the trove of genocide source material that belongs to the foundation.

In addition to the more than 50,000 survivor testimonies housed at the USC Shoah Foundation, testimonies, documents and other pieces of evidence from mass atrocities in Rwanda are a part of the organization’s growing collection. This week, the organization received materials related to the Cambodian genocide, according to Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Inspired by his experience making the acclaimed film “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg established the foundation in 1994. Prior to joining USC in 2006, it was known as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Its goal was to gather testimonies from “survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust,” the foundation’s Web site states.

This year, the USC Shoah Foundation, housed in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, celebrates its 20th anniversary. The announcement was made just days before Yom HaShoah.  

While the new center is more or a less a consolidation of many already existing facets of the USC Shoah Foundation, the intention to focus on research — as opposed to gathering and making accessible education materials — marks a critical shift, Smith told the Journal.

“We have collected at the USC Shoah Foundation the worst part of a century of human civilization in the words of those who experienced genocide, and we want to create a long-term and sustainable way to explore what it means to go through genocide, to learn more deeply from a primary research perspective of what the cases and consequences of genocide are and to do it using the best scholarship we can find,” Smith said. “The reason for that is we are still learning what genocide is.”

Research at the center, which does not have its own physical facility as of yet, will focus on three areas: resistance to genocide and mass violence, violence, emotion and behavioral change and digital genocide studies.

Wolf Gruner, Shapell-Guerin chair in Jewish studies and history professor at USC, will serve as the inaugural director of the center.

Spielberg and Holocaust survivor Miri Becker introduced themselves. Photo by Ryan Torok

Those involved with the new center believe their research could potentially prevent genocide from happening again in the future.

“What we want to try to understand is what it is that enables individuals and groups to push back against the ideology of genocide when its emerging and what can we learn from those inhibitors, because if we can learn something about those it might tell us ways we can inhibit genocide more generally,” Smith said.

Other speakers at the press conference included USC President C.L. Max Nikias and Steve Kay, dean of USC Dornsife College. A panel followed Spielberg’s remarks, featuring Smith, Kay, Gruner and USC psychology and preventive medicine professor Beth Meyerowitz, who also serves as vice provost for faculty affairs.

Meyerowitz, among other things, discussed her experience pouring over survivor testimony, pointing to her surprise that many survivors take up the majority of their two- hour interviews discussing good deeds they were recipients of, as opposed to the horrors of the Shoah.

“We should be teaching people about those small kindnesses,” Meyerowitz said, prompting Spielberg, who was seated in the front row of the audience, to nod in agreement.

More than 100 people, including USC Shoah Foundation supporters and USC administrators, turned out for the press conference.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder of Encino-based Jewish World Watch, a genocide-focused advocacy organization, whose Walk to End Genocide is scheduled for Sunday at Pan Pacific Park, was not at the event, but she expressed enthusiasm about the new center.

“The Center for Advanced Genocide Research is another step in the direction of creating a global culture which abhors genocide and stigmatizes its perpetrators,” she wrote in statement to the Journal. “The greater the number and depth of these types of public, respected, academic, well-funded institutes, the greater will be the attention of the world in turning its focus on combating the evils of genocide. … We at Jewish World Watch feel fortunate to have this mighty resource right here in our backyards.”

From right: USC Shoah Foundation Steven Spielberg; USC Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith and USC Dornsife College dean Steve Kay. Photo by Gus Ruelas/USC.

Calendar April 19-25

SAT | APR 19


Maybe it’s Coachella, or maybe it’s spring air — but we’ve got a musical week in store for you. Remember Bryndle? One of the 1960s folk-rock bands’ original members is performing tonight. With a long and diverse career, Waldman has written and recorded many of her own albums but has also greatly contributed to the repertoire of other artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Vanessa Williams and Aaron Neville. Winner of the Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame, Waldman will be sharing the stage with pianist and guitarist Steve Ferguson. Sat. 8 p.m. $15. Boulevard Music, 4316 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 398-2583. SUN | APR 20


Here’s an opportunity to hang with Mel Blanc, or at least his voice. The afternoon will be a celebration of our favorite wabbit in some classic Warner Bros. cartoon shorts. Whether he is cleverly escaping the grasp of an eager huntsman, causing a bit of mischief aimed at a certain duck or conducting classical music, our cute and fluffy friend will be having a ball. Sun. 4 p.m. $11 (general), $9 (students and seniors), $7 (members). Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (323) 466-3456. MON | APR 21


Celebrate the life and career of the late and great writer, director and actor. Wearing various hats for various films, he helped bring to life “Ghostbusters,” “Caddyshack,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Analyze This.” This particular evening, we will indulge in the film “Stripes” — a comedy in which two friends leave their humdrum lives for a bit of Army fun, and “Groundhog Day” — the beloved romantic comedy that you can watch over, and over, and over again. Sun. and Mon. Various times. $8 (general), $6 (children and seniors). New Beverly Cinema, 7165 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 938-4038. TUE | APR 22


Are you missing bread? Is it painful? The Young Adults of Los Angeles are on a mission to remedy this. As Passover ends, it’s time to hop back on that floury, and in this case, cheesy and tomato-y wagon. This will also be a bit of a pub crawl, so you’ll have plenty of options, rendering you able to finally decide where the best pizza and beer in town are. Tues. 7 p.m. Location to be announced. (323) 761-8000. Please consult the YALA Foodie Cluster Facebook page. WED | APR 23


The National Council of Jewish Women/ Los Angeles hosts a screening that could get a little controversial. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 27th Sundance Film Festival, the movie covers Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act — an act that allows terminally ill patients to end their own lives with physician-prescribed medication. Is this an act that belongs in California? There will be a brief Q-and-A with representatives of the nonprofit Compassion and Choices, a patients’ rights group. Wed. 11:30 a.m. Free. RSVP requested. NCJW/LA, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8503. THU | APR 24


Just when you think you’ve heard every story out of World War II, the USC Shoah Foundation and the Blavatnik Archive Foundation team up to reveal just how wrong you are. Learn about the 500,000 Jewish soldiers who fought in the Soviet Armed Forces against Nazi Germany. The exhibit’s interactive digital displays include diary and letter excerpts, reproductions of archival photographs and documents, and oral testimonies. At tonight’s opening reception, you can also hear from a panel of esteemed academics. Thu. 4 p.m. Free. RSVP requested. Runs for two months. USC Doheny Memorial Library, 3550 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles. (213) 740-6001. FRI | APR 25


With the weather heating up, it might be time for a cool-down. Thank goodness Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne are bringing the “West Coast Cool” jazz scene of the 1950s to our very own LACMA stage. Winkler, a critically acclaimed and award-winning jazz vocalist/lyricist, has been smoothing his way through the music scene since the 1980s. With the Grammy-winning Bentyne, a member of Manhattan Transfer, by his side, the duo will perform Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Julie London, Bobby Troup and more. Fri. 6 p.m. Free. LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6010. ” target=”_blank”>sabantheatre.org

A suit and a story from a Holocaust survivor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pulled out my notebook and digital recorder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rescue during the Holocaust’: Honoring courage to resist

You would not suspect anything out of the ordinary was happening  as the silver-haired interviewee describes his day at the office. But Per Anger and his colleagues in Budapest, Hungary, were on a mission. His self-effacing modesty veils the significance of his role in attempting to rescue the Jews of Budapest from certain death in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I had been searching the USC Shoah Foundation database for eyewitness testimony of Raoul Wallenberg and was right to assume that among the 52,000 audio-visual life histories, I would find survivors talking about how Wallenberg rescued them in the summer of 1944. I had not expected to find Per Anger, a lesser-known accomplice of Wallenberg. As the camera rolls, the mission comes to life: It was Anger who was the first to hand out Swedish protective papers to Jews, and it was he who first called for assistance — which Wallenberg answered. Anger describes the difficulty of snatching Jews from under the noses of the Nazis, the day he opened a cattle wagon and took out 100 Jews, and then the problem of housing and feeding 20,000 people they then had in their care.

This year, the theme of the United Nations International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust is called “Rescue During the Holocaust: The Courage to Care.” Wallenberg  would be 100 years old now, and so to celebrate his life, the United Nations and UNESCO — among many other organizations — have been highlighting the actions of rescuers such as Wallenberg and Anger.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the release of “Schindler’s List,” the feature film that depicts the unlikely hero Oskar Schindler. His motivation to run his factory in Poland was far from altruistic. He was knowingly invested in a system that used slave labor. Only when faced with the reality of people on his shop floor did his attitude change to the point of absolute defiance of the Nazi intention to work them to death. Schindler changed from collaborator to resistor.

My USC colleague Wolf Gruner and I have been trying to work out what it is that provides the impetus for resistance, studying those who did engage in acts of defiance, from Anger to Schindler to Wallenberg and everyone in between. Resistance came in many forms during the Holocaust, and overwhelmingly we find that Jews did not go like “lambs to the slaughter,” which is a terrible myth that has to end. Survival was a state of mind, and Jews across Europe did everything possible to survive, in direct defiance of the Nazis.

What Gruner discovered is that Jews were more actively defiant than we have hitherto understood; there were small acts of heroism every day. We also discovered many more non-Jews working in resistance networks. Many were not successful in their attempts to undermine the Nazis, but those acts are important to know about. It remains true that the vast majority of people did nothing to assist, but that should make the actions of those who did try all the more valuable. Their actions are the key to a more secure future.  

I, too, have been watching more testimony of rescuers, of which the USC Shoah Foundation has more than a thousand in its archive. The more I listen and watch the purposefulness of their decisions, the more I realize that rescuers were not primarily performing acts of altruism, although most were altruists at some level. They need to be reclassified as the ultimate resistors. As individual citizens, they chose to take actions in direct contravention of Nazi policy. Their decisions were just as ideologically motivated and personally courageous as the partisans in the forest or the fighters in the ghetto — maybe more so, as they were rarely armed and were often surrounded by collaborators and informers who were more than willing to cash in on their courage.

They may not have been in organized fighting units, but their determination to defy the Nazis, with the likelihood they would die trying, takes courage — not the courage to care (as caring as they were), but the courage to resist.

We often ask why weren’t there more who defied the Nazi’s hell-bent determination to murder every Jew without exception. As I listen to the voices one at a time of those who committed to that ultimate act of defiance, I realize we are asking the wrong question. Even if there were only one person who had such courage, I find I have to ask the question, ‘How were there so many… and how might I be like them?’

Stephen Smith is executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.