Survivors of Mauthausen beg for food through a barbed wire fence. Photos by U.S. Army photographer Ken Parker

Rare Holocaust photos resurface in North Hollywood home

The 13 black-and-white pictures sat in a cardboard box in a North Hollywood residence, half a world and seven decades removed from the horrors they captured.

In August, Robert Aguilar, 78, a retired truck driver, found the photos at the back of a cupboard as he and his wife, Paula Parker, 69, prepared to sell their townhouse and move to Nevada to live out their retirement. The pictures are presumed to have been taken by Parker’s father, Ken Parker, a U.S. Army photographer in World War II.

Found jumbled together with an Army uniform and a confiscated German pistol, the pictures appear to show the liberation of Mauthausen, one of the Nazis’ cruelest concentration camps. In graphic detail, they offer proof of the emaciated conditions of survivors, with their apathetic expressions and jutting ribcages, along with piles of corpses discovered by the Allies.

“I can’t believe human beings would treat others like that,” Aguilar said, his voice catching in his throat as he spoke on the phone. “Prisoners — they’re not supposed to be tortured to death.”

Aguilar, a Vietnam veteran, said the images reminded him of the American prisoners who were mistreated during the war in which he served. He called the Journal and offered to provide the photographs for safekeeping in the hope that they could be of some use.

“I didn’t want to throw them in the trash,” he said. “They’re history — World War II history, you know. I wanted somebody that could use them.”

Ken Parker was better known for the “girly pictures” of scantily clad models he took in the 1950s and ’60s — some of which still can be found on the internet — than for his war photography. But the photo prints found at the back of his daughter’s cupboard indicate that, for at least a few days in the waning moments of World War II, he became a witness to history, helping record the aftermath of some of the worst Holocaust atrocities.

Mauthausen — the hub of a network of smaller death camps outside of Linz, Austria — was notorious for its cruelty. It had all the horrors of Nazi sadism seen at many other concentration camps: a functioning gas chamber, torture instruments and evidence of grotesque medical experimentation. Other horrors were unique to Mauthausen: Prisoners were forced to carry 50- to 60-pound rocks up 186 steep, uneven steps from a quarry. Sometimes an officer would shoot a prisoner, toppling the rest like dominoes.

U.S. Army photographer Ken Parker in Nice, France, in 1945. Photos courtesy of Paula Parker


As the eventual outcome of the war became apparent, the camp’s leadership considered moving the remaining 18,000 prisoners into a tunnel system and sealing the exits. Instead, the SS simply abandoned the camp. The Third United States Army arrived on May 5, 1945, to find prisoners milling about in various states of starvation.

“Mauthausen, for a person going in, was absolutely bedlam,” Richard Seibel, the U.S. Army colonel who took charge of the camp after liberation, said in an interview recorded by the Dayton Holocaust Research Center in Dayton, Ohio, in 1989. “We had no water — everything had been disrupted before we got there — no water, no sewage, no food, no power, nothing. And here are 18,000 people being corralled, if you will, by combat troops who had no experience in handling a situation of this kind.”

“I’ve always heard stories about the Germans always trying to deny that they treated the people like that. Well, there’s proof in those pictures.”

Into this chaos walked Parker, who joined the war effort at 34, having already started a successful photography business in the Midwest. He easily endeared himself to colleagues, picking up nicknames like “Little Iron Man” for his compact size and tenacity, and “Tony” for his tan skin and slicked-back hair.

Before his deployment to Europe, Parker earned a reputation as a ladies’ man. He would sneak away from his Army base in Missouri and use a car he had hidden to hit the town and pick up women, according to his daughter.

As a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, a technology and communications division, Parker was assigned to document the U.S. combat mission, tailing Gen. George S. Patton and his troops through the Battle of the Bulge before arriving at Mauthausen.

With his camera — he favored a 35mm Nikon — Parker became involved in the documentation effort undertaken by the Allies for the twin purposes of prosecuting the Germans for war crimes and alerting the public to atrocities they had been only dimly aware of, if at all.

A soldier speaks with female survivors of Mauthausen shortly after the camp was liberated in May 1945.


American generals made a point of publicizing what they saw in the camps. Patton ordered the entire town of Weimar to march through Buchenwald so its residents could see the piles of emaciated corpses and a lampshade made of human skin, among other gruesome sights. Encountering the camps, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, ordered camera crews to film them as evidence of war crimes.

“It was as if the liberators, coming originally from Eisenhower, predicted the phenomena of Holocaust denial,” said Judith Cohen, chief acquisitions curator of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. “And Eisenhower said he wanted documentation so that people wouldn’t attribute this to propaganda. That’s an amazing thing, because, of course, we see Holocaust denial left and right these days.”

In sending the photographs to the Journal, Aguilar said he had the same thought.

“I’ve always heard stories about the Germans always trying to deny that they treated the people like that,” he said. “Well, there’s proof in those pictures.”

According to Parker family lore, some of his photos ended up in the hands of prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials.

Some of Parker’s pictures also made it into the USHMM Photo Archive, courtesy of Seibel. One of them, shown here on the top right, Cohen recognized as a particularly iconic image — a picture of a soldier speaking with female survivors. In the archive, however, the photos are missing the photographer’s name. While other members of the Signal Corps went on to win widespread fame, including movie director Frank Capra and film producer Darryl F. Zanuck, Parker remained largely anonymous outside the world of Hollywood glamour photography.

Emaciated prisoners in a bunk in Mauthausen shortly after the camp was liberated.

Cohen said large amounts of historically significant material — diaries, photographs and other documents — still are stored in people’s homes, as Parker’s photos were.

“There’s an amazing amount of material still in private hands,” she said. “And we desperately would like to get it.”

“We are in a race against time,” she added.

Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar at the American Jewish University in Bel Air, agreed.

“The reality is we’re now at one minute to midnight in the lives of the survivors, of the living witnesses,” Berenbaum said during an interview in his office. “Kids are emptying out their parents’ homes. Survivors are dying every day.”

Parker, according to his daughter, hardly ever spoke about what he saw during the war.

Moving to California in the 1940s after his Army service, Parker became a Los Angeles Police Department photographer for 11 years. He was let go for moonlighting as a photographer of pinup girls, a career that later earned him some acclaim in Hollywood.

But what he saw in Europe evidently left him with an unusually strong stomach for horrific images. Paula Parker said her father photographed the gruesome Black Dahlia murder scene for police in 1947 and kept copies, although she later threw them out, not fully aware of their value.

A soldier poses in front of an oven at Mauthausen used for the cremation of human remains.


She recounted that once, during a family vacation, her father spotted a fatal train crash along the road and pulled over.

“My mother, she couldn’t stand blood anyway,” Paula Parker said in a phone interview. “She was so upset that my father would take time out of the vacation to take pictures of people dead.”

“After the war, nothing bothered him, I think,” she said. “My dad could do things that other people couldn’t.”

While the 13 Mauthausen pictures are unsigned and no independent source could confirm Parker shot them, his daughter — who saw the photos for the first time when she was about 30 — believes they came from his camera. He often developed his own photographs and kept duplicates as keepsakes, she said.

Moreover, the Mauthausen photographs were stored among hundreds of others she inherited that he shot over his lifetime. They showed family, friends, car races, golf games, Hollywood stars like Mae West and Bing Crosby (shot for Globe Photos), and images from other countries and of natural wonders that were taken for use in advertisements promoting American Presidents Line, a shipping company.

When she spoke with the Journal, Paula Parker said clearing out her father’s photos was a necessary part of  preparing for her Nevada retirement, after working in Jewish delis around the San Fernando Valley for 38 years, sometimes holding three jobs at once. She said she and Aguilar threw out most of her father’s photographs but kept a select few.

She was ready to pass along the pictures of starving prisoners, barbed-wire enclosures and piles of corpses.

“Oh, I’ve seen them enough,” she said, “and I’ll always remember. What am I going to do, hold on to them?”

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Moving and shaking: Black Earth, David Siegel, Chiune Sugihara and more

Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the 2015 book “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” discussed the causes of the Holocaust on March 21 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus.

“How could a people so established on a continent suddenly come to a violent end?” Snyder asked of 1930s European Jewry.

The answer, he suggested, is that Adolf Hitler was an anarchist who thought it natural for human beings to compete for the world’s finite resources. The German leader was committed to the destruction of a state system that considered all kinds of people equal, and this, more than anti-Semitism, enabled the Holocaust, he said.

“Many genocides make a lot more sense if we see the failure of the state as the cause,” said Snyder, who also is the author of the 2010 book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”

During the Q-and-A, a Shoah survivor, Renee Firestone, stood up from her seat and said: “The Holocaust cannot be explained!”

Caught off guard, Snyder agreed that historians cannot capture the essence of the Shoah. But, he told the Journal later, one can try. “We can, and have to try to, understand,” he said. 

Wendy Lower, John K. Roth professor of history and George R. Roberts fellow and director of the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College, moderated the discussion, which was organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). 

Approximately 150 people attended, including USHMM Western Region Director Steven Klappholz, who delivered closing remarks. “This is really the beginning of a conversation,” he said.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) honored Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel with the Shalom Peace Award at the Women for Israel (WFI) Yom Ha’Atzmaut Luncheon on May 12. 

From left:  Fred Toczek, with his daughter, Ella, who is the youngest Jewish National Fund (JNF) Chai Society member in the country and Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles and JNF honoree David Siegel. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund 

“I am so deeply appreciative for this recognition,” Siegel said at the luncheon. “My relationship with JNF is deep and personal. Having grown up near a JNF forest, I’ve seen firsthand the work of JNF and its significant impact in Israel. JNF has been a vital and close partner during my tenure: from supporting local fire stations on Sept. 11, to educating hundreds across the southwest at JNF Water Summits.”

Luncheon co-Chairwoman Gina Raphael remarked that “Consul General Siegel has led our Jewish community in Los Angeles for the last five years, and he has been a true friend to JNF, and to me by helping bring my commitment to Israel to life. … We are so honored to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut with him and help raise money for a fire station in Jerusalem, one of the many important projects JNF works on in Israel.”

Ariel Kotler, the JNF Israel operations development officer, spoke about Israel’s firefighters, and Israel’s Eurovision star Moran Mazor performed “Jerusalem of Gold.” Cantor Nati Baram and Siegel performed a rendition of “Avinu Shebashamayim,” the prayer for the State of Israel. 

The amount of money raised at the event is not yet known, but it will enable JNF Los Angeles to pass its $7 million fundraising goal. 

— Avi Sholkoff, Contributing Writer

Temple Ramat Zion honored the late Chiune Sugihara at its Holocaust memorial commemoration on May 1. Sugihara was a Japanese consul general to Lithuania who in the 1940s ignored his government’s regulations and issued visas to thousands of Jews, saving their lives by enabling them to leave Lithuania. Sugihara, who died in 1986, was sanctioned by his country and spent time in a Soviet prison as a result of his actions.

Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles Hidehisa Horinouchi. Photo by Caryn Baitel

Attendees at the recent event included the current consul general of Japan in Los Angeles, Hidehisa Horinouchi, who delivered a tribute to Sugihara at Temple Ramat Zion, and spoke of Sugihara’s 1984 recognition as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel.

Other speakers included the German consul general in Los Angeles, Hans Jorg Neumann; Temple Ramat Zion Rabbi Ahud Sela; Temple Ramat Zion Cantor Daniel Friedman; Valley Beth Shalom Cantor Herschel Fox; Northridge United Methodist Church Rev. Karen Murata; Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Northridge Rev. David Loftus; the Temple Ramat Zion Choir and Temple Ramat Zion USY members. 

— Avi Sholkoff, Contributing Writer 

Hilda Eisen donated an ambulance to Magen David Adom in honor of her 99th birthday and in memory of her husband, Harry, who died in 2012. The event took place May 8 at her home in Beverly Hills. 

Hilda Eisen donated an ambulance to Magen David Adom in honor of her 99th birthday and in memory of her husband, Harry. Photo courtesy of Michael Rubinstein

Both Hilda and Harry survived the Holocaust. Harry survived Auschwitz and was president of the Lodzer Organization, a local group of philanthropic Holocaust survivors. He founded Norco Ranch, which until 2005 was the largest egg producer west of the Mississippi. Hilda was a partisan fighter in the Parczew forest during the war. 

Yossi Mentz and Tricia Harris, from the American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA), along with Michael Rubinstein and Rita Statman, Eisen’s grandchildren, helped organize the event. Mentz, the Western regional director of AFMDA, spoke at the event and detailed the process of building the ambulances. 

— Avi Sholkoff, Contributing Writer

Moving and Shaking highlights event, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

US Holocaust museum to collect items for time capsule

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is seeking messages and personal artifacts from Holocaust survivors for a time capsule to be opened on the museum’s 50th anniversary in 2043.

The capsule will be on display in the museum’s David and Fela Shapell Family Collections and Conservation Center in Bowie, Maryland, which is scheduled to be opened next year.

“Every day the museum engages in a battle to rescue truth and keep Holocaust memory alive – a battle that will only intensify with each passing year,” Sara Bloomfield, the museum director, said Monday in a statement.

Starting this month in Florida, the capsule will move on to collecting items in California, Illinois and New York before returning to Washington, D.C.

The Shapell Center is expected to provide enough space to allow the museum’s collections to double in size in the next 10 years.

Currently, the museum houses more than 18,000 objects, 76 million pages of documents, 135 million digital images, more than 88,000 photographs and images, and over 14,000 oral testimonies by survivors, witnesses and perpetrators.

“We need to be able to tell this story from every perspective,” Bloomfield said.

Are Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims the world’s ‘least wanted’ people?

Abu Tahay, a Rohingya Muslim activist who lives in Myanmar, says his people face a simple calculus when deciding whether to remain in their western Myanmar homes or escape via the Andaman Sea on overcrowded, hopelessly equipped fishing boats:

“Do — or die.”

Rohingya Muslims number around 1 million in a majority-Buddhist country of more than 53 million. Tahay is the leader of Myanmar’s Union Nationals Development Party — an all-Muslim party prohibited from running candidates in elections. Speaking on May 30 by telephone from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Tahay offered up a grim checklist of what life is like for the vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (pronounced ro-heej-ah):

No economic rights. No citizenship. Overt state persecution. Violence by Buddhist extremists that’s sanctioned and sometimes assisted by the government. Horrifying levels of poverty, starvation, lack of medical care and more.

“They know they might sink and die” in the sea, Tahay said. “They know the danger. But circumstances forced them to leave.”

The plight of the Rohingyas — a small Muslim sect that lives primarily in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in neighboring Bangladesh — has suddenly become international news in recent weeks after The New York Times, in particular, published a jarring story about fishing boats packed with Rohingya men, women and children stranded in the Andaman Sea off the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia. Some were dead, others were dying, all are victims of “maritime Ping-Pong,” in the words of Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, who spoke to the Times.

It’s estimated that about 25,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, have fled Myanmar and Bangladesh this year, taking their chances on surviving the open seas, hoping to find refuge in any country that will accept them. Most of these refugees are from Rakhine state, where all but a handful are denied citizenship and basic rights despite their centuries-old roots in the region where many Rohingyas lived long before Myanmar (also known as Burma) became an independent state in 1948.

More than 100,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state live in squalid displacement camps and ghettoized villages that are surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, embedded in heavily Buddhist towns and cities.

As disturbing as the images and reports are of desperate Rohingya migrants stranded at sea, or of those who have been taken into similarly destitute temporary refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia, or of those returned to Rakhine state, there may be some new hope for these people because of the attention that the current wave of desperate Rohingya boat people has brought.

Since 2011, Myanmar’s longtime military-ruled government has been on a gradual path to political democracy and economic liberalization in the hope of normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with the West and ending its internal civil war. The wave of reforms across Myanmar, though, has skipped the Rohingyas.

In fact, according to analysts who spoke with the Journal, the Burmese government has used the specter of democracy and open elections scheduled for this fall to stoke ethnic and religious fears among the country’s 80 percent Buddhist-majority population, particularly the Buddhists of Rakhine state. There, some extremist monks condone and even encourage violence against the Rohingyas, who they say will outnumber and dominate Buddhists if given freedom.

“The regime is playing on people’s fears that without this current leadership in power, the country will be overrun by Muslim minorities and Muslim extremists,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a division of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

Hudson served as the National Security Council’s director for African affairs at the White House, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, from 2005 to 2009, when one of his main focuses was the genocide in Darfur; from 2009 to 2011, he was chief of staff to Obama’s Special Envoy for Sudan, during the period of South Sudan’s separation from Sudan.

If there’s a silver lining in the current boat people crisis, Hudson said, it’s that it may offer Western governments the opportunity to make continued normalization with the Burmese government contingent upon granting basic protections and rights to the Rohingyas.

For the Rohingyas on the boats, however, the present is desperate. Thousands are believed to be stranded at sea as countries such as Thailand and Malaysia are reluctant to allow the refugees onto their shores, making the plight of the Rohingyas all-too-reminiscent of the Vietnamese “boat people” of the late 1970s at the end of the Vietnam War, and of the 937 Jewish passengers from Germany and Eastern Europe who fled the Nazi threat in 1939 aboard the MS St. Louis. The ship was denied entry into Cuba and Florida and forced to return to Europe. Although Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands took in all the St. Louis’ passengers, 532 of them came under German occupation during the war, and 254 were murdered by the Nazis.

Today, Hudson said, Western European countries are unwilling to allow the Rohingya crisis to impact the growth in business that European businesses have seen thanks to greater access to Myanmar’s economy after the end of the European Union’s economic sanctions in 2013.

Hudson traveled to Myanmar in March and there, he said, he saw Rolex stores, new casinos and hotels, and Mercedes and Porsche dealerships — direct results of the end of the EU sanctions. “All the trappings of new money are just flooding in, and that’s really difficult to turn off,” Hudson said.

And although the Obama administration continues to raise the issue of the Rohingyas’ persecution in meetings with Burmese officials, a senior State Department official told the Journal that the Rohingya issue is just one of several items on Washington’s agenda as it watches Myanmar’s slow transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Sowing hatred’s seeds

The story of the animosity toward Myanmar’s Muslims, particularly toward the Rohingyas, from the central government and the nation’s Buddhists, particularly by the Rakhine Buddhists, goes back centuries and, in modern history, has certain notable flash points.

But it’s a history that started in relative harmony.

The Rohingyas were first recognized in Myanmar by the Buddhist government of U Nu, the country’s first leader after Burma gained independence in 1948. Some Rohingyas even served in Nu’s administration and, to win the support of potential Rohingya voters, some government officials granted instant citizenship to Rohingyas who entered the country from Bangladesh.

The past three decades, however, have seen a quick dissolution of Buddhist-Muslim relations, which had already been disintegrating for decades because of Buddhist fears of Muslim domination. Myanmar’s central government has used those fears to strengthen its own power, and a handful of attacks by violent Muslim and Rohingya separatists have reinforced the notion that Rohingyas are not to be trusted.

Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law stripped most Rohingyas of Burmese citizenship and left them with few, if any, legal rights under either Burmese or international law. It also gave credence to xenophobic rhetoric from the government and Buddhist monks, including claims that the Rohingyas are not indigenous Burmese at all, but economic migrants who crossed illegally into Myanmar from Bangladesh with the intent of creating a separatist radical Muslim state. It was an overblown claim, but nevertheless contained some kernels of truth.

In 1948, shortly after Myanmar gained independence from the British, some Rohingya Muslims tried to pressure the central government to give them full control of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, two Rohingya-heavy areas in Rakhine state. In 1948, Muslim separatists launched an armed rebellion against the Burmese army that ultimately failed.

Over the decades, subsequent occasional rebellions strengthened Rakhine Buddhists’ fears that the Rohingyas pose an existential threat.

The Rohingyas’ sudden loss in rights in October 1982 pushed them through the cracks of the international human-rights legal framework, which aims to protect refugees (such as many Vietnamese after the Vietnam War) and the internally displaced (such as many Haitians and Nepalis today after natural disasters).

“The stateless community is kind of a third group for which there are no real legal guarantees,” Hudson said. Instead of citizenship, many Rohingyas (estimates range from 600,000 to 800,000) have “white cards,” temporary government-issued identification cards.

In February, the Burmese parliament gave all white-card holders the right to vote in a pre-election constitutional referendum. But Buddhist protests in Yangon ensued, and the day after the ruling was announced, President Thein Sein reversed the law and went even further, ordering that all white cards be surrendered by May 31. As this story went to press, Sein’s order remained in effect, and the central government was moving forward with requirements for all Rohingyas to prove their ancestral roots in Myanmar going back to the 18th-century colonial era if they wished to receive any political or economic rights.

In 2012, Buddhist riots against the Rohingyas in Rakhine state followed years of anti-Rohingya state propaganda that intensified Rakhine Buddhist fears of being outnumbered and overpowered by the Rohingyas.

The riots were sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men on May 28. One week later, on June 3, a Rakhine mob attacked a bus full of Muslim visitors from central Myanmar traveling through the Rakhine state town of Taungup. Ten passengers were murdered, setting off months of brutal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state that left hundreds dead and more than 100,000 people displaced, mostly Rohingyas, but also many Rakhine Buddhists.

Those riots and subsequent outbreaks of violence — usually led by extremist Buddhists — led the government to force an estimated 140,000 Rohingya into internment camps and neighborhoods sealed off from the outside world.

Of the hundreds of thousands of other Rohingyas fortunate enough to have thus far avoided forced displacement, most nevertheless suffer a similar system of apartheid, face a pervasive threat of violence, have little or no access to basic government services or jobs, and are banned from traveling even short distances beyond their towns without official government permission.


Gregory Stanton is a professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University in Virginia and the founder and president of the group Genocide Watch.  In 1996, he created what has become the defining list of the eight stages of genocide (now expanded to 10): classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.

Using these standards, the racist elements within Rakhine Buddhist society and the flame-fanners within the Burmese government have pushed the Rohingyas into the eighth stage (persecution) and on the doorstep of extermination, Hudson said.

“The regime is playing on people’s fears that without this current leadership in power, the country will be overrun by Muslim minorities and Muslim extremists, and they are the enemy, and we have to get the enemy before they get us,” Hudson said. “It’s a common narrative in pre-genocidal societies and it’s a common narrative for regimes that are facing an existential threat on their hold on power.”

That potential threat to the government’s rule isn’t existential, but political, and it stems in part from its recent introduction of greater political and social freedoms — pushed hard by internal democratic parties and by Western governments — and the upcoming democratic elections in the fall.

In March, Hudson traveled for 10 days to Myanmar and Thailand, along with staff from the USHMM’s Simon-Skjodt Center, on a fact-finding mission — an attempt to witness firsthand the human rights crisis that they’d previously only heard about through anecdotes and news reports.

They visited Rakhine state, spent four days in Rohingya internment camps and ghettoized villages, and traveled to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. The group chronicled its trip in a disturbing report available online, “Early Warning Signs of Genocide in Myanmar,” and, speaking with the Journal, Hudson described what he saw three months ago as “worse than apartheid.”

“It’s not like segregation — it’s forced internment in many cases, and people don’t have access, period, to most services,” Hudson said.

He described his visit to Aung Mingalar, a fenced-off, open-air ghetto for Rohingya Muslims in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. At least 4,000 Rohingyas are confined to Aung Mingalar, which was set up by the government in 2012 after the explosion of Buddhist-Muslim riots.

Barbed wire and government checkpoints make leaving Aung Mingalar all but impossible for those without official government transit papers, which are difficult and costly to obtain. Hudson said one of the most surreal aspects of Aung Mingalar is that it’s set in the midst of the otherwise open and bustling city of Sittwe.

“At one point we were talking to a family in the street, next to the barbed wire, and on the other side of the barbed wire, not 50 feet away, there are electricity poles,” Hudson said. “You can see a market, you can see normal life from the ghetto. But for the people on the side of the ghetto, they have no electricity.”

In a January 2014 article in The New Republic, journalist Graeme Wood’s description of Aung Mingalar read like that of a sort of post-apocalyptic village — buildings falling apart; shops closed; and doors, windows and signs either crookedly hanging by their hinges or missing entirely.

Hudson described “row upon row of barracks” in Aung Mingalar, which reminded him of the most infamous Nazi concentration camp. “The camps are so large and spread out along this road that runs out into the jungle,” Hudson said, “it’s just eerily reminiscent of a tropical sort of Auschwitz in some ways.”

Food and medicine in Aung Mingalar are scarce, and without sufficient electricity or farmland or basic government services, earning money to live on is all but impossible. To survive, Rohingya residents depend on the generosity of aid groups and the occasional shopping trip to markets outside the ghetto — trips that can require cash to bribe the government guards at Aung Mingalar’s entrance and to pay for a security escort through the potentially hostile surrounding Rakhine Buddhist area of Sittwe.

The destitution and poverty that engulfs Aung Mingalar and its approximately 4,000 Muslims are the norm, not the exception, for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, even in towns that are not as obviously ghettoized and sealed as Aung Mingalar.

Nora Murphy, a physician in Chicago who has traveled several times to Rakhine state on aid missions, described life in Maungdaw, a majority-Muslim town 60 miles northwest of Sittwe, as well as other Rohingya towns in Rakhine state:

“The markets were devoid of vegetables and fruit. The poverty was so blatant,” Murphy said via telephone from Chicago. Given the region’s tropical climate, she said the Rohingyas ought to be in a position to have strong agricultural production and the resulting nutritional and health benefits that would follow.

“During the hot season, kids were always running around having colds, for an area where their nutrition should be good,” Murphy said. She spoke on the condition that the dates of her trips and her sponsoring aid group would not be published, out of fear that the Burmese government would restrict their future ability to deliver aid, as it has done in the past to humanitarian organizations.

Like Aung Mingalar, most Rohingya villages cannot economically sustain themselves. The government’s restrictions on the Rohingyas’ freedom to travel outside their towns, and its denial of basic services, along with the surrounding Buddhist population’s hostility, force the handful of Rohingyas who have been permitted limited travel to navigate the government’s complex and arbitrary checkpoint system.

“Even if you paid money, you waited, and when you got the permission to go out, there were checkpoints, and only the Rohingyas were searched,” Murphy said.

The lack of basic medication and health care for many Rohingyas is so severe, Murphy said, that once she even had to give emergency medical advice via Facebook chat from Chicago to a Rohingya Muslim who had managed to find an Internet connection and needed immediate advice on how to stem extreme bleeding in a pregnant Rohingya woman who had just had a miscarriage.

“People who have their rights respected and enjoy basic freedoms don’t usually feel desperate enough to flee in such dangerous circumstances,” said David Scott Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Burma. “All of the root causes of this problem start in Burma and Bangladesh, and that’s where long-term solutions should be found,” Mathieson said.

More than 25,000 people, most of them Rohingyas, have taken to the Andaman Sea since January, and thousands are thought to still be stranded aboard fishing boats, many abandoned by smugglers who charged hundreds of dollars — a fortune for the Rohingyas — for passage. A spokeswoman for the Pentagon told the Journal on May 29 that since May 24, U.S. Navy aircraft have conducted “regular maritime surveillance missions over the Andaman Sea, for the purpose of searching for vessels carrying Rohingya refugees.” That intelligence, the official said, is then shared with regional governments. She said the Pentagon has no official estimate for how many boats or people remain stranded in the Andaman Sea.

Meanwhile, even as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand recently agreed to offer temporary shelter to those Rohingya trafficking victims who make it ashore, decrepit refugee camps and graves filled with Rohingya refugees have been found in Thailand and Malaysia. A 2014 Reuters report revealed that some Thai officials had been complicit with smugglers in detaining and extorting Rohingya refugees, demanding more money from their families back home if they wished to survive.

“Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home of thousands of families.” — George Soros

In a prerecorded address broadcast at the Oslo Conference on Rohingyas in late May, billionaire investor, philanthropist and political activist George Soros said that when he visited Myanmar in January for the fourth time in as many years, he went to Aung Mingalar and recognized a ghetto similar to the one he lived in as a child in Budapest in 1944.

“In Aung Mingalar, I heard the echoes of my childhood,” Soros said. “Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home to thousands of families who once had access to health care, education and employment. Now, they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming. Fortunately, we have not reached a stage of mass killing.”

Echoes of 1939 — on land and at sea

Ruth Mandel is the longtime director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She’s also a member of the USHMM’s Committee on Conscience, and, as an 8-month-old in May 1939, was likely the youngest passenger aboard the MS St. Louis trans-Atlantic ocean liner, which carried 937 passengers, nearly all Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe fleeing Nazi persecution. Mandel was traveling with her mother and father, and the family ended up surviving the war in Great Britain.

The ship and its Jewish refugees were turned away from Cuba on June 2 and soon thereafter from a port in Florida. On June 6, out of options, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, took the St. Louis back to Europe. About half of the passengers fell under Nazi occupation during the war, and about half of those were murdered by the Nazis.

Although Mandel was too young to remember the voyage, reports of refugees stranded at sea strike an obvious emotional chord with her. In fact, while attending a meeting for the museum’s Committee on Conscience last year, a staffer’s report on the deteriorating situation for Myanmar’s Rohingyas moved her deeply.

“It was like there’s some kind of recipe or work plan that these oppressive, murderous regimes use against despised people,” Mandel said. “There were patterns in what I was hearing that were so reminiscent of what we know about the lead-up to the beginning of the [Nazis’] annihilation plan — ghettoizing people, preventing them from having education, preventing them from benefiting from employment, education, health care.”

Although the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar is not as dire as that of Germany’s Jews in 1939 (there have been no comparable official calls from the government for extermination), their situation may be just as unyielding. Barring serious pressure from the U.S. and European Union, the Burmese government has little motivation to grant citizenship to any significant number of Rohingyas.

Thein Sein’s administration appears to believe it has more to fear from an angry, organized majority-Buddhist population than from an angry and disenfranchised minority-Muslim population, and foreign governments do not appear likely to spearhead the resettlement of stateless, impoverished Rohingyas en masse.

And although some countries may take in a few thousand refugees, as is happening in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, those grants of asylum are only temporary. “You can’t really ask countries to take them permanently,” a senior State Department official told the Journal on June 1.

As former University of Cincinnati historian and immigration expert Roger Daniels recalled in a May 29 interview with the Journal, in the late 1970s, during the Vietnamese boat people crisis, he asked a Japanese official he was having a drink with about the Japanese government’s role in helping the desperate Vietnamese.

“I asked him why Japan has only taken [in] two [Vietnamese] refugees,” Daniels said from his home in Bellevue, Wash. “He looked at me with a kind of grin and said, ‘So nobody could say we only took one.’ ”

Does anyone care?

In an email exchange, analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, the Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, made an obvious, yet ultimately unhopeful point, when asked which country — Malaysia, Thailand or the U.S. — should be leading the way in helping the Rohingyas.

His one-word response: “Myanmar.”

The diplomatic tragedy for the Rohingyas is they have never had a critical mass of sympathetic supporters within Burmese society — not even Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-renowned leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Suu Kyi has remained silent on the issue, despite a plea the dalai lama made in an interview with The Australian, in which he said Suu Kyi should do more on the Rohingyas’ behalf.

And even as the Burmese government’s gradual movement toward democracy, which began in 2011, has prompted the United States to ease some of its economic sanctions and the European Union to restore full economic trade with Myanmar, Hudson believes the EU is squandering its opportunity to use its leverage to help the Rohingyas.

“We met with European embassies and, frankly, they are so interested in the bonanza of investment in Myanmar right now that they aren’t doing anything to slow down the access of their companies to get into the Burmese market,” Hudson said.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh are focused on the immediate boat refugee crisis, but not on its cause. “They are not asking Myanmar to deal with the disease. They are simply trying to manage the refugee crisis,” Hudson said.

In 2011, Obama became the first U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 to send a secretary of state to Myanmar, when Hillary Clinton traveled there. The next year, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, a sign of Washington’s pleasure at the Burmese government’s political reforms, which to date include greater media and economic freedoms, anti-corruption laws and elections.

Hudson commended the Obama administration for continuing to discuss the Rohingya issue in private discussions with Burmese officials and in public speeches, but the USHMM’s report on its visit to Myanmar called on the U.S., EU and United Nations to use their economic leverage to make future agreements with the Burmese government dependent on its meeting humanitarian and civil rights benchmarks vis-à-vis the Rohingyas. “They’ve gotten a taste for it [foreign economic investment],” Hudson said. “They want more.”

But beyond economics, for Mandel, who traveled on the St. Louis and went on to serve on the USHMM’s conscience committee, the ongoing tragedy in Myanmar is just the most recent example in a long history of powerless groups that can’t find help from those in power: “The human race doesn’t have a very positive history of arms wide open, reaching out to people who are not in their clan.”

Saw Yan Naing is a Burmese journalist for The Irrawaddy magazine who is currently an Alfred Friendly Fellow at the Jewish Journal.  Jared Sichel is a staff writer for the Journal.

Moving and shaking: Pioneer Women Award, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and more

The Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women honored Molly Forrest, CEO and president of the Los Angeles Jewish Home, with the Pioneer Women Award during a ceremony March 27 at Los Angeles City Hall.

The award spotlights those who work to advance the welfare of women and girls in the Los Angeles community. 

“This award is bestowed on women throughout the city of Los Angeles who play vital roles in advancing gender equality, and Molly certainly meets that criteria,” L.A. City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who nominated Forrest for the honor, said, as quoted in a press release. “Considering all of her accomplishments as CEO-President of the Los Angeles Jewish Home, this is a well-deserved honor.”

Forrest expressed her thanks for the award.

“I am honored the commission has recognized me for this important award,” the 65-year-old said, as quoted in a release. “I gratefully accept it and share it with the Home’s dedicated board members, donors and staff.”

As the largest nonprofit skilled-nursing provider in California, Los Angeles Jewish Home provides senior health care services to more than 5,000 seniors annually. Forrest has led and grown the Home, which encompasses three San Fernando Valley-based campuses and 21 programs, since 1996. 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has appointed Steven Klappholz as its new Western regional director.

Steven Klappholz, new Western regional director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo courtesy of USHMM

Klappholz served as executive director of development at the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education in Los Angeles for the past 14 years and was director of development for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for more than a decade before that.

Jordan E. Tannenbaum, USHMM’s chief development officer praised the appointment. 

“Steven is an accomplished and experienced development professional. We very much look forward to him joining the team in our Los Angeles office,” Tannenbaum said in a statement. 

Klappholz succeeds Michael Sarid, who departed from the job last September. 

The new Western regional director, who is charged with working with donors and bringing museum-based programming to Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington, said, in taking on the new role,  “My passion for development is underscored by my desire to raise awareness of the Holocaust and inspire people to confront hatred, anti-Semitism and, ultimately, genocide, especially with the recent rise in anti-Semitism worldwide, including the lands in which the Holocaust occurred,” Klappholz said in a statement.

USHMM is a Washington, D.C.-based Holocaust education museum that has received 36 million visitors since opening its doors in 1993. 

In the world of music, someone might not typically consider Jewish music to be among the likes of today’s pop, hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll. But a new social experience called “SoulSpark: An Evening With Jewish Songwriters” is seeking to change that view. 

Held at Room 5 Lounge in Los Angeles, the March 28 show featured the talents of five Jewish songwriters: Molly Williams, Todd Kessler, Dov Rosenblatt, Chanie Kravitz and Mikey Pauker.

From left: Todd Kessler, Mikey Pauker, Molly Williams, Chanie Kravitz and Dov Rosenblatt. Photo by Joe Shalmoni photojournalist © 2015, all rights reserved.

The event was sponsored by Merkava Mentors, a six-month mentorship program that pairs up-and-coming Jewish songwriters with established Jewish songwriters, and was founded by Pauker.

“I wanted to find people who were strong songwriters, who understand the art form of creating music and who inspire people, to connect them in spirit,” Pauker said of the artists he asked to feature in the SoulSpark event. 

SoulSpark debuted during the SXSW Festival (South by Southwest) on March 17 in Austin, Texas.

Playing to an audience of about 60 people, the songwriters began the evening together with Havdalah, followed by individual pieces from each artist. After the show, some audience members approached Pauker to say how the music had touched them.

Because this particular show was restricted to the 21-and-older age group due to the venue, Pauker is hoping to have a future Los Angeles show with a location that would allow for a younger audience.

“I would like to have a venue that is more accessible to youth groups and families,” he said. 

The messages Judaism teaches are universal, and Pauker believes the same is true for the messages in Jewish music.

“We’re working on building sacred Jewish music coming from a spiritual standpoint,” Pauker said.

— Leilani Peltz, Contributing Writer

Rabbis Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, and David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller of Temple Beth Torah of Ventura, earned spots on the Jewish Daily Forward 2015 America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis list, which featured 33 “men and women who move us” according to the Forward’s website. 

Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner’s introduction to the annual list spotlights Wolpe, specifically, saying the Conservative leader “sends out insightful comments from his perch in Los Angeles to more than 55,000 Facebook followers everywhere.” 

Writers Anne Cohen and Maia Efrem compiled the list with the help of an array of contributors. Those noted also include clergy from New York, Pennsylvania, Quebec and elsewhere. 

The plaudits on Geller accompanying the list spotlight the Reform rabbi’s commitment to baby boomers, saying, “Recently, she led the [Emanuel] congregation and the wider L.A. Jewish community to honor a new stage of life, between midlife and frail old age. It has led to an extraordinary transformation in the lives of many individuals as we explore what it means to understand that there is less time ahead of us than behind.” 

The description of Wolpe’s accomplishments says the rabbi is “definitely a man worthy of recognition for his contributions to so many.” 

And the praise for Hochberg-Miller spotlights the Reform rabbi’s commitment to interfaith work.

Attorney Andrew Friedman and his wife, Chanie, hosted Carolyn Ramsay, who is currently running for Los Angeles City Council and is Jewish, at their home on March 29 for a breakfast with leading members of the Jewish and Hungarian communities.

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Moving and shaking: USHMM’s annual Los Angeles dinner, Sally Drucker turns 100 and more

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) annual Los Angeles dinner was themed “What You Do Matters.” 

Actor Gary Sinese honored the liberators and survivors present at the March 16 evening event at the Beverly Hilton hotel and spoke of the “privilege of hearing from survivors” as he introduced from the audience Joshua Kaufman, who was rescued near death from Dachau by American soldier Daniel Gillespie. The two men were reunited nearly 70 years later for a History Channel documentary, which showed Kaufman, the survivor, kissing the hand and foot of his liberator, saying, “I have everything in my life because of him,” as Gillespie gently protested the humble offerings of thanks. 

Dinner co-chairs Sheryl and Ken Pressberg and Stacy and Jesse Sharf spoke to the 750 attendees of the personal impact the museum has had on them and their families, and Joshua B. Bolten, USHMM vice chairman, introduced the night’s honoree, scholar and frequent Journal contributor, Michael Berenbaum, who as project director oversaw the creation of the museum and went on to become director of the museum’s U.S. Holocaust Research Institute. 

Bolton recalled how Berenbaum, as a young rabbi, officiated at Bolton’s father’s funeral, calling him “a complex man of simple principles.” Bolton applied the same words to Berenbaum, as well, calling the American Jewish University scholar an “eloquent and versatile scholar, teacher and adviser.” 

In his remarks, Berenbaum spoke of how descendants of survivors in the 1950s and ’60s who had questions about what had happened were met by an “indelible” silence. “There are some things survivors know that we can never know,” Berenbaum said.

And yet he has spent his entire career telling and explaining that history: “We were not witnesses, but we have lived in the presence of witnesses,” Berenbaum said, making us responsible for passing on their stories so that history will not be repeated. 

The night’s featured speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, also spoke of the importance of studying history. Much of her talk focused on the strengths and accomplishments of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. 

The message of the evening was that the USHMM — as a teller of stories and a history museum — will forever ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust cannot be forgotten. 

— Susan Freudenheim, Executive Editor

Sally Drucker of Los Angeles turned 100 years old on March 15. She was born Sally Weihrauch in Worcester, Mass., and moved to L.A after World War I., where she raised her family and became an active member of Temple Beth Am. She celebrated with family and friends at her home in Park La Brea.

Sally Drucker

A man with deep Los Angeles Jewish roots has donated a naming gift of $5 million to the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, which will now be known as the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.

Alan Leve.  Photo courtesy of Alan Leve

Alan Leve, 87, is the president of the Culver City-based Ohmega Technologies. A UCLA alumnus, he was born in Boyle Heights at a time when the community was still predominantly Jewish. His grandmother, the late Hinda Schonfeld, wife of Jacob, made a distinct impression on him that lasts to this day.

“My grandmother had no fame, no material assets of any value; but everyone gravitated to her because of her warmth and generosity of spirit,” Leve said in a statement on UCLA’s website. “I realized then that who you are is more important than what you have.”

Schonfeld, in part, inspired Leve’s recent gift. Among other things, the money will allow the school to start the Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld Boyle Heights Collection, which will celebrate the Jewish history of the East Los Angeles neighborhood by including archival materials and artifacts related to its past.  

Additionally, the money will support UCLA Jewish studies’ undergraduate and graduate students through the creation of the Alan D. Leve Endowment for Student Excellence; attract international scholars to UCLA as part of the Etta and Milton Leve Scholar-in-Residence Program (named for Leve’s late parents); and provide support for faculty with the Alan D. Leve Endowment for Teaching Innovation. The Alan D. Leve Endowment for Research Innovation will support faculty and graduate student research.

“The Jewish presence in academic, social and cultural life on the UCLA campus is strong, and Alan Leve’s generosity helps to ensure its continued vitality,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in a statement on the UCLA website. “We are proud of the role that the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and UCLA — through many other research centers, faculty members, students and public programming — play in the international, national and local dialogue about Judaism.”

The UCLA Jewish Studies Center was founded in 1994. 

Steve Tisch, an Oscar-winning producer (“Forrest Gump”), has donated $10 million to Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Department of Film and Television. The naming gift turns the department into a “full-fledged school,” now known as The Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at TAU.

Steve Tisch. Photo courtesy of American Friends of Tel Aviv University

The donation “play(s) a major role in helping further cement Israel’s growing reputation as ‘Hollywood on the Mediterranean,’ ” a March 5 American Friends of Tel Aviv University press release said. 

TAU has fostered some of Israel’s most significant talents in film and television, including Gideon Raff (“Homeland”); Hagai Levi (“The Affair,” “In Treatment”); and acclaimed student filmmaker Hadas Ayalon.

“The donation from Mr. Tisch is a milestone in Israel’s film and TV industry that will have a lasting impact, providing aspiring students with even more support to achieve their dreams and share their creative stories with the world,” Raff said in a statement.  

Tisch is a partner at Escape Artists Productions and the co-owner, chairman and executive vice president of the New York Giants football team. He has previously contributed funds to the David Geffen School of Medicine, which operates the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT program, and he sits on the board of trustees at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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Moving and shaking: A fabulous night, Sunday shvitz and Andrew Hoffer

Beverly Hills real estate magnate Stanley Black and Temple of the Arts Rabbi David Baron were honored on Oct. 12 during “A Fabulous Night” at the Saban Theatre. 

The event featured comedian Rita Rudner and Beatles tribute band The Fab Four in concert while also spotlighting the contributions of entertainment mogul Haim Saban, after whom the venue is named. Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse presented Saban and his author-wife, Cheryl, with a plaque that acknowledged the theater’s designation as a historic landmark. 

The evening, attended by an estimated 1,200, was presented by the Beverly Hills Performing Arts Center and Temple of the Arts at the Saban. It benefited a new children’s film series for children in need and raised funds for the final stages of restoration for the theater. The event raised $3 million. 

The venue’s lobby also was dedicated in honor of Black and his late wife, Joyce Black.

 During separate, surprise ceremonies earlier this month, two local teachers were honored as recipients of the 2014 Jewish Educator Awards. The winners were Ariela Nehemne, of the Harold M. Schulweis Day School at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), and Barry Schapira, of Brawerman Elementary School West of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

The distinctions from the Milken Family Foundation come with an unrestricted prize of $15,000. Two more winners will be honored Nov. 3. 

Nehemne is a kindergarten teacher, a peer mentor and a technology leader at the Conservative day school in Encino. VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein saluted the likes of Nehemne during an Oct. 14 ceremony at VBS. 

“According to the Torah, the most special thing you can do in the world is become a teacher,” he said. “It’s teachers who keep the world going.” 

Richard Sandler, executive vice president and a trustee of the Milken Family Foundation, participated in the ceremony at VBS. 

Schapira was honored Oct. 14 at Brawerman in West Los Angeles, where Gil Graff, executive director of BJE — Builders of Jewish Education, opened the assembly with inspiring lessons from the Torah. Schapira is a physical education coach who developed a successful afterschool program and more. 

The Jewish Educator Awards, first given out in 1990, honor Jewish educators’ contributions to day schools affiliated with BJE and those who “exemplify the Jewish day school mission to prepare our youth for successful lives in the context of our values as a people,” according to

Michael Sarid departed from his position as director of the Western region of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) at the end of September. He had served in the position for more than four years and is “moving to New York for personal reasons,” said interim director, Carol Stulberg, who also is the senior adviser for leadership gifts at the USHMM Western region. “[He is a] lovely person and a seasoned fund-raiser. It was pleasure working with him.” 

The museum will hire a permanent replacement by the beginning of 2015, according to Stulberg. 

The Western region director is charged with working with donors and bringing museum programming to communities in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. The office represents one of five regions for the museum, which has welcomed 36 million visitors since its inception in 1993, according to its website. 

Coming up locally, USHMM will mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of all the concentration camps during World War 

II. The event will be held March 16 at the Beverly Hilton as part of the USHMM Western region gala fundraiser. Ken and Sheryl Pressberg and Jesse and Stacy Scharf are co-chairing the event, which will honor Holocaust survivors, according to Stulberg.

American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU) has appointed Andrew Hoffer as the associate director of its Southwest regional office. He joined the AABGU staff at the end of August. 

Andrew Hoffer, Photo courtesy of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Hoffer previously served as development director at the Jewish Home Foundation, where he helped “coordinate a $215 million capital campaign and major gift programs,” according to a Oct. 12 AABGU press release. He has also worked for the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Anti-Defamation League.

“I am honored to represent such an outstanding university, which is making significant contributions in many areas to the State of Israel and for the betterment of our global community,” Hoffer said in a press release regarding his new job. 

He brings to AABGU nearly 20 years of experience in working on major gifts, capital campaigns and special events for a broad range of education, health-care and social service organizations. 

Philip Gomperts, AABGU Southwest regional director, welcomed Hoffer to the AABGU team in a statement: “We are excited that Andrew Hoffer has joined AABGU with his credentials and experience to increase donor support for the university’s initiatives. It is more important than ever to support Israel, and working together we will continue to have a meaningful impact on the growth and success of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.” 

AABGU’s mission, according to its website, is “raising funds and awareness for the [Israel-based Ben-Gurion] University across the United States, showcasing BGU’s academic excellence and cutting-edge research from the desert for the world.” BGU is known for its achievements in scientific innovation, applied sciences and interdisciplinary research. 

Celebrity fitness trainer Simone De La Rue of Body by Simone led a group of 35 women in Sunday Shvitz, a cardio dance class hosted by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Young Leadership Los Angeles on Oct. 5 in West Hollywood. 

From left: FIDF Western region executive director Miri Nash; Simone De La Rue; and FIDF director of Young Leadership Molly Soboroff. Photo by Amanda Epstein

“I wanted to help build awareness of a cause that is important to those who support me,” said De La Rue, who donated her time to teach the group and who worked everyone into a sweaty frenzy. “I was excited by the opportunity to share my love and passion for Body by Simone with a new group of women; to show them how much fun exercise can be and to be able to help raise money for a honorable cause.” 

De La Rue led the group through three routines while raising $1,500 for FIDF’s Wounded Veterans Project. The program assists soldiers in their postwar recovery process by helping them strengthen their mental and physical abilities. 

The event was chaired by Jamie Bernstein, an FIDF Young Leadership board member. 

— Amanda Epstein, Contributing Writer 

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Holocaust in North Korea

As Shin Dong-hyuk crawled over his friend’s lifeless body, the 23-year-old North Korean could feel the electric current shooting through him. 

Luckily, for Shin, the two pairs of pants he was wearing, coupled with his friend’s corpse, shielded him for the most part from the deadly voltage pulsing through the barbed-wire fences. 

Those fences had trapped him since his birth inside Camp 14, a North Korean prison on the Taedong River in the hills, about 50 miles northeast of the capital city of Pyongyang. 

But on this frigid afternoon, Jan. 2, 2005, something happened at the camp that had never happened before — someone escaped.

Shin’s friend, Park Yong Chul, made it to the fence first, pushing his upper body through the lowest two strands of electrified wire. The current, though, was so powerful that it glued Park to the fence, killing him within seconds.

As journalist Blaine Harden writes in “Escape From Camp 14,” the gripping account of Shin’s life in the forced labor camp, “The weight of his [Park’s] body pulled down the bottom strand of wire, pinning it against the snowy ground and creating a small gap in the fence.”

[Related: Shin Dong-hyuk at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jared Sichel

At the museum, Shin wore a red sweater, blue skinny jeans, a black Abercrombie & Fitch raincoat and bright blue sneakers. With sleek glasses; straight, long, black hair; and bangs, he seemed comfortable with a Western, or at least South Korean, look. 

Reserved and unassuming, Shin spoke quietly throughout the day, both while walking through the exhibits and at lunch. He smiled occasionally but had a serious, thoughtful — sometimes even flat — look on his face when speaking with me. 

Although when he spoke in Korean with his translator, he would occasionally chuckle or say something humorous, which would prompt his translator to tell me what he said.

He lives now in an apartment in Seoul, but Shin isn’t taking classes and doesn’t have a full-time job; he said he has friends and has even made enough money from sales of “Escape From Camp 14” to live comfortably. He has also established a nonprofit, Inside NK, which he wants to grow into a full-time job.

Shin’s translator said Shin refuses to accept payment for any of his speeches and appearances, but that when organizations want to pay, the money will sometimes be directed toward Inside NK.

At the museum, Shin sought the horrific images from 1945 of thousands of decomposing bodies from a liberated Nazi concentration camp being dug up by a bulldozer. 

The horror of that image, which he had viewed for the first time in South Korea, convinced him that he must do what he can to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners languishing today in North Korea’s four concentration camps. Shin has become, despite his desire to remain private, a public face for what is a growing movement to shed light on North Korea’s totalitarian government and its unrelenting political imprisonment of its countrymen. 

The international media coverage of North Korea tends to focus on anything but the country’s humanitarian crisis. We hear about the country’s nuclear program or the budding friendship between former American basketball star Dennis Rodman and North Korea’s 31-year-old dictator Kim Jong-un, or the latter’s recent execution of his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, formerly Kim’s No. 2 man.

But Shin is a living testament to the fact that attention must be paid to what is happening to a completely hidden population: Nearly seven decades after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet forces on Jan. 27, 1945, North Korea’s concentration camps have now existed more than 12 times longer than the Nazi camps and twice as long as the Soviet gulag.

According to David Hawk, author of “The Hidden Gulag,” the camps hold between 80,000 and 120,000 North Korean political prisoners in a country with a population of less than 25 million people — that is, proportionally, the equivalent of 1.5 million Americans languishing in slave camps, without judicial review, for arbitrary “crimes.” Many estimate the number incarcerated in the North Korean camps at 200,000, but no one can know for sure.

Further, although the prison and torture network established by the North Korean government is modeled on the unending detentions and hard labor of Stalin’s gulag, not on the Nazi extermination camps, Shin fears the North Korean regime will one day take a page out of Hitler’s playbook and begin to execute its prisoners.

“The fate of the North Korean prison camp inmates — they can be burned, gassed like this, shot to death,” Shin told me during our visit to the Holocaust museum. “To think of what fate awaits them, that’s what fills me with fear.”

A Google Maps satellite view of Camp 14 on the Taedong River in North Korea.

A slave by birth

Shin had committed no sin, except by North Korean standards. He was born, in November 1982, at Camp 14, a kwan-li-so — a forced labor camp for “political prisoners.” 

Shin was there because he committed the crime of being the son of his father, whose two uncles fled to South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). By dictatorial fiat, that meant that the uncles’ relatives had to be imprisoned, isolated from the public, for three generations. He never asked his mother, Jang Hye Gyung, how she ended up in the camp — and she never told him why.

Unlike Jewish families in Europe who’d had lives before the Holocaust, Shin knew only Camp 14. He was, by his own account, not fully human. The camp is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, about the size of the city of Los Angeles, according to Harden. His home was a one-story building shared by four families, where Shin and his mother had one room to themselves and slept next to each other every night on a concrete floor. 

Families at Camp 14 get just two hours daily of electricity — from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. and from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. There are no beds, tables, chairs or running water. They use a communal privy, the waste from which is used as fertilizer for the camp farm.

Shin’s diet was corn porridge, pickled cabbage and cabbage soup, twice daily, for 23 years. There were no exceptions, except when the political police, the bo-wi-bu, withheld food as punishment.

He was starved, overworked as a farmer, construction worker and repairman, and only minimally schooled. His primitive life taught him little beyond survival — Shin had no concept of love, compassion or morality. 

His mother was not his guardian — she was competition for food. For Jang, Shin was not a son to be loved and cared for — he was an impediment to survival.

As Harden writes, Shin would often eat his mother’s meals; it didn’t occur to him that she would go hungry as a result. When young, he would scrounge around the room as she worked the fields. If she came home to find that food was missing, she would beat Shin with a hoe or shovel, often severely. 

Shin had an older brother, He Geun, but he barely knew him. When Shin was 4, He Geun moved out of the house — mandatory at age 12 — and into a dormitory near his worksite. Shin also had a father, Shin Gyung Sub, who lived in the camp but whom Shin also barely knew.

Shin’s parents’ “marriage” was arranged by the bo-wi-bu — as a reward to his father “for his skill in operating a metal lathe in the camp’s machine shop,” Harden writes.

Aside from five nights per year when he could be with his wife, Shin’s father lived in a dormitory at the machine shop.

As was true at Nazi and Soviet slave camps, conditions at the North Korean ones are ripe for abuse by guards, who rape female prisoners and often use sex as a carrot for more food or less punishment. Of course, the women are not allowed to resist. 

One night when he was 10, Shin went looking for his mother. He was hungry. He peered through a window into a guard’s office, which his mother was cleaning. A guard approached Jang and “began to grope her.” Shin watched as they had sex. 

He never mentioned to his mother what he’d seen. 

Luckily for Jang, she didn’t become pregnant. Women whose bellies begin to protrude have a knack for disappearing at Camp 14 if the pregnancy is unwanted by the guards. 

An Myeong Chul, a defector who was a guard in the prison camp system, told Harden that “he had personally seen [unplanned] newborns clubbed to death with iron rods” by camp guards.

Camp 14’s ‘education’

Teachers at Shin’s school in Camp 14 were uniformed guards who always carried pistols. Shin saw one of them beat a 6-year-old classmate to death with a chalkboard pointer. Illustrations by Shin Dong-hyuk / Courtesy Database Center for North Korean Human Rights

One day, when Shin was 6, he was sitting in class when his teacher “sprang a surprise search,” digging through the pockets of all 40 students in class. The teacher, whose name was unknown by the students, found five kernels of corn, as Shin tells it, all of which belonged to a female classmate.

Ordering the girl to kneel in front of the class, the teacher repeatedly struck her head with his chalkboard pointer. After repeated strikes, lumps puffed up on her skull, blood poured from her head, and she collapsed, unconscious. Later that night, she died. The next day, the teacher was back in front of the class. 

It wasn’t the first murder Shin witnessed, but it was the first informal one. Aside from the two or three annual executions that every prisoner has to watch at Camp 14, the bo-wi-bu have the green light to punish at will. 

Unlike students in the rest of North Korea, prisoners are not fed the brainwash devised by the Kim regime of its own god-like benevolence. Rather, they are taught next to nothing.

Shin believes children born in the camp were intentionally kept ignorant. Classes for child prisoners brought in from the outside, who knew something about society in North Korea, or maybe even China or South Korea, were held elsewhere.


As the 13-year-old Shin listened through the kitchen door, he could hear his mother and brother speaking.

One word made him perk up — escape. He Geun apparently had left his worksite without permission, and he knew that he faced punishment if he returned, which Shin concluded he did not intend to do.

Knowing the rule, “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately,” Shin’s “camp-bred instincts took over,” as Harden writes.

Running out of the house and finding the school’s night guard, Shin did exactly what he had been raised to do — he ratted on his own mother and brother, explaining what he had overheard. That night, he slept at the dormitory, not at home.

The next day, guards came and found Shin in the schoolyard. Handcuffed, blindfolded, pushed into a car and taken to an underground prison in Camp 14, he was confused why he, an informer, was being treated like this. 

Eventually, he realized that the night guard had taken all the credit for foiling his family’s escape plan — his mother and brother were both caught. 

Unable to trust the son of attempted runaways, guards held Shin in the underground prison for eight months, initially subjecting him to brutal torture and feeding him just enough tasteless food to survive his dark cell, which he shared with a kind old man.

After the discovery of his mother and brother’s escape plan, Shin was held for seven months in a secret underground prison inside Camp 14. He was 13 years old.

In late November, upon his release, guards had Shin stamp an agreement that prohibited him from discussing the underground prison. Again, he was handcuffed and blindfolded, then driven to a field near his childhood home — the same field where he had witnessed several annual executions for most of his life.

A guard removed his handcuffs and blindfold and sat him down. Then, his mother and brother were dragged out and led to a gallows and wooden stake lodged in the ground. Facing execution, Jang Hye Gyung tried to catch her son’s eyes, but he refused to look. As his mother hung, he felt at the time that she deserved death for endangering his life with the escape plan.

Tied to a wooden pole, his brother was next: Three guards each fired three shots, killing him instantly, which, Shin felt he also deserved.

When Shin initially shared with Harden the account of Jang’s and He’s executions, he left out the part where he turned them in. But living in freedom, learning basic values such as honesty, made him “want to be more moral,” which made him feel guilty, as he told Harden.

“I was more faithful to guards than to my family,” Shin said. “We were each other’s spies. I know by telling the truth, people will look down on me.”

‘Pointers from Hitler’

“Perhaps Kim Il-sung took pointers from Hitler himself,” Shin wondered aloud as he studied exhibitions detailing the Nazis’ rise to power.

If any of the North Korean dictators, their families and their minions have studied the 20th century’s most notorious villain, it would be no surprise.

Exhibit after exhibit, Shin described how similarly Camp 14 operates to the Nazi concentration camps — the humiliation, the beatings, the starvation, the utter lack of human dignity. 

At Camp 14, he said, “There was a special section where all the bodies were dumped, because the graves that were dug were very shallow,” Shin said. “When it rained, the bodies would come out of the ground.”

Looking at pictures of Germans humiliating Orthodox Jews in the streets of Berlin, Shin said that at Camp 14, the children of the prison guards often would taunt and throw rocks at Shin and his fellow prisoners. 

Sometimes, Shin said, “The prison guards would strip the inmates of their clothes and make fun of them.”

Unlike the Nazis, however, the North Korean government does not have a policy of mass extermination — although, as Shin points out, the combination of starvation, torture and slave labor can be a protracted death sentence.

Like its Nazi counterpart, though, the North Korean government sometimes uses prisoners as lab rats to test the potency of certain chemicals. Shin remembers when guards gave 15 inmates chemical solutions to rub on themselves. Shortly thereafter, they developed boils on their skin.

As Harden wrote, “Shin saw a truck arrive at the factory and watched as the ailing prisoners were loaded into it. He never saw them again.”

According to The Guardian newspaper, prisoners and guards from Camp 22 in Hamgyong “described watching entire families being put in glass chambers and gassed.” 

Kwon Hyuk, who was chief of management at Camp 22, told The Guardian, “Normally, a family sticks together and individual prisoners stand separately around the corners. Scientists observe the entire process from above, through the glass.”

One official document smuggled out by a defector said that 39-year-old Lin Hun-Nwa was transferred from Camp 22 “for the purpose of human experimentation of liquid gas for chemical weapons.”

In the underground prison, guards tortured Shin over a coal fire, seeking to find out his role in the planned escape of his mother and brother.

In 2004, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, traveled to Seoul to speak with three defectors who alleged having been involved in those experiments.

Cooper sits on the board of directors of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and has worked actively in recent months to shame and pressure Rodman regarding his “basketball diplomacy” with North Korea. 

“I will never forget the anguish of a second defector who years after the fact broke down describing how he supervised the slow killing of parents and their child in a glass-encased chamber,” Cooper wrote in a December op-ed in this newspaper. “Shocking details of how long the agony went on and the efforts of the doomed parents to breathe air into the lungs of their dying child were duly written down and forwarded for analysis to those in charge of the production and upgrade of North Korean poison gases.”

At the Holocaust museum, passing slowly from section to section, Shin was drawn to an exhibit detailing the Nazis’ use of kapos, Jewish prisoners who the Germans assigned to supervise their fellow Jews. 

For Nazi guards, giving Jews positions of relative power was not only a matter of efficiency; it turned Jews against one another, as kapos were often as brutal as the German guards — a tactic Shin saw employed at Camp 14.

“Certain prison inmates [are] the section leaders among the prison inmates,” Shin said, describing the camp’s hierarchy. “They, themselves, would control, under the orders of the prison guards, the other inmates.”

Observing the images of faces of Polish Jews who were moments from execution, Shin was awed by what he termed “faces of defiance.” 

He said there was no corollary in Camp 14, where, before a public execution, guards would beat and torture a prisoner before filling his or her mouth with pebbles, making it impossible for them to yell out anything defiant in their final moments. 

Shin said he knows of no silver bullet for the North Korean crisis. But what he does know, and what disappoints him, is the world’s ignorance of and seeming indifference to the 21st century’s gulag — the same kind of indifference that allowed Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to carry out similar political persecutions and mass imprisonments.

“There was an opportunity to bomb this area, to try to save these prisoners,” Shin said, pointing at satellite images of the train tracks leading to Auschwitz, which the United States declined to strike. “The same thing today — we see through Google Earth, we know where these prison camps are in North Korea.”

Yet, a war with the North is not in the cards, according to author Hawk.

“It will never happen, simply because the North Koreans have the ability to destroy Seoul,” North Korean expert Hawk said in a recent interview. With thousands of long-range artillery guns and missile batteries built into the mountainsides near the border, North Korea could, as it has threatened, turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” 

“That will always deter military intervention by the South Koreans, or the United States, or anybody else,” Hawk said.


As is true for most North Koreans, who live near starvation, almost anything at Camp 14 is viewed as edible. Shin and his fellow prisoners ate frogs, snakes, insects, rats —anything. 

In the winter, when food is scarce, prisoners try to abate hunger pangs by not defecating, regurgitating and re-eating food — nothing is off limits, but none of it changes the fact of starvation.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Kim family lost crucial subsidies from its communist ally — free fuel and cheap fertilizers. A massive famine in the 1990s is estimated to have killed 1 million North Koreans, whose country was unable and unwilling to feed its own citizens. 

Despite the government’s near complete control over what information leaves North Korea, some photos and videos have reached Western media that look like the liberation footage from the Nazi camps in 1945 — young children, devastatingly thin, with their ribs visibly protruding. 

And those photos are of North Koreans who live outside the camps.

According to Kang Chol-hwan, author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag,” food shortages in the 1990s were so bad that ordinary citizens “had to resort to boiling tree bark and the roots of rice plants to make the tough fibers digestible.”

Kang was released from Camp 15 in 1987 and fled the North in 1992. Now a journalist in South Korea, Kang has interviewed more than 500 refugees and defectors from the North. He writes in the preface to his book that after hearing defectors’ testimonies of mass starvation in the North, he wondered, “Has the entire country turned into a gigantic gulag?”

“Life in the camps,” as Washington Post blogger Max Fisher wrote in The Atlantic, “is an exaggerated metaphor for life on the outside.”

In March, the United Nations reported that 25 percent of North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition. In April 2012, professor Daniel Schwekendiek from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul told the BBC that, due to malnutrition, North Korean defectors to South Korea are between one and three inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.

The North’s totalitarian dictatorship faults natural conditions for the country’s unending food shortage, but it has only itself to blame. The government denies market incentives to farmers, centrally manages the country’s agriculture and lacks the cash to purchase modern farm equipment. Meanwhile, North Korea’s elite government officials live in luxury — Kim’s collection includes his own private island and a personal yacht.

Today, Shin says, the variety of food now available to him is his favorite thing about freedom. After going through the main exhibition at the Holocaust museum, he abruptly decided he had had enough and announced that it was time for lunch. 

Knowing the diet he subsisted on for 23 years, who would argue with him?

“To be able to go to a restaurant and choose to eat delicious food and not eat not-so-tasty food,” Shin said, “that’s the best expression of freedom that I can have.”

At the cafe, Shin visibly enjoyed his meal and was curious at my choice of soup — matzah ball, which he had never seen before. Told that it’s part of Jewish cuisine, Shin asked whether his own tomato soup “is also a Jewish soup.”

The Korean Peninsula

Founded in 1953 as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the most secretive country on earth lies on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

Once the brutal Japanese occupation ended with the empire’s fall in 1945, at the end of World War II, the peninsula was divided into two zones, somewhat arbitrarily, along the 38th parallel. The north was occupied by the Soviet Union; the south by the United States.

While the two superpowers had originally hoped to create a unified Korea, that quickly became impossible. In the Soviet-led communist North, Kim Il-sung, a ruthless, nationalist dictator, had his eyes set on controlling the entire peninsula. In the South, the authoritarian, anti-communist and American-backed Syngman Rhee desired the same.

On June 25, 1950, after receiving support from both the Russians and Chinese, Kim Il-sung ordered the North Korean People’s Army to cross the 38th parallel, launching a war that would engulf the two Koreas, along with America and China, and kill nearly 3 million soldiers and civilians. It would also leave both countries with their borders unchanged following a 1953 truce.

Still divided at the 38th parallel, North and South Korea have become models for radically different worldviews. 

The North, led today by Kim Jong-un, grandson of Kim Il-sung, denies citizens freedom of movement, freedom of speech and even, as philosopher Hu Shih described China under Mao, the “freedom of silence.”

“Residents of a communist state are required to make positive statements of belief and loyalty,” Hu said. In North Korea, images of citizens publicly wailing when Kim Jong Il died in 2011 made outsiders wonder whether they were genuinely heartbroken or just fearful of not appearing loyal. 

Although North Korea is portrayed as a comically evil regime in films like “Team America: World Police” (2004), the reality is anything but funny.

In something Americans might find familiar from the horrors depicted in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” novels. the North Korean government installs government-operated radios in every home — they can’t be turned off, and outside signals are jammed. Schools double as indoctrination mills, teaching students songs like “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.” The government occasionally launches massive national work campaigns, with slogans such as “Let’s Breed More High Yielding Fish!”

According to Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times reporter and author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” every town has its own movie theater, but the state-run Korean Feature Film Studio produces all the films. Without any information from the outside world, the government’s propaganda — that North Korea is the greatest country on earth, and that the American imperialists wish to destroy it — is difficult to counter.

The Kim family regularly orders public executions and uses political purges as a form of intimidation against would-be agitators. Being caught with a Bible or a South Korean DVD can land one in a prison camp or in front of a firing squad. 

The government is so concerned about the increased trickle of outside culture reaching North Koreans that, according to Harden, the state will sometimes cut electricity to specific neighborhoods and raid apartments — “to see what tapes and discs were stuck inside the players.” 

You don’t want to be the one caught holding the DVD.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates that North Korea’s GDP (gross domestic product) — one measure of an economy’s size and wealth — was $40 billion in 2011, only $1,800 per citizen. The CIA describes North Korea as “one of the world’s most centrally directed and least open economies.” 

South Korea, meanwhile, is a leading economic power, exporting everything from ships to electronics. Seoul, the nation’s capital, is a sprawling metropolis, home to nearly 10.5 million Koreans.

For Justin Wheeler, an activist for opening up North Korean society, South Korea’s dynamism is an example of what the trapped citizens of the North could achieve if its government allowed them to.

Wheeler is the vice president for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a Torrance-based group that not only advocates for the North Korean people, but directly helps them, employing “protection officers” who smuggle North Korean refugees out of China, where North Korean agents are said to hunt down defectors. Additionally, China regularly repatriates North Korean defectors to their home country.

In fact, as revealed in a recent PBS documentary, “Secret State of North Korea,” the Chinese government has installed a barbed-wire fence on parts of the border, making it harder not only for North Koreans to sneak out, but for activists with thumb drives and DVD players to sneak in.

“Fifty years ago, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world,” Wheeler said in an interview at LiNK’s offices, located in an industrial park. “Today it’s one of the most dynamic economies. The North Korean people have that exact same potential.”

In a search on Google for a nighttime satellite image of East Asia, lights dot the landscape from Japan to Vietnam to China, and South Korea, particularly Seoul, is a blob of light. 

But between the 38th parallel and China is complete darkness. That is North Korea —where 23 million people survive with barely any electricity, cut off from the outside world. 

Reaching California

After his escape from Camp 14, Shin spent about a month making his way through North Korea, making friends with the homeless underworld and hopping on and off trains between cities. Eventually, he reached the Tumen River, bribed a border guard and crossed the river into China. 

He spent more than a year laying low in China. Well fed but working for measly pay in people’s homes, he was wary of attracting attention from the government, which typically repatriates North Korean defectors, claiming they are “economic migrants.” If the Chinese government were to recognize defectors like Shin as humanitarian refugees, it would be prohibited, under international law, from returning them to North Korea.

In February 2006, after moving around much of China, Shin ran into a Korean-born journalist in a restaurant in Shanghai. The journalist listened to — and believed — Shin’s story, then smuggled him past Chinese police and into the South Korean consulate, which provided Shin diplomatic immunity. 

After six months living at the consulate, Shin was flown to Seoul; soon thereafter, he moved to a government-run resettlement center 40 miles south. He struggled to adapt to life in the free world. He frequently had nightmares of Camp 14, worrying about his father’s fate in the camp. He also stopped eating. 

After a few months in a psychiatric ward at the resettlement center, he moved into a government-owned apartment in Hwaseong, 30 miles outside Seoul, where he still struggled with his new life, but eventually learned about South Korean life by venturing out into the city. His growth was, as he told Harden, like the “slow growth of a fingernail.”

In the West, as news spread of a prison-camp escapee living in South Korea, Shin was invited to speak in spring 2008 at UC Berkeley and at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. At the same time, he came to believe that his story, and the plight of his fellow North Koreans, was simply not of interest to most South Koreans, who he says are more concerned with economic growth.

In 2009, he accepted a position with LiNK and moved to Southern California. 

The South Bay may seem like an odd place for a Korean-based nonprofit to headquarter, but there’s logic to the choice. In the Korean diaspora, there’s no better place than Southern California for a Korean to feel at home — more than 300,000 Korean Americans live in greater Los Angeles.

Founded in 2004 in Washington, D.C., LiNK initially approached the North Korean problem from a policy angle, trying to make the humanitarian crisis a priority in meetings with congressional members.

But as its vice president, Wheeler, said during a meeting in LiNK’s office, “It was somewhat of a stalemate at the high politics level,” with nuclear talks crowding out the Kim regime’s oppression.

So the group refocused, reorganized and relocated to California in 2008, deciding that advocacy wasn’t enough — especially when there were still North Korean defectors hiding in China, on the run and often exploited. 

Since 2010, LiNK’s anonymous “protection officers” in Asia have helped bring 204 refugees to freedom through its 3,500-mile underground railroad, with most ending up in South Korea after being smuggled, free of charge, through China and various countries in Southeast Asia.

When I recently visited LiNK, 15 nomads — volunteers who travel the country, speaking about North Korea at high schools and colleges — had just returned from a semester of touring the United States, where they spoke to 27,000 people at more than 430 venues, according to LiNK’s tour manager, Chelsea Quinn. Crowded into a rec room, they shared with one another their experiences educating Americans about life in the Hermit Kingdom.

Josh Lee is a 22-year-old LiNK nomad, part of a team that spoke at venues throughout California. A child of South Korean immigrants, Lee reflected on his Korean heritage.

“It was my pure luck that my grandfather settled south of the border,” Lee said.

A recent graduate of Syracuse University, Lee became a LiNK activist while in college, disturbed by the ignorance and apathy surrounding the humanitarian crisis.

“They said, ‘Never again,’ right?” Lee said, emotionally, referring to his middle school classes about the Holocaust. “They told us that it would never happen again.”

So far, high schools, colleges and churches have been happy to invite LiNK’s nomads, both Wheeler and Quinn said. They said that they aim to speak at more synagogues and Jewish high schools, too, but, so far, there hasn’t been much traction.

“The Jewish people have such a good understanding of what it means to be oppressed; what it’s like to be systematically tortured,” said Quinn, whose mother is Jewish. “I just assumed that temples would be totally down, that synagogues would totally jump on this.”

Yet, Wheeler remembers being told by an influential local Jewish businessman, “It’s hard for the Jewish community to get around because they haven’t seen a ton of support from the Korean community.” 

Shin echoed a similar sentiment, clearly expressing annoyance at what he senses as apathy in his home country.

“They do not want to care about what is going on in North Korea,” Shin said. “South Koreans treat North Korea as if it’s just another separate country, not land of the same people, the same blood.”

During South Korea’s 2007 presidential elections, Harden writes, “Just three percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They told pollsters that their primary interest was in making higher salaries.”

Change from within

Faced with the realization that diplomats, politicians and even Koreans have not taken up the cause of the North Koreans, LiNK takes the position that, if the Hermit Kingdom will open up, it will be due to North Korea’s citizens. 

What will be the cause that breaks the silence? One word: food.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, when it became clear the Kim regime was incapable of feeding its citizens on its own, illegal food markets popped up.

“Those black markets have emerged and have grown,” Wheeler said. “If you are not a part of those markets today, you’d starve to death.”

Although these markets started with food, they are now offering far more. Electronics, radios, flash drives, DVDs — all are increasingly reaching North Koreans, bringing information from the outside world and slowly breaking down the attempted brainwash of the Kim government.

In the PBS documentary, illegal footage from inside North Korea showed some citizens secretly watching South Korean movies and TV shows on DVD players. One woman cursed at and pushed a soldier who tried to shut down her makeshift private bus service. Another, when told by soldiers that she was breaking the law by wearing pants, protested. They put an armband on her to mark her offense.

“People’s willingness to confront or ignore authority has become more and more common,” Japanese journalist Jiro Ishimaru said. “People around the world have this image of North Koreans as being brainwashed, but that’s very mistaken.”

Moses and Pharaoh

Although Shin quit LiNK in early 2011, moving abruptly from Los Angeles to Seattle to live with a girl he was seeing, he said over lunch in Washington that, while living in Southern California, he was particularly fond of In-N-Out Burger, which he “liked,” and Chick-fil-A, which he “loved.”

Now living in Seoul, Shin visits the United States a few times per year. He still has not taken classes in remedial English or even elementary mathematics, a bit of which he learned in Camp 14. 

“I would say things are sometimes difficult for me in terms of adjusting, settling into a life of freedom,” he said. As he suggested, he is, for obvious reasons, not yet as intellectually or emotionally developed as anyone who grew up free.

Among defectors, Shin is not alone in his adjustment issues. According to Harden, government career counselors in South Korea say that people resettled from the North “often depend on the South Korean government to solve their problems and fail to take personal responsibility for poor work habits or for showing up late on the job.”

Chuckling, Shin said, “I would consider myself 8 years old.” At the time of our interview, he was eight years out from his escape. When I told him a story about my grandmother, who was advised by a rabbi to subtract from her age the number of years she spent at Auschwitz, Shin responded, “Maybe I shouldn’t count the 23 years in prison camp.”

Dogged by his own desire to be left alone, to no longer be the face for freedom in North Korea, Shin said he thinks about leaving public life “more than 12 times a day, [but] when I think about my father or other fellow inmates who are in the prison camp, that compels me to push forward.”

He’s intrigued by Israel, and by the Jewish people, by their ability, as he put it, to survive the Holocaust, rise up, resettle their homeland and become a “powerful nation.” He says he wants to visit the Jewish state and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem but hasn’t yet had the opportunity.

As lunch wound down, Shin’s translator said that they had to leave soon for another interview. So I asked him if we could discuss a light topic — God.

Shin responded that although he isn’t entirely convinced of God’s existence, he does believe he received help from above. “I believe that there was a higher being, a higher power involved with my life, for me to be where I am right now,” he said.

Like all of North Korea, Camp 14 was devoid of any religion, of anything that could challenge the Kim family’s throne.

Today, Shin attends an Evangelical church in Seoul whenever he can, and, in fact, finds solace in Moses and the story of the Exodus — a self-doubting leader who helped an enslaved people escape a tyrant.

“When I look at North Korea now,” Shin said, “It reminds me of ancient Egypt and the Pharaohs.”

To contact Liberty in North Korea, visit