How the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum changed my life


My daughter, Ilana, then a young college student, asked if she could go with me to the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on April 22, 1993 (the date was tied to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’s 50th anniversary). I said: “I will be leaving very early.” She responded: “I’ll be up.”

I couldn’t wait to get to the museum that morning. First of all, my home was in chaos. My sister and brother-in-law were in from Israel for the occasion. My mother came up from Florida. A couple of days before, they’d had an automobile accident, and, as a result, my mother was in a wheelchair. More importantly, the opening of the museum, which once seemed so far away, had finally arrived. I felt like a bridegroom on his wedding day or an expectant father after 14 years of gestation, filled with joy and anticipation, anxiety and excitement, even a bit of fear.

Ilana, for her part, was normally allergic to mornings. In those days, the only way she would be up at 6 a.m. was if she had pulled an all-nighter. But true to her word, she was ready to go. Then, no sooner had she gotten into the car, she turned to me and said: “It is time to quit.”

I was stunned. “Give me time to enjoy the opening,” I replied lamely.

Shoes confiscated from prisoners at Majdanek, on loan from the State Museum of Majdanek, Lublin, Poland. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

I had been involved with the creation of the museum on and off for some 14 years. I began my professional life as a young academic teaching at Wesleyan University and serving as university Jewish chaplain when something rather unexpected happened. I was invited by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg to head Zachor, the Holocaust Remembrance Institute of the National Jewish Conference Center, which he had founded. Then, just after I began my work there, President Jimmy Carter turned to Elie Wiesel to chair the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. Wiesel, in turn, asked Greenberg to be its director. Greenberg had just left City College to direct the Conference Center and was deeply committed there, so he accepted this unprecedented challenge with the understanding that he would not have to move to Washington and would serve only in a part-time capacity. He turned to me to move with my family to Washington, in January 1979, to serve as deputy director for the commission, which in reality meant leading a two-, then later, a three-person staff. We had just moved into a new home in Connecticut, my son, Lev, had been born the spring before, and Ilana had just started kindergarten, but opportunities like that do not come along often, so off we went to Washington. 

The commission made three basic decisions in the first nine months of its work. President Carter had charged it with recommending an “appropriate national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.” And the commission decided upon a “living memorial,” a museum to tell the story of the Holocaust, an educational institution but also an academic research institute, library and archives to teach the Holocaust and its lessons, to enhance scholarship and learning as well as a “Committee on Conscience” to warn of any impending genocide and arouse the conscience of the nation and of world leadership to combat genocide.

Banners commemorating the 20th anniversary hang on the 14th Street entrance to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Second, the museum also would be built in Washington, where it would have to address the American experience as well as the national ethos. Some had argued for New York, then as now, the city with the largest Jewish population in the country. But since museums are always in dialogue with their visitors, the choice of Washington was to prove defining. 

Third, the museum would be a public private-partnership, built on public land with private funds and gifted to the American people. At the time, we were in the middle of an energy crisis, a period of high inflation and high debt — or what seemed high at the time — and President Carter, in particular, was not anxious to undertake new expenditures. Working from January to September 1979 we submitted a report to the president, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Council was launched early the next year, first as a presidential initiative and later by a unanimous act of Congress, but not before there was a major struggle between the chairman and the president over the definition of the Holocaust. 

At issue was whether the term Holocaust applied only to the 6 million Jews who were murdered, or to the 6 million Jews and the non-Jews who were victimized by the Nazis. President Carter wanted a broad definition, and Wiesel, who had dedicated his distinguished career to preserving the Jewishness of the Holocaust, would not work under the Carter definition. Wiesel had solved the problem of how to deal with non-Jewish victims of Nazism, with language: “While not all the victims were Jews, all Jews were victims.” and. “The uniqueness of the Holocaust is its universality.” 

I was caught in the middle, between the president and the chairman, and was summarily fired. Disappointed, I thought that I would never have the opportunity to help build the museum that had just been conceived. I taught, I wrote, I directed the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.

I began to write about several of the issues that had been central to the commission’s concerns on the Americanization and later the nativization of the Holocaust — the clash between the stories retold on American soil and those which predominate in Israel and elsewhere, and the authentic and inappropriate ways in which past recollections are used to justify the present and to construct a future. And I continue focus much of my writing on this very same issue today, more than three decades later. I also wrote on commemorating the Holocaust and on the issue of the uniqueness and universality of the Holocaust, contending that only by including non-Jewish victims of Nazism could we understand the singularity of Jewish victimization during the Holocaust. 

Many people falsely presume that to compare two events — genocides, in this case — is to equate them. In reality, only in comparison can we understand what is distinct about each. We must compare and contrast in order to understand.

Detail of the museum’s Children’s Tile Wall. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Seven years elapsed, and Wiesel resigned as chairman on the eve of his departure to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In the interim, the council had been through several directors and several plans — none successful. I had remained close to the survivors with whom I had always had a special affinity — none more so than Miles Lerman and Benjamin Meed, and I was invited to rejoin the project to preserve its neshama (spirit), first as a consultant and later as project director. 

My writings served me well, because I had been struggling with the question central to the museum’s mission: How do you move the audience of that time back 50 years and introduce them to a European event in the heart of the U.S. capital, the locus of the American national experience? How do you transmit an understanding of the Holocaust to the American people so that it resonates with the American narrative while still doing justice to the event? Would Jews — the prime creators of the museum — be courageous enough to bring a Judeo-centric story to the center of American life, and would the American people be interested or dismiss the museum as parochial? 

I drew upon everything in my own life experience as a postwar child, born to American parents but taught by refugees and survivors, and attending an Orthodox synagogue established by people who had fled Frankfurt and Antwerp just after Kristallnacht, rebuilding their lives and re-creating the world they had left behind in Europe on American soil in the freedom of the new world.

The museum had been given prime land adjacent to the United States Mint — indeed, a crematorium had once been on the site, where dollars going out of circulation had been burned — and adjacent to the National Mall. Situated at the intersection between the museums of Washington, and the monuments of Washington, the site is also within blocks of the White House and Capitol Hill. 

“By the Waters of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion,” the Psalmist said.

The place from which you remember an event shapes how the event is remembered. 

By its very nature, however, the museum would have to stand in contrast to its surroundings. Everywhere else, Washington’s museums celebrate human achievements in art, science, history, technology, scholarship and learning. The monuments pay homage to the great men (and, soon, women) of history — Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. And governmental Washington is power personified. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum would demonstrate what could happen when human genius and technology, when men of history and the power of government are let loose without the restraints of “checks and balances,” without an appreciation for the “inalienable rights” of all, without separation of powers, without appreciating that all men are created equal.

After several false starts, we had a building replete with symbolism, created by master architect James Ingo Freed. The design included three floors of exhibition space, so the story of the Holocaust would have to be told in three chapters, leading to the question: Does one rise and then descend, or does one climb stairs from floor to floor? As we decided on descent, it became clear that the transition between the National Mall and the Holocaust experience would need to begin in the elevator. Three floors meant three acts to the drama: the World Before and the Rise of Nazism 1933-1939; the Holocaust 1940-1945; and then Resistance and Rescue, Liberation, the Nuremberg Trials and the survivors rebuilding their lives, first in the displaced-person camps and then in the United States and Israel. There were large exhibition spaces and bridges leading to four square rooms, followed by stairs. To fit an exhibition inside such a building, the bridges would serve as transition spaces, the sequential exhibition spaces that followed would lead to a story in four segments. The stairs would mark a descent deeper into the story, more engrossed in the Holocaust narrative. 

Still, there was no exhibition.

We created a team. No single individual can create a museum; it takes a village of lay people, donors and professionals, historians and curators, fundraisers and institutional builders working together, despite differences, toward one unified goal. Jeshajahu “Shaike” Weinberg, who had created Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, came in first as a consultant and later as director to build the museum’s infrastructure to give us the benefit of his wisdom and of his experience. Martin Smith, a distinguished documentary filmmaker, also came on board and was joined by Ralph Appelbaum as the museum’s brilliant designer. I was the scholar of the team and most often the public face to the community, scholars, educators and donors, and we worked so closely that our ideas became enmeshed and often we cannot recall who first advanced the concept.

We knew the museum must become a storytelling institution. The two most powerful means of contemporary storytelling are novels and movies. But while film has a captive audience and moving imagery, a museum is just the opposite; its audience moves, its imagery is captive. (Those who have been to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles can see a hybrid of the two, as that museum uses light and sound to keep its audience walking through its exhibits.) We believed that if we got the narrative right, if we made the story compelling, we could encourage the audience to walk through the exhibition at their own pace and still get the story.

But the story had to be personalized. Six million is a statistic. One person’s experience is a story. We decided that visitors would get an identification card so the events they were to see would be encountered through the lens of the victim whose story they carried with them.

Still, however smart you may think yourself to be, you are much better off if you are also lucky, and the museum has a piece of unbelievable luck. Communism was falling, the Soviet Union was in a steep and inexorable decline, and communist officialdom was looking to turn toward the West and away from Moscow. The museum project came along seeking to obtain artifacts just at a time when contact with Washington was welcomed — and here was a U.S. government project on a Jewish theme. Due to the political skill of Miles Lerman, then chair of the museum’s International Relations Committee, who spoke the native languages and could navigate his way about Eastern Europe — a former partisan, he could drink with the best of them, and that was so necessary in Eastern Europe — we were able to obtain on loan or as a gift many of the thousands of artifacts that comprise the museum, including the railcar of the type that was used to transport Jews from ghettos to death camps and the authentic barracks from Birkenau in which we depict the experience of the death camps. We also obtained one of the two milk cans that Emanuel Ringelblum used to bury the Oneg Shabbes archives in Warsaw; and 5,000 shoes, a dissecting table and a crematorium door from Majdanek, which shape the visitors’ understanding of gassing. Because of the plethora of artifacts, we were able to give the visitors a sense that a story lies behind each artifact.

And even Weinberg, who had pioneered the idea of an artifactless museum, had to change his ideology and help create an evidentiary-based, artifact-grounded exhibition.

We integrated films into the museum experience; 70 audio programs and three major films — one on anti-Semitism and one on the Nazi rise to power. Because the museum is situated in Washington, it had to tell the governmental story: What did America and the West know?  When did it know it? And, most importantly, what did it do with such knowledge? So the visitor pauses in the middle of telling a European story to tell the American story. Twice, the visitor has the choice of seeing any one or all of five short films on pre-World War II American policy on the top floor, and on the bottom floor of the exhibition, the wartime record of the American government. There was no pressure of museum staff or officials to soften the story and make the U.S. government look good. We felt compelled to tell the truth as we knew it, the whole truth as best we could.

We wrestled with the question of how to end the museum; our initial thoughts were trite, and an important story must have a significant ending. We came to the realization that the only ones who could bridge that world with our world would be those who have actually lived in both worlds. The museum could only end with the voices of survivors telling us their stories, brief glimpses into the concentration camp universe, specific understandings of the choiceless choices they were forced to make, moments where they felt some dignity and times when they felt the full measure of their defeat, of their loss. Those who were there were allowed to speak, and they reminded us that for every story that we heard there were 6 million stories that could not be told. 

Some wanted an uplifting ending. After all, Americans like it when people live happily after. But although there are many uplifting stories told, in those 90 minutes we experience the whole of humanity — evil incarnate, goodness personified, courage without end, and the most craven of cowardice and everything in between.

The day the museum opened was the coldest April day in the history of Washington. The field beyond the museum, which would hold the massive crowds attending the opening — the survivors and their children and grandchildren, liberators and their families, donors and their descendants who were so very proud of what they had enabled to rise, as well as ordinary Americans who would form the core of the museum’s visitors — held knee-deep mud. The heads of state were there — presidents and prime ministers from many of the countries occupied by the Germans. The invitation to Franjo Tuđjman, the Holocaust-denying president of Croatia, had caused the museum considerable embarrassment. We had followed the advice of the State Department not to create an international incident. We should have remembered that we answered to a higher authority. 

More than one survivor said that this was not ordinary rain: “The heavens were crying.” Perhaps they were. The Museum of Tolerance and New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust opened in rainstorms; Yad Vashem opened on a frigidly cold evening, so rare in May.

Menachem Rosensaft, child of Holocaust survivors, put it ever so wisely: “Every once in a while you learn that there is a God. No one should have enjoyed this event, and they couldn’t. And the presidents of Romania and Hungary, France and Germany —and even the president of the United States — were chilled to their bones at this ceremony, as they damn well should be.”

We had a dream that if we built it, they would come. 

The farmer from Iowa and the factory worker from Detroit, schoolchildren from Maine to Florida, from Oregon to Texas, teachers and scholars, soldiers and policemen, heads of states and ordinary citizens — in the days and years that followed, the number of visitors exceeded even our most exalted of dreams in quantity — we dreamed of 1 million; we averaged almost twice that number — and, more importantly, in quality. Jews and non-Jews, Americans of all races and creeds, ages and educational backgrounds. Museums in Washington tend to be white institutions — not so the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I turned to my daughter that morning with tears in my eyes. I understood that we had all paid a price, a steep price for the creation of this institution. I had worked on it 24/6 for many long years while raising my children, and having them in my sole custody. I had gone from youth to middle age. I had lost my father. I had divorced. My children had endured my absence and at times my distracted presence. They had grown up surrounded by ongoing discussions of death and destruction. Ilana had written her college essay on growing up with Zyklon B in the garage, just behind her tennis racket and skis. This was my life, and I chose it, but because of that choice it became theirs. I asked her indulgence: “Allow me to enjoy the opening,” I pleaded. And so she did.

Was it worth it? Surely it was.

Was the price to be paid steep? Yes. Would I do it again? In a minute; yet, hopefully, differently. 

Still, my daughter intuited something I did not then know. I was soon to face an existential problem: What do you do after you have done everything you wanted to do? I was in my mid-40s, too young and too poor to retire. And stuck in the notion that for some of us, there is more challenge in creating something than in managing it.

Ilana and I spoke deeply that day. I told her that I could now die. Now she was stunned. I reassured her, seeing the look on her face: “Don’t worry, hopefully I won’t; and I have much, so much, to live for — but I could die and face my Maker saying that what I had done with the talents and the opportunities that I was given was worthy of a life. That feeling has never left me.

What do you do with the rest of your life? I now answer that day by day through new challenges, and wonderful and important opportunities to serve, grow, learn and contribute. 

Warsaw Jews want to trade historic building for new offices


The Jewish community of Warsaw is advancing plans to demolish one of its historic ghetto-era buildings in favor of new offices.

Under the plan, the White House on Twarda Street would be replaced with a 20-story building where the community, which has tripled in size since the fall of communism, could accommodate more members during celebrations and on weekends, according to the Associated Press.

But the Association of Protectors of Warsaw's Cultural Heritage has filed a petition to the Cultural Ministry asking that the building — one of the few that survived the German onslaught on the old Warsaw Ghetto — be declared a historical site. The ministry is expected to decide on the issue in the coming months.

“An opinion that I can't agree with is that the building is more important than the future of the community,” Andrzej Zozula, vice president of the Jewish community, told AP.

Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich reportedly is backing the plan to replace the building with a modern structure.

The white building reportedly is in a state of decay. Though it has a cellar that dates back more than two centuries, most of the building is about 130 years old and has undergone major transformations.

Letters to the Editor: Muslims, Warsaw Ghetto, electric cars


Suspicion of Muslim World Is Warranted

Another word for “out of control” is anarchy (“The Muslim World Is Out of Control,” Nov. 4).

Anarchy is breaking out in Yemen, where the embattled president insists on holding his grip over raging tribal factions and youth resistance. Al-Qaeda has attempted to capitalize on this unrest, to some effect, despite the demise of key leaders.

The voluntary reforms of the kings of Morocco and Jordan are a welcome diversion from the generally violent trends sweeping the rest of the Arab world. Unfortunately, unless revolution bleeds, very few leads will report peaceful transitions of power.

Despite the more wily and youthful elements refusing to be dictated to by older counterparts in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and despite the moderate stance of the “Enhada” party that has risen to power in Tunisia, I agree with the skeptics that these transitions of power will be short-lived.

Contrary to the writer’s contention, I see very little evidence that the rising Islamists are honoring the other monotheistic religions of the Book. The world cannot ignore the persecution of the Coptic Christians in Egypt, nor can we turn a blind eye to the recent and rapid expulsion of Libyan Jew David Gerbi, who attempted to reopen the Tripoli synagogue after the death of Muammar Gadhafi.

In closing, I submit that to remain suspicious of the growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world is not a dysfunction of simplistic thinking, but a reasoned conclusion based on the developments of well-organized yet latent forces which have been waiting to seize power and impose Sharia law in the Middle East.

Arthur Christopher Schaper
Torrance


Ghetto Fighter Deserves Benefit of Doubt

I found the piece on “Tracking a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter” (Nov. 4) quite disturbing — not because of Leon Weinstein’s remarkable story of Holocaust survival, but because the article discredits this extraordinary 101-year-old man.

Tom Tugend lays out Weinstein’s heroic story and the loss of 90 family members who perished. Somehow, Weinstein endures to fight with the Partisans in the forest and later in the Warsaw Ghetto. After the war, Weinstein is able to reunite with the only family member to survive, his daughter Natalie, abandoned as a baby but found later, alive and well, in the care of nuns.

The story should have ended here as a glowing tribute. It doesn’t. Tugend states that he was “was intrigued and impressed by Weinstein’s story and had no reason to question it.” So why does he? He states, “We all tend to romanticize our pasts as the years pass.” I believe that the opposite is true. Holocaust survivors romanticize nothing. They repress and get depressed. They suffer nightmares and flashbacks. Exactly what about the Holocaust is there to romanticize?

Tugend then goes on to detail his extensive research into the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and is disappointed with the lack of archival material. He discredits Weinstein by “his seemingly contradictory recollections.” Tugend quotes experts who believe that only 12 to 20 escaped or survived the uprising; the implication being that Weinstein probably wasn’t one of them. It appears that Weinstein never kept a diary, never personally kept a suitcase full of uprising memorabilia and has nothing to prove his involvement other than “a romanticized recollection” of his participation.

It is not as if Weinstein has published a book, the veracity of which is being challenged. If Weinstein said that he smuggled guns into the ghetto, used rifles and grenades to fight the Germans and escaped through the sewers of Warsaw, or something less, he has earned the right to be believed. Tugend has no reason to dismantle the story under the guise of investigative journalism.

Douglas M. Neistat
Encino


Don’t Pull Plug on Electric Cars

Rob Eshman should be applauded for his valiant effort to incorporate an electric car into the driving-dependent L.A. lifestyle (“My 2011 Nissan Solyndra,” Oct. 28). Reducing reliance on oil clearly benefits the environment, thus actualizing the traditional Jewish value of tikkun olam. Moving away from petroleum also helps Israel by undercutting the economic base of extremist forces in the Middle East. The fact that right now there are few practical alternatives to gasoline simply indicates the mismatch between the current economy and our basic needs. Already the demand for hybrids shows that we are moving in the right direction; Eshman is just a little ahead of the wave on which we will all be surfing in the future.

Peter L. Reich
Costa Mesa


I, too, own a Nissan Leaf. I did homework on the car and did not just listen to sales people (“My 2011 Nissan Solyndra,” Oct. 28). I do get about 100 miles on a charge and that is because I try not to use the air conditioning, I use it in eco mode and I don’t need to drive on freeways. If Rob Eshman had done his homework, he would have easily seen that the car will get about 70 miles on a charge in normal conditions, and more or less based on driving conditions.  I am not sure why someone would get a car like this without seeing if it is a fit.  This is the first generation of electric cars and it certainly is a success to everyone I have spoken to. I think Rob should stop writing articles about his cars and continue to write how we should sit here in our beautiful homes in Los Angeles and tell Israel what they should do in order to make peace with their wonderful neighbors because we are so much more knowledgeable than them.

Scott Howard
via e-mail


I have a Nissan Leaf and am very happy with it. I drive on average 20 miles a day and believe the car is not a good fit for you because you drive longer distances.  I enjoy not having to buy gas and service the car due to its lack of an engine.  The melodic sound emitted when the car turns on and the lack of noise while driving it makes it feel like a spa on wheels.

Sylvia Lowe
via e-mail


Where Anti-Semitism Takes Root

For nearly 30 years, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has taught secondary-school teachers about the Holocaust (“ADL Successfully Expands Holocaust Education Workshop,” Nov. 4). The program includes a workshop on “The History of Anti-Semitism.” All well and good. But what if I told you that anti-Semitism is being taught today in our junior-high schools — even without realizing it.

When my granddaughter was in seventh grade, she came home all upset. Her class was learning about the formation of the State of Israel and the subsequent Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Her homework assignment (in part) was to explain how the Jews took away the homes of the Palestinians when Israel was formed in 1948. Note that this statement presumes a priori that the Jews forced the Palestinians living in Israel (actually Arabs, since the PLO had not yet been formed) to leave their homes. 
[We] discussed this with her teacher. She explained that she was simply using material taught in the textbook. I carefully examined the book (published by Prentice Hall, with a long list of reviewers). There were two sections devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. All of the information was factual. But, having done considerable research in preparation for leading a discussion on the Conflict at our senior center, it was quite apparent that the textbook omitted considerable information that would have shed a much different light on the issue. Reading the textbook as published, I could understand how a teacher/student would get the impression that the Jews had taken away the homes of the Palestinians (Arabs) when the State of Israel was formed. (This is analagous to the researcher who uses only the data that proves his hypothesis, while discarding the rest of the data.)


That also made me understand why a teenage boy at the school had produced a collage consisting of a series of anti-Semitic photographs as his entry into a school-sponsored art exhibit/competition. Perhaps this explains why so many college kids are anti-Israel.


I submit that the ADL ought address this issue at its earliest convenience.

George Epstein
Los Angeles


Occupy L.A.

Nothing displays the devotion of The Jewish Journal to leftist politics over Jewish interests better than your cover story on Occupy L.A., by Jonah Lowenfeld (“Go Figure … Occupy L.A. Raises More Questions Than It Answers,” Nov. 4).  Poor Mr. Lowenfeld could find only one borderline anti-Semite?  If he and The Jewish Journal bother to Google Patricia McAllister and LAUSD you will find dozens of media stories in outlets ranging from KTLA to the Huffington Post about this open anti-Semite fired from her job because of remarks made at Occupy L.A.  Shame on The Jewish Journal for not reporting THAT story. The Journal should also Google “adbusters anti-Semitism.” Adbusters started the Occupy movement, and even The New York Times reported on its anti-Semitism.  Note to Johah Lowenfeld:  Terms like “Rothschilds, international bankers, Zionists, etc., are actually cover terms for anti-Semitism.  As for the presence of Jews there —a lot of Jews thought the Bolsheviks were their friends in 1917.  Go and study.

Jules Levin

Tracking a Warsaw ghetto fighter


I met Leon Weinstein, hale and hearty at 101, three months ago and listened to his dramatic recollections as a fighter and survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the bravest chapters in modern Jewish history.

By normal journalistic practice, the article should have been written within a week. It took me much longer to verify the story, to discover, in the process, how controversial the battles of 1943 are to this day and to gain new respect for the complexities of historical research. The unplanned delay may have been fortuitous, putting publication of this article over to the week commemorating Kristallnacht. Many experts consider the Nov. 9 Nazi rampage against German Jews to be the overture to the Holocaust and to the horror to come, from the Warsaw Ghetto to Auschwitz.

It is no longer considered a miracle to pass the century mark, but few manage to do so with the humor and retentiveness of Weinstein.  Sitting in his daughter’s comfortable home in Hancock Park, Weinstein talked of growing up in the village of Radzymin, 12 miles from Warsaw, with seven siblings and an extended family of 90, most of whom perished in Treblinka.

Weinstein was always the wild one of the clan and was such a talented soccer player that he was asked to join the resident Polish Catholic team, a rare “honor” for a Jew.

He also became an ardent member of Betar, the Zionist youth group of the right-wing Revisionist movement, founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky.

At 15, he walked to Warsaw, became a tailor’s apprentice, by 18 he was foreman at a clothing factory and in the same year joined the Polish army.

Soon after his marriage to Sima, the Nazis invaded Poland, in September 1939, and the young couple was confined to the Jewish enclave in his hometown. One year later, their daughter, Natasha Leya, was born.

When Weinstein learned inadvertently from a German guard that all of his hometown’s Jews were to be deported in a few days, he took his wife and daughter to Warsaw, hoping to survive in the big city.

This proved impossible with a baby in tow, and, in a desperate move, the parents bundled up the blond, blue-eyed, 18-month-old girl on a cold December day and left her on the doorsteps of a childless Christian lawyer and his wife.

“I put a crucifix on a necklace around her neck,” Weinstein recounted, “and pinned a note on her saying, ‘I’m a war widow and can no longer take care of her. I beg you, good people, please take care of her, in the name of Jesus Christ, and he will take care of you for this deed.’”

From a distance he watched as the lawyer picked up the baby, read the note, and then walked half a block to a police station to leave Natasha there.

Sima then went into hiding, and Weinstein, after fighting with partisans in the forest, thought he would find shelter in the Warsaw ghetto.

When the ghetto resistance groups rose in April 1943, the first urban revolt in Nazi-

occupied Europe, Weinstein said he alternated between smuggling guns into the ghetto, and then using the rifles and grenades to fight the Germans.

When the ghetto fell after 27 days of murderous fighting, Weinstein and six comrades escaped through the Warsaw sewers to the “Aryan” side and hid with a Polish family until the city was liberated, he recounted.

Not wasting any time on celebrations, Weinstein got a bicycle and started a six-month search for the daughter he had left behind.

Warsaw was a sea of rubble, but, amazingly, the police station where Natasha had been left was still standing. An officer remembered that the baby had been taken to a convent. There, the nuns recalled that most of their charges had died during a typhus epidemic, but that Natasha had survived and been transferred to another convent.

The story was the same at other convents, and after visiting 10 of them, Weinstein was ready to give up. He decided to try one more, near the site of the destroyed ghetto, and there he found the now 4-year-old girl, identifiable by a birthmark on her hip.

However, his search for her mother, Sima, was fruitless. She had disappeared, but no one knew when or where.

Weinstein remarried after meeting Sophie, a Holocaust survivor. Their son, Michael, would die in a car crash in 1993. Sophie lived until 2005, when she succumbed to heart disease.

After seven postwar years, with stays in Poland, Germany and France, Weinstein decided he’d had enough of Europe; in 1953, the family traveled by ship to the United States and joined an aunt living in Los Angeles.

Weinstein established a factory in Hollywood designing and manufacturing sweaters. Natasha, now Natalie, was 13 when she arrived in Los Angeles, and one of her first jobs was to babysit a boy named Zev Yaroslavsky, today a Los Angeles County supervisor.

Natalie grew up to become a clinical social worker, after earning degrees at California State University, Long Beach, and USC. She has two adult children from her first marriage, to Alan Gold. She subsequently married Jack Lumar, who died in 1999.

Now 71, but looking at least a decade younger, Natalie is her father’s caretaker and closest companion; she accompanies him to services at Congregation Etz Chaim, and to the numerous events honoring his life and courage.

I was intrigued and impressed by Weinstein’s story and had no reason to question it. Yet, I felt a professional urge to check out his main wartime recollections. I figured that we all tend to romanticize our pasts as the years pass, and was I was wary because a number of celebrated Holocaust memoirs had proved to be fakes.

It would be simple, I thought, to establish, at a minimum, that Weinstein had been a ghetto fighter and to obtain authoritative background material on the number of fighters, how many survived and how many were still living.

My initial list of likely sources included, locally, noted Holocaust scholars Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University and Aaron Breitbart of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. While both provided helpful background material, neither had any actual data on Weinstein.

The same held true for researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

If not in the United States, I assumed that surely there would be complete archives in Israel. Fortunately, there exists a Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum (Beit Lohamei Haghetaot) in northern Israel, dedicated specifically to commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

In addition, there were the vast archives of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, so I e-mailed and phoned both institutions.

As I waited day after day for answers and continued to repeat my requests, I began to worry that the Israeli aversion to returning phone or written inquiries had not changed much since I lived in the country in 1948 and again in the early 1960s.

However, I did find out that two key outside advisers to the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum were prominent Holocaust experts: professor Israel Gutman of Yad Vashem and professor Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University.

I tried to reach them directly, and through contacts at their institutions, but all inquiries disappeared into a black hole.

Fortunately, thanks to my wife’s vast Israeli mishpachah, and through personal newspaper colleagues, I had some well-placed contacts in Israel, who, being there and speaking fluent Hebrew, might succeed where I failed.

So I reached out to my wife’s brother-in-law, professor David Gaatone of Tel Aviv University, and then another relative, professor Tuvia Friling, Israel’s former state archivist, and finally an old Jerusalem Post buddy, Abraham Rabinovich, author of the definitive book on the Yom Kippur War.

Thanks to their efforts, I started to get a trickle of responses, complemented by a lucky break.

Moshe Arens, Israel’s former defense and foreign affairs minister, is a veteran leader of the Revisionist movement and its Herut and Likud successor parties in Israel. I learned that he had studied the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising closely, but I didn’t know how to reach him.

However, I knew that he wrote a regular column for the Haaretz newspaper, so I e-mailed the paper’s opinion-page editor, who passed on my request to Arens. The latter replied within a day that he was coming out with a book on the ghetto revolt and would like to pose some specific questions to Weinstein.

Around the same time, thanks to Rabinovich’s persistence, Yossi Shavit, the archive director of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, got in touch with me. All along, I was poring over books and Googling documents, so after two months, some of the pieces were beginning to fall into place.

One early revelation (to me) was that there were two main, separate Jewish organizations — and a couple of minor ones — fighting the Nazis in the ghetto, based on the left- and right-wing loyalties of the Zionist youth organizations of the time. Apparently, to this day, adherents of these ideologies are loath to credit the “other” side with its contributions to the battle.

Shavit, the archivist, provided some important data backing Weinstein’s main claim.

One was a picture of a decorative teapot in the Ghetto Fighters Museum collection, which was given by Weinstein to Helena Burchacka, a Polish woman, to sell and, with the money, buy food for Weinstein.

Burchacka, who after the war was designated a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, is also cited in a Hebrew-language book, “Memory Calls,” by Benjamin Anolik.

In the book, Burchacka states that when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started, Weinstein hid in a bunker for several weeks and then escaped through the sewers to the “Aryan” side.

Shavit added as a personal note, “I do not discount the possibility that Mr. Weinstein was a fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It must be remembered that many fighters fell and that those who survived reorganized along the lines of the youth movements to which they had belonged before the uprising. The preexisting arguments and old rivalries continued for many years after the war, and it is possible that Mr. Weinstein was omitted or forgotten by those who wrote the histories.

“I myself have been privileged to meet some of the fighters who didn’t belong to the mainstream of Jewish resistance and all their lives they have claimed that the mainstream youth movements (Dror and Hashomer Hatzair) ‘forgot’ to write about them due to considerations of ideological rivalry that accompanied the fighters who survived all the rest of their lives.”

That the rivalry and ill feeling persists to this day was confirmed by Arens, whose new book, “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” (Gefen Publishing House) seeks to document his statement to me that “the major part of the fighting was done by the Revisionist-led Jewish Military Union (ZZW).”

This view goes counter to the thesis of most other historians, who cite the larger Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), a coalition of predominantly liberal and socialist Zionist groups, as carrying the brunt of the battle.

With neither side listing the other side’s fighters, Weinstein probably made the task more difficult by his seemingly contradictory recollections.

He said, on one hand, that he was an ardent member of Betar, the Revisionist youth group, and a fervent admirer of Revisionist founder Jabotinsky, which would logically put him in the ranks of the Jewish Military Union.

On the other hand, Weinstein cited as his commander during the fighting Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, who was one of the main leaders of the rival Jewish Fighting Organization.

Even the figures on the number of ghetto fighters and survivors are in dispute, which might well be explained by the chaotic conditions during the battles and their aftermath.

Figures range from 300 to 1,000 active fighters, with most experts settling on around 750. Of these, perhaps no more than 12 to 20 escaped or survived the slaughter.

My own experience in a different context backs up the notion that those hoping for precise figures and conclusions of wartime battles generally underestimate the confusion and uncertainty of warfare.

Speaking of another war, during Israel’s 1948-49 War of Independence, I was a member of the 4th Anti-Tank unit, an “Anglo-Saxon” outfit composed of some 100 volunteers from Great Britain, United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia.

After the war ended, three of us sat down and typed out a history of the unit’s actions. The only copy of the manuscript was lost for 50 years, until our former unit commander in San Francisco discovered it while cleaning his basement.

He sent the yellowing pages to me, and I forwarded a photocopy to the history branch of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), suggesting that the information might be of interest.

In return, I received a letter expressing the IDF’s gratitude, especially in light of the fact that no one in the IDF could find any record that our unit had fought, or even existed.

In July of this year, Israel’s Knesset held a formal ceremony honoring the fallen and survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first since the establishment of the state.

From the ceremony, two notable remarks are pertinent to my quest. One was by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, who noted that “we do not know who all the [Warsaw Ghetto] fighters were, and we never will.”

The other remark was by Reuven Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset: “I had the privilege of serving in the IDF as an officer and a fighter, but I am not a hero,” Rivlin said. “I never stopped a tank with a Molotov cocktail, and I did not fight empty-handed in alleys and the sewage pipes.

“Those with the courage to fight the evil Nazi empire are the real heroes. From the time of the State of Israel’s establishment, our fighters have been inspired by those who dared to rebel in the heart of the Nazi empire at the height of its power.”

Timeline: Jewish life in Poland from 1098



Recently released color footage of the Warsaw Ghetto.WARNING GRAPHIC IMAGES

1098: Information on Jews in Poland begins to appear in Polish chronicles

1241: A new era of colonization in Poland begins and Jewish immigrants are sought

1264: Polish Prince Boleslaus issues the Statute of Kalisz, the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland

Early 1300s: Fewer than 1,000 Jews in Poland

1407: Jews in Krakow are attacked by mobs

Late 1400s: More than 60 Jewish communities are known in Poland; population is thought to be 20,000 to 30,000

1515: Rabbi Shalom Shachna founds Poland’s first yeshiva in Lublin

1525-1572: Rabbi Moses Ben Israel Isserles lives in Krakow, where he founds a yeshiva and writes a commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law

1573: Confederation of Warsaw of 1573 guarantees religious tolerance in Poland

1500s and early 1600s: Some Jews expelled from Spain move to Poland; Jewish social, cultural and economic life flourishes; population estimated at 80,000 to 100,000

1648-49: Chmielnicki revolt and massacre brings 30 years of bloodshed and suffering to Jews in Poland; golden age in Poland ends

1700-1760: Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, founds modern Chasidism

1764: Jewish population about 750,000; worldwide Jewish population estimated at 1.2 million

1772: Partitions of Poland begin between Russia, Prussia and Austria

1791 -Russian government restricts Jews to the Settlement of Pale, which includes lands formerly in Poland

1800s: Tremendous growth of Jewish population (in 1781, 3,600 Jews in Warsaw or 4.5 percent of population; in 1897, 219,000 Jews in Warsaw or 33.9 percent of population)

1862: Jews are given equal rights

1897: 1.3 million Jews in Poland

Early 1900s: On eve of World War I, strained relations between Poles and Jews, with decline of influence of Jewish assimilationists and rise in Jewish nationalism

1918: Major pogrom in Lvov, part of general reign of terror against the Jews

Post-World War I: Poland becomes sovereign state

1921: Jewish population 2,989,000, making up 10.5 percent or more of Polish population

1930: Rabbi Meir Shapiro founds Hachmei Yeshiva in Lublin; it is destroyed by the Nazis and its synagogue reopens in 2007

Late 1930s: Rise of Hitler in Germany and new round of pogroms in Poland

1939: Jewish population more than 3.3 million, with almost 400,000 in Warsaw, or one-third of the city’s total population

Sept. 1, 1939: Invasion of Poland and outbreak of World War II

April-May 1943: Warsaw Ghetto uprising

June 1945: About 50,000 Jews survive in Poland, an additional 100,000 return from the camps and another 200,000 return from the Soviet Union

1944-1950: Mass emigration of Jews from Poland continues to deplete population, leaving about 57,000

1946: Post-war pogrom in Kilce, killing 37 and injuring more than 80

By 1950: Stalinization of Poland instigates anti-Semitism

1956: Wladyslaw Gromulka comes to power; new wave of anti-Semitism results in some 30,000 to 40,000 Jews leaving country

1968: After Six-Day War, a major outburst of anti-Semitism ensues, with more Jews allowed to immigrate to Israel

1970s and 1980s: About 6,000 Jews live in Poland

2007: Jewish population 5,000 according to official counts but estimated at 30,000 or more by Jewish leaders


Dancing to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut at the Izzak Synagogue in Krakow


Texas rabbi Neil Katz talks about his second tour of Poland

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 16. Steinlauf, Michael C., “Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust,” Syracuse University Press, 1997. Maciej Kozlowski, a historian and ambassador-at-large for Polish-Jewish relations for Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. http://www.diapozytyw.pl/en/site/slownik_terminow/demografia/.