Janet Halbert with Janusz Kowalski in 2016.

I thought I knew my family’s Holocaust story — until I met this man

I was in the middle of an email exchange with my Israeli cousin, Miriam, when she unwittingly dropped the bombshell.

I had written to her early last year to tell her that I would be making my first visit to Poland. I knew she had traveled to the small town that was the childhood home to our fathers’ brothers who are now deceased. So I asked her for details.

Writing in Hebrew, Miriam shared the address and a photo of the building where our fathers lived. Then, several emails later, she added a detail. “There’s a man in Warsaw whose parents saved my parents’ lives during the Holocaust,” she wrote, “in case you’re interested.”

Had I understood correctly?

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My father, Samuel Halbert (Halberstadt), narrowly escaped the Nazis, thanks to a counterfeit passport, but his parents, a sister, and her husband and son were murdered in Treblinka. In my childhood, my father suffered nightmares about the war. He so hated Poland that he wouldn’t even admit he was born there. His mantra was that the Poles were hateful, evil and eager to kill Jews.

Certainly, I had heard about righteous gentiles, selfless people who found ways to save Jewish lives. But my own relatives’ lives? How had I never known?

My plan was to join a Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) Los Angeles adult delegation to March of the Living, the program that takes thousands of Jewish teenagers to Poland each spring to bear witness and remember. I already had scheduled an extra day to visit Siedlce (pronounced SHED-litz), my father’s birthplace. Now I made an additional plan: to meet the man my cousin told me about, Janusz Kowalski.

I was so excited to hear his story that the meeting became a focal point of my journey. Painful as it was to stand at Treblinka and Majdanek, at Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau, knowing that I would encounter this righteous man somehow made it all the more bearable.

I felt that most acutely on the day the 12,000 march participants gathered at Auschwitz. During a memorial ceremony, a video of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was projected on giant monitors. His voice booming through the loudspeakers, he acknowledged Auschwitz as the place where “millions perished, and no one lifted a finger.”

No one lifted a finger. In my head I was screaming, “That’s simply not true!” His words irked me, in part because I was so focused on what I would be doing soon — meeting a Polish man who actually had done something.

A few days later at my Warsaw hotel, I met my guide, Dominika, a Polish-Jewish woman who was around 30 years old. She and her husband drove me the 43 miles to Siedlce. When my father was growing up there, it was a lively center of Jewish life, with some 15,000 Jews, two Yiddish newspapers, several synagogues, even a Jewish hospital. The Nazis murdered nearly all of Siedlce’s Jews in Treblinka. And now, set within the drab, Soviet-era cinderblock buildings, Dominika pointed out the scattered black stone monuments honoring Polish resistance fighters, some of them Jewish.

We also found the apartment house, pictured in my cousin’s photograph, where my grandparents, Herc Halberstadt and Jenta-Gitla Liberant Halberstadt, lived. I tried to imagine my grandparents living here, my father walking these streets as a boy. We visited sites where two synagogues had stood before they were destroyed by fire during World War II. She pointed out where Talmud Torah, the religious school, had stood. We walked through the lone remaining Jewish cemetery, among four that once existed, in search of my great-grandmother’s grave.

Then we drove back to Warsaw, where we had arranged to meet Janusz Kowalski at a cafe. Janusz is 85 years old. Dressed in a dark suit, he immediately struck me as spry and sharp. I instantly felt that I was in the presence of a righteous man, a godly person. Almost without hesitation, speaking through a translator, he launched into his story — as if he had been waiting years for someone to ask.

Janusz grew up in Warsaw. His father, Witold, was a postmaster. Janusz was 9 years old in the summer of 1939 when, anticipating the German invasion, his father sent his mother, Maria, along with Janusz and an older brother, to a vacation house near Bialystok for their safety. The father stayed behind in Warsaw.

When the Germans invaded, the mother and children fled for their lives. They hoped to return to Warsaw but, in the chaos on the streets, couldn’t penetrate the crowds fleeing the city. They were on the outskirts of Siedlce when they encountered a column of German tanks. Suddenly caught in the crossfire, Janusz watched helplessly as German gunfire killed two nearby Polish soldiers and then his brother, who died on the spot as Janusz watched in horror. Another bullet struck Janusz’s mother in the arm.

After a German medic helped bandage Maria’s arm, the pair — unable to retrieve Janusz’s brother’s body amid the gunfire — took refuge in a nearby town. The next day, German soldiers threatened to kill his mother, but she begged them to spare her for Janusz’s sake. A Polish noble family took in Janusz and transported Maria to a hospital in Siedlce.

There, her condition worsened, her arm becoming so infected that doctors considered amputation. Despite frantic efforts, she couldn’t reach her husband, Witold, who was in Warsaw, unaware of what had befallen his wife and children. Maria finally prevailed upon a patient who was being discharged to make contact in Warsaw with her husband, who rushed to Siedlce to reconnect with her.

First retrieving Janusz from the home where he had been sheltered, Witold made his way to Lochow, the place where the tank battle had occurred. There, he learned that a Jewish man had buried his son and the two Polish soldiers, on orders from the Germans. Witold found the man, who escorted him to the grave. The grieving father expressed gratitude for the man’s kindness. It was Witold’s first close encounter with a Jewish person, and it left a positive impression.

Soon after, he had another. Witold was at a barbershop in Siedlce when he struck up a conversation with a Jewish doctor, the head of Siedlce’s Jewish hospital. Hearing Witold’s story, the doctor offered financial and medical help.

Witold, grateful, was quick to reciprocate, volunteering to transport letters and money to Jews suffering under Nazi occupation in Warsaw.

I instantly felt that I was in the presence of a righteous man, a godly person. Almost without hesitation, speaking through a translator, he launched into his story — as if he had been waiting years for someone to ask.

As the war raged around them and Maria recovered from her injuries, the Kowalski family relocated repeatedly, ultimately to a bare-bones one-room apartment in Siedlce. Because the building lacked running water or toilets, the Germans were unlikely to seize it for themselves.

That was where the Kowalskis’ fate intersected with my family’s.

As it happened, my aunt and uncle, Israel and Rachela Halberstadt, lived across the street. At some point, they met the Kowalskis. Rachela was working as a nurse at the Jewish hospital when German soldiers opened fire there, killing nearly everyone: doctors, nurses and patients. Rachela managed to flee and hid in the bushes until the Germans moved on.

Traumatized, she showed up at the Kowalskis’ door. Fully aware that hiding a Jewish person under Nazi occupation meant risking their own lives, they agreed to take her in.

Not that there was anywhere to hide Rachela in the small flat. With Janusz sleeping in the kitchen, his parents sleeping in one bed, and Rachela in another, hiding under the blankets when she had to was all she could do to conceal herself.

Janusz was 11 years old when his parents took in my Aunt Rachela. They sheltered her for two years. To hide her Jewish identity, she assumed a Polish name, Jadzia.

There were close calls. Once, after Rachela inadvertently opened a window and a neighbor spotted her, a German soldier knocked at the door to inquire. Janusz, the only one home at the time besides Rachela, pretended he was alone, even sitting on the bed to conceal her, trying to hide his fear.

Maria and Rachela were the same age. They grew close, sometimes crying together over events raging outside, such as the time German soldiers abruptly shot an elderly Jewish man drawing water from a nearby well.

To pass time, Rachela, a talented knitter, spent long hours in the apartment making sweaters. Maria sold them, passing off the work as her own, to bring in extra income.

Since the apartment had no running water and no toilet, it fell to Janusz to dispose of the waste. Rachela, who couldn’t risk stepping outside, regularly expressed gratitude to the boy for taking on that task.

Meanwhile, Rachela’s husband, my Uncle Israel, was facing his own difficulties. Taking refuge in a series of Warsaw hideouts, he repeatedly found himself back on the street, alone, bereft and afraid. When Maria learned of his predicament, she contacted a brother-in-law and persuaded him to create a hiding place in his Warsaw flat. While Rachela hid with the Kowalskis, Israel spent 18 months concealed at the relatives’ place, along with eight other Jews.

In 1944, with Russian forces closing in on Siedlce, the Kowalskis and Rachela fled to the countryside. When they encountered a troop of German soldiers, they feared Rachela’s Jewish appearance might raise suspicions. Those anxieties were heightened when the commander asked Maria in German to cook dinner for his men. Only Rachela understood both Polish and German, so she stepped in as translator. Fortunately, the soldiers were too focused on filling their bellies to ask whether she was Jewish. The soldiers moved on the next day.

Within days, Russian troops arrived and liberated the area. My Aunt Rachela parted with the Kowalskis and made her way back to Siedlce, where she reunited with my Uncle Israel and others who had been in hiding with him in Warsaw.

The Kowalski family relocated to a different part of Poland. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1948, that Witold and Maria met again with Rachela and Israel. (Janusz was away, serving in the military.) The Halberstadts came to visit with their new baby — my cousin Miriam — just before they emigrated to Israel. Grateful for everything the Kowalski family had done, the Halberstadts made a generous proposition. They offered the Kowalskis their Siedlce home.

The Kowalskis refused to accept the gift.

Sitting in the café in Warsaw, I was stunned. Stunned by the selfless acts of this man and his parents. Stunned that they had refused compensation for their heroism. Stunned that seven decades later, I was sitting across from Janusz, hearing this story for the first time.

Then Janusz pulled out an olive wood box and opened it, displaying its contents: a medal, with words in Hebrew: “A sign of gratitude from the Jewish people.” And beneath that, their names: “Kowalski Witold, Maria & Janusz.”

It had been presented to Janusz’s parents in the 1950s by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where the Kowalskis are among more than 26,000 individuals honored as chasidei haumot haolam, righteous among the nations, for risking their lives, liberty or positions to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Now, sitting in that Warsaw café, I was stunned by something else: No one had ever told me this story.

While my father had spent years disparaging Polish people, my aunt and uncle knew better. Perhaps they thought my father had told me. For years, they had kept in touch with Janusz’s parents, routinely sending financial support from Israel, even when they themselves were strapped. My cousin Miriam and her children visited Janusz in 1994, and in recent years she has provided occasional financial support. Janusz told me that the money helped him to pay for repairs at the grave of his brother, the one killed by German gunfire.

Kowalski in 2014.

Kowalski in 2016. Photo courtesy of Janet Halbert.

In the café, he pulled out something else: a folder filled with photos Miriam had sent him over the years, including pictures of my Israeli cousins at Miriam’s wedding, her children and her grandchildren. As he spoke of them, it was as if he were speaking of his own family. In a way, he was.

After the war, Janusz went on to pilot planes in the Polish military. Later, he spent a decade as a provincial governor of the district that includes Siedlce. In that capacity, he oversaw the maintenance of the area of the Treblinka death camp, a responsibility whose significance he clearly took seriously. He also worked to support the repair of neglected Jewish cemeteries.

He now lives with his wife, who is seven years younger. Although I asked him to bring her along, he declined, explaining that she doesn’t share his interest in the past. I asked Janusz if, as a child, he had fully understood the danger of the situation. He told me he was sure his parents had lived with great fear, but they understood the importance of what they were doing.

“We were characters in a play,” he said, smiling, “and each of us understood our role.” He said he had experienced more fear later in life, flying poorly equipped airplanes.

As we stood to leave, Janusz gave me a warm hug. An hour earlier, we had been strangers. Now, we both understood the close bond that linked us. He told me to be in touch on my next trip to Poland, but I knew I was unlikely to return.   

People often ask: Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God whenever people face calamities? The answer I prefer is the one I once heard from the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino: God is the response.

On my trip to Poland, I learned about the Kowalski family’s response. They didn’t need to help my aunt and uncle, who were strangers. But because they acted, they gave life to my cousin Miriam, and her three children, and their nine children. Indeed, if not for the Kowalskis, none of those people, would be alive.

"If not for the Kowalskis, none of those people would be alive.” Photo by Miriam Halberstadt Segev

“If not for the Kowalskis, none of those people would be alive.” Photo by Miriam Halberstadt Segev

I have thought of Janusz many times, especially in recent months amid the news of travel bans and deportations. At my synagogue, IKAR, one recent Shabbat, Rabbi Sharon Brous made the connection even more explicit in a sermon. She reminded us of the thousands of righteous gentiles who risked life and liberty to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. “We work very hard to honor them, and we should,” she said. But in this moment, she said, the best way for us to pay respects to their memory is for us to stand up for those who are vulnerable,  “to strive to become righteous Jews.”

My father died in 1982. I’m not sure if he knew of the righteous acts of the Kowalski family. If he did, he never told me. I wish he had. There were so many painful events he simply wouldn’t talk about. In any case, I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to meet Janusz.  It changed my life and reminds me every day about the steps we all can take toward making a difference in another person’s life.

Janet Halbert, a Los Angeles CPA, is a longtime social justice activist. She was founding treasurer of Bend the Arc (formerly Progressive Jewish Alliance) and serves on J Street’s national finance committee.

American Jewish Committee returns to Warsaw

The American Jewish Committee returned to Warsaw after eight years.

AJC on Monday opened a new office in the city dedicated to serving Poland and six other Central European countries: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia.

“Welcome home!” Andrzej Folwarczny, founder of the Forum for Dialogue and recipient of AJC’s Jan Karski Award, said at an evening ceremony at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Folwarczny, who is not Jewish, has been cooperating with AJC for more than 20 years, organizing study visits of opinion leaders from Poland and the United States. The groups travel to the U.S. to address issues of concern in Polish-American and Polish-Jewish relations. Folwarczny’s best-known project is School of Dialogue, which helps young people living in small Polish towns to learn about their local Jewish community’s history.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a statement marking the event, said he sees the depth of symbolism in the fact that the ceremony coincided with the launch of NATO forces’ presence in Poland.

“In the period when Poland, having regained her sovereignty after the collapse of the communist regime, strived to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the American Jewish Committee proved to be our valuable ally,” he wrote in a letter read to gala participants.

Jonathan Ornstein, director of JCC Krakow, told JTA that the opening of AJC’s office in Poland will give a boost to its growing Jewish community and help Poland strengthen ties with the Jewish world. He said the choice of Warsaw is yet another sign that world Jewry recognizes Poland as a growth area and a bright spot in Europe.

“We at JCC Krakow are excited to cooperate with AJC and eager to access their experience in community building as our Krakow Jewish community continues to develop and reemerge after the fall of communism,” he said.

In 1997 David Harris, who has led AJC since 1990, testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of NATO admission for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. AJC was the only Jewish organization to do so.

In a partnership with the Polish government, AJC helped protect and memorialize the site of Belzec, a German death camp located in southeastern Poland, where approximately 500,000 Jews were murdered in less than a year.

Work of art makes ‘Jewish statement’ in UCLA dispute

The tortured saga of a UCLA graduate student who left the campus due to what he called pressure from pro-Palestinian elements got a happy epilogue of sorts last week.

On Nov. 14, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management unveiled “Warsaw,” a 2011 art piece by financier-turned-artist Robert Weingarten, depicting the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, on a second-floor landing of the school’s Cornell Hall. The business school’s decision to display the piece averted a donor’s threat to pull his art collection of more than 20 pieces that hang in its halls as a result of the student controversy.

The events that led to the unveiling of “Warsaw” began when Milan Chatterjee, a UCLA law student and former president of the Graduate Student Association (GSA), decided over the summer to leave the university, citing harassment by the pro-Palestinian community. Chatterjee, who is Hindu, faced blowback after he made GSA funding for an event contingent on there being no discussion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

His departure was spurred by a “hostile and unsafe campus climate,” he wrote to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block.

When J.P. Morgan executive David Pollock learned of Chatterjee’s decision to leave, he was ready to take back the art collection he and his wife, Lynn, had lent to the business school some five years before. They had planned to leave their art there in perpetuity. Pollock called Weingarten, an old friend who created the artwork in the collection already on loan to UCLA, to discuss the situation. In the car with Weingarten when he took the call on speakerphone was Steve Fink, who, along with his brother, is a large donor to UCLA.

Listening in on the conversation, Fink had an idea of what Pollock could do instead of pulling his art: Why not lend the business school an additional art piece, this one representing the Jewish experience, to be hung alongside the others?

“That was gonna make a statement,” Fink said at the unveiling. “A strong Jewish statement.”

Exactly a week later, Pollock called back Weingarten, who knew exactly which art piece fit the bill.

“I said, ‘I have something exactly in mind,’ ” Weingarten told the Journal.

Weingarten decided to lend UCLA “Warsaw” to hang along with his other works in Pollock’s collection.

In “Warsaw,” pictures of the ghetto uprising are overlaid on modern photographs of the Polish capital. Weingarten said he was inspired by a trip he took to the location of the ghetto, where there was “no reminder, virtually,” of what had taken place. His work allows the viewer to look through the present and into the past, he said.

“You’re looking at a very thin layer that separates civility and society from hatred and horror,” he told the crowd of some two dozen that gathered for the unveiling.

Pollock said he was “100 percent” satisfied with the compromise, calling it a “win-win situation” for him and the university.

Speaking at the unveiling, he pointed to previous incidents on UCLA’s campus, such as when student government representatives questioned a nominee for student office about her Jewish background in February 2015, as evidence of a pattern of anti-Israel intimidation at the school.

“We have to push back in every capacity,” he told the Journal at the event.

Learning of Chatterjee’s situation, Pollock said, it seemed threatening to pull his art was his best means of pushing back. But when he dashed off an email to Anderson Dean Judy Olian, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she responded with a “really heartfelt and sincere” note expressing her concern.

“They heard me immediately,” Pollock said.

Olian quickly agreed to the idea of incorporating a new piece of art that speaks to the Jewish historical narrative.

“This is as much a part of the education of our students — who we think of as future leaders — as what they learn in the classroom,” she said at the unveiling.

In a campus conversation on BDS often characterized by dissension and distrust, the “Warsaw” episode was a rare instance of compromise.

“It’s positive when community members and alumni find ways to stay engaged with the university even as they question its actions,” Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, wrote in an email. “That keeps them involved in the conversation and shows their devotion to UCLA, making it more likely that they will be able to create positive change here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida Holocaust survivors back in Warsaw to perform in former ghetto

A musical duo of Holocaust survivors from Florida who have toured the United States returned to their native Poland to perform there for the first time, at an outdoor concert in Warsaw.

Krakow-born Saul Dreier, 91, and Reuwen Sosnowicz, 89, landed in the Polish capital Thursday to perform next week before some 500 people on Grzybowski Square, which was part of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Polish television and radio stations will be broadcasting their concert live to millions of people, according to From the Depths, an organization which does Holocaust commemoration work in Poland.

Dreier learned to play the drums in one of three concentration camps he survived. A cantor taught him to play using spoons, he said.

Sosnowicz, who was born in Warsaw and for whom this is the first visit to his native country since he left after the Holocaust, has been playing the accordion all his life. He was saved by Polish non-Jews who hid him during the Holocaust and then immigrated to Israel before leaving for the United States.

“I am very excited to return to my childhood hometown,” he told JTA. “I am not happy to face the memories of the war but I have to return before I go to heaven as an ambassador for peace, play my beautiful Jewish music and tell the world that we must all live in peace and that love and respect for each other will triumph hate and killing.”

Both he and Dreier lost most of their family members in the Holocaust. They started their duo, the Holocaust Survivor Klezmer and Multicultural Band, in 2014 and have since performed in Florida, New York and Las Vegas.

During their visit, Sosnowicz and Dreier are scheduled to visit Auschwitz, the former Nazi death camp in southern Poland, and the former Treblinka camp. They intend to play without an audience not far from the camp in memory of the people killed there. They will also visit the Polish presidential palace, for a meeting with several cabinet ministers.

At the Warsaw concert, they will be sharing a stage with Muniek Staszczyk, one of Poland’s best-known rock stars.

From the Depths founder Jonny Daniels said his group helped raise some of the tour’s costs because the musicians need to be able to “share their message with thousands and make them their witnesses,” especially at a time when  “the greatest generation, the generation of survivors, sadly is passing away.”

Auschwitz railcar finds new home on expanding Jewish trade campus

The 90-foot wooden train car that made its way earlier this month to a dusty hillside in Granada Hills once shipped entire communities of Jews from Warsaw to their inglorious end at Auschwitz. 

But in its new home on the campus of the Jewish Educational Trade School (JETS), it serves a very different purpose: to help inspire the Jewish youth who attend the vocational academy. A June 5 dedication ceremony unveiled the memorial and helped raise funds for a 300-bed expansion project at the live-in trade school, set to break ground in the next two months.

“These walls recorded the cry of our brothers and sisters,” said Toni Luskin, a professor at the school, speaking to a crowd of 500 in the school’s courtyard before black curtains were pulled aside to reveal the railcar. She called JETS a “symbolic repudiation of the Third Reich” for the part it plays in training Jewish tradesmen. 

The school’s purpose is to take young men, mostly yeshiva dropouts or alumni with troubled backgrounds or disciplinary histories, and prepare them to take up a trade. It trains Orthodox youth to be everything from emergency medical technicians to plumbers and programmers. 

The railcar takes its place as the school prepares to erect three new buildings that will increase its square footage more than fivefold, from 18,000 to 100,000 square feet, according to JETS founder and director Rabbi Mayer Schmukler, who started the school in 2005 with seven students.

He said the new buildings would include “all kinds of shops,” including electrical, HVAC, refrigeration and plumbing, as well as a film production wing that includes a movie theater and a state-of-the-art kosher kitchen. It also will add space for 303 people in dormitory facilities that more than triple the occupancy of the current, 82-bed campus.

A digital image of one of the new buildings planned at the JETS campus. Image courtesy of JETS

The former Chabad rabbi operates on the principle that many Jewish youth are not cut out to be lawyers and doctors, and the best thing for those youngsters is to learn a trade while maintaining their connection to Torah scholarship. He’s confident the new buildings are only the first whiff of a boom in Jewish vocational education.

“In 10 years, we’re going to have 50 schools like this throughout the world,” he said in a phone call with the Journal. “We’re revolutionizing Jewish education.”

After the unveiling of the railcar, a tearful affair, guests headed into a tent on the site of one of the future buildings, where the mood immediately flipped as a klezmer band took the stage to play songs from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Speaking to the black-tie crowd at dinner, Schmukler said the school would integrate the Holocaust memorial into its educational mission by using it as a meditative space where students can go to gain a sense of perspective. He said it had already had the desired effect with one JETS student who had arrived only recently and still persisted in blaming his parents and society for his problems.

“He walked in that train and he got a kick in the pants,” Schmukler said. “He got a lesson in life that changed him.”

The car not only commemorates Jewish blood spilled in Europe, but also stands on the site of the former North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC) where, on Aug. 10, 1999, a white supremacist opened fire and wounded five. 

Speaking at the unveiling, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents the northwest San Fernando Valley, said he “grew up at JCCs” and considered the JETS campus “holy ground.” He said that as the chief of staff for former Councilman Greg Smith, who represented the district, he fought to make sure the JCC building remained in Jewish hands rather than being torn down and replaced with residential units, as one developer had suggested.

Yet the site was not the first or even the second choice to house the train. Stanley Black, the wealthy real estate developer who paid for and procured the railcar — the last such car in the care of the Polish government, according to Luskin — told the unlikely story of its arrival to the audience at the unveiling.

The developer said that after seeing a Nazi cattle car on display in Mexico City, he felt he had to bring a similar memorial to Los Angeles. When he located a suitable train car, he began to make arrangements for its arrival with the help of fellow L.A. developer Severyn Ashkenazy, who has close ties with the Polish Jewish community.

By Luskin’s telling, the Polish government agreed to part with the train car after “intense negotiations and a significant outlay of funds” furnished by Black.

Before long, the train was on a cargo ship headed through the Panama Canal from Poland to California. Now, Black had a new problem: where to put 90-feet of metal and decaying wood.

At first, he called Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Museum of Tolerance on Pico Boulevard, to see if there was room there. There wasn’t.

“The boat’s still coming through the Panama Canal,” Black said. “I gotta think of something else.”

He tried to involve Hillel at UCLA and the USC Shoah Foundation. No luck.

“Now it’s past the Panama Canal,” he said. “It’s coming fast.”

Finally, he got in touch with Schmukler, who happily offered a spot on the sunny, nine-acre campus. The car came ashore at San Pedro, south of downtown L.A., and proceeded to the JETS campus.

“It ended up coming here for a special reason — because we’re going to take it and make it alive,” Schmukler said at the fundraising dinner.

Black is a major donor to the JETS expansion project, and one of the buildings will be named for him and his late wife, Joyce. Schmukler declined to say how much the school had raised or intended to raise for the construction project. 

But at the fundraiser, Max Webb, a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor and real estate developer, pledged to donate $500,000. Another donor, inventor Maurice Kanbar, who had promised to donate $1 million in 10 percent installments, said he had decided instead to write a single $1 million check after being moved by the railcar dedication.

Kanbar wasn’t the only one moved by the event. After climbing a wooden platform to peek into the darkened interior of the railcar, which was adorned with a mezuzah and a memorial lamp, Rita Korn wiped away tears while recounting her father’s journey aboard a similar train to Auschwitz. She said putting her hands on a Nazi cattle car is, in a strange way, “almost like touching my parents.”

“Right now, it hurts,” she said. “I don’t know why. It’s been so long.”

Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery defender

When a Warsaw Jewish cemetery was vandalized earlier this week, Anna Chipczynska, president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, spoke out, noting that it had occurred less than a week after the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and that “it is an invitation to violence and threats to which we should all be vigilant.”

Dynamic, straight talking and a sharp dresser, Chipcyznksa knows about vigilance when it comes to Polish Jewish cemeteries. Two weeks earlier, the 36-year-old community leader — whose organization fulfills a broad array of religious responsibilities and sponsors many social, educational and cultural programs — gave me a tour of another Warsaw Jewish cemetery.

I first met Chipczynska last fall, when I was in town for the opening of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. At the time, she contrasted the celebration of the museum’s opening with the less glamorous, enormous responsibility her organization faces in preserving and maintaining the many Jewish cemeteries in cities and villages across Poland.

The cemetery we visited,the 225-year-old Brodno cemetery, is the city’s oldest Jewish burial ground. The 13-acre Brodno, which was estimated to have tens of thousands of gravestones before the war, was destroyed during the Nazi occupation of Poland. After the war, under Communist-era rule, the cemetery was subjected to further desecration, with broken headstones salvaged for postwar construction. By the late 1980s, a foundation began some initial preservation, and in 2012, following several years of negotiations, legal ownership of the cemetery was transferred from the city government to the Jewish Community of Warsaw, which is now responsible for more than 12 cemeteries.

During our late-afternoon visit in January, there was a biting chill in the air, and Chipczynska, bundled in a parka and hat, unlocked the large entry gate, which is currently being renovated. From there the cracked pavement path leads through the middle of a large dilapidated expanse, overgrown with trees, the most recent of which were planted during the postwar Communist-era Polish government.

Further back, through the trees and along the path, thousands of weathered, moss-covered headstones are stacked against each other, evidence of an abandoned postwar government plan to construct a park.

“It looks like a kind of park. But of course, it’s not a park, it’s a cemetery,” Chipczynska said.

Over the years, the cemetery, like other Polish Jewish cemeteries, has been vandalized, often by individuals who have been drinking.

Chipczynska’s organization is committed to spending approximately $800,000 to restore Brodno, but is hoping some of that funding will come from a Ministry of Culture grant for which the group applied recently.

“Receiving this government grant would be a significant recognition of the historic value of this project,” Chipczynska emphasized.

The group wants to open the cemetery to the public, to engage in educational and communal programs about the shared Jewish-Polish history of the area, Chipczynska said.

Like others of her generation, Chipczynka, who was born and raised in Poland, did not learn about her Jewish ancestry until she was a teen. Prior to becoming the Jewish community’s president last year, she worked in the fields of humanitarian aid and human rights. But Chipczynka prefers not to talk much about herself, instead focusing conversations about the work of building the Jewish community.

Over the years, she’s become deeply engaged with the renewal of Jewish life in Warsaw, including helping to found Ec Chaim, a progressive congregation in Warsaw. Cemeteries are just one component of Chipczynska’s job. On Friday evening, she welcomed several dozen regular congregants and visitors for Shabbat services at Ec Chaim, followed by a lively communal dinner, buoyed by a few shots of vodka.

Hours before our cemetery tour, Chipczynska participated in a “day of Judaism” program initiated by the Catholic Church, that included welcoming Catholics to Warsaw’s synagogues to learn about contemporary Jewish life.

While recent terrorist attacks in Paris leave Warsaw’s Jewish community feeling vulnerable, as Jews do across Europe, she said, Chipczynska is nonetheless upbeat about the future.

“We have a rich Jewish program in Warsaw,” she said. “People want to be engaged in the Jewish community. This is a good sign,” she said.

Penny Schwartz is a JTA contributing writer based in Boston. Her travels to Poland were sponsored in part by the Polish Cultural Institute New York.

Large Jewish cemetery in Warsaw is vandalized

The fence of a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw considered to be one of the largest in Europe was defaced.

The attack on the Okopowa Street cemetery took place on Saturday; the vandalism was discovered the next day. Burials are still held in part of the cemetery.

“Jews for slaughter” and the date 10.12.14 were spray-painted in red on the fence. The date is when Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the ban on ritual slaughter was unconstitutional. Also, the cemetery gate was painted with yellow emulsion paint.

Cemetery director Przemyslaw Szpilman discovered the vandalism and immediately notified police. Szpilman said he does not know if the vandalism is an “immature prank or a political issue.”

“Such incidents do not happen very often,” he told JTA. “In 2013, someone painted a swastika on the wall of the cemetery, but for the last 12 years nothing like that has happened.”

Anna Chipczynska, president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, said: “Less than a week after the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we have to deal with the manifestation of hatred against Jews.  ‘Jews for slaughter’ is not only a humiliation that society cannot ignore, it is an invitation to violence and threats to which we should all be vigilant.”

Piotr Kadlcik, former president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, told JTA: “It is sad that the deceased perish for the decisions of the living.”

Warsaw to restore 1,000 Jewish tombstones used for construction

The City of Warsaw has agreed to return and preserve 1,000 Jewish headstones that were used to construct a recreational facility inside one of the city’s parks.

The headstones, which are currently part of a pergola and stairs at a park in Warsaw’s Praga district, will be returned in the coming months to the Brudo Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, according to a statement Friday by From the Depths, the international commemoration nonprofit that led talks on the subject with city officials.

The city allocated a budget of $180,000 for the project, according to Jonny Daniels, From the Depths’ U.K.-born, Israel-based founder.

The pergola at Praga district is one of countless sites scattered across Poland in which Jewish tombstones were used as construction material, according to Daniels, whose group earlier this year brought dozens of Israeli lawmakers to a meeting with counterparts from Poland and other countries, and a visit to the Auschwitz death camp on the 69th anniversary of its liberation.

“In the 1950s, the communists were in full swing of building structures and monuments out of matzevas, which they often broke into pieces,” Daniels said, using the Hebrew word for a Jewish tombstone.

From the Depths’ involvement in the subject is part of the organization’s Matzeva Project, which aims to restore an estimated one million gravestones hidden in buildings and urban spaces. The Jewish Historical Institute and the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, are official partners of the project.

An effort to locate headstones will begin this month with help from volunteers from the University of Warsaw.

“Since we’ve started being interested in the question of matzevas used as a building material, there was a noticeable influx of information,” Daniels said, adding that his group is receiving calls and emails on a daily basis with information about tombstone and fragments that were used to make roads, walls, knife sharpeners and even toilets.

Skeletons believed from Warsaw Ghetto uprising discovered

Archaeologists in Warsaw discovered fragments of two human skeletons that likely were buried there during the Polish city’s ghetto uprising.

On Monday, archaeologists searching through the archive of the Jewish socialist party Bund in the basement of a former house on Swietojerska Street found a skull, arm bones and leg bones. Police will examine the bones.

In recent days, the archaeologists had found a sewing kit, a loaf of bread and a bowl of groats on the site of the former home, which is now a park, Krasinki Garden. The site is near the World War II-era Jewish ghetto but was not part of it.

The Bund archive had been hidden by party activist Marek Edelman in the home’s basement, which was unearthed by the archaeologists. During the uprising, the house was destroyed; the area was later included as part of the park area.

Warsaw’s other uprising

For most Jewish readers, I suspect, the phrase “Warsaw uprising” refers to the stirring last stand of the Jewish ghetto fighters in 1943.  But there was quite another upwelling of armed resistance in Warsaw a year later, and that’s the focus of “Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising” by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40.00), an account of the doomed effort at self-liberation launched by the Polish Home Army against the Nazis even as the Red Army sat and watched on the far side of the Vistula.

Richie’s book is only the latest in a small but important trend in publishing that calls our attention to the richness, complexity and tragedy of events on the ground in Poland during the Second World War. Timothy Snyder’s groundbreaking book, “Bloodlands,” is one example, and so is Louise Steinman’s newly-published memoir, “The Crooked Mirror.” All of these books are worthy efforts to rescue one of the most consequential nations in European history from the realm of “Polish jokes” and to open our eyes to its heroic if also tragic saga.

“My Poles will not revolt” is what Hans Frank, the man in charge of occupied Poland, told the Fuehrer when the first reports of skirmishing in Warsaw reached Hitler’s headquarters. He was wrong, as it turned out, but Heinrich Himmler, the architect and operator of Germany’s machinery of terror, looked on the bright side:  “It would give them the excuse to do what they had wanted to do for years — erase Warsaw from the map,” Richie explains.

Richie, who lives and writes in Warsaw, brings a mastery of Polish history and politics to her book, and she allows the reader to see how the Warsaw uprising is linked to the other and more famous events in the history of World War II. Above all, she reveals the crucial motive of the Polish resistance in taking on the Nazis before the Red Army entered Warsaw and installed a Communist regime in place of the Polish government-in-exile that had taken refuge in London during the war.

“They fought in order to see the restoration of a free, liberal, democratic state,” Riche writes. “With the Red Army moving inexorably towards Warsaw, the decision was made to take a stand in the capital city, for the Poles to push the Germans out themselves, and to greet the Soviets as equals. Surely then the rest of the world would heed their call for independence, and put pressure on Stalin.”

Richie’s narrative of these events is rooted in scholarship but expressed with color, clarity and impact. She has an eye for the telling detail: “Despite his vegetarianism,” she pauses to tell us, “Hitler had long had a strange admiration for poachers, and decide that with their particular skills of tracking and killing they might be useful in the fight against the partisans.” The Red Army was assisted in its victorious counter-attacks against the Wehrmacht by the riches of the Lend-lease program: “American Jeeps whizzed around Byelorussia, and Studebaker US6 trucks were used to launch Katusha rockets; at the same time Russian soldiers feasted on Hershey’s chocolate and wieners stamped ‘Oscar Meyer – Chicago.’” At the same, time she paints on a vast canvas that sprawls across 738 pages and depicts events and personalities both great and small.

The dominant note in “Warsaw 1944,” of course, is horror.  The Germans were no kinder or gentler when it came to the Poles than they were with any of the their other victims, and Richie finds herself compelled to describe atrocities that will break the hearts of readers who already know what the Germans were capable of doing in Auschwitz and at Babi Yar.  And the heroic resistance of the Poles in the Warsaw uprising of 1944 was no more successful than the efforts of the ghetto-fighters had been in 1943.

“The general mood in the units of my group is pessimistic and bitter because of the lack of weapons for the past eight days,” wrote one despairing Polish fighter. “We fight alone with no help from our quartermaster nor from the Allies.”

The death toll of the battle for Warsaw was modest when compared to the number of Polish Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  Some 18,000 soldiers in the Home Army died in battle, and another 150,000 civilians were casualties of the fighting. The political goal, of course, was not achieved, and Poland passed from Nazi occupation to Soviet domination for another half-century. Indeed, the whole episode has been mostly overlooked. “The destruction of Warsaw was one of the great tragedies of the Second World War,” the author insists. “And yet, after 1945, the Polish capital’s terrible ordeal virtually disappeared from history.”  

Richie, to her credit, has restored that ordeal to the place of honor in the pages of history that it richly deserves.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).

Russia giving up to $1 million to Auschwitz conservation fund

Russia will contribute up to $1 million to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation for the conservation and maintenance of the site of the former Nazi concentration camp.

Russia’s pledge was reported Tuesday by the Polskie Radio website, which cited a statement issued by the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. Support for the project, the statement said, is “a common moral duty as it serves the mission of preserving the memory of the huge number of victims of the Nazi camp and of other crimes against humanity.”

The 4-year-old foundation is working to raise nearly $160 million for a perpetuity fund to continue to maintain the site. Twenty-four countries have contributed thus far. Germany has contributed $80 million, followed by the United States with $15 million. Poland, where the camp is located, has promised about $13 million, according to Polskie Radio.

Some 155 buildings on the site are in need of repair. The money is needed as well for conservation projects such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau archives, documents and objects in the museum collection.

Survivor: Robert Geminder

In the early morning of Oct. 12, 1941, German authorities ordered the Jews of Stanislawow, Poland, to report to the town square. Six-year-old Robert (Bob) Geminder huddled there with his mother, grandmother and brother, George. The group of approximately 20,000 Jews was then marched to the nearby cemetery. Bob and his family, among the early arrivals, were shoved toward the cemetery’s back wall, where they crouched down. “If you stood up, they would shoot you,” Bob remembered. Meanwhile, people in the front were marched forward toward large pits in the ground, then shot. As they fell into the gaping earth, more Jews were ordered forward. This systematic killing continued all day, until falling snow and darkness halted the massacre of 12,000 or more.

When the Germans released the remaining Jews, pandemonium broke out. In the melee, Bob and his brother were separated from their mother and grandmother and knocked to the ground, where they lay unconscious. As their grandmother exited, she too was pushed down. Searching for her scarf, she recognized Bob lying nearby and then found George. The trio returned to the apartment. “My mother was in total unbelievable disarray when she saw us alive,” Bob remembered. 

Bob Geminder was born on Aug. 3, 1935, in Wroclaw, Poland, to Mano and Bertl. George, his older brother, was born May 31, 1933. The family owned five apartment buildings and lived very comfortably. 

But soon after Germany invaded Poland in early September 1939, the Gestapo knocked on the Geminders’ door. They were given half an hour to pack and depart by train for the eastern half of Poland that was then under Soviet control, a result of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact signed on Aug. 23, 1939. 

Bob and his family traveled from town to town, eventually settling in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) in early 1940. They rented an apartment, supporting themselves with the jewelry and cash they had brought and living relatively normally. 

But on June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and by fall 1941 the Germans were bombing Stanislawow, which was under Soviet control. One day, as the family protected themselves from broken glass by stacking mattresses against the windows, Bob’s father suffered a heart attack and died. 

Bob’s family returned to an empty apartment after the Oct. 12 massacre; the place had already been cleaned out by local Poles. All that remained was a bucket of water with a false bottom that Bob’s grandfather had made, inside of which Bob’s mother had hidden her valuables. “It was a key point in my survival,” Bob said. 

In December 1941, the Jews were forced into the ghetto. Bob, George, his mother and grandmother lived in one room in a small apartment they shared with two other families. During this time, Bob witnessed babies thrown against walls and people hanging from telephone wires.

In the ghetto, Bob’s widowed mother became friendly — and later romantically involved — with Emil Brotfeld, a single man living in the building. He had been born in Stanislawow and “was a fantastically brave guy,” Bob said. He helped her obtain a job outside the ghetto, where she cleaned houses and managed to trade jewelry for bread.

One day, Bob’s grandmother peered out the window to see German soldiers with dogs. Knowing they randomly killed children, she quickly hid Bob and George in a closet and stacked wood against the door to mask the boys’ scent. The Germans entered the room, but soon left. “It was the second time our dear grandmother saved our lives,” Bob said. 

In March 1942, Brotfeld learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto. Escape was their only hope, but he worried that Bob’s mother would not leave her mother and other family in the ghetto. They consulted a rabbi, who told them to save the children. Bob’s mother listened, but, according to Bob, “she felt guilty until the day she died.” 

A few days later, Bob’s mother and her best friend, Lola, left the ghetto for work, walking out among hundreds of workers, each of them hiding a boy under her skirt. Bob’s mother hid the boys in a closet, then took them to the train station at night. 

They traveled to Warsaw, where they stayed with Brotfeld’s sister and her non-Jewish husband. In midsummer 1942, however, once the family obtained false papers, they left Warsaw, moving around in various farm areas. “We were always hungry,” Bob said. 

Seeking a better chance for survival, Bob’s mother found a farmer near Krakow who agreed to hide the boys in exchange for one of the family’s apartment buildings.

But some months later, when George put on his hat in church, rather than removing it, there was an immediate buzz in the pews, and the farmer’s wife panicked. She got word to Bob’s mother to pick George up.

Bob stayed, but the couple hid him in a tiny attic, and mostly ignored him. At night, Bob often sneaked out a window to eat the pigs’ leftover food or raw eggs from a single prolific hen. When his mother arrived 10 weeks later, she found him filthy and lice-infested, talking to his shadow. 

The family kept moving. But in early 1944, with the Russians approaching, they returned to Warsaw, to the apartment of Brotfeld’s sister and brother-in-law.

On Aug. 1, 1944, the Warsaw uprising began. But on Oct. 2, when the Germans defeated the Polish resistance, the family was rounded up, along with thousands of civilian Poles and marched to the train station, where cattle cars awaited them. Bob’s mother spied an open boxcar, which the family managed to board. 

A short distance outside Auschwitz, the train stopped suddenly. Brotfeld lifted Bob over the side to unlatch the door, allowing the four of them to escape. “Run, run,” Brotfeld yelled. 

The family hid one night in a farmhouse, and the next day found an apartment, where they remained until January 1945, when Russian troops liberated the area.

They then traveled to Bielsko, the hometown of Bob’s mother, who hoped to find surviving relatives. Only one cousin returned. 

One day, several months later, Bob and his brother saw the movie “Gunga Din.” Afterward, several Polish boys chased them, yelling and throwing stones. When they arrived home, their mother announced they were leaving immediately.

They traveled through Czechoslovakia to a displaced persons camp in Aglasterhausen, Germany, where Bob was introduced to bananas, bubble gum and English swear words, and where his mother married Brotfeld. 

In February 1947, they left for the United States, settling in Pittsburgh. Bob graduated Carnegie Mellon University in 1957 with a degree in electrical engineering. He then joined the U.S. Army, serving in the Army Reserves for seven years. In the spring of 1958, he moved to Los Angeles and worked for an aerospace company. 

Bob married Judy Strauss on Aug. 23, 1959. They have three children: Mindy born in 1964, Ellen in 1965 and Shia in 1969. 

Judy died in August 2011. 

Bob left engineering to work on a teaching credential, which he earned from Loyola Marymount in 2005, at age 70. He took a break from teaching math for an engineering project, but hopes to return to the classroom. 

Bob has spoken about his experiences during the Holocaust at schools and synagogues for the past 30 years. He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and maintains a Web site (geminder.us) to teach others about what occurred. 

“I attribute my survival first to luck and second to my mother’s smart decisions and bravery, and later my stepfather’s,” he said. 

Poland has one month supply of kosher meat left

Poland's Jewish community has about a one month supply of kosher meat left, following a ban on ritual slaughter that went into effect at the beginning of the year.

Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, confirmed to JTA on Monday from Warsaw that Poland will run out of kosher meat within a month.

The status of ritual slaughter in Poland became unclear in November when a Polish court ruled that the government had acted unconstitutionally with its 2004 regulation exempting Jews and Muslims from stunning animals before slaughtering them, as their faiths require.

The Jewish community and some legal experts say kosher slaughter remains protected by another law, the 1997 Act on the Relation of the State to the Jewish Communities in Poland, which states that ritual slaughter may be performed in accordance with the needs of the local Jewish community.

Poland's Agriculture Ministry has said it will work to enshrine ritual slaughter in Polish legislation this year that is designed to streamline the way that Polish procedures correspond with European Union Regulation 1099, that went into effect in January. Regulation 1099 requires that animals do not experience “unnecessary suffering.” The E.U. has said individual countries will have discretion on whether to allow or ban ritual slaughter, however.

But ritual slaughter currently remains illegal. Polish prosecutors began investigating reports of the March 12 shechitah, or kosher slaughter, of a cow in the northeastern town of Tykocin after hearing about it from a county veterinarian in Bialystok.

Poland has about 6,000 Jews and 25,000 Muslims, according to the European Jewish Congress and the U.S. State Department, respectively.

The country’s for-export industry of kosher and halal meat was worth approximately $259 million at the end of last year, according to the French news agency AFP, with kosher exports accounting for 20 percent. But meat exports reportedly have declined by 30 percent since the beginning of the year, the Polish Meat Association told Polish Radio, according to the Jerusalem Post.

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. 

Man arrested after altercation with Israeli teens at Warsaw airport

Polish police arrested a man suspected of intimidating a group of religious Israeli teenagers at the Warsaw airport.

A spokesperson for Chopin International Airport in Warsaw said “a minor incident” occurred on March 11 when police officers arrested a man who approached one of the Israelis, whom Israeli media identified as students of a religious high school, as they were waiting for buses to take them to visit Holocaust-era concentration camps.

The Israeli news site Behadrey Haredim reported the man approached the group holding an iron bar and shouting insults against Jews. The airport official did not say why the man attacked the group. The news website published a picture showing the man being handcuffed.

Thousands of Israeli youths visit Poland every year on educational trips.

A spokesperson for the Polish embassy in Israel told JTA: “It is important that Israeli youth visiting Poland should feel completely safe. Such incidents are very rare. Unfortunately, one may encounter hooligans or attackers in any part of the world.”

Survivor: Abe Rosenstein

“Abe, go. You’re young. You’re not afraid to work.” Bronia Rosenstein, Abe’s older sister, urged him to answer a call for strong, healthy men to work outside the Lodz ghetto. It was November 1940. Abe was 21 and for nine months he had been living in one small room with his parents, two sisters and one brother. Abe signed up to work. Living conditions in the ghetto were deteriorating, and people were dying from hunger on the street daily. On the day he reported for work, he spotted his mother standing behind a barbed-wire fence, crying. “It was the last time I saw her,” he said.

Abe (Abraham) Rosenstein was born Feb. 8, 1919, in Piotrkow, Poland, a village with a prewar population of about 18,000 Jews. Abe was the second to youngest of David and Shindel Rosenstein’s five children.

As a boy, he attended public school. At 14, he spent a year or so studying carpentry in an ORT school.

The family was very poor. “A pound and a half of meat would have to feed seven people,” Abe recalled. Abe’s father owned a small grocery, but after World War I, as the Poles moved into the once-Jewish neighborhood, business diminished and, in 1934, Abe’s father lost the store.

Abe’s family then moved to Lodz, where all seven family members shared a one-room attic apartment with a small kitchen. Abe slept on a couch with one brother. The latrine was outdoors, down four flights of stairs.

Abe apprenticed in a sock factory. Later, he was hired by a shipping company to pick up merchandise, often weighing 100 pounds or more, from the town’s factories and load it onto horse-drawn wagons. “I got used to heavy work,” he said. He made 30 zlotys a week and supported his family.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, and by Sept. 8, the Germans controlled Lodz. The next day, Abe and his older brother Mark left for Warsaw, ordered by the Polish government to protect the capital. They walked the 70 miles, taking cover in the forest or under trees as German planes machine-gunned people below.

In Warsaw, as the Germans continued to bomb, Abe and Mark took refuge every night in basements of apartment buildings. During the day they rummaged for food. On Sept. 27, the Polish government surrendered, and Abe and Mark returned to Lodz.

In Lodz, Germans were actively assaulting Jews and confiscating their merchandise and valuables. One afternoon, while Abe was visiting a friend, German police entered the home and ordered Abe to report to the police station, where he was beaten with batons.

On Feb. 8, 1940, German authorities announced the establishment of a ghetto, relocating about 160,000 Jews to the city’s poorest section. Abe’s family of six — Mark had departed for the Soviet Union — moved from their attic apartment into one room in the ghetto.

Abe’s first ghetto job was collecting and carting away outhouse waste. A month later, he was given a job demolishing houses near the barbed-wire border, to discourage smuggling. Every day Abe stashed a few pieces of wood into his waistband to heat the family’s stove.

After leaving the Lodz ghetto, in November 1940, Abe and the other men were sent to the German-Polish border to build highways in preparation for Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Abe fastened iron rails to wooden ties.

Work on the highways ceased in June 1941, when Germany broke its Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union. Abe’s group was transported via cattle train to Eberswalde, a factory town north of Berlin, where 600 men were housed in a former Hitler Youth camp.

The men were taken in groups to an ammunition factory and tested on their machinery skills. After several weeks, Abe was one of 200 men selected to work in the factory. The other 400 were returned to the Lodz ghetto and later killed.

In Eberswalde, Abe worked in a large room where several thousand 50-pound shells were assembled daily for use in naval artillery. Abe’s task was to cap each dynamite-filled shell. “Once in a while they beat us, depending what kind of guy the foreman was,” Abe said.

In summer 1942, Abe’s group was shipped by cattle car to Auschwitz and immediately transferred to Buna, a sub-camp where synthetic rubber and oil were manufactured.

At Buna, Abe answered a call for carpenters. The group was trucked each morning to various locations where they constructed “imitation” houses — exteriors only — to serve as decoys for American planes. The carpenters were given a kettle of food to share every day. In the barracks, however, food was scarce, and every three to six months the prisoners had to strip and line up while Dr. Josef Mengele inspected them. Inmates too thin or sickly were later taken away.

In August 1944, Abe’s younger brother, Jack (Israel), discovered him. “He came a skeleton,” said Abe, who was able to give Jack extra food. “I was already there two years, and I had connections,” Abe explained. Jack told him their father had starved to death in the ghetto, and their mother and two sisters had been taken to Auschwitz.

In January 1945, as the Soviets approached, Abe and Jack were transported to Buchenwald for a few weeks and then to an ammunition bunker somewhere in Germany for several months. Eventually they arrived at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, where, a week later, on May 8, 1945, Soviet soldiers liberated the camp. Abe, emaciated and sick with typhus, spent six weeks in the hospital, mostly unconscious. “I lost my hearing, I lost my hair, I was sick in my stomach,” Abe said.

Three months later, Abe and his new girlfriend, Hanna Fain, tried to immigrate to Palestine, but were blocked by British soldiers at the Italian border. They were then sent to a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany, where Abe studied auto mechanics and where they married on March 19, 1946.

In summer 1949, Abe and Hanna arrived in Los Angeles. Abe found work as a day laborer, for $1 an hour. He then worked as a carpenter until 1960, and then owned a series of businesses — a lumberyard, hardware store and a screen and glass store. He retired in 1987.

Abe and Hanna had two daughters, Goldie and Debbie. Hanna died in 1999, and Abe currently lives with Debbie, her husband and their two sons. Now 94, he spends his time watching the news and reading magazines and books from his large library.

During the war, Abe told himself he would survive. “If you lost hope, you were almost dead. I was always thinking this,” he said. 

Reconstruction of synagogue roof unveiled at Warsaw Jewish museum

The reconstructed roof of a 17th-century synagogue was unveiled at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The replica of the now defunct wooden Gwozdziec Synagogue was presented Tuesday to journalists in a sneak preview of what will be the core exhibition of the museum, which is scheduled to open to the public next year in Muranow, a district of the Polish capital that before World War II was home to many Jews.

The reconstruction launched in 2011 produced an 85 percent scale model of the tall peaked roof and richly decorated inner cupola of the synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine.

Designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, the building housing the museum is split into two large main halls with undulating walls symbolizing the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea.

Citing figures provided by Warsaw's Capital Development Board, the local television station TVN Warszawa reported that the Polish state has spent about $50 million on the construction of the building, which has floor space of about 130,000 square feet.

Representatives of the media will be able to tour the museum starting next month, the museum said.

Polish interfaith donor Aleksander Gudzowaty dies at 75

Polish businessman and philanthropist Aleksander Gudzowaty, who sponsored Jerusalem’s Tolerance Monument, has died at 75.

One of the wealthiest people in Poland, Gudzowaty, who died of Feb. 14 at a hospital in Warsaw, was born in Lodz and in 1989 started the gas company Bartimpex.

A donor to interfaith dialogue causes, Gudzowaty, who was not Jewish, was responsible for the erection of the Tolerance Monument in Jerusalem and in 2011 received the city's Teddy Kollek Award

On May 28, 2012 he was appointed as Honorary President of the World Center of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

Godzowaty was a member of the International Board of Governors of the Peres Center for Peace.

“We shared with Aleksander a similar dream of a world without hate,” Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.

“While he did not see that dream come to pass in his lifetime, his work in promoting respect and peace will be remembered and respected for many years to come,” Foxman said. “We will always hold in our hearts an abiding love, affection and appreciation for his efforts as well as his infectious warmth and graciousness of character that made him a true mensch.”

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.

Hitler statue unveiled outside former Warsaw Ghetto

An Italian artist reportedly placed a statue of Adolf Hitler in a building outside what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto.

The statue, which depicts Hitler kneeling and is titled “Him,” is part of a new exhibition by Maurizio Cattelan titled “Amen,” according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In a statement Thursday, the center called the display a “tasteless misuse of art.”

Efraim Zuroff, the center's Israel director, referred to the statue as “a senseless provocation which insults the memory of the Nazis' victims.”

The statue reportedly was placed in the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw last month and recently opened to the public. The art center’s website describes the exhibition as an exploration of the notion of “love thy enemy,” adding, “What does forgive  those who trespass against us mean? Evoking the traumas of history, they deal with memory and forgetfulness, good and evil.”

In the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to the Nazi death camp Treblinka.

Polish court reportedly rules against allowing ritual slaughter

A constitutional court in Poland reportedly has ruled against allowing Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter in the country.

The Warsaw court’s ruling, which was made known on Tuesday, said the government had acted unconstitutionally when it exempted Jews and Muslims from stunning animals before slaughtering them as their faiths require, according to Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland.

Kadlcik told JTA that in addition to the special exception announced by the Polish Ministry of Agriculture, Jewish ritual slaughter, or shechitah, is permissible under the 1997 Law on Regulating the Relations between the State and the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland.

“It appears there is a legal contradiction here and it is too early to tell what this means,” he said. “We are seeking legal advice on this right now.”

Poland has approximately 6,000 Jews, according to the European Jewish Congress.

According to Kadlcik, Poland has no kosher slaughterhouses but locally slaughtered kosher meat is nonetheless served at kosher cantines across the country.

“I’m not sure we will be able to keep serving meat there,” he said.

Polish architects design five sukkot for display in Warsaw

Five sukkot designed by Polish architects are being displayed in a public square in Warsaw.

The Poland office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which initiated and organized the Warsaw sukkot exhibition, had the temporary Jewish ceremonial dwellings placed at Grzybowski Square in the Polish capital.

The idea was to find “a more innovative and open way to educate the general public about some Jewish customs,” Karina Sokolowska, JDC country director for Poland, told JTA.

Sukkot are built as a reminder of the biblical tale of the nomadic period which the Israelites spent after their liberation from Egyptian slavery.

The exhibition, Sokolowska added, also was meant to serve as an “inauguration” for the Warsaw Jewish Community Center, though — like the ancient Israelites during their desert wanderings — that center is without a permanent address.

“At this moment the JCC is still operating without walls, but hopefully will soon find its permanent location,” Sokolowska said.

Piotr Lewicki, an architect from Krakow who designed one of the sukkot with his business partner Kazimierz Latak, described the structures as natural additions to Warsaw’s chaotic urban landscape.

“Public spaces in our cities are usually ruled by mess,” he told JTA, adding that Warsaw’s streets are no strangers to “shacks and stalls.”

Instead of a traditional canopy of branches, the two architects from Krakow used wicker, a common material used in traditional Polish masonry.

Poland honors Janusz Korczak on 70th anniversary of death

Polish government officials unveiled a memorial plaque in Warsaw in honor of Warsaw Ghetto hero Janusz Korczak.

Sunday’s unveiling took place exactly 70 years after German soldiers sent Korczak and 192 Jewish orphans to their deaths in Treblinka, a Nazi extermination camp.

Korczak, director of the Dom Sierot orphanage for Jewish children, declined help from friends in the Polish underground who offered to hide him. He insisted on staying with the children and orphanage staff.

During the ceremony, representatives of Poland’s Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture read aloud a letter written by Poland’s first lady, Anna Komorowska. They laid wreaths at a statue of Korczak situated near the plaque.

The plaque was installed on the site of the last location of Korczak’s orphanage, in the area that Nazi forces declared as the city’s Jewish ghetto.

Sunday’s ceremony was part of a series of commemorative events in the framework of Korczak Year, a government-sponsored campaign headed by Komorowska.

In addition to Korczak, the children and the orphanage staff, some 6,400 people were deported on Aug. 5, 1942 to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Warsaw prosecutor ceases probe into anti-Semitic forum entries

The Warsaw Prosecutor’s Office is discontinuing an investigation into anti-Semitic entries on Polish online forums.

The investigation, which ended Tuesday, had been undertaken at the request of Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. The prosecutor’s office concluded that there was no “public interest” requiring the office to prosecute the perpetrators.

In April 2011, Sikorski informed the prosecutor of the suspected offense of promoting anti-Semitic content on the online forums of several Polish newspapers. Sikorski called on Attorney General Andrzej Seremet to prosecute the writers of the anti-Semitic and racist online entries.

Examples of some of the entries include “Hitler started, we will finish. Into the oven, Jews, into the oven,” and “Radoslaw Sikorski—the husband of the Orthodox Jewish American, the enemy of real Poles, American agent and a Mason, remote-controlled by his father-in-law, the chief garlic of New York.”

Sikorski is married to Anne Applebaum, an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

“Mr. Sikorski has a professional lawyer and may prosecute the perpetrators with private prosecution,” said Dariusz Slepokura, a spokesman for the Warsaw Prosecutor’s Office.

Sikorski’s lawyer appealed the decision.

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

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

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.”

The new life

Three things about Poland shocked me.

The first shock came when I arrived in Warsaw on a very clear fall day last week — a bright blue sky, miles of green parks, the afternoon sun glinting off glass-fronted office towers in shades of steel, silver and blue.  I was taken aback, but at the time I wasn’t sure why.

I had been invited to speak at a three-day conference on Polish-Jewish relations, an initiative in public diplomacy sponsored by the country’s Foreign Ministry.  That first afternoon I ran into another speaker, the author Zev Chafets.  He nailed my initial reaction.

“Coming from the airport,” he said, “weren’t you surprised everything was in color?”

That was it: Where had I seen Poland outside of World War II newsreels,  Holocaust movies and photos, and, of course, “Schindler’s List”? That entire movie was in black-and-white, except for the fleeting image of a tragic figure, a doomed little Jewish girl in a bright red dress.

And that’s how most of us see Poland. Our attitude can be summed up in two ideas, said Israeli scholar Larry Weinbaum: “Poles are worse than Germans” and “Forget Poland.”  That’s what our grandparents told us, that’s what the survivors tell us, and they were there.

And, let’s face it, the numbers are, on their face, damning. Until 1939, 3.5 million Jews lived in the Polish Republic — the largest Jewish community of its day outside of the United States. In Warsaw, Jews made up 30 percent of the population.  By the end of the war, perhaps 300,000 remained — the majority of these inside the Soviet Union. Fully 90 percent of Poland’s Jews were murdered in the villages, ghettos and concentration camps.

Continuing outbreaks of anti-Semitism in the postwar years prompted a subsequent exodus of the beleaguered survivors.  Today’s Polish Jewish population is estimated to be around 5,000.

Part of the conference was devoted to reiterating facts now widely accepted by Holocaust historians, facts that challenge the common understanding of Poland’s Holocaust record and anti-Semitism.

The Holocaust was worst in Poland because that’s where the Jews lived. Auschwitz was a German concentration camp on Polish soil. The Poles themselves were a victimized population (the first 100,000 victims of Auschwitz were non-Jewish Poles). Only in Poland was the punishment for aiding a Jew death for the rescuer and his or her entire family. And yet, Yad Vashem has recognized far more Righteous Gentiles in Poland than in any other country — 6,000.

Following the war, the 1,000 or more Jews killed in Polish pogroms include victims of outright anti-Semitism, strains of which continue to this day.  But some of that brutality was the result of Soviet provocation, of anti-Communism, of postwar deprivation and chaos — in other words, history refuses to let us take as the entire truth the black-and-white images or even our zeyde’s own stories.

A big part of the problem was Soviet rule, the Israeli scholar Shlomo Avineri said at the conference.  Until the Eastern bloc crumbled in 1989, Polish authorities suppressed information and education, plunging the Holocaust into what Avineri called “a dark hole in Polish memory and conscious forgetting.”

Germany and Austria have had 60 years to face up to their pasts, to atone and, to be coarse, rebrand themselves. Poland, with just 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, is playing catch-up.

But Poles, it struck me, are as memory-obsessed as Jews: The promenade in the nicest section of Warsaw was lined with posters describing the history of Soviet-era secret police interrogation. Polish politicians battle over what strategy should have been taken during the Solidarity movement two decades ago with the urgency that only Israeli Revisionists and Mapainiks could love.  Not surprisingly then, Poles have found natural partners among many local, Israeli and Diaspora Jews to revise our understanding of history and repair relations.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the American-born Chief Rabbi of Poland, explained how this has come about. The late Pope John Paul II led the way by declaring anti-Semitism a sin. Every consecutive Polish government and president has been open to accounting for Poland’s Holocaust history and forging good relationships with Jewish communities in Poland and abroad. The Jewish community within Poland has been growing. American Jewish philanthropists like Severyn Askenazy in Los Angeles and Ronald S. Lauder in New York, as well as the San Francisco-based Taube Foundation, have been instrumental in building or revitalizing community centers, social services, cultural projects and synagogues to serve Poland’s Jews. There has been a renewed interest in Jewish culture on the part of Poles, who are beginning to see it as integral to their own heritage. Finally, the Israeli government has forged a close political and economic relationship with Poland.

“There is no greater friend to Israel in Europe today than Poland,” said Rabbi Schudrich. “Israelis know this. American Jews don’t.”

The American Jewish challenge when it comes to modern Poland is to reverse the “Schindler’s List” images, to see the country as mostly color, with a little black and white.

But on the second day of the conference, one thing was clear to me: I wouldn’t see the color from a conference room at the Hyatt Hotel. So, I slipped out after the first session and jumped into a cab.

It was in a bakery on Nowy Swiat, one of the historic main streets of the city, that my second shock came. There was the smell of poppy seed cake, of a tall chocolate babka, of cheese-filled Danish, of rye and pumpernickel. There was the stout woman behind the counter, both brusque and mothering.  And there was challah — in every bakery — sprinkled with crystallized sugar, but as common as white bread. I closed my eyes and I was at Canter’s or Diamond’s or Bea’s Bakery. It was disconcerting how Poland could feel so comfortable.

At dinner one night with Zvi Rav-Ner, Israel’s ambassador to Poland, I mentioned that the Nowy Swiat, with its cafes filled with artists and tea-sippers, and in the tone of conversations and arguments, the delicatessens smelling of herring and lox, the traditional restaurants serving stuffed cabbage and brisket — it was a dead ringer for Tel Aviv’s Lillienblum Street.

“Yes!” the ambassador’s wife, Diti, said.  “That’s exactly what I tell people.”

Israel was founded between Pinsk and Minsk, Chaim Weizmann, the great Zionist leader, once said, and though Jewish life in Poland is a shadow of what it was, I felt the truth of that saying in the culture that surrounded me.

If Israel embodies the shock of the new — a new kind of Jew, a new Jewish future, new language — Poland gave me the shock of the familiar. On Nowy Swiat, I felt it in my bones — my ancestors lived for centuries in this land: This, too, is my birthright.

The key, according to many people at the conference, is to get American and Israeli Jews to see Poland that way. While many have applauded the March of the Living tours that take tens of thousands of Jewish high school students to Poland and then to Israel, they urged organizers to treat Poland less like a giant death camp and more like a living, vibrant country.

On our last day, we took a formal Jewish tour of Warsaw. The focus wasn’t just on what was, but what will be. Of the Warsaw Ghetto, there is nothing left — a vibrant city has risen on its ashes. But there are increasing efforts to honor the life and death of Poland’s Jews and their contributions.

In the plaza of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we toured the skeleton of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which, when it is completed in 2012, will be a huge, ultramodern building that will rejoin together the past and present, enshrining our story for future generations.

The Museum will be a catalyst for even greater interest and activity, Shana Penn, the executive director of the Taube Foundation, told us.

“It will be a game changer,” she said.

More than one speaker said that in Poland what matters is not whether the glass is half full or half empty, but whether the water is rising or falling. Everyone agreed it is rising.

But there is still work to do. The final shock came when I wandered into the souvenir shops of the rebuilt Old City to find that each one sells little carved wooden statues of Chasidic Jews clutching money bags and holding a real coin zloty.

They are called zydki, the diminutive, and often pejorative, term used for Jews.

“In Poland, there is a nostalgia not just for Jews,” Avineri said, “but for photogenic Jews.”

Poles evidently display their Lucky Jew to bring prosperity.  Sure, Americans think nothing of wearing American Indian mascots to invoke bravery for their sports teams. But it was just — weird — to have my own culture reduced to a convenient pocket-size Jew doll.

Andrzej Folwarczny, a former Polish parliamentarian and founder of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, conducts encounters between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, as well as opinion surveys. He has devoted much of his life to explaining Poland to Jews, and Jews to Poles. The people who sell those dolls, he tells me, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  They’re a sign of a waning stereotype among a generation of older, less-educated Poles. Anti-Semitism rates drop to insignificant levels among the younger generation.

On my way out of Warsaw, I couldn’t resist: I bought two of the Jew dolls.  They are kind of cute, in a bizarre way. And they’re in color.

Not your father’s Poland

Click on ‘PHOTO LINK’ for a caption and bigger photo

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/.