Izak and Shep Szewelewicz. Photo courtesy of Alon Schwarz.

Brothers Find Each Other Decades After WWII


Izak Szewelewicz was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1945. When he was 3, his mother, Aida, sent him to Israel to live with an adoptive family.

Growing up, Izak didn’t know he was adopted. Then, before he turned 13, Aida made contact with her son. They reunited at Izak’s bar mitzvah and stayed in touch. She would fly from Canada, where she lived, to visit him in Israel.

When Izak asked about his father, Aida said his name was Grisha, and he had been killed in the war. Izak didn’t probe further.

Flash forward many years. Izak, nearly 70, has a family of his own. His relatives have made a pact never to reveal the truth: Izak has a brother. But one day the secret comes out, sending Izak on a life-changing journey.

“We’re two brothers trying to learn about each other after 68 years.” – Shep Szewelewicz

That quest is the subject of the film “Aida’s Secrets,” which will be shown on Oct. 27 at Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino; Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles; and Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

Israeli Alon Schwarz, Izak’s nephew through marriage, directed the film. It documents the family’s journey as it seeks out Izak’s long-lost brother, with help from a genealogy-research firm.

“I went through months of research,” Schwarz said. “You build stories in your head. We built a timeline. It was something very personal for me to finally have this happen in front of my eyes.”

The family locates the brother, and — 20 minutes into the 90-minute film — Izak goes to Winnipeg, Canada, to meet him. His name is Szepsyl Szewelewicz, or Shep. He is 10 months younger than Izak and blind.

“It was quite a shock to get a call saying you have a brother,” said Shep during a phone interview. “We’re two brothers trying to learn about each other after 68 years.”

It turns out that Shep had never met his mother, Aida, who was living in a Canadian nursing home at the time of filming. Grisha, or Greg, was also Shep’s father — and had survived the war. He had raised Shep and died in 2008.

At Shep and Izak’s tearful reunion in the film, they decide to visit Aida so Shep can meet her. When Aida sees Shep, she embraces him and acknowledges him as
her son.

“When you haven’t met your brother or mother for a long period of time it’s hard to take in,” Shep said. “It was with some trepidation that I went. It was nice for her to say, ‘My Shepsyl’e’ to me. It gave me affirmation that I was her child.”

Schwarz said the reunion “was like a climax of emotions. We didn’t even know if she would acknowledge Shep. Everybody in the room was crying except Aida. But she was very emotional.”

Shep visits Aida a few more times, trying to get more answers out of her. She won’t divulge whether Izak and Shep had the same father — or that there is a third brother (as the family discovered independently).

Shep said Aida was tight-lipped because of the horrors she saw during the war. She had to learn to be quiet and guarded in order to survive.

As a teen, Aida was forced to work for a German woman, a Nazi, said Schwarz, the director: “She probably got abused by Nazi soldiers.”

Aida died in 2016, and Shep and Izak are in occasional contact. During the filming, Shep visited Israel for the first time and celebrated Passover with his brother. After growing up an only child, Shep said, he enjoyed sharing the seder with 20-plus relatives. “It was really lovely. I never had that.”

“Aida’s Secrets,” first released in 2016, has played at film festivals around the world. After screenings, “people hug me, they kiss me, they get emotional,” Schwarz said. “For me, the film has been the closing of a circle.”

“Aida’s Secrets” will screen Oct. 27 at Laemmle Town Center 5, 17000 Ventura Blvd., Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; and Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.   

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

Rare Holocaust photos resurface in North Hollywood home


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Elly Rubin (left) and Lya Frank. Photo by David Miller

Survivors Lya Frank and Elly Rubin: Former hidden children ‘have a story to tell’


On the evening of April 18, 1943, as Lya and Elly Meijers were being bundled up by their parents, they were told, “You’re going away for a few days.”

The day before, the girls had celebrated their shared birthday — Lya had turned 7 and Elly 4 — and now, with only a valise each and no further explanation, they were placed on the backs of bicycles belonging to non-Jewish friends, Wilhelmina and Jan van Hilten, whom the girls called Tante (Aunt) Wil and Oom (Uncle) Jan. As they rode away from their home in Utrecht, the Netherlands, Lya and Elly had no idea they soon would be separated from each other for more than two years.

They also never would see their parents again, and their only indirect communication would come 50 years later, when someone unexpectedly forwarded a postcard their father had thrown from a train on his way to a transit camp in the Netherlands, after he and their mother had been captured. It was written in pencil, dated May 1944 and addressed to a neighbor in Utrecht.

After the war, Lya and Elly were encouraged not to speak about their past. Later, as former hidden children who hadn’t experienced the horrors of roundups, ghettos or camps, they thought their stories weren’t consequential.

But faced with some personal crises in 1993, Lya began to acknowledge her long-buried anguish of having been separated from her sister and of emerging from World War II to discover that her parents and extended family — except for an uncle, aunt and cousin — had been annihilated by the Nazis. Soon after, she began sharing her story publicly. For the past five years, Elly tentatively has followed suit.

“We do have something to say. We do have a story,” Lya said. “It may not be Auschwitz,” (“Thank God,” Elly interjected) “but we have different issues.”

Lya and Elly were born in Utrecht, a city in the central Netherlands, to Lion Mauritz, known as Leo, and Renee Meijers.

Leo worked for the Hamburger Lead and Zinc manufacturing company as the equivalent of a chief financial officer. The family lived comfortably, often surrounded by friends and family. “I have memories of a happy childhood,” Lya said.

After Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, anti-Jewish measures were implemented, though Lya and Elly’s parents mostly sheltered them from details of the increasingly perilous situation. By April 1943, they were living in permanent hiding places.

Lya, who kept her name, which, like her appearance, was not identifiably Jewish, was placed with the Broers family in Amersfoort, about 15 miles northeast of Utrecht. She was instructed to tell people, if asked, she was from Rotterdam, which had been heavily bombed, and didn’t know her parents’ fate.

Hugo Broers was an ophthalmologist with an office on the first floor of their spacious house. His wife, Kathy, worked with him. They had two daughters, Pauline, then 6, and Francine, 4. “I was treated as one of the girls,” Lya said.

The first night, when Hugo and Kathy entered Lya’s large bedroom to say goodnight, Lya burst into tears. “I don’t want to sleep alone,” she told them. The parents moved her into their girls’ bedroom the following night.

Sometime later, a new housekeeper cornered Lya, interrogating her. “What kind of parents do you have? They don’t write. They don’t see you,” she said. Lya remained outwardly calm. “I don’t know. I’m from Rotterdam,” she answered.

That night, Lya recounted the incident to her foster parents. “We’re really proud that you stuck to your story,” they told her, rewarding her with a scarce piece of candy and firing the housekeeper.

Elly doesn’t recall being taken to her foster families in 1943. “But I remember the families,” she said.

She first was placed on a farm in Baambrugge, about 18 miles north of Utrecht, with Wijntje and Jacobus Griffioen and their six children. But after six months, because the house was close to the road and because Elly’s darker hair and complexion made her conspicuous, she was moved to the farm of Wijntje’s sister and brother-in-law, Cornelia and Jan van der Lee.

At the time, the van der Lees had six children. They were not well-to-do, but, Elly said. “They were rich in religion and family life.” Elly attended their Dutch Reform church and was part of the family. “I was loved until [they] died,” she said. Jan van der Lee died in 1968; his wife, who was known as Cor, died in 2006.

On May 5, 1945, the area was liberated. “The [Dutch] flags went out and people were celebrating,” Lya said. Allied tanks and jeeps rolled in, and the children were allowed on the street, where soldiers distributed chocolate and white bread.

A couple of months later, Lya was visited by her Uncle Lex, their birth father’s brother, who had been in hiding himself and who had learned the girls’ locations, most likely through the van Hiltens. He reunited Lya with Elly, whom she didn’t recognize but by day’s end didn’t want to leave, in fear of being separated again. The foster parents agreed that Lya should stay with Elly while Lex and his wife, who had two daughters of their own, searched for housing.

One day, Cor van der Lee called Lya and Elly into the front room, which was used only on Sundays and holidays. “I have to tell you, Mommy and Daddy have gone to heaven,” she told the girls. Lya immediately burst into tears. “That couldn’t be,” she said. “They loved us.”

In November 1945, the girls moved to Amsterdam with their Uncle Lex and his family. They lived in a large house and attended the Rosh Pina Jewish school. “We had a good family life,” Lya said.

But when the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956, Lex announced, “We’re not staying here to go through this again.” They arrived in the United States as immigrants a year later.

The family first lived in Glendale, where Lya and Elly worked in banking. Eighteen months later, they moved to Los Angeles.

Lya married Henk Frank in December 1959. Their daughter, Terry, was born in August 1962. Elly and Coleman Rubin married in December 1962. Their two children are Mark, born in August 1964, and Sharon, born in April 1966. Coleman died in 2004 and Henk in 2014. Lya has two grandchildren and Elly has nine.

Over the years, Lya and Elly learned that their parents — along with two uncles, an aunt, their grandmother and a cousin — had been hidden by two brothers in Brummen, a village in central Netherlands, which was their father’s birthplace. There, one brother’s step-daughter, who was having a relationship with a German officer, divulged their hiding places and got paid for the information. “For a small amount of money, they annihilated our whole family,” Lya said.

Lya and Elly also learned that as the bus carrying the captured family members pulled away from Brummen, their mother was shouting, “I want my children. I want my children.”

The family was taken to the Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz, where only a cousin survived.

The van Hiltens, Broers, Griffioens and van der Lees all have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Lya and Elly have remained close to the families, visiting through the years. “I loved these families. I still do,” Elly said.

Lya and Elly said they feel fortunate to have each other, each other’s families and their hiding families.

“You know what?” Lya repeated. “We do have a story to tell.”

Children posing for a photo in hats that read “Exodus 1947” in a displaced persons camp in Germany, September 1947. Photo by Robert Gary

These photos of Holocaust survivors from the SS Exodus are incredible


In the summer of 1947, when the British turned away the SS Exodus from the shores of Palestine, the world was watching.

Before the eyes of the international media, British troops violently forced the ship’s passengers — most of them Holocaust survivors — onto ships back to Europe. The resulting reports helped turn public opinion in favor of the Zionist movement and against the pro-Arab British policy of limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine.

But much else was happening in the aftermath of World War II, and attention soon shifted elsewhere. One of the few journalists to stick with the story was Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondent Robert Gary, who filed a series of reports from displaced persons camps in Germany.

Seventy years later and decades after his death, Gary is again drawing attention to the “Exodus Jews,” albeit mostly in Israel.

An album of 230 of his photos will be sold at the Kedem Auction House in Jerusalem on Oct. 31, and a number of the images reveal the reality inside the camps, where the Jews continued to prepare for life in Palestine under trying conditions.

Some of the photos, which have little to no captioning, capture the haunting similarities of the DP camps to those in which the Nazis interned and killed millions of Jews during the Holocaust, including images of Exodus Jews repairing barbed-wire fences under the watch of guards.

But others show the Jews participating in communal activities and preparing for their hoped-for future in Palestine. In one photo, Zionist emissaries from the territory — young women dressed in white T-shirts and shorts — appear to lead the Exodus Jews in a circular folk dance.

Shay Mendelovich, a researcher at Kedem, said he expects there to be a lot of interest in the album, which is being sold by an anoymous collector who bought it from the Gary family. Mendelovich predicted it could be sold for as much as $10,000.

“The photos are pretty unique,” he said. “There were other people in these camps. But Robert Gary was one of the few who had a camera and knew how to take pictures.”

Jews dancing in a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary)

Between 1945 and 1952, more than 250,000 Jews lived in displaced persons camps and urban centers in Germany, Austria and Italy that were overseen by Allied authorities and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Despite having been liberated from the Nazi camps, they continued to languish in Europe under guard and behind barbed wire.

Gary was an American Jewish reporter who JTA sent to Europe to cover the aftermath of World War II. He detailed the living conditions in the camps more than a year before the Exodus journey: inadequate food; cold, crowded rooms; violence by guards and mind-numbing boredom. But he reported in September 1946 that the greatest concern among Jews was escaping Europe, preferably for Palestine.

“Certainly the DP’s are sensitive to the material things and sound off when things go bad (which is as it should be), but above all this is their natural desire to start a new life elsewhere for the bulk in Palestine, for others, in the U.S. and other lands,” he wrote. “Get any group of DP’s together and they’ll keep you busy with the number one question: When are we leaving?”

In July 1947, more than 4,500 Jews from the camps boarded the Exodus in France and set sail for Palestine without legal immigration certificates. They hoped to join the hundreds of thousands of Jews building a pro-Jewish state.

Organized by the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary force in Palestine, the mission was the largest of dozens of mostly failed attempts at illegal Jewish immigration during the decades of British administration of the territory following World War I. The British largely sought to limit the arrival of Jews to Palestine out of deference to the often violent opposition of its Arab majority.

The Haganah had outfitted and manned the Exodus in hopes of outmaneuvering the British Navy and unloading the passengers on the beach. But near the end of its weeklong voyage, the British intercepted the ship off the shore of Palestine and brought it into the Haifa port. Troops removed resisting passengers there, injuring dozens and killing three, and loaded them on three ships back to Europe.

Even after two months on the Exodus, the passengers resisted setting foot back on the continent. When the British finally forced them ashore in September 1947 and into two displaced persons camps in occupied northern Germany — Poppendorf and Am Stau — many sang the Zionist anthem “Hatikvah” in protest. An unexploded time bomb, apparently designed to go off after the passengers were ashore, was later found on one of the ships.

Jews repairing fencing at a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary)

The widely reported events won worldwide sympathy for European Jews and their national aspirations. An American newspaper headlined a story about the Exodus “Back to the Reich.” The Yugoslav delegate from from the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine called the affair “the best possible evidence we have for allowing Jews into Palestine.”

Later, the Exodus achieved legendary status, most famously as the inspiration and namesake of the 1958 best-seller by Leon Uris and the 1960 film starring Paul Newman. Some, including former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, credited the Exodus with a major role in the foundation of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Gary, who was stationed in Munich, had close ties to Zionist activists; he reported early and often on the continuing plight of the Exodus Jews in the camps. His dispatches highlighted their continued challenges, including malnutrition, and unabated longing to immigrate to Palestine.

In a report from Poppendorf days after the Exodus Jews arrived, Gary said the dark running joke in the camp was that the alternative to Palestine was simple: “Everyone would choose a tree from which to hang himself.”

“The Jews of Germany demand and expect a chance to start life anew under reasonably secure circumstances,” he wrote. “They feel these places exist mainly in Palestine and the U.S. And they are determined to get there, either by legal or illegal means, or just by plain old fashioned patience.”

Pnina Drori, who later became Gary’s wife, was among the emissaries that the Jewish Agency for Israel sent to the camps from Palestine to prepare the Jews for aliyah. As a kindergarten teacher, she taught the children Hebrew and Zionist songs. Other emissaries, she said, offered military training in preparation for the escalating battles with the Arab majority in Palestine.

“In the photos, you see a lot of young people in shorts and kind of Israeli clothes,” she said. “We were getting them ready for Israeli life, both good and bad. You have to remember Israel was at war at the time.”

A 1947 photo of the fake certificate identifying Robert Gary as a passenger of the SS Exodus. (Courtesy of Kedem Auction House)

Gary was one of the few journalists who continued visiting the DP camps in the weeks after the Exodus Jews returned to Europe. Somehow he even obtained a fake certificate identifying him as one of the former passengers of the ship. But by late September 1947, JTA reported that British authorities had tired of Gary’s critical coverage and barred him from entry.

“The fact that Gary and [New York newspaper PM reporter Maurice] Pearlman were the only correspondents still assigned to the story, and had remained at the camps, aroused the authorities, who charged that they ‘were snooping about too much,’” according to the report.

Israel declared independence in May 1948, and after Great Britain recognized the Jewish state in January 1949, it finally sent most of the remaining Exodus passengers to the new Jewish state. Nearly all the DP camps in Europe were closed by 1952 and the Jews dispersed around the world, most to Israel and the United States.

Gary soon immigrated to Israel, too. He married Drori in 1949, months after meeting her at a Hanukkah party at the Jewish Agency’s headquarters in Munich, and the couple moved to Jerusalem, where they had two daughters. Robert Gary took at job at The Jerusalem Post and later worked for the British news agency Reuters. Pnina Gary, 90, continued her acting career.

She said her husband always carried a camera with him when he was reporting, and their home was filled with photo albums.

Decades after Robert Gary died in Tel Aviv in 1987, at the age of 67, Pnina Gary wrote and starred in a hit play, “An Israeli Love Story.” It is based on her real-life romance with the first man she was supposed to marry, who was killed by local Arabs in an ambush on their kibbutz.

“We knew life wouldn’t be easy in Israel,” she said. “That’s not why anyone comes here.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with pilot Mitchell Flint in 2008. Photo from Wikipedia

Mitchell Flint, American pilot who fought for Israel’s independence, dies at 94


Mitchell Flint, a fighter pilot who flew combat missions for the United States in World War II and for Israel in its War of Independence in 1948, died of natural causes Sept. 17 at his Los Angeles home. He was 94.

Born in Kansas City, Mo., Flint enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 18, following in the footsteps of his father, who served as a combat pilot in World War I. The son trained as a fighter pilot and saw action in the Pacific in numerous dogfights and dive-bombing missions. He was awarded three Air Medals and eight Navy Unit Commendations.

Flint attended UC Berkeley, but with full-scale war between Israel and five Arab nations breaking out in 1948, he clandestinely became one of the first Americans to join Israel’s legendary 101 Squadron.

He explained his motivation in a 2012 Journal interview, saying, “I’m Jewish, Israel desperately needed trained fighter pilots, so I thought I could perhaps do something to sustain the state.”

After surviving 50 missions and two crashes, Flint flew above the 1949 Independence Day parade in one of 12 aircraft that made up Israel’s entire force of fighter planes. He was the last survivor among the dozen pilots.

Flint is believed to be the only wartime combat pilot to have flown the four greatest fighter planes of that era — Corsair, P-51 Mustang, Germanys ME 109 Messerschmitt and Britains Supermarine Spitfire. Israel used a version of the 109, bought from Czechoslovakia.

Back in the U.S., Flint earned his law degree at UCLA and established a family practice, from which he retired after 50 years.

A recent  book, “Angels in the Sky,” by Bob Gandt, details the exploits of Flint and his fellow foreign volunteers during Israel’s War of Independence.

Flint is survived by his wife of 59 years, Joyce, and sons Michael and Guy.

The family requests that any memorial donations be directed to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces at fidf.org.

A memorial service honoring Mitchell Flint’s life will be held at 12 noon Tuesday, Sept. 19, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.
Karen Ulric, who traveled to Germany on a tour of Jewish heritage sites in July, observes a Holocaust memorial in Frankfurt. Photos by Eitan Arom

Seven decades after the Holocaust, can a Jew enjoy a German vacation?


Our gaggle of mostly Jewish, mostly American travelers stepped off a tour bus on the outskirts of Nuremberg, Germany, pointing cameras this way and that and ambling onto a seemingly unremarkable, wide-open expanse of pavement surrounded by parkland.

It was a glorious Sunday in July, and the Nurembergers were soaking it in, gliding by on bicycles and rollerblades, for the most part ignoring the monolithic concrete structure looming over a set of bleachers. Nobody seemed particularly bothered by the fact of what brought us there: About 80 years earlier, Adolf Hitler stood high atop the structure to review a parade of goose-stepping Nazi troops.

As we fanned out across the former parade ground, snapping photos, I thought to myself: This is an odd way to spend a vacation.

I had my reservations about traveling to Germany. I had been to Ukraine and Poland, seen killing fields and the ruins of ancient synagogues, but venturing into the heartland of the Holocaust seemed a daunting prospect. It wasn’t a trip I likely would have taken had I not been invited to go without paying a dime.

In June, I hadn’t given a second thought to accepting an invitation from the Encino-based travel company Uniworld to join a river cruise down the Rhine and Main Rivers on one of its inaugural tours of Jewish heritage sites in Germany.

After all, who says no to a free cruise?

But as my July departure date drew near, my hesitation mounted. I grew up in a home where German cars were strictly verboten. My current bedroom is home to piles of books about the Holocaust, with names such as Elie Wiesel and Hannah Arendt staring at  me from their spines. And as a reporter on the Jewish world at a time when racist ideologies are on the rise, Hitler’s handiwork is never far from my mind.

I decided my trip would be a test. Germany is a modern, beautiful country abounding with history and culture. I would be sailing in style down two scenic and storied rivers. I intended to find out, more than 70 years after the gas chambers were shut down, whether a Jew like me could enjoy a luxurious German vacation.

At first, things looked promising. Our group of writers and reporters met our ship, the River Ambassador, while it was docked near Frankfurt. It was an elegant, elongated vessel, designed to fit precisely through the locks on the rivers. As soon as I stepped on board, a glass of white wine materialized in my hand, proffered by the hyperattentive cruise staff. I then retired to my stateroom to lie back and watch the rolling hills and quaint river towns glide by my window.

Nurembergers cycle past a podium where, about 80 years ago, Adolf Hitler reviewed goose-stepping Nazi troops on parade.

 

The next day, I awoke from this pleasant dream into a crueler reality.

We disembarked and took a bus to Frankfurt, where Uniworld had arranged for us to meet a member of the local Jewish community, a graduate student active in Hillel International and the Jewish Student Union Germany. Despite his attempt to paint a rosy picture of Germany’s future, he seemed to return constantly to its grim past and uncertain present.

“We have a functioning community,” he reassured us. (Tepid praise if ever I’ve heard it.)

“There is a future in Germany. There’s a young movement coming that wants to change things, that doesn’t want to be afraid to be a Jew in Germany,” he said.

Later, we stood outside the aging hulk of a synagogue used by all three major denominations of Frankfurt Jews, a magnificent edifice that had seen better days. It was closed to the public and looked abandoned but for a few Orthodox men hurrying in and out via side entrances. As we stood shifting our feet, I wrote a sad little poem about the massive shul. It was only Day One of the cruise and Germany already was throwing me for a loop.

The author took a river cruise down the Rhine and Main Rivers on a tour of Jewish heritage sites in Germany. Photo from Wikimedia

 

After that, it was back to the ship for an evening of sailing, fine dining and drinking at the open bar. Before dinner each evening, the ship’s bartender and sommelier addressed the passengers in the spacious lounge to apprise us of the evening’s fermented offerings.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman, it is wine o’clock,” she said, psyching us up for her nightly pun. “Remember, everything happens for a Riesling.”

The cruise continued in much the same way: Day trips focused on Germany’s painful Jewish past and diminished Jewish presence, followed by evenings of merriment and luxury.

Even in seemingly innocuous locales such as Rothenberg, a walled town of nearly pristine medieval architecture, our tour guides told stories of unthinkable terror visited upon generations of unfortunate Jews.

Emerging from one of the cobblestone alleys into a square, we caught site of what seemed to be a Jewish star hanging at the site of Rothenberg’s first Jewish quarter. But our guide quickly disabused us of any such hope. In Germany, that particular six-pointed star symbolizes beer: An upside-down triangle for water, plus an upright triangle representing fire — in a truly German feat of addition —  means beer. Here in Rothenberg, it signaled the presence of a pub.

The disappointment in our ranks was palpable.

We did learn, however, that the synagogue that once stood in the square was demolished after all 450 Jews who lived in Rothenberg in 1298 were flayed or burned alive.

For the great majority of the 2.2 million tourists who visit Rothenberg every year, the place is a medieval playground of gift shops and sidewalk cafes. For my fellow travelers and me, it was a graveyard.

The trip continued in much the same way, with the members of our little group keeping our chins up as we ambled through centuries of persecution.

The next day, I sat in Nuremberg’s historic main square with a belly full of pork sausage, drinking a shandy beneath a glorious blue sky as a reggae band tuned up for a free concert. Sipping my beer-and-lemonade mixture, I tried — perhaps too hard — to prove to myself that I could have a good time immersed in secular pleasures, Jewish history be damned. 

The author enjoys a shandy in front of the Church of Our Lady in Nuremberg, built on
the site of a synagogue destroyed during a 14th-century pogrom.

Opposite me, a looming Gothic church scowled across the throngs that choked the square. Our guide had informed us as that the Church of Our Lady was built on the site of a Jewish synagogue destroyed in 1349, when Nuremberg’s Jews were burned alive as scapegoats for the Black Plague.

No marker indicated the Jewish significance of the church. But the fact of its origins darkened my mood. I felt doomed to walk like a ghost through a landscape of long-forgotten horrors.

Had I not known about the 1349 pogrom, I wondered, would I have enjoyed my sausage and shandy in peace?

The emotional climax of the trip was a visit to Dachau, the labor camp-turned memorial complex. The morning of our visit, on the second-to-last day of the trip, my stomach tied itself into knots as we stepped off our ship and boarded a bus. The Jewish heritage sites on the trip’s itinerary were optional, with other day-trip options on offer, but nearly our entire group chose to visit the camp.

I moved with practiced stoicism through Dachau’s gravel-strewn complex until we reached the area of the camp’s crematory, a lustrous green clearing in the woods that stood in stark contrast to the hot, barren expanse where the prisoners’ barracks were once located.

In a corner of the clearing was a landscaped patch with bushes and ferns, and a stone monument with a Jewish star bearing an inscription in German, English and Hebrew: “Do not forget.” A footstone read: “Grave of Thousands Unknown.”

The words of the Mourner’s Kaddish jumped into my mind and tears into my eyes.

To visit Germany as a Jew without paying heed to our painful saga there is to miss an opportunity to mourn a deep and staggering loss.

You can ignore history or drown it with a bottle of wine, but like all of life’s challenges, that doesn’t make the horror go away.

Perhaps without the grim reminders from our tour guides, I might have seen Germany’s fairy-tale villages and ancient castles as the quaint locales and proud landmarks that beguile millions of tourists — rather than elements of a multigenerational crime scene.

But I doubt I could ever take it all in without being haunted by the pain and suffering that took place there. I’ve had too much Elie Wiesel in my life, too many visits to Holocaust museums and too many family stories from the grim years of 1939 and 1942 for me to uncritically sip beer and scarf sausages like the average tourist.

If you’ll forgive the pun, that ship has already sailed.

August 2017 NEWS: Honored to be Published


August 2017 NEWS: Honored to be published in Smithsonian, Saturday Evening Post & POPSUGAR

Lisa Niver published in Smithsonian MagazineYAY! It is time to CELEBRATE! Here are my latest published articles that I am so PROUD of:

Thank you to SMITHSONIAN for sharing my story, “75 years after the Battle of Guadalcanal, walk in the footsteps of history.”  They included six of my videos from my visit to the Solomon Islands.

Thank you to SATURDAY EVENING POST for sharing my article   “A World War II Hero Remembers Guadalcanal” about Roy Roush.

August 7 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most brutal battles of World War II, the Battle of Guadalcanal. World War II veteran Roy Roush recalls his experiences as a member of the 2nd Marine Division during frontline action at this critical campaign.

Thank you to POPSUGAR for sharing my story about being terrified on my first ever Mountain Bike Lesson. I still cannot believe I did it! Here is the article.

More stories about the Solomon Islands: Honiara, Gizo and Munda on my site and

  • MSN: 20 destinations that deserve more tourists: I am quoted about the Solomon Islands “Next month, the Solomon Islands will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal – one of the deciding battles in World War II – making it a special time to visit. What else does the place have to offer? “I went scuba diving, learned to make shell money, and spent time at a cultural village,” says Lisa Niver, travel expert and writer at We Said Go Travel.”
  • FOX TRAVEL NEWS: 9 amazing beaches you’ve probably never heard of: 3. Kennedy Island, Solomon Islands “Although it’s named for one of the most beloved U.S. presidents, Kennedy Island receives only a handful of American visitors each year. (It has just six reviews on TripAdvisor.) While the uninhabited island has great snorkeling, most visitors come for the historical significance. “JFK, who would be 100 years old this May, was stationed nearby when his patrol boat was struck by a torpedo and he swam to this island,” says recent visitor Lisa Niver of We Said Go Travel

Lisa is a Travel Expert:

  • interviewed for Moneyish: 5 Ways to Score Killer Hotel Deals: “Lisa Niver, a travel writer and contributor to USA TODAY‘s 10best column, tells Moneyish: “A lot of times there’s a secret deal price and that price is non-refundable. If your dates change, this can get you into trouble… [and] you can’t dispute the charge and get the money back,” even if you booked with a credit card. So, avoid too-good-to-be-true rates unless you are sure you won’t have to alter your travel dates later.4. Use a booking engine — but not just for booking. Niver also suggests using features like Booking.com’s Map function, which shows you where hotels are located in a particular place. Once you’ve found the one that best suits where you want to be, look into booking directly with the hotel to see if they offer a better price.5. Sign up for loyalty programs. These programs are a no-fuss way to rack up points and perks at leading hotel chains worldwide. Niver says bonuses include luxurious amenities like club floor access, and of course, these programs also help you build up a cache of money-saving points (which you can use to splurge on a dream vacation).
  • How Entrepreneurs Stay Positive and Productive:

    06. Lisa Niver (Travel Journalist and On-Camera Host, Founder of We Said Go Travel)
    – Every morning at breakfast I read part of a book to help me grow my business and inspire my focus for the day. Right now I am reading Unshakeable by Tony Robbins. I read books by nearly all the sharks on Shark Tank and my favorite was The Power Of Broke: How Empty Pockets, A Tight Budget, And A Hunger For Success Can Become Your Greatest Competitive Advantage by Daymond John.

  • THIS WEEK IN TRAVEL Podcast: Thank you to Jen Leo, Gary Arndt and Chris Christensen for inviting me to be on their podcast: THIS WEEK IN TRAVEL!

Where can you find my 749 travel videos?

Here are links to my video channels on YouTubeAmazon Fire Tv, and Roku Player. I hope you enjoy my “This is What it is Like” Episodes! I now have 749 videos, 622,897 views, 1444 subscribers on YouTube AND my total video views across all platforms is now over 1,250,000 (1.25Million)! Thank you for your support!

Find my new videos from my summer trip to Europe in my articles about Monaco (country 97), Ireland, Scotland (country #98) and San Marino (country #99)

Video #749 = Travel Media Showcase in Cabarrus, North Carolina. This conference brings together travel journalists and destinations! I went to the conference in 2016 for the first time and this year I was the GRAND PRIZE Winner for my coverage of Grapevine Texas in 2016.

Next month: Look for Video #750 My first ever Mountain Bike Lesson at NorthStar California Resort with Specialized Bike Academy!

Travel Writing Award: 

Thank you to everyone who has participated in our We Said Go Travel Competitions! Find the winners for the 2017 Inspiration Award here. We are publishing the entries from the 2017 Summer Independence Award. The Fall Gratitude Writing Award will open Sept 11 and close on Thanksgiving.

Travel Photo Award:

Our first ever Travel Photo Award is open! Thank you to our judges, Gary Arndt from Everything Everywhere and Jeana from Surf and Sunshine. Enter here Share your favorite shot! Why do you love it? How did you create it?  Submit a photo taken in the last two years. There is no fee to enter and there are cash prizes!

As my fortune cookies said: “You will find your solution where you least expect it.” and “Your talents will be rewarded and recognized within the month.” I was honored to win a journalism award in June and again this month in August! Thank you for years of support, kindness and sharing your hope with me that I could really make my dreams come true! If you have suggestions for my country #100, let me know! 

Thank you to Stephen Wise Temple for recognizing me for my Southern California Journalism Award for my column in the Jewish Journal!

Thank you for your support. Lisa

Discover more on my social media accounts:  InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterestYouTube.

What do you think of my new site? LisaNiver.com

The Red Cross and the Holocaust


One of the sorry backstories of World War II is found in what the Red Cross did — or, more precisely, failed to do — during the Holocaust. 

The pointed question was asked aloud by one survivor in May 1945 — “Where, above all, was the International Red Cross Committee?” — and now it is answered with authority and in compelling detail in “Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust” by Gerald Steinacher (Oxford University Press).

Steinacher is the Hymen Rosenberg Professor of Judaic Studies at the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska. One of his previous books, “Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice,” was honored with a National Jewish Book Award by the Jewish Book Council in 2011.

In his new book, Steinacher reminds us that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as the Swiss-based organization was formally titled, deferred to the German Red Cross throughout the 1930s, when Hitler’s concentration camp system was first put into operation. Already “deeply Nazified,” the German Red Cross assured the ICRC that “the living standard in the camps [was] higher than most of the inmates were generally used [to].” Steinacher writes: “The German Red Cross had for all practical purposes … turned into a National Socialist medical service unit supporting Hitler’s Wehrmacht.”

Even after the outbreak of World War II, the ICRC did little or nothing to assist the victims of Nazi terror. Steinacher describes how the ICRC managed to send a few food parcels to Germany in 1943, including 882 packages that reached Dutch and Norwegian inmates, and 31 packages that reached Jewish inmates. But when the ICRC proposed to send food parcels to Auschwitz, the German Red Cross “claimed that the Jews were employed exclusively in labour camps in the East and that food and medication there [were] reportedly abundant,” Steinacher writes. In a message tainted with bitter irony, a representative of the German Red Cross wrote to the ICRC that “shipments of supplies to these camps were in principle not necessary.”

What is surely the most tragic moment in the history of the International Red Cross came when Nazi Germany invited the ICRC and the Danish Red Cross to inspect the concentration camp at Terezín (Theresienstadt). “Weak and sick people were deported to Auschwitz to reduce the numbers in the completely overcrowded camp, houses painted, streets and parks cleaned, and flowers were planted,” Steinacher writes. “The delegates were shown a school, a soccer game, and a children’s theatre performed for them. The deception seemed to have worked, and the Nazis were very pleased with the ICRC’s favourable report of the good treatment of Jews in German camps.”

Not until 1944, when the mass murder of Jews already was being reported in the pages of The New York Times, did the ICRC finally bestir itself to render “tardy assistance” to the Hungarian Jews who were the last major Jewish population to be deported to the death camps. Representatives of the ICRC belatedly showed up in Budapest, where they joined other humanitarians — most notably, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg — in an 11th-hour effort to save the precious remnant that remained alive.

“The ICRC in Budapest soon followed the Swedish example and handed out letters of protection to Jews and put Jewish hospitals, clinics, hostels, and soup kitchens under the protection of the organization,” Steinacher reports.

But it took urgent intervention by both Pope Pius XII and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to move the ICRC to write a letter of appeal in June 1944 to Hungarian dictator Miklós Horthy. “With this letter, the ICRC officially broke its silence,” Steinacher writes. “But this change of policy came too late for the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who had already been killed by this point.”

And yet, even then, the ICRC remained ambivalent toward Nazi war crimes and the men who committed them. When the ICRC began issuing travel documents to refugees, starting in February 1945 and continuing after the defeat of Nazi Germany in May of that year, the recipients included “thousands of former Nazi collaborators and SS men from all over Europe, including known Holocaust perpetrators such as Adolf Eichmann,” Steinacher explains.

Much of “Humanitarians at War” is devoted to a careful and penetrating analysis of what came next — how these events shaped the identity and destiny of the Red Cross. It examines the resulting competition among Red Cross organizations in Switzerland and Sweden and the complex organizational politics that surrounded the worldwide activities of the Red Cross. More than anything else, it reveals the crisis of conscience within the Red Cross as it confronted its own failings in the postwar era.

But the cutting edge of “Humanitarians at War” is the bill of particulars that Steinacher presents about those failings. “Although the Red Cross achieved much in helping the plight of POW’s, especially in Western Europe, its role in the context of the Holocaust still casts long shadows and ‘has haunted it ever since,’ ” Steinacher writes. “It was only in the 1990s that the ICRC publicly admitted that its silence on the Shoah was a ‘moral defeat.’ ”

Photo courtesy of the Kristal family.

World’s oldest man, a Holocaust survivor in Israel, dies at 113


Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor from Haifa who was recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest man in the world, has died, a month before his 114th birthday.

Haaretz reported that Kristal died Friday.

Born on Sept. 15, 1903, in the town of Zarnow, Poland, Kristal moved to Lodz in 1920 to work in his family’s candy business. He continued operating the business after the Nazis forced the city’s Jews into a ghetto, where Kristal’s two children died. In 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz, where his wife, whom he had married at 25, was killed.

In 1950, he moved to Haifa with his second wife and their son, working again as a confectioner. In addition to his son and daughter, Kristal has numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Guinness recognized him as the world’s oldest living man in 2016. When asked at the time what his secret was to long life, Kristal said: “I don’t know the secret for long life. I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why. There have been smarter, stronger and better-looking men than me who are no longer alive. All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.”

Last year, when he turned 113, about 100 family members celebrated his bar mitzvah, a century after he missed it due to the upheavals of World War I.

"Churchill" Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

8 interesting films to see this summer


Some of this summer’s more notable films explore Middle East terrorism, World War II battles and global warming, while others tell the life stories of seminal figures in music and photography. And there’s a bittersweet movie that is mainly in Yiddish to top it off.

“CITY OF GHOSTS”

The campaign to expose the ISIS takeover of Raqqa, a Syrian city on the Euphrates River, is the subject of “City of Ghosts.” Using their cellphone cameras, a small collection of amateur journalists, who call their group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Slowly (RBSS),” photographed the atrocities by ISIS troops bent on establishing a caliphate in the city. These citizen reporters then uploaded the footage to the internet for the world to see what was happening in their homeland.

In the production notes, filmmaker Matthew Heineman is quoted as saying he learned of the group in 2015, made contact with it, gained its members’ trust and began filming interviews with them and using their videos and stills. “I knew almost immediately that I wanted the spine of the story to be deeply personal verité footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members by ISIS.

“Since ISIS took over the city in March 2014, journalists have been unable to enter the region, enabling the caliphate to control the narrative of what is happening inside the city with its slick propaganda videos. So, RBSS’ footage — including some that has never been released — provides a unique, up-close and visceral window into daily life in Raqqa,” he said.

The film traces the RBSS movement back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when Raqqa was a center of protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some 15 friends began reporting on the protests, using their phone cameras and their computers.

Then, in 2014, ISIS troops rolled into the city and quickly instituted a reign of terror, with public executions (shootings and beheadings) and dead bodies strewn on the streets. But, wanting to project an image of a peaceful, beautiful life in the city, ISIS produced increasingly sophisticated videos, disseminating them largely for recruitment purposes.

In reaction, the small band of lay reporters formed RBSS, a website and social media presence, and went undercover to record the brutality. When it became dangerous, some fled to Turkey, then to the relative safety of Germany, where the documentary shows them continuing to receive footage from secret operatives in Raqqa and to post the images on the internet.

“The contrast of ISIS’ videos, which proclaim a fully functioning and prosperous state, with those of RBSS, which captured the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking. In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not just guns,” according to Heineman’s statement in the press notes. The filmmaker adds that the film’s themes broadened beyond the war into “the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood, and one’s haunting relationship with trauma.”

In one particularly horrific section, the group member named Hamoud watches a video of his father, who is tied to a post, being shot to death by ISIS. Although Hamoud remains stoic, blood begins spurting from his mouth.

Todd McCarthy, in his Hollywood Reporter review, writes, “Heineman offers up a double portrait of devastation, of a truly destroyed city and of partially decimated survivors, leaving the viewer with an empathetic sense of deep sorrow.”

“City of Ghosts” opens July 14.

“CHURCHILL”

A largely unknown view of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is presented in Jonathan Teplitzky’s World War II drama, “Churchill.” The action takes place just days before D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, on June 6, 1944.

As the film opens, Churchill (Brian Cox) is strolling near the seashore and suddenly has a vision of the water running red with blood. The movie portrays Churchill’s unwillingness to accept the Allies’ invasion plans, fearing catastrophic losses, together with his own emotional issues and depression.

During an interview with the Journal while on another shoot in Australia, Teplitzky said he was invited onboard the “Churchill” project late in the movie’s development and was very drawn to the story.

“In many ways, in my view, his personal struggles only made his public and political achievements all the more remarkable and substantial, because he stops being a myth and we can see him more as a human being with human flaws,” the director said.

Cox re-creates Churchill’s physicality and his speech patterns, but Teplitzky said he and the actor wanted much more. “Brian and I both wanted a complex and deeply layered character, one whose humanity, vulnerabilities and flaws reveal themselves to us and the audience. We wanted to use the iconic stuff, the physical look and mannerisms, his speech rhythms, etc., as a doorway into this intimate human portrait. His big obsession, I think, comes from guilt in his role in a number of operations, and in particular Gallipoli, which resulted in massive loss of life.”

Churchill was a commander at the Battle of Gallipoli, a World War I disaster that cost hundreds of thousands of British, French, Australian and New Zealand casualties.

“But by now in 1944, with the U.S. in many ways running the Allied war effort, Churchill was somewhat sidelined, so it diluted his influence and ability to enforce change,” Teplitzky said. “This coupled with his depression, the two working off each other and fueling each other, was a big factor in his psychological state. I also think there is an element in the film which is about a man getting old and questioning his relevance.”

Churchill’s reservations about D-Day led him to clash openly with the supreme Allied commander, U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), as well as British Gen. Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and other officers. The prime minister succumbs to one of his periodic attacks of depression and self-medicates by drinking excessively.

It is his strong, assertive wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), feeling overlooked and marginalized by her husband, who reminds Churchill that Eisenhower, Montgomery and the others have a great deal of war experience — just as he has.“Don’t complain when someone tells you the truth,” she says.

Ultimately, Churchill is reconciled to D-Day, and when the Allies start winning, he broadcasts a speech over the BBC, telling the nation they have pushed back the Nazis. He states this is not a war for glory, but a war for freedom in which England will never surrender.

Teplitzky believes the film still has much to say about contemporary issues. It explores a man “at the center of momentous events, who presents a flawed but brilliant personality and the way such a personality impacts on people’s lives. We can only understand and learn from history if we look at it from many points of views, not just from a prescriptive and often conservative angle.”

“Churchill” opens June 2.

“LONG STRANGE TRIP”

The documentary “Long Strange Trip“ examines another form of personal demons as it chronicles the 30-year run of the iconic rock group the Grateful Dead and the troubled life of one of the band’s co-founders, Jerry Garcia.

Some audiences may find the four-hour length, broken by an intermission, somewhat intimidating, but the group’s die-hard fans, known as Deadheads, undoubtedly will hang on every word. In addition to many interviews, the film is replete with archival footage, photos, macabre cartoons centered on images of death and, of course, the music.

However, director Amir Bar-Lev, a fan of the band since he was 13, is quoted in the promotional materials as saying he wanted the film to appeal to an audience beyond Deadheads.

“For decades, when Deadheads were pressed as to what was so special about the band,” he states, “they could simply answer something along the lines of, ‘I can’t explain it. You have to go to a show to understand.’ I wanted to challenge myself to do better than that, so I reached out to the most articulate people I know around the Dead scene.”

Just as the band’s music was largely improvisational, the film has the feel of being loosely structured. Band members, a music producer, Garcia’s daughter and others offer unique perspectives on the band and its fans.

The band itself was eclectic, with the original members coming from various musical traditions, so the Dead’s music encompassed jazz, R&B, folk, blues, rock ’n’ roll and other genres.

Garcia, the group’s de facto leader, eschewed the idea of being in charge and envisioned the band as a collective with no preset rules. The disparate bunch he assembled in 1965 was called the Warlocks at first, but when they learned another band had the same name, they became the Grateful Dead, a phrase they found in the dictionary. Early on, they began using the mind-altering drug LSD and soon moved to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, home to the burgeoning Beat-influenced counterculture of the period.

From there, the film follows the band’s unsuccessful first steps under contract to Warner Bros. Records, its eventual recording triumphs and its decision to focus on being a touring band. There is footage of the now legendary performance at London’s Lyceum Theatre on May 23, 1972, during which Garcia performed a guitar solo of “Morning Dew” with tears running down his face.

But things ultimately got out of hand due to the group’s lack of structure, as well as the unwieldy party atmosphere that evolved among the fans.

There also was heavy drug use. Garcia became increasingly isolated and dependent on heroin until, in 1995, at age 53, he died in his sleep of a heart attack at a rehab center in Marin County.

In the press notes, Bar-Lev responds to a question about whether he was aware that the history of the Dead in many ways mirrors the history of America in the second half of the 20th century. The filmmaker answers by referring to what he calls Garcia’s “radical pluralism” and pointing to the “traveling counter-cultural city” that the band inspired.

He concludes, “It all strikes me as quintessentially American. The Grateful Dead are the musical Statue of Liberty.”

“Long Strange Trip” opens May 26.

“THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY”

On a softer level, we have filmmaker Errol Morris’ homage to 80-year-old portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. With this documentary, Morris departs from his usual weightier fare. His past projects examined such figures as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who admits his mistakes regarding the Vietnam War in “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and Fred A. Leuchter (“Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.”), an adviser to prisons on executions who wrote a report denying that gas chambers were used for mass murder at Auschwitz.

With “The B-Side,” Morris has crafted a gentle, sweet work that becomes something of a memoir for Dorfman, one of the last photographers working in an analog format when most photography has gone digital. As the movie progresses, she brings out photograph after photograph and reminisces about her life and work.

After college, Dorfman got a job in New York as a secretary at Grove Press, and there she met famous Beat Generation writers and poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who became a lifelong friend and frequent photographic subject.

As a self-described “nice Jewish girl” from Massachusetts, Dorfman says in the film that the New York world of artists was too much for her, so she returned to Cambridge and went into teaching. It wasn’t until she was 28, in 1965, that she started taking pictures — and in the early1980s, she began using Polaroid’s giant 20×24 camera, shooting large color portraits.

Although Dorfman never garnered the fame of such photographers as Richard Avedon, Milton Greene or Annie Leibovitz, she nevertheless photographed many luminaries in addition to Ginsberg, including poet, painter and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, essayist Anaïs Nin, musician Bob Dylan, poet W.H. Auden, and radical feminist and writer Andrea Dworkin.

She also took a series of self-portraits and added captions at the bottom of the photographs. On her cyberjournal, Dorfman writes: “I make self-portraits on my birthday and every now and then when I have only one shot left in the case of film. (I think it is good for me to experience what my subjects are going through — and it is wild to see how I have changed.)”

Whenever she photographed paying clients, she shot two exposures. The customers would choose the one they liked and she would keep the other one, which she dubbed “the B-Side,” hence the film’s title.

Unfortunately, Polaroid went bankrupt and stopped making film for the 20×24 camera. So, as the movie was being shot, Dorfman was facing retirement.

She sums up her approach by saying on her cyberjournal that she doesn’t try to uncover people’s souls. “As a photographer I am not interested in pointing my camera at the pathos of other people’s lives. I don’t try to reveal or to probe. I certainly don’t try to capture souls. (If any soul is revealed, it’s mine.)

“For me the key word is ‘apparently.’ All I hope my photographs say is this person lives and this person was here.”

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” opens June 30.

ALSO OF INTEREST

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” — This film is a follow-up to the 2006 Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which former Vice President Al Gore made his case for the need to reverse global warming. The sequel tracks the progress made in addressing climate change. The documentary follows Gore as he continues to inspire people to get involved in the movement for alternative, safer forms of energy. Opens July 28.

“Dunkirk” — Here is another World War II film. This one focuses on the evacuation of 300,000 British, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in May 1940, as the Nazis invaded. The Allied soldiers were saved with the help of every available British military and civilian ship. Director Christopher Nolan is quoted in Variety as saying, “Dunkirk and the legend of it is something that British people grow up with — it’s in our DNA.” Opens July 21.

“13 Minutes” — Returning again to the second world war era, this movie from Germany is based on the true story of a free-spirited German carpenter, Georg Elser, who planted a bomb set to go off during a speech given by Adolf Hitler on Nov. 8, 1939. But Hitler unexpectedly left 13 minutes before the explosion, and eight unintended victims were killed. Although Elser acted alone, the heads of the Gestapo and the Criminal Police believed he was part of a larger plot and had him tortured, hoping to get the names of co-conspirators. When no names were forthcoming, Elser was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and then to Dachau, where he ultimately was executed. Opens June 30.

“Menashe” — Loosely based on the life of its star, Menashe Lustig (a YouTube comedian), the movie takes place in Brooklyn’s Chasidic community and is filmed almost completely in Yiddish. The title character, who works in a kosher supermarket, has become a widower and, according to tradition, cannot raise his son without a woman in the house. Pressured either to find a wife or let his married brother-in-law raise the boy, Menashe struggles to prove himself worthy of being a parent. Opens July 28.

Photo by David Miller

Survivor Tomas Kovar: Hiding in Slovakia, awaiting liberation


The Germans were coming.

Nine-year-old Tomas Kohn, then living as Tomas Blaho, knew the drill. He headed to the front door of the cottage in Ponicka Huta, a village in the Low Tatras mountains in central Slovakia, where he and his parents were living as the supposed cousins of the home’s owners, Alexander and Maria Kur.

As Tomas’ mother grabbed a jacket for her son — it was March 1945 and chilly — Tomas pushed open the door, only to discover three German soldiers already climbing the steep alley leading to their cottage. He couldn’t wait for his mother without arousing suspicion — even with false papers, the Jews in Ponicka Huta didn’t feel safe — and instead walked directly across the alley, disappearing into the forest.

“They didn’t say anything or follow me,” Tomas recalled.

As he walked deeper into the forest, Tomas frequently looked behind him hoping to see his mother. Several hours later, he was lost, certain the Germans had captured her and were lying in wait for him.

Eventually, Tomas came across a woodcutter, who led him back. As Tomas exited the forest, he dashed into the cottage. He didn’t see his mother anywhere.

During the war, Tomas didn’t realize the extent of the dangers he and his parents faced. “They didn’t talk about it. Not during the war and not after the war, either,” he said. Instead, his parents changed the family name to Kovar, a non-Jewish surname, and the family kept a low religious profile.

As he grew up, Tomas didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust, in which many of his aunts, uncles and cousins had perished, and spoke only rarely about his experiences until five years ago, when he attended a talk by another Slovakian survivor at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Since then, he has told his story at the museum twice a month. “There are fewer and fewer survivors,” he said. “I want the people to know what happened.”

The only child of Ernest and Klara Kohn, Tomas was born on Feb. 18, 1936, in Nitra, Slovakia, the closest town with a hospital to the western Slovakian village of Zabokreky nad Nitrou, where his parents and 55 other Jewish families lived.

Ernest managed a large farm, which was owned by a Jewish man named Ernest Gruen. The family lived in Gruen’s unoccupied farmhouse.

Sometime in 1941 or so — about two years after Slovakia had declared its independence and allied itself with Nazi Germany — the farm was confiscated and given to a Mr. Kasicky (Tomas does not remember his first name), a private secretary of Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who had become Slovakia’s president. Kasicky retained Tomas’ father as the farm’s manager.

By spring 1942, as the Slovak government began deporting its Jewish population, only the Kohns and two other families of men whom Ernest needed on the farm remained in Zabokreky.

After the Slovak National Uprising broke out on Aug. 29, 1944, and German troops began occupying the country, Kasicky could no longer protect the three families. They immediately loaded up a large wagon with some food and household goods and followed the partisans, who were headed toward the mountains.

After reaching Banska Bystrica, a city in central Slovakia, they proceeded uphill to a flat mountaintop area. The partisans departed, and the families settled into separate huts used to store hay. Other Jews hid, scattered across the mountains.

About a week later, townsmen from Ponicka Huta appeared, looking for items the partisans had abandoned. Ernest asked one of the men, Alexander Kur, if he could pay him to hide the three families. Kur, whose cottage was small, left to consult with his brothers-in-law and returned before nightfall, leading the families to the village, already occupied by the Germans.

The Kurs gave their small bedroom to Tomas and his parents, sleeping in the large living room with their three children. The other families each bunked with a brother-in-law.

During this time, according to Tomas, the Germans conducted roundups two or three times a week. Only occasionally did the Jews, who were being harbored in almost all of the village’s approximately 25 houses, have advance warning.

At a moment’s notice, Tomas and his parents could move the living room carpet, where a trap door and a few steps led to a small, dank cellar, a tight fit for three people. With more time, they climbed into an armoire, escaping out a hole in the back into a storage room. But the safest shelter was the forest, directly across the alley. “The Germans shied away from it,” Tomas said.

At some point, possibly in early 1945, the Germans began rounding up the men of Ponicka Huta to dig trenches. The men, Jews and non-Jews, began spending their days in a bunker they had constructed in the forest, essentially a large dirt hole covered with boards.

By February, the roundups had increased, and the men began living full time in the forest bunker. Everyone was waiting for the Russians, “like for the Messiah,” Tomas said.

Ernest was in the bunker on the day Tomas escaped into the forest without his mother. And Klara, Tomas discovered, had been hiding in the cellar. She emerged, grateful that the Germans had not captured her son.

A few nights later, at midnight, Russian soldiers knocked on the Kurs’ door. “We don’t want to destroy this town,” a Hungarian-speaking soldier told Klara, who spoke the language, explaining that they needed to find the German trenches. Klara took the soldiers to the bunker, and Ernest led them to the trenches.

The following day, sometime in mid- to late March 1945, Ponicka Huta was liberated.

Soon after, the Kohns returned to Zabokreky, where Ernest again managed the farm for Ernest Gruen. Tomas enrolled in public school.

On Sept. 24, 1945, a pogrom broke out in Topolcany, about 60 miles southeast of Zabokreky, spreading across the country. “Wherever they could find Jews, they were beating them up,” Tomas said. He and his parents quickly left, returning later that day and deciding they needed to leave Slovakia.

Finally, in January 1947, they boarded a ship in France, headed for Chile, where they had relatives.

Ernest rented a farm in La Florida, an area southeast of Santiago. Tomas attended Jewish school, Instituto de Hebreo. A year later, he transferred to Escuela Nacional de Artes Graficas, a boarding school in Santiago, graduating in 1956. He began working in the meat market his father then owned in Santiago.

In summer 1960, Tomas met Rita Bromet, who had moved to Santiago after the May 22 earthquake in Valdivia. They married on Jan. 27, 1963. By then, Tomas managed his own meat market.

Their daughter Jacqueline was born in November 1963 and son Bernardo in April 1965. Eleven months later, the family immigrated to Los Angeles, and their son Desidario was born in April 1968. They now have six grandchildren.

In Los Angeles, Tomas first worked as a meat cutter for Gelson’s Markets. Then, after a series of jobs, he and Rita owned Hallmark stores from 1978 to 2000, when Tomas began working as a Spanish-English interpreter assisting workers’ compensation patients. He retired in 2015.

Tomas, now 81, is trying to donate a piece of his history, a Torah that belonged to the Zabokreky Jewish community and that was safeguarded by the town’s Catholic priest during the war, to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Tomas’ family carried the Torah to Santiago, where it now resides in their former synagogue, La Sociedad Cultural Israelita B’nei Israel.

“It’s very old and will disintegrate,” Tomas said. “It should be in a museum where it could be more appreciated.”

Photo by Carla Acevedo-Blumenkrantz

Survivor Av Perlmutter: ‘Angel’ watched over him


“Where’s Adolf Perlmutter?” one of the German soldiers shouted, bursting into Suzanne Cohen’s house in Amsterdam in March 1943, rushing past a 15-year-old boy living there who was known as Avraham or Av.

Upstairs they found one of the Cohens’ sons, in his early 20s, and ordered, “You come with us.” On their way out, they grabbed Av, realizing he was the one they were looking for — his official name was Adolf — and led both young men into a police van. They headed to the Jewish Theatre, which had been converted to a detention center from where Jews were deported to camps.

“The moment I came in, I was thinking how to get out,” Av recalled. He noticed that pairs of German soldiers at the exits changed shifts regularly. At one door in particular, they actually abandoned their post to fetch their replacements. He mentioned this to the Cohen son, who deemed it too dangerous to try escaping. “They’ll shoot us,” he told Av.

Av was undeterred. In the middle of the night, when the exit was left unguarded, he calmly walked out and ran.

Avraham Abba Perlmutter, who was given the name Adolf by the Austrian government, was born on Aug. 28, 1927, in Vienna, to Chaim and Malka Perlmutter. His sister, Thea, was three years older.

Chaim owned a textile store, providing the family with a middle-class, very observant life. Every morning, Av prayed with his father in the small shul located on their apartment building’s first floor.

Av was a self-described “wild child.” At 6, he was asked not to return for a second year in Jewish school because of his misbehavior. He attended public school and played soccer with neighborhood boys.

Av’s life changed on March 12, 1938, with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Two days later, Av followed the crowds to one of Vienna’s main streets, where he witnessed Hitler riding by in an open car.

Av’s non-Jewish friends began beating him, and he no longer attended school. The following fall he enrolled in a Jewish middle school.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht began. The Perlmutter family’s store was plundered.

Two months later, Av’s parents arranged for him and Thea to leave for the Netherlands on a Kindertransport — a rescue operation for children — to join Av’s aunt and uncle, Anni and Aby Bachrach. “It was like an adventure,” Av said.

They arrived in Wijk aan Zee, a village on the North Sea coast, where they spent two months at a Catholic campsite run by nuns before being transferred to a series of refugee camps. Then, in December 1939, after a bout with diphtheria, Av was released to Sientje and Joop Van Straten, relatives by marriage, who lived in The Hague, 40 miles south.

Thea, meanwhile, was transferred to a Youth Aliyah camp east of Amsterdam in Loosdrecht, with a plan to join her parents in Palestine, where they had immigrated illegally in June 1939.

Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. And while Av continued attending school, playing soccer and celebrating his bar mitzvah, anti-Jewish measures were enacted gradually.

On Oct. 7, 1942, after non-Dutch Jews were ordered to move from coastal areas, Av was sent to Amsterdam, where he was placed with Suzanne Cohen and her adult sons, within 2 miles of where Anne Frank and her family were already hiding. His relatives in The Hague were all murdered later in Auschwitz and Sobibor.

After Av escaped from the Jewish Theatre in March 1943, he ran back to the Cohens’ house, where he hid in the backyard.

The next morning, Ellie Waterman, a member of an underground organization founded by Dutch Christian Joop Westerweel, coincidentally showed up. “It was a pure miracle,” Av said. Thea had asked the group to find a hiding place for him.

“I was very Orthodox Jewish and I strongly believed that an angel of God was guarding me,” Av said.

Waterman told Av to meet him at the train station. After a series of stops and train changes, Av exited at what he believes was Zutphen, a city in the east-central Netherlands, where Waterman led him to the house of an elderly couple.

After dinner, as German soldiers approached, Av hid in a bedroom closet. As one of the soldiers approached, Av began hiccuping out of fear and nearly choked, smothering the noise. The German opened the closet door and slammed it, cursing. “Fortunately for me, he didn’t look very much,” Av said.

The couple then hid him in a backyard coal bin. But after the Germans returned a second time, Av left, not wanting to endanger the couple.

Despite the late hour, Av knocked on a nearby door. “I’m Jewish. Can you hide me?” he asked the young man who opened it. The man, who had a wife and small child, concealed him behind some boxes in the basement.

“I was very Orthodox Jewish and I strongly believed that an angel of God was guarding me”

“These Christians who were hiding Jews were extremely courageous, because if they were caught hiding a Jew, they were treated like a Jew,” Av said.

The next morning, Waterman found Av and arranged for Dutch Christians in several cities to hide him. Then, sometime during the summer, Av was placed in a boarding house in Rotterdam, where two boys were staying, as well as a teacher, who taught Av English and French.

One day in September 1943, the boys heard the familiar pounding of German boots and quickly hid in a prearranged spot. After the Germans left, they split up, believing they would be safer.

Av wandered for about 20 minutes before a German soldier stopped him, asking for identification and summoning a police van. He placed Av in the partitioned back, guarded by two Dutch police officers. Thinking the policemen might be anti-Nazi, Av slid toward the rear doors of the van as the police officers talked. Av partially opened one door and when the van slowed, he jumped out.

After running several blocks, he stopped a man on the street who took him home and contacted Joop Westerweel. An aide to Westerweel arranged for Av’s last placement.

Av traveled to Venlo, in the southeastern Netherlands, where a pastor, Henricus Vullinghs, met him at the train station and transported him on the back of his bicycle 5 miles north to the home in Grubbenvorst, a town within 3 miles of the German border where Peter and Gertrude Beijers lived with three of their six adult children.

Forty-two of the village’s 240 families, all Catholic, were hiding Jews. Pastor Vullinghs told his parishioners that they were assured a place in heaven if they saved a Jew.

As Av grew close to the Beijers family — he called the parents Mom and Pap — he began helping on the farm, becoming expert in growing asparagus.

After the Allies invaded Normandy in June 1944, they advanced toward Germany and by September were approaching Grubbenvorst.

When several German soldiers moved into the Beijers’ house, Av hid in the stable. Pap then built him a more secure hiding place, a concealed hole in the hill behind the barn. Av lay on his back all day, with red ants for companions, venturing out only in the evenings.

On Nov. 22, 1944, the Allies liberated the village of Sevenum, about 5 miles west of Grubbenvorst, launching a heavy barrage eastward toward the Germans’ defense line.

That night as Av joined the Beijers in their neighbors’ basement, the Germans forced everyone out, planning to evacuate all town residents across the Maas River to Germany.

Afraid of entering Germany, Av remained in Grubbenvorst, hiding once again in the stable. With British artillery shells exploding ever closer, he left, reaching the street just as a shell landed on the stable, demolishing it. Again, Av said, “I knew at the time that the angel of God was with me.”

As the pounding continued, Av crawled along toward the British line, feeling for mines. Suddenly someone shouted, “Halt,” as Nazi soldiers jumped out from the roadside. “Where are you going?” one demanded. Av pointed to a nearby house. Just then the British began firing, and Av pushed himself free and ran, despite the mines and the bullets flying past him.

He reached a farmhouse where he found the entire Beijers family. The bridge over the river had been destroyed, thwarting the Germans’ evacuation plans.

Two days later, Av persuaded one of Beijers’ sons to accompany him to Sevenum, now in Allied hands. They arrived on Nov. 26, 1944, which Av considers his liberation date. “I felt fantastic,” he said.

Wanting to help the British army, Av worked as an interpreter for a month as soldiers directed the locals in rebuilding the bridge. At Av’s request, one soldier sent a letter to his parents in Palestine. In January, the Jewish Brigade came for Av, to reunite him with his parents. Av said goodbye to the Beijers.

Years later, he submitted their names and that of Pastor Vullinghs to Yad Vashem, which recognized them in 1994 as “Righteous Among the Nations.” The Perlmutter and Beijers families have remained very close.

Av arrived in Haifa on July 16, 1945. Soon after his father picked him up, his aunt told him that his mother had died of an adverse penicillin reaction the previous January, two weeks before his letter arrived.

Weeks later, Av was living in Tel Aviv with his father and assisting in his small jam factory when they learned that Thea, who had been captured and sent to Auschwitz, had survived.

In 1947, Av joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground, but was badly injured in a motorcycle-truck collision. He was discharged as a wounded war veteran on Nov. 8, 1949, and made his way to the United States.

He entered the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1951 to study aeronautical engineering, graduating in June 1954. After earning  a master’s degree at Princeton in 1956, he accepted a job at Kellett Aircraft Corp. in Philadelphia.

A year later, Av met Ruth Gitberg at a synagogue social. They married on Aug. 31, 1958, and had four children. He later earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

Av and two colleagues at Kellett formed their own company, Dynasciences, in 1961. When Dynasciences merged with Whitaker Corp. in 1969, Av moved his family to Los Angeles and worked in engineering and other ventures until he retired in 2015.

Av is now 89 and the grandfather of five. He wrote an autobiography, “Determined,” which was published in 2014, and a Dutch version, in collaboration with the Beijers family, will be released this spring.

For 20 years, Av has been speaking about his experiences — at museums, schools and synagogues.

“I always like to tell my story in hopes that it helps others, especially children.” he said. “I tell them that regardless of difficulties, don’t give up.”

EXCLUSIVE: Tom Hanks on Elie Wiesel, the importance of Holocaust remembrance


 

In an exclusive interview, Tom Hanks talks about spending time with Elie Wiesel at the Friar’s Club in New York City where they discussed topics ranging from displaced persons camps to dogs.

Hanks also discussed the importance of Holocaust remembrance.

Interview by Danielle Berrin
Video by Tess Cutler

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  Eileen Eandi, daughter of a holocaust survivor


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Jessica Chastain stars in "The Zookeeper's Wife." Photo by Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features

How ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ took Jessica Chastain down a rabbit hole of Jewish history


Author Diane Ackerman. Photo by Bill Green

Author Diane Ackerman. Photo by Bill Green

Actress Jessica Chastain may be best known for her Oscar-nominated turns in the racial drama “The Help” and the action-spy thriller “Zero Dark Thirty,” but her roles that have touched upon the Holocaust are among those that have moved her the most.

In 2010, Chastain starred as a Mossad agent and Auschwitz survivor in “The Debt,” a character “who absolutely broke my heart,” she said during a recent telephone interview from New York. And in her new film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” she portrays a Holocaust rescuer who hid some 300 Jews at the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. The 40-year-old actress is also an executive producer of the movie.

Chastain said she first became aware of Nazi atrocities while presenting a book report, at the age of 12, on Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” She appeared before her class wearing a costume that included a Star of David she had sewn. “I hadn’t previously understood that a person could be discriminated against based on their religion,” she said. “And to hear it from the perspective of a girl my age was very powerful.”

Chastain drew on some of those emotions to portray the fictional Rachel Singer in “The Debt,” based on the 2007 Israeli film “Ha’Hov,” in which her character endeavors to kidnap and bring to justice a former Nazi physician known as “The Butcher of Birkenau.”

Chastain’s research for the film proved devastating, she said: “I hadn’t known about the medical experiments in the camps,” she told the Journal in 2010. “I read an awful story about a woman who had given birth to her baby, and they wanted to see how long the child would survive without being touched or fed. So, this woman had to be there, listening to her child cry and starve to death. It was an element of cruelty unlike anything I had ever known.

“Another thing that really shocked me was that I just felt this rage: When they started to separate the Jews from everybody else, why didn’t people stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right?’ I would get into these debates with my friends, and they’d say, ‘A lot of people had kids, and they knew that if they spoke out they would be killed along with their entire families.’ … I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil and then questioning myself: If something like that happened right now, would I be brave enough to step forward?”

Chastain plays a character who does just that in “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction book of the same name. The film’s heroine, Antonina Zabinska, along with her husband, Jan Zabinski, hide as many as 300 Jews in between the halls of their zoo and villa, as well as in animal cages and underground tunnels in the facility. (In Polish, “ska” is the feminine form of the surname ending of “ski.”)

The couple risk their lives — and that of their young son — even as leading Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck conducts animal experiments at the zoo to resurrect an ancient German breed of bull. All the while, Antonina empathetically cares for their Jewish “guests” as Jan clandestinely works for the Polish underground, spiriting away Jews from the Warsaw ghetto.

“Many times we celebrate heroes who use violence and aggression,” Chastain said in the recent interview. “I was drawn to Antonina because her weapon, or tool of choice, was compassion and love.”

In the film, animals are often treated like humans — at least by the Zabinskis — and humans like animals, Chastain noted. In one scene, a man and woman stand just outside the Warsaw ghetto and snap a photo of the Jews inside, “as if they are at the zoo,” she said.

Ackerman, an acclaimed author and naturalist who sold the film rights to “The Zookeeper’s Wife” eight years ago, knew Chastain was right for the part when she heard the actress had visited Auschwitz as part of her research for the movie.

“She went because she wanted to know what was at stake for Antonina,” Ackerman recalled in an interview from her home in Ithaca, N.Y. “She brought that complete immersion in the story to her role.”

Ackerman, 68, has harbored a love for animals and nature since she was a young girl in Waukegan, Ill. She discovered Antonina’s story while researching an endangered ancient breed of Polish horses for a prospective article in National Geographic around 2000.

“I felt like I needed to see the horses, and also to find out more about my Jewish heritage in Poland,” said Ackerman, whose grandfather fled that country before the Holocaust.

While trying to arrange a trip, Ackerman learned that her Polish neighbor had an uncle who had been a veterinarian at the Warsaw Zoo during the war. He told her that the zookeeper’s wife had kept journals of her experiences. Upon Ackerman’s request, he was able to procure those writings from stacks of old books at the zoo. Ackerman asked the man’s niece to translate the journals and was riveted by Antonina’s story, which she likened to that of Holocaust rescuer Oskar Schindler, who was feted in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film, “Schindler’s List.”

“But Antonina’s story had fallen through the cracks of history,” Ackerman said, “which is why I wanted to tell it.”

Ackerman also was drawn by the fact that Antonina “had not only taken in orphaned animals, but orphaned people as well.”

The author theorized that the Russian-born Antonina may have become more attuned to human behavior because her parents were murdered during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

“Children who lose their parents can become hyper-sensitized, because they need to know whether they will be protected if they are in danger,” Ackerman said. “So they learn how to read people very well.”

“Antonina could calm animals, and she also knew she could apply that to human animals,” Ackerman said of her heroine’s approach to Nazi predators.

Would Chastain have been willing to risk her life to save others, like her character?

“To quickly say, ‘Oh yes, I could do that,’ undermines and devalues the actual sacrifices that Antonina made,” she said. “I absolutely hope and dream that we’re never in a situation where that’s going to be tested. But if ever we are, and I can stand up for people the way that she did, that would be wonderful.”

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” will open in theaters on March 31.

Oskar Bökelmann (left) as Ludwig and Emil Belton as Ernst Lessner in “Land of Mine.” Photo by Henrik Petit, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Unlikely villains: Denmark’s ‘Land of Mine’ is a tale of role reversals and national hatred


In any standard World War II movie, it is safe to assume that the Germans will be the beastly villains who vent their sadistic fury on the hapless — or heroic —  citizens of Nazi-occupied countries.

And if a poll on the nicest nation in Europe were taken at the end of World War II, it is likely that Denmark would rank at the top and Germany at or near the bottom.

“Land of Mine,” Denmark’s nominee in the Oscar race for foreign-language film, shatters the mold.

During the nearly five years after Hitler’s invasion of Denmark, German sappers seeded the Scandinavian country’s west coast with some 2 million land mines in anticipation of an eventual Allied invasion, which never happened.

With the Nazis defeated in 1945, the reconstituted Danish army decided to clear the beaches, forcing German prisoners of war to do the dangerous job. The POWs comprised a wide range of ages, but in the film, it falls to a group of 14 teenagers to do the job. The young soldiers, between 15 and 18, were drafted in Hitler’s last, desperate stand of
the war.

Their overseer is Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), who sees his assignment as a chance to get even with the detested Germans for their wartime rule, which was relatively mild until 1943, when the Danes rescued some 7,200 of the country’s 8,000 Jews by ferrying them to neutral Sweden and safety.

Rasmussen locks up his charges at night, lets them go hungry for days at a time, and cares not a whit that the untrained German youngsters are regularly blown up while trying to defuse the mines, buried only a few inches deep. (The film’s Danish title translates as “Under the Sand,” which gets lost in the English title’s rather heavy-handed play on words.)

In one nail-biting scene, the young POWs are made to walk, arms linked, across a still mine-infested beach.

When the sergeant’s attitude toward his charges gradually softens — he even steals some bread from the commissary for them — he is upbraided by his commanding officer.

Martin Zandvliet, the highly regarded Danish director and screenwriter, acknowledges that he received some hate mail after the film was released in his country. However, at 46, he and most of his fellow citizens were born well after the war and can view it at some emotional distance.

During a phone interview, Zandvliet described two aspects of his film as drawing some general observations on human nature and in re-examining the attitudes of his countrymen during the Nazi occupation.

One facet of the film is the enduring nature of national hatred, even in a country like Denmark, which “pictures itself as a happy country,” he said.

How do we deal with such hatred, pervasive throughout the world? How do we find a way to talk to one another?

Zandvliet shows no reluctance in questioning some of the laudatory beliefs about his country’s role during World War II.

In almost any recollection of the Holocaust, one of the few bright spots is the rescue of 7,200 of Denmark’s Jews, who escaped the Nazi clutches when they were ferried out of the country by Danish underground fighters and fishermen. The director lauds the risks taken by many Danes in this clandestine operation, but notes that quite a few Jews had to hand over considerable amounts of money to be rescued.

Overall, he observed, the Danes, as fellow “Aryans,” were treated better by the Nazis than the people of any other occupied country. But on the whole, Zandvliet said, his countrymen didn’t really “turn against the Germans until they started losing the war.”

To illustrate the endurance of national hatreds, Zandvliet looked further back into history. The Danes, he said, had never forgiven the Germans for the outcome of an 1864 war, when the Prussians incorporated some Danish territory as the spoils of victory.

One other conclusion from his film, he observed, is that “when adults go to war, it’s often the kids who pay the price. … Of course, you can’t compare this to the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust,” but in the case of the young German soldiers depicted in the film, “we have to remember that they were only 9 to 11 years old when World War II started.”

In general, “Land of Mine” has been well received in Denmark, despite the few hate mails, Zandvliet said, adding, “On the whole, Danes seemed to understand what I was trying to say.”

“Land of Mine” is playing at Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A., Playhouse in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino. It opens March 10 at the Claremont 5 in Claremont.

Andrew Garfield in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Photo by Mark Rogers

Producer David Permut brings a soldier’s valor to the screen in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’


In his Beverly Hills office recently, producer David Permut — a Hollywood veteran with a dash of P.T. Barnum — recounted colorful stories from his long career.

Back when he was 21, he said, he was startled to find himself at the Academy Awards with a movie that Permut and his first mentor, producer Bill Sargent, shot in one take for $60,000 in 1975. Their film was a live performance of James Whitmore’s one-man show, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” about President Harry Truman, and the monologue not only grossed $11.5 million at the box office, but also earned an Oscar nomination for Whitmore.

Now, with more than 40 films and TV projects under his belt, including the movies “Face/Off” and “Dragnet,” Permut has again earned an Oscar nod, this time for serving as a producer on Mel Gibson’s World War II epic, “Hacksaw Ridge.”  The drama has received six Academy Award nominations, including nods for director and best picture.

Based on a true story, the film stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to carry a weapon while serving as a combat medic during World War II — but who nevertheless rescued an estimated 75 of his comrades during the bloody Battle of Okinawa. In 1945, Doss became the first conscientious objector ever to receive the Medal of Honor.

Over the decades, Hollywood icons such as Darryl Zanuck came calling on the veteran to purchase the film rights to his story, but Doss (who died in 2006 at 87) consistently declined. “He was a very humble and modest man, and he never felt comfortable with the idea of a movie,” Permut said. “He didn’t want to exploit his story.”

Permut persevered for 16 years to make the film, and finally succeeded in getting Doss’ permission with the help of his fellow producer, Terry Benedict, a Seventh-day Adventist who had first met Doss at a church summer camp and went on to make a documentary about the hero.

“Being a producer means being impervious to rejection,” Permut said.

Permut has been in love with Hollywood since he was a boy in Los Angeles, when, he said, he “studied the trade papers like the Talmud.”  He was thrilled to discover stars such as Buddy Hackett in synagogue with him at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Elvis Presley lived in Permut’s neighborhood in Holmby Hills, and he had friends whose parents worked in Hollywood. So at 15, he set up a canvas director’s chair at Sunset Boulevard and Ladera Drive and began selling his own maps to the stars.  The price was negotiable, but Permut’s pockets soon overflowed with cash. 

When residents circulated petitions to oust Permut and two elderly women who also hawked star maps in the area, Permut hired a personal injury attorney who had previously represented him when his electric blanket had caught on fire. Permut made a black-and-white movie of one of his colleagues getting arrested, which made the lead story on the NBC news. Eventually, Permut’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court of California, which ruled in his favor.

In the meantime, Permut had met Sargent, a redheaded Irish-American from Oklahoma, who claimed he was going to reunite the Beatles. Permut was skeptical when he met the producer at his office, which turned out to be a utility closet with a couple of folding chairs in a musty building in Beverly Hills. “He told me had made millions in the 1960s,” Permut said. Sargent described outlandish tales of producing “Hamlet” with Richard Burton and the first live concert film with such greats as James Brown and the Rolling Stones.

“I didn’t really believe this guy in the closet had had all that success,” Permut recalled. “But then I went to the library and researched him, and it turned out that he had.”

David Permut

David Permut

After a project the two men were working on couldn’t get financed, Sargent disappeared for a time, only to resurface in 1975, when he whisked Permut off in a white Rolls Royce to his luxurious suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Their ensuing projects included a taping of  “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert,” which cost three-quarters of a million dollars but brought in more than $30 million at the box office.

Some years later, Permut was channel surfing one night when he happened to see an old rerun of TV’s “Dragnet.” “I was laughing, because it was such a heavy-handed, procedural drama,” he said. The same evening, he saw actor Dan Aykroyd in a “Saturday Night Live” skit parodying that show. “I got the idea that you could maybe translate this old television series into a feature film as a comedy,” Permut said. 

Soon thereafter, he and Aykroyd walked into an office at Universal and pitched the film by singing the opening notes to the show’s theme song. The project immediately sold. “It was the shortest pitch in film history,” Permut said.  The movie went on to become one of the top grossing films of 1987. “So that was my first big narrative picture and paved the way for all of the other movies,” he said.

The producer was on the set of his film “Double Take” in 2001 when he first heard about Desmond Doss from the movie’s stunt coordinator. “But I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought, a combat medic doesn’t go to the front lines with no weaponry. … And then of course I found out that it was true.

“As a producer, I’m always thinking about how you can sell a movie,” added Permut, now the head of his own company, Permut Presentations. “What’s the hook? How do you make a World War II movie that’s distinctly different from the great war movies of our past, whether it be ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or  ‘The Thin Red Line?’ And I thought that a man who never touches a gun on the front lines of World War II — that was a gold nugget of an idea.”

One production company eventually offered to sign on, with the condition that the film would be rated PG-13. But Permut and another of the film’s producers, Bill Mechanic, declined. “We decided that we didn’t want to homogenize it to conform to that rating, because one of the thematics of the movie is the horrors of war,” Permut said. “So we got the project back and took it to Mel Gibson [in 2014].  We thought Mel would relate to the story of this heroic individual … and also would put the audience viscerally on the battlefield.”

Gibson had already put innocent characters through gruesome ordeals in films such as “The Passion of the Christ.” But he hadn’t made a film since 2006’s “Apocalypto,” partly because he had become a pariah in Hollywood after his anti-Semitic, drunken tirade against a Jewish police officer in July of that year.

Was Permut troubled by news of Gibson’s statements at the time? “I don’t think anybody would not have been disturbed hearing remarks like that,” he said. “But I heard that everyone who’s ever worked with Mel say that … they love him, they revere him, whether it’s Jodie Foster or [director] Richard Donner. 

“I never make a decision about somebody until I get to know them,” he added. “Then I met with Mel, and I loved his passion, his vision, his creativity. I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world to be in business with him. There was nothing off limits we didn’t talk about.”

Permut now attributes Gibson’s anti-Semitic slurs to his alcoholism and a “personal crisis” at the time. “But he’s not the person people accuse him of being because of the incidents of his past,” Permut said.

Although “Hacksaw Ridge” has been in large part well reviewed, some critics have noted the irony inherent in a film about a pacifist that also is filled with blood and gore, including exploding human bodies and rats feasting on soldiers’ flesh. The New Yorker went so far as to declare, in a headline, that the movie is “religious pomp laced with pornographic violence.”

In response, Permut said, “I lost an uncle in the Pacific during World War II, but I don’t know the horrors of war because I’ve never been there. The closest I’m going to get is through a movie like ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ showing me … and what Desmond did despite all that.

“You know, it was bashert that the film took so long to get made … because it was meant to be that our paths crossed with Mel Gibson’s,” he added. “I’m proud that it’s also been a personal journey for Mel. He’s on solid ground now; he’s been sober for 10 years, he has a great relationship and a new baby. It was incredible when we screened the movie at the Academy and we received a standing ovation. I’m really happy for Mel and I think he deserves it.”

Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is a German best-seller for 2016


The annotated edition of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” sold 85,000 copies in the one year since it was released in print for the first time since World War II.

“Hitler, Mein Kampf: A Critical Edition” is in its eighth printing, according to the Spiegel newspaper, which noted that the book topped its best-seller list in April.

The 70-year copyright in the German state of Bavaria of the anti-Semitic tract, whose title means “My Struggle,” expired on Jan. 1, 2016, allowing it to be published in the country. The publication was controversial: Some Jewish groups endorsed the annotated edition and others opposed it.

The Munich Institute for Contemporary History said it published the book to preempt uncritical and unannotated versions, and that it hoped the new edition would help destroy the book’s cult status. Its first run of 4,000 sold almost immediately, the German dpa news agency reported.

“It turned out that the fear the publication would promote Hitler’s ideology or even make it socially acceptable and give neo-Nazis a new propaganda platform was totally unfounded,” institute director Andreas Wirsching said in a statement to dpa.

“To the contrary, the debate about Hitler’s worldview and his approach to propaganda offered a chance to look at the causes and consequences of totalitarian ideologies, at a time in which authoritarian political views and right-wing slogans are gaining ground.”

Other editions of “Mein Kampf” remain available for purchase via the internet.

Jewish World War II POW appears in Clinton ad, slamming Trump as ‘insulting’ US military


A Jewish World War II prisoner of war appeared in an ad for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, saying her rival Donald Trump “insulted all of our military.”

The ad released Friday on social media shows Joel Sollender, 91, of San Diego, Calif., watching Trump, the Republican nominee, disparaging Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last year during the lead-up to the primaries. McCain and Trump differed on immigration issues, and Trump had called McCain a “dummy.”

The ad includes a segment of a political event in Iowa in which Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, challenges Trump for using the pejorative and says that McCain is a war hero.

Trump replies, “He’s not a war hero. He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”

“Apart from the outrage of the insult to prisoners of war,” a choked-up Sollender says in the ad, “he insulted all of our military.”

“He’s everything I would not want to be or emulate, and I would hope we would not adulate a man like him and put him into the most precious office in our country,” he says.

The ad does not mention it, but Sollender, who was captured after taking out a German bunker with a grenade during the Battle of the Bulge, feared that his captors would discover he was Jewish.

“I was apprehensive that they would find out I was Jewish,” Sollender told the Union Tribune of San Diego, where he lives and has been active in local philanthropic causes, in a 2015 interview.

In recent weeks, Trump and Clinton have each cited dozens of endorsements from top military and national security personnel.

Greta Friedman, Jewish refugee and subject of iconic World War II photo, dies at 92


​Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt

Greta Friedman, who came to the United States as a Jewish refugee and unwittingly became the subject of an iconic World War II photo, died Sep. 8 of pneumonia at a Richmond, VA hospital. 

The black and white image of a sailor kissing a girl amidst the hubbub of thousands celebrating the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II in New York City’s Times Square, was taken by famed LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt on Aug. 14,1945.

Although initially the photo was buried in an inside page of LIFE, over time it came to symbolize “the exuberance Americans felt at the end of the war,” The New York Times observed. Arguably, the photo stands second only to the one of six Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima as the most recognized and reproduced image to come out of World War II.

Friedman was the unlikely focus of the Times Square photo. She was born Greta Zimmer in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, one of four daughters of Max Zimmer, a clothing store owner, and his wife Ida. Following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, the Zimmer parents sent their daughters to safety.

Greta and two of her sisters went to the United States in 1939 and a fourth went to what was then Palestine. The parents stayed behind and were killed during the Holocaust.

On V-J Day, the then 21-year old Greta Friedman, wearing a white uniform, was working as a dental assistant in an office near Times Square, and hearing the commotion went outside for a closer look.

Arriving at Times Square, she was suddenly grabbed by a sailor, who bent her slightly backward and planted a kiss, while Zimmer tried to maintain her balance.

The advance by the amorous sailor did not particularly upset Friedman. In a later interview with the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress, she recalled, “I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss. It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.”

The sailor did not give his name or asked for Friedman’s, but he was later identified as one George Mendonsa. He subsequently explained that he had good memories of Navy nurses attending him during the war, assumed that Friedman was one of them, and impulsively kissed her. Later reports had it that Mendonsa had celebrated the end of the war with a few drinks.

Curiously, Friedman herself never saw the photo until the 1960s, when she leafed through a book of Eisenstaedt’s photos and instantly recognized herself.

She notified the LIFE editors, who, however, proved skeptical, pointing out that in the meanwhile 11 men had come forward claiming to be the photo’s sailor, while three women insisted on being the nurse.

Eventually, the claims of Friedman and Mendonsa were verified as the genuine ones. 

In later years, as the photo’s fame continued to spread, the story took another odd turn. While in the chauvinistic 1940s, the picture was simply accepted as an impulsive and joyful moment during a national celebration, the view changed in the more sensitive 21st century.

In 2012, a writer at the website Crates and Ribbons denounced the sailor’s advance as a “sexual assault by modern standards,” the New York Times reported.

Two years later, in 2014, TIME ran a story on the iconic picture and noted that “many people view the photo as little more than the documentation of a very public sexual assault, and not something to be celebrated.”

Friedman married a U.S. Army scientist, Dr. Mischa E. Friedman, in 1956, and went on to earn an arts degree from Hood College, Maryland. She established a studio nearby where she painted and created silkscreen prints.

She is survived by a son and daughter and was buried next to her husband at the Arlington National Cemetery.

What Martin Luther King Jr. would teach Black Lives Matter about Israel


American Jews, and not just those who call themselves “progressives,” have identified with, and participated actively in, the movement for racial equality in the US since the founding of the NAACP in 1909 as well as the post-WWII civil rights crusade that transformed America.

This is why so many of us have been shocked by the recent manifesto from the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) moving anti-Israel bigotry from the fringe to the center of its movement. The BLM Platform declares that Israel is an “apartheid state” that “practices systematic discrimination,” including “genocide . . . against the Palestinian people.” It supports the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel, and declares that “via U.S. support of Israel in the global war against terror, America is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinians.”

There have been various reports about the origins and inspiration of the BLM’s new Anti-Israel platform that libels democratic Israel—which gives its Arab citizens full civil rights—by equating it with Apartheid South Africa.

Now, an organization has stepped forward to claim partial pride of authorship. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) that describes itself as “the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society that leads the global [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] BDS movement… endorsed the inspiring and liberating policy platform issued last week by the Movement for Black Lives.”

The BNC claims that BLM’s anti-Israel platform grew out of 2015 meetings with “leaders from Black Lives Matter, the Dream Defenders and other organizations within the Movement for Black Lives. . . . The 2015 Black for Palestine statement shed a brilliant light on the organic relationship between the US’s domestic racial oppression and its racialized imperial oppression against people of color worldwide while sending a powerful message to all Palestinians about this movement’s commitment to solidarity with Palestinians and all oppressed people around the world.”

The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) cheers on the BLM Movement for having “shaken the system of racism and white supremacy that allows police to gun down black people with impunity, to cage black people in obscene numbers, and to systematically impoverish and degrade the black community as a whole.”

The Palestinian BDS National Committee singles out for special condemnation “anti-Palestinian groups in the U.S.”—that is, Jewish groups—“that work to protect Israel’s regime of colonial oppression by ensuring the unconditional flow of billions in US taxpayers money. . .  The latter feel that the growing joint struggle between Blacks and Palestinians, which is evolving through sustained and long-term intersectional grassroots efforts among our two communities and supported by progressive Jewish communities, may threaten US support for Israeli apartheid.”

Finally, the Palestinian BDS National Committee states that “the thinly-veiled racism”—that is, Jewish racism— “of the ‘white moderate’” is reminiscent of words spoken by Malcolm X.

Of course, these fanatics don’t remember that Malcolm, before his tragic assassination by hit men associated with Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic Nation of Islam (NOI), had second thoughts about his own earlier career with the NOI inflaming white-black relations in America. Nor do they remember that paragon of the civil rights movement and of African American-Jewish cooperation, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Just ten days before his assassination in Memphis in April 1968, King said: “I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can almost be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

Pro- Palestinian activists opportunistically showed up in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2015 carrying signs blaming Israel for anti-black police violence after riots erupted following the fatal shooting an 18-year-old African American man by a white police officer who was later exonerated.

Now, New York University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) alleges that Israel has African American blood on its hands. Under the hashtag— “#No Justice No Peace #From Gaza to Baton Rouge”—they accused Israel of responsibility for the shooting death in front of a convenience store by the police in Louisiana of an African American man Alton Sterling. An SJP post suggests that Sterling is the American equivalent of Ali Dawabsheh, a Palestinian baby killed in the West Bank.

Such false equivalencies libeling democratic Israel’s self-defense against Palestinian terrorism with the tragic consequences when African American men die, sometimes wrongly, at the hands of police are an insult to MLK’s memory. So too is the Black Lives Matter Movement’s new canard that Israel is guilty of “genocide” or “apartheid.”

African Americans and Jews need a new dialogue to build a revitalized civil rights alliance around issues like rectified police-community relations. Unfortunately, the Black Lives Matter Movement’s false screeds against Israel—encouraged and partly inspired by pro-Hamas fanatics—demonize American Jewry― including Progressive Jews who support Israel, and threaten future African American-Jewish cooperation.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean and co-founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center

New rail line to connect high-tech Tel Aviv with holy Jerusalem


Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are only 60 km (40 miles) apart but they often feel like different planets, not just in terms of mentality but because the commute from the Mediterranean to the hills can sometimes take two hours.

That is set to change in the next 18 months with the completion of a $2 billion, high-speed rail line that will slash the time between the high-tech, business center and Jerusalem's Old City to just 30 minutes.

After more than a decade in the planning, the project, which has involved boring tunnels through mountains and spanning bridges over deep valleys, promises to transform Israel's two largest cities, or at least bring them a little closer.

“We are doing in Israel what was done 200 years ago in the United States, after World War II in Europe and in recent decades in Asia,” Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said on Tuesday, touting several new rail lines in the works. “The main aim is to connect Jerusalem to the rest of the country.”

There is already a train between Jerusalem and the coast — built during the Ottoman empire and added to by the French and the British — but it's a slow, scenic route that takes an hour and 40 minutes, not ideal for commuting. That said, around 7,500 people still ride it most days.

The new line takes a more direct route, cutting through the steep hills between the Mediterranean and Jerusalem, which sits 800 meters (2,640 feet) above sea level.

Working with 10 foreign companies, the line runs over 10 bridges and through five tunnels. Construction began in 2010 and is scheduled to end in March 2018.

Double-decker trains holding around 1,700 passengers will travel at 160 km/h. The plan is for four departures an hour, serving 50,000 commuters a day, or 10 million a year, said Boaz Zafrir, the chief executive of Israel Railways.

Katz believes the train will give a jolt to Jerusalem's economy, encouraging more people from the coast to open businesses in the city, which is more religious and conservative than Tel Aviv. Some Tel Avivians, fed up with high rental costs and high humidity, may also decide to move to Jerusalem.

The new line also promises to be a boon for foreign diplomats, Israeli government employees and parliament members, many of whom live on the coast but commute to Jerusalem almost daily and often lament the traffic jams.

Survivor Sidi Grunstein Gluck: More than half a dozen camps, then liberation


“Whose child?” Dr. Josef Mengele demanded, looking down at Sidi Grunstein’s younger sister, Vera, age 6, who stood before him flanked by Sidi, 21, and their mother, tightly gripping their hands. No one spoke, and Mengele quickly dispatched them to a line of women and children. It was early June 1944, and their transport from Velky Sevlus, Czechoslovakia, had just pulled up to the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform, where they had been abruptly separated from Sidi’s father and three of her brothers. As Sidi continued walking with her mother and sister in the direction Mengele indicated, a man — “I don’t know who he was,” Sidi said — suddenly grabbed her, throwing her into another line. “Everything was happening so fast, I didn’t have time to even think about it,” she said.

Sidi was born in Velky Sevlus, Czechoslovakia (now Vynohradiv, Ukraine), on July 28, 1922, to Pinchas and Shari Grunstein. She was the oldest of six children, two girls and four boys. 

Well-to-do, the family lived in a large house, where Pinchas’ dental office and waiting room occupied the front rooms. While not strictly observant, the Grunstein family celebrated Shabbat and Jewish holidays. 

After completing Jewish elementary school, at 12, Sidi was sent to the Hebrew Gymnasium in Munkacs. There, in addition to the literature and history classes she loved, she was selected to take after-school art classes with the principal, himself an artist. These were her first formal art classes, although, she recalled, “I always scribbled and drew pictures.”

In March 1939, the Hungarians occupied Velky Sevlus, renaming it Nagyszollos. Still, the family was able to live a relatively calm life. Sidi, in fact, graduated from the gymnasium in 1941, at 18, then returned home to work tutoring children. 

One day in 1942, Sidi’s mother summoned her from the backyard to meet a visitor, a rabbi’s wife. “Show the lady your hand,” Shari said. Sidi refused, extending it only after Shari insisted. The woman traced two long, straight lines along Sidi’s palm, explaining that she rarely saw a hand like Sidi’s, and that she would live a long time and go to America. “That fact may have actually kept me alive,” Sidi said. 

On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary, and the following month, the Jews of Velky Sevlus were ordered into a ghetto. All eight Grunsteins lived in one room, sleeping on the floor. 

In May, as evacuations from the ghetto began, Sidi’s next-younger brother, Jean (also profiled in this series), decided to go into hiding with some friends. He asked to bring Sidi and two brothers with him, but his father refused. “Either you survive or we’ll survive,” Pinchas said, determined to keep the family together.

Soon after, on June 3, Sidi’s family, except for Jean, was marched to the train station and loaded onto the last transport leaving Velky Sevlus, huddling together in a corner of the cramped cattle car. “I want you to remember one thing,” Pinchas told his children. “What you put in here,” he pointed to his head, “no one can take away.” 

After Sidi was separated from her family at Auschwitz — “I never saw them again,” she said — she and the other young women selected to work were processed. They spent two nights sleeping outside near the latrines, and then were then transferred to an empty barracks, where they slept on the floor. 

On the morning of June 9, guards awakened the prisoners by hosing them down and then loading them onto cattle cars. They traveled two days to Riga, Latvia, where they were marched to a concentration camp, which Sidi believes was Kaiserwald and where she worked in a factory disassembling batteries. 

Soon after, Sidi and others were moved, again by cattle car, to Dundaga, a subcamp of Kaiserwald in northwest Latvia, and a few days later to Kurbe, another labor camp. There, they built their own tents and filled potato sacks with pine needles to serve as mattresses. 

After three or four weeks, the prisoners were marched farther north to Poperwahlen, a labor camp where they worked cutting down trees. On Sidi’s birthday, a girl ran away. The guards found her, brought her back and beat her. The block leader, a Jewish girl from Germany, then pulled Sidi from the line, and, perhaps because Sidi had been working next to the escapee, beat Sidi, as well.

But after several weeks, with the Soviets approaching, the Poperwahlen prisoners were marched to the port city of Libau, then transported by ship to the Stutthof concentration camp, 22 miles east of Danzig. Sidi heard that Esther Solomon, her best friend from Velky Sevlus, was in another section of the camp, and the two met at a wire fence that divided their sections. At Esther’s invitation, Sidi decided to join Esther’s group, somehow sneaking into her camp.

But the person whose place Sidi was supposed to be taking had not left the camp. And at the next appel (roll call), the guards counted and recounted, finding one person too many. Finally, somebody pointed to Sidi, who was pulled from the line, beaten with a baton and returned to her camp. When Sidi later ventured to the fence to speak with Esther, she learned Esther’s whole group had been taken away.  

Around October, Sidi was transferred with others to Sophienwalde, a Stutthof subcamp in eastern Poland. As the cold weather set in, Sidi was put to work building a railroad that, she believes, went nowhere. Then she was assigned to work for three female SS officers who lived in a barracks adjoining hers, cleaning and cooking for them. 

In February 1945, as Sophienwalde was being evacuated, Sidi refused to go, remaining instead in the barracks with the SS women. “I don’t care what happens. I’m not going to march again,” she told them. Sidi heard shooting. When it stopped, she and other prisoners who had hidden emerged, rejoicing. But Soviet soldiers soon arrived and, continuing to hold them prisoner, trucked them to the Lauenburg concentration camp. 

Then, on March 10, 1945, Lauenberg was officially liberated by the Soviets. But soon after the prisoners were freed, Sidi said, she and a group of 10 friends were all seized and raped by Soviet soldiers. Sidi doesn’t remember where her rapist dragged her, but she recalls crying and saying, “We were praying to be liberated by you. And this is what you do to us.” The soldier responded that she was free and would go on to live her life. “We’re still soldiers,” he said. “We could be killed tomorrow.”

A couple of weeks later, suffering from a high fever and infection caused by the rape, Sidi was hospitalized for four weeks or more. 

Sidi then traveled to Velky Sevlus. She didn’t find any relatives, but she did learn that Jean had survived. As she made her way to see him in Bucharest, Romania, she changed trains in Satu Mare, where she ran into him as he was switching trains to visit her in Velky Sevlus.

Later, with Jean focused on reaching Palestine, Sidi sneaked across the border to Prague, where, keeping a promise to her father to finish her education, she studied art at Charles University. 

Then, under the sponsorship of an aunt, Sidi immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York on April 8, 1948. 

Later that year, Sidi moved to Schenectady,  N.Y., where she taught preschool and Hebrew school until 1951. During this time, she worked hard to lose her accent so people wouldn’t question her about her background. 

After a stay in Montreal, Sidi returned to New York, in June 1952. The following year, on July 4, she met Peter Gluck, a survivor from Czechoslovakia. They married on Dec. 23, 1956, and moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Peter worked as a chemical engineer at the Battelle Memorial Institute. 

Sidi again taught preschool and Hebrew school. She then enrolled at Ohio State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in education in 1963, a master’s in painting in 1968, and a master’s of fine arts in 1971. 

In 1972, Sidi and Peter moved to Los Angeles, where Sidi taught art at Charles Drew Middle School from 1975 to 1992. 

Peter died on Jan. 28, 2015. 

Sidi’s artwork, which consists primarily of abstract and often large oils, acrylics and prints, has been displayed in exhibitions as well as private and institutional collections. Only one painting, “The March,” directly depicts the Holocaust. “I did not try to tell my sad story in my artwork,” she said. 

Until Aug. 14, more than 20 of Sidi’s oil paintings and prints, made from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, are on display at the Alice-Rice Gallery in Laguna Beach.  

While Sidi, now 94, has always answered specific questions about her Holocaust experiences, she has agreed to be interviewed in depth only twice: by the USC Shoah Foundation in 1995 and by the Jewish Journal for this profile.

“I didn’t think too much about what happened to me, but at night I was always crying in my heart for losing everybody,” she said. “To this day, I’m still dreaming how I lost the family.”

The Alice-Rice Gallery is located at 484 N. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. For more information, call (562) 480-6177.

Elie Wiesel, the moral force who made sure we will never forget the evil of the Holocaust


Elie Wiesel, the world’s best-known and most-influential Holocaust survivor, is no longer. His death at 87, announced July 2, makes us ever more acutely aware that we are coming to the end of an era. Soon, all too soon, there will be no survivors.

Elie Wiesel was a unique figure among American Jewish leaders. Neither the director of an organization nor the head of a movement, he had no real institutional base. Unlike Gershom Scholem, Raul Hilberg or Jacob Neusner, Wiesel did not define an academic field. He was not associated with any theological or historical doctrine. He was not a rabbi, though long ago professor Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary offered to ordain him.

He was, as he liked to say, a wandering maggid going from community to community, from venue to venue, from synagogues and universities, gatherings, demonstrations and conferences, national capitals and political forums, speaking to an ever-changing global audience. His message was: Remember the Holocaust; remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future.

Read more at forward.com.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. He oversaw the creation of the USHMM from 1988 to 1993, serving as its project director and as director of the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute.

Marking 70th anniversary of Jewish massacre, Polish president slams anti-Semitism


The president of Poland strongly condemned anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and xenophobia in leading the commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Jews after World War II.

Andrzej Sebastian Duda spoke Monday in the southeastern town of Kielce, where communist police and a mob killed 42 — nearly all Jews — on July 4, 1946.

“In a free, sovereign and independent Poland, there is no room for any form of prejudice, for racism, for xenophobia, for anti-Semitism,” Duda said, according to remarks carried by the Polish news agency PAP, The Associated Press reported.

Coming so soon after the Holocaust, the killings — spurred by a false rumor that returning Jews had attacked a local boy — sent a wave of fearful Jews out of Poland and left those remaining afraid of living in their homeland. Poland had an estimated 250,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors in a pre-World War II Jewish population of 3.5 million.

In recent months, Duda has strongly condemned anti-Semitism and xenophobia several times after sending mixed messages on matters of prejudice since the election last year that brought his coalition to power, AP reported.

A day earlier, the prime minster of Poland in a message to a Kielce commemoration said there is no place for racist violence in her country.

Andrzej Bialek, the vice president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, which organized the commemoration, read aloud a letter from the prime minister, Beata Szydlo, to the gathering of some 200 people.

“Seventy years ago, shortly after the devastating war and the Holocaust drama, in Kielce again flowed the blood of innocent people,” the letter said.

Szydlo said there was no provocation that can be an used as an excuse for anti-religious and racist violence. She said the tragedy is still being studied by historians.

Anna Azari, the Israeli ambassador to Poland, also spoke at the ceremony, saying “We have to act together against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”

Bogdan Bialek, the Karski Foundation official who organized the ceremony, spoke of a world without violence and hatred.

“We do not gather here in this place against anyone, even against those whom we think in our minds as our opponents, and perhaps – God forbid – as enemies,” Bialek said. “We gather here for us, for all people, for a better future.”

The Jan Karski Educational Foundation, named for the Polish underground fighter and righteous gentile who was among the first to report the dimensions of the Nazi genocide, promotes Catholic-Jewish interchanges and seeks to instill Karski’s example in young people.

Elie Wiesel: A personal reflection


In Elie Wiesel’s book-lined office, there were no photos of the many world leaders with whom he met. In fact, there was only one photo.  It sat propped on his desk facing him.

In 1991, I wanted to engage in public dialogue with someone who had influenced the political, social or religious landscape of our world. I had met Professor Wiesel through my work at the 92nd Street Y in New York and it was suggested to me that I approach him.

Chances were slim that he would agree. Why might he be willing to give a recently ordained rabbi such an opportunity? To my surprise, he invited me to his home to further discuss the idea. After the doorman telephoned my arrival, I took the elevator to an upper floor. When the doors opened in the hallway, there stood a waiting Elie Wiesel, who warmly walked me into his apartment office. What I would later learn is that such personal grace was extended to everyone around him.

I shared with him that I was looking to have a wide-ranging, unrehearsed, dialogue based on the underlying values that shaped his life. At the end of our meeting, he said, “I like beginnings,” and some nine months later, he joined me and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin on the stage of the 92nd Street Y. Every seat in the iconic Kaufmann Concert Hall was filled.

What I could not have dreamed was that in the next two decades, we would engage in seven public dialogues, some televised to a national audience. It was also the beginning of a friendship.

During those dialogues (in New York and more recently at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles), we spoke about every imaginable subject: theology, the existence of evil, world events … and we explored the more rarely seen personal side of Professor Wiesel, leading to some moving moments.

One moment that stands out was his response to my question as to why he and others survived the Holocaust. Expecting something profound, his one-word reply took me aback.

Luck.

Later I came to realize the profundity of his response. Many have spoken about the will of those who survived. I am sure that survivors had extraordinary will. And yet, we know that hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered within moments of arrival at the death camps. To suggest they lacked such will, would have been affront to their memory.

I was blessed to be able to seek Elie’s advice on personal matters. When my wife and I were contemplating a move from New York back to our hometown of Los Angeles, I met with him. I told him we were torn between professional opportunity and family. His initial response was to encourage me to stay in New York. I shared that we wanted our young children to grow up near their grandparents and to be with them on Shabbat. Upon hearing this, his eyes lit up and his magnificent smile bloomed. He gave me his blessing.

My beloved father, Sam, of blessed memory, spent much of his teenage years in the concentration camps of Dora, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. His parents were murdered in Auschwitz and four of his five siblings did not survive. My father rarely spoke of what he experienced and what he witnessed.

We are the last generation that will ever meet a Holocaust survivor. There are few of these precious men and women remaining. I implore you to meet them and to talk to them. Take your children. You will have done something beautiful for them and for you.

And what of the lone photo in his office? I had noticed the back of the small photo on his paper laden desk (Professor Wiesel wrote his books on neither computer nor typewriter. He wrote longhand.) on many occasions. My curiosity elevated, I finally asked him the content. He and I were seated in front of the desk and together we waked around to view it.

It was a picture of a modest home. He said it was the home where he lived as a child, in Sighet, Romania.

He never wanted to forget where he came from. He didn’t, and we, his legions of readers and listeners, will not either.

Yechi zichro baruch.


David Woznica is a rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple.

Jewish community reacts to the death of Elie Wiesel


Marilyn Harran, Director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University

Harran knew Elie Wiesel from the four years during which he visited as a distinguished scholar. On the day of his death, she sent the following message to the Rodgers Center board:

This is a very difficult day. What Elie meant to our Chapman program and to me is more than I can ever adequately express. Elie liked to say “life is not made up of years, but of moments,” and I think he found his moments at Chapman, particularly with our students, among the most meaningful of the latter years of his life. He was described by the Nobel Committee as a “messenger to mankind,” which, of course, he was, but I think he treasured even more than the Nobel Prize and all the other accolades he received, the title of teacher. Elie taught not only in the classroom and in his books but through his very being in the world. He struggled to understand throughout his life after the Holocaust how human beings could murder one another, and he struggled to understand how both the divine and much of humankind could be seemingly silent while genocide occurred. A lesser person might have given up struggling, but not Elie. He remained true to his Hasidic upbringing, saying even though he might not dress like a Hasid, he was a Hasid, and he continued to be a devout Jew. He believed his Judaism drew him closer to all of humanity, and so it did. His kindness and gentleness of spirit were unfailing. Sometimes I wondered if he really knew he was famous. He was undemanding and always grateful even for the smallest of thoughtful gestures. I think back to some of the moments I think he most enjoyed at Chapman, and I remember how much he liked “surprises.” He never really wanted to know in advance what I had planned for his time at Chapman, and I think sometimes he just tuned me out when I went into painfully precise, minute by minute detail, of what his stay four months later would include. That in itself I found remarkable. It speaks to his anticipation and hope for the good, even when it meant being vulnerable to pain. He believed even when he suffered the most in the human possibilities to be and to do good. He inspired us all to try to meet his hopes, to be better individuals, and to create a world where no child would suffer as he did.

There is much more I could write, but in the end, words will not express either the depth of my grief and my gratitude for all he has given to Chapman, to our students, and to me. I know the traditional Jewish statement is “may his name be forever a blessing.” I believe with all my heart his name will be that forever.


Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister

The State of Israel and the Jewish people mourn the passing of Elie Wiesel. Through his unforgettable books, moving words and personal example, Elie personified the triumph of the human spirit over the most unimaginable evil. Out of the darkness of the Holocaust, Elie became a powerful force for light, truth and dignity. His life and work were a great blessing to the Jewish people, the Jewish state and to all humanity.

I feel fortunate to have known him and to have learned from his prodigious wisdom. On behalf of all the people of Israel, Sara and I send condolences to the entire Wiesel family. May the memory of Elie Wiesel, a towering spirit who taught us all to remember, be forever blessed.


David N. Myers, Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA

Elie Wiesel z”l was a towering figure of the post-WWII era.  He symbolized–in word, deed, and physical presence–the fragility, the sadness, the misfortune, the luck, and the truth borne by the Holocaust survivor.  He remained to his last days a great and passionate lover of his people, even though his ability to believe in its God was shaken.  And he translated the moral urgency of the Shoah into an imperative to act on behalf of humanity writ large. 

In taking stock of his legacy, one must note that there may have been greater writers (such as Primo Levi).  One must also note that there was one noticeable limit to his compassion.   Like many Jews of his generation for whom the experience of the Shoah was so searing, he was not able to grasp the pain of suffering of Palestinians.  I think I understand why that was so.  

Yet, even in this way, Wiesel captured the complicated essence of the human experience.  In so many other ways, he was the voice of conscience of our world, a living reminder of the darkness of history, the necessity of memory, and the possibility of hope.  Our world is far more impoverished without him.  Yehi zikhro barukh.


Simon Wiesenthal Center

Elie Wiesel was the voice of the Holocaust for tens of millions of people around the world. His stories about his horrific experiences as a child during the Shoah and his struggle to find meaning and hope after the Nazi Holocaust touched the lives of people everywhere. He was also an early champion of Soviet Jewry, helping to arouse the consciousness of American Jewry to rise in protest over the treatment of millions of 3 million Jews who were on the verge of suffering a cultural genocide.

Dr. Wiesel also was unafraid of confronting the powerful when necessary—from urging international action in Cambodia or Bosnia to protesting President Reagan’s visit to a SS cemetery in Germany or denouncing President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. He Jewish moral voice will be sorely missed.


Chabad

Elie Wiesel, who perpetuated the memory of the Holocaust, championed international recognition of evil in all its forms, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, passed away yesterday at 87. From their first meeting in 1960, Wiesel formed a deep relationship with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who he considered to be his spiritual guide and with whom he engaged in deep correspondences regarding G-d, life after the Holocaust, as well as very personal matters. It was the Rebbe who persuaded Wiesel to marry, with Wiesel remembering years later: “The greatest bouquet of flowers I ever received was from the Rebbe for my wedding.”


Katrina Wtulich 

I was fortunate to have met Elie Wiesel during his visits to Chapman University where he held a five year appointment as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. As a part of the Holocaust History program, I took a course that focused on his life and literary works. It was a huge honor to have been his student and unquestionably the highlight of my college education. He was able to bring out the deepest emotions through his poetic words whilst his classes centered on dialogue which made him feel like our friend. 

He was a passionate writer, husband, Jew, and teacher but what I remember most about Professor Wiesel was his optimism and ability to live his life with fervor. I will always be in awe of how he found enjoyment and laughter despite his heavy burdens and the haunting memories of his past. He could easily have chosen to be depressed or to stay silent but instead he used his voice to represent the voiceless, the oppressed, and the murdered.

With the passing of Elie Wiesel and other survivors I find myself concerned for the future memory of the Holocaust. Will people still find meaning in first-hand accounts or artifacts in museums that once meant so much to one survivor? I really hope so, I certainly will.

Elie Wiesel’s literary legacy and life will not be forgotten. My fond memories of him will inspire me to question all things even if it appears there are no answers, to be proactive against indifference, and to be optimistic in the collective memory of the Holocaust.

Tunnel used by Jews in Lithuania to escape Nazis uncovered


A tunnel in Lithuania used by Jewish prisoners to escape the Nazis has been uncovered by an international research team near Vilnius.

The Israel Antiquities Authority in a statement Wednesday announced the discovery of the 100-foot-long tunnel at the Ponar Forest massacre site.

Ponar prisoners used the tunnel, which was located with a new technology called electrical resistivity tomography, an imaging technique used to find underground structures.

Along with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the tunnel was found through the efforts of the University of Hartford, Advisian, the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum and the PBS series “Nova.”

Some 100,000 people, of whom 70,000 were Jews from Vilnius and the surrounding area, were massacred and thrown into pits in the Ponar forest near the Lithuanian capital during World War II. With the retreat of the German forces on the eastern front and the advance of the Red Army, a special unit formed in 1943 was tasked with covering up the tracks of the genocide. In Ponar, the assignment was given to a group of 80 inmates from the Stutthof concentration camp.

At night the prisoners, whose legs were shackled, were held in a deep pit previously used for the execution of Vilnius Jews. During the day they worked to hide the mass graves and burn the corpses.

Some of the workers decided to escape by digging a tunnel from the pit that was their prison. For three months they dug using only spoons and their hands.

On the night of  April, 15, 1944, the prisoners cut their leg shackles with a nail file, and 40 of them crawled through the narrow tunnel. They were quickly discovered by the guards and many were shot. Some 15 managed to cut the fence of the camp and escape into the forest. Eleven reached the partisan forces and survived the war.

After World War II the location of the tunnel was lost; several attempts to find it were unsuccessful.

“Nova” is planning to screen a documentary next year on the history of the Jews of Vilnius and the discovery of the tunnel. The partners in the discovery plan to expose the tunnel for public viewing as part of the memorial for the victims of Vilnius and the surrounding area, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar,” Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority said in the statement. “This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation. The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”

94-year-old Nazi war criminal deemed unfit to stand trial in Germany


Prosecutors in Stuttgart are shelving their war crimes investigation of a 94-year-old man who already was convicted of Nazi war crimes in Italy.

Former SS soldier Wilhelm Kusterer of Engelsbrand —  who was found guilty of involvement in the massacre of 770 civilians in Marzabotto, Italy, in 1944 and sentenced to life in prison in absentia in 2008 — was too ill to stand trial, the prosecutors said. A spokesman for the prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to get a conviction in Germany, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The German investigation was launched in 2013.

In March 2015, Kusterer, who had served for years in the Engelsbrand parliament as a member of the Social Democratic Party, received an honorary medal for social services from his town. But he returned the medal last March following protests mounted from Italy against honoring a convicted war criminal.

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