When a Jewish Holocaust survivor ‘pissed’ on Hitler’s henchman


It sounds like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film. 

A Holocaust survivor, whose mother and sister were killed in the genocide, said he locked a powerful Nazi prisoner in a shed for three days, made him strip naked and “pissed” on his face, “This American Life,” the weekly public radio show, reported Sunday.

“I told him, from now on, you sleep naked on this cold floor. You will not move,” Werner Meritz said.

“And with that, I pissed all over him. Terrible thing to tell you. His head and everywhere. … I said, you’re just to lie there to get some sense of what you Nazis did to the Jews.”

The captured Nazi was Julius Streicher, a friend and protégé of Adolf Hitler and the publisher of the notorious anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer. His tormentor was one of a number of Jewish refugees from Europe who were recruited by the American military to interrogate Nazi prisoners during World War II.

Meritz recalled his actions to rangers from Fort Hunt Park in Virginia, who in 2006 discovered that their national park was once the location for the secret military interrogation project, code-named P.O. Box 1142.

“These men were specifically recruited because they spoke German and because they understood the nuances of German culture and psychology, slang, cultural references, small details that an American would miss,” explained radio producer Karen Duffin.

After spending three months at Buchenwald in 1938, Meritz came to the United States and worked on the project,for two years. He then travelled to Europe near the end of the war to track down and interrogate Nazis there.

When he captured StreicherMeritz “flipped out,” in the words of radio producer Karen Duffin.

Trembling and crying with rage, Werner said he took told his fellow soldiers he was going to exact vengeance.

“I was enraged. I was trembling. There were tears in my eyes that I had captured this guy. I had him to myself,” he said.

“I explained to the MPs, I’m gonna do things, you probably think I’m crazy. And you wanna know something? I am crazy. I’m crazed. I captured a Nazi of unbelievable mischief. … I’m gonna do what I have to do.”

After three days of feeding Streicher only potato skins that he had also urinated on, Mertiz handed his prisoner off to American officers. Streicher was later one of 11 Nazis sentenced to death in the Nuremberg Trials. Meritz went on to start his own textile business. He died in 2010. His daughter described him as a sharp dresser with a well-trimmed mustache and strong opinions.

Duffin said the records of Streicher’s capture are “spotty and contradictory,” and usually someone else is credited with capturing him. But an expert at the National Archives told her he thought Werner could have done what he said he did.

If true, Merlitz’s account would be an exception to the norm at P.O. Box 1142. The military trained the men to use nonviolent and even friendly interrogation tactics, according to Duffin, who reviewed 70 interviews the rangers conducted with former interrogators and interviewed 10 of the interrogators or their families herself. She also obtained over 1,000 pages of previously classified files about the program.

“Try to make the prisoner feel that you’re his friend, the first one he’s met since his capture. All are human underneath. Our interrogator’s job is to play upon those weaknesses to help make up the complete intelligence picture,” a World War II interrogation training film featured in the report instructs.

While many of the Jewish former interrogators were happy to help the U.S. defeat the Nazis, some struggled with the policy of being chummy with the prisoners, who had just help drive them out of their countries and in some cases kill their loved ones.

Having signed a secrecy agreement with the army, most of the former interrogators did not speak about their work for more than 60 years, even to their wives and children. Then, in 2006, army intelligence cleared them to talk to the park rangers.

P.O. Box 1142 was the first strategic American effort at interrogation, and it worked.

“By the end of the war, they’d extracted a ton of really important intelligence about where the allies should bomb, about German weapons still being developed, about the structure of the German army. One of the Enigma machines was captured using intel discovered at P.O. Box 1142,” Duffin said, referring to the 

At the end of the war, the program’s mission changed from interrogating Nazis to wining and dining them in an attempt to recruit them to the American side, especially scientists who could also be valuable to the Russians.

Arno Mayer, 88, who escaped the Nazi occupation of  Luxembourg and went on to become a history professor at Princeton University, was tasked with charming Wernher von Braun, the famed Nazi rocket scientists who later helped the U.S. get to the moon, appeared on the cover of Time magazine and befriended President John F. Kennedy. Mayer recalled taking Nazis shopping at a Jewish department stores in Washington, D.C. on a lark, but told Duffin he regretted not being more subversive.

“I should have told them to go to hell, but I didn’t do it. I was a coward. I mean I only exploded once. I could have exploded many other times,” he said.

The men who participated in P.O. Box 1142 went on to become lawyers, a CIA agent, an ambassador, head of the Culinary Institute of America, conductor of the Chicago Chamber Orchestra and the richest man in America in the 1980s, John Kluge.

 

Salvadoran savior of tens of thousands of Jews honored in Germany


An army colonel and diplomat from El Salvador who helped save tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution during World War II by providing them with false Salvadoran identity papers was honored in Germany.

The tribute to Jose Arturo Castellanos, who served as El Salvador’s consul general in Geneva, was held last week by Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Relations and the Berlin Jewish Center, the Elsalvador.com news portal reported.

The film ‘The Rescue,” which documents Castellanos’ little-known but heroic acts during the Holocaust, was screened to the audience, which included El Salvador’s ambassador in Germany, José Atilio Benitez Parada.

Yad Vashem representative Sandra Witte said that Castellanos, who was recognized posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust memorial and museum in 2010, is a distinguished icon among all saviors.

“We can say that very few are like Jose Castellanos or Raoul Wallenberg, who have saved several thousands. And it happened in times that they say there was no margin for action and nothing could have been done. Castellanos proved something can be done,” Witte said.

Felix Klein, a German foreign affairs diplomat, said Castellanos’ example shows that denying the Holocaust is inconsistent.

“If a diplomat from a foreign country could be aware, many Germans could be, too,” he said.

While in Switzerland during World War II, Castellanos befriended George Mandel, a Hungarian-Jewish businessman. Castellanos appointed his friend, who adopted the more Spanish- or Italian-sounding name of George Mandel-Mantello, to serve as the consulate’s first secretary, a fictitious title.

They issued passports or visas identifying thousands of European Jews as citizens of El Salvador to save the holders from the Nazis. In 1944, this relatively small-scale distribution of Salvadoran documents became almost a mass production.

Eventually Castellanos realized that he could not issue the documents quickly enough to save most Jews. So he and Mandel-Mantello secretly distributed more than 13,000 “certificates of Salvadoran citizenship” to Central European Jews, which allowed them to receive the protection of the International Red Cross and eventually the Swiss consul in Budapest. Due to these efforts, now called the “El Salvador Action,” at least 25,000 Jews were saved.

Italy releases classified documents related to Nazi war crimes


The Italian government has released thousands of previously classified documents related to fascist and Nazi war crimes committed in Italy during World War II.

On Tuesday, the historical archives of the Chamber of Deputies put an index of some 13,000 pages of material on its website. The documents concerned specifics of crimes ranging from anti-Jewish persecution to massacres of civilians that in total resulted in 15,000 deaths.

Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called the move a “historic breakthrough.”

The documents were declassified by a parliamentary commission after it investigated the concealing of files related to the crimes. Specifically, the commission had dealt with what was dubbed the “cabinet of shame” – a wooden cabinet discovered in 1994 in a storeroom of the military prosecutor’s headquarters in which 695 files on war crimes had been hidden for decades. Original documents were hidden in the cabinet.

Users can consult the online index and request digital copies of specific documents.

Opening the cabinet of shame to the public, Gattegna said, “fills a serious gap and announces the start of a new season of awareness about the crimes and responsibilities of fascism and Nazism in Italy.”

In Japan, the Holocaust provides a lesson in dangers of nationalism


In the auditorium of this country’s main Holocaust education center, a teenage actor explains the dilemma that faced a Japanese diplomat during World War II.

“My conscience tells me I must act a certain way, but doing so means defying my commanders,” says the actor portraying Chiune Sugihara, the Empire of Japan’s wartime vice consul in Lithuania. In 1940, Sugihara rescued 6,000 people by granting them transit visas to Japan in defiance of Tokyo’s orders. Some of them survived the war.

To Western ears, the play’s message of placing independent thought above blind obedience may seem banal. But in an increasingly militaristic Japan, Sugihara’s story is instructive — a tool for sensitizing children to the dangers of nationalism not only in Europe, but also in Japan.

“It’s a bold position to take in a society that has remained ultra-conservative and extremely hierarchical,” said Alain Lewkowicz, a French Jewish journalist who has studied Japanese society’s attitudes toward the Holocaust.

Since it opened in 1995, the Fukuyama Holocaust Education Center — situated just outside Fukuyama and about 60 miles from Hiroshima, the site of an atomic bomb in 1945 — has welcomed tens of thousands of Japanese schoolchildren. Founded by Beit Shalom, a Kyoto-based Christian pro-Israel organization, the center relocated in 2007 to a larger, donor-funded 20,000-square-foot facility.

(Beit Shalom’s theater troupe’s is now preparing for its first international tour in nine years. The group, which will perform in the United States this spring, is composed of 20 Japanese girls who sing in Yiddish and Hebrew about such themes as life in wartime Jewish ghettos.)

At the heart of the building is a Holocaust museum with a display about the buildup of hate against Jews in Germany and replicas of the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the Auschwitz gate. The center also features a replica of the Amsterdam room inside the annex where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis, as well as objects that belonged to her family. The garden is home to a statue of the teenage diarist and a sapling that is actually a cutting from the tree that once grew outside the building where the Frank family hid.

While Anne Frank is well known in Japan, the strong alliance and similarities that connected the island nation to Nazi Germany — during World War II, Japan, Germany and Italy made up the Axis alliance — are rarely taught in schools here. Similarly, speaking about Japanese war crimes of the 1930s and ’40s — including mass murder in Nanking, China, and the forced sexual slavery of tens of thousands of Korean women — is largely taboo in a country whose right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has repeatedly visited a shrine that was built for some of the perpetrators.

Abe’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine remains a major point of contention between Tokyo and the capital cities of Beijing and Seoul. China and Korea have warned Abe not to backtrack on his partial admission to Japan’s wartime atrocities when he delivers a speech later this year on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.

Abe has promised “a departure from the postwar regime” and said he regretted that he had not visited Yasukuni sooner. Meanwhile, he has been expanding Japan’s military capabilities to unprecedented levels after ending in July a ban on operations abroad that had been established soon after World War II ended. His government is also encouraging military recruitment and exploring for the first time in decades the possibility of acquiring offensive weapons.

Against this backdrop, independent NGOs like the Holocaust Education Center are “taking up the educational task that the government is neglecting on purpose because it wants to promote a more nationalistic agenda,” said Naoki Maruyama, a professor of history at Japan’s Meiji Gakuin University.

The passage in 2003 of controversial education reforms that reintroduced such nationalistic elements as obligatory anthem singing, patriotism lessons and the flying of the national flag in schools, he added, suggests that it might be a while before schools tackle any of these divisive issues in a manner comparable to what has been done in postwar Germany.

“We have not given much attention to educating children to think about why the war happened and how to prevent a reoccurrence,” said Makoto Otsuka, a reverend at Beit Shalom and the center’s director. “More than anything else, this is what the Holocaust Education Center tries to do.”

Japanese educators, he added, typically teach about the use by the United States of atomic weapons in Japan to “show how much Japan suffered as the victim,” but have failed to follow the example of Germany, where “it is now required to look back objectively at the facts of history.”

Neither the Holocaust nor Japan’s wartime occupation of Asian countries and human rights abuses against prisoners of war are mandatory subjects in the national history curriculum of schools.

And the Holocaust Education Center here does not deal directly with Japan’s war crimes either, said Akio Yoshida, the museum’s deputy director, citing the “need to focus on that uniqueness of the Holocaust to prevent it from blurring with other events that were war-related, including the actions of Japanese troops in Korea and China, or the atomic bomb.”

Instead, Yoshida said he hopes that teaching the Holocaust in Japan “will expose children to the process of indoctrination that preceded the murders, and leave it to them to make the final conclusion about which path they want their society to take.”

Words as weapons in new film ‘Diplomacy’


As American and Free French divisions closed in on Nazi-occupied Paris in late August 1944, Hitler issued a clear order to the commander of Wehrmacht troops in the French capital.

Before evacuating the City of Light, the Führer told Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz to blow up such landmarks as the Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre museum, Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde and Arc de Triomphe.

As a finishing touch, German sappers would blow up all 23 bridges across the Seine.

Von Choltitz was the right man to carry out such barbarous orders. The scion of generations of Prussian soldiers and the most highly decorated German soldier of World War II, he had proven in the destruction of Rotterdam and Sevastopol and the extermination of Crimean Jews that he would obey any order — whatever his personal reservations.

As the movie “Diplomacy” opens, it is the night of Aug. 24, 1944, stretching in to the wee hours of the following morning, and the exploding shells of the approaching Allied armies can be heard in the distance, as von Choltitz, in his headquarters at the Hotel Meurice, checks the final preparations for blowing up Paris.

Suddenly, by way of a secret passage unknown to the Germans, Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling enters. The German and the Swede had met before, and Nordling has taken upon himself the almost hopeless mission of persuading von Choltitz to ignore Hitler’s orders and evacuate the city, leaving it intact.

What follows is a nightlong battle of wits and character between von Choltitz and Nordling, on whose outcome depends the fate of the city.

Given the streams of tourists that still enjoy the glorious panorama of Paris each year, it is obvious that, in the end, the Swede convinced the general to spare the city, but in re-creating this battle of wits between the two men, the outcome feels by no means certain.

Von Choltitz is not a stupid man — he realizes that Germany has lost the war and that Hitler is teetering on the edge of insanity — but he cannot shake his reflexive obedience to a superior’s orders.

At one point, the general recalls that the most difficult order he had ever received was to liquidate all Jews on the Crimean Peninsula, but that he “executed the order in its entirety, nevertheless.”

Amid the mental and moral struggle and the uprising of French partisans in the streets outside, phone calls come from Berlin in which the Führer demands to know, “Is Paris burning?”

Still, there’s an occasional flash of sheer absurdity. Two wounded German soldiers who had managed to evade the encircling Allied troops arrive with a demand from SS Chief Heinrich Himmler.

Before the Louvre is blown up, they report, Himmler wants to extract some specific tapestries and paintings for his private collection.

In the battle of arguments between von Choltitz and Nordling, during which the Swedish envoy notes that his wife is Jewish, the German holds one trump card.

Hitler has just promulgated an edict that if any German officer should disobey his orders or desert his post, the officer’s immediate family will be executed or sent to a concentration camp.  

Von Choltitz, the father of two daughters and a newly born son, turns to Nordling and asks, “If you were in my place, what would you do?”

It is a variation on the question facing every thinking man or woman after the Holocaust. If a Jewish child had knocked on your door in the middle of the night asking for shelter, and you knew that if you took the Jew in and were caught, you and your family would likely be killed, what would you have done?

After considerable hesitation, Nordling answers truthfully, “I do not know what I would do.”

The drama inherent in the survival of perhaps the world’s most beautiful city has yielded a considerable literary output.

In the chaos surrounding the downfall of the Third Reich, von Choltitz managed to escape Hitler’s wrath. He was taken prisoner by the Allies, but was released after two years and went on to write his version of history in the book “Brennt Paris?”

This title, translated into English, was appropriated in the mid-1960s by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their best-seller, “Is Paris Burning?” The title and plotline became a movie in 1966, with a stellar cast including Orson Welles as the Swedish diplomat and Kirk Douglas (as U.S. Gen. George Patton), Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Simone Signoret, Glenn Ford and Yves Montand.

More recently, French author Cyril Gely adopted some of the material into his play “Diplomatie,” which in turn was adapted by German director Volker Schlondorff for his movie “Diplomacy.”

He also took over the two principal, and superb, actors in the play, Niels Arestrup, son of a Danish father and a French mother, as von Choltitz, and Andre Dussollier as Nordling.

Except for an occasional barked German command, the entire movie is in French with English subtitles.

Schlondorff, born in Germany but educated in France, has frequently returned to World War II themes in such movies as “The Tin Drum,” “The Ogre” and “The Ninth Day.” He is a man given to straightforward answers, as I discovered 13 years ago when I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times.

“ ‘Diplomacy,’ like the play on which it is based, is not a documentary but a drama,” Schlondorff said. “Von Choltitz and Nordling knew each other, but there was no crucial all-night session, and no secret staircase leading to the general’s office.”

Furthermore, one school of thought holds that it was not Nordling, but Pierre Taittinger, head of the Paris municipal council and a collaborator during the German occupation, who persuaded von Choltitz to spare the city from destruction.

Another theory has it that von Choltitz decided that he could disobey Hitler’s orders, not through appeals to his conscience, but because the general had gradually recognized that the Führer had gone mad.

Nevertheless, by its actions, the post-war French government has given credence to the play’s central thesis. In Paris, a park and a street have been renamed in Nordling’s honor. More surprisingly, when von Choltitz died in Germany in 1964, high-ranking French officers attended his funeral.

Schlondorff said that what attracted him to the material was a chance to highlight the importance to Europe of the French-German relationship.

He criticized his country for using its economic muscle against European Union countries “we once occupied” but sees a deeper meaning in the movie.

Ultimately, he said, “What we must examine is the power of words against weapons.”

 “Diplomacy” opens Nov. 7 at the Laemmle Royal, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5 and Claremont 5. 

70 years on, a missing private comes home


The scene at Arlington National Cemetery last Friday was not quite routine, but nor was it unusual: A clergyman said a prayer, an army NCO handed Bernard Gavrin’s closest living relative a folded U.S. flag, and a volunteer — one of the “Arlington Ladies” who attend to the needs of grieving military families — offered words of comfort.

Gavrin stood out for two reasons: The clergyman, Marvin Bash, was a rabbi, and David Rogers, Gavrin’s nephew receiving the flag, last saw his uncle more than 70 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he kissed him goodnight.

Gavrin, a U.S. Army private first class, was part of an invasion force in the Pacific island of Saipan, then occupied by Japan, in June 1944. The Japanese subjected the forces to suicide attacks, killing and injuring over 900 U.S. soldiers. But Gavrin’s remains were only found recently in Saipan and returned stateside.

“I was 8 years old living in an apartment with my parents,” Rogers, 82, told JTA in a phone interview from Delray Beach, Fla., where he now lives. “I had had a playground accident and went to bed early. He came into my room and kissed me on my forehead.”

Not long after, Gavrin enlisted. Rogers’ next memory of his uncle — his mother’s younger brother — came four years later, in the summer of 1944.

“I was 12 and I was living in the same house my grandmother lived in when a telegram came telling her her son was missing in action,” Rogers said. “She let out a scream I can remember to this day.”

Gavrin was 29.

When Gavrin was declared presumed dead a year later, the family hung a gold star on the window.

“In November 1948, the American Graves Registration Services reviewed the circumstances of Gavrin’s loss and concluded his remains were non-recoverable,” the Pentagon said in a Sept. 10 release outlining the events leading to the recovery of Gavrin’s remains.

It wasn’t until September 2013, when Japanese researchers scouring Saipan — now a U.S. territory — for the remains of Japanese troops uncovered a grave with the remains of four U.S. soldiers, including a bone, a shoe and a dog tag belonging to Gavrin. They turned over the remains to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.

U.S. officials tracked down Gavrin’s two cousins, living in the Washington, D.C., area, and referred them to Rogers, who also had lived for years in suburban Maryland and worked in the garment trade. As the son of Gavrin’s sister, he was the likeliest to be a DNA match.

In May, Rogers, himself a Korean War veteran, got the news: He was a match. The Pentagon asked the family where they wanted to bury Gavrin, and they opted for Arlington.

So early Friday afternoon, under a cloud-dappled blue sky and with a light breeze caressing Arlington’s trimmed lawns, Gavrin was buried with full military honors. Bash, a retired northern Virginia congregational rabbi, delivered a short service, starting “Today, we go back in time.”

For the Kaddish, several members of Gavrin’s extended family — about 40 in all attended the service — joined in, and the rhythmic Aramaic incantations of the memorial prayer rose above the breeze and the murmur of distant traffic.

Three volleys were fired. A casket team folded the flag and Sgt. Jason Lewis, a representative of the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry regiment, knelt and presented it to Rogers. The U.S. Army band, Pershing’s Own, twice played “Yigdal Elohim Hai,” a hymn, while the casket team brought the casket graveside and “America the Beautiful” as the team folded the flag. A bugler sounded taps.

On Monday, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo ordered flags on state government buildings to fly at half mast in Gavrin’s memory.

“After far too many years, he has returned home and has been granted a proper burial alongside the many other heroes who answered the call,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Rogers said his family has found peace in the burial.

“All that was buried was a bone and a shoe, but I could not be more satisfied. There are 73,000 who are still lying in far-off lands who have not been identified,” Rogers said, referring to the official figure of 73,536 U.S. missing from World War II. “To be lost and then to have his remains recovered is astonishing — and to be buried in hallowed ground.”

 

Pope Francis defends Pius XII’s wartime record


Pope Francis defended Pius XII’s record during World War II, calling the former pope “the great defender of the Jews.”

In an interview Monday with Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper, the pope said Pius hid many Jews in convents and even his own residence, including 42 babies born in the pope’s “own bed.”

“I don’t want to say that Pius XII did not make any mistakes — I myself make many — but one needs to see his role in the context of the time,” Francis said. “For example, was it better for him not to speak so that more Jews would not be killed or for him to speak.” 

The interview was reprinted in English translation on the Patheos blog.

Critics have long accused Pius of not having done enough to help Jews during the Holocaust, while the Vatican has asserted he worked behind the scenes to save Jews.

So far the Vatican has kept its archives from the Nazi era closed to researchers, but Francis has said he will open them. Pius XII was declared “venerable” and put on the path to sainthood in 2009.

The pope also noted  the failures of the Allied powers to act more forcefully during the Holocaust.

“I also want to say that sometimes I get ‘existential hives’ when I see that everyone takes it out against the Church and Pius XII, and they forget the great powers,” Francis said. “Did you know that they knew the rail network of the Nazis perfectly well to take the Jews to concentration camps? They had the pictures. But they did not bomb those railroad tracks. Why? It would be best if we spoke a bit about everything.”

Survivor: Sol Berger


“Where are the dollars?” two plainclothes Gestapo officers demanded as they appeared without warning on both sides of Sol Berger. Sol denied any knowledge, even though the daughter of a local currency dealer was hovering nearby at the train station in Tarnow, Poland, holding the dollars he desperately needed to immigrate to Palestine. The officers led him to Gestapo headquarters where, in a small second-floor room, they interrogated him, repeatedly beating him with a rubber stick and boxing both ears simultaneously. Finally, after two hours, one said, “He’s had enough for today,” and they left the room. Bruised and barely able to move, Sol spied a small, iron-barred window in the corner. He managed to squeeze his thin body through an opening and slide down a gutter. He reached the ground and ran. It was spring 1940, and Sol was 20 years old.

Solomon Berger was born on Oct. 28, 1919, to Jacob and Rose Fabian Berger in Krosno, Poland. He was the eighth of nine children. His father’s tailor shop occupied one room in the house, the same room where the observant family celebrated Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Sol was awakened at 5 a.m. as the German air force dropped bombs on Krosno’s airport and factories, causing the entire city to erupt in flames. Sol and his younger brother, Michael, were drafted into the Polish army, returning home 10 days later.

In early 1940, the Gestapo required all Jews to wear white armbands with blue stars and all young men to perform slave labor. It was during this time that Sol, who had participated in Zionist activities, hoped to flee to Palestine.

After his escape in Tarnow, Sol hid with a Jewish family there for three weeks, disguising himself by wearing a wig and women’s clothes.

Back in Krosno, he was recaptured by the Gestapo and jailed with 10 political prisoners, including a Roman Catholic priest who said Mass daily and tutored Sol on Christianity, later enabling him to pass as a non-Jewish Pole. After six months, he was released.

During this time, Sol’s father worked as a tailor for the Germans, and the family was allowed to remain in their house. This ended on Aug. 9, 1942, when all Jews were ordered to report the next day to register for new permits.

That morning, before 9 a.m., Sol, his parents, three brothers, and one married sister and her family huddled together in the old marketplace. Trucks surrounded the area, along with Gestapo, SS and police. A selection began. Sol’s father was ordered to board one of the trucks, but first he put his arms around his four sons and said, “Boys, try to survive any way you can.” The trucks pulled away, accompanied by vehicles with machine guns mounted atop.

Two hours later, the trucks returned empty. (It wasn’t until 1978 that Sol discovered that the 500 elderly Jews had been executed in a nearby forest.) This time, the Nazis selected 600 young people, including Sol and his three brothers, for slave labor. They were taken to the ghetto and crammed 20 to a room. “We had to sleep sitting up,” Sol said.

Meanwhile, after standing all day in the hot sun with no food or water, the 1,400 Jews remaining in the marketplace — including Sol’s mother, sister, sister’s husband and their two children — were loaded into cattle cars and, Sol later learned, transported to Belzec, where they were all murdered.

The next morning, Sol and his brothers were assigned to work in the tailor shop. Two weeks later, his brothers Moses and Michael were sent to work as tailors at a Ukrainian SS training camp.

On Dec. 3, 1942, marching back to the ghetto after work, Sol and his brother Joshua saw Gestapo surrounding the area. They decided to split up, escape and meet in Czortkow, where Tadeusz Duchowski, the husband of a Polish family friend, supervised a construction crew.

That night, Sol slipped out through a secret passageway. He made his way to the house of Maria Duchowski, Tadeusz’s wife, who hid him for three days. Then, traveling as Jan Jerzowski, he took the train to Czortkow. Joshua never arrived.

In Czortkow, Tadeusz registered Sol as a Polish worker and put him to work building a bridge over the River Dniester. After three months, the project was completed.

Sol and about 100 Polish workers then escaped to the forest, joining the partisans and blowing up railroad tracks and highways. The group kept moving, sleeping in caves at night. “That was the hardest time of my life, surviving for 14 months,” Sol said. He had to bathe in private to avoid being recognized as a Jew, listen to partisans’ anti-Semitic insults and drink a lot of “stinking vodka.”

In March 1944, after the Russians moved into Poland, the partisans were inducted into the Soviet army. Sol, who became Ivan Marianowicz Jerzowski, secured a job as a translator in the interrogation department, avoiding fighting in the front lines.

In April 1945, Sol took a leave from the Soviet army. In Krakow, he met Gusta Friedman, who had survived disguised as a Christian, and together they decided to escape from Poland.

Sol and Gusta traveled to Cluj, Romania, where they were married on May 18, 1945. They then went to Santa Maria di Bagni (later referred to as Santa Maria al Bagno), a DP camp in Southern Italy, where Sol contacted his three surviving sisters, who were living in the United States. He also learned his brother Michael had survived Auschwitz.

But Sol and Gusta remained another three years in the DP camp, where Sol worked as an ORT instructor and where their son Jack was born on Aug. 24, 1946. They then lived in London for two years.

The family finally arrived in Los Angeles in early July 1950, and their daughter, Marlene, was born on July 21, 1951. Sol worked as a machine operator in a clothing factory, as a liquor store co-owner with his brother Michael and as a Realtor in Beverly Hills, retiring in 1992.

Sol has been married to Gusta — now Gertrude — for 67 years. They have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Sol began telling his story publicly in 1992, after promising his brother to do so when Michael was dying of lung cancer. For the last 20 years, Sol has been speaking three times a week at The Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as well as to student, military and police groups.

“I realized I must tell my story, as much as it hurts,” Sol said.

Obama names seven to Holocaust memorial council


President Obama named or renamed seven members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

The selections—all donors to Democrats—included representatives from the entertainment, social media and human rights sectors, as well as a past AIPAC president.

In a release Tuesday, Obama named Tom Bernstein to another five-year term. Bernstein, a major fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, has been chairman of the council since 2010.

Bernstein, an entertainment industry mogul who co-founded the Chelsea Piers entertainment complex in New York City, was first appointed to the council by President George W, Bush in 2002. He also has been a leader of Human Rights First, one of the three major human rights watchdogs.

There were six new appointees in Tuesday’s announcement, including three from northern California. Most are involved in communications through the entertainment and social media industries, or through lobbying. Presidents tend to favor such appointees as effective fundraisers and conveyors of the memorial’s message.

They are:

  • Amy Friedkin, based in San Francisco and a major donor to Jewish and Democratic causes, is a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and is close to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Susan Lowenberg, also from San Francisco, is a real estate magnate and has served on the board of a number of Jewish groups, including the American Jewish World Service and the San Francisco JCC. She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.
  • Deborah Oppenheimer is executive vice president at NBCUniversal International Television Production. The daughter of Holocaust survivor parents, she won an Academy Award in 2000 for producing “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.”
  • Cheryl Peisach, the daughter of a survivor, is a Florida-based importer and distributor of flowers.
  • Richard Price, who heads Mesirow Financial, a financial services firm, is a major player in Chicago-area philanthropy.
  • Elliot Schrage, based in the San Francisco Bay area, is the vice president for communications at Facebook. He has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and served on the board of the International League for Human Rights.

All of the appointees have given predominantly to Democrats, although a number also have given occasionally to Republicans.

Clinton: Remain vigilant against Holocaust denial


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Holocaust denial and Israel criticism that crosses into anti-Semitism require vigilance.

On Tuesday, Clinton addressed a symposium at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on preventing genocide.

“Let me begin by acknowledging that here in this museum, it’s important to note that every generation produces extremist voices denying that the Holocaust ever happened,” she said.  “And we must remain vigilant against those deniers and against anti-Semitism, because when heads of state and religious leaders deny the Holocaust from their bully pulpits, we cannot let their lies go unanswered. 

“When we hear Holocaust glorification and public calls to, quote, ‘finish the job,’ we need to make clear that violence, bigotry will not be tolerated,” she continued. “And, yes, when criticism of Israeli government policies crosses over into demonization of Israel and Jews, we must push back.”

Clinton outlined policies that she said were aimed at genocide prevention, including training officials in detecting warning signs, the use of technology to enhance monitoring, pressuring oppressive regimes and making clear that perpetrators will be held accountable.

She also emphasized limits, suggesting that some well-intentioned efforts could worsen the situation.

“We have to approach this work with a large dose of humility and understanding,” Clinton said.

The museum released a poll, timed for the symposium, showing that substantial majorities of Americans believe that genocide is still possible and favoring intervention to stop it. The poll, commissioned and conducted by Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm, and Penn Schoen Berland, a pollster, showed that 94 percent of Americans believe genocide “is still very much a concern and could occur today.”

It also showed that 69 percent “think the U.S. should prevent or stop genocide or mass atrocities from occurring in another part of the world.”

French president blames his country for WWII roundup of Jews


The roundup of thousands of Jews in Paris during World War II was a crime “committed in France, by France,” French President Francois Hollande said.

Hollande was speaking Sunday at a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the largest French roundup of Jews.

Some 13,000 French Jews were deported on July 16-17, 1942 from the Winter Velodrome stadium to Auschwitz, where nearly all of them were killed.

“Not one German soldier, not one was mobilized during this entire operation,” Hollande said.

Hollande also remembered the murder in March of three Jewish students and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Some 76,000 French adults and children were deported to Nazi death camps during World War II; approximately 2,500 survived.

Survey finds young Frenchman unfamiliar with WWII Jewish roundup


Most young Frenchmen never heard of the World War II roundup of Paris Jews, a survey shows.

The recent survey showed most young French adults were unaware of the deportation of Parisian Jews during the Holocaust.

Sixty percent of respondents aged 18 to 24 said they never heard of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup of July 16-17, 1942, when French police rounded up some 13,000 Jews in and around Paris. They were held near the Eiffel Tower before being shipped for extermination to Auschwitz.

The Union of French Jewish Students commissioned the leading polling company CSA to perform the survey, which includes answers from 1,056 respondents. The union published the results on the 70th anniversary of the deportation.

The survey showed young adults know less about the roundup than the average French adult. Among the general population, 42 percent of respondents had never heard of the roundup.

In 1995, then-President Jacques Chirac apologized for the French police’s role in the murder of the Jews arrested in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. Popularly known in French as La Rafle (“The Raid”), the roundup has been the subject of books, poems and movies.

The survey revealed 32 percent of young French adults knew that French police had been responsible for arresting the Jews of Paris. That figure was 46 percent among the general population.

Eighty-five percent of all respondents said teaching about the Holocaust was “important.”

Dr. Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, said the poll shows “there is a lot that needs to be done, but there are also positive points.”

Meanwhile, an exhibit of police archives from the French deportation, including photos, signatures and records of personal possessions from many of the victims, is set to go on display Thursday in Paris.

Jan Karski honored in Poland for WWII resistance work


The Polish Senate has posthumously honored World War II hero Jan Karski for his work in revealing details of the Nazi genocide taking place in Poland.

During a special meeting Wednesday of Upper House of the Polish Parliament, guests including United States’ Ambassador Lee Feinstein and Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld were briefed on the program to commemorate the centennial of Karski’s birth that will take place in 2014, Polish Radio reported.

In addition to special events, a monument will be erected in Warsaw in his memory, and a Warsaw street will be named after him.

The session also contained a briefing for the Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign, to which 68 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 11 senators have already pledged their support.

Born Jan Kozielewski in Lodz, Karski adopted his nom-de-guerre after escaping from a German POW train and joining the resistance. Karski served as a courier between occupied Poland and the Polish government in exile. In 1942, he was chosen to inform the Polish prime minister of Nazi atrocities, after having himself smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto to see what was happening firsthand.

After World War II, Karski settled in the United States and taught at Georgetown University until his death in 2000.

Conference calls on Romania to acknowlege WWII war crimes


A conference focusing on Romania’s Holocaust-era war crimes in Ukraine and Moldova called on Romania to acknowledge and apologize for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

The conference, which ended Wednesday, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, was convened to bring the full scope of World War II Romania’s fascist state-sponsored genocide to light. The conference examined Romania’s role in the Holocaust in Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union, particularly Moldova.

Convened by Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Feldman and the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, which Feldman serves as president, the conference brought together some 70 participants from Ukraine and Moldova comprising a mix of Holocaust survivors, scholars and public figures.

The Romanian ambassador to Kiev initially accepted the conference’s invitation but at the last moment declined to attend. There was, however, official representation by the embassies of Austria, Azerbaijan and Israel, as well as lawmakers from Ukraine and Moldova.

“We are not demanding financial compensation from Romania,” Feldman said. “They cannot bring their victims back to life. Even though the Romanian ambassador did not attend the conference, we are pushing forward with this process until justice is achieved.”

The conference adopted a series of three resolutions that Feldman called “a small first step of a long journey before us.”

The resolutions call on Romania to recognize publicly and officially its role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the territories of present-day Ukraine and Moldova; to issue a formal apology to the Jewish communities of Ukraine and Moldova; and to play an active role in cooperating with Ukrainian and Moldovan governmental and nongovernmental organizations in programs designed for memorializing Holocaust victims of Romania-occupied territories. 

Next to the Nazis, Romania was responsible for the deaths of more Jews during the Holocaust than any other German-allied country. During World War II, the Nazi-allied Romanian government was complicit in the murder of approximately 400,000 Jews, both on Romanian soil and in villages and forests throughout Ukraine and Moldova.

WWII resistance heroine Nancy Wake dies


Nancy Wake, a New Zealand-born World War II heroine codenamed “The White Mouse” because of her ability to elude the Nazis, has died.

Wake died in London on Aug. 7. She was 98.

The resistance fighter, who grew up in Sydney, was Australia’s most decorated World War II servicewoman, and was awarded France’s highest military honor, the Legion d’Honneur, as well as three Croix de Guerre and a French Resistance Medal.

She also received Britain’s George Medal and the U.S. Medal of Freedom and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004.

Wake, who left Australia for Europe at a young age, once described a visit to Austria in 1933:  “In Vienna they had a big wheel and they had the Jews tied to it, and the storm troopers were there, whipping them. When we were going out of Vienna they took our photos. That was my experience of Hitler,” Wake said.

After joining the resistance, she was parachuted into France in 1944, where she battled the Nazis. She was quoted some 60 years later as saying: “The only good German was a dead one and the deader the better. I rejoice in the fact I killed them, I only regret I couldn’t kill more.”

She was reportedly briefly at the top of the Gestapo’s most-wanted list, with a bounty of 5 million francs, dead or alive.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Wake was “a woman of exceptional courage” who “helped bring the Nazi occupation of France to an end.”

New Zealand’s Veterans’ Affairs Minister Judith Collins said Wake “cast aside all regard for her own safety and put the cause of freedom first.”

‘Defiance’ celebrates Jews’ daring acts of WW II resistance


“Every day of freedom is like an act of faith,” says Tuvia Bielski, one of three brothers who led a partisan group battling Nazi troops in the forests of Belarus.

Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) are the heroes of “Defiance,” which chronicles not only their daring acts of sabotage, but also how they established behind enemy lines a self-contained community of a thousand Jewish men, women and children.

Unlike Russian, Polish or French resistance groups, the Bielski Otriad (detachment) had to face, in addition to German soldiers and tanks, frequently hostile local populations, anti-Semitism among “allied” Soviet partisans and opposition by Jewish community elders who feared Nazi mass reprisals.

To make matters worse, there were bitter quarrels about strategy and methods between the more militant Zus and the more idealistic Tuvia.

Nechama Tec, whose book is the basis for the film, has described the Bielski Otriad as “the largest armed resistance by Jews during World War II.” As such, the exploits of the three brothers and their followers have given heart and pride to Jews burdened by the common misconception that all European Jews went passively to their doom.

One who gained new self-esteem was Edward Zwick, who, growing up in the Midwest, felt shamed by the supposed meekness of Jews during the Holocaust.

Once he became a well-established television and film director/producer (“The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond,”) Zwick spent 12 years trying to bring “Defiance” to the big screen.

The long delay was due partly to the reluctance of Hollywood’s Jewish honchos to tackle the subject, but even more by their reluctance to gamble their money on so complex a story.

“Studio chiefs fear anything that smacks of complexity,” Zwick told an Anti-Defamation League audience at an advance screening.

Paramount finally backed the movie, with Craig, the current James Bond star, in the lead. Zwick commented, “My greatest hope for the film is that another 15-year-old boy in the Midwest will see it and never feel the shame I did.”

Abraham Foxman, national ADL director and himself a child Holocaust survivor, praised “Defiance” as the first American film to tell the truth about the collaboration of many Lithuanians, Poles and Ukrainians in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors.


The trailer

But surprisingly, Foxman was unsure how “Defiance” would be judged by Jewish viewers. “I am not certain whether we are ready to embrace fighting Jews,” he said.

After shooting of the film was completed, a brief media flurry brought some unwelcome publicity.

A Polish government agency, the Institute of National Remembrance, charged that the Bielski detachment might have joined Soviet partisans in an attack on the village of Naliboki, in March 1943, in which 128 civilians were shot.

ALTTEXTThe agency, known by its Polish acronym IPN, deals with “crimes against the Polish nation” and is generally considered right wing. Even in its own brief report, IPN stated that participation of the Bielski partisan in the killing “is merely one of the versions of the investigated case.”

Descendants of the Bielski brothers have categorically denied the charge, as has Mitch Braff, director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (www.jewishpartisans.org).

“For one, it’s been clearly established that no Bielski partisans were in the vicinity of Naliboki at the time of the shooting,” Braff said. “Furthermore, it would have been stupid to kill civilians whom the partisans needed for food supplies.”

Based on extensive research and interviews, Braff believes that between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish partisans, mainly from Russia and Poland, fought the Nazis during the war.

American Jewish University scholar Michael Berenbaum and Braff are collaborating on a teachers’ guide to accompany release of the film and the subsequent DVD.

“Defiance” will open at selected Los Angeles theaters on Dec. 31, before a later national rollout.

Image: Director Edward Zwick, right, with Daniel Craig and Alexa Davalos on the set of “Defiance.” Photo by Karen Ballard/Paramount Vantage

Day at the beach – Omaha Beach


June 6, 1944, may have been the most important day of the 20th century. The Allied invasion of France breached Hitler's Atlantic Wall and decisively turned the war against the Nazi regime.

The invasion itself was a combination of great leadership, detailed planning and a brilliant campaign of deception to convince the Germans that the attack would come at Calais instead of the Normandy beaches. But the final ingredient was the courage of the invasion forces, of which 75 percent were American soldiers. To the Americans fell the nightmare beach to attack: Omaha. It was the most heavily defended and dangerous beach, and it cost by far the most lives.

Had D-Day failed, what would have happened? Would the war effort in the West have become exhausted? Would the concentration camps have been liberated by 1945? Fortunately, these questions will never have to be answered.

Last month, my wife, my daughter and I went to Omaha Beach. We have been in France since September, and this is a trip that I had longed to take. Each semester I spend a full class session on D-Day, because I think it reveals so much — not only about world history but also about the American character.

The Omaha Beach memorial has three important pieces: a creatively designed museum with audiovisual displays, the American cemetery and a path that winds down to the beach itself. The whole D-Day story unfolded at beaches to the north and south, as well, because the attacks took place for miles up and down the coast at other beaches named Juno, Utah, Gold, Sword.

British and Canadian troops joined Americans on those beaches. Attacks on German installations inland were already under way in coordination with the invasion by the French resistance, alerted by coded radio messages from the Allied command.

The museum traces all the intricacies of the invasion planning and execution. The intense secrecy of the invasion plan was dictated by the need to divert the strongest German forces away from the landing site.

Massive deception fooled the German high command right up until the attack and even in the first few days after. The planning was not perfect; in a training exercise for the full invasion force on the English coast, German submarines sneaked in and attacked, costing the lives of more than 700 Allied soldiers.

Even with these snafus, the depth of the planning and training process comes through. This was a well-led project. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's recorded talk to the troops before the invasion is simple and moving, as are accounts of his visit to paratroopers on the way to Normandy.

The decision to attack (moved from June 5) during a break in the stormy weather on June 6 was critical and was, after all, based on something as tricky as a weather forecast. Bad weather would have doomed the invasion.

From the museum you go down to the beach on a winding path. There you can see some remnants of abandoned equipment left as a visual display.

But the real shock is to see how open the beach is, with no real cover or protection for the incoming soldiers. Looming behind you are the hills where the Germans had their guns, with months to set up their lines of fire.

Despite horrific losses in the first wave, the soldiers just kept on coming and somehow made it up the hills and cliffs to silence the German positions. Bold parachute drops behind enemy lines helped turn the tide, but ultimately young American soldiers led by junior officers (taking over for higher-ranking officers who had been killed) had to get their men off the beaches and up the hills.

The cemetery is extremely simple and quiet, as it should be. In neat rows are crosses and Jewish stars with very simple descriptions, all of Americans buried far from home on the soil they had died to liberate. Some are dated June 6, but others are as late as July, a reminder that it took well more than a month to break out of the region and begin in August the push toward Berlin.

Still to come after D-Day were the awful battles of the French hedgerows and the German counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge. Paris was only liberated in late August.

The French have carefully maintained a network of museums and displays all up and down the Normandy coast. Memories of the American GIs who fought and died to liberate Europe and who marched through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris are still strong.

I thought of all those still with us or who have passed on who served in uniform in that war — including my father, my father-in-law, my uncles (two of whom fought in France and helped liberate concentration camps) — and of my mother, my aunts and the many women who served overseas but mostly on the home front.

Much has happened in the U.S.A. and in the world since that day in June 1944. Our relations with Europe have gone up and down, although our alliance remains strong.

Things may never be quite as crystal clear as they were then, when the fate of the world hung in the balance. I listened again this week to the sober address that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered to announce the invasion — in the form of a prayer:

“Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.”

No one knew what the outcome would be.

In facing tough times, Americans have historical resources to fall back upon. Those soldiers who fought their way onto French soil had already lived through the worst of the Great Depression. With great leadership, careful planning and a worthy goal to aim for, Americans have a way of getting there.

It is worth remembering.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the Institut Français de Geopolitique at the University of Paris VIII.

ALTTEXT
Part of the memorial at Omaha Beach

‘A Secret’ lets French director explore his Jewish past


More than 60 years have passed, yet French filmmakers are still wrestling with their country’s less than heroic role under Nazi occupation during World War II.

The latest entry is “A Secret” and it posits that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, not only among the perpetrators and collaborators, but also among the Jewish survivors.

The complex movie, in which the past, shot in color, is more vivid that the black-and-white present, follows the fate of a French Jewish family in the pre-war 1930s, the German occupation and the decades after liberation.

As told through the eyes of Francois, successively a 7-year old boy, a teenager and a middle-aged man, the narrative introduces his father, Maxime (Algerian Jewish pop idol Patrick Bruel); glamorous mother, Tania (Cecile de France); and their extended Jewish family.

Francois is a solitary, introspective child, exposed to the barely concealed contempt of his muscular, bodybuilding father, who fantasizes the company of an older brother, more assertive and athletic than himself.

Then, when Francois is 15, a relative reveals the dark family secret of the film’s title. How, shortly before the war, Maxime married his first wife, Hannah, and on his wedding day fell in love with the beautiful blonde Tania, a guest at the nuptials.

How Maxime and Hannah had a sturdy son, Simon, how Maxime fled to unoccupied Vichy France, to be followed by Hannah, Simon, and two other relatives, with forged “Aryan” papers.

At the border, French police inspected the papers, alert to arrest any Jews and turn them over to the Germans. At that point, a jealous and despondent Hannah made the fateful decision that would alter the family history forever.

Amid the constantly shifting scenes of past and present, there are moments of ordinary bourgeois family life, alternating with Jewish humiliation and fear under the occupation. Some Jews wear the yellow Star of David, others take it off and work on the other side.

“A Secret,” which has been a considerable box-office success in France, despite harsh criticism by some leading newspapers, owes its creation to two French Jews whose own stories reflect much of the film’s plotline.

One is Philippe Grimbert, a psychoanalyst, who wrote “Un Secret” as a semi-autobiographical novel, which, to his surprise, became a best seller in Europe.

The other is Claude Miller, a veteran director, who worked for 10 years with the iconic Francois Truffaut.

Miller was born in 1942 in the French countryside, where his family was in hiding, and remembered a bookish, solitary childhood, much like that of Francois in the movie.

Grimbert, who has a small role in the movie, and Miller both recall muscular fathers who resented their own Jewishness, with Miller’s father telling him after the war to “just forget being Jewish.”

This experience is reflected in the film, when Maxime insists that young Francois be baptized.

“A Secret” marks the first time that Miller, who is not a favorite of French critics, has dealt on film with his own Jewish background.

However, other French directors have frequently shaken their countrymen’s self-imposed forgetfulness about their forefathers’ role in World War II and the myth that all were heroic resistance fighters.

Some of these films have become classics, starting in 1955 with “Night and Fog” by Alain Resnais, a documentary on concentration camps, followed in 1969 by Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity,” which explored the motivations of both resistors and collaborators.

In 1974, Louis Malle’s “Lacombe, Lucien” drew a portrait of a young French collaborator, and in 1987 his “Au Revoir les Enfants” recalled the roundup of Jewish children hidden in a Catholic boarding school.

The story is not yet finished, as witnessed by the remarkable success of “Suite Francaise,” a newly discovered novel about Parisians fleeing the Nazi conquest, by Irene Nemirovsky, who perished in Auschwitz.

“A Secret” opens Sept. 12 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, and on Sept. 19 at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.


The trailer — French with English subtitles

Fields of Dreams


I used to think that between the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., and the birth of Israel in 1948, there was no such thing as anexclusively Jewish city. Sure, there were plenty of Jewish ghettos and neighborhoods scattered throughout the globe, but a city with only Jews in it? I never imagined it.

That is until I met my neighbor, Jeremy Goldscheider.

Goldscheider is an aspiring filmmaker with an obsession. He’s obsessed with the story of a little town called Trochenbrod in Northwestern Ukraine that was started by Jews in the early 1800s.

Most people know the town as the fictitious Trachimbrod, from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, “Everything is Illuminated.” But while Foer has said in interviews that virtually everything in his story is made up, there are a few people alive today who know better.

Goldscheider is one of them, and he knows how very real Trochenbrod is.

He knows, for instance, that Trochenbrod was the only freestanding Jewish town ever to exist outside the biblical land of Israel, and that, in 1942, the Nazis marched all 5,000 Jewish residents to a nearby forest and had them dig their own graves before murdering and burying them.

Before the massacre, Trochenbrod had been a thriving regional commercial center that had a diversified and largely self-sufficient economy. Everyone in Trochenbrod — shopkeepers, farmers, craftspeople, teachers, livestock traders, factory owners — was Jewish, and they spoke Yiddish and modern Hebrew.

The town was founded in 1835 by Jews who took advantage of an edict that exempted Jewish farmers from being conscripted in the Russian army. That didn’t help them, though, when the Nazis arrived.

Because all the residents were Jewish, the whole town was leveled. Today, all you can see is an empty field of trees and wildflowers with a small memorial plaque erected in 1992.

It’s on that field that Goldscheider walked several months ago, with only his notebook and a video camera. And it’s on that field that he kept thinking of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother, Jacob and Ethel Kessler, who left Trochenbrod and settled in Baltimore around 1910.

Goldscheider remembers his grandmother, Minnie, talking about how her parents’ home in Baltimore had become a kind of way station for Trochenbrod immigrants who came to settle in America. But Goldsheider was never too interested in Baltimore; it was Trochenbrod he wanted to know more about.

And, in particular, the Jews who survived the massacre.

Evidently, a small group of maybe 30 Jews managed to escape and survive in the forest for years. Some of the young ones became partisans who banded together and fought the Nazis, stealing guns and ammunition, blowing up trains and taking care of other Jews with stolen food and makeshift shelters.

Goldscheider has already met and interviewed a few of the survivors in Ukraine and in Israel, and next month he plans to meet another survivor in Brazil.

When I first met him last spring at a neighborhood cafe, he hadn’t yet made the trip to the empty fields of Trochenbrod. He was going there “blind,” he said, with a sort of primitive desire just to walk the fields where his ancestors had once lived, and where so many Jews had perished.

I met him at the same cafe when he returned a couple months later, and it was clear that by then he was immersed in a labor of love that was consuming a lot of his time.

Our conversation then took an unexpected turn.

Since he hadn’t yet secured financing for his film project, I asked him how he paid the bills. Well, it turns out that Goldsheider does promotional films for all kinds of Jewish organizations around town, and that one of his biggest clients is Camp Ramah.

Now, you should know that when I hear the words “Camp Ramah,” my heart goes aflutter. My kids are pretty much addicted to the place. So, naturally, when Goldsheider informed me that he was driving up to Ojai the following day to film the camp, which was in session at the time, it took me one or two nanoseconds to invite myself along.

Officially, I was going to accompany him on the film shoot, and maybe do a story. (Unofficially, I was dying to see my kids.)

It was a hot day, and we covered pretty much the whole camp. Camp Ramah is big and small at the same time. No matter where you venture, you always seem to return to a familiar place. Kids were everywhere, playing in this grand game of organized spontaneity. Some were davening in an outdoor amphitheater, others cheering at a basketball game, still others shooting down waterslides decorated with a map of Israel. The place was teeming with life.

As we walked through the camp’s main field, I couldn’t help thinking about Goldscheider’s recent experience. A week or two earlier, he had been walking through an empty field in Ukraine that once also teemed with Jewish life. A field where Jews also davened, worked and played — but a field where Jews were no more.

From one week to the next, Goldscheider had traveled from a field of death to a field of life. It must have had some effect on him.

In truth, he hadn’t thought of the contrast until I brought it up. But then, he did notice that there was a similar tree formation and land elevation in the fields of Trochenbrod and Camp Ramah.

Two fields with similar landscaping — and with a similar connection to the Jewish ideal of life and community. But one field, in one century, witnessing a nightmare; while the other, in the next century, witnessing an ongoing summer dream.

If Goldscheider has his way, if he can get the real Trochenbrod story out to the world, that same field of nightmares might one day become the realization of his own field of dreams.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Golscheider’s email address is jeremy@kihou.com

Justice Arthur Goldberg, baseball’s Joe Berg spied for U.S. during WWII


WASHINGTON (JTA)—Several prominent Jews spied for the United States during World War II, newly released documents show.

Former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, philanthropist and businessman Laurence Tisch and baseball player Moe Berg were among the 35,000 men and women whose files from their service in the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services were released Thursday by the National Archives.

The files cover 35,000 Americans, both civilian and military, who worked in some capacity for the intelligence agency , the precursor to the CIA.

Goldberg’s file notes that as both a civilian and a member of the army, he supervised a section in the Secret Intelligence Branch of OSS to maintain contact with labor groups and organizations regarded as potential resistance elements in enemy-occupied and enemy countries. He organized anti-Nazi European transportation workers into an extensive intelligence network.

Steve Tilley, director of the textual archives services division of the National Archives, said Jewish Americans of that era might have been particularly attractive as recruits to the agency because of their education and their European background, particularly their knowledge of languagues.

TV chef Julia Child and Middle East negotiator Ralph Bunche were among the other names in the records.

TV: Shoah makes searing mark in Ken Burns WWII documentary


Ken Burns knew from the start that he didn’t want his seven-episode, 14 1/2-hour documentary on World War II to be associated with any notion of “The Good War.” And yet in its final episode, as now elderly ex-GIs recount the lessons learned from liberating German concentration camps, it illustrates exactly why wars sometimes can be noble causes.

But Burns wanted to get to that point without cloaking his documentary in the feel-good heritage of “The Good War” — a term originating with Studs Terkel’s 1984 oral history — or Tom Brokaw’s 1998 “The Greatest Generation,” about the GIs who fought in that war.

“It was being smothered in this bloodless myth called ‘The Good War,’ when in fact it was the bloodiest of all wars,” Burns said by telephone, en route to an advance screening in Minnesota. He said the war cost 60 million lives — a fact too easily forgotten by history buffs coldly studying the various armies involved and their military campaigns.

“The War,” as his resultant documentary is simply titled, will begin airing on PBS stations on Sept. 23. It will be on for four nights the first week and three nights the second. Burns’ previous PBS films about the American experience include “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.”

“We used the words ‘bearing witness’ for what we wanted to do,” he said of his initial proposal for the documentary. “We wanted to use four [American] towns as examples to get to know people — those who fought and those who stayed at home — and to get to their experiences as it happened.”

The result is Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seeing the war as it was unfolding through the eyes of soldiers from Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento; Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn., to show, in so many ways, the ongoing hellishness of even a necessary war.

Since World War II unfolds the way American soldiers — and friends and family at home — experienced it, the Holocaust is only cursorily brought up before the final episode, “A World Without War,” when the soldiers enter the camps. But it then becomes the center — “the beating heart,” in Burns’ words — of that episode.

That episode covers immense ground, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, the battle for Okinawa, the final collapse of Germany, the atomic bomb, Japan’s surrender and the end of the war. But its solemn, powerful concentration camp scenes, which involve his soldiers bearing witness against Nazi atrocities, are the ones with deepest impact.

Three of the hometown soldiers recall entering different concentration camps during the fall of Germany in 1945. And, as they still vividly remember, they saw something worse than war: the Holocaust.

In fact, they came to realize war could be good, if it could stop or punish those willing to commit such evil, organized mass murder. The episode pairs their recollections with often horrifyingly graphic footage from the actual camps they entered.

Also during this passage in the episode, war historian Paul Fussell, who fought in World War II when he was just 19, begins to quiver and cry when explaining how discovering those camps made it clear to the American soldiers the war “was conducted in defense of some noble idea.”

Burns called that a “searing, incredible emotional comment. I assumed Fussell would be an avuncular commentator. But the questions put him back in the moment.”

The episode begins with a black-and-white photo of a German SS soldier about to execute a Polish Jew at the edge of an open mass grave in Ukraine in 1942. Then one of the “The War’s” ongoing witnesses, former Marine pilot Sam Hynes, makes a comment that indirectly addresses the meaning of religion in a world where the Holocaust can happen.

If there were no evil, he says, people wouldn’t need to “construct” religions.

“No evil, no God,” he says. “Of course, no evil, no war. But there will always be evil. Human beings are aggressive animals.”

Burnett Miller from Sacramento recalls how starving survivors at Mauthausen in Austria, in their hunger for the GIs’ concentrated food, died from “overwhelming their systems.” He also describes, and accompanying footage shows, bodies in rigor mortis awaiting cremation in the furnaces. Miller’s comments also touch upon a key Holocaust theme — the complicity of nearby civilians and the church.

“They could smell the camp in town,” he says. “The villagers said they knew nothing about the camp; the priest said he knew nothing about the camp. I knew that was a lie.”

In another scene, Dwain Luce of Mobile, Ala., recalls forcing the presumably complicit German townspeople of Ludwigslust, near a liberated camp, to collect the bodies and give them proper Christian and Jewish burials in the park. “So they would never forget,” he says.

He also has this to say to Holocaust deniers: “These people in this country who say it didn’t happen, it did happen; I saw it.”

The third of the hometown soldiers who helped liberate the camps is Jewish, Ray Leopold of Waterbury, Conn. He was at Hadamar in Germany, where he found not only camp victims but also survivors of Nazi medical experiments inside an insane asylum.

“No apology will ever atone for what I saw,” he says.

“At the end of the day, nothing is more powerful in our film than Ray fixing the camera with a 92-year-old’s fury when he says that,” Burns said.

A narrator in the film provides voice-over context, as images of the bones and skulls of victims are shown, of the Holocaust’s scope. Some two-thirds of Europe’s 9 million Jews were murdered, along with 4 million Soviet prisoners of war, 2 million Poles and hundreds of thousands of homosexuals, Gypsies, political opponents, handicapped persons, slave laborers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In this final episode, with death and destruction unfolding on a global scale virtually every minute, there is the question of how much time the Holocaust can command. After all, when the Americans enter the camps in 1945, there is still a long, difficult battle ahead in the Pacific.

In the end, it doesn’t get that much time — about 10 minutes. But it makes a long-lasting impact. “It sought its own length,” Burns said. “I always say the greatest speech ever made was the Gettysburg Address. That was two minutes long.”