January 24, 2019

Survivors speak at The Last Bookstore, despite online harassment

Despite online harassment by an alt-right provocateur, two Holocaust survivors told their stories of triumph over evil, as planned, to a standing-room-only crowd at The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 19.

The appearance by Robert Geminder and Gabriella Karin came 11 days after a person who writes under the name “Johnny Benitez” posted a Facebook link for the event with the tagline: “Who wants to bet money this is another white guilt push. Lesson 1: white people are bad and it’s good they’re an ever increasing minority.”

After the event’s organizer, Jennifer Brack, told Benitez he was not welcome, Benitez — whose real name is Juan Cadavid, according to a report by the OC Weekly — posted a video encouraging his followers to attend the event.

At the advice of the Anti-Defamation League, Brack hired a pair of armed guards and proceeded with the event, the third in a series called “Lessons of the Past,” survivor speaker engagements organized by Brack with the help of the American Society for Yad Vashem.

The audience of about 300 people, who sat on folding chairs and the floor, was attentive, respectful and engaged. And after Geminder and Karin spoke, a long line formed with well-wishers who praised their eloquence and courage.

“People more than ever these days want to hear survivors,” Karin told the Journal before she spoke. “They want reassurance that people will go out and speak in spite of the threats.”

Karin, 86, and Geminder, 82, are a couple. They began dating in 2015 after both had lost their spouses to illness years before. They briefly wondered how they should proceed with the speaking event after they learned about the harassment, but they never gave a second thought to pulling out.

“I’m not afraid,” Karin said. “Maybe because of what we went through, nothing makes me afraid.”

Even so, she and Geminder were perturbed with the harassment, which came a week after white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va. — one of the largest such demonstrations in a decade, according to the ADL.

“When we see a Nazi flag like we saw over the weekend in Charlottesville, it just tears us apart,” Geminder said.

Both survivors tell their stories around the world, and neither has experienced any kind of harassment, online or otherwise, before the posts from Benitez.

At the event, as they have done hundreds of times before, the two carefully told the stories of their experiences and shared the lessons they have drawn from them.

Geminder was born in Wroclaw, Poland, in 1935. He saw as many as 14,000 Jews massacred at the cemetery in Stanislawow but managed to survive, he said, by pure luck. He and his brother, mother and stepfather were in Warsaw when the Warsaw Uprising was quelled. The Nazis put them in a cattle car on a train headed to the Auschwitz concentration camp, but the family was able to escape through an opening in the roof of the car within a hundred yards of the camp.

Karin was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1930, and spent the Holocaust in hiding, successfully sheltered by her mother’s underground contacts and the help of a righteous gentile named Karol Blanar.

Neither survivor mentioned Benitez’s harassment at the bookstore event.

“I don’t want to make anyone else aware of the negatives,” Geminder said. “I want to focus on the positives.”

Meanwhile, as Geminder and Karin were speaking, Benitez was at a Laguna Beach event he organized called “America First! Electric Vigil for the Victims of Illegals and Refugees,” according to his posts on Facebook.

Benitez, whose recent web exploits included posting a manipulated photo that made it appear the Jewish mayor of Laguna Beach was wearing a Nazi uniform, has long been on the radar of Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher at the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

Benitez does not have a history of violence, but some groups who show up to his rallies, including skinheads and antigovernment extremists, do, she said.

In the video Benitez posted about the survivors’ event, a framed photograph of various guns is visible in the background as he talks about how the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center is involved in a Jewish conspiracy to use the Holocaust to antagonize white people.

“Why is it so concurrent that the anti-white narrative and the anti-Trump narrative is so closely tied to these events that push the Holocaust and white privilege and white guilt?” he says in the video, which he streamed live simultaneously on Facebook and the social media site Periscope.

Mendelson, who has followed Benitez’s rising profile within the alt-right, said he has a “fixation with Jews” that borders on Holocaust denial. After he posted the video, in which he holds up an iPad with Brack’s Facebook profile on it, the ADL encouraged her to take basic precautions such as contacting law enforcement.

“Although no direct threats of violence were made against the organizer, we still wanted to make sure that law enforcement were in the loop and to help safeguard this gathering,” Mendelson said. “It is a sad state of affairs when individuals who have been traumatized by the Holocaust are in some ways revictimized by anti-Semitic and hateful racist thought leaders.”

Contacted via Facebook Messenger, Benitez told the Journal he wanted his followers to “observe and report the narrative” from the bookstore event. He said he first learned about the event through a Facebook ad.

Asked if he denied the Holocaust or questioned its magnitude, Benitez was evasive.

“I don’t address the holocaust. I view any attempt to lure people into discussions about it to be Red Herrings,” he wrote, not acknowledging the fact that he brought the Holocaust history event to the attention of his nearly 2,000 Facebook friends and followers.

At The Last Bookstore, during the question-and-answer period, audience members wanted to know how Geminder and Karin felt about the recent events in Charlottesville, where swastikas were abundant and men yelling “Sieg Heil” marched in front of a synagogue.

“It was a nightmare for us,” Geminder said. “I can imagine how every one of you must have felt. Imagine a hundredfold how survivors felt during this. When we came to America, we never expected to see that again. Never, never, never.”

Even with the recent news events, both Geminder, a retired electrical engineer and part-time math teacher, and Karin, an artist and former fashion designer, said they are avowed optimists.

Karin recounted for the audience the moment after World War II when she decided she would move on from the trauma of the Holocaust to have a full and active life. She was standing on the platform of a train station in her native Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia, as emaciated Jewish refugees streamed into the city.

“I decided to myself, ‘Hitler did not get my body; he will not get my soul. I will smile. I will be happy,’ ” she told the audience. “And I am.”