March 20, 2019

ADL: Rep. Clyburn ‘Should Apologize and Retract’ Holocaust Comments

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called on House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to “apologize and retract” his recent comments about Holocaust survivors and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)

Clyburn told The Hill on March 7 that Omar’s experience in fleeing violence from Somalia “is much more empirical — and powerful — than that of people who are generations removed from the Holocaust. There are people who tell me, ‘Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors.’ ‘My parents did this,’” Clyburn said. “It’s more personal with her. I’ve talked to her, and I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain.”

The ADL tweeted in response, “It’s offensive to diminish the suffering of survivors & the continuing pain of Jews today. We respect @WhipClyburn’s long record of public service, but he should apologize & retract.”

Simon Wiesenthal Center Founder and Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier told the Journal in a phone interview that Clyburn’s comments were “terrible. The fact that [the Holocaust] may now be about our grandparents and about our great-grandparents, it doesn’t matter,” Hier said. “It’s as if it occurred today. It was that kind of a wake-up call for world Jewry.”

American Jewish Committee Los Angeles  Assistant Director for Policy and Communications Siamak Kordestani  said in a statement sent to the Journal, “There have been enormous numbers of Jewish refugees since the Holocaust, even in modern times. In the late [19]40s and 50s, around 800,000 Jews from Muslim countries had to flee because of lethal anti-Semitism, and their property was expropriated. Around the time I was born in Iran in the 1980s, many Jews were fleeing the country because of war, political turmoil and anti-Semitism.”

Clyburn posted on Twitter: “We can be no more or any less than what those experiences allow us to be. To recognize and honor the experiences of one member of our Caucus does not mean that we ignore or dishonor the experiences of another.”

Director Sought to Put Hope in ‘Transit’

Franz Rogoski and Paula Beer in “Transit.” Photo courtesy of Schramm Film

Director Christian Petzold’s movie “Transit” is set in a timeless France overflowing with refugees from various countries who, while flanked by advancing military forces, are attempting to flee the country.

Although the film evokes the Holocaust — the occupying army is from Germany, and there are references to “the camps” — we never hear the word “Nazis” or see swastikas, and only one of the many ambiguous characters admits to being Jewish. We’re told that some of the refugees are intellectuals and writers, but we’re left to guess why they are attempting to take flight. 

That said, the setting clearly is not in the 1942 timeframe depicted in Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name, which inspired the film. The story appears to take place in the present, but it’s devoid of computers and cellphones.

The German-born Petzold, 58, told the Journal in a telephone interview that he was deliberately vague about the film’s era, as he tried to create a “conversation between a historic time and the contemporary world.”

“I’m not saying that all refugees are the same,” Petzold said. “They’re totally different. In fact, I don’t really know very much about today’s refugees. I know much more about the refugees fleeing in 1942 because of the literature that I’ve read and because my own family talked about them. Still, refugees face many of the same responses from countries across the world that say, ‘We don’t need you. We don’t want you.’ Refugees live in camps or are put in prisons.”

Petzold said he found it ironic that today’s enlightened Germany is seeing an upswing in anti-Semitism. He attributed the increased expressions of bigotry to the rise of global capitalism, whose critics channel their hate and anger into virulent anti-Semitism. In times of crisis, he said, people in power will always use Jews as targets for their aggression.

Winnowing the 300-page novel into the screenplay was a complicated feat, Petzold said. One challenge was that, while the first half of the novel was set in Paris, Petzold wanted to focus on the location of the book’s latter half, Marseille, among people in transit who need to reinvent themselves as a survival tactic.

“All refugees try to be storytellers like Primo Levi,” Petzold said, referring to the Italian Jewish chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor who wrote several books, including his account of being a prisoner in “Survival in Auschwitz.” “They try to write something down that they can’t write down. I try to show people who find new identities as a lover, father or friend.”

To the extent that the characters succeed, there’s hope. Petzold believes the film concludes on an affirmative note. 

“I love it when characters at the end of the film don’t need me — an audience member — anymore,” Petzold said. “That’s a happy ending. And as the credits roll we hear the [band] Talking Heads, singing [“Road to Nowhere,” with the lyrics, “Well we know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been”]. It makes me feel that for the first time in my life I’m in a good church whose doors are open. You have a song in your head. You feel you can go outside with a tune.”


Simi Horwitz is an award-winning writer based in New York. 

Fighting to Retrieve a Nazi-Looted Painting

The Pissarro hanging in Lilly’s parlor in Germany in the 1920s, where Claude Cassirer played as a child. Inset: Pissaro’s 1897 painting, “Rue Saint-Honore in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain.” Courtesy of Cassirer family

For nearly two decades, a San Diego-based family has been trying to retrieve a valuable painting relinquished under duress to the Nazis during the Holocaust. 

The painting, currently valued at more than $30 million, hangs in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, but in December 2018, an attorney representing the family argued in a Los Angeles court that the museum did not acquire the painting in good faith. 

The plaintiff is 64-year-old David Cassirer, the great-grandson of the late Lilly Cassirer, a German Jew who owned the Camille Pissarro impressionist masterpiece “Rue Saint-Honore in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain.” 

Pisarro, whose full name was Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, was a Jewish artist. Created in 1897 and depicting a Paris street scene on a rainy day, Lilly surrendered the painting to the Nazis in exchange for exit visas for herself and her husband, Otto, in 1939.

According to court documents, the painting was smuggled out of Germany to the United States in 1951. Lilly filed a restitution claim for the painting with the German government in the 1950s and in 1958 was awarded a $13,000 settlement. 

Baron Has-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a German industrialist whose family allegedly had close ties to Hitler, purchased the painting from a New York gallery in 1976. In 1988, he donated the painting, along with his collection, to the Spanish government, which formed the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation to display the works.

Courtesy of Cassirer family

Lilly’s descendants thought the painting had been destroyed until a family friend saw it in the museum’s catalog in 1999. 

David Cassirer’s father, Claude, was the original plaintiff in the case. When Claude died in 2010, David became the plaintiff. Cassirer’s claim was dismissed in  2015, but in 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Cassirer could move forward with his suit against the museum.

During the December hearing, Thaddeus Stauber, representing the museum, did not dispute that Lilly Cassirer owned the painting, or that the Nazis looted the piece. Instead, he argued neither Thyssen-Bornemisza nor the museum were aware they were purchasing Nazi-looted artwork. 

Cassirer’s attorney, David Boies, argued Thyssen-Bornemisza did know, stating that as a serious art collector, Thyssen-Bornemisza previously had purchased paintings from the famous Cassirer gallery in Berlin, which is where the Pissarro hung before Lilly inherited it from her first husband. 

Since the gallery was owned by Jews, Boies argued, Thyssen-Bornemisza likely would have known the Pissarro belonged to Jews. In addition, court documents claim that ripped labels on the back of the painting are evidence that whoever took ownership of the painting after 1939 attempted to conceal that it had been looted.

A ruling on the case is expected this spring.

Two Nice Jewish Boys: Episode 126 – Grandson of a Nazi who Volunteers with Holocaust Survivors

Israel and Germany’s relationship has known ups and downs over the years. When Israel was established, in 1948, it upheld a policy of enforcing a complete and total boycott on Germany. Israelis swore never to buy a Volkswagen car, never own a Bosch refrigerator, and never to accept a dime of aid from the state that inherited Germany from the Third Reich. But circumstances brought West Germany and Israel closer together during the 1950’s, as Germany needed Israel’s forgiveness for global legitimacy, and Israel needed Germany’s financial aid to avoid bankruptcy. A decade later, total clemency was afforded to the Germans by Israel, embassies were opened and diplomatic relations grew deeper and deeper. To this day, Germany claims to have a special relationship with Israel, and its obligations to Israel’s future and security are constantly reaffirmed, with words at least.

And indeed, in recent years Israelis travel in huge numbers to Germany. Many of them stay and dwell in Berlin, once the city of Hitler, and now a flourishing and vibrant world cultural center. But whereas young Israelis fascination with Berlin has been discussed time and time again, a more overseen element of the relationship remains undisclosed – the attraction of young Germans to Israel.

Alex Deize is a German born Christian. He’s been living here in Israel for some time now, in the northern city of Tiberias. But the story here is what led Alex to Israel – a shocking discovery about his family’s past and the path to God.

We’re extremely thrilled to have Alex here with us today.

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Endurance of ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Schindler’s List’

Photo from Universal Studios.

Two anniversaries this spring deserve recognition as turning points in bringing the then largely ignored horror of the Holocaust home to the post-World War II generation, thanks to the enormous impact of television and movies.

In 1979, the miniseries “Holocaust” had viewers in Europe glued to their TVs, and on March 3, 1994, Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” opened in Berlin.

During that decade and a half, I went on a number of press trips to Germany at the invitation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the municipality of Berlin. I planned to do a series of interviews with the younger generation on the current art and theater scene and query the older generation on the fortunes of my favorite soccer teams from my own childhood in the German capital. But within a few minutes of starting the interviews, my interlocutors invariably turned the conversation to the Holocaust. Older interviewees attributed their awakening to watching the four-part “Holocaust” miniseries, starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, which had debuted in the United States on NBC in 1978. It traced the fates of two Berlin families, one Jewish and the other Christian.

Thirty-six percent of all Germans with TV sets watched the miniseries, and Der Spiegel, Germany’s equivalent of Time magazine, could barely contain its enthusiasm. “The [series] has managed to do what hundreds of books, plays, films and television broadcasts, thousands of documents and all concentration camp trials in three decades of post-war history failed to do — inform Germans about the crimes committed against the Jews in their name in such a way that millions were shaken,” its reviewer wrote.

That same year, the German parliament eliminated the statute of limitations, which had set a cutoff date for the prosecution of war crimes committed by German citizens.

“We don’t know what obstacles the producers of ‘Holocaust’ encountered, but it took Hollywood’s self-described ‘900-pound gorilla’ to put ‘Schindler’s List’ on movie screens.”

Fifteen years later, when “Schindler’s List” opened, German media competed in lauding the film based on the story of the “good German,” businessman Oskar Schindler, who did what most Germans could not or would not do to save Jews from Nazi extermination.

In an unusual front-page editorial, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s equivalent to The New York Times, noted, “All indications are that Spielberg’s film will move and excite the country. Everyone should see this film.” The Washington Post correspondent in Berlin credited the film with the “reopening of a national debate about guilt, courage and the unresolved mysteries of mass murder.”

We don’t know what obstacles the producers of “Holocaust” encountered in selling their project to NBC, but it took Hollywood’s self-described “900-pound gorilla” to put “Schindler’s List” on movie screens.

When he first outlined his vision to make an R-rated, three-hours-plus film in black and white without big stars, Spielberg said his bosses at Universal Pictures suggested if he felt the need to commemorate the Holocaust, he should make a generous donation to a museum but spare the studio the humiliation — and financial loss — of making a movie no one would watch. Spielberg said he agreed that the project would be a box-office flop, but he felt he had to go ahead and make it anyway.

So much for Hollywood prognostications. “Schindler’s List” was made with a $22 million budget. Its gross earnings, in the U.S. alone, came to almost $97 million.  It also brought Spielberg, after 17 films, his first Oscars, for best director and best picture.  

Last fall, Spielberg re-released the film on its 25th anniversary. The Forward stated that Spielberg decided to re-release the film based on his “perception of a renewed cycle of hate.” His view is buttressed by global reports of rising anti-Semitism, proving once again that in every generation, the battle against “the oldest hate” must be fought anew.

Netflix Show ‘Russian Doll’ as a Manual for Spiritual Growth

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll Photo courtesy of Netflix

This article contains spoilers from the Netflix series “Russian Doll.”

The new Netflix series “Russian Doll” is so splendidly Jewish.

The eight 30-minute episodes in Season 1 follow the life of the main character, Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”), who dies and wakes up at her 36th birthday party in a never-ending loop, “Groundhog Day”-style.

The series is Jewish in two distinct ways. It’s a rare combination of secular New York bagels and kosher pickles Jewish, and deep mystical and ethical principles Jewish.

On the surface, there are the trappings of the sort of Jewish history that’s threaded through the streets of the East Village: a birthday party in an old yeshiva building, now an ultra-fancy hipster loft encased in subway tile; a synagogue on 14th Street — at its center an old, bearded rabbi who was a couple of blocks away all along; and the necklace Nadia wears throughout the series, which represents not only her lost mother who left it to her, but her Holocaust survivor grandparents, who lost faith in paper money and trusted only gold currency.

As much as I love the ghost of the yeshiva, the mystical/practical rabbi and Lyonne’s representation of intergenerational trauma, I’m most compelled by the Jewish thought embedded in the plot. The idea that you can make a decision that minimizes rather than maximizes your humanity; a decision that hurts rather than helps those around you is the epitome of the Jewish concept of teshuvah. Often translated as “repentance,” teshuvah really means “returning”: returning to our best selves and the life we should be living.

Traditionally, Jews focus on teshuvah during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it is an ongoing process throughout the year. The classic interpretation of teshuvah is espoused by Maimonides, the 12th-century Spanish rabbi and philosopher. I love this description of his steps to Teshuvah by Rabbi Leora Kaye and artist/animator Hanan Harchol, not least because we see Nadia precisely as a “Jew on the street,” wandering the streets of Alphabet City over and over:

[Maimonides] wrote for the simple “Jew on the street” as much as for scholars, and his codes have remained relevant across the spectrum of Jewish belief until today. According to Maimonides, four of the most important steps of teshuvah are the following:

  1. Verbally confess your mistake and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1).
  2. Express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again (Mishneh Torah 2:2).
  3. Do everything in your power to “right the wrong,” to appease the person who has been hurt (Mishneh Torah 2:9).
  4. Act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1).

When I first encountered this text in my early 20s, I appreciated its practical advice toward righting a wrong. So much better than guiltily agonizing for years and years. But I, like many people, had a problem with No. 4. If making a different decision in the same situation is the final step, then true teshuvah is hard to come by. To really do it right, you’d have to go back to a different multiverse, be presented with the exact same situation and then make a different decision.

This is Nadia’s story. She follows Maimonides’ steps of teshuvah, one by one, multiverse by multiverse. Being human, she sometimes slips, but in general, she moves forward. She apologies to her friend for a hurtful past comment; she reconsiders her refusal to connect with her ex-boyfriend’s young daughter; on two separate occasions she makes sure a homeless man has shoes on a cold night; and eventually, she puts her heart and soul into saving her teshuvah partner, Alan (Charlie Barnett).

“Russian Doll” not only depicts the behavior of teshuvah, as laid out by Maimonides, but also moves us by showing the characters’ inner growth. Before they can complete their teshuvah and live their fullest lives, both Nadia and Alan must face the demons that led them to fail others. This is teshuvah as a therapeutic practice. When she first sees the ghost of her neglected child-self, Nadia immediately dies, but little by little she grows stronger, able to face her own trauma and let go of her guilt.

“‘Russian Doll’ not only depicts the behavior of teshuvah, as laid out by Maimonides, but also moves us by showing the characters’ inner growth.”

 

Sitting down to write this story, I Googled “Maimonides Russian Doll” and discovered a post on ReformJudaism.org, discussing why Maimonides called his great work of commentary “Mishne Torah,” the “second Torah.”

[Maimonides] must have seen himself as upholding the commandment [of] repeating and retelling God’s law. Maimonides’ addition to the previous replications of God’s word finally results in the textual equivalent of a Matryoshka (Russian nesting) doll, one retelling nested inside another, each one a successively larger copy of the predecessor concealed within it.

In this analysis, Torah itself — including Maimonides’ commentary — is a Russian doll; a series of self-enclosing multiverses considering the same story from a different angle.

Like Torah, the video games Nadia designs for a living are both directional (moving forward in time) and cyclical (starting over and over). So it is with life. We may not wake up over and over at the same aging hipster birthday party, but we do repeat our patterns, and we do have the ability to change our lives by shifting our attitudes, behavior and ultimately our reality.

Teshuvah is the central Jewish expression of this concept; another way of saying that perhaps there are multiverses, different possible versions of each of us. It is up to us to decide which world we will live in and who we will be.   


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher. Her most recent book of poetry is “Fruit Geode” (Augury Books).

Why I’m Angry About Trump’s Speech

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

The president of the United States laced this year’s State of the Union with references to anti-Semitism. He invited a Holocaust survivor of Dachau and an American World War II veteran who liberated the camp to the address. He acknowledged last year’s horrific massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, honoring a survivor and a first responder who was injured terribly in the attack. Good, right? Then why are so many Jews so very, very angry?

Because, in the context of this speech, to think about the Holocaust is to think about the St. Louis, the ship transporting hundreds of Jewish refugees in 1939, turned away from the United States and sent back to Europe, where many passengers eventually died in the Holocaust. It is to remember that Jewish refugees were slandered as invaders and cultural polluters by the politicians whose slogan was “America First.”

So when President Donald Trump pairs invocations of the Holocaust with calls to militarize our southern border against refugees who are fleeing horrendous violence in their own countries — the social breakdown of which is attributable directly to the lingering effects of American intervention on behalf of brutal dictatorships — Jews get angry. Because the same calumnies that Trump is aiming at immigrants of color were aimed at us.

Because, to honor the courage of Judah Samet, who survived the Holocaust and the Tree of Life massacre is to remember why that massacre was perpetrated. The suspected killer of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh made it clear in writing that he was especially incensed at HIAS, the Jewish agency that assists them, writing, “It’s the filthy EVIL Jews. Bringing the (sic) Filthy EVIL Muslims into the country!! Stop the kikes then Worry About the Muslims!” Yes, this killer was angry at Trump for not being racist enough — but woven throughout his rants are tropes derived from Trump.

As Pittsburgh’s Bend the Arc Moral Minyan put it, “We will not let you use the Holocaust, our most painful history, to distract us from the real dangers at hand — the dangers you yourself have nurtured with your racism and xenophobia …. There are refugees seeking safety in America today, just as our Jewish parents and grandparents did during the Holocaust, yet once again America is calling them dangerous .… There are internment camps at our southern border and thousands of children separated from their parents by your administration.”

Trump’s pre-emptive deployment of outrages visited on the Jewish people only served, for many of us, to bring into sharp focus the great danger that his movement represents. We have seen what happens when demagogues whose actual policies favor corporate wealth and lead to an ever-greater gap between rich and poor evoke the “working class” in order to divert the anger of struggling workers away from the wealthiest and aim it at the most vulnerable: at a racial and religious other.

As Stacey Abrams observed genuinely working class-friendly policies not only address such issues as health care, student loan debt and wages that don’t rise with the cost of living (not a mention in the president’s speech), they also speak to the different histories and cultures within the working class. They address embedded and systemic racial and gendered and religious inequality. They certainly do not seek to pit one group of workers against another.

In response to the SOTU, Abrams addressed the precariousness of all working people’s lives in the United States today and managed to do that while honoring the particular struggles of people who have to persevere against additional obstacles because of who they are. The contrast between those speeches and Trump’s performance demonstrates why “populism” is such a useless descriptor.

Trump has indulged in a coy flirtation with neo-fascism throughout his presidency. This is the person who was able to discern “fine people on both sides” of a clash between neo-Nazis and their opponents; who did not use the State of the Union address to issue a firm denunciation of white nationalism. Bend the Arc is right. Keep our people out of your mouth.


Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal State Long Beach, writes for Shondaland. She serves as a Jewish Community Engagement Fellow at J Street. 

Why Can’t Some Jews Say Thank You?

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

You would think that a Jewish group would be happy to hear the leader of the free world stand up during his State of the Union address and say things like:

“We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism, or those who spread its venomous creed. With one voice, we must confront this hatred anywhere and everywhere it occurs.”

And remind the world that just months ago, “11 Jewish-Americans were viciously murdered in an anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh,” and welcome Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet, who “arrived at the synagogue as the massacre began.”

“But not only did Judah narrowly escape death last fall,” the president added, “more than seven decades ago, he narrowly survived the Nazi concentration camps.”

The president went from anti-Semitism to the Pittsburgh tragedy to the Holocaust:

“Judah says he can still remember the exact moment, nearly 75 years ago, after 10 months in a concentration camp, when he and his family were put on a train, and told they were going to another camp. Suddenly the train screeched to a halt. A soldier appeared. Judah’s family braced for the worst. Then, his father cried out with joy, ‘it’s the Americans.’”

The president wasn’t done with the Jews:

“A second Holocaust survivor who is here tonight, Joshua Kaufman, was a prisoner at Dachau. He remembers watching through a hole in the wall of a cattle car as American soldiers rolled in with tanks. ‘To me,’ Joshua recalls, ‘the American soldiers were proof that God exists, and they came down from the sky. They came down from heaven.’”

As I was hearing the president go on about the Jews, I was almost embarrassed at all the attention. Will others be resentful or envious? But the president still wasn’t done:

“I began this evening by honoring three soldiers who fought on D-Day in the Second World War. One of them was Herman Zeitchik. But there is more to Herman’s story. A year after he stormed the beaches of Normandy, Herman was one of those American soldiers who helped liberate Dachau.

“He was one of the Americans who helped rescue Joshua from that hell on Earth. Almost 75 years later, Herman and Joshua are both together in the gallery tonight — seated side-by-side, here in the home of American freedom. Herman and Joshua, your presence this evening is very much appreciated. Thank you very much.”

So, why am I quoting so extensively from the Jewish section of the speech? Because right after the speech, I received this statement from the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) in response to the State of the Union Address:

“At a time when our country is in need of unity and leadership, President Trump delivered a divisive message characterized by fear and empty words.

Tonight was a missed opportunity for the president to lead and unify the country after a painful period of obstruction and a 35-day government shutdown. There is no onslaught of immigrants or security crisis on our southern border, and the U.S. military must not be used for political purposes. We reject the president’s ongoing obfuscation of the truth.

Trump’s continued insistence on an unnecessary border wall demonstrates that he is out of step with a bipartisan consensus in Congress, the will of the American people, and our core national security interests. Actions speak louder than words, and President Trump’s actions have been completely inconsistent with the best interests of our country and our values.

 In response to the president’s call for unity, we are unified in support of political change that will restore moral leadership and credibility to the White House, and our mission is more important now than ever before.”

Fair enough. Let’s grant, for the sake of discussion, that everything in this statement is true and justified. But why not one word of recognition of the president’s passionate mention of Jewish suffering and the need to fight the disease of Jew hatred? I understand Trump hatred. I’m as aware as anyone about his many flaws.

But does that mean a Jewish group cannot even show a tiny little bissel of gratitude when the president says things that are good for the Jews?

Has extreme partisanship gone that extreme?

Simcha Rotem, Fighter in Warsaw Ghetto, 94

Simcha Rotem, who was among the last known fighters from the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, died Dec. 22 in Jerusalem after a long illness. He was 94.

Rotem, whose underground nickname was “Kazik,” helped save the uprising’s last survivors, smuggling them out of the ghetto through sewage tunnels. The Jewish fighters fought for nearly a month, managing to kill, according to German records, 16 Nazis — there may have been many more — and wound nearly 100, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“This is a loss of a special character since Kazik was a real fighter, in the true sense of the word,” Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, was quoted in the Times. “The challenge for all of us now is to continue giving meaning to remembrance without exemplary figures like Kazik.”

Rotem was born Feb. 24, 1924, in Warsaw as Kazik Ratajzer. As a teenager, he was involved in the Zionist youth movement. His brother and his grandparents were killed in the German bombing, and his mother and he were wounded in early September 1939 as the Germans invaded Poland.

Ghettoized in 1940, he struggled to survive amid squalor, hunger and disease. One in 10 died in 1941 from malnutrition and epidemics. In early 1942, food and heating fuel became scarcer. 

The Treblinka death camp, situated along the Warsaw-to-Bialystok railroad line, opened on July 22, 1942, and from July 23 to Sept. 21, 265,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka. More than 99 out of 100 were killed upon arrival. Jews were sent to the Umshlagpatz, the deportation point, and from there to their death. There was no armed resistance. 

Rotem joined the ZOB, composed of Zionists and Bundists, and was assigned to be a courier traveling from the ghetto to the Aryan side, smuggling arms and information, and in doing so, mastered the sewer system pathways. 

“This is a loss of a special character since Kazik was a real fighter, in the true sense of the word.” — Avner Shalev

Jews fielded two resistance groups during the ghetto uprising. They were divided politically between right-wing revisionist Zionists and left-wing Zionists and Bundists. The ZOB decided to fight to the death, which began on April 19, 1943.

On the first day of fighting, the Germans met the uprising in full force. After several days of fighting, the Jewish resistance fighters turned to Rotem as a leader. Some believed whoever was familiar with the sewer system became essential.

Rotem returned to the ghetto, once the home of almost 400,000 Jews, believing he was the last Jew alive. Prepared to die, he met about 80 of the fighters.

Rebels took to the sewers with Rotem as their guide. The Nazis decided to burn the ghetto block by block, and when they learned that some Jews had escaped through the sewers, they welded close the sewer covers, threw gas into the sewers or flooded them. With time running out, survival hinged on Rotem, just 19 years old. He knew he couldn’t wait for everyone, and had to choose who would live and who would almost certainly die.

Antek Zuckerman, the highest-ranking commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, survived, as did Zivia Lubetkin, who became Rotem’s wife, and who with him eventually helped found the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz and the museum. Marek Edelman, who remained in Poland and became a cardiologist and a leader of the Solidarity movement, also survived.

Rotem later joined the Bricha movement, the effort to bring Jews across the Polish border into American-occupied Germany after the war. As a result of Bricha, thousands of Jews became citizens of Israel and the United States, rather than having to live behind the Iron Curtain.

Rotem’s parents and one of his sisters survived the war in hiding. He immigrated to Palestine in 1946.

In Israel, he became a supermarket executive; his deeds during the war remained relatively unknown until director Claude Lanzmann filmed him for the documentary “Shoah” (1985).


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

L.A. Holocaust Survivor Acknowledged at SOTU

Joshua Kaufman, a Holocaust survivor living in Los Angeles, was among the guests at the State of the Union on Feb. 5.

During the Tuesday evening address, President Donald Trump singled out Kaufman for honorable mention.

In a 2016 story in the Journal, reporter Orit Arfa, who went to local Orthodox school, YULA, with Kaufman’s daughters, writes about spending Shabbat with Kaufman, who was born in Hungary. She remembered him from ninth grade when they ran into each other in Berlin. 

“He’s hard to forget – a tall, quiet yet imposing, strong presence,” Arfa writes. “Some [L.A.] locals may have seen his well-known plumbing truck cruising the streets of LA. At 88, he still works.”

At that time, Kaufman was traveling to Berlin to testify against a Nazi war criminal, though he was ultimately denied the opportunity to do so.

Kaufman is a regular presence in the Jewish community in Los Angeles, whether at the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day event at Pan Pacific Park, or even at shul. Last year, Kaufman attended High Holy Day services at Pico Shul, an Orthodox congregation in Pico-Robertson led by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and his wife, Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein. He spoke about his reluctance to attend services and his ambivalent relationship with God, due to his experiences in the Shoah. He said, however, he was heartened to see Jews coming together to pray on the High Holy Days.

The spotlighting of Holocaust survivor Kaufman was one of several key moments pertaining to the Jewish community during Trump’s speech at the House of Representatives chamber at the Capitol Building.

Another guest of the evening was Judah Samet, a member of the Pittsburgh-based Tree of Life synagogue that was targeted in a deadly shooting last October. The speech coincided with Samet’s 81st birthday, and after Trump announced that it was Samet’s birthday, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Samet, who is also a Holocaust survivor.

Trump explained that 75 years ago, Samet spent 10 months in a concentration camp; an American soldier rescued Samet and his family from the Holocaust.

Regarding to the deadly shooting at Tree of Life, another guest of the President at the address was Pittsburgh police officer Timothy Matson, who was one of a number of police officers wounded during the synagogue attack while trying to take down the shooter, Robert Bowers.

Speaking about foreign policy, Trump reiterated his commitment to the U.S.-relationship with Israel by highlighting his relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

He also spoke about his commitment to pushing back against Iran, which he described as a genocidal regime committed to targeting the Jewish people.

Sarsour Faces Criticism for Not Mentioning Jews in Holocaust Statement

Activist Linda Sarsour speaks during a Women For Syria gathering at Union Square in New York City on April 13. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Women’s March co-leader Linda Sarsour has been criticized for not mentioning Jews in her Holocaust Remembrance statement.

Myriad Twitter users have pointed out that in 2017, Sarsour criticized the Trump administration for not mentioning Jews in their Holocaust statement at the time.

“How do you have a Remembrance Day for the holocaust and not mention Jews?!” Sarsour tweeted. “Absolutely outrageous. Definition of anti-semitism.”

On Sunday, Sarsour wrote on Facebook, “May the memories of those who perished inspire us to love and protect one another. May we never forget history so that we may never repeat it. May their stories instill a sense of commitment and determination in our movements and communities to never leave anyone behind. May they rest in an eternal peace knowing that we will fight for each other no matter the consequences. #HolocaustRemembranceDay”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement sent to the Journal, “Linda Sarsour’s omission of Jews in her statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, where one third of world Jewry was murdered, is an ever greater omission than for a speaker not to mention women at the Women’s March.”

Sarsour and the other national Women’s March leaders have been plagued by accusations of anti-Semitism due to their warmth toward Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Sarsour issued a statement addressing anti-Semitism in November, although it was heavily criticized for failing to explicitly condemn anti-Semitism.

H/T: Washington Free Beacon

Warsaw Ghetto Archives Unearthed in ‘Who Will Write Our History’

Director Roberta Grossman (left) and director of photography Dyanna Taylor on the set in Poland. Photo by Anna Wloch

After the Holocaust, tales of Jewish acts of rebellion against the Nazis came to light, including partisan fighters battling in the forests, and uprisings in concentration camps and ghettos. Another story of heroic defiance is less well known but has lasting significance.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, a clandestine group called the Oyneg Shabes documented daily life over a three-year period, collecting evidence of Nazi atrocities, amassing more than 30,000 pages of essays, poems, letters, newspapers, photographs and official documents. Few members of the secret group survived, but the material they buried in 1943 was unearthed in 1946 and 1950. Today, the archive — an invaluable historical record — is housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

The story of this secret archive and the individuals who risked their lives to speak the truth is the subject of the documentary “Who Will Write Our History,” written, produced and directed by Roberta Grossman and based on Samuel D. Kassow’s 2007 book of the same name. Executive produced by Nancy Spielberg, the film combines archival footage, interviews, dramatizations shot in Poland in Polish and Yiddish, and the writings of Oyneg Shabes members Emanuel Ringelblum and Rachel Auerbach, read by actors Adrien Brody and Joan Allen.

“I’ve been obsessively reading about the Holocaust since I was a kid,” Grossman told the Journal. “It seemed a great travesty to me that the story wasn’t known.”

“I don’t know how you could come of age in the period after the Holocaust and not be consumed by it.” — Roberta Grossman

She delved into research, “reading as much as I could, reading endless books, primary and secondary sources. Most of Rachel Auerbach’s work had never been translated. There were boxes of her material at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem) that had never been digitized,” she said. “I had someone here in Los Angeles translate it.”

Grossman also worked closely with the Jewish Historical Institute, where the contents of 10 boxes and two milk cans of archived artifacts are preserved (a third cache is still missing, believed to be buried under the Chinese embassy in Warsaw).

The collection is available only to scholars and researchers, but a selection of documents, photos and a milk can are displayed on the museum’s main floor. 

After putting “History” aside to make “Hava Nagila” (2012) and “Above and Beyond” (2014), Grossman completed filming in July 2018. “I think the biggest challenge was deciding what to leave out, because the archive is so full of amazing writing and incredible stories,” she said. “I had to tell the story of the archive, the ghetto, the war and the individual characters I brought forth and show as much as possible what it was like to live in the ghetto and honor people living under the most extreme circumstances who were willing to die for the truth.”

In the absence of footage and all but a few photos of the Oyneg Shabes members, Grossman chose to dramatize their stories with actors. “As a filmmaker, I feel I get to use whatever tools are available to convey the story in the most powerful way possible,” she said. 

An L.A. native, Grossman grew up in a family that was “not religious by any means, but we celebrated the major holidays. Being Jewish was the central part of our identity,” she said. Today, Temple Israel in Hollywood, where her three children attended the day school and became b’nai mitzvah, “is our village and a very important part of our lives.”

Many of her films have a Jewish connection, including “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,” about another hero of the Holocaust. “I don’t know how you could come of age in the period after the Holocaust and not be consumed by it,” she said. “For me, it was an obvious thing to be preoccupied with it. It can be extremely painful. But it’s an important thing to grapple with and try to come to terms with.”

After premiering in July at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where it won the audience award for best documentary, “Who Will Write Our History” played festivals around the world. “The response to the film has been really remarkable,” Grossman said. “I feel like I should devote as much time and resources and energy to getting the film out to the world as making it. There’s no point in making it if it doesn’t get seen.”

On Jan. 27, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 300 screenings will take place at more than 200 venues in 40 countries, including UNESCO headquarters in Paris, with a post-screening discussion that will be streamed live via Facebook. 

“I have a firm belief that film is the most profound or lasting way to teach the Jewish story and history in general,” Grossman said. “I’m proud that I’ve made films that convey different aspects of the Jewish story in a way that I think is educational, entertaining and emotional.”


“Who Will Write Our History” opens at the Laemmle Music Hall and Town Center 5 on Feb. 1. Q-and-A sessions with Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg will follow select screenings.

Holocaust Survivor, Tefillin Reunited

Al Kleiner, shown with his wife, Regina, wears the long-lost tefillin set.

It’s not uncommon to hear miraculous reunion stories involving Holocaust survivors. They usually revolve around finding long-lost family members or friends. However, the story of 91-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor Al Kleiner being reunited with the tefillin set he had in his youth is just as miraculous. 

After the war, the then 16-year-old Kleiner and his parents spent almost five years in a displaced persons camp in Germany. His father passed away in 1948; the next year, Kleiner and his mother made their way to Los Angeles. However, Kleiner’s tefillin set took a longer and more circuitous route, via Budzanow, Poland, and then to Tel Aviv, before finally making its way to Los Angeles and to Kleiner himself last year.

The tefillin set was discovered in May 2018 in a cupboard in the Tel Aviv home of Kleiner’s first cousin, Gershon Leisner, by Leisner’s 62-year-old daughter, Uvi. “They pulled out this burgundy-colored, small velvet pouch, eaten over the years with small insect holes, showing its fragility and its age,” Kleiner’s daughter Janet Rosenblatt told the Journal via phone from her home in Los Angeles. “Inside was a child’s tefillin set, a child’s tzitzit, and a small Torah.”

Uvi thought the items belonged to her late father and kept them. But when she showed the bag to her younger sister, her sister immediately noticed the case was hand-embroidered with the word “Zion” in Hebrew on one side and the initials “BK” on the other. She realized the initials on the tefillin bag were those of Al Kleiner’s older brother, Benuman. 

“Finding this personal artifact while my father is still alive is just a miracle.” — Janet Rosenblatt

“The question was,” Rosenblatt said, “how did the case from Budzanow end up in Israel?” Rosenblatt knew that Kleiner and his parents survived the Holocaust hidden by their righteous Christian neighbors, the Witomskis. While Kleiner’s older brothers Benuman and Meyer were killed at the beginning of the war, Kleiner and his parents managed to survive by living in a hole in their neighbors’ field from the end of July 1943 until March 1944, when Poland was liberated by the Soviets. 

“I remember that my grandmother said that [her parents] gave everything that was left to this Christian family,” Rosenblatt said. In 1942, the Kleiners were sent to a camp but managed to escape in 1943. They were hidden by two non-Jewish families. However, fearing reprisals, both families forced the Kleiners to leave, and the Kleiners then approached the Witomskis. The Witomskis asked a priest what to do. He told them to dig a hole in a field and bring the family food every few days. 

At some point after the war, the Leisners returned to Poland to see if anything was left of their home. Rosenblatt believes that’s when they recovered the tefillin bag. When Rosenblatt’s daughter and son-in-law visited Israel last June, they were finally able to bring the bag back to Los Angeles.  

“We looked at it with tears in our eyes and saw all this bag had gone through, how it survived and [was] returned to my father,” Rosenblatt said. “My father unfortunately has Alzheimer’s disease, so he did not really recognize it.”

However, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur last year, Rosenblatt invited the family rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Mentz of Chabad of Bel Air, to come to the house, along with the rest of her family, to see the long-lost treasure. “The miracle is, when Rabbi Mentz wrapped the tefillin around my father, my father continued to wrap it himself, like his memory came back,” Rosenblatt said.

Rosenblatt plans to donate the bag to either the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. or the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust after her three grandsons’ bar mitzvahs. 

“Finding this personal artifact while my father is still alive is just a miracle to me,” Rosenblatt said. “It survived the terror of the Holocaust. That it made its way from Budzanow, Poland, in its harshest times to our great holy land of Israel, and was then returned to my father’s hands in Los Angeles, can only be a miracle.” n

Capturing the Mind and Heart of Jimmy Carter

There has been a spate of White House memoirs in recent months, many intended to settle scores; publicize gossip, accusations and rumors to score points in ongoing battles; to get even or to pull ahead. They titillate and torment. Seldom do they reflect and inform.

Thirty-eight years in the making, “President Carter: The White House Years” (Thomas Dunne Books) is part memoir and part history. Written by Stuart Eizenstat, then Carter’s chief of domestic policy, the book has the immediacy of a participant who was in the room and close to the action, shaped by the contemporaneous notes Eizenstat took, documents he examined and scores of interviews he conducted over the past 40 years with those who worked in the Carter White House, his cabinet, members of Congress and leaders of industry, government, labor, politics and the diplomatic corps who fought with or against White House initiatives.

Eizenstat came to Washington, D.C., with Carter’s Georgia team, stayed in Washington and served in the Clinton and Obama administrations in departments as varied as State, Commerce and Treasury. He also was U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (EU), where he took on the additional assignment of Holocaust restitution, a role that he has performed inside and outside of government as the lead negotiator for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. 

A Washington veteran who has learned much of how the government functions and how to use all the levers of power in his decades of public service, he conveys the voice of experience knowing well what was done wrong, out of ignorance or oversight, stubbornness or misjudgment. There is not a word of malice in the book — not even for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who challenged Carter in the Democratic primaries of 1980 and weakened him.

When Eizenstat served as ambassador to the EU, for the first time in American history an ambassadorial residence was kosher. He was among a new generation of American-Jewish public servants whose children went to Jewish day school and who, when an emergency did not beckon, could be found in synagogue at Sabbath morning services. He was a Jew who felt comfortable being a Jew at home and in public, comfortable in bringing Jewish values and Jewish interests to his work, and he was respected for it. Today, this is commonplace. Before the Carter years, it wasn’t.

“Today, as we debate whether character counts in political leadership and if honesty is important in politics, we remember Jimmy Carter as a man of unblemished character.”

Full disclosure: I have known Eizenstat since I came to Washington in 1979 to work on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, a Carter initiative, spearheaded by Eizenstat and his staff. Our work resulted in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which led to the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall. We went to the same synagogue; on Shabbat afternoons, I studied with his oldest son and we have been friends ever since — socializing and sharing Shabbat and festivals from time to time. So reader be aware, I am not neutral about the man, yet I can read his work most objectively.

Eizenstat sets out to reconsider the conventional assessment of Carter as an ineffectual, unsuccessful, one-term president, the worst since Herbert Hoover. After all, those who were alive during his administration from 1977-81 recall high inflation and high interest rates, long gas lines, the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We can also recall the so-called “malaise speech,” which soon became counteracted by Ronald Reagan’s sunny disposition and cemented into national consciousness with his campaign question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” With Reagan, it became “Morning in America” or so it seemed.

Eizenstat argues that Carter’s initiatives on energy policy and the environment have stood the test of time, innovating and sensitizing Americans — initiatives that may even withstand the efforts to dismantle them and all subsequent initiatives by the current administration. His efforts on the economy included saving Chrysler and New York City from bankruptcy. He appointed Paul Volker as chairman of the Federal Reserve, setting him lose to tackle inflation and stagflation, the twin plagues of the 1970s. He also had to deal with the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict and Lyndon Johnson’s domestic agenda without paying for them. Carter appointed Volker because it was good policy. Volker remained independent of White House pressures although he understood that the Fed’s policies to crush inflation would hurt him politically. On foreign policy, Carter is remembered for the fall of a shah and the Iran hostage crisis, yet Eizenstat reminds us about the Panama Canal treaty, Salt II and the openings to China and the Soviet Union. 

There are multiple narratives as to why the Soviet Union fell. Surely, one reason is that the focus on human rights, so central to the Carter administration, highlighted the tyranny of the Soviet Union. Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly [now Natan] Sharansky deserve some of the credit, along with Pope John Paul II, whose visit to Poland undermined communism and Jimmy Carter.

The most severe critique of Carter’s emphasis on human rights came from Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who argued that authoritarian regimes could turn democratic but totalitarian regimes could not. In the early 1990s, her thesis was proved demonstrably wrong as Eastern European regimes became laboratories of democracy. Today we must worry when democratic regimes turn authoritarian!

Eizenstat is candid in depicting Carter’s failures and willing to accept responsibility for his own mistakes.

Today, as we debate whether character counts in political leadership and if honesty is important in politics, we remember Carter as a man of unblemished character. Devoutly religious, he promised the American people after the Watergate scandal that “he would never lie.” His piety was apparent during his presidency and beyond, and along with his his decency, made him one of the most consequential former presidents in history. He is a man who, even after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, got up on Sunday morning to teach Bible class in his Plains, Ga., church. A man of uncommon character and unrivaled integrity, it seemed he was ineffective.

Jews have a particular memory of the Carter years. There was pressure on Israel, the first mention of the Palestinians’ aspirations, the tension with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the awful feeling that the U.S. might sell out Jews for barrels of oil at a reasonable price. We also remember that Carter received the lowest percentage of votes for a Democratic candidate for president since before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. The Jewish community had split its vote between Reagan and Carter at approximately 40 percent each, with John Anderson, the third-party candidate, receiving some 20 percent.

To convince skeptics who think they remember this period well, Eizenstat had his work cut out for him. In an elegantly written book, filled with good humor and gripping anecdotes and well as policy discourses and historical insight, he proves their recollections are at odds with the evidence.

President Carter’s contributions have been underrated. He is often judged, even by those who should know better, by the title of one of his many post-presidency books, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Jewish critics hastened to charge him with calling Israel an apartheid state. Yet Carter saw then what was obvious since the beginning of his presidency and what many on the Israeli left still see, despite the sad state of current events in the Middle East. That is, if there is only one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, it cannot be both a Jewish state and a democratic state without subordinating the rights of the Palestinians. Many on the Israeli right are now confronting this issue and are fumbling into articulating diminished rights for the Arabs of Israel and even lesser rights for those in the occupied territories. Unlike Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the new Jewish state law makes no mention of respecting minority rights, and Israel has reduced the status of Arabic, the language spoken by 1 in 5 Israelis.

On Soviet Jewry, Carter’s contribution was essential. He elevated human rights to the center of American foreign policy, reversing the course that former President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger chartered before him; and once human rights took front and center, the Soviet Jewry movement became a human rights movement and massive support was forthcoming from Cold Warriors and more importantly, from human rights activists. This was a major breakthrough in the movement, which previously had lukewarm support from the Nixon White House, which had openly — and in Kissinger’s case, cravenly — opposed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

Jimmy Carter was essential to the resettlement of Iranian Jews in the United States, essential because Eizenstat could take a Judeo-centric concern to the president of the United States directly, unapologetically and proudly, something his predecessors with easy access to the Oval Office did not do during FDR’s administration.

The story is worth repeating. In Executive Order 12172, Carter expelled all non-resident Iranians and suspended visas for all new arrivals in retaliation for taking American Embassy officials hostage in Tehran. Eizenstat was informed of the plight of Iranian-Jewish students and their families by Mark Talisman, who was working for the Council of Jewish Federations in Washington. Iranian leaders and students, among them Moussa Kermanian, his son Sam and Isaac Moradis. He convened a meeting with all the significant officials. For the Jews attending this meeting, there was the haunting memory of the Holocaust — when entry to the United States was barred to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Iranian-Jewish students would be allowed to secretly file for asylum so as not to endanger their families back home. While these appeals were being adjudicated, their expulsions would be rescinded and exceptions to the Executive Order would be made for those facing religious persecution — Jews and also Baha’i and Christians as well as Zoroastrians.

President Carter’s contributions have been underrated. He is often judged, even by those who should know better, by the title of one of his many post-presidency books, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” 

Ever sensitive to religion, Carter agreed, and one can see the results daily in Los Angeles, with its thriving Persian-Jewish community. In 1979, unlike 1933-44, pressure from establishment Jewish institutions, in cooperation with Jewish White House staff, was able to secure the president’s immediate consent to rescue Jews.

Camp David

The Camp David Accords would have never happened without Jimmy Carter. It began, Eizenstat admits, with Carter’s mistake. Carter invited the Soviet Union into the peace process, not recognizing that then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had expelled the Soviet presence from Egypt and was so frightened at the prospect of the Soviets returning, that Jerusalem became preferable to Moscow.

At a meeting in Cairo attended by a mid-level Carter administration official, Sadat said that he was willing to go to Jerusalem. The State Department was slow on the uptake because that move didn’t fit in with its Mideast policy. Yet soon the breakthrough spiraled out of State’s control. Sadat went to Jerusalem and the U.S. administration stood idly by.

When it became clear that the parties could not achieve peace on their own, Carter’s most basic values projected the process forward. A religious Christian, he relished the task of making peace between Muslims and Jews. Throughout the book, Eizenstat, with the wisdom of hindsight, faults Carter for his radical separation between policy and politics and his refusal to pay the usual Washington game of advancing policies as a tool of politics and using politics to advance policy. Yet for Camp David to happen, such a separation was essential, as there was little political upside required to make peace between Egypt and Israel.

Carter risked it all in inviting the parties to Camp David. The full prestige of his office and his presidency were at stake; their failure would become his failure and unlike most summits where every moment, even the final statement is carefully orchestrated, nothing was certain. The chance of failure was real.

Carter was trusted by Sadat and distrusted by Begin, both because Begin distrusted Carter himself and because Begin distrusted Sadat’s trust in Carter. The rural presidential setting in Maryland isolated and insulated the parties, and Carter deftly handled Sadat and Begin’s outbursts. Both were prima donnas, both strong willed. Sadat was facing pressure from his delegation that he was giving too much, and Begin faced pressure from his that he was offering too little. To the very end, success was uncertain and Carter was at his finest during the negotiations.

It was during these negotiations that the breach between Carter and Begin developed. Carter thought that Begin had agreed to a suspension of settlements while Begin believed that he had merely agreed to suspend settlements during the final negotiations for the Camp David Accords. When, months later, settlement building resumed on the West Bank,
Carter felt betrayed and Begin felt betrayed by Carter’s feelings of betrayal. Nevertheless, Carter continued to invest his prestige in the peace process and, without that pressure, no accords would have
been reached.  

Carter incentivized the peace accords with a multifold increase in foreign aid to Israel to be spent in the United States on military purchases, with a lesser amount for Egypt, tying both countries to American equipment for the past four decades.

Israel resented the pressure, yet without that pressure, there would have been no agreement. In the years since, the pattern has repeated itself as Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama pressured Israel and paid a political price by losing Jewish political support; Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump haven’t pressured Israel, and therefore reaped the political benefits. Carter’s was the first to attack American dependence on non-renewable energy sources and sought to limit Arab power. Yet Jews were silent when, soon after he left office, solar panels were removed from the White House roof. American dependence on Arab countries for energy enriches them, emboldens them, enables them to be more reckless and weakens Israel and the United States.

Eizenstat is not reticent to admit error and is not hesitant to criticize Carter, but never does so with anger or disrespect. He does it by appreciating Carter’s strengths and weaknesses, something that ripens with time. Every leader has his/her limitations, every leader makes mistakes. Every leader who comes to Washington from the outside to shake things up must learn the ways of Washington without becoming a captive of the town. And while, in principle, good policies should be good politics, Carter’s radical separation of the two limited what he could achieve and led him to expend his early political capital without seeing benefits for it.

White House memoirs usually have a short shelf life; they are readable for weeks and perhaps, if quite good, for months. Eizenstat’s memoir took four decades to write but will be worth reading four decades from now as the definitive memoir/history of a consequential, if not successful, presidential administration.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

Jews Go Underground as ‘Aryans’ in ‘The Invisibles’

Alice Dwyer as Hanni Lévy. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

World War II movies frequently feature daredevil heroes with steel-trap minds, but for sheer guts and ingenuity it’s hard to beat four young Jews in “The Invisibles,” alternately titled “We Want to Live.”

The four main characters, two men and two women in their late teens and early 20s, were born and raised in Berlin. However, instead of emigrating after Hitler came to power in 1933, they stayed in their native city. When all escape routes were cut off, they went underground as German “Aryans.”

Cioma Schönhaus, a former art student, became a skilled forger, not only saving dozens of Jewish lives but also earning enough money to buy his own sailboat to paddle around Berlin’s lakes. Hanni Lévy dyed her black hair blond, spent most of her days in dark movie houses and went out in the evening posing as a bereaved German war widow. Ruth Arndt worked for a high-ranking Nazi officer who entertained his colleagues with lavish banquets, and Eugen Friede hid out with remaining German communists and socialists and joined an anti-Nazi resistance group.

My second cousin, Ernest Güenter Fontheim, was himself one of the “Invisibles,” and major segments of the movie parallel his own experiences. Before the Nazi takeover in 1933, some 180,000 Jews lived in Berlin (including my parents, sister and myself). Mainly through large-scale emigration, by 1943 the Jewish population figure was down to 7,000. In the same year, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels went even further and proudly announced that the German capital was now “Judenrein” (“cleansed of Jews”).

A number of the surviving Jews were in mixed marriages and were saved by the intercession of their gentile spouses, but most Jews went underground, and an astonishing 1,700 Jews were still alive when Russian troops conquered Berlin in the spring of 1945.

What did it take to stay alive when the slightest suspicion or slipup could lead to concentration camp internment and/or death?

Aaron Altaras as Eugen Friede. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

“The common characteristic of the ‘Invisibles’ was that they were young,” Claus Räfle, director of the film, told the Journal. “They had to make instant decisions and be able to play other characters naturally. If questioned or eyed with suspicion, they had to be able to respond in a self-assured, relaxed manner, as without a care in the world.”

Other survival factors were sheer chance, good luck and the aid of courageous German gentiles willing to risk their jobs and freedom to help Jewish strangers. Among them was Hanni Lévy (played by Alice Dwyer), who hid during daytime in movie theaters. After a while, the cashier at the theater became suspicious, but instead of turning in Levy, she offered Levy shelter and safety in her apartment.

Räfle combines a feature film, in which youthful actors re-create the young principals as the wartime activists, while the actual, now elderly survivors comment on their own stories.

Even after liberation, the surviving “Invisibles” were at risk. Germans may have been skeptical when Goebbels declared in 1943 that there were no more Jews in Berlin. However, Russian soldiers took Goebbels at his word and refused to believe the claims of the Jewish survivors by declaring firmly, “Hitler killed all the Jews.”

This predicament is dramatized in the film when a Soviet officer confronts Schöonhaus (Max Mauff) and Friede (Aaron Altaras). As the two men plead desperately for their lives, the officer demands of them, “If you are Jews, then recite the Shema Yisra’el prayer.” Sweating and stuttering, the men comply and are embraced by the Soviet officer.

My cousin recalled a similar situation. He was hiding in Berlin when Soviet troops conquered the city. He was confronted by a drunken Russian soldier. Refusing to believe that my cousin was a Jew, the soldier ordered him to stand against the wall, raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. However, the pistol chamber was empty and the soldier ordered my cousin to remain standing at the wall until he could find a new supply of bullets to reload the pistol. Ernest took off as fast as he could.

In 1947, Ernest immigrated to the United States, formalized his interest in science and embarked on a distinguished career as professor of physics at the University of Michigan. At 96, he is now retired and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and close to their two children.


“The Invisibles,” in German with English subtitles, opens Jan. 25 at the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles and Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino.

The 2019 Mensch List

Photos by Cyndi Bemel

For our 14th annual mensch list, we asked readers to nominate people they know who are doing extraordinary work without receiving deserving credit for it.

We couldn’t publish every submission, but the 12 stories that follow, including the husband and wife who throw birthday parties for homeless children on Skid Row, the retired educator who continues to teach as if working full time, and the high school class president who volunteers with special needs children, are inspiring examples of what it means to be animated by action, not accolades. 

Happy 2019.

Click on the mensch names below to read about what they are doing around the community. 


1.Heather Wilk

 

 

2.Jake Schochet

 

3.Ari Kadin and Mary Davis

 

4.Meryl Kern

 

5.Michele Rodri

 

6.Naomi Goldman

 

7.Dennis Poncher

 

8.The Schenkman Family

 

9.Luisa Latham

 

10.Ray Mallel

 

11.Phyllis Folb

 

12.Cantor David Shukiar

Photos by Cyndi Bemel

Teens and Holocaust Survivors Gather at Sinai Temple

Holocaust survivor Eva Perlman and Sinai Temple teen John Levy. Photo by Michelle Neman/Click Click Photography

Thirteen-year-old Leah Khorsandi is no stranger to Holocaust survivors, having met several at an annual gathering when she was a student at Sinai Temple’s religious school. However, she told the Journal that meeting survivors at a brunch held by the synagogue earlier this month was extra special. 

“Now I have a one-on-one experience,” she said following the get-together designed specifically for survivors to meet teens. “I could ask questions and have a real conversation.”

Around 70 survivors and Sinai Temple teens attended the Dec. 2 event, which was created 10 years ago by religious school director Danielle Kassin. 

“To have so many survivors in a room, to have a chance to hear not one story but 10 stories, that to me is an optimal experience,” Kassin told the Journal. “This is our history. This is our people. This is where we come from. These are our heroes. And this is who we honor.”

Joseph Alexander, 96, said he has been coming to the event since its inception. Many of the teens knew him from previous years and greeted him enthusiastically. The Polish native lost his parents and five siblings in the Holocaust. He survived 12 concentration camps and said “nothing is off limits” when it comes to questions about his life.

“This is our people. This is where we come from. These are our heroes. And this is who we honor.” — Danielle Kassin 

“It is more important today to talk about this when there’s not too many survivors left,” he said. “When we’re gone, there won’t be any witnesses.” 

Indeed, every year when Kassin and Sinai Temple Millennial Director Matt Baram reach out to the survivors on their list (which took hundreds of hours to compile), they learn that several have died.

“It’s really sad because every year there’s less and less,” said Maya Laaly, 14, who, together with Khorsandi, spent most of the morning at a table with sisters Frances and Fraania Legasz. Frances is 93 and Fraania is 90. 

Some survivors brought photographs and documents to share, including their passports and pictures of themselves as babies or toddlers with relatives they had lost. The teens and survivors could take pictures together in a photo booth. Some survivors also took photos together. Many have become friends over the years, having met at past events or as volunteers at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust or the Museum of Tolerance.

David Wolpe, Sinai Temple’s Max Webb Senior Rabbi, addressed the attendees and said, “Each year, this is one of the most beautiful and wonderful events we have. I hope that you will tell the teens your stories so that we can carry them on throughout the generations. Enable us all to remember both the tragedies and survival of our people.”

The teens did receive some guidance in advance of the event from their teachers on how to interact with the survivors. The main message was: Be human with them. Get to know them a little. 

Among the stories the students heard was that of 77-year-old Carol Roth. She shared that when the Gestapo came to her village in Belgium, she was hurried through a trap door in her dining room and hidden in the cellar. Raised Catholic from the ages of 2 to 12 by a family she credits with saving her life, Roth did not learn she was Jewish until she was nearly 13 and on a boat to the United States with an aunt. “There was the Statue of Liberty,” Roth recalled. “I started crying. I didn’t know why I was crying.”

Nathan Farzadmehr, 13, said the experience of being among so many survivors and hearing some of their stories was emotional. “It makes you feel sad,” he said. But, he added, “I think they feel like people appreciate them. It’s an amazing experience because later on you’re not going to be able to do this. We can pass down their stories.”

Monday’s Google Doodle Honors Jewish Poet Nelly Sachs

The doodle was illustrated by German/Finnish artist Daniel Stolle

Today, when millions of users are doing a quick Google search, they might notice a black and white doodle of a typewriter.

That’s because Google is honoring the 127th birthday of Jewish poet and Nobel Prize winner Nelly Sachs. Sachs, a German-born Jewish Swedish refugee documented her fear through poetry during the Holocaust and received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1966 from her moving work.

Her poetry on the Shoah remains as one of the most powerful forms of literature that recount the Shoah.

The doodle was illustrated by German/Finnish artist Daniel Stolle, and, according to Stolle, can be seen in on Google in Sweden, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Ireland and Bulgaria.

Not only was Sachs the first German woman to receive a Nobel Prize in literature, she continued to earn prestigious awards including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1965.

“In spite of all the horrors of the past,” she said upon receiving the award. “I believe in you.”

Google Doodles tweeted Monday about the doodle saying, “A Nobel Prize recipient whose profound poetry about the Holocaust—such as the ‘O the Chimneys’ poem—made her a pioneering figure in German literature.”

Obituaries Nov. 30: Sister Cecylia Roszak and Ricky Jay

Sister Cecylia Roszak, Saved Jews During WWII, 110
Sister Cecylia Roszak, one of a group of Polish nuns who risked their lives rescuing Jews from the Holocaust and was honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, died last week in Krakow, Poland. She was 110 and, at the time of her death, was thought to be the oldest nun in the world.

Born March 25, 1908, she entered the Dominican order when she was 21. During the German occupation of Poland, Sister Cecylia, along with several other nuns, established a new convent in Vilnius, in what is now Lithuania. They opened its doors to 17 Jews who had escaped from the nearby ghetto, including the activist and writer Abba Kovner, who later testified at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The fugitives worked with the nuns in the field during the day while continuing their resistance work, including writing, printing and distributing anti-Nazi manifestos. Kovner later claimed that the seeds for the ghetto rebellion were planted in the convent. The Jews left the convent on New Year’s Eve 1941 to continue their fight; the Germans closed the convent in 1943, and arrested Anna Borkowska,  the mother superior.

After the war, Roszak returned to Krakow, where she was a church organist and cantor. At her funeral, among the memorials was a bouquet sent by Wanda Jerzyniec, who along with her brother, was one of those saved by Sister Cecylia. 

Mother Superior Stanislawa Chruscicka told the Associated Press that Sister Cecylia’s philosophy was that “life is very beautiful but too short.” 


Ricky Jay: Magician, Actor, Author
Ricky Jay, the author, actor and magician the New Yorker called “perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive,” died Nov. 24 at his home in Los Angeles.

Born Richard Jay Potash was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in either 1946 or ’48, to Samuel and Shirley Potash. By the time he was 7, Jay had become adept enough to appear on a local TV show, “Time for Pets,” where, billed as “the world’s youngest magician,” he turned a guinea pig into a chicken. 

By the time he was 15, the lack of family support (Jay claimed his fondest memory of his parents was their booking magician Al Flosso perform at his bar mitzvah) prompted him to leave home. He ended up performing in the resort community of Lake George, N.Y., where he gained enough notoriety that in the mid-’60s, he was booked at the Electric Circus in New York City. Tours of the United States and Europe followed. A move to Los Angeles in the 1970s led to regular appearances at McCabe’s Guitar Shop and The Magic Castle. 

Jay practiced what is known as close-up magic; a stout, avuncular presence, he was a master of cards tricks and he could flip playing cards with such speed and accuracy he cut into a watermelon, all while keeping up a line of erudite, deadpan stage patter. A one-man show, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” was an off-Broadway hit and filmed for a 1996 HBO special. As an actor, he appeared in David Mamet’s “House of Games,” “The Spanish Prisoner” and “State and Main,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” In 2002, he married Chrisann Verges, who survives him. 

A student of magic and a fine prose stylist (The New York Times described him as a “master of a prose style that qualifies him as perhaps the last of the great 19th-century authors”) Jay wrote 11 books, most notably “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women,” a history of eccentric entertainers. His knowledge of the history and mechanics of illusion led to his co-founding Deceptive Practices, which offered “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.” 

Night of Broken Jews: Remembering Kristallnacht

The massacre of 11 people at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh has prompted comparisons to the 1938 attacks on the synagogues of Germany, which occurred 80 years ago this week and became known as Kristallnacht. While the two events cannot be equated, they impose profound burdens on our memory.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, we have seen an outpouring of reaction against hatred directed at Jews. Pittsburgh’s mayor and police chief were on the scene at the synagogue and condemned the violence. The media have covered the story with sympathy for the victims and disdain for the killer and the hatred for which he stands. The Pittsburgh Steelers football team showed support for the community by incorporating a Jewish star in its logo, and some of its players wore the star during their Nov. 4 game. The Muslim community put political differences aside and raised more than $200,000 in solidarity with the Jews. Innumerable other actions across this country voiced condemnation for anti-Semitism and concern and support for the Jewish people. 

Indeed, the events since the Oct. 27 massacre have been moving, haunting, angering — and, at times, heartwarming. They provide us with a perspective to the events of 80 years ago that enables us to reflect upon how our world has changed, but also to clarify the persistent challenges that continue to confront us.

On Nov. 9-10, 1938, a series of pogroms took place throughout Germany. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned, their pews destroyed, their sacred Torah scrolls and holy books set aflame. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses were ransacked and 30,000 men from ages 16 to 60 were arrested and sent off to newly expanded German concentration camps, most especially Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. These pogroms were given a fancy name by which they are best known: Kristallnacht.

Over the past 35 years, Germany has ceased to use the term Kristallnacht, but rather refers to the event as the Reich Pogroms of November 1938. Crystal is beautiful. Crystal has a certain delicacy to it. Reich Pogroms tells a much deeper truth: state-sanctioned violence against the Jews.

There were 2,200 synagogues in Germany for 525,000 Jews — an average of nearly 240 members per congregation. Those synagogues became part of the public presence of Jews in German society, often built in triangulation with Roman Catholic cathedrals and Protestant churches to indicate that Germany was a pluralistic, multireligious society. Synagogues were an expression of the great progress that the Jews had made within Germany. By constructing buildings of significance, Jews made their presence and their prominence manifest.

So what the Nazis essentially did that night — in the most physical, most public way imaginable — was to show how far they were willing to go, what price they were willing to pay to tear the Jewish community out of the fabric of Germany. (Quite the opposite of the reaction we have seen in the United States after what happened in Pittsburgh.)

The Anti-Semitic Prelude

Hitler came to power with an anti-Semitic, racist and expansionist agenda. He told the world what he was going to do in his book, “Mein Kampf,” and in many public addresses. But there was a disconnect between what his audiences heard him say and what they believed he might do. He simply was not believed. Conservative political leaders presumed that once he was in power, the responsibility of office would force him to moderate. They would be there to guide him, to control him.

Yet, Hitler was allowed to do what he said he was going to do, and German policy evolved from 1933 onward to pursue his two main goals: the racial policy — to establish the supremacy of the master race; and the expansionist policy — to give Germany “Lebensraum,” or living space to be able to breathe, prosper and expand. 

The anti-Jewish policies happened in waves.

Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933. The Nazi Party’s first attack was on Germany’s political institutions — the burning of the Reichstag and then the enabling legislation that suspended parliamentary rule and gave Hitler dictatorial powers. On March 22, 1933, the first concentration camp was established in Dachau; and on the following April 1, the first attack was committed against Jews — the boycott of Jewish businesses. The boycott was followed seven days later by the expulsion of Jews from the civil service, which included teachers in high schools, professors in the universities, doctors and nurses who worked in hospitals, lawyers and judges as well as ordinary civil servants.

And on May 10, on Hitler’s 100th day in office, books deemed un-Germanic were burned — primarily, but not only, those of Jewish authors. Books by Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, but also by Jack London and Helen Keller went up in flames. (A century earlier, the great German writer of Jewish origin, Heinrich Heine, had said, “People who burn books ultimately burn people.” The time between book burning and people burning would be eight short years.) 

“I would not like to be a Jew in Germany.” — Field Marshal Hermann Göring

After the book burnings, anti-Jewish policy stabilized for a time and a “new normal” came into being. Jews lived in enormous insecurity, not knowing if things would get worse, get better or be stabilized. 

If you believed the situation was terrible and only going to get worse, you took necessary steps to leave. If you believed the situation could not get much worse, would be stabilized and you could endure it, then you stayed. If you stayed too long, you were murdered. 

Until the outbreak of war, German policy was designed to force the Jews to emigrate. If German national policy and the behavior of ordinary non-Jewish citizens would make life difficult for the Jews, they would leave. About 30,000 Jews (roughly 5 percent of the country’s Jewish population) left in the first months that Hitler came to power. Sadly, some returned after a time and some did not go far enough. They came under German domination again in 1940 when the Western European countries to which they had fled were invaded by the Wehrmacht.

In 1935, the Nazis defined Jews biologically, based on their grandparents’ religion. Their policy created a bizarre situation in which many Roman Catholic priests and nuns, and Protestant ministers and theologians who had Jewish grandparents but had been baptized as Christians were defined by the state as Jews. The policy also created a peculiar anomaly in which the Christian churches fought the state primarily over those people of Jewish origin whom they regarded as Christian, but the churches did not raise the larger issue about the general policies of discrimination and anti-Semitism.

In 1936, anti-Jewish policy stopped for a time when the Summer Olympics came to Berlin. Graffiti was removed, segregated benches were covered and the Nazis were instructed to be on good behavior.

The Role of the Synagogue

Let’s talk for a moment about the synagogue. But before we do, I want to establish a principle often overlooked in Holocaust history: Just because Jews were powerless, it did not mean they were passive. The problem was not that Jews didn’t want to leave. The problem was that there was nowhere to go that could absorb so large a population.

The way that synagogue use evolved tells us a lot about the strength of Jewish activism. 

On Monday night, the synagogue became a theater because Jewish actors could not perform on the German stage. On Tuesday night, it became a symphony hall as Jewish musicians were dismissed from German orchestras. On Wednesday night, it became an opera house, because opera singers needed a place to earn a living.

“Most Jews were without illusions. Jewish life in the Reich was no longer possible. Some committed suicide. Most tried to leave. They had nowhere to go.”

On Monday morning, the synagogue became the place for distribution of welfare. Throughout the weekdays, the synagogue served as a school for Jewish children expelled from German schools. Their teachers were often professors, writers and artists struggling to survive in a new world. The art teacher might be a world-class artist; the music instructor, a concert pianist. The Jewish school was the safest place for a Jewish child, yet the most dangerous part of the students’ day was walking to and from school. Harassment was routine, bullying was accepted, violence was sanctioned.

Adult classes also were convened in the synagogue, teaching Jews “mobile professions” because the best way to survive and the best way to leave the country was to have those types of jobs. Plumbers, electricians, agricultural workers, bookkeepers, nurses, architects and musicians were mobile professions. Doctors, lawyers and accountants — whose licensing and/or knowledge of the law was fundamental to their work — found resettling cumbersome, as did writers whose expertise in the German language might limit their opportunities in a new land.

The synagogue also was a place where people who didn’t know what it really meant to be Jewish were taught about Judaism.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber stayed until March 1938, almost to the very end, because he had founded an institute for adult Jewish studies. He tried to give people inner resources with which to face extreme degradation and humiliation, and the spiritual capacity to wear the Jewish star with pride.

The synagogue remained a place where prayers were recited, but prayers took on a new meaning.

Rabbi Leo Baeck wanted to teach the Jews how to respond to the life they were living. He composed a prayer for Yom Kippur 1935, which was read in synagogues throughout Germany on Kol Nidre. The prayer included, “We bow before Him, and we stand upright before men,” which was a way to tell the community on the most sacred of Jewish nights that part of being a Jew meant to stand against the idolatry and injustice surrounding them. 

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, one of the last rabbis in Berlin, was prohibited from preaching in 1937. He asked a Gestapo officer: “Can I lead my congregation in prayer?” The Gestapo officer complied. So Prinz read aloud the line that traditional Jews read three times a day, and he had his congregation read it again and again in Hebrew — a language the Gestapo officer could not understand: “Ve chol a choshvim olay ra’ah, meheyra hofer atzotam ve kalkel maschshevotam”  “And all who plan evil against me, quickly annul their counsel and frustrate their intentions.” In other words, “Let God confuse our oppressors.”

The Event Itself

On the evening of Nov. 9, 1938, anti-Jewish violence erupted throughout the Reich, which now included Austria. The outburst appeared to be a spontaneous expression of national anger at the assassination of a minor German embassy official in Paris on Nov. 3 by a Polish-Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan, who was angered by the expulsion of his family from Germany and the Polish foreign ministry’s refusal to allow their return to their homeland by invalidating their passports.

The assassination became, in fact, the pretext for what was to follow, with the violence choreographed in detail. At 11:55 p.m. on Nov. 9, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Mueller sent a telegram to all police units: “In shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all Germany. These are not to be interfered with. …” Police were to remain bystanders to the violence, but they were to arrest its victims. Fire companies were instructed not to protect the synagogues, but to ensure that the flames did not spread to adjacent Aryan properties.

Within 48 hours, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned, along with their Torah scrolls; 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps; 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses were smashed and looted; and 236 Jews were killed. Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools and homes were destroyed.

Hour after hour, the pace of the pogrom intensified. No Jewish institution or business or home was safe. The terror directed at the Jews was often not the action of strangers but neighbors. Most Jews were without illusions. Jewish life in the Reich was no longer possible. Some committed suicide. Most tried to leave. But they had nowhere to go!

The Aftermath

The Nazis, too, had learned important lessons. Many urbanized Germans held bourgeois sensibilities and opposed the events of Kristallnacht. Consequently, the sloppiness of the pogroms and the explosive violence of Nazi storm troopers soon were replaced by the cold, calculated, disciplined and controlled violence of the SS, the elite guard of the Nazi Party. The SS would dispose of the Jews out of the view of most Germans.

“What the Nazis essentially did that night was to show how far they were willing to go to tear the Jewish community out of the fabric of Germany.”

On Nov. 12, 1938, Field Marshal Hermann Göring convened a meeting of Nazi officials to deal with the problems that resulted from Kristallnacht. Historians are fortunate that the stenographic records of that meeting survived, for few documents reveal more candidly and more directly the German policy toward the Jews at this transitional moment. Several government ministries had much at stake in the outcome of the meeting. They had urgent justice and economic matters to deal with, including how the insurance industry, which stood to lose huge sums of money if it were to pay claims from those whose property had been destroyed.

Göring was clearly disturbed by the damage from the two-day rampage — not to Jewish shops, homes or synagogues but to the German economy. He said it would be insane to burn a Jewish warehouse and then have a German insurance company pay for the loss. Why should Germany suffer, not the Jews? The idea was introduced to solve the Jewish problem once and for all, but in 1938 its meaning was in economic terms. (Only later, by 1941, would the language be genocidal.) By a series of policy decisions, the Nazis transformed Kristallnacht into a program eliminating Jews from German economic life.

Several concrete actions were taken: The community was fined 1 billion Reichmarks ($400 million), Jews were declared responsible for cleaning up their losses and were barred from collecting insurance. Göring ordered that the booty in furs and jewels stolen from Jews by looters belonged to the state, not to individuals.

In the end, Göring expressed regret over the whole messy business. “I wish you had killed 200 Jews and not destroyed such value,” he said, concluding on a note of irony: “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!”

On Nov. 15, 1938, Jews were barred from schools. Two weeks later, authorities were given the right to impose a curfew. By December, Jews were denied access to most public places. By January, all Jewish men had to adopt the middle name of Israel; all Jewish women, Sarah.

The November pogroms were the last occasion of street violence against Jews in Germany. While Jews could leave their homes without fear of attack, a lethal process of destruction that was more effective and more virulent was set in place.

The Jews who were arrested and sent to concentration camps were the “lucky ones.” At that time, if they could get a visa to leave the country, they could be released from the concentration camp. And Jewish women — mothers for their sons, wives for their husbands, sisters for their brothers, friends for friends — left no stone unturned to get their men released. It was no longer a question of whether to leave or when to leave, but only how to leave — and no price was too steep to pay.

The American response to the 1938 pogroms was mostly rhetorical and symbolic. By 1938, the United States understood and internalized the value of freedom of religion. No other event garnered such universal condemnation. From the extreme right to the extreme left, Catholics and Protestants of every denomination condemned the violence. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the U.S. ambassador to Germany home — the most powerful response among world leaders — but he didn’t sever diplomatic relations.

At the same time, American public opinion showed little support for changing immigration policies to take in Jewish refugees. It was as if the American people said: We despise what Germany is doing, but that doesn’t mean our immigration policy has to change. We don’t want the Jews here. They can’t take American jobs. 

“Just because Jews were powerless, it did not mean they were passive.”

In Germany, some Jews were so certain that events were only going to get worse that they sent their children to England, into the arms of strangers on what became known as the Kindertransport. Ten thousand Jewish children were sent to England, many of whom never saw their parents again.

An effort to bring 20,000 children to the United States, led by Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Congresswoman Edith Rogers of Massachusetts, failed. Congress feared the children would grow up and take American jobs.

By attacking the synagogue, the Nazis attacked not only the heart and soul of the Jewish community but the institution that had responded to the catastrophe. The Nazis deprived Jews of anything roughly resembling a public life or a communal life. And they violently ripped Jews out of German society. 

This was the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

Today, the response to the Pittsburgh killings exemplifies another way to respond to such violence. Hatred can be defeated if people of good will and elemental decency join together to show that they will not tolerate it, exacerbate it or encourage it.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

How Jewish do I want to be?

I was born in Israel to two Jewish parents. I speak Hebrew. I sent my son to conservative Jewish Day School for ten years. He had a Bar Mitzvah. I light candles every Friday night. I go to temple regularly. I observe high holidays. I make what can only be described as the world’s best matzo ball soup. I am divorced and made sure I also received a gett. I not only consider myself to be a practicing Jew, but define myself as a Jew. I am Jewish in my soul. I am Jewish by birth and by choice. I spent a large chunk of my adult life working in the Jewish community. I write for a Jewish newspaper. All that said, I woke up this morning and wondered, how Jewish do I want to be?

 

I’m not sure what inspired the question, but I can’t shake it from my mind. It’s all I can think about and do not know what the answer is. Perhaps it is the murders in Pittsburgh that have left me with this painful question. I have been unsettled since the horrific attack and can’t seem to quiet my brain. I live my Jewish life out loud so there is part of me that wonders if I need to change that. There is another part of me that wants to scream from the rafters that I’m Jewish and defy anyone to say anything. I am stuck between wondering how Jewish I am, and if I am Jewish enough, and that is a very odd feeling.

 

I am scared by what happened, but also angry. I spent many years working in Holocaust education and to have people killed this way, in 2018, is frankly debilitating. I feel sick about what happened in Pittsburgh. I am stuck and unsure what to do or how to feel. I was not alive during the Holocaust, but I heard countless firsthand stories during the years I worked at Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, so for people to be killed again, just for being Jewish, is terrifying. I have personally experienced anti-Semitism, but this is different. This is murder of Jews for being Jewish and I simply cannot comprehend it.

 

I am a hockey fan and this week when the Pittsburgh Penguins put “stronger than hate” patches on their uniforms, I thought it was a wonderfulI display of solidarity. I was also offended that the Jewish star on the patch was done partially in yellow.  I get that black and yellow are their colors, but the Jewish star should not have been yellow in my opinion. Important to note I understand how ridiculous that will sound to some people, but it bothered me. It was a custom made patch and easily could have been another color. I sound like a crazy person but like I said, these killings are debilitating and all my senses are heightened when it comes to my religion.

 

I watched President Trump visiting Pittsburgh with his wife and I was enraged. I am offended by everything lately, which is not who I am as a human being. I want so much to understand, but am not sure what it is I am expecting to understand. If someone asks me if I am Jewish, do I say yes? If someone says something unkind about my faith, do I speak up? If someone writes me an anti-Semitic comment on my blog, do I report them? Am I supposed to just accept that people hate Jews and that is the world we live in? I am struggling not only with how to define myself within my faith, but whether to share it with the world or keep it private. I am educated and awards this shouldn’t be a struggle, but I am struggling.

 

It will pass of course, but I don’t want it to pass without understanding my feelings. I do not want to be afraid. I want my anger to become action. I want my disgust to empower me. I want to be free to live my Jewish life in whatever way I want. At the end of the day I am proudly Jewish. I am comfortable in my practice and nobody can judge me on how much or little Judaism I practice. I am Jewish enough and God knows me. I will not allow fear to make me question my faith, but it has been a stressful week.

 

As I read back what I have written I am not sure it will make sense to anyone but me. I am questioning whether or not to even publish it, which is crazy. I have written my truth here for almost a decade and have never regretted anything I write, so to be questioning myself now is very sad. I have openly and honestly shared all aspects of my life here and have been blessed with loyal and wonderful readers. There are haters of course, which is always fun, but I have never been stuck like this. I will publish this because that is what I do, but today just feels off. I am hoping someone will read it and share their own experience, which always happens and always helps.

 

I am thinking about all Jews around the world today and know we will get through this. We are united. Orthodox, conservative, or reform, Jews are the same and together we are strong. There are enough good people in the world to help lift us up when darkness comes, so while it is of course important to be careful, fear does not need to control us.  I am one day closer to understanding, so am taking it one day at a time. I am trying to be brave and hope to go into Shabbat today with some peace. I may never understand the world we live in, but I am still keeping the faith.

Murder in Pittsburgh – My Jewish Family

Whenever there is a mass shooting in America, I watch the news in horror and cry, unable to turn off the television, naively hoping the number of dead will somehow go down instead of up. I wait for the names to be released. I want to say their names out loud and learn who they are so I won’t forget them. Whether they are Black, White, young, old, Jewish, Catholic, gay or straight, I want to know who they are. They are important to me. Sadly, we live in a country where there but for the grace of God go I. We never know when senseless killings will happen, or if they will touch close to home, to people we know.

The murders at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 28 hit close to home. As a Jewish woman of faith, when the 11 people in Squirrel Hill died, they died in my home. Synagogue is where I worship, so to me all synagogues are my home. A house of worship is a wonderful place. It does not matter what religion is being observed, because I respect all houses of worship the same. I am at peace whether I am in a synagogue or a church. We pray to the same God, so voices united in prayer are very powerful. For anyone to be attacked while in prayer is something I will never be able to understand.

As we learn about those who died, my heart aches so deeply I feel a physical pain. I keep thinking about the victims: 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, a vivacious regular at the temple; Cecil and David Rosenthal, inseparable brothers who had worshiped at Tree of Life since they were children; Bernice and Sylvan Simon, who married more than 60 years earlier in the same temple where they were murdered; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who helped AIDS patients when the disease first appeared in America; Daniel Stein, president of New Light Congregation; Joyce Feinberg, a fellow Canadian; Richard Gottfried, who respected faith and was to retire soon; Melvin Wax, always the first to arrive at temple and the last to leave; and Irving Younger, who always spoke about his daughter and grandson. I also think about Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who heard his congregants being slaughtered as he rushed others out of the sanctuary.

I didn’t know any of the victims personally, but as Jews they are my family and I mourn their passing. 

There are fewer than 15 million Jews in the world, and we are all connected. This was an act of hate against my people, and therefore against me. When I think of the 11 people killed in Pittsburgh, I think about the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. I think about how it is possible for one human being to try to erase another one, just because they are different. We cannot allow anyone to be erased. We must speak up. We must say their names because these lives cannot and must not be erased. As human beings we must be outraged by this hate and look out for each other.

I am scared, but not so scared that I will be quiet. This is a time for action. These lovely people were executed because of hate, and this kind of hate — whether directed at people of a different religion, color or sexual orientation — runs deep. So deep that I can feel the shooter’s hate in my soul. But I must not think about that now. Instead, I must turn my fear into strength and fight for gun reform. I must say their names and continue to practice the religion I was not only born into, but choose for myself and share with my child. I am Jewish and these people were my family. It is in times of pain and sorrow that we must focus on keeping the faith.


Ilana Angel writes the Keeping the Faith blog on jewishjournal.com

When a ‘City Without Jews’ Was a Comedy

Wilshire Boulevard Temple will host a special screening of the Los Angeles premiere of “The City Without Jews,” a long-lost, recently restored 1924 Austrian silent film, featuring live accompaniment on the temple’s magnificent, 4,102-pipe Korn Kimball organ. 

This film could not be more timely (alas). The increase of anti-Semitic incidents in England, France, Hungary and Poland has prompted many Jews to consider emigrating from those countries. And this November will mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Nazi supporters rampaged against Jewish houses of worship, businesses, homes and citizens in Germany and Austria.

“The City Without Jews” holds many surprises, including the story of its rediscovery, restoration and, most importantly, its message: that a city that loses its Jewish population will regret doing so and be worse off for having done so.

“Die Stadt ohne Juden” (The City Without Jews) was based on Austrian-born writer Hugo Bettauer’s best-selling satirical novel. In the 1920s, even before Hitler published “Mein Kampf,” anti-Semitism flourished in Vienna, where Bettauer lived, to the shock of its assimilated Jewish luminaries such as groundbreaking psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, and writers Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig.  

Bettauer wrote “The City Without Jews” as a satire, and Hans Karl Breslauer directed the film as a comedy. However, many of the scenes in the black-and-white film now seem eerily prescient. A fanatical anti-Semite comes to power, and seeing the influence of Jews everywhere, decides to pass laws to expel them. Chillingly, there are scenes of Jews being put on trains headed for “the East” or marched out of the city. However, once gone, the Jews are much needed and much missed. In what passes for a happy ending, even the anti-Semitic politician admits the Jews are “a necessary evil.” 

“Chillingly, there are scenes of Jews being put on trains headed for “the East” or marched out of the city.”

The film opened in 1924 to great popularity in Berlin, Vienna and New York. However, several screenings in Austria were disrupted by National Socialist Party members (Nazis) throwing stink-bombs. In Linz, Austria, the film was banned.

The film disappeared and was thought to be lost because many silent films of the era weren’t kept or preserved. When the Nazis came to power, they burned books and destroyed films by Jews or those which were critical of their anti-Semitic policies. For 90 years, the film remained lost.

However, a chance discovery of a complete copy of the film at a Paris flea market by a film collector in October 2015 returned a badly damaged “The City Without Jews” to public attention.

The Filmarchiv Austria (Austrian Film Archive), recognizing a lost gem of significant cultural and historic importance, launched its largest ever crowdfunding campaign in late 2016 to restore the film, meeting its goal of 75,500 euros (approximately $87,000). At the time, The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom reported the Austrian Film Fund as saying that “A major donation from an anonymous Jewish foundation in the U.S. after Donald Trump’s election victory and a doubling of daily donations after the defeat of a right-wing populist candidate in the Austrian presidential election had boosted its cause.” The 80-minute film was meticulously restored.

The film resonates on many levels, amid nationalist politics, xenophobia and the rise of neo-Nazis worldwide. 

Bettauer, author of the original novel, although born Jewish, had converted to the Evangelical Church in 1890. Nonetheless, after the success of the film, Bettauer was murdered in early 1925 by an ardent Nazi supporter who, after being tried for the crime, was sent to a psychiatric clinic from which he was released 18 months later. Yet “The City Without Jews” has managed to survive to be seen again by a new generation.


“City Without Jews” will screen at 4 p.m. Oct. 14 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, visit citywithoutjews.eventbrite.com.

U Mich Speaker Compares Netanyahu to Hitler in Required Lecture

Screenshot from Facebook.

The University of Michigan brought a speaker to campus as part of a required course for students who compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler as part of his lecture.

Alexa Smith, a student at the university, wrote in a Friday Facebook post that she was mandated to watch Emory Douglas, who is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movements and a former Black Panther, give “an overtly anti-Semitic lecture.” She shared a photo of a slide from Douglas’ lecture that juxtaposed Netanyahu and Hitler with the words “Guilty of Genocide” emblazoned across their heads.

Accompanying the slide was the definition of genocide: “The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.”

“In what world is it OK for a mandatory course to host a speaker who compares Adolf Hitler to the Prime Minister of Israel?” Smith wrote.

She added, “As a Wolverine, I sat through this lecture horrified at the hatred and intolerance being spewed on our campus. As a Jew who is proud of my people and my homeland, I sat through this lecture feeling targeted and smeared to be as evil as the man who perpetuated the Holocaust and systematically murdered six million Jews.”

Smith noted that she sat through a required lecture a couple years ago in which the speaker called Israel a terror state and that Israeli soldiers were not human.

“This time I will no longer sit quietly and allow others to dehumanize my people and my community,” Smith wrote. “The administration is repeatedly failing to forcefully respond to antisemitism, and so it comes back worse and worse each time. A line needs to be drawn and it needs to be drawn now.”

Yesterday I was forced to sit through an overtly antisemitic lecture as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, which…

Posted by Alexa Smith on Friday, October 5, 2018

The event was hosted by the Stamps School of Art & Design for their “Penny Stamps Speakers Series Presentation.” Art students are required to watch 11 specific lectures; one of those lectures was Douglas’ lecture.

The University of Michigan told The Daily Wire in a statement:

“The menu of speakers is diverse and dynamic and we do not control or censor what they say. You may find that you discover even more about yourself and the world around you from that which you debate or those with whom you find conflict in view. Discovering what you do not agree with will help you find your voice as much or more perhaps than the things you find resonance with.”

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that the Netanyahu-Hitler analogy was anti-Semitic:

In a statement sent to the Journal via email, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper called the required lecture “beyond an outrage.”

“In the name of free speech, a public university invites a speaker who equates in word and visually Netanyahu and Hitler with the term genocide,” Cooper said. “Students are required to sit through a propaganda presentation based on an insidious lie. If Hitler was ultimate evil and Bibi = Hitler what’s the message to fellow students about Jews/Zionists on campus? Beyond an outrage.”

“Will the University apologize or take action or make a comment beyond protecting free speech of bigot?”

Amanda Berman, the co-founder and president of the Zioness movement, praised Smith on Facebook.

“I am so proud of this amazing Zioness Alexa Smith for standing up for herself amid an increasingly hostile environment for Jewish students at the University of Michigan,” Berman wrote. “Everyone should read this and be aware of what is going on — just two weeks after a professor refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to study abroad in Tel Aviv. This is anti-Semitism and we must all fight it together.”

Nazi Flag Painted on N.C. University’s Free Expression Tunnel

Screenshot from Facebook.

A Nazi flag, as well as other neo-Nazi propaganda, was spray-painted on Appalachian State University’s Free Expression Tunnel and first discovered on Sunday.

The university’s Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) chapter found the graffiti that morning; the chapter’s president, Koby Ellick, shared a photo of the graffiti on social media before students painted over it.

The graffiti featured a Nazi flag; above were the words “Heil Hitler” and to its right were the words “the Holocaust is a good thing” as well as a Star of David.

Posted by Watauga NAACP Branch on Monday, October 1, 2018

In response to the graffiti, the university’s Student Government Association (SGA) issued a statement that read that the tunnel “is not intended to cultivate a culture of hate – targeting students or individuals because of their identity, culture, profession, or expression.”

The statement added that certain forms of speech, such as defamation, are not protected under the First Amendment.

“As a public university, we are committed to protecting freedom of speech,” the statement read. “As members of the Appalachian community and contributors to campus culture, we are committed to ensuring that all people are welcomed and accepted on this campus.”

Megan Hayes, the associate vice chancellor and chief communications officer, told the Winston Salem-Journal that the university would be investigating the incident, but as of now they don’t who painted the Nazi graffiti.

The campus Hillel issued the following statement on Facebook:

North Carolina Hillel is deeply disturbed to learn that Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic language were painted on Appalachian State University’s free expression tunnel over the weekend. These words and images are incredibly painful and offensive to Jews and non-Jews alike, denigrating the memory of six million Jews and millions of other victims of the Nazis, and have no place on campus or anywhere in society.

We are working with University officials to ensure this matter is investigated and properly addressed to protect the safety and respect for all members of the campus Jewish community. Our staff are here to support any student or community member who has concerns or would like to discuss this issue.

Algemeiner’s Shiri Moshe noted that the Nazi graffiti was discovered a couple days before a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor spoke on campus on Tuesday.

The Appalachian, the university’s student newspaper, wrote on Oct. 3 that in response to the graffiti, as well as a white nationalist group’s recruiting banner being found on campus a year earlier, the paper will be involved in ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project.

“If you are a witness or victim of a hate incident, fill out the Documenting Hate form found under the news navigation header on our website,” the paper wrote. “Your story will be shared with ProPublica so that reporters and civil-rights groups can have a clearer picture of what’s happening and can reach out to you for more information.”

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

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Director Defends ‘Anne Frank’ Production

An upcoming Los Angeles production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” has come under fire in the wake of reports that the Holocaust-themed drama had replaced Nazis with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials as the villains.

The play, based on the famous teenage Shoah victim’s diary and published in 1947, is set in a hidden “secret annex” in Amsterdam where the Frank family and others hid for two years before they were betrayed to the Gestapo.

Director Stan Zimmerman appeared on CNN to set the record straight, explaining that although he has cast predominantly Latino and Latina actors, it has not morphed into an undocumented immigration story. “If you come to the production looking for ICE members you will be disappointed,” he said.

Zimmerman explained that the casting was inspired by a CNN report about a Jewish woman from Los Angeles who sheltered an undocumented Latina woman and her U.S.-born daughters after her husband was deported and she feared the same fate. The Jewish woman who created a safe house for the family anonymously told CNN, “What was done to us cannot happen to other people.”

Zimmerman emphasized that the production, which will run at the Dorie Theatre at The Complex from Sept. 6-23, is “a word for word presentation of the 1997 Broadway production that Natalie Portman starred in. No words will be changed. We are not replacing the Nazis with ICE. The only parallel I’m making is that there is a safe house here in L.A. today [like] there were safe houses in Amsterdam and other places. The rest is art. People will interpret it the way they will.”

The director noted that Genesis Ochoa, 16, who plays Anne and David Gurrola, 15, who portrays Peter Van Daan, were not aware of Anne Frank’s story before they auditioned for the play. “Today it’s not part of the curriculum, which is a sad fact,” he said, especially since according to a New York Times survey, the memory of the Holocaust is fading,

Zimmerman hopes to reach and educate a new audience with the production, but underscored that it’s being done “out of love and honor for her story. I want people to know that as a Jew, I would never demean her story.”

“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs at the Dorie Theatre at The Complex from Sept. 6-23. Tickets are $25 online/$30 door and can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com

College Textbook: Those Who Died in Holocaust ‘Did Not Tap into the Strength That Comes from Their Intrinsic Worth’

Photo from Flickr.

A college textbook that’s being used in a University of North Carolina (UNC) fitness class is under fire for claiming that Holocaust victims died because they didn’t use their inner strength.

According to CNN, the book, titled “21st Century Wellness,” is being used in UNC’s Lifetime Fitness classes, which is a required for students to graduate. The book includes the following quote on the Holocaust: “The people in the camps who did not tap into the strength that comes from their intrinsic worth succumbed to the brutality to which they were subjected.”

Brigham Young University professor Ron Hager, who co-authored the book, told CNN in an email that the Holocaust reference was suggesting that “a sense of inherent self-worth can be a source of strength or motivation that can help those struggling.”

The book is also under fire for claiming that people afflicted with cancer basically chose to do so.

“Some experts have begun calling these diseases diseases of choice because how we choose to live, in large part, determines the risk of being diagnosed with disease like heart disease, cancer, dementia, and others,” the book states.

Darin Padua, UNC’s chair of exercise and sports science, told The News and Observer that certain lifestyle choices can increase the risk of disease.

“Some experts have begun calling these diseases diseases of choice because how we choose to live, in large part, determines the risk of being diagnosed with disease like heart disease, cancer, dementia, and others,” Padua said.

However, some students took umbrage with the textbook’s passages.

“I thought that it was an oversimplification that didn’t account for situational factors,” student Ryan Holmes told CNN.

Abigail Painter, UNC’s senior associate dean of undergraduate education, told CNN that the exercise and science department would be reviewing the book for possible revisions next semester.

Report: Holocaust Denying Facebook Groups Highlight Facebook’s Search Algorithm

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been in hot water over his recent comments about Holocaust deniers on Facebook. Making matters worse for him is a new report showing that Holocaust denying groups are at the top of Facebook’s search algorithm.

Business Insider reports that if a user searches the word “Holocaust,” the first pages and groups that appear are Holocaust denying groups and pages, such as The Open Holocaust Debate and Holocaust Revisionism. The latter group claims that Adolf Hitler was “a Zionist puppet.”

A spokesperson for Facebook told Business Insider that such results were due to user preferences, however the Business Insider report notes that four different people had Holocaust denying groups and pages show up when they searched “Holocaust.”

In a July 18 interview with Recode, Zuckerberg said that while he finds Holocaust denying content on Facebook to be abhorrent, it shouldn’t be taken down from the platform because “at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

“Witness”: Ariel Burger shares Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom

Learning about the life and work of Elie Wiesel can truly be transformational. As a man, he was one of the most enlightening thinkers responding to and expressing moral outrage to those who would perpetuate human rights abuses the world over. As a writer, he captivated readers with his blunt, yet delicate, prose about the depths of human depravity. His insights into the nature of the Holocaust changed the perception of the event for millions of people who might not have known about it otherwise. His testimony to the horrors of fascism and dehumanization was always tempered by the outlook that humanity is better than its base instinct allows it to be. Tolerance, pluralism, truth: these were the qualities that most interested Wiesel, and the world is much poorer since his recent passing.

Yet, one aspect of Wiesel that is less tangible to grasp is who he was on an interpersonal level. While we have plenty of documentary evidence to show that he was a compassionate theorist and an extraordinary man of letters, the man behind the persona is less transparent. For all intents and purposes, by the end of his life, Wiesel was a public figure akin to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi. He was a soul whose ideas moved politicians, theologians, entertainers, and citizens alike. Yet, here was also a man who suffered through so much, who somehow had the strength to radiate light with every endeavor. How was this possible? For admirers and newcomers alike, this question is as intriguing as it is challenging; how much do we want to know personally about our heroes?

In Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger displays the side of Wiesel that he knew, the Wiesel that is recognized as a once-in-a-lifetime-scholar and a spiritual innovator. Burger, a compassionate heart, fiery soul, and sharp religious mind in his own right, presents a personal side of Wiesel that we normally didn’t see. This is the humane Wiesel, the Wiesel who nurtured students and who shook the foundations to demand more decency in society. On a personal level, I was thrilled to learn that Rabbi Burger wrote this book because I knew it would show the true Wiesel. And indeed, more important than anything I can say about Rabbi Burger, Elie Wiesel’s endorsement rings loud and clear:

“I [Elie Wiesel] have known Ariel for almost a quarter-century. He is gifted as a scholar, artist, humanist, and leader. I trust him and choose him to be my doctoral student and teaching fellow at Boston University, where he excelled in both roles. The blend of knowledge and natural teaching ability That he embodies is unique. Ariel’s distinctive presence, combining creativity, insight and sensitivity with clarity of thought, makes him a natural teacher and leader, one who can help continue my work.”

Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger

Besides these plaudits, the glowing quotes from luminaries like my teacher Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg and Dr. Parker Palmer only lend themselves to the deft and serious portrayal of Wiesel that Burger renders throughout the book.

And certainly, Rabbi Burger would know Wiesel better than most people. Rabbi Burger was a close student of Wiesel’s, even serving as his teaching assistant for five years at Boston University. The classroom was, perhaps, the most intimate platform for Wiesel’s brand of transformative leadership. Burger describes this access to Wiesel’s pedagogical deftness as “A rare thing… Over the years, I saw hundreds of students transformed.”

Consider this classroom interaction that Berger describes in a moving passage in the book:

“Professor, what kept you going after the Holocaust? How did you not give up?’ Professor Wiesel [answered]: ‘Learning. Before the war, I was studying a page of Talmud, and my studies were interrupted. After the war, when I arrived at the orphanage in France, my first request was for that same volume so that I could continue my studies from the same page, the same line, the same spot where I had left off. Learning saved me.”

 

In the classroom with Professor Elie Wiesel. Rabbi Dr. Burger is second from right. Photo by Webb Chappell

Witness is not a book written from the perspective of a distant scholar: Indeed, Burger notes that, “This book is based on twenty-five years’ worth of journal entries, five years of classroom notes, and the interviews with Elie Wiesel’s students from all over the world.” This essential book allows readers to gain a closer look at Elie Wiesel as a scholar, a counselor, and a thinker.  We all know Wiesel the Activist who spent his life working for people suffering everywhere to protest injustice and oppression and to bear “witness,” but there are other more personal dimensions to this story as well. Now we can see Wiesel the Soul. May we continue to be inspired by the life and teachings of Elie Wiesel. We owe Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger our gratitude for this special opportunity.

 

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.